The Alworth Incident

Introduction: UMD’s Alworth Hall was built in 1974. It was rebuilt in 2011 in the wake of the Alworth Incident which claimed the life of Desiree Zontal, Dean of the Research Instrumentation Laboratory. Her graduate student Ward Hind, and her husband Horace Zontal, Associate Dean of the Physics Department, both survived. Mr. Hind, the jealous saboteur, is incarcerated in Oak Park Heights in a cell made of the anomalously-irradiated bricks of the lab. In these essays, we put a human face on the Incident, although in the case of Mr. Hind, this is, ironically, impossible.

The Alworth Incident at the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Alworth Hall, a 10-Year Anniversary Retrospective by Leon Oswald (Morphogenetic Field Studies Institute), Horace Zontal (Institute for Sideways Research), and Serena Sheen (Friction Department, MFS Institute). Dedicated to the Memory of Desiree Zontal. Previously published in The Journal of Sideways Research, vol. 9, no. 2, December 2020, with a grant from the Richardson Brothers.

Table of Contents: The Sideways Man, by Horace Zontal. The Institute for Sideways Research, by Leon Oswald. I Am the Slippery Girl, by Serena Sheen. Healing Sideways, by Horace Zontal. Backwards Man, by Leon Oswald.

The Sideways Man by Horace Zontal

I remember the angelic look on Desiree’s face as she stepped outside Alworth Hall to her death.

We had been probing the secrets of antigravity in the Research Instrumentation Laboratory. Our assistant Ward Hind misaligned the laser mirrors of the particle beams, irradiating us all with antigravitons.

My doomed bride, her every cell increasingly repelling gravity, bounced higher with each footstep. Elated, she went outside to see if she could fly while I struggled to follow her, pressed against the wall in what I initially assumed was a form of paralysis. Her eyes alight with the grace of naiveté, she opened the door.

Just as if she’d fallen off a cliff, her carefree weightlessness became an uncontrollable upwards fall. Her features contorted from bliss to terror. Realizing she was about to die, she reached for me but I was too disoriented to help. The wall of the foyer held me fast as if I’d fallen to the floor. My inner ears went riot as the world spun a quarter turn around me. My wife was never seen again, plummeting into space, the first casualty of antigravity.

The antigravitons had entered my body at a 90-degree angle. I survived, but I now refract gravity sideways.

No longer able to walk on floors, I walk on the walls instead; any vertical surface is a floor to me. I can “fly” but actually I am only “falling horizontally.” I cannot gain or lose altitude, I weave along horizontal planes. I can’t fall faster than terminal velocity, but I can slow or reverse myself as I play with my refraction ability. I jump and drop to the outer walls of buildings to get around town, hopping laterally from structure to structure as if Duluth is a sideways city built on a sheer wall by a sideways lake.

I can’t walk a field of wildflowers, I must fall next to it from tree trunk to tree trunk like a gymnast on the parallel bars, or I freeclimb among its precipitous foliage.

I am the only rightside-up prisoner on this sideways planet, condemned to fall through spaces where others simply walk. I stride alone over walls others pass at right angles without a thought. Navigating the outdoor urban traverses is like walking the walls of a labyrinth, the ground to one side of me, the sky to my other side, the sides of skyscrapers beneath my feet.

To her it must have seemed as if she was falling from the underside of an upside-down world.

I am an unskilled fighter, but my moves are so unusual I can take on powerful opponents. From a standing position on the wall, I can fly to anyone in the room by falling sideways to them, hitting opponents en passant like the trick chess move.

I am an outcast. I literally stick out, the ultimate wallflower. Your everyday world is full of barriers I must parkour across, or fall through like a tracking skydiver. I wonder why all of you think you’re rightside-up; from my perspective tilt, you are all sideways.

Not only that, but all your petty concerns are sideways.

Endlessly gawked at on street level, I have taken to walking the sides of buildings out of earshot so I cannot hear commentary on my outsider status. I prefer my own company when indoors, since even my confidants are unsettled by the sight of me pacing the walls.

