Return To The Dead Zone, Part I


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Scene Title Return to the Dead Zone, Part I
Synopsis Searching for her adopted daughter, Gillian Childs embarks on a perilous journey.
Date July 5 — July 6, 2019

There’s something about flying in an aircraft that is inherently terrifying. People learn to rationalize the fear away, they cite scientific facts about how lift and drag works, cite aviation statistics about how few airplane crashes there are compared to automobile accidents. They shut off the primal part of their brain that warns them that something is wrong. Because over a long enough period of time, most people have flown on a few occasions.

The brunette seated in the first-class seat C2 has never flown before in her entire life.

Not in an aircraft, anyway.

As the plane jostles, passing through a patch of turbulence as it moves down into the cloud level, Jolene Childs stares with wide-eyed horror out the window she’s seated adjacent to. Breathing heavily, she tries to remind herself of the things she’s survived, the things she’s done, the times she flew without the air of thousands of pounds of steel and jet fuel. But outside the window there is just white and streaks of water wiping their way across the window in ever-forking paths.

Turning to the woman she’s seated next to, the woman who is able to sleep on flights regardless of the turbulence, Jolene reaches out and gently takes her hand. It’s okay to be scared, she thinks to herself.

Everyone is scared once in a while.

«This is your captain speaking, we’ll be touching down in Kansas City in just a few moments…»

Interstate 335

Outside Topeka, Kansas

August 5th

1:14 pm Local Time

Wind in their hair, Jolene Chevalier and Gillian Childs wasted no time on landing. A short trip west on I-70 through the heart of Kansas City, Missouri quickly turned into a south-western cut onto I-335 out of Topeka, Kansas. It’s been a quiet ride, for many reasons, as Jolene watches the thriving urban metropolis of Kansas roll past like a scene out of a movie. Topeka isn’t any different from Kansas City, just with less security checkpoints. It amazes her to see civilization outside of the Safe Zone that’s been her home since the war ended. It felt like, up until this very moment and in spite of her knowing better, that the world was all ruins.

As Lene threads a hand through her hair, pulling dark tresses away from her face, she wonders how long Kansas can go on for. The world she saw during the world felt both incredibly small and impossibly large all at once and now, driving through the best of it, she’s left to doubt its infinity.

“Isn’t a rental a little presumptuous?” Lene asks no one in particular, except the only person in the Jeep with her is her mother in the driver’s seat. “I mean,” she turns, looking side-on at Gillian, “we didn’t tell them where we’re taking it.”

With her blonde highlights with darker roots pulled back into a ponytail to keep out of her eyes, Gillian glances over from the wheel at the comment over the sound of tires singing on concrete. The off-road jeep had a few years on it, but it worked well for travel through the less developed areas. Even if the roads so far had been kept in decent condition. “I got the full insurance on it,” she asides with a small smile, because really, she hadn’t told them how far they might need to go. She hadn’t even hinted they would go beyond the western edges of Kansas. They hadn’t required that much information when she’d paid the full price for two weeks and insurance.

The rental company had also included a fan. Signing a paperback of the novel she wrote with her own name had probably helped.

And the national news of her missing daughter hadn’t hurt either.

“We don’t know how far we need to go. I probably could have bought it, but I’m hoping to be able to return it.” If not, she knew she could afford it, but she didn’t really want to drive all the way back to the Safe Zone with it, either. The plane hadn’t been easy, but it would still be better than offroading through the Appalachians. “It’s nice to see real roads without ruins.” Even if she’d rented a jeep that could manage offroad if needed. The back held supplies, MREs, a tent, extra gas, but they expected to still have a few stops before they needed to fill the spare tanks.

Hazel eyes left the road for a moment to look at the back of her hand on the top of the steering wheel. A black tattoo shaped like a compass pointed to steadily to the west, even as she fed a faint amount of constant energy into the ink spot.

They hadn’t declared her at the airport.

“This isn’t how I imagined our first road trip,” Lene admits as she rests her head back against the headrest.

This isn’t how she imagined many things.


New Mexico

August 5th

8:37 pm Local Time

Kansas proved to be like driving through a dream. The rural heartland of America went large untouched by the war, and what damage was done to it wasn’t easily seen from the freeway. Even the traffic felt like taking a step back in time, with crowded multi-lane highways filled with eighteen wheelers and passenger cars. But Kansas, much like Oz, only exists in a dream for so long.

The brief foray through the northwest corner of Oklahoma came and went swiftly, provided a pit stop to rest and stretch, grab a bite to eat at a local diner than specialized in pies and box up two for the road that sit temptingly in the back seat. New Mexico is a different situation and it starts to become clear that there’s no through traffic as they got on to I-25 as the sun was setting in the western mountains. Traffic dropped off almost immediately and the quality of the roads did equally so. The radio picks up nothing but static out here, no radio stations, not even WRAY back in Kansas reaches out this far west by itself.

