Jim walked through the desert alone. His leather-like suit with a cooling system making him invincible to the heat. He could see no end to the wasteland.
The monstrosity spanned the entire continent, from Texas all the way up to the North Pole. Jim, however, never wanted to cross the entire desert, only take a short trip to a hidden preserve.
The trip, he calculated, would take him nearly four months and he was already on his second month. He tightened his grip on the moisture-retaining suit and kept walking. His goggles adjusted to the harsh sun and the wind blown sand.
"Time to check on any unwelcome guests," he recorded in his diary and produced a shovel from his pack. He dug a shallow hole in which he placed his yellow tent. Several metal rods extended from the tent deeper below to create an anchor.
Jim entered the tent and opened an iris-like hole at the top. He aimed his surveillance gun upward. A small sphere was released and flew into the clear sky. The sphere fed information into Jim's goggles.
"So far so good," he mumbled to himself. A basic visual test showed no signs of a desert storm. Shifting through several filters, Jim found no sign of any living sentient beings either, only snakes, insects, and other small creatures.
The man shut the iris and positioned himself to sleep. The sun would be at its highest and hottest point within a couple of hours. It was safer to travel through the night.
"Good night, Jim," he whispered to himself but not before opening a book and reading a few pages. He read about the travels of an alien on a distant planet through a desert very much like the North American Great Desert except the alien's desert was natural and not man-made.
He awoke with a start several hours later. The alarm blared into his ears. He opened the iris to his tent again and shot another sphere into the air. Again, nothing was around.
He quickly collected his tent and picked up the surveillance spheres. Everything fit neatly into his pack. He continued his journey.
It was Jim's first time visiting the preserve. Not a lot of people knew about it, especially now that there were no satellite connections and no way to survey the area closely.
Days passed quickly. Jim played an audio version of his book while walking but had to take long breaks from listening to it because he would quickly lose track of what was happening in the story. He put on a movie at those points but still could not shake the new misery called boredom.
"How am I supposed to walk for four weeks with nothing to do other than the walking itself and starring into the same damn sand?" he grumbled to himself.
He had plethora of movies available to him but he quickly lost interest. Plots were predictable, actors did a bad job, and he's already seen half of them.
Jim passed a couple of towns on his way, most of them abandoned and empty and he started to wonder if a nature preserve could even exist in such hell. It had been sixty years since the entire continent was turned into an unlivable desert. Jim recalled his parents talking about it. He was not around when it happened but he was around when shit really went down.
People wrote off the official story as bullshit and often attributed the climate change to a nuclear blast somewhere or a terrorist attack. The official story, however, made more sense. It was a radical climate change in response to the reversal of poles. While Sahara became a huge mudfield and started to become a swamp, North America dried out within a matter of a few decades. Environmental damage and subsequent fights did not help either.
"Like damn WWI with their trenches. Everything was mud and gun powder, everything burned," Jim said to himself out loud. He wished he had a companion, an electronic one he could depend on, alas, he did not.
He opened a new memo file and started talking into his audiovisual diary. One that captured his face and the desert as well as his voice.
"It's March, I think. I still have a week to go to the natural preserve. I wish I could see some kind of landmark but there's nothing in sight other than the desert.
"I don't know if I even believe the preserve is there. My parents talked about it, so did my friends. My neighbors even mentioned knowing some cousin or whomever who went there. I got a question for you then. If you've been there, why did you come back to the damn desert? I would have stayed, stayed forever.
"And how is it even possible? How is it possible for some oasis to exist in the middle of a desert?
"It would have made sense if the preserve was on the other side of the Appalachian mountains, out by the Atlantic ocean but this preserve is in the heart of mainland."
It was his final day of walking when Jim finally started to see something out by the horizon during the sunrise. He would have to dig in within a couple of hours and continue at night but just seeing a green fuzzy shadow out in the distance gave him hope and erased his doubts away.
He was practically jumping and skipping as he picked up his pace. When the excitement wore off and exhaustion set in, he dug in a tent and went to sleep. This time without shooting out a surveillance sphere.
When the sun set, Jim woke up and realized his mistake with the sphere. He shot a single sphere in the air and looked around the area. The sphere gave him a better view of the green shadow in the distance. It looked like shrubbery followed by some trees.
It was exciting news. No humans around him, just snakes again, but more of them, and a few birds. All good signs.
Jim followed the shadow instead of checking his compass and decided to get to the trees in one trip rather than take breaks and regain strength.
