Short Story: “Parallel University”

This story has been inspired, in equal measure, by the most recent phase of my life, i.e., returning to study, and also stuff about scientific phenomena (think Tesla) which I’ve been reading up on. This whole thing was prompted by – honestly – a typo. I was meant to write “Parallel Universe” so here you go:

An stressed student in an unknown discipline, who has been better and been worse, is the unwitting subject of a scientific experiment in which everything has flipped to the opposite side…


Parallel University

Ellie woke up unusually early on the Thursday morning. Perhaps it was the premature anticipation of the end of the day, which resulted in her body clock resetting itself, just to double-check that the end of the day – and the “student weekend” (usually mid-day Thursday) – was in fact nigh, waiting. Plenty of sleep to come, but for now the remainder of the working week was worth enduring.

She got out of bed, did some stretching (which could be considered as T’ai Chi at a stretch (last bad joke I promise)), then switched onto auto-pilot for the daily routine of washing/dressing/preparing for the day. One quick glance of emails and the uni website, to check no deadlines had been missed during her hibernation, no notification unchecked and no uni buildings had burned down, and one (two) cursory glances at social media to see who had posted a crucial update on this or that thing on “Chatterboxe”, then forgetting her breakfast (MOST IMPORTANT MEAL OF THE DAY!) yet again, she was en-route to the place of learning. (Maybe grab an apple from the local shop in passing, not wanting to be a total dietary failure.)

With 15 minutes to spare, that whole rushing-for-the-bus not being totally necessary, Ellie ended up sitting behind the tst-tst-tst of some guy with questionable music taste, but otherwise she never noticed anything unusual when she finally reached her destination. There was no reason to notice anything different on this occasion; no-one ever looks where they’re going, only where they’re going, if one can tell the difference.

She approached the “usual place”, the entrance to the main building, and it took Ellie an embarrassing amount of time to realise that she had just walked into a place which was basically the same as the one she knew and loved (some of the time) but somehow… not the same. The first she knew of this came about with her walking right into the glass pane of the door which was normally on the other side.

“Is something wrong?” asked the only person with whom she had communicated that day, and who appeared not to have witnessed Ellie making an unwitting beeline for the door made partly of a glass pane. The university was back-to-front and upside down – of course, something was a bit wrong. But there was an image to maintain, one of self-assurance and one of not being insane. So she chose to reply: “Nope! Everything’s hunky-dory and tickety-boo! The birds are swaying and the trees are singing!”

“OK then…” The person makes to shuffle away elsewhere.

The truth was that she hadn’t even begun to fully process what might have been truly amiss that day, walking along campus from A to B just like every other time. Although the first clue lay with the guy –Brian, she thought his name was most likely to be, on account of it being stitched onto his backpack in squinty lettering – who usually sat on the art-deco bench in the “green area”, with his first coffee of the day; his antidote to whatever he may encounter during his own personal experience of the day, therefore it was a cherished routine which had not gone unnoticed even by Ellie, normally residing in a world of her own.

What was different today – it took Ellie a while to notice, as mentioned before – was that the label on the “Revolucion” coffee which the guy nursed pensively every day before class in the “green area” was back-to-front and upside down – like a mirror image – although the upside down detail didn’t in this case make any sense. Mirrors don’t tend to turn things upside down. Do they..?

Ellie might ordinarily have been too busy to care or even notice a slight – OK noticeable – change in corporate logo of another person’s coffee, but today, for some reason, there was something different in the atmosphere. Something tangible.

And today, this did give her pause for contemplation, for about a minute, before Ellie realised that, glitch or no glitch in the Matrix, she also had a class to go to (very slightly late) and an assignment deadline looming. Ellie decided to check her phone as this is what people tend to do now when people don’t know what else to do, or what to appear to be doing, so that’s what happened here. No messages on her phone – quelle surprise. :O

It was 8am and she was not the life and soul of the place. This would also not change the fact that “Revolucion” now read something like… whatever Revolucion spelt in reverse and back-the-way would look like. But upside down, but I can’t really write an upside down word here. Again – why would a mirror image also be upside down? And only *some* of the time? That made no sense even to science virgin Ellie.

Then other weird things soon began to make themselves known. The dog she passed while walking distractedly to class (already dreading what topsy-turvy chaos was waiting) also barked, not an unusual thing in and of itself of course, but this bark was unlike any the Ellie had heard in her life. It may be true that mongrels make for as great a variety of barks as of appearance, but this was in another league. It was like “BAUWHOOOOOoooooooo” – which may look like a bog-standard howl on the page but you really needed to be there.

