Out of Her Universe
by Jacqueline Diamond
A unique blend of science fiction thriller and alternate history exploration
Outside the anthropology building, Carlos Brujo was heading for his car when a young woman, hair askew and face bright, hurried from the adjacent arboretum. Her book bag bumped the sign that read, “Off limits to students and visitors.”
Beneath it, a smaller notice warned, “Danger! Corona Anomaly may damage small electronics.”
Naturally, she whipped out her cell phone. If you were going to ignore one alert, you might as well trash both of them.
“Hey!” Carlos waved at her in annoyance. It had been a long day trying to teach inattentive undergraduates the mind-bending subject of anomalous anthropology. Although only thirty-four years old, he felt about ninety around most students. “Put that away.”
“Isn’t it safe here? I was just going to call my…oh, Professor Brujo! You have to see this!”
Although the girl had apparently recognized him, the spectrist—whose title was an arch contraction of synergy specialist--didn’t recall her from any of his classes. Long hair, round face, straight teeth--that description fit half the girls and a good percentage of the boys. He sometimes suspected that the same students circulated through Grovener University year after year, changing only their names and, not often enough, their clothes.
“There’s a rainbow,” she hurried on. “It’s the weirdest thing! This little arc’s sitting right on the ground. You can pass your hand through it!”
“Did you?” he asked, his pulse speeding. This could be far more significant than he dared let on.
Fascinated by any addition to his secret store of knowledge, he said, “Did it hurt?”
“I got lightheaded. Is that normal?”
Yes. “You’re probably coming down with a cold.” Carlos struggled to keep his tone bland. Until he knew more, no sense getting worked up, especially in front of a student.
Who’d just spotted a rainbow that might mark the return of the phenomenon the professor had longed to see the entire four years he’d filled his post at Grovener U here in Escondido Heights, California. Hell, after a decade-long hiatus, even the inner circle that knew about the pirisma was beginning to believe it might never show up. Now, apparently, the arcane entity that defied the known laws of physics had left its calling card, a small visible reminder that it had crossed between parallel universes.
The pirisma was an enigma wrapped inside a mystery stuffed into a–oh, some damn thing like that. No one had succeeded in portraying the unpredictable quantum transport with precision, although previous spectrists had tried, in their top-secret reports. Dazzling and radiant…I felt as if it was reading my mind… They’d agreed that it usually took the shape of a parallelogram, and had chosen a name indicative of its mysterious qualities. With a nod to California’s Spanish heritage, the term pirisma derived from the Spanish words prisma, or prism, and pira, or pyre, as in the funeral pyre on which the legendary phoenix incinerated itself and was reborn.
To Carlos, the thing sounded both magical and parlous in the wonderful old-fashioned sense of running unimaginable risks in the name of adventure, something he was eager to do.
“Did you take a picture?” A slim chance, but worth exploring.
She made a face. “I tried. It didn’t show up.”
No one had succeeded in capturing an image of the thing yet. In this case, Carlos was glad, due to the risk that the student might post it on the Internet. “Where exactly did you see it?”
“I’ll show you.” Sticking the phone in her pocket, the girl trotted back past the sign.
“Wait! Leave that…” Too late. And as long as they were breaking rules, Carlos held onto his own phone as he loped after her. He might need it.
Despite being short, she moved fast. Also, she cut between the paths. Must be a freshman who hadn’t yet encountered the university’s truculent horticulturalist, Bjorg Bensen.
They skirted the greenhouse. Like the rest of the arboretum, it was noted, or notorious, for its plants of unknown provenance, which were off limits to scientists outside the university staff. Occasionally, a blogger mentioned rumors of ancient ferns, carnivorous hybrids and uncatalogued species of butterfly, but without evidence, these tales meant nothing.
They were, in fact, true, although the Operation Intersect records failed to account for how those items had arrived here. Nor did they offer more than a clearly bogus explanation for the pair of ancient temple columns past which the student raced. What about the stone tablet marked with hieroglyphics, and the conical sandstone tower bearing Hindu carvings? They had simply appeared here over the years, apparently brought secretly via the pirisma.
Carlos suspected that Bjorg Bensen and his predecessor had somehow managed this incredible feat. After all, how could they have resisted the urge to go exploring? If the phenomenon had returned, he too might finally get the chance.
“There!” The girl pointed triumphantly to a tiny rainbow half-hidden beneath the fronds of a sword fern. In the filtered sunshine of the late October afternoon, its colors glowed with surreal brilliance. “It’s still there. Have you ever seen anything like it?”