By the time they reached the town of Springer, it became clear that they were entering familiar territory. Lights in the small town were intermittent, signs posted along the road warned of the proximity of the PSW Dead Zone. The two gas stations they passed on the outskirts of town had wooden signs spray painted with the warning NO GAS.

Blinking her eyes open and struggling to stay awake, Jolene looks over at Gillian with a worried furrow of her brows. “This doesn’t seem like Motel territory,” she jokes, but there’s a hint of nervousness in her tone. Living in peacetime for so many years has taken away a slice of her survivalist edge from the Wasteland.

The dark line on the back of Gillian’s hand still points to the west, in stark contrast to the actual compass that she’s placed on the dash. They had filled up the canisters a few towns ago, thankfully, but it would have been nice to top them off as she clicks her tongue at the newest run down gas station.

“We’ve both stayed in worse,” she mentions in her husky voice, as she reaches for the insulated coffee mug that carried nothing but much needed water instead of it’s usual hot teas of coffees. That had been more important than the gas, in some ways, with the heatwave that had been threatening the country as they went. She just hoped they could find gas before they ran out. She had no intention of turning around, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t wish for it.

Raising her hand again, she pointed her arm toward the north, watching the line indicating the direction they would continue to head. “We’ll probably need to go south for a while,” she sighs quietly. She had hoped they would find her more quickly, but then again, she had been even further out west then this in the classified incident. She knew that Richard had had nothing to do with this disappearance, at least, but…

“Let’s see if we can fill up on water, at least,” she adds, as she hands over the tall mug. It still had water, and they had more in the back, but hopefully that they could top off.

She had money, and more importantly, she had things to trade from the city. Like coffee grounds and other supplies she packed specifically for barter. She just hoped they didn’t need to barter for a horse before they reunited with their family.

“Yeah…” is Jolene’s uncertain response. This place, places like it all across the country, reminded her of the fringes of the Wasteland. Even though she and the others had traveled back in time to prevent precisely this history — at least to an extent — refused to change. The pieces moved around, dates changed, but so much of the suffering hidden in the shadows of this aftermath are the exact world she’d worked so hard to undo. But then she looks at her mother, alive and well, and there is a comfort in that.

That some things can be changed.

Driving through Springer gives little hope to the plans to trade for water. Most of the residences with lights on are far set back from the road and either gated off or addressed by spray-painted plywood signs that warn No Trespassing. The town isn’t overly large, and what remains directly on the main road is both abandoned and partly bombed out from raids during the war. Jolene, consulting an old 2006 Atlas she has unfolded in her lap, circles an area to the north with a red marker.

“National Guard outpost, probably why this place looks like shit,” Lene opines, starting to mark the other military bases from that era on the map. “We’re… gonna want to head south when we hit Route 84. We need to go wide around Albuquerque. There was an air force base there and it’s… probably— I don’t know. We’ll…” she starts tracing routes, “go south on 84, then hit I-40, and then… 285 to Encino, then back west again on 53. We can’t get too close to the White Sands Missile Range, I’m pretty sure that’s a toxic exclusion zone now. Some sort of dirty bomb.” A rumor they’d picked up before headed into New Mexico, but there’s no reason to take chances.

At this hour of night, Gillian doesn’t find anything that’s a safe bet to restock, or a safe bet to rest for the night. “I can get us back on I-40 west,” Lene says while her mother scans either side of the road, “we’ll cut through the Zuni reservation, but I doubt anybody’s there anymore. That’s the eastern border of the Dead Zone.”

As they watch the area, Gillian can’t help but cast sad glances. While she hadn’t travelled through time with the intent to stop this, she had fought in a war in hopes of it ending up better. It helped that she told herself it would have been worse for a lot of people if the other side had won, but even that didn’t fix everything. Before they continue on, she checks the supplies. Filling up what they’d used so far would have been nice, but she had stocked up enough for a week, at least.

But a bath would have been nice.

“A Zuni reservation?” she repeats with an inquisitive expression on her face. Something about that feels familiar, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. “We should probably camp out there, if it’s deserted. We shouldn’t go too much further in the dark. We might miss a bad spot in the roads. It be better to go when we can see.” The headlights helped, but sunlight would be better. Even if it was getting hotter and hotter. A dry heat, better in some ways than the jungles of Argentina in a South American summer.

It would be better for them all if they rested, too. She wanted to find the missing member of their family, but she also didn’t want to drive herself too far into exhaustion.