Things only began to escalate in their weirdness, until it was just a great big ball of odd, slowly but surely unravelling. She was still clinging to the hope that the whole day up until now was the remaining ethereal aftermath of a lucid dream, perhaps one of being trapped in a mirror image. |www|

“What the hell is going on?!?” Ellie finally mustered the wherewithal to cry, only noticing after a few seconds (delayed reaction becoming a theme) that her speech was one of the few things not affected by this whole reverse thing. A bit more quickly, it dawned on her that not only what she could see might be affected by this… thing, but also, probably, possibly, time. Could time be reversing too? Or going in some other, unknown, direction?

Suddenly, Ellie could feel a slight magnetic pull, as if she were being lured, ever so slightly, towards something… Something to do with magnetism, maybe look into this more, if only the library were not in completely the wrong direction (and possibly upside down) in this strange new parallel universe… Can magnetism even cause this type of phenomenon?

Also; who was to say what whatever weird thing was going on in the science lab was also not experiencing the effects of this flipped-around universe? Still, it was time to at least try investigating. Curiosity, or impatience at still not knowing what the hell was going on, was getting the better of Ellie. It usually did before long.

Then another thought crept in – Was Ellie possibly *gaining* time which s/he had long since consigned to the crap pile of history? Not to let thoughts run too quickly in the wrong direction, she decided, first to try out life in this universe. An average day, if you like. In a university where, for once, time was actually on her side. “Could do with a cuppa Revolucion”, she inevitably ended up thinking. “That is if it’s still the approximate time Ellie believed it then to be…

Then the notion, taking the same amount of time, began to subside, until she thought she could probably wait until later, like when she got home. But now, to business, and to find out just what on this strange new earth was going on. Before something more drastic happened than being unnerved by a backwards logo on a cup of takeaway coffee. Like the unfolding of the very fabric of the universe, into something incomprehensible. Like a black hole.

Sighing, she began thinking, “How little I understand science, thinking that black holes can unfold like a napkin. I really should have paid more attention in science class, even though it was unbearably boring. If this type of situation here had been cited as a possible outcome, there might have been that bit more incentive.”

This was turning out to be a most unusual day, which Ellie would normally have welcomed as a change from the Groundhog Day which her life was swiftly becoming. Still, it wouldn’t be easy to remember to mentally flip everything around and mistakes would inevitably be made.

Ellie was only just beginning to adjust to this strange new world when she noticed the memorial plaque in the “green area”, which had not succumbed to the many changes occurring around the foreseeable place. This was rather more inconsistent than a mirror image… which indicated to Ellie that there was a glitch somewhere in this thing. It was not a complete transformation, so there was still a chance to reverse the process… if only s/he could get to the source. “What is even going on?” thought Ellie. “What department could even help with this sort of thing?”

With nothing else for it for the time being, Ellie decided to sit on the bench where Brian,  drinking his reliable *********** coffee had just been, going in the complete opposite direction to where Ellie knew he was meant to be going. “Smogging 101 is on the opposite end of the campus, dude…”

She sat down and pulled out her phone, half-dreading what ‘state the phone would be in. Again this is where Ellie spotted another inconsistency – some of the letters were jumbled, but not quite enough to render it illegible. This must be how it feels to have dyslexia, Ellie thought with a growing sympathy for those who struggled with uni (and probably had done all through school too) and who would also be largely deprived of the joy of skimming through book after  book on the sofa of an afternoon with relative ease. Ellie decided to check a bunch of papers in her bag, for the purposes of comparison, surprised she failed to think of this earlier, and found that they too were jumbled, but only partially. Still it was enough to cause concern, leading Ellie to begin wondering whether she had in fact suffered some kind of nocturnal brain damage.

Maybe it was silly to believe that this was an external, objective event which was of course affecting everyone else. There was a slight seed of doubt in her mind, however, because surely she would have felt something, sensed something, inside that something was wrong?

Not quite resigned to this new state of affairs, but not quite as ready to investigate the thing as she thought, Ellie continued sitting on the bench, not entirely reassured by the graffiti which was largely illegible and not a reliable indicator of language was it was mostly decorative.

