"Death Sphere of Hypnos" by offermoord.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.
THE WATERS OF MY MIND
by Gary Emmette Chandler
At family shindigs, my parents always tell the same story: how, at a party in college, they had both been so distracted by an app on their interface that they knocked right into each other. Drinks were spilled, apologies were made, and soon the small talk began. "Twenty years later, it still hasn't ended," my father announced, laughing, to a room crowded with my cousins, aunts, and uncles on the night I graduated from high school. Without Sphere, I wouldn't exist—or so the joke went.
Nearly two decades ago, Sphere was linked to a series of murders and banned. From that point forward, it was reduced to a cache of dismissed research papers and the rumors that followed in their wake: that it could analyze the impact of our choices—that it could predict the future.
To the majority, Sphere was nothing more than another abandoned fragment of history, like the CIA's mind control experiments. It was different for me. I had grown up with stories about Sphere, and I'd chosen Neurotheory as my second major, after Journalism, because I was fascinated by the interface—by the machine inside our heads.
Sphere had been a part of that, once. With enough interest, I thought it could be again. That's why I'd fought to write about it in my first feature for the campus paper, NYU News.
At the peak of his career, my father had been a staff reporter at the LA Times. When I was ten, he investigated an anonymous tip about corruption in the artificial meat industry; AM was highly carcinogenic, his source warned. It was a dangerous story and my father knew it. He would have passed on the assignment if my mother asked him to, but she was adamant: This affects everyone.
That was a strange time for our family. Once the story broke, the spotlight turned on my father. It didn't matter that he had the support of most journalists across the globe. Interface Band News was the default source of news for anyone with a chip, and they were in the pocket of the AM industry. For months, they tore into my father’s past, using everything he had ever written to weave a complex narrative of him as a man who couldn't be trusted. They did the same with the whistleblower—a lab tech at AMI, who was in her mid-twenties. For a while, they had everyone convinced that she had planted the evidence herself, upset over a poor performance review. It wasn't until the FDA launched a full investigation and confirmed her tip that harassment abated.
Production of AM was allowed to continue under certain sanctions and labeling, but the industry never fully recovered. Stocks tanked, demand for real meat spiked, and animal rights groups panicked. My best friend Mackenzie came to me at school one morning, sobbing and blaming my father for ruining everything; her dad had lost his job at AMI as a part of industry-wide cuts.
That was more than just the end of a friendship. It was the moment I decided that some choices are worth making, no matter the cost.
In my first two years at NYU News, I'd been saddled with fluff pieces, while the rest of the staff covered stories like the elections, or the revolution in Taiwan. "You're good at the pop stories, Alison," my editor Stewart told me, using different words each time I complained. "Do you know how many views your posts get?"
I didn't care. I was tired of celebrity lists and kitten photos. I wanted to write about something that mattered and I had always been convinced Sphere was it.
It was during my third year at the paper that I finally convinced Stewart to let me write an article on Sphere. As I headed to my first interview with Professor Ezra Lawrence, and sat watching my reflection in the dark strobe of the subway tunnel, I couldn't help but feel nervous. Finding a source who would speak to me about Sphere hadn't been easy.
I blinked, activating my interface, and scanned through the notes I'd taken on the professor. A generation ago, Lawrence had taught at NYU and been acclaimed for his work with Sphere. After the app was banned, he left the university and simply vanished from the public eye.
I checked his alumni feed again, but it still listed the same information: Resides at Lenox Hill Hospital.
"77th Street," a metallic voice said over the speakers as the train screeched to a halt.
I closed the files on Lawrence and glanced at the subway map. Lenox Hill was on the corner not far from the stop. The train doors opened and I hopped off, jogging up the subway stairs.
Before Stewart made editor, we were working with thought screens that had burnouts or cracks in them. To celebrate his promotion, Stewart’s parents provided funding to upgrade the newsroom's equipment. Now, we had the same tech they had at the New York Times: holographic screens in “True Definition,” which—when linked with an interface—seemed to find the words we were searching for, almost before we even knew we were thinking them.
I had been a freshman when the money came in, and after his family’s donation, Stewart acted like he owned us. Still, the paper’s interface-traffic stats were at their highest peak in a decade. We all knew what that would mean for our careers after we graduated, so we put up with him. He knew we would, too—that was the worst part.
