We are now a month away from the 7/25 release of Graffiti on the Wall of the Universe and I don’t know about you, but the wait is killing me. But at least I, unlike you, have the regular chapter updates of the audiobook recording to keep me going. (I also kinda already know what happens in the book.)
In recognition of your unfortunate having-to-wait condition, I offer a mild solace: the prologue chapter. Read, enjoy, and do remember to preorder your copy!
Prologue: Off to See the Wizard
Sorrow Falls had been through a lot.
First came the invasion from space.
It wasn’t much of an invasion, consisting as it did of precisely one ship landing in an open field and then declining to get on with the invading part; it just sat there.
Sure, it was exciting at first, but the excitement wore off quickly. Then the town was stuck with an interstellar guest who refused to take the hint that it was time to move on, while its very existence turned a nice, quiet mill town into the most talked about place in the world, which nobody appreciated.
The ship’s arrival resulted in what amounted to a second invasion, i.e., when the U.S. Army showed up. But the army was really nice about the whole thing, and the people in the town were also really nice about the whole thing, so that ended up being okay.
When the ship got around to the second phase of its invasion—finally—things were not okay anymore. There were zombies. People died. The world nearly ended. And the army did not come out looking great, although everyone in town agreed they did the best they could.
Another couple of years passed, and the army invaded again, and it was also very much not okay, because the U.S Army that showed up this time wasn’t the polite version everyone had gotten used to. True, about half of those polite soldiers from before ended up dead, but their three-year occupancy had left most Sorrow Falls residents feeling generally positive about the armed services as a whole.
These new soldiers, though…they were angry. And rude. And more than a little delusional, shouting about monsters and shooting at things that weren’t there. Unfortunately, they also shot at things that were there, like town residents and livestock.
By the end of that day there were more deaths—although like the first time, a decent number of the dead were soldiers—a nuclear bomb had been set off in the sky above the town, and there was significant property damage all over the place.
The aftermath did not play out the same this time around, because while it ultimately turned out there had been a second alien invasion in the middle of all that, it was very much an invisible invasion. There was no spaceship on the ground at which animosity could be directed, and in fact the only spaceship anybody could have pointed to as being involved in any capacity was the one annihilated by that nuclear bomb. No, the aggressor this time, per every streaming internet video—and there were thousands—was the army itself. So, while it was technically true that, like the before, the army’s rank-and-file were victims, literally nobody saw them that way.
There were lawsuits, of course. And the federal government, in a sincere effort to improve its public image, promised to cover the cost of all repairs. They even sent a team from the Army Corps of Engineers to fix the damage done to Main Street by one of their tanks. This went poorly, because the last thing a place that had just been invaded by the army needed was for more army people to show up in large numbers for any reason at all.
Videos of the engineering team rolling across the bridge to Sorrow Falls, only to be met by the sheriff politely telling them to turn right back around again, went viral. Shortly after, the town council adopted an informal measure that told the U.S. government, effectively, thanks for the offer but just send money; we know a guy.
Thus began a new phase in the psyche of Sorrow Falls: tactical xenophobia. Everyone in town remained unfailingly polite, but they were considerably less interested in hosting people passing through, “just to see the place.” If you were visiting, hopefully it was because somebody invited you. Otherwise, your eggs were going to be cold, your directions—unless they were directions for leaving town—were going to be incorrect, and there wasn’t going to be anyone willing to take a picture of you standing in front of something historic.
It wasn’t personal; it was just that, collectively, Sorrow Falls had had enough of all this nonsense, thanks.
This was the where the town was, mentally, when Evan Wilders made his first and only trip there, two years after the army’s last invasion. Fortunately for him, he had been invited, by Annie Collins, no less, who was only the most famous person in Sorrow Falls.
As for why he’d been invited? He had no idea.
* * *
“Table for one?”
