(Fiction) The Mandela Spheres

Some advanced readers were so excited about THE ZERO SIGNAL that they have nominated it for Best of the Year on Goodreads, where (at the time of writing) it is #2 on the list!

Readers also nominated it for Can’t Wait Sci-fi/Fantasy, Strong Female Lead, and What to Read in Summer. If you have a Goodreads account, go over and vote.

You can also read the advanced reader reviews here or pre-order here.


Read the beginning here. The selection below is from the middle where the cover image is explained.


Quinn stepped into the conference room at the Boston FBI office. Nio was sitting at the table in her brand-new jacket tapping gently on a laptop.

“What is it with you and high collars?”

“Old habit,” she said without stopping. “I spent a lot of years dodging facial rec. Biometric scans. You start to get so comfortable hiding your face that it feels weird not to.”

Quinn noticed her hands were trembling. “How you feel? You throw up again?”

“Not since this morning.” She stopped typing and stretched both her arms and legs. “And my legs aren’t as stiff.”

“That’s good. Maybe you’re through the worst of it.”

“Silver lining: I haven’t had a headache since I lost the implants.”

“Careful. You’re gonna start sounding like me.”

Quinn pulled her coffee from the carrier and set it on the table. “You know, you’ve been at that stuff non-stop for the last 36 hours. Maybe give it a break?”

“Not gonna ask me how I cracked it?”

“You’ve trained me well. I’ve learned it’s pointless.”

She sat back and rubbed her eyes. “It’s actually fascinating, this stuff he was working on, but I can see why Sol wouldn’t talk about it.”

“Dangerous?” Quinn walked over and shut the door.

“No. Well, not in the sense you mean. Dangerous to his career, absolutely. Humans are all closet essentialists, as a professor of mine used to say.”

Quinn leaned against the glass and crossed his arms. “Essentialists.”

Nio spun her chair. “Okay, let’s say I have a high-resolution maker like they have up at MIT and I make a very high-resolution, 3D reproduction of the Mona Lisa. I program the maker to include more detail than the human eye can actually perceive, meaning it looks completely real. The voxels of pigment are smaller than the width of the rods and cones in your eye.”

“More detail than we can see. Got it.”

“People will still view it as fundamentally missing something, as fake. In their minds, the original has some aura about it that makes seeing it on a wall more memorable and moving experience than seeing the reproduction, even though the reproduction contains all the same perceptible information. If you tell them later it was a copy, they’ll feel cheated. It’s why people collect clothing worn by celebrities and serial killers. People will say a knife used by Charles Manson has some extra evil essence in the metal versus one from their kitchen, which might actually make a much better weapon.”

“Manson didn’t actually kill anyone,” Quinn corrected. “He got other people to do it—like your guy, actually.”

“Okay, but you see my point. It’s the mystique of a vintage car, which drives terribly and keeps breaking down but which gives its owner much greater pleasure than owning a new car, which is faster, cheaper, and safer. If it came out that Sol was looking into occult and conspiracy theories, there would’ve been a ready-made explanation: that he was deranged in some way, that the cloning process was somehow incomplete and what resulted was a biological machine similar to Einstein but missing that mysterious essence that made the ‘original’ so potent. We’re all just copies, right? No one would’ve taken a risk on him again.”

“Damaged goods,” Quinn said.

“It’s the quandary we all realized very early. Fundamentally, I think it’s why Chancery never contemplated writing a novel, even though her head is full of stories. Which it is. It’s why she lies compulsively. She has no other outlet. No matter what she wrote, no matter how awesome it was, it would never measure up. It couldn’t. Nothing can match the mystique of the past, of history. Our genetic donors have all passed into myth, and a real person can’t compete with a myth. Chancery’s ego could never handle not measuring up, so she invents that whole story about Charlotte being limited by her time and how if things were different, she could’ve been Prime Minister or whatever.”

“Could be true.”

“It could. She definitely felt the need to publish under a pen name. I’m just saying the reason Chaz makes such a big deal of it is because people believe in mystical essences. Even scientists, which is why Sol kept this project secret.”

“I thought he was working on the hologram theory.”

“The holographic principle, yes. But then last summer, out of the blue, he started getting into conspiracies in a big way.”

“Last summer? You mean Caulfield?”

“After seeing all those people die and then watching helpless with the rest of the world as we drifted toward another civil war, he found it hard to work.”

“Everyone did.”

“Kinda hard to concentrate on the deep nature of the universe when everything is falling apart around you. I think as a way to deal with it, he started applying the mathematical tools he’d developed on the holographic principle to current events. But to get a useful mathematics of society he needed a baseline. That’s how he got together with Gerry. It was really clever, actually. He wanted a robust data set on things he knew to be false—conspiracy theories like QAnon—to test his null hypothesis.

“That’s how we cracked the encryption, if you want to know. We assembled a key set of words and phrases common to discussions of the Mandela Spheres, which I knew had to be in there.”

“The what?”

“You don’t spend much time on the internet, do you?”

“I try not to.”

“But you’ve heard of the Mandela Effect?”

Quinn scrunched his face. “That’s supposed to be a change in the Matrix, right?”

“Some people think it’s proof we’re living in a complex virtual reality, yes. Others will tell you it’s just a collective false memory.”

“You don’t sound convinced,” Quinn said.

“Well, I dunno. I mean, you’d expect there to be some things like that, just at random. It’s one thing for lots of people to misremember an easy misspelling of a name, but the complexity and size of some of the others makes it hard not to at least be curious.”

“I read once that a majority of people believe angels are an active force in their lives.”

“Whatever. I don’t want to argue. The point is that for people like Gerry, this stuff is real. Someone on the internet noticed that there were large spherical structures, like hi-tech radar installations, in the general vicinity of places tied to various Mandela effects, like Rocky Flats in Denver.”