As an editor, Stewart had my respect. Beyond that, I couldn't stand him. Born into the upper strata of extreme wealth, Stewart had received genetic coding as an embryo. It was pedigree protection, ensuring that he came out looking both perfect and boring: stone-cut jaw, thick black hair, instant metabolism, with no physical defects to speak of. Hell, he even had his hair trimmed twice each week at his private, in-house salon.
Earlier that morning, as I was about to leave for the interview, Stewart had walked up and just stood there for a minute without saying anything.
"What's up?" I asked.
"You're wearing that to the interview," he said.
It sounded like a critique, not a question.
I was dressed in a loose-fitting slate sweater and jeans. It was cold out and I looked awesome.
Stewart, on the other hand, was wearing a $6,000 Burberry top which was made for the runway, and a pair of gaudy, yellow slacks.
I ignored him, and Stewart rolled his eyes before turning around to berate Ryan—a freshman who sat across from me—about the quality of his latest basketball story.
It was clear with a cold breeze, and snow lingered in shadows along the street. As I walked, I watched cars silently zip about in their lanes far above my head.
When I arrived at the hospital lobby, I checked in and asked for Carol Grimes.
I glanced around while I waited, noting the quiet efficiency of the facility. Nurses bustled by, pushing around floating medical carts or supine patients hooked into fluid packs. Maybe it was just slow, but the hospital was nothing like you'd expect from the medical dramas: no shouting or sirens, no passionate moments shared between co-workers in the halls. Instead, there was only a calm, efficient stream of activity.
I turned when I heard my name.
We'd exchanged messages on the interface, but hadn't met in person. Carol was shorter than me by a few inches, with full, red cheeks, and brown hair tied up in a bun. Like the rest of the staff, she wore a light blue pair of scrubs and seemed tired.
As I followed her through the sterile, labyrinthine halls, she asked me a few questions about my majors in a practiced tone. I rambled a bit about my interest in journalism and neurotheory until we reached an open room, next to a colorful display of children's drawings.
Inside the room, an old man in a checkered gown sat upright, hooked to a monitor. Two chrome chairs were set out: one next to the bed and one in the corner beside the medical cart. Central Park lay a few blocks beyond the window. Its trees looked skeletal, naked and still in the winter light.
A vase of tired lilies rested on the windowsill, next to a framed photo of a woman outside a lighthouse. I wondered who she was. In all the research I'd done, I hadn't come across anything about the professor's family.
"I'll be here for the duration of the interview," Carol said. "Just in case."
I nodded and followed her in. The room smelled of antiseptic and cleaning fluid, and my shoes made a loud, pastelike sound as I crossed the floor.
"Mr. Lawrence, the young woman from the university paper is here."
The old man turned toward me. He had thin, white hair and pale brown eyes.
"The paper," he said, with a wry smile. "It's funny we still call it that. I was an undergraduate when NYU put out its last print edition."
"Some things stick, I guess. I'm Alison."
I reached out and he took my hand, but didn't squeeze.
His skin felt thin and brittle, and he winced as he spoke. At the same time, there was determination in his voice—as though he thought of his pain as a trifle that would pass, like a bad connection, or the crowd in a subway car nearing the end of the line.
"I was hoping to speak with you about your work," I said, taking a seat in the chair beside him.
"Why is that, exactly?"
I should have been prepared for the question—I'd had to justify myself to Stewart a hundred times already—but I hadn't expected it from Lawrence. He had spent his life working with Sphere. If anyone still believed it mattered, I'd thought it would be him.
"I'm studying Neurotheory," I said. "And your work with Sphere was important."
"Was," he said.
"I'm not a professor anymore," he snapped.
I glanced at Carol, who merely raised an eyebrow.
Lawrence took a deep breath, and when he spoke again, his tone was softer.
"We should get started," he said. "I've been putting an interview like this off for fsr too long."
I blinked and glanced at the notes I'd pulled up, projected beyond the surface of my eyes. Before, when I was drafting the questions, I'd decided not to lead off with Sphere. I couldn't dive straight in. I had to build him up to it first.
“Do you mind if I record this?” I asked.
“Not at all.”
"Tell me about the interface," I said. "You had one of the first models, didn't you?"
I navigated through a series of menus as I spoke and set my own interface to record the interview.
Lawrence told me about the state of technology prior to the interface: the media hysteria surrounding the device at its release and the harassment that first-adopters received.
"To have our heads cut open and a small, powerful computer implanted within, to have it always on, always present, controlled by thought alone—the neuro-interface changed everything. And that scared people."
"It didn't scare you?" I asked.
"Perhaps it should have," he said, rasping through the words. "But no, it didn't.”