Jesus, Mary and…at the moment, Carlos couldn’t think of the other one. “Never.”
The radiant arc quivered in front of him, defiant in its fragility. He squatted on the gravel path, heedless of the way his long jean-clad legs jutted at the knees and of the rip close to his crotch. His hands began sweating as he registered the backward display of colors, arching from an inside curve of red across the spectrum to violet.
“What’s causing it?” The girl crouched, a smidge too close for comfort. Carlos hoped she wasn’t flirting. Too young, off limits and not his type. Of course, so far, he hadn’t yet figured out what his type was.
“Probably a refraction from the sprinkler system,” he said automatically, and glanced around for droplets of water, just in case it happened to be true. No water that he could see.
Besides, blaming tiny rainbows on the sprinklers was one of the handy cover stories a former spectrist had devised for the public. So was the Corona Anomaly, a bunch of mumbo jumbo about electrical discharges and geomagnetic formations.
“But it’s Friday,” the student objected. “They only water on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.”
“How the hell do you know that?”
“My roommate told me. She used to come here on her lunch hour. Something spooked her, but that’s silly.” She smiled at him. “Nobody believes that crap about danger.”
“Well, they should.” Although Carlos suspected it was merely Bjorg who’d frightened her roomie, the peril was real. Long ago, the pirisma had whirled his own father to oblivion. At the time, his family had been told he’d died during an experiment.
In fact, Pedro Brujo might be alive on some alternate Earth, utterly different or eerily similar to this one. Exploring. Learning. Experimenting. Many years later, when Carlos finally learned about the pirisma, he’d instantly understood why his father never returned. Probably he didn’t want to.
The odds were against Carlos’s receiving authorization to cross, even if he got the chance. The pirisma evaded attempts at control, showed up at more or less random intervals, and took decades-long breaks.
He’d grown increasingly impatient as he labored, a professor by day and a researcher poring over secret documents at night. His office lay just beyond the roughly quarter-mile range in the arboretum where its appearances had been recorded. According to theory, the pirisma had formed here due to feedback from a rare looped seismic formation called the Orbach Fault, located directly underneath this part of the campus.
From a distant part of the garden drifted the scent of a Meyer lemon, sweet as pastry filling. Farther off, students’ voices rose and fell, conducting one of their occasional protests outside the administration building.
Carlos was wasting this opportunity by getting distracted. Annoyed with himself, he adjusted the glasses on his nose and pulled his phone from his pocket.
“I thought those weren’t allowed,” the girl chirped, apparently more concerned about a professor breaking the rules than about her own disobedience.
“They aren’t, and we could get burned. You should leave.” He wished she’d go play a videogame or something.
Miss Bright Eyes refused to budge.
While Carlos hesitated to proceed beneath her gaze, he didn’t dare delay. Besides, she had no way of understanding what this all meant.
After activating the spectrum analyzer app, he held out the phone. His hand trembled, brushing the rainbow, and hues danced across his vision.
“Doesn’t that make you dizzy?” queried the student.
“I’m fine.” Carlos checked the reading. So far, he’d only tested the app on extra-universe material, where it had proved highly accurate in correlating with the known universe of origin. As a result, he’d received the project director’s approval to use the thing inside the intersect zone, even though it required the use of his cell phone.
Some risks had to be run. It was vital to determine which alternate Earth the pirisma was accessing. Usually the pirisma connected to only a single parallel universe during each major event.
The reading stabilized, barely in time. The rainbow was wavering. Glimmering. Fading.
“Don’t go,” whispered the girl. At that instant, Carlos felt in sympathy with her.
“Vat is dis?” demanded an accented male voice. As usual, the sixtyish arboretum director had sneaked up in the slipperlike footgear he wore to protect the plants. “Who is dis voman?”
“Hi! I’m Andie,” she replied cheerily.
She gaped at the Einsteinian gray hair rioting around the head of this short, intense man. “What did I do?”
“Can’t you read?” Bjorg roared. “Off limits to students! Dat means you!”
Carlos straightened. Though as spectrist he had every right to be here, he wouldn’t put it past Bjorg to lecture him, too.
Andie went on talking. “I never heard of a college that doesn’t let students use the arboretum.”
“Vell, here’s news. Dis vun doesn’t. So scram!” The man made shooing motions, then let out a scream when she stepped on the green stuff that resembled grass. “No, no! Qvit destroying de moss!”