I call your reality into question. In a world of billions of lonely weirdos, only I am truly alone. I am the Sideways Man.

The Institute for Sideways Research by Leon Oswald

First a little about me and my qualifications. My name is Leon Oswald, although I am referred to in the media as the Morphogenetic Field Technician. I am the world’s foremost authority on physics, probability, and parallel worlds. I do scientific consulting for UMD; they call whenever they find anything they can’t handle. Thus, I received a call about an emergency involving an antigravity experiment gone wrong at Alworth Hall.

From my Morphogenetic Field Studies Institute on the campus of the old Central High School, I responded immediately. I engaged my yellow pressure suit’s probability-bending protocols, reducing the probability that I was not at Alworth Hall to zero.

Appearing there, I found Horace Zontal, flat on his belly on the patio pavement. He was using all his might to claw across the ground, finding tiny fingerholds as if climbing a sheer vertical surface. In a state of grief, he claimed his wife, irradiated with antigravity particles, had just fallen into the sky to her death minutes ago. This fact was confirmed through security camera footage and interviews with horrified onlookers.

I scanned Zontal’s vital signs using my suit’s diagnostic interface, viewing readouts projected on the inside of my helmet. His health was normal, although he was psychologically distressed. Paramedics arrived and approached with a stretcher but I waved them off as I continued my observations. Zontal insisted I not help him up but I ignored him, leaning down to take his hand.

It had the effect of prying a climber from a critical handhold on a climbing wall, and he peeled away from the ground and landed against the base of a sculpture ten feet behind him. He clutched it for dear life, hanging off it sideways.

I conducted a deeper scan, this time probing his body’s interactions with the fundamental forces of nature. I gasped viewing the results: Zontal had been irradiated with gravity particles rotating at 90 degrees. Every cell in his body refracted gravity at a right angle. To him, the world had turned sideways, and every floor was now a wall.

I waved the paramedics back over. Hoisting Zontal onto the stretcher was comically difficult since his weight didn’t pull him down, but to the side. We had to strap him in and one of us had to push against it or he would flop it over. Once in the ambulance, his sideways pull on the straps threatened to cut his circulation so we unstrapped him and set him on the side of the interior; he rode to the hospital as if velcroed there.

Once at St. Luke’s, I supervised the installation of a sideways room with all the furniture bolted to the wall. Although grief-stricken, as well as dizzy for days, he began walking the walls as we monitored his health.

Eventually we moved him to a specialized facility at the Morphogenetic Field Studies Institute, where I gave him a whole wing. Together we built him a wall-mounted sideways gymnasium including parallel bars, pommel horse, trampoline, chin-up bar, and tumbling mats. He channeled his gravitational affliction towards novel martial arts and parkour moves. His ability to hang in the air along sideways lines of force translated into devastating scissor kicks. He proved adept at problem-solving and tactics, literally looking at things from a different angle.

I realized he may have tapped a hitherto unknown force: sideways gravity. Was it a freestanding centrifugal force operating over the surface of the earth? Or a graviton flow at right angles to the planet’s center of mass? To get answers, I set up the Institute for Sideways Research, installing Zontal at the head of it. I am proud to have helped him adapt to his condition, finding meaning by contributing to society.

But at night he dreams of his wife, hopefully antigravity’s last casualty, and his tears fall across the room, a pitter-pat of sideways rain.

I Am the Slippery Girl by Serena Sheen

Velocity is equivalent to rest. That is what my friction powers have taught me. I was exposed in the womb to a chemical spill in the St. Louis River estuary. Never proven, Leon Oswald the Morphogenetic Field Technician says it was a batch of frictionless nanopolymers. So I have always been slippery. I was a preemie who popped out at four months and I have been impossible to hold ever since. I am resistant to injury because it is nearly impossible to land a direct hit on me. Even barreling into a flat wall at anything other than true 90 degrees is a glancing blow. Knife tips and even bullets slip right off me.