Lawrence paused, taking a glass of water from the bed stand, hands shaking.
After he set it back down, he asked, “Are you close with your parents, Alison?"
I was. Though I had no siblings, our extended family was massive, with a sprawling network of cousins on my mother's side. Growing up, my parents had come to feel more like good friends to me than anything else, and the chaos that resulted from my father's story on AM had only pressed us closer.
"Sure," I said. "We talk most weeks, and I visit when I can."
"I wasn't," Lawrence replied, quietly. "It seemed they were always pushing me in a certain direction and I could do nothing but push back. I was in my second year at the university, sitting through a lecture on emerging technology, when the police showed up at our room. It was too late to make amends—my parents had been killed in a collision on the West Side Highway."
"I'm sorry," I said, reflexively.
"It was a long time ago," he said, dismissing my apology with a gesture. "But I didn't handle it well at the time. Synthetic stimulants were easy to find when I was young, and I used everything I could get my hands on. It kept me from feeling guilt, or sadness; from anything that would make me recognize what I had lost. But it also left me empty. And sent me down a dangerous path."
Lawrence placed a finger on one temple and smiled.
"The interface saved me."
"How?" I asked, leaving a timestamp on the quote.
"It was a different way to escape. A new distraction. To think through a series of commands and see the results in front of my eyes? I couldn't resist that."
"Did the drug use continue?"
"No. I made sure I was clean before undergoing surgery. Before the privacy laws, the DEA was rumored to be tapping biometric data. I was paranoid that the interface would identify an illegal substance in my bloodstream, and I’d be arrested."
"How did people react after you got the chip?"
"Poorly," Lawrence said, with a grunt. "Nothing about the interface was received well, at first—even at the university. Those of us who had undergone the procedure were treated like aberrations. In the beginning, there was a push to have us expelled—they said we'd use the interface to cheat on our exams."
That stood out to me, and I made a note of it in case I could work it into the article; after all, if the story didn't go viral, most of my readers would be students. These days, during tests, we have to switch our interface to “Exam Mode.” If we don’t, we aren’t allowed to participate. It was strange to imagine an era when that wasn't routine.
"Cheat?" he asked, with an amused expression. "Some may have. I didn't. After I discovered Sphere, everything else around me became background noise. Static. It was the only thing I cared about."
Now my heart skipped a beat, and I tagged the moment in my interface with the note: Sphere, first mention.
"What was it like?" I asked. "Sphere, I mean. I've read about it and my parents have told me stories, but you worked with it for so long. You must know it better than anyone."
The old man sighed.
"It was a program created by the engineers at Mind Bridge. When the interface was still in development, in user testing, the engineers discovered activity in a part of the brain that had been thought dormant. Sphere was a visual interpretation of those readings—and it was beautiful, like waves at sunset trapped in a glass ball. Still, to most users, Sphere was little more than a tech demo; a pleasant, accidental diversion.
"With Liquid Theory, I challenged that notion. I believed that filling a Sphere by reaching a perfect reading of ten meant finding equilibrium."
"You thought Sphere could predict the future," I blurted, cutting the professor off before I could stop myself.
If Lawrence thought there was truth to that rumor, no matter how small, I could have the story of a lifetime on my hands.
Lawrence shook his head.
"No," he said, firmly.
My face fell.
"It must be a disappointment to hear that," he said.
I blushed and tried to explain, but again he waved the apology away.
"There was a team at MIT looking into the possibility. That's where the talk came from, I suppose. Regardless, Sphere was banned before anything came of their research."
The professor squinted across the room, like he was trying to recall something, or dealing with a surge of discomfort.
"Are you feeling alright, Dr. Lawrence?" Carol asked, watching the professor's monitor.
He ignored her and pressed on:
"My own work was more intimate in scope: Consider a choice in Sphere, and study its effect on the waters of your mind. If the levels rise, and the numbers increase, it's a choice that brings you closer to equilibrium. If they fall, then it's a choice which shouldn't be made. The trials we conducted supported that much, at least."
"You lived your life like that?" I asked. "Making choices based on the readings within Sphere?"
Lawrence closed his eyes and didn't say anything for a moment. He just massaged his left temple where the interface had been implanted, decades before.
Carol stood up and stepped over to the screen beside his bed. She began scanning through his vitals, examining a series of charts and diagrams.
"That's enough for today," she said—but Lawrence spoke over her.
His words came in a strange, slurred voice.