"I know I'm taking a risk," he confessed into his diary, "But I just don't give a damn. I abandoned everything for this trip. I don't have enough supplies to come back, I never planned on it. I don't have any friends back where I come from. They all left or died. And it's not like in the old days where you could send a letter out."
The trees were young and vibrant. The shrubbery in front of them held back the desert. The most magnificent sight to Jim, however, was the fact that there were not only five or ten trees which he could see from distance but an entire forest and more, spanning for what looked like miles.
He excitedly ran through the initial foliage and kept running until he stopped by a stream of water. He followed the stream to its origin and found a stronger larger river that seemed to flow in the middle of the desert, with only sand at it banks. He could not explain it and decided not to, for the time being.
He found fruit trees by the evergreens, and a variety of animals as well as bushes with berries. The encyclopedia in his helmet told him about the rabbits, apples, and blueberries.
"This is a paradise," he spoke into his diary. Yet, he never took off his suit nor his mask, nor did he taste any of the berries or the water, nor did he cut up any fruit or hurt any animals.
He filled his pack and continued his survey. When he finally reached the other side of the forest, he realized it was day already, high-noon in fact. But the shade of the trees alleviated the heat.
He wanted to dig into the soil and go to sleep but could not get himself to tarnish the brown nutrient-rich soil. He stepped outside into the desert and setup his tent there. He shot a surveillance sphere into the air and viewed his surroundings. The forest was at least twenty miles long and thirty miles wide. The river he saw disappeared in the direction of some mountains barely visible.
He wondered why the forest sprung up here and not along the river.
Jim stayed at the preserve for several months. He changed his sleeping cycle and got used to being awake during the day. He stashed his suit away, except his goggles, and stopped using the tent. He tried to experiment with the preserve by trying to extend it where the large river flowed through.
He took some soil out onto the desert field and planted some seeds yet the soil withered away. It was a strange sight, the river. It created lifeless mudbanks along the side. The river held no life whatsoever until it reached the forest. None of the fish ever swam upstream past the edge either. The flow of the current was strong enough to keep the river flowing into several streams that fed the forest and pooled into a lake. A run-off formed at the eastern edge of the forest, directly opposite of the feeder. Again, no fish ventured past the forest’s boundaries.
It never rained either, nor were there any clouds in the sky.
The first anniversary of his arrival was depressing. Jim no longer had any movies nor books to read or listen to and he yearned for the companionship of others. No traveler made it to the preserve.
He decided to stalk up the river as part of his celebration. To live in the desert again.
He packed his suit and pack and started walking up the stream of the river.
The journey stretched through days very quickly until it became weeks. He always had plenty of water and his food supplies were replenished as well. He was able to grow nutrient-rich food-substitutes at the preserve which could last him, theoretically months.
It was on his second month of his journey when Jim started to see an outline of a large mountain. He was not due to see one for another two hundred miles yet it was right here, looming in front of him.
As he came closer, he noticed that the river branched off into a delta of streams which came directly from the mountain.
The mountain, he realized suddenly, resembled a volcano with its large oval opening that extended above the clouds.
"Clouds!" he yelped, realizing that this was the first sign of moisture in the air he's seen.
He ran toward the mountain and climbed on the rocks. First signs of shrubberies appeared by the streams. He decided to follow one stream until he reached the top cusp of the mountain.
Its opening was a perfect oval, in a cartoonish sense, uncharacteristic of actual volcanoes.
Jim finally made it to the top, he was excited to see what was within the oval opening and if it extended down. And what he saw was beyond what he could imagine.
There was a shroud of clouds within the volcano's opening and through a rip in the shrouds he could see a large lake, trees, and even a building!
“I can’t believe, there might be humans!” he exclaimed into his diary.
Jim climbed down the mountain. He practically ran and was able to complete the journey quickly. He saw that the building was several stories high and its windows were lit! There was no sign of human activity outside but that made sense since it was the middle of the night.
He hurriedly ran to the door of the building and knocked loudly, shouting, "Is anyone in here?"
"Yes, what do you want?" someone answered the door, half asleep. The man realized he was not seeing one of his neighbors and exclaimed, "Hey everyone!" he pushed a button, and an alarm sounded off.
The neighbors quickly piled up. They were men and women, children, people of all ages and colors. They looked at him wide-eyed,
"We thought we were the only ones left," someone said.
Jim coughed and took off his goggles, "Only ones left where? Who are you? What is this place?" he asked yet he was smiling with excitement.
"On the planet." Someone called out matter-of-factly.
