The Scarborough residence was a nondescript ranch house on a forgettable street in a beige-tinged neighborhood - a tranquil kind of place free of the threat of potentially terrifying excitement that haunts other, busier quarters. Days and nights, weekdays and weekends were equally sedate and predictable, one flowing drably to the next. The march of progress and the mutation of the town had not changed this character, for the people liked things as they were. It was the kind of place where a man might greet his neighbor with a gentle nod on the sidewalk, and she would reply in kind, but he would otherwise keep to himself and enjoy the quiet that came with neighbors that did the same.
By contrast, William Scarborough was a colorful presence, one that added more spice than his neighbors appreciated. On those occasions when he drifted away, a careful listener might hear a gentle rustling - the sound of dozens of people sighing in unified relief at his departure. It would not last, as he would soon return with a brand new scheme or theory to test. Perhaps, as with that afternoon, he would return with arms laden with dull paper bags, perhaps containing something banal, perhaps concealing some fresh madness.
"Anyone home?" shouted Will as he nudged open the door. "Hello?" The faint echo told him that the house was empty. Will dropped the bags on the overstuffed couch - the one with those lumps and grooves that nicely accepted his frame - and stared at the scuffed screen of their off-brand TV. "All right, you silly bastard, get it right this time, okay? TV on." The screen refused to awaken. "TV on. TV - oh, the hell with this." He snatched the remote and flicked the TV on in one practiced motion.
The screen greeted Will with a years-old replay of a local high school trivia competition, one graced with a wholly unexpected degree of national fame. This was an idiosyncrasy of Jameson Communications-owned stations - they broadcast a variety of provincial content, all drawn from an impressive library of videos available on-demand for people from coast to coast. They were of little interest to most, but such local loyalty was the privilege of wealth and influence, and Will appreciated the touch even if everyone else had forgotten the story.
Will was half-lost in the broadcast when the front door banged open and a boy sprang into the room. He was eleven years old by the calendar, though cursed with a light build and soft features that gave him the look of a boy of less. His drab clothing and unkempt hair spoke to a young man with little concern over his appearance.
"I'm home!" He glanced over at the couch. "You're home early, Will."
"Sam, Samuel..." Will leaned over the arm of the couch. "Is that any way to greet your brother? I'll have you know I finished my errands early just so I could welcome you home."
Sam dropped his backpack into an empty chair. "Is that right?"
"Yeah, that's right." Will pointed at the pile of bags. "Even picked you up a present. It's not in those, you'll have to dig for it."
Tracing Will's finger, Sam reached into the mound of bags and returned with a ragged book. "The Last Man. Wow, this looks really old. Was it expensive?"
"Never mind the cost. It's yours."
"I wouldn't know where to keep this." Sam examined the cover. "Huh, it's a little torn here."
"Yeah, that was me...you know how clumsy I am."
"There's an impression here...was there something here? Something hidden?"
"Never you mind. Look, if you don't want it, leave it on the counter, I'll put it in my preservation chamber."
"Right," said Sam, gingerly laying the book on the counter."Got a project. I'll be out for dinner."
"Hold on," said Will. "Don't just cut out on me. How was it?"
"Just a normal day."
"Nothing weird happened?"
"Come on. You had to do something."
Sam put up his hands. "We talked about current events."
“I see,” said Will. "Current events...now that's good. We should have done that when I was in high school. We had plenty to talk about then."
"It was just about the lab. Nothing that interesting."
"Hey, you kids should pay attention to that." Will waved his finger at Sam. "That's the kind of thing that will change your life. Believe me, I know about these things."
"Yeah, I suppose." Sam peered at the television. "You're watching trivia?"
"What of it?"
"Now didn't I teach you to appreciate intellectual shit?" Will clicked his tongue. "This right here is the famous Northwest High finals, featuring future champion Apollo 'Paul' Liston. Trivia gods, my friend. Remember when Patmos sent a team to state and I took you to watch? These guys were there! You met them!"
"I was just a kid," said Sam. "My memory's not so good."
"Don't give me that, your memory is fantastic," said Will.
Sam giggled a bit, an embarrassing reaction he was constantly trying to shed. "Yeah, all right. I remember the other kid. The weird one. Aaron."
Will snapped his fingers. "You know what? His name came up. It turns out-"
The picture abruptly vanished, replaced by a simple title card reading AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE FROM JAMESON COMMUNICATIONS.
Will scrutinized the remote at arm's length. "What is this shit?"
"Oh yeah, someone at school said something about this." Sam leaned forward over the couch. "They've been doing this since Monday."
A moment later, the card disappeared, replaced by an image of a magnificent personal study decorated in another generation's idea of high class - true mahogany paneling, oversized ornate globes, custom bookshelves stuffed with hefty old tomes on history and science, hand-tooled leather club chairs, all the trappings of the elite inner sanctum. In the center, behind an oversized executive's desk and framed by a reproduction of Adoration of the Magi behind him, sat a stately silver-haired man in a light gray suit, hands folded in front of him. At length he began to speak, intoning each word in a gentle yet authoritative timbre:
"Good evening, friends. We live in a world in which the only true constant is change. Every day, the things on which we have always relied shift in ways we could never have foreseen, and tragically these changes are not always for the better. When I was a child, this was truly a land of plenty. Everyone who was motivated, who had the spirit of industry, could have a career, a family, a home of his own. Through innovations in manufacturing and chemistry, we made the country mobile. Through our mastery of the atom, we turned the night into day. Through the manipulation of sound and light, we democratized information. It was an age of wonder and growth, and to us anything was possible."