Nets may be employed to move me or to give me a push like a slingshot. Watching me try to take a step without friction is hilarious. Since it is impossible for me to start moving unaided in any direction, for a time I was dubbed “Inertia Girl.” Oswald developed a bodysuit for me of unstable molecules which do not interfere with my perfect lubricity, but enhance it. It allows me to push off, slide, turn, and stop, as if I’m ice skating. I have developed the grace of a figure skater and the power of a speed skater. With the minimal amount of friction supplied by the suit — or by the mildest inclines — it takes no effort for me to get to top speed. I slide at 50 miles per hour across even the roughest of surfaces, or weaving through tightly-packed downtown crowds.

Scientists argue about me in the journals. Do I generate anti-friction particles, or forces? Some believe I exude frictionless chemicals from my pores, although these have been difficult to verify. Others believe I generate a frictionless force field along the surface of my skin. Since friction is chemical bonding as much as it is physically interlocking microtextures, it has been supposed that I disrupt chemical bonds. Since work turns friction into heat, it has been hypothesized that I dampen thermodynamic reactions, sublimating friction directly into velocity. In this view, my body converts friction into a propellant.

Motion is now my natural state, my true home. In motion I am at rest. The world moves past in a color-streaked rush of endlessly foreshortening angles. I am immune to high winds and the force of breaking waves.

Abandoned by my parents, I was raised as a lab rat in my spherical chamber, tested by a stream of scientists and corporations. As if I was a fluid, my sphere allowed me to be “poured” into smaller vessels like giant test tubes. I was difficult to dress because clothes worked themselves off my body with such ease as I spent my days slipping and sliding. I have never experienced texture. I slept and ate in a constant falling leaf motion, up and down the spherical walls. Since I am frictionless and dragless, as gravity pulls me down, I continue up the other side with equal force, then down again in a continuous spirographic sequence. My teeth are not frictionless so I can bite and chew food, but I cannot hold silverware or chopsticks and I cannot use cups to drink. I have never actually held an object. I must eat my food out of tubes, and drink the same way, or from automated fountains. Robots were developed to drop food into my mouth.

I never knew the fundamental developmental force of a cuddle, or a tight squeeze. I am impossible to hug. It affected my emotional development and thus I am cold but also needy. Sex is pointless. Friction is the pleasure of sex, and so those pleasures are unknown to me. I cannot kiss, much fall into a lover’s embrace, or have a meaningful caress. My cells convert friction to loneliness. I am the Slippery Girl.

Healing Sideways by Horace Zontal

The Institute is a hive of activity. Ever since my irradiation I have paced the walls, making great strides in sideways research. What I have discovered is that the quality of being sideways is one of the fundamental forces of nature.

Realizing my body is a conduit for sideways energies, I have demonstrated the ability to “cast” sidewaysness onto people or objects. It quickly wears off, but if I make you sideways, you “fall” horizontally until you hit something. If I can grow this power, maybe I can send cars hurtling off the road, or crack skyscrapers in half. I’m dreaming big.

I can report that Serena, the Slippery Girl in the Friction Department of the Institute, has mastered her frictionlessness – and its opposite, perfect friction (stiction). She has joined me on the walls!

Whereas her frictionlessness makes her unstoppable when in motion, her new stiction power allows her to play wall-crawler with me. She even teases me by walking upside-down on the ceiling, something I can no more do than walk on a floor! Our camaraderie warms us.

Inspired, I applied my insights on being sideways to her friction powers, asking her: Could slipperiness be another fundamental force, like gravity, electromagnetism, and being sideways? If she could make things slippery, she could cause attackers to drop their guns. If she could “throw” friction, she could stop anything in its tracks. Her training began immediately, and soon she was “casting” both slipperiness and stiction.

She is dropping the name Slippery Girl. Her powers have expanded into a total friction control. She calls herself Friction Woman now. But it hasn’t caught on.

We have started a romantic relationship as you may have heard. We have our challenges, but I am happy for the first time since Desiree fell into the sky.