He froze completely, then—mouth ajar, expression vacant.
I glanced at Carol, eyes wide, and then back to Lawrence.
"Professor?" I asked.
He didn't respond.
His face shifted color, taking on a faint blue pallor, and he made odd, gulping sounds.
Carol blinked. Within moments, hospital staff had crowded the room and I was escorted away. By then, it had gotten worse.
I stood there at the door, quivering.
I'd never seen anything like that. I hadn't been prepared for the way his body contorted and thrashed, or the noises that came, or the dark stain that spread across the sheets.
Finally, Carol met me in the hallway.
"What happened?" I asked.
"I'm sorry, you need to leave," she said.
I left and stood outside at the top of the hospital steps, watching the sky. Traffic swarmed about, catching the last of the sun. I blinked, and replayed the professor's words:
"The interface saved me."
At home, I showered, cooked dinner—pasta, from a box—and scooped a little onto my plate. The rest I stored in a container and put in the refrigerator with a note: “Classy Eats, For M.”
I tried not to think about the professor, but my appetite grew smaller with each bite. Restless, I scraped what I couldn't eat into the disposal and set my plate in the sink.
When Melissa came home around five, I had been sorting through my notes for more than an hour. She glanced at the large, bright screen on our wall, where I was pushing around words with my interface. "Shit" and "fucking hell" pulsed at the center, pressing fragments of the interview away.
Melissa set her sketchbook and paints down in the hall, and sat beside me on the couch.
"How'd it go?" she asked, kissing my cheek.
I powered off the screen with a thought and looked at her.
"Okay. At first. And then the professor had a seizure or something. I don't even know if he's alive right now."
"Geez," she said, wrapping me in her arms. "And I thought I had a crappy day."
I leaned into her and closed my eyes, losing myself in the warmth of Melissa's body—in the scent of acrylic paint and charcoal that followed her everywhere she went.
When we crawled into bed later, I couldn't sleep. I stayed awake, reading one of the professor's papers: Balance and Connection in the Sphere. The essay spoke about equilibrium—about time and the choices we make. There was a true sense of passion in those words, and it wasn't difficult to see why his work had once been such a success.
After I finished, I blinked and switched to the browser on my interface, searching for Sphere. Everything I found was the same as before: research papers, old news articles—information I already had.
And I needed something more than that.
Modifications to the neuro-interface aren't exactly legal, but they're not exactly illegal, either. If you break your brain, Mind Bridge won't be held liable, and so on.
Last year, there was a popular node going around that allowed access to the “dark” web. Most people used it to download movies or hack into cable streams. Anything you wanted could be found there; at least, that's what people said. The reality was that about half the content was loaded with malware, or was used as a front in a letter-agency sting. As a result, I'd only used the node once (to catch a show I really wanted to see, that I really didn't want to pay for), before deciding it wasn't worth the risk. And yet, if Sphere was still out there, that's where it would be.
I activated the node, heart pounding, and searched the dark web for Sphere.
It was easier to find than I thought. My antivirus blocked the first two results, but the third came back clean and I wondered how many people were still, illicitly, using Sphere. I downloaded the program, bit my lip, and watched as it flashed into the air, on my interface display.
Sphere was just like the old man had said: a translucent ball, filled with a luminous, shifting liquid, which seemed to change color as the small globe turned. A diagram to the right of the sphere displayed three numbers: 6.32.
I tried to remember how it worked. You thought of—what? Change? A choice you were considering?
To start, I took a deep breath and thought about the newspaper, and staying on through the end of college. The levels immediately began to flush and drain, and then, after a moment, the colors shifted. The vibrant tone was lost, altered to a dull gray, as the numbers on the right plummeted and came to rest at a few decimal points.
I cleared that thought from my mind. The waters rose, flushing with color, and were restored to their previous levels. The numbers flickered and wouldn't settle. They were restless, tossing along to the rhythm of so many silent waves.
It was impossible to sleep after that. I crept out of bed, careful not to wake Melissa, and opened our living room window. In the distance, I listened to the sirens—to the drunks pattering along in the street below—and considered choice after choice. I watched the waters surge and sink and crash against the walls of the globe, shifting across an endless spectrum of color.
"I'm going to need more time," I told Stewart the next morning in the newsroom.
"That wasn't the deal," he said. "I told you, if you get that story to me by Friday, I'll look it over and consider it. The key word being Friday."
"Alright, alright—let me see."