“It’s on the other side of New Mexico,” Lene says with a crease of her brows, “thats,” she eyes the scale on the map, “like probably 200 miles more. Maybe… another 4 hours? You’ve been driving all day, maybe…” Lene starts folding up the map, moving an opened ziplock of nuts and dried fruit over into the center console between them. “Maybe we can pull over and I can take a little bit? Stretch our legs and then…” green eyes dart into the back of the Jeep, then back to Gillian.

“Worst case we get to go camping. I did that a lot during the war. Before the war too…” Lene says with a gentle tug of her teeth against her bottom lip. “C’mon, you can’t drive all day. Let’s… let’s switch.”

Yes, I can!

Or at least that’s what her expression says for her for a brief moment, even if she keeps her protest silent. Gillian glares at the top of the steering wheel, as if it were to blame for the fact she had pretty much admitted they needed to stop, but then wanted to deny it at the same time. After a slow exhale, she shakes her head, followed almost immediately by a nod as she pulls over to the side of the road. “You’re right. I should get some rest.” She won’t be much use to either of her daughters if she fell asleep while driving.

Even as she has pulled over, she doesn’t seem inclined to stop, looking up at the darkening sky for a moment, then down at the back of her hand one more time. Still pointing off into an unknown distance. “Do you think we have enough light to make it another four hours with you taking over?”

She’s assuming the young woman can drive, and probably, honestly, would be more knowledgeable about driving over rough terrain. While she also had participated in the war, and camped out more times than just that when she’d been with the Ferry, she still couldn’t claim she’d driven in Wasteland-like conditions much.

“Light?” Lene glances up to the twilight sky, “I've never really had much need for it to know where I need to be.” It isn't like her to be so poetic, but at times like these she can't help but remember the way Robyn and Ygraine would phrase things to her as she was growing up. Opening her door, she circles around the front of the Jeep in view of the headlights, switching places with Gillian. As she settles into the driver’s seat and shuts the door, Lene buckles up and adjusts the steering wheel to her height.

“I've got this,” Lene says with a look over to her mother, then out to the dark highway ahead. She brings a hand out to rest down on her mother’s shoulder, squeezing gently.

I've got this.

Route 53

20 miles from the Arizona border

New Mexico

August 6th

8:22 am Local Time

The morning found Gillian and Jolene stiff from sleeping in the Jeep overnight. A stark temperature drop and the howl of coyotes made camping in tents too much of a risk. But come morning they found a new sense of resolve on their journey west. Jolene took the wheel again, and with the soft top down once more and the warm morning breeze in their hair they tear across the empty stretches of Route 53.

Abandoned cars on the side of the road are rusting reminders of the chaos in the early days of the war. People who ran out of gas in the middle of the American Southwest, their fates unknown save for the derelict waymarkers that prove they ever existed at all. This brown land flecked with dusty greens is familiar to Jolene, familiar in the way a recurring nightmare is.

Without so much as slowing down, Lene blows through the intersections of Routes 36 and 602. A tractor-trailer truck jackknifed on its side and covered with sand tells a tale without a clear ending. As they pass by the wreck, Jolene motions to it with her chin but doesn't stop. “It's weird,” she says over to Gillian, “I figured there'd be something out here.”

Either side of the road past the intersection is vacant, just dry horizons of rough, desert terrain and scrub trees. The occasional abandoned ranch-style house nearly blends in to the environment. “I'd hoped there'd be someone out here on the reservation…”

On Gillian’s hand, her compass suddenly stops pointing West and begins spinning in a confused, languid circle.

In a lot of ways, Gillian had also expected to find more out here. It had always been the case that the coasts had had a majority of the population, but she had expected people to have tried to claim land and set up farms, at least. A corporate presence would not have been surprising, but there was so much nothing. Not for the first time, she was glad she stocked up on gasoline, so they wouldn’t meet the fate of so many between here and the place they last saw a functional station.

Then the compass starts to move, as if confused and the woman’s breath catches. For a moment, she’s back in a field hospital room, sitting next to a bed with her daughter laying there, a victim of an attack that had left her near dead and killed so many others. The fear flooded back, so similar to that time. The same fear she’d had when she realized Squeaks hadn’t come home. That was when she knew for sure that she really was that girl’s mother, just as the fear of possibly losing Jolene so many times had shown her that. The time in the Ark, being the first. That time next to the bed being the more recent. She remembered it clearly.

When she started breathing again, her breath was ragged, she tried her hardest to keep from hyperventilating or drawing the worst conclusions. Maybe she was tired, the lady made of ink. She had been more active than ever before, even with the additional energy pouring into her from Gillian throughout much of the trip.