After a few minutes, Ellie looked up again, purely by chance making eye contact with a pair of funny-looking men in the middle distance – a scientist and an arty type – who then swiftly turned and ran in the opposite direction… Obviously this roused Ellie’s suspicion, and now felt there was more to all this… was it a conspiracy? They say just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re  not out to get you. They usually are. They’re out to get me, thought Ellie, well felt it more like. After a second or two of static indecision, Ellie kicked herself into action and followed the two people.

When she reached the top of the hill, hoping to see them on the way down, there, almost out of sight, were the two men darting inside a building which Ellie had erstwhile overlooked during her time at the uni; one of them, the science-y one, casting the must furtive glance in Ellie’s direction before disappearing inside.

Ellie had no idea whether she should follow them in, when she wasn’t even sure of the way back out again, and was reminded of Alice following the white rabbit down that infamous hole… OK, this could actually lead to an explanation to this whole thing. Guess I’m going in…

The inside of the building was not exactly what she was expecting, but then she was not sure how she was expecting it to be. Ellie only managed to get in because there happened to be a wooden wedge in the door, perhaps accidentally left there. Whoever left it there was clearly not overly concerned about the potential top-secrecy of the place. The corridor was plain, with a faint chemical scent but only a tinge, the lights flickering as if they too were not sure if she should even be there.

She listened for any noise that might indicate what to do or which door out of the many to take. She soon only heard a faint murmuring, and as she walked further down, in a bid to locate the source, she was aware that the hairs all over her body were standing on end, to attention, as if they were being pulled by subtle force in every direction. She was closing in, feeling a pull extending to the rest of her body, and now her mind too, which was magnetic she was sure, but not enough to be very noticeable if not already hyper-aware.

It was then that along the walls she saw diagrams, which to the untrained eye (such as that of Ellie) did not mean anything, but she knew they must mean something. The wall was almost reflective and not hanging around long enough to dwell too long on its substance she came to… not a door or a wall but some other kind of entry point to somewhere else, where she could see movement darting behind what I took to be a partition. The movement stopped abruptly – as much as it had started back at the “green area” at the beginning of the chase, then she heard the first clear word from the other side – “Damn!”

Then – “we know you’re there, you might as well come in…” So she made to, but realised then she wasn’t quite sure how, so she approached slowly, the partition fading until she came to and then passed the threshold and – that is when she noticed the most distinct change. A return to a normal atmosphere. Then before her, pausing to look where she was now, including the scientist and the arty type, were quite a motley crew of people.

Most of them she was not expecting to find in this type of environment, or even be allowed to come into such a highly secure building. One of them in particular, she probably wouldn’t even be comfortable being left alone with at a party, with a 50/50 estimate that this would be the guy talking about sacrificing himself around the world – pyre-surfing, which is apparently the new “thing” – in order to gain life experience.

It felt like a long time – it probably was a long time – before anyone said anything, and the only thing Ellie could think of to say was something like “Hiiiii……..” Mercifully, someone broke the silence, but Ellie couldn’t make out all of what the guy was saying. It was the arty-type: “This is an experimental project, and it seems like you caught on sooner than we expected you to. You’re a sharp one.”

Ellie didn’t feel very sharp then, quite the opposite, and couldn’t be totally sure if the guy had a correspondingly low opinion of her intelligence. She suspected that she was at least the most normal-intelligence person in the room, and that dress sense does not indicate potential in any way here. Ellie still did not know what to say, but opened her mouth anyway in the interest of saying something: “So… what’s going on? What’s been happening today…?” One person pitched in, who Ellie couldn’t quite see: We’re working on something a little outside of a regular curriculum, in no fixed department or field of study, so we haven’t been broadcasting the project we’ve come together to work on…”

“But why has it – this thing – been happening to me- has it been happening to anyone else?”

“In theory it’s been happening to everyone but evidently you’re the only one who has noticed anything out of the ordinary. The thing is though we had a feeling you would be one of the most likely to notice so we made you a focal point – a variable – of the study… er, we mean performance… or something.”

All this would inevitably and not surprisingly not help Ellie to feel less like someone was out to get her, or even just watching, spying. But what was this, science or performance? “Is anyone else… apart from all of you here… in on this whole thing?” Ellie thought it sensible to enquire. “Surprisingly, no. Well actually, since most people, potential candidates for the “variable”, were already on campus to begin with, or in the general vicinity of the university, hardly anything was deemed to be out of the ordinary.

