It was the summit of noon, Patmos, Illinois, the rays of the advancing sun glittering magnificently in the lidless eyes of the cameras that lined Icaria Street. The police - a conspicuously potent presence for such a small town - traced their patrol routes with care, scrutinizing the shops and their patrons for signs of dangerous deviance. Behind the distorted tableau, there was an almost melodic electronic hum from the metallic cylinders concealed in the trees, their function an enigma to most. Passersby couldn't help but take notice, but only surreptitiously - no one dared give too much attention to the presence or even acknowledge it save for the odd peek at those digital eyes.
Will Scarborough, if he even noticed anything awry, didn't waste the energy to express any dismay. Life was simply too full - too many plans to parse, too many factors to consider. The machines and the guards ranked highly among those factors, but not so high that they became an undue distraction. His goal of the moment - hardly one that would be hampered by surveillance - find a place to eat and to unload his thoughts. Harper's Last Stop, with its greasy spoon aesthetic and lethally inexpensive food, was convenient for the purpose.
Will's energetic entrance nearly knocked the tiny bell free of its mount. "Ralphie! My man! How's it going today?"
"New day, same crap," said Ralph. "What can I get you today?"
"Oh, today it's a matter of what I can do for you. But first, let's get some music going. I'm in a mood for something classic." Will slipped a quarter into the vintage 45 jukebox and jabbed at the buttons. "Come on...come on, you piece of shit, you worked yesterday! D4! Damn it, D4!" He threw a series of body blows at the machine, each meaty punch fueled by the machine's stubborn refusal to obey his commands. "Goddamn it, play!"
Ralph leaned over the counter. "Knock it off, Will. Ixnay! You'll piss him off again!"
"What the hell is going on here?" A new voice entered the fray. It belonged to the owner, drawn into the dining area by the sound of Will's knuckles colliding with his expensive antique, the fire in his glossy marble eyes erupting into a blaze at the sight. "Get away from that thing, you imbecile! It's vintage! Do you have any idea how much that thing costs?"
Will's assault on the jukebox continued unabated as he addressed the owner. "Hey, don't blame me. The servos, or...you know, the moving parts get stuck sometimes, they need a good rap to jar them loose." Bang. Bang. "That's why they don't make these anymore. If you would've gotten a digital one, this wouldn't happen." Bang. Bang. "Felt something give. Just one more-"
The owner grabbed Will and pulled him away from the jukebox. "One more time and you're gone! Banned for life!"
Will stared down at the angry man, his stumpy hands clutching Will by his white t-shirt. There was a significant physical disparity between the two men, one which was all the more pronounced when framed by the threat of a brawl. The owner was a diminutive ball of flesh and hair with a cherry for a face. Will was a good two heads taller, with a frame best described as portly with hints of strength - a wall of muscle concealed beneath the products of a rich diet. It was not a fair fight, and Will was not about to be the bully. "You wanna let go? All right, I won't hit your precious jukebox, all right? I promise. Cross my heart." No sooner had his words rippled the air did the first notes of an Elvis Costello song filled the room. "Well, it looks like Will Scarborough isn't so dumb after all, huh?"
The owner, his face transitioning to a less intense crimson, turned Will loose. "Hands off the box."
"Yeah, yeah." Will took a seat at the counter, resting his stubbly chin in one hand. "Man, that guy's uptight."
"You gotta watch it, man," said Ralph, leaning in close. "He spent like ten grand on that box. It's like his son."
"No need to replay the song, I got the message the first time," said Will. "Not that it matters. In a couple days, that jukebox, this diner - they'll all be history."
Ralph, who had long since given up any pretense with his best customer, let out an audible groan. "Not this crap again. Will, you gotta lay off the end-of-the-world stuff. It's not healthy to go around obsessing over that."
"Hey, I know I've been wrong about a lot, but this is a sure thing," said Will.
"They were all sure things."
"Yeah, but this time it's different."
"Because you have proof?"
"That you can't show anyone?"
Will slammed his dense fists against the counter. "Come on, man, forget about that and just use your head. Does any of this make sense? That fortress of a lab just outside of town? The media blackout? And the excuses they're giving us? None of this shit's normal."
"Excuse me." A young woman - petite with cropped straw-colored hair and the intense, stern look of a jaded wanderer - leaned over from a nearby stool. "Don't mean to butt in, but I take it you're talking about Jameson Labs?"