The waitress asking the question looked barely out of high school, and the question seemed modestly judgmental, prefaced as it was by her looking him up and down and concluding that he was somebody who would of course be dining alone.
“I was told to ask for someone named Beth?” he said.
“Oh! Sure,” she said, her demeanor changing entirely. “Wait right here.”
It took about two minutes for Beth to emerge from the back. Evan spent the time panicking quietly.
It had been a supremely weird couple of days.
Evan had been hearing rumors for months—well, reading rumors technically, as this was online chatter—about people in various scientific disciplines getting phone calls from Annie Collins. In the boards that he followed, HELP I GOT A CALL FROM ANNIE COLLINS WHAT DO I DO was a popular start to a lot of threads.
Ninety-nine percent of the advice that followed was useless, because the internet was a terrible place and Annie Collins was a particularly polarizing figure, online and everywhere else. It had only been a couple of years since practically everyone in the world became convinced she was giving them nightmares, which wasn’t nearly long enough for people to get past that. Even when it wasn’t true.
The one percent of good advice was, essentially, YOU SHOULD CALL HER BACK.
Exactly none of the threads said what happened after the original poster called her back which, presumably, at least some of them did; no posts along the lines of I CALLED ANNIE COLLINS AND HERE’S WHAT SHE SAID existed.
When she reached out to Evan it wasn’t a call; it was a text. It read: CALL ME, from a number his own phone identified as belonging to Annie.
This was alarmingly brief. Evan’s own family texts requesting that he contact them came with more information, which of course they did, because if you send something that abrupt the recipient is just going to assume something is wrong.
That’s what Evan thought, certainly. So, he called her, not bothering to first start an online thread or even to discuss it with someone in his own orbit of friends, family, and classmates. He just took a couple of deep breaths and hit the call button.
“Evan Wilders?” she said. “Hi, it’s Annie Collins. We need to talk. Can you get to Sorrow Falls?”
“We…can talk now,” he said, confused. Evan was standing in the hallway outside of a physics lab on the MIT campus where at any time there were a half dozen people in earshot so, practically speaking, they could not talk “now” and expect privacy on his end. But this was the quickest way he could think of to get more information from her.
“Has to be face-to-face,” she said. “You have a friend with a car, right?”
He did have a friend with a car. Her name was Jia and there was a possibility she and Evan were dating. He hadn’t quite worked that out yet.
“I do,” he said.
“Borrow it, head on up and we’ll talk. But just you. It’s her car and I’m sure she’ll want to drive up with you, but please come alone.”
Annie told him what to do when he got into town, and hung up. There was no working out what day he’d make it up there, just: get to Sorrow Falls, head to the diner and ask for Beth Weld, who evidently had the power to summon Annie.
The entire exchange was unnerving, but the most unnerving part, he decided later, was that Annie knew his friend was a woman. It could have been a guess, but it sure didn’t feel like it.
The drive wasn’t a major commitment because he was already in Massachusetts, and getting the car was no trouble at all once he told Jia why he needed it, but he had no idea why he’d been invited to what was apparently a private audience with one of the most famous people in the world, and it looked as if the only way to find that out was to follow Annie’s instructions.
The whole thing was exciting, if more than a little terrifying. And in the two hours it took to get from Cambridge to Sorrow Falls he decided it was also probably a big mistake.
“Oh, hey, Evan Wilders, right?” Beth Weld asked, on emerging from the kitchen. “You’re a little early.”
“The drive wasn’t as…why, what time were you expecting me?” He hadn’t given Annie an arrival time or even an arrival day.
Beth smiled, but didn’t answer the question. She handed over a menu, stepped around the front counter and led him to a booth in the back of the diner.
“Sit,” she said. “Relax, if you can. I’ll send Tina by to get your order in a sec. Annie should be here soon.”
Not I’ll let Annie know you’re here, he noted. Annie would just…arrive.
“What do you mean, if I can?” he asked. “Do I look nervous?”
