Part 1: The Esplanade

This used to be a shopping mall. This much, she knows. They have all forgotten what the shopping mall used to be called before the world ended. They have forgotten what the town was called too. Most of the locals were killed in the first wave of fire those years ago; the scattered few who have scrabbled out survival are, like her, imports, drawn to the shell of the former shopping mall in search of Something Useful.

Her first few years, post-End, with John, were consumed by this never-ending quest. It was John, of course, who first realized that the most useful things of all were the people, and as he gathered them, trained them, mobilized them together under his fledgling command, she remained consumed by the things---the food, the parts, the ammo. Shelter. Clothing. The stuff of life. The game of finding, in what was left of humanity, Something Useful.

It was nearly a year before he first sent her away. He tried to keep their connection hidden. One never knew who was listening, and he didn't want her to become a target to those who would meddle with such things. There were versions of this apocalypse where she had not survived to this day. He didn't want them going back, in hindsight, and making sure it stayed that way. You're stronger than me, he told her. Better trained. More experienced. I need you.

So he sent her out, as his emissary, he claimed. But she knew the truth. There was a reason Jon was fated to lead this fight instead of her. Judgement Day had ironically enough brought a sort of peace to her at first---there would be no more waiting, no more hiding and running and training. This was it, this was their moment. The end. But after peace, there was suffering, and after suffering, there was madness---and dreaming.

The first skirmish was at Serrano Point. They knew this was to be a pivotal base for them, and John fought to secure it at the first opportunity. She had been wounded; not badly, but enough. She lost blood, caught fever and spent days in the makeshift sickbay, throwing up into a fire-warped garbage bin while a stranger mopped her brow. They told her afterward that she had spent most of the fever talking to a person she referred to as 'Kyle.' John had chalked it up to the fever and hadn't wanted to talk about it. It was some months before she had admitted that Kyle---his dead father---was a regular visitor. And that he was not the only dead one she saw in dreams.

There was a look he got in his eyes when he feared for her sanity. It was a special way he would glance at her through the side of his eyes, his breath stopping, his look hawkish and carefully appraising. There was no shortage of mental distress in this post-life world, but given their history---HER history---he seemed to fear for her especially. And what he didn't understand was how much worse it was when this was how he handled it. She wasn't crazy. She was coping, better than most, better than him, god help her---at least she had an outlet for it. Kyle was a benign enough spirit, and though not all of the dead were, even the frightening ones generally had something to teach her, some lesson or message or task her subconscious needed her to hear or to master. Needed her to master for HIM, she tried explaining once. So she could help him. So they could WIN.

It was shortly after that he sent her up to where they thought San Francisco had been, and she had gone on her own for awhile, in search of resistance. Where she found it---scattered cells, tattered husks of humanity cobbling together a life as best they could---she joined them, educated them, became their leader, and brought them forward with her in search of more. Every hundred or so people, she would make her way back to John, her maternal radar and his ever-growing infamy allowing her to track him and find him when she wished to.

Now, the winter was ending. She had spent most of it here, in the town with the shopping mall nobody remembered. The sole clue as as to its original purpose was a sign which read 'The Esplanade.' She had destroyed it on the first day she was here, showing the huddled refugees how to siphon off the neon and use it to power a generator. They were so changed now from the months of new skills, new knowledge and new hope that none of them remembered now that the sign had been there, or what it had said. Or that the almost comfortable base camp she had willed to life in her eternal quest for Something Useful had once been a shopping mall.

She was preparing now to leave again. There were some she could leave in charge here, to gather others, to spread the word. But most of them would come with her to what had been Los Angeles once. It was time to join her son again. She had a lead on where he was heading, and at just the right time too, because she had important news. Things were in motion, and everything was going to change again---for in the midst of the huddled masses, she had spotted a face she knew.