“*Maybe* one or two have noticed something amiss, but as you have been the only one to actually pursue the root of the problem, it just goes to show that there was not that much of a difference, to subtle for the majority of people to be bothering with on a weekday morning.” Ellie recalled the dude with the cuppa “…………” who got up from his seat in the “green area” and walked in completely the wrong direction, and now the sheer oblivion of virtually everyone to this “phenomenon”, however short-lived it ended up being, was all the more striking. It was quite possible that the poor backwards-barking dog from earlier on knew full well that something was going on…

“So…” the arty type – no wait a minute, this was someone else now, a mildly geeky-looking young woman, who could have been from literally any department in the whole university – spoke up for the first time, “was it an interesting experience?”

Ellie was not sure. She was not quite registering the fact that this wasn’t some anxiety-induced dream from which she would awaken groggily at any minute. At least she wasn’t going mad, or developing a worrying health condition, or anything. But it had certainly made things a bit more… out of the ordinary.

“Yes I guess so… you could say it was interesting” she conceded with slightly strained politeness, trying to mask the vague disappointment and annoyance at being deliberately deceived for the best part of what was meant to be a productive morning.

The clock struck one. Lunchtime. At least for those without deadlines looming like blankets of sealed fate.

No way would anyone have noticed anything unusual now – checking their phones and talking/bitching to other people – had the whole thing not been “powered down”, leaving only an insignificant-looking prototype of the “mirror image” which had enveloped Ellie, the campus, the institution, the morning, for a relatively brief period of time. Now, however, it would not even matter, and it was then that Ellie decided to try asking if this would be an ongoing occurrence.

But then, just as quietly, decided not to, because it was all too much to recover from it all happening once, and at the very least, she needed to decide if she would want to be fully aware of it happening again, or would prefer to ignore it the next time…

“Listen, we’re meant to be keeping this “low-key”, so if we could all just pack up and call it a day, we can try again. Next time, we’ll have to more carefully hone the environment and our collective technique…” “But thanks for being not a drama queen about the whole thing. Sorry to have spooked you for a while, but you’re quite welcome to participate some other time. Let’s exchange email addresses and we’ll put you on the exclusive mailing list for the “art/science – what the $&%£ are you?!” that’s upcoming.”

Ellie complied with all this in silence, and then politely followed the group of people out of the building, not quite the same way she had come. They all went their separate ways, and there was no easy way of telling if their directions would have been any different had everything not just flipped back from the mirror image only two minutes ago. It was no longer a parallel universe, or the microcosm of one. Was it even really anything?

Ellie kept looking for signs that the experiment was still “on”, but none were forthcoming. Writing it all off as a dream was the only way she could go through the motions of the day, until she could sit in the “green area” – the next best thing to going home – and pause to see if anything was still “off-key, or in reverse. Ellie began wondering, if this happens again, just how far will this parallel universe go, when it is more than just a “parallel university”? Will time itself go in reverse, for real this time? Did it actually go in reverse, at any stage, when it happened there? Did I just lose or gain time?

She decided that all she could really hope for was some kind of warning the next time. Now, after some more pausing and wondering, it was time to go home.

A few weeks later, with nothing more out of the ordinary happening, still no correspondence from the “experiment people” pinged into Ellie’s attention panorama. She was busy working on a paper and trying to fend off the encroaching temptation to watch stuff online until she had gotten a minimal amount of writing done.

In fact, after about five minutes, like clockwork, Ellie’s mind began to wonder, thinking about how stupid it was to say “maybe some other time” to the potential date which she could’ve had a week ago. Sure, it was sudden… out of the ordinary, even, but what reasonable reason was there really, apart from the fact that Ellie was convinced, for some reason, that it wasn’t quite the right timing… who knows when she would get another chance?

It was about then that the letters started to flicker on the screen… or did they? Ellie kept blinking but it kept happening, but only just enough to make Ellie wonder if it was really happening and no more. Finish the passage.

Just before the end of the passage, the clock struck one. Lunchtime. Maybe. It depends if there’s a deadline lurking on the horizon.

It was then, there, after the chiming (an antique) had receded only a few seconds ago, that Ellie felt the urge to look in the mirror, to look at how she was handling the effects of this strange occurrence during her unsuccessful studying session, to reprimand herself for not saying “Sure!” instead of a lame “maybe some other time”, but in a corner of her mind, a growing curiosity, to see if anything would look different in the mirror, in her very reflection… everything flipped round the other way. Again. In reverse. Ellie had a tentative look to try to see something, and decided that she would be ready to give the parallel university another spin. If only should this mean that she would be more able to seize the day this time. For once.

“You have a new message Ellie!”


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