Beth laughed. “You all do. I don’t know why; Annie’s a sweetheart. Can I start you off with some coffee?”
* * *
Twenty minutes and one greasy (but surprisingly palatable) breakfast later, Annie Collins manifested.
That was how it felt. One second, he was looking down at the eggs he couldn’t find the appetite to finish, the next second there she was. All that was missing was a puff of smoke.
“Hi!” she said. “Glad you made it!”
He stumbled out of the booth and shook her hand. “Hello, Ms. Collins. Thank you for, um, it’s nice to meet you.”
She sat in the booth. “You are early, Evan. You don’t mind if I call you Evan, do you? And please call me Annie. Whenever someone calls me Ms. Collins I think I’m in trouble.”
He sat down and stared at her for an uncomfortable five seconds, because he simply didn’t know where to start.
“Why…why do you say I’m early?” he said, finally. “We didn’t arrange a time.”
“No, I know. I mean I didn’t think you’d make it here before tomorrow at the earliest. And wow, you made greattime. You must have left before sunrise.”
“It felt appropriate to get here as soon as possible,” he said, “so that I can sleep again.”
Annie laughed. She had an engaging laugh. Just like the everyone else, two years ago Evan was convinced Annie Collins was giving him nightmares, and the horror show version of her still existed in his head, creating a real disconnect now that he’d met her. About the only thing that synced up between the two versions was that both managed to keep him up nights.
“I’m sorry about that,” she said. “I prefer to have these meetings in person. Not as many people listening in, this way. You understand.”
He did not understand, but he nodded anyway.
“Also,” she continued, “I’m sure you told a couple of people that I reached out. I’m totally cool with that, but now that we’re sitting down, I need a favor.”
“Uh, all right.”
“Whatever happens, going forward, I’d appreciate if you kept my involvement out of it. I like to keep these consultations on the down-low as much as possible. Like, it’s not top secret, but don’t put my name on the masthead or anything. You understand?”
“Not at all.”
She smiled. “Everyone says that.”
“I’m sorry…Annie?” he said. “I think you must have the wrong Evan Wilders. I never…I mean I’m not looking for a consultant. I don’t even have a company and I can’t…I can’t pay you, so…”
“Calm down, calm down, it’s okay. Take a breath.”
She waved to the waitress, who brought over a cup of coffee. “I had to teach myself to like coffee,” she said, taking a sip. “Now I can’t get through the day without it.”
Annie put the coffee down and her hands on the table. “I’m not interested in money,” she began. “I mean, sure I am, but I also just sold my life story so, let’s just say I’m set in that regard. As for you: you’re Evan Wilders, you’re twenty-four years old, and you’re a graduate student at MIT. Your concentration is particle physics and right now you’re reviewing raw data from CERN. Do I have all of that correct?”
“Y-Yes. That’s right.”
He went from thinking she had the wrong guy to thinking she was playing a very involved prank.
“Great!” she said. “Then let’s move on.”
“How did you know about the CERN data?” he asked.
She ignored the question. “Last week, you discovered something in the data. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“About the data you can’t possibly know I was looking at.”
“Actually, not the data. The idea you had about why the data happened to be the way it was. We can talk about the data if you want, but I’m not a physicist, so a lot of it will probably go right over my head.”
This was definitely a prank. “You asked me to drive out here to talk to you about data you couldn’t know about and don’t understand in order to discuss an idea I had that you couldn’t possibly know about or understand?”
“Oh, no, no, no, I understand the idea really well. Not to brag but I might understand it better than you do. At least right now. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need me to give you this nudge.”
“You’re not taking it seriously and I think you should,” she said. “It’s an important idea.”
“How do you know I had any such idea?”
She took another sip of her coffee.
“I’m not going to tell you that,” she said. “I’m also not going to tell you how I know about the CERN data, or how I know the Honda you drove here belongs to a girl named Jia and that Jia does think you’re dating so you better get aboard that train before it leaves the station if you get my meaning. You’re going to have to accept that I know these things so we can move on.”