"What are you talking about?" he blinked, "On the planet? Why?"
"The nuclear explosion," someone else called out. The man standing at the front door allowed the residents to pile out so everyone could see the stranger. He took a leading role in speaking, quieting down the rest of the residents.
"We're a small group of survivors. After the nuclear detonation, we fled into bunkers and found this place several months later. We've been living here for the past twenty years. We had no idea anyone else was alive. The volcano extends high up to protect us from radiation."
"There was no nuclear blast," Jim answered, "The poles reversed." He showed the people his compass which showed South when he pointed it at the North.
The people looked at him, all weighing their thoughts.
"Look, we don't know where you come from," the self-appointed leader spoke, "But we can show you the records. We have radiation reading. We take it once a month out there in the wasteland."
"Wasteland?" Jim staggered, "You mean the desert?"
The leader shook his head, "The leftover muddy wasteland outside."
Jim shook his head in return.
"You must be confused," the leader spoke.
Jim took out his goggles and set them to project instead of record. An image of the desert popped up, "I've been walking through this dessert for two whole months. Following this river."
He pointed at the river flowing through the sand, "The river flows from this mountain and a few hundred miles downstream empties into a green forest."
The people started chattering among themselves. Most of them making comments in disbelief.
Jim looked around at them, confused by their reaction, "Look, we can climb up and I'll show you."
"Very well," the leader nodded, "Tomorrow morning. You look exhausted. You should get some sleep."
"Yeah, right! Tell us more!" someone called out.
"I tell you what," Jim started. He was not tired at all since he got used to being awake at night again, "I sleep during the day and stay awake at night. Let's exchange fact for a fact. I want to know more about you as well."
Jim spent the entire night chattering with the residents. As time wore on, more and more of them retreated back to the building. Even the supposed leader who turned out to be one of the farmers that kept a field on the other side of the mountain.
The mountain, it turns out, was a strange oddity. It was a result of the nuclear blast, or rather, the result of several of them. The blasts rushed debris together and managed to fuse them together. This, Jim noted, did not make sense to him because of the drought.
The residents had a hard time believing his story as well, despite his recordings.
"We have recordings, too," they argued.
The group occupied the mountain for the past twenty years, making the best of it. They received regular rain, wind, and sunshine. They even had seasons. Jim learned that the population was about a hundred or so. Large enough to keep on living in a sustainable environment.
They've had a group of people visit them two years after the supposed catastrophe but they left quickly, in search of other survivors. They never heard back from them.
"How did you live before the blasts?"
A man shrugged, "Normally. Went to work every day and came back home. There was nothing exceptional about it. Except for the war, and the fear from it."
"Who were you at war with?"
The man named a country that Jim has never heard of. The questions continued for hours longer.
To Jim, it seemed like the people were from a completely different world. They were from a reality where the US was attacked and was completely decimated overnight. In Jim's worldview, the change happened gradually and over much longer of a period.
Jim took several of the people to the cusp of the mountain's edge. They traveled above the clouds, all wearing suits not unlike Jim's.
When they reached the top, they looked over the edge and saw the vast expanse of sand with a single river running through it.
"You have changed our entire way of viewing the world," a woman in the group placed her hand on Jim's shoulder, "This will change everything."
Months passed as Jim became acclimated to living in the mountain. He took several adventurers out, hoping to show them the paradise at the end of the river but none lasted more than a few days before wishing to return.
"We have to see why your radiometer has different readings than my sphere."
The leaders of the community agreed and they sent a few people out to check on the meter. They found that the meter was buried within a cave rather than above ground. The cave itself was radioactive and seemed to span for miles underground in intricate patterns.
"That could explain why nothing can take root outside of the forest."
"It could explain the desert," one of the leaders said.
"But the desert spans for several thousand miles."
"It makes me wonder then."
Jim stayed in the mountain until he died. He never wished to venture far enough to tell people about the paradise. It would have taken him several months at least to travel to the closest piece of civilization.
Gradually, him and others explored the underground caverns and from time to time would find steel doors to bomb shelters. When they pried them open, however, they would find nothing and no one. They wondered if there were other mountains like theirs and other people.
They wondered about other continents and how people lived elsewhere.
"As far as I know," one of the community members said, "The US retaliated. It would be the same everywhere else."
Jim was happy and was glad to have left. He wished his parents would have made it here but they had died a decade or two earlier. He wondered about the other travelers that came to the paradise but never made it to the mountain.
As far as he could remember, there were no human remains at the forest.