Stewart pulled up the issue layout on the thought screen in his office and shuffled some stories around. There was a large column blocked-out on the front page. He swiped through the layouts for the next few issues and then shook his head.
"We already have features planned for at least the next month. I'm not shifting any of those. If you want this story, deadline's still Friday."
"Look," I said, lowering my voice. "The professor pretty much had a heart attack in the middle of the interview. I just need a little more time—"
"Jesus," Stewart said, laughing, "you gave the old man a heart attack? What sort of questions were you asking?"
"It's really not funny," I snapped, biting back a few choice words and storming back to my desk.
Ryan had been at the coffee press, outside the open door to Stewart's office, and came to my desk as I sat down.
"Professor Lawrence had a heart attack?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said. "I think it was a seizure."
"I hope so. Honestly, it didn't look good."
"Damn. He and my dad were close. I'll let him know."
I stared at Ryan.
"Yeah," he said. "My dad was a professor here, back in the day. He taught neurotheory, just like Lawrence. I guess something happened between them. My dad doesn't like to talk about it much."
"Wait, why didn't you say anything when I petitioned for the story and Stewart was giving me shit?"
"You kidding?" Ryan said, nodding at Stewart's office. "Like he'd listen to me? I can't even get a basketball story right."
"You're fine," I said, with a scoff. "Stewart wouldn't know a good sports story if it smacked him in the face."
I pantomimed a basketball hitting Stewart, and Ryan chuckled.
For two days, I focused on my screen, thinking words onto the display and shoving them around. I had to get started on the story, but each time I wrote a sentence, I erased it, frustrated. At best, I had half an interview.
I was reaching and I knew it.
"Stewart's going to cut my story if I don't get it in by tomorrow," I said with a blink on Thursday, sending Melissa a text through my interface. "If he does, I'm not going back to Entertainment. I'll leave the paper first, I swear."
A minute later, she messaged me back.
"Babe. You can't. They'll fail you. You’re only there a few more months. Stick with it, okay? If everything's still that bad by the end of the semester, don't take the class again."
I grimaced, and didn't reply.
She always had to do that: minimize the issue. I wanted to be on the paper. But I wouldn't be taken for granted, either.
I was sitting on a stone bench on campus, about to chow down on the gyro I'd bought from a food truck, when my interface started buzzing. I didn't recognize the number, but answered the call anyway.
"Yep. Who's this?"
"Carol. From Lenox Hill Hospital."
I nearly dropped my sandwich.
"How is he?"
"Stable," she said. "For now."
There was a pause.
"Look, I advised against it—I don't think he needs the stress—but Dr. Lawrence was adamant. He wants to finish the interview. Can you come this afternoon? The sooner the better, I think."
I nodded, then realized I was nodding and found my voice.
"Yes, absolutely. I'll be there as soon as I can."
"I'll let him know." She closed the line.
I looked at my gyro, looked at the compost bin, cursed, tossed it in, and started heading for the subway.
"What's your angle on this story?" Carol asked, walking with me through the hospital.
"It's a retrospective," I said. "Lawrence was central to our understanding of Sphere, even though—"
"Even though it's banned, and no one teaches his theory anymore? Look. How would you feel if the one thing you'd given your life to didn't matter? And you're here to ask him how that feels? How do you think it feels?"
I didn't say anything. I could see her point. But it was so much more than that.
When we entered the room, Lawrence was lying on his side, facing away. I thought he might be sleeping, but he stirred as soon as we came in. The old man sat up, coughing a little. His head had been shaved and a long, thin wire was patched into the side of his skull, at the center of a half-circle scar.
Lawrence looked up with a warm expression.
His voice cracked as he spoke.
"She does," I said, and pulled up the chair next to him. "How are you?"
"Me?" he asked, grinning. "Oh, just fine."
"Look," I said, "I'll understand if you don't want to talk about it, but what happened Monday?"
Lawrence gestured at the fresh scar.
"Before, I told you that the interface saved my life," he said. "I suppose it's fitting that it's ending it as well. There's a growth surrounding the chip. The interface should have detected that, early on. For whatever reason, it didn't. Now it's inoperable."
"There's nothing they can do?" I asked. "No alternative treatment?"
He looked at me, tilting his head to one side.
"I'm old, Alison. If it wasn't this, it would be something else. I've accepted that."
There was an article I had read once, which detailed the effects of the interface on its first users: the emissions had caused tumors, cancer. The newer models, the ones we all had now, were supposed to be shielded from that sort of radiation. And yet, I couldn't help but wonder if I would be in the same place in forty years. They had to say it was safe, didn't they? They'd said the same thing about lab grown meat, too.