"Oh, don't get him started," said Ralph.
"As a matter of fact, I was," said Will, waving Ralph away. "My friend here doesn't like it when I tell the truth too loudly. It upsets the customers, kills their appetites."
"Well, my appetite's fine."The woman pulled a memo pad and pen out of her bag. "Sara Mills. I'm working on a personal project connected to the lab and its effects on the community."
"Project?" A light sparked to life in Will's eyes. "So, you're what...some kind of journalist?"
"The desperate and unemployed kind. This is just a little thing I'm gonna try to get published while I wait for an opening in one of the last five reporting jobs they have in this country." Sara flipped the memo pad to the desired page as she brushed the cap from her cheap pen. "I'd love to take a few comments, if you have the time, uh..."
"Will Scarborough. And I'd be happy to give some comments, but I should really put in an order first." Will spun back to Ralph, eyes flitting between the counterman and the menu. "All right, give me a double burger with Swiss and a side of onion rings, a basket of Cajun fries, a side of spicy slaw, and a chocolate shake. Oh, and if you've got any of that turkey chili left over, I'll take a little cup of that. And some pie, the rest of that peach thing you've got in the case." He flicked a few bills down on the counter. "Keep the change, man."
Sara gaped at him in numb silence. "Not terribly health conscious, I guess?"
"Well, it's not like I have to worry about my health for much longer," said Will. "That's the great thing about the end - you get to live however you want, and damn the consequences."
"Yes, I gathered that much about your, uh...theory from what you were saying earlier," said Sara. "Could you explain this 'end-of-the-world' scenario for me? You know, I've been following the Rudra story for weeks now and that one's brand new."
"That's because I figured it out first. It all started with this." Will slammed a crumpled flier down on the table:
A SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT FROM JAMESON ENTERPRISES
To the residents of Patmos, Illinois:
Over the past few years, you've seen a number of changes - large and small - come to your town as a result of our development. We're very pleased at how well you've tolerated these changes and adjusted to our presence.
Very soon, you will be privileged to see the first fruits of our labor. On Sunday, April 16th at 11:59 P.M., we will be running the first practical test of the RUDRA ENGINE, the prototype for a new energy plant. We believe that this device will form the cornerstone of the American energy policy in the near future and beyond.
More than anything, we want the people who have lived with our work for so long to share in the experience. While the lab itself will remain sealed for the duration of the test, we will be using our telepresence setup to give you a glimpse from the comfort of your own home. The test will be broadcast locally on every Jameson Communications-owned television and radio station; there will also be a stream open through the Jameson Enterprises website for a global audience.
Thank you for your assistance, and let's build a better future together.
"Yeah, I'm familiar with that." Sara pushed the flier back towards Will. "But I don't see anything about the end of the world in there."
"Neither did I, at first," said Will. "Let me start with a question: What are they building at Jameson Labs?"
"Well, it's some kind of energy source," said Sara. "I mean, I don't really get the science behind it, but it is a model for a power plant."
"...Or so they'd like to have you think." Will clapped his hands together. "Truth is, they're working on something a lot more dangerous in that building. Something a lot more sinister, even."
"Sinister? What, like a weapon?"
"Not quite. You use a weapon against your enemy. This thing, they're using against everyone. Friend and foe."
Sara scratched her head, rolling the words around in her head as she searched for the proper summary. "So you think Jameson Enterprises...you think Joshua Jameson is building a doomsday device?"
"That's a dramatic way of putting it, but...yes, that's accurate."
"In southern Illinois?"
"They had to build it somewhere."
"But why..." Sara shook her head. "...Let's try this another way. What makes you think that Joshua Jameson is building a doomsday device?"
"Well - and I'd prefer you leave this part out of whatever you're doing..." Will glanced over his shoulder and dropped his voice a trace below his typical bellow. "...A while back, I received an anonymous email detailing certain aspects of this little project that aren't public knowledge. You'll keep my name out of this part, right?"
"Sure, you'll be my anonymous source."
"Just anonymous, or will you give me a code name? I could be the 'Prophet of Patmos' or something like that."
"Could you just get on with it?"