Backwards Man by Leon Oswald

It all started on the day Backwards Man turned around. Ward Hind was the grad student working with Desiree and Horace Zontal on the “Alworth Incident” antigravity experiment. Sprays of spinning gravitons irradiated Alworth Hall, imparting different spins to each victim, altering their Euclidian vector spaces in unexpected ways. The Zontals were hit by upside-down radiation and sideways radiation, respectively. Fortunately, Horace survived and now thrives as Sideways Man. Ward survived too, and like the Zontals, his body turns orthogonally to one or more of the relative directions.

But fate dealt him a crueler hand. Drenched in backwards radiation, Ward became totally backwards.

Paramedics responding to the scene found him on the floor of the Research Instrumentation Laboratory. They quickly realized he wasn’t just lying on his stomach with his face on the ground. Every time they turned him over, his back would still be showing. Attempts to look at his face failed, as if the back of his head traveled around his skull.

He remained comatose for eight months in that condition. But even once he could stand up, the problem persisted. With the doctors and nurses standing around him in an unbroken circle, no one could see anything but his back.

In a voice muted like he was turned away from me, he reported strange, non-local senses, or “Backwards Vision” he called it. Does he have eyes in the back of his head? No. But somehow, he can see all the way around the earth to the back of your head. They were treating him right there in Alworth, in the Diagonal Room, formerly the Department of Electrical Engineering.

I approached him. “Welcome back, Ward. You were exposed to backwards radiation. You are backwards and you’re only going to get more backwards. But if we put you in this Forward Suit, we can reverse you … How does it feel?”

He donned the suit, lined with refractive components. His face was now visible through the faceplate. He said, “It feels … forward.”

I continued: “You will be able to move forward briefly at least. I want you to work for me. Will you be part of my team? You can be housed here in the Diagonal Room. Alworth’s rooms and halls exhibit anomalous directionality since your accident, as you can see. I am pacing the junction between the floor and the wall, while you stand astride a corner at the ceiling. You’ll find it quite adequate. You can live and work in comfort. Horace has already agreed.”

Sideways Man walked in on the wall and proudly stood perpendicular to the floor: “Maybe the Institute for Sideways Research can help you, Ward.” But Ward embraced his affliction, stripping off the Forwards Suit. “Back off!” he said, “For I am truly … the Backwards Man.”

Serena slid in like a speedskater, announcing, “I’ve heard enough of this supervillain origin story!”

“Careful, Slippery Girl,” I cried, “He’s gone backwards!”

And Backwards Man … turned around. Just a fraction — showing us the edge of his forehead. But it unleashed retrograde forces great enough to flatten us. Poor Serena went through a window and slid off backwards into Carlton County.

Then he charged us rearward. Using his elbows and foot sweeps and piledrivers and backwards headbutts, he threw us around the Diagonal Room without ever showing his face or the front of his body.

“Look, I may be backwards,” he said, “but I can fight you backwards and forwards. I’m the guy nobody knows but who knows everyone, I’m looking over everyone’s shoulders — I see what you see. I can see the back of my own head as I kick your ass backwards.”

We didn’t want him to turn around again, but his most fearsome attack was “The Backwards-ing”: he made us backwards. It was like he turned around, but instantly we were backwards, and he punched us in the backs of our heads. No matter where I or Sideways Man turned, he was behind us.

Backwards Man burst out of the Diagonal Room. Backing down two flights of stairs, he left Alworth Hall in a backwards run towards downtown. Looking over his shoulder, he took out half the building, which seemed to turn inside out. We barely escaped. “I think he was trying to ‘backwards’ the whole building,” I said, “He’s backwards-ing exponentially.”

Would reality orient around him? Could Backwards Man turn the universe astern?

Thankfully, Slippery Girl zoomed up, backwards-skating effortlessly now, and clotheslined him brutally across the back of the neck. She (figuratively) knocked him on his ass.

To contain him, I’ve converted the Forward Suit into a straightjacket.

More Duluth stories and essays here.

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