"So," he said, "remind me: where did we leave off?"
I opened my mouth, trying to remember.
"You told me about your theory," I said. "How you had based your choices on Sphere."
"Ah," he smoothed the blanket over his legs. "I was going to tell you about my wife, Frances. We met when she was a student in one of my classes."
"You scoundrel," I said, and he laughed.
"I know what you're thinking—but I didn't have many opportunities to meet a partner. I was so caught up in my work. When Frances delivered her final paper, I found myself reading an uncompromising critique of my theory. In her paper, she argued that Sphere was dangerous—that I was mad to make choices based on an application which we still didn't fully understand. How could I ignore that?
"Once the semester ended, I invited Frances to discuss her paper over a drink, and our conversation quickly strayed. We had a great deal in common, both having lost our parents at a relatively young age. And her eyes—"
Lawrence paused, and for a moment I was afraid he was going to convulse again. But he straightened up and gestured at the photo on the windowsill.
"She was like no one else I had ever met. If you could have seen the levels of my Sphere, then."
The old man met my eyes, and smiled.
"It was like a hurricane," he said, strongly and clearly. "And I swear, at one point, it was filled."
"What happened?" I asked.
He leaned back, watching the ceiling fan as it rotated above the bed.
"What happens to most relationships over time? We had our good years. But..."
A look of pain crossed the old man's face, and his voice faltered, growing soft, distant.
"After we married, I promised her that I would stop making choices based on Sphere. I continued my work, but didn't allow the program to direct my life.
“However, I still kept a log of my readings, and after a while, couldn’t help but be alarmed when my levels began to plummet. As they fell, I struggled to understand why—I'd thought I was happy. Over the next year, I considered everything, and studied my Sphere like I was trying to halt an epidemic. There was only one word that caused the waters to surge upward: divorce."
Lawrence turned again to the photo, then lowered his eyes.
"Frances seemed relieved when I suggested it. It was like she hadn’t been able to breathe for a very long time. Looking back now, my mistakes aren't difficult to see. But isn't that the nature of time? Everything seems clear when you’re not in the thick of it—when everything isn’t collapsing all around you.
"I took a sabbatical after the divorce, and began to write again, with the intent of returning to my position at the university in the fall. My timing couldn't have been worse; everything fell apart for Sphere, after that."
"You're referring to the Kyle Crosby murders?" I asked. I had been a child when the case was in the news—too young to have an interface of my own or to understand what was happening. Still, my parents had believed in Sphere and in the good Sphere could do. I remember the look of shock they wore and how they spoke in whispers. They kept the screen locked to my favorite channel, instead of the news, for several weeks. It was only later, after I was older, that I researched the case on my own and understood.
Lawrence sank back down a bit in the bed. He seemed preoccupied with the sheets.
"Yes. In the end, there were twelve victims. He showed no remorse during the trial. Crosby said only that he considered each murder within his Sphere, and always the waters rose. He said he had followed his levels, like everyone else."
"Did you feel responsible?"
"I was horrified. To have my work taken and twisted like that, to such an end—"
The old man clenched and unclenched his fists, pulling the sheets tight around his waist.
"But it was a lie. After Crosby was executed, they dug out his neuro-interface and analyzed the data. He had only activated Sphere a handful of times. There was little evidence to support that the murders were truly a result of the program, or my theory. But by then, it didn't matter; my career was over. Everyone was afraid there would be copycats. A bill was passed, and Sphere was no more.
"Without Sphere, I could no longer understand why I had I chosen my work over Frances. I was lost, and felt that I had nothing left. I just...I needed to see her again."
The old man looked impossibly frail, then, and I thought he might be finished speaking. I waited. Eventually, he said:
"It would be easier if I showed you."
He closed his eyes and I watched as they fluttered about beneath the surface. A few seconds later, a notification began to flash on my interface. Lawrence had sent me a memory. I hesitated, then opened the file.
The hospital disappeared.
Somewhere, a dial tone was buzzing. It was a moment before I was able to process the fact that I was somewhere else, looking through the professor's eyes.
Frances answered on the wall-cam. She was older than she had been in the photo—beautiful, in a quiet sort of way, with green eyes and graying blonde-hair. Watching the reflection in her eyes, I thought of kelp swaying in the morning tide.
"Ezra," she said, looking at me—at Lawrence, I mean—almost like a stranger. "What on Earth..."