"Right." Will threw another glimpse about the room, eyes resting momentarily on each fixture for signs of strange behavior. "Well, the technical details were right over my head, but the gist of it was that there's another aspect to this little project that no one's talking about. Something the Jameson people hid. Something really, really big."
"So...you believe that one of the world's wealthiest men is building a doomsday device in a government-sponsored lab based on an anonymous email."
"I know what you're thinking-"
"I'm sure you do." Sara rubbed her forehead. "Well, go ahead. Finish your thought."
"Thank you for having an open mind. Not many people do." Will straightened his spine as he prepared to deliver his grand pronouncement. "Now, I would have thought it was bullshit, too, except it explains so much. Point one: He's only letting a carefully vetted crowd take tours of the lab. Why do that if they're not hiding something?"
"That's actually pretty common with projects of this size. Especially when the government is involved."
"Maybe, but point two: The stage management. They've been manipulating the press since day one, not letting anyone with a microphone get past their flacks."
"Again, that's standard in this kind of situation."
"I'm not so sure about that, but let's say that I agree, just let it pass. But, point three: Dr. Richter, the mastermind behind the whole project. He has not been seen since construction began. Is that standard? Surely a big-time project with big-time federal money behind it would want their pet genius in front of the cameras on a regular basis, yet it's been weeks since we've heard a word from him."
Sara tapped her pen against the memo pad. "Okay, that I'll grant you. I've been wondering where Richter has been myself. But-"
"Fries up." Ralph dropped a basket of spice-covered fries on the counter in front of Will.
"Thanks man." Will shoved a handful of fries into his mouth. "Help yourself, by the way."
"I'm fine, thanks." Sara pulled out a small digital recorder. "You mind if I record this?"
"Knock yourself out," said Will. "Now, the next thing you're going to ask is - why? Fact is, I don't know. Maybe they're trying to create some utopia by wiping out all the peons. Maybe they're going to try to force world peace onto the table using the biggest goddamn sword ever made. There could be a cult angle - I don't know. Leave that part to the conspiracy theorists, there are plenty of them. All I know is that the end is coming, and very soon."
"Conspiracy theorists...right. You know, with all due respect..." Sara dropped the memo pad on the counter, barely restraining a smirk. "...guys like you usually have a website or a podcast or something. I mean, you could get yourself quite a following with what you've given me."
Will laughed directly in Sara's face. "...Nah. For one, I'm not big on fame. That's for my brother, he's the talented one. Hell, I wouldn't know what to do with it. Second, it's not going to matter since the world's about to blow up, so why not enjoy myself? I have much better plans."
"That's the other thing, Will. For a guy who expects the world to explode in five days, you seem awfully calm."
"Scared?" The word narrowly escaped Will's mouth through a fistful of French fries. "I'm looking forward to it."
Will spun his stool to face Sara, clasping his hands on his knees. "Yeah, yeah, everyone in this country wants to live forever. Everyone's willing to trade their dignity to keep breathing for a few more years. Well, that's not me. The way I see it, everybody goes, and the most important part is not when, but where and how. When I go, I plan to be on Kiyama Hill- that little bulge overlooking the lab, I'm sure you know about it. Front row seats to the end of everything, with a beer in one hand and a hot dog in the other. ‘Cause we're not cursed, you know, we're damn lucky. We're going to see the most spectacular thing any human has ever witnessed. It'll be a fireworks display times a million. The sky will turn into a river of flame, flowing into infinity. I'm going to be there, dancing at the brink of the goddamn apocalypse."
Sara clutched on the table for her memo pad, not even taking her eyes off of Will. "I guess that does sound pretty wild."
"You bet." Will snapped his fingers. "Oh, before we go on - any chance that you're a local girl? I mean, Mills Printing, that's your folks, right? You guys do posters and banners and stuff like that?"
"Until that all-in-one place on Amos undercuts us and we go out of business, yeah."
"Perfect. I've got some fliers of my own I want to print up. Ads for my big party. I'm willing to pay more for the rush job, but I will need them quickly. Tomorrow, if you can."
"That won't be cheap."
Will pushed aside the empty basket. "Well, no point in keeping my money, right? Can't take it with me."
Sara applied a smile. "I guess not. All right, let's start from the beginning. And don't spare any details, I think this is just what I'm looking for."
"From the beginning?" said Will. "All right. It all started in the most boring place in these United States..."