“Stop,” she finally managed a word, though it broke off her tongue. Another breath, slower, and she repeated, holding her hand up to look at it spinning. Why was it spinning? It couldn’t possibly mean…

“We need to stop.” She couldn’t even try to hide the breathless worry in her voice, the way she felt like she might fall over. She tried to think of all the things it could be that weren’t her deepest fears. But her deepest fears kept creeping up.

Jolene doesn’t hesitate to ease onto the brakes and pull to the side of the road. Suddenly, fear hits her too, seeing the other vehicles dotting the highway. Had they pulled over too?

“What’s wrong?” Lene asks, at the same time reaching back for her pack, pulling out a bottle of water and taking a sip, then offering it out to her mother. The desert beyond the Jeep felt vast, an expanse of cracked badlands scattered with a few abandoned homes, so much dust blowing in the wind and not a single cloud to be seen in the sky. The expanse to the west felt foreboding, the road long and straight, riddled with cracks in the asphalt and too blurry from heat mirage to see where it ended.

To the both of them, looking down that road felt like going off the edge of a cliff into oblivion.

It takes a full minute for Gillian to calm down enough to speak clearly, just taking slow shaky breaths until she’s sure her voice won’t crack and she won’t just start crying and shaking. For the silent answer, during that time, she holds up her hand to show it, hoping that it will stop and focus on a specific direction at any moment. When it just keeps spinning, she speaks, slowly, “I don’t know what it means. I’m not even sure how she’s doing it. Maybe she’s tired, maybe Squeaks is somewhere she can sense, maybe…” Maybe something happened to Squeaks. Maybe something happened to the piece of the woman made of ink that had been on Squeaks’ arm.

Maybe there was just something interfering with abilities.

She wanted to settle on the better possibilities. “Maybe there’s something around here, too.” She responds quietly, not wanting to say the worst of her thoughts, even if she can’t stop thinking them. She needed to stay strong for Lene. For Squeaks, wherever she was.

If she was still okay. If she hadn’t lost her like she’d lost others.

Jolene’s brows furrow, green eyes suspiciously scanning the horizon. The heat mirage, the ruined trailers, the derelict cars, even the flowering cacti. Bringing her attention back to the tattoo on the back of her mother’s hand, Lene asks, “You remember the last winter at Bannerman’s castle?” It's rhetorical, it's impossible for either woman to forget. “Before Heller attacked, do you remember that little old woman who lived down inside the castle?”

Resting a hand on her mother’s shoulder and squeezing gently, Lene looks down the road. “Close your eyes,” she says calmly, “take a deep breath, and… feel. Illusions can trick your senses, can make you hear and see things that aren't there…” she releases her hand from Gilliam's shoulder, “but they can't change who you are inside.”

Then, in a low whisper, Lene asks, “Tell me where you feel someone with an ability. Give me distance, direction.” Alone, neither woman may have realized the predicament they're in or discerned a solution. But together, they are both a compass and a needle.

“I remember.” The woman had been murdered and had been a major subject of talk for a few weeks, even if most people hadn’t actually know she existed at all until that dome went up in response to her protection of the island failing. So she did remember. People had similar abilities sometimes. Similar, yet different. Once, Gillian might have taken a moment to protest such an idea, but she doesn’t even consider it. She wants to find her daughter. For that she would try just about anything. Closing her eyes, she tries to… feel outward. Once she had self-described an evolved as a firefly in the distance, a soft light that she could feel more than see.

She could immediately feel the little lights in the vehicle, even broken and fractured like the piece of a woman on the back of her hand, but that wasn’t what she needed to look for. She repeated Lene’s words in her head to herself, hearing the heartbeat that had been pounding in her ears as her stress levels rose fading, her breath getting steadier.

And there it was. A soft light, at the edge of her mind, surrounded by darkness. She shifts her fingers to point in that direction. “Over there,” she whispers. “Maybe 30 feet away.”

You did great,” Jolene whispers, before swiveling her attention in that direction. All it takes in a general sense of direction and distance for Lene to reach out with the sinuous, invisible feelers of her ability, not so much an aura as it once was but more like cilia or tendrils. They are drawn to the electromagnetic aura of other Evolved, attaching like an octopus’ suckers and forging a telempathic bond. She had learned so much since the day she first manifested, just by attending her classes at Brooklyn College.

She learned that her ability was undetectable.

Illusionist, massive range, using a recursive hallucination. They’re… hiding something.” Lene whispers, her brows furrowing and eyes closing.

Undetectable, until it isn’t.