“I’m going already. Jeez.” The girl rolled her eyes at Carlos.
“Don’t come back!” Bjorg watched until she vanished behind a bush covered with bulbous turquoise blossoms. “Dat idiot! Ve should haff security. My poor plants.” He knelt to caress the injured moss.
According to project records, the university used to post guards around the intersect zone, but lengthy dormancies had lulled the powers that be. Also, despite initial interest by a small cadre within the military, the pirisma had virtually dropped off the Pentagon’s radar screen.
Forty years of research had found that it presented little direct danger to Earth One. The thing never carried more than two individuals at a time, and it sterilized surface microbes, with no apparent harmful effects on those who crossed inside. It avoided buildings, motorized vehicles and large electrical installations, and reacted violently against attempts to transport advanced technology.
Even the proximity of small gadgets was known to irritate it; hence the prohibition on electronics. A major insult, such as an explosion or quantum anomaly, sent it into a lengthy funk. Its most recent decade-long hiatus resulted from a Level 3 disrupt that had occurred when a lightning flash struck the pirisma as it opened. Luckily, there’d been no one inside. No telling where he might have landed if there had been.
Bjorg finished communing with the moss and turned his attention to Carlos. “Vat brings you here, professor?”
“There was a rainbow.” He mouthed the word with almost childlike reverence.
“Vell, of course, a rainbow!” grumbled the arboretum director.
“You mean you’ve seen others?”
“A couple yesterday, maybe vun on Vednesday.”
“You didn’t report them?” He bloody well should have informed both Carlos and the chancellor.
Cheeks flushed, Bjorg regarded him guiltily. Finally, he said: “So vat? Maybe it’s nutting. Don’t vant dese damn scientists stomping on my specimens.”
Few things put Carlos into a rage. This came close. “They are not your specimens and this is not your decision!” he snapped from his height of six foot three.
Bjorg shifted as if mulling whether to argue. In a rare concession, he backed down. “Dat’s true. So. Vich vorld, do you tink?”
“Ja? So.” His lack of enthusiasm reflected the fact that this was the world about which they knew the most and which therefore offered little scope for discovery, botanically speaking.
Students of alternate history, however, would have a field day.
On Earth Two, history had diverged since 1924, when a young Adolphus Hitler died in prison. Without a World War II, the United States—as of ten years ago--remained isolationist, the Soviet Union had expanded and a military government ruled Japan. But there were also many similarities, right down to a comparable Grovener University.
Only one other world, Earth Three, had been explored to any extent, but that information had been sealed by the military, apparently due to extreme threat. Anecdotal evidence, much of it little better than speculation, accounted for perhaps a half-dozen more universes.
There might be millions. Not infinitely many, according to theory, but enough to stagger even Carlos’s imagination.
“Ach! Who did dat?” Bjorg pointed at a patch of bare ground a few yards off. “More peoples clomping around.”
The dirt bore the fresh imprint of a shoe. Carlos wandered over. On closer inspection, he figured it to be a small boot, flat and square-toed.
Bjorg halted alongside. “I didn’t see dat ven I came by last hour.”
Had someone arrived through the pirisma? Carlos struggled to maintain objectivity. “That might be Andie’s.” In retrospect, though, he recalled her wearing flip-flops.
“I don’t tink you find dat on her shoe.” The botanist indicated a symbol in the impression. “Dat’s not normal.”
Carlos stared at it. What in the world? Or, rather, in what world did people walk around with swastikas embedded in the soles of their footwear?
Earth Two’s handful of neo-Nazis were regarded by their fellow citizens as harmless kooks. Or they had been, as of a decade ago.
Carlos found this discovery unsettling.
He surveyed the area. Was the crosser still here? While the pirisma repulsed gunpowder and high-tech weapons, it didn’t block knives or arrows.
“I never seen nutting like dis before,” Bjorg admitted, quickly adding: “Not dat I seen much of anyting.”
Carlos’s chest squeezed. “We might be overreacting.”
“Or ve might not.” The guy sounded tense. “My uncle died in Vorld Var II resistance. Dis is not funny.”
It struck Carlos that whoever had decided to stop posting guards might have made a serious mistake. “I’d better report this to the chancellor.” He lifted his cell phone, then decided to play it safe by calling from outside the zone.
Carlos took off running. For once, Bjorg didn’t remind him to stick to the paths.
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