“Can you read minds?”
“Nobody can read minds, Evan. They’re too messy. Look, you drove out here because even though you were sure this was a mistake, there was a part of you that hoped it wasn’t, and that this was going to turn out to be an important conversation. You were right; it may end up being the most important conversation of your life. Now tell me what you saw in the data.”
“I…I found a discrepancy in the quark flavors,” he said.
“Good. What kind of discrepancy?”
“Under certain initial conditions the outcome looked non-random.”
“That’s all. I brought it to Dr. Banks, but he dismissed it because the sample size was too small. And he was right. Besides, I’m… Annie, I’m just a graduate student.”
“I’m a twenty-one year old college dropout with a GED,” she said, “yet here we are. You’re selling yourself short. What’s the rest of the story?”
He sighed heavily.
“There’s nothing else,” he said. “Nothing I can prove.”
“You know what? I’m going to call my friend Beth over here and have her pour a pot of hot water over your head if you don’t cut it out. Tell me about the idea.”
“I can’t possibly verify it without…”
“I can get you all the data you need with a couple of phone calls, Evan. But you have to prove to me you’ve got it first. Tell me the idea.”
“All right, all right. If it’s legitimately non-random—and I promise you it is not…”
“Stop qualifying it.”
“Right. Sorry. If it’s legitimately non-random… What I began to wonder is if there was a way to force a quark into being a particular flavor.”
Annie laughed. “Sorry, I love it that you guys call it flavors. Like, was whoever came up with the naming convention really hungry? Sorry, I won’t do that again.”
“But you understand what they mean?” he asked.
“Yeah. They’re what: up, down, bottom, top, charm and…?”
“Hilarious,” she said. “And you’re right. I mean you’ve got it. Or you’re getting there.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your idea. It’s correct. How much data do you need, to prove it’s not random?”
“I, um… a lot,” he said. “More than currently exists, I believe.”
“Ooh, that’s tough. But you’ve worked out how it’s done already, haven’t you? What you really need is a chance to prove it.”
He had transitioned from terrified to mystified. “How do you know any of this?”
Annie turned around and made a gesture to Beth, who nodded.
“I already said I’m not going to explain,” she said. “I brought you here to say you’ve got it right and you have to go prove it. If that means a trip to Switzerland, like I said I can make some calls. This is an important idea, Evan; I don’t want you to give up on it.”
Beth came by with a pen and a scrap of paper and—thankfully—did not pour a pot of hot water on Evan’s head.
“Here, I’ll prove it to you,” Annie said, as she wrote something on the paper. “I know you didn’t just consider the possibility that this idea of yours might be correct. You worked the math on the assumption it was and came up with the conversion rate. Am I right?”
“You are, but again…”
She held up the paper. On it was written his equation. “Is this it?” she asked.
He gasped. There was no way for her to have this. He’d spent hours working it out on a whiteboard, but once he finished he simply erased it. There was no photograph of the proof in existence and he was alone in the classroom the entire time. It was simply impossible for her to have reproduced the final equation.
“Evan,” she said. “This is what you came up with, right?”
She pulled the paper back down and wrote another equation on it. Then she slid it across the table.
“You’re almost there,” she said. “Have another look at the data and try again. Once you’ve figured out how to arrive at the second equation, you’re where you need to be.”
“Where did that come from?” he asked.
She smiled. “That is part of a much bigger idea.”
His head was spinning. Like everyone, he knew the story was that Annie Collins interacted directly with an alien, and that alien was an idea rather than a corporeal being. Also like everyone, Evan assumed that story was just not true.
“What…kind of idea?” he asked. He couldn’t bring himself to utter the word alien. “Is it your idea or…? Or can you not tell me that either?”
“It wasn’t originally,” she said. “But I’m learning to make it my own.”