“So, what are they?”

“The Mandela Spheres? No one knows.”

“What do you mean no one knows?”

“They’re just there. At least with HAARP there was a cover story.”

“Harp?”

“Jeez. You really are out of it.”

“Enlighten me.”

“The High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program is a very large antenna array in Alaska, built by the US government in the ‘90s. Both the Canadian government and the European Parliament held hearings on it.”

“Hearings?”

“Oh, it’s worse than that. Jesse Ventura, the former wrestler and governor of Minnesota, once showed up at the front gate with a film crew claiming it was bouncing mind control waves off the ionosphere.”

“Ah.”

“The community that Gerry is connected to had worked for years assembling an absolutely massive data wiki on various conspiracies—not just QAnon but ghosts and Bigfoot and all that. It’s the kind of project no university would waste its time on. Sol found a reference to it online and reached out. He wanted to analyze the set, look for patterns, for a baseline.”

“What kind of patterns?”

“Entropy, for one. He was trying to create common ground, to show that, whatever we believe, whatever we’re willing to kill each other over, we should all at least be able to agree on what’s false. Because of all the attention that things like HAARP and the Kennedy assassination get, there’s lots of data on them, and that data has characteristics, such as high entropy/low order.”

“How can data have entropy?”

“If you model it like a cloud of moving dots, you can describe it thermodynamically. Sol was doing a bunch of transformations like that. More importantly, he was doing meta-analyses on the transformations. Data can take a variety of distributions, right? It can have a random distribution or a Pareto distribution, like a hockey stick, or a Poisson distribution, and so on. The central limit theorem, which is sort of like the sovereign of statistics, says that a distribution of distributions will tend toward the normal, toward the so-called bell curve, which explains why the bell curve pops up all the time. In most cases, what we actually measuring isn’t a discrete variable but a multitude of them rolled together—public opinion, for example, or human intelligence, which are aggregates of millions of legitimately discrete variables: your genes, your education and upbringing, how much sleep you got the night before the IQ test, all that. The central limit theorem says that as you roll a whole bunch of variables together into an aggregate measure, the shape of their individual distributions will sort of cancel out and make a nice, even bell curve.

“Sol expected to see that in his meta-analysis. In fact, he never thought he wouldn’t. He started out looking for other things. But as he crunched the numbers, he found some anomalies. The distributions for the really wacko theories, like HAARP or Bigfoot, were all over the place, which you would expect if they were fake—random noise, basically. Real conspiracies, on the other hand, are made of real variables, so you expect them to be normally distributed. And that’s what he found, that things like MKUltra and Watergate were legit, that there actually was a conspiracy.”

“Because the data behaved normally,” Quinn confirmed.

“But there was a third category. The data on the Mandela Spheres, for example, was not randomly distributed. It had a structure, just not a nice, normal bell curve. It was skewed.”

“Why?”

“He thought it was an artifact of computation. We don’t have nearly as much data on the older events, which makes them easier to analyze. We collect so much data these days that it’s impossible to crunch it all on a PC. Just the data people’s phones and cars collect by driving by the spheres millions of times a day is massive. Sol guessed that if we had the same amount on the older events, they might show the same skew, that there was a hidden selection bias in what we were retaining from the past, but without the ability to run all the modern data through his equations, he couldn’t prove it. Honestly, it makes me wonder what he was expecting. He would’ve had to have known—” Nio stopped.

“What?”

Her face turned red.

What?” he repeated.

“Okay, say you’re a scientist and you’re developing a theory, but it’s controversial and may get you fired. You need a powerful computer to crunch all the data, but to get time on an AI or a supercomputer, you have to submit a proposal, and this theory doesn’t fit inside any of the standard research paradigms, which means no institution will fund it. Without the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary to rent that kind of server time, you’re stuck, right?”

“Right.”

Unless… you just happened to know the CEO of a major quantum computing company.”

“Jesus.” Quinn stood. “It was right in front of us the whole time.”

Nio didn’t move. She shook her head.

“You were right. You kept pushing me to follow up on the others. And I kept resisting. I wanted it to be…”

“A conspiracy?”

“No. Maybe. I dunno. I didn’t want to believe any of us could’ve had anything to do with Sol’s death.”

“Most people are killed by someone close to them, often someone they love. It’s not your fault. All it means is that you’re right: you guys are human, same as the rest of us.”

“We’ll need warrants. And people who understand physics.”

“I can help with one of those.”

The door opened then and Agents Erving and Cortines entered.

“Sir,” Quinn said, surprised. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m glad to see you both on your feet. Unfortunately, I’m afraid you’re not going anywhere. Agent Cortines, would you please take Ms. Tesla to the hotel and keep her there?”

“Hold on!” Quinn stepped in front of Nio. “She hasn’t done anything. She’s been with me the whole time.”

“I’m very glad to hear that,” Erving said. “It makes for a nice change.”

“What did you tell him?” Nio asked.

“Is there something to tell?” Erving waited a moment, but no one answered. “Agent Quinn, the confinement is for her protection. I don’t have time to go into details right now. We’re busy trying to find the rest of her brothers and sisters.”

“Brothers and sisters?” Nio’s lips pursed. “Wait, what happened?”

“Chancery Brontë appears to have been abducted from her home this morning.”

Nio looked stunned. She didn’t move.

“Given the circumstances, we’re not ruling anything out, including the possibility that you all are being targeted.”

Erving nodded at Agent Cortines, who took Nio by the arm.

“We’ll keep you in the loop, but for now, we need you where no one can get to you.”

Nio turned. “Quinn…”

With that, she was led away.


You can read the advanced reader reviews here or pre-order here.