"I missed you," I replied, in the old man's voice.
Frances didn’t say anything, just shook her head, her mouth opening a little. I began to take stock of the room: sunny, with a wide view of the ocean, and a stone counter. Was she still in San Francisco? Behind her, a flotsam of small, colorful blocks lay strewn across the wooden floor.
"Mommy," someone said, somewhere out of view. Frances bent down, lifting a blonde, wisp-haired child in her arms.
"I’m hungry," the boy said, in a pleading tone.
I gaped at this small person. The child stared back with one stubby finger locked in his mouth.
"Ezra, this is my son. His name is Alan."
I didn’t know what to say. I only had the sense that I didn't belong anywhere, anymore.
The stream ended and the hospital appeared around me again. Lawrence was propped up in the bed across from me, studying his hands. I had only opened a memory once before, years ago, and had forgotten what it was like. My mouth was dry and I felt like crying or throwing up. Maybe both.
"I think about all my theories of balance," Lawrence said, in a resigned voice, "and I understand now that it was the basic principle I had wrong. I thought Sphere was a map to equilibrium. But there are no maps to this life. I should have listened to Frances when she wrote that paper for my class. The levels and readings are aftershocks. Solar flares of the mind. They mean nothing."
"You don't believe that," I said.
"I don't? Tell me Alison, why wouldn't I? Sphere brought me to Frances. And yet, I followed Sphere so blindly that I pushed her away. What was the point?"
I glanced at Carol. Her mind was elsewhere, eyes flitting about, focused on her interface.
"How do you know that wasn't the right choice?" I asked.
He narrowed his eyes and started to speak, then didn't.
Biting my lip, I leaned closer and said, in a hush:
"I downloaded it. Last night. I fell asleep watching my Sphere."
Lawrence was quiet for a minute.
"Why?" he whispered.
"To understand. To see what you saw."
"And what did you see?" he asked, impatient.
"Beauty. Change. Possibility. I don't know. It felt like it was telling me something important about the choices in my life, no matter how difficult they are to make. You said that Frances hadn't been happy for a long time, right? What if it had been the right choice for you, at that moment?"
Lawrence didn't respond right away. He just looked at me like he was considering something.
"Can I ask you something, Alison?" he said, in a grave tone.
"Of course. Anything."
"Don't write the story."
I stared at him, stunned.
"You're kidding," I said, with a nervous laugh. "Right?"
"I'm not. You're chasing a dead theory, Alison. And I'm asking you to learn from my mistakes."
It's strange the things you notice, when your world shifts in an instant: the sound of someone's feet as they thunder past in the hall, or how the light changes everything when it's fading, so the lines on an old man's face look like trails in the sand.
For a long while, neither of us spoke.
"It's getting late," Carol said finally; gently.
I nodded, flustered, and stood.
"It was good to meet you, Professor Lawrence," I said, unable to think of anything else to tell him.
He didn’t reply.
That night, I'd been curled up on the couch for hours, lost in Sphere. At first, I didn't notice Melissa was home. When I did, she was sitting on the opposite end of the couch, eyes narrowed—not quite glaring—just watching me like I'd forgotten her birthday or something.
"You're acting strange," she said. "Did something happen today?"
"What?" I asked, blinking and bookmarking my place in one of the professor's papers. "No. Not really. Well..."
"Yeah," she said. "I'm getting you a drink."
At the edge of my interface, the waters of Sphere tossed and shifted, changing from violet to velvet, from an earthy green to a deep swelling sea blue.
Melissa came back with two glasses of Bourbon, half full, and handed one to me.
"So, she said, "tell me about no-not-really-well."
I massaged the small scar on my temple where the interface had been fitted when I was a child, and told her everything the professor had said—how he'd asked me not to write the story.
"You could still write it, you know," she said, making a face at the whiskey as she sipped. "Are you going to?"
I stared at the bottom of my glass, watched the liquid shift and took a slow breath. The fumes burned as they flooded my sinuses, lashing at the space behind my eyes.
"Look, don't freak out, but I think I have something that’s better than the story."
"Allie," she said, giving me a sharp look. "What do you mean ‘don’t freak out?’ What are you talking about?"
I cleared my throat and pushed a stray lock of hair behind one ear.
"You know those dark nodes we picked up last year? I kind of used mine last night to find a copy of Sphere."
Melissa groaned, and finished the rest of her Bourbon.
"You're crazy," she said. "You know that, right? I mean, the amount of trouble you could get in if someone found out..."