With a visible crease of her brows, Jolene becomes a barrier between that illusion-bearing Evolved and their ability, an asynchronous field of static that disconnects them from all control of their power and shuts down what they were maintaining. At first it feels like a small victory as a tall and wiry man with a shock of white hair and darkly tanned skin fades into view like a heat mirage.

But then the road ripples, the buildings along the side of the road, even the desert. Soon it feels as though a veil was pulled off of the entire world, and as that white-haired illusionist looks around wild-eyed, dozens of buildings made from concrete and covered with rooftop gardens come into view. The ruined quality of the street is replaced with fresh asphalt, tall stands of grass/ spring up where there was once desert, and as the veil is fully lifted an entire //community is revealed to two interlopers who had driven halfway through it without realizing.

The following clatter-chack of rifles being loaded and armed figures rising up on the nearby rooftops elicits a widening of Jolene’s eyes and a slow raise of her hands into the air. Breath hitching in the back of her throat, she darts her attention all around at the overwhelming amount of change.

Sometimes, seeing isn’t even believing.

“I’m glad you came along,” Gillian admits softly, not sure she’d said it before, and even as she looks out at the town that seems to be living on its own, she also raises her hands into the air, showing that she was unarmed. They had brought a weapon, but it was stashed in the back. She had never intended to use it, and she certainly didn’t intend to reach for it right now. They were the trespassers. They were the ones who had revealed their secret. The changes were vast, but the weapons were what was important now. She was focused on them.

“We’re not here to hurt anyone,” she said in a louder voice, using the voice she often used in meetings these days. It was a safe tone of voice to fall back on, and the calming moment of searching out had quieted some of her fears. Her hands didn’t even shake. A few years ago, she’s not sure she could have done that. But a few years ago she didn’t have a daughter who was missing. “We’re just passing through, I’m searching for my daughter and your protection— “ Because she could imagine that is what it was. “Unintentionally interfered with our method of searching.”

She glanced toward the back of her hand for a second, before looking back at them.

One of the people who moved into view in response to the veil dropping isn’t carrying a firearm. But as she steps forward the earth literally rises to meet her feet, lifting her up on an undulating wave of natural rock and depositing the raven-haired woman beside the Jeep. Dark eyes grow wide in not surprise

but recognition


Okay, maybe not entirely recognition.


Sparrow Redhouse is a distant memory to most people, vanished without a trace sometime before the Civil War was even an inkling. Now, standing beside the sand-dusted Jeep, she looks on at a mother and daughter in distress and raises one hand. The others lower their arms, moving away from the roadside and back from the edges of nearby roofs. “No,” Sparrow says breathlessly, “you’re— Gillian Childs, aren’t you?”

Sparrow lifts her hands, spreading her palms and offering a sign of no hostilities. “Sorry, everyone’s jumpy right now since the fireworks last year. We’ve been picking off gun-toting bigots through the desert for a while, we were worried you were… someone else.”

What the fuck,” Lene whispers under her breath, trying to make any sense of what is happening. That there’s a town hidden behind a mirage in the Dead Zone, that this woman knows her mother, that any of this is real.

This wasn’t the first time Gillian had been called that name by someone she didn’t really recognize. It allowed her to exhale in relief and start to lower her hands, only to reach out and take Lene’s in an attempt to shower her that it’s okay. “I’m Gillian, yes. I’m sorry we startled everyone.” Including themselves, really. “You must have been with… Shard’s people?” She hesitated for a moment, trying to remember the man’s name, but she figured that’s how most people had known Stef, in the short time she had lived.

She didn’t know everything about Stef and what she did, she had tried to let her live whatever life she could, while she could. In a way, her very existence had been a miracle. And it might have saved her life, really.

Twice, now.

“I understand. You have to protect your own.” She did really understand that. More than she could explain. “We some items for trade, if you would like. It would be nice to restock our water, at least, if you can spare some.”

Drawing in a deep breath, Sparrow rests her hand against the side of the Jeep and looks over for a moment to Jolene, confusion briefly visible in her eyes, before she turns back to Gillian. “We’ve got enough to go around,” is all she says for now, thumping the side of her palm against the Jeep as she takes a few steps back, “pull up ahead, your next right. I’ll meet you in the parking lot.”

For a moment, it feels like the entire scene may blow away in the wind like as much sand. But then, as the wind hits Sparrow’s hair and she turns her back on the Jeep, it feels like perhaps this is real. That there are more things unknown in the post-war world than known.

Lene finally exhales her breath, watching the white-haired old man she’d severed from his ability. Then, looking wide-eyed back to Gillian, she is left to just shrug helplessly.

“You know everyone,” Lene says with a nervous smile creeping up on her lips.

“Don’t you?”

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