"The only true constant being change, this would not last. We were as the foolish man building his house upon the sand: The rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. In the decades since, we have weathered many assaults upon our land of plenty. We have faced shortages, recession, economic warfare, criminality, foreign intrigue, the scourge of narcotics, the mindless cruelty of terrorism, the madness of rank bigotry. Each blow exposed a crack in our perfect society through which many good men fell."
"But I'm not here to deliver a message of pessimism, but one of hope. We Americans faced each crisis with the courage and grace we have always exhibited. We responded with innovation and industry and became stronger for it. It is in the spirit of this industry and this innovation that Jameson Enterprises launched Project Rudra."
"Picture now the power plant of the future. Through a next-generation smart grid, it delivers power to millions of homes and businesses, from great cities to tiny villages. Once constructed, it requires only a small team of skilled technicians to monitor and maintain its processes. It consumes no fossil fuels, nor any hazardous fissile materials. It outputs no environmental pollutants and produces no byproducts which are toxic to man, animal or plant life. And over its lifespan, it generates energy at almost a quarter of the price of coal. Perhaps this sounds like fantasy, but through the diligent work of Dr. Otto Richter and his team, it may soon be reality. What's more, it is the fine people of this community who will be its first witnesses."
"There are those in the business community who wondered why I would choose to begin such an important project in a small town like Patmos. The idea was not wholly my own. The very night the proposal crossed my desk, I prayed for guidance, and the Father led me back to the one place where life was always peaceful. It was here, in Patmos, that I was comforted after the death of my earthly father. It was here, in Patmos, that my own son was born. It was here, in Patmos, that I heard of the birth of my granddaughter. It is here, in Patmos, that I plan to one day retire. This community has shown me nothing but generosity and good wishes, and the Lord was telling me that I owed it to share my success with that community."
"Not that this has been easy. I know that change has not always been kind to this town. You have had to endure increased scrutiny in your daily affairs. You have watched as new neighbors moved in, neighbors from places like Chicago and New York and San Francisco and even beyond the borders of this nation, whose ways and beliefs may not have always been compatible with your own. But soon, these trees we have planted and nursed will bear fruit, and all of you will be first in the orchard."
"Shortly, I will return you to your normal programming, but I hope that you will follow our progress in the days leading up to the test. Over the coming week you may see some new faces in town, including Zhang Yanli, who has championed my projects since the beginning and has been invaluable in filling out our staff, and of course my dear old friend Dr. Johnathan Bellamy, who has ably managed all of the supporting roles in Jameson Laboratory. Interviews with these individuals will be freely available through our website as well as the on-demand section of your local provider. And I invite you to tune in on Sunday at 11:00 PM to watch live as the prototype Rudra Engine is tested for the very first time."
"Thank you all, and God bless."
"Hell of a stunt," said Will as Mr. Jameson's face faded from the screen. "Guy tries to pull an LBJ."
"I think you mean FDR," said Sam. "I don't know, he doesn't seem so bad."
"One piece of advice for you, little brother," said Will. "Never trust a powerful man who acts that friendly. They're always up to something."
"All right." Sam stepped back from the couch. "Oh, wait, there's something I want to show you."
Will hopped to his feet. "Is it that smart-writer thing? You got that working?"
"It works...okay. I'm still getting the bugs out."
"Then you get a new story for me?"
"Sure. Stay there, I'll get it for you." Sam disappeared down the hall for a few seconds, returning a few seconds later with several loose sheets of paper. "I sent it to the computer, but it's got a whole bunch of typos. I don't think the smart-writer likes my handwriting very much."
"The hell with the gizmo, let's see the story."
Sam passed over a few wrinkled sheets of notebook paper. "This one's a little different. It's kind of a fable, I guess, but I don't know how well it came out."
"I'll be the judge of that." Will scanned the first page. "Good start. Print me off a copy, I'll read it at work. I don't mind typos."
Sam concealed a snicker. "Come on, Will, I always give you the rough draft."
"But this could be worth a ton someday," said Will.
"Don't say that. It's just for fun." Sam tried not to blush, failing as always. "It's a gift. Seriously, it's okay."
"Cool." Will folded up the pages and stuck them into his back pocket. "Oh, I'm supposed to be at the restaurant early, so tell Mom I can't stay for dinner."
"Really?" Sam features drooped, his eyes sinking to the ground. "You have to go earlier tonight?"
"Yeah, the boss figures there's gonna be a big rush, so I have to go early for a while. Is that a problem?"
"No, it's just...you've been running around all the time. We never see you."
"I know, I've been gone a lot." Will smiled and cocked his head. "Look, I've got to get ready now, but I will make time tomorrow. Promise."
"All right," said Sam. "Thanks."
"Nothing to it." Will picked up his bags and headed to his tiny room in the back. "Remember what I told you about guys with power! Don't trust ‘em!"