I nodded, glumly.
She set her glass on the table, with a sigh.
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," I said, tipping over and resting my head in her lap. "I just know an article in the school paper isn't the answer."
The professor himself had given up on his theory; if I wrote about that, what good would it do? Who would care? In my interface, I went back to Sphere, and thought about abandoning the story. At the same time, I thought about and finding a way to challenge the ban, so that I could pursue Sphere through Neurotheory, like Lawrence once had. I watched its waters shift and surge. It was like they were trying to climb the walls—like they were trying to burst through and flood across this world.
The next morning, when I walked into the newsroom, Stewart was hovering over a cluttered layout screen in his office. He looked up and waved me over.
"You're in luck," he said as I entered, closing the door behind me, "Cara's out with strep and I don't have an alternate feature lined up for next week. If you still need time on your story, I'll give you the weekend."
"Uh," I said, "how would you feel if I got you a really great feature on cats instead?"
I stole a glance at my Sphere. Every moment, the levels grew.
"So, there's this new breed, right, and apparently they glow. In the dark, you know? It's a natural mutation, so it's PETA approved and everything."
"That's old news. Ancient. Alison, what are you talking about? What about the story on Sphere? You've been fighting me on this for weeks."
I braced myself and plowed ahead.
"I'm not going to write it," I said. "I changed my mind. And, well, the professor asked me not to."
Stewart's face was completely blank.
"Also," I said, wincing a bit. "I've decided to shift back to a single major in Neurotheory. This isn't the place for me. I'm not a journalist, Stewart. I was always chasing after my dad. But it's not for me. I'll finish out the semester, but...Stewart?"
He just stood there, staring, saying nothing.
I glanced at Sphere. The waters rose in a swell: green and lush one moment, deep and red the next—then both at once, like dye or sand, mixing through the waves.
I've seen Stewart chew out a student plenty of times. It's sort of his default state. I've never seen him completely silent, though. He always has a quip, a sharp remark, some rebuke. That's how he is.
Honestly, the silence was a little terrifying. And yet, at the same time, I couldn't help but laugh.
I guess that's what set him off.
When I started laughing, Stewart exploded. He began yelling, cursing like I'd never heard anyone curse.
Turning to his office window, I just ran my eyes over the newsroom and smiled. Ryan was the only one who seemed to notice. I caught Ryan’s eye, and felt my grin spread wider. He returned it.
In the months that would follow, I'd come to miss the newsroom: all that tension in the air—the scent of coffee lingering in every corner.
As Stewart listed all the things that would happen to me—the failing grade I'd receive, the academic probation—I watched my Sphere. The waters churned like fire, and the numbers tossed around like a tally-counter possessed.
And the whole time, I just kept smiling.
After that, I went straight to the hospital. I'm not sure why. I guess I wanted to tell the professor what I had decided: that I'd made my choice. I believed in his work, even if he himself no longer did.
Carol intercepted me as I was headed down the hall.
"Alison," she said, "what are you doing here?"
"I was hoping to talk to him again."
She raised an eyebrow.
"Follow-up questions?" I hazarded.
"I'll have to check," she said. "And you'll have to come back another time. He has a visitor right now."
She pointed at his room and I peered through the small glass opening in his door.
Her hair was fully grey and I could only see the side of her face, but I recognized her. Frances sat beside the old man, holding his hand. Lawrence was grinning and his cheeks were wet. It was the first time I'd seen her, outside of the photo or the memory. It felt strange: like I was seeing an old friend for the first time in years, though it had only been a day since the stream.
"It's fine," I said to Carol. "No need."
As I left, everything felt possible. Everything felt open and alive.
Melissa was standing in our living room at the easel, working on a new landscape. She cleaned her brush and put it away as I walked over to her.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. "I thought you had class."
"You are beautiful," I said, kissing her. "I won't ever forget that, or how important you are to me."
She offered a worried look.
"Don't tell me you're about to propose."
"Shut up," I said, laughing.
I kissed her again and pulled her away from her painting, into our room, closing the door behind us and turning off the light.
In the darkness, I pulled up my Sphere and watched the levels combust. As they crashed along the walls, I began to think about the fire in the waves.
I thought about what I had learned, and would, from the waters of my mind.
Gary Emmette Chandler works from his apartment in Portland as a copywriter and web developer, mostly in pajamas, with a cat nibbling at his leg. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Bastion, Pantheon, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. You can follow his hungover ramblings on Twitter @TheWearyLuddite, if you like.