Dante’s Grid

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Liz Mierzejewski

When I first met Dante I was still in college. I was in my junior year attempting to earn my degree in English Lit. At that time I was planning on becoming a teacher. “You know what they say,” Dante would tell me back then. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” He would laugh at his own joke, and at first I would get all insulted, but to be honest, I was never much of a writer. So eventually, when he’d tell that joke, I would have to agree. After all, I wasn’t the creative one. Dante Benedict, future world-famous inventor, was the creative one, and I loved him then even as I love him now.

But right then I had these boxes to bring down to the University. The papers were all over the place, stacks and stacks, in no order I could ever determine. I wished Dante were there right then. But he wasn’t, the poor soul.

“So, you still haven’t heard from him?” asked the professor, Dr. Leitner. He was holding some of the papers with Dante’s drawings and calculations. Dante had tried to explain to me what all of it meant, but gave up when we both realized that I was hopelessly lost.

“No, sir, it’s been four days now—”

“And this is all of it, the papers, the drawings—all of it?” He scratched the top of his bald head, papers still in his hand.

“Uh huh. Those are all the papers, sir. He’s made the cages, though.”

“Well, now…” Dr. Leitner spread some of the drawings on the big table in his office. Light from the enormous windows made the papers look old and important, edges curled up from so much use. He tapped his lower lip with a pencil. He pointed to one of the drawings, a wild sketch of metal filaments criss-crossing, twisted around nails and hooked up to Dante’s computer. He had labeled most of it, but his handwriting resembled broken twigs, angular and sharp.

I pointed to the drawing as Dr. Leitner puzzled over it. “He would put things in there. Pens, cups. Things like that. Little things.”

He shooed my hand away.

“Miss Sloan, please.” He looked up and must have seen my little pout. It has its advantages. “I’m sorry, what were you saying? Small items, like a pen?” He smiled, but it still made him look impatient to me.

“Yes, at first. But it didn’t work. He’d start the machine and there would be a great deal of noise, but nothing much else.” I pointed to the cage sketch. “Noise and sparks. He broke a few computers, too.” He had burned the tips of his fingers one day. And his hair. I can still remember the smell. He had given up on it for almost a week after that.

Dr. Leitner sat down, lifting the sketch up into the light. I could still see the drawing through the paper, sunlight pouring through it from behind him. He put it down and scanned the notebooks filled with calculations. I waited for a very long time while he examined the notes. Dr. Leitner’s office did not have many pictures on the beautiful, old paneling. One yellowed photograph of a child with a huge bull in tow hung between his rather grandly framed diplomas, but nothing else. Two of the fifteen-foot walls carried every book I could ever imagine, disorganized and dusty. Dante’s papers almost seemed at home here.

“Miss Sloan—”

“Penny, please. Call me Penny.”

“Yes, yes of course. Penny, did Dante ever tell you what he was doing?” He licked his lips, but they still seemed dry.

“He tried. Many times. Something about other dimensions, unlimited energy, lots of things. I never did quite understand him. Didn’t he tell you, Doctor?” Dr. Leitner was his advisor for his doctorate. They spent a lot of time together.

Dr. Leitner smiled broadly, his teeth spread across his face like little wooden soldiers in yellowing uniforms. “Oh, yes. Certainly. I just want to make sure that he—” He stopped for a moment and his gaze softened. “Penny, Dante is a brilliant young man, and I just want to find out where he’s gone.” He paused again. “This work is vitally important. You do understand that, don’t you?”

“Well, of course I do!” I protested. I knew Dante thought it was important, so it was important to me. “I love Dante and I want him to come back, wherever he’s gone.” I choked on that last bit, trying not to cry. I breathed in deep. “Do you think we can find him, Dr. Leitner? Can you use these formulas to get him back?”

He didn’t answer. He didn’t make eye contact. The room became silent and then the light shifted as clouds covered the sun. I could feel the heaviness of the moment in my ears, like pressure when climbing a hill. We were quiet for a long time, minutes, perhaps. I wished there had been a clock or something to mark the time. It made me feel like my bones were drying up from inside. And it made me scared. I hadn’t felt scared up to that point, but now I was afraid I might not ever see Dante again.

“Tell me, Penny, what you remember,” he said. He opened one of the notebooks and checked the date of the entry. “What do you know?”

I thought for a moment. Dante was always going on about his work, but not to just anyone. “Penny, I can tell you because you don’t understand,” he had said. “If you did understand, then I would have to keep this a secret.”

So he told me. Every day he would tell me what he had done, what part of the formula he had solved, the inexplicable riddle he had fussed over since I had known him.

“What riddle?” asked Dr. Leitner.

“It was a poem, I think. He seemed driven by some need to make a poem work out just right…” I was trying to think. Dante used the word almost daily and I had gotten used to the strangeness of it. “He was trying to solve something called…” I bit my lip, trying to remember.

“Called what, Miss Sloan?”

“It was the…” It came to me. “The Rhyming Hypothesis.” I smiled. That was it, the goal of Dante’s research.

Dr. Leitner smiled back, but it was that same condescending smile I got all the time from Dante and his cohorts. I wanted to leave.

“The Riemann Hypothesis? Is that it?” He opened up a few more notebooks to find the math Dante had worked out. He pointed to a long set of numbers, zig-zags and fractions. It was all a jumble to me, but I nodded and he pored over the work. “Did he say he solved it?”

I nodded again, more slowly this time. I felt suddenly small. As far as I could tell, Dr. Leitner didn’t care if I were in the room at all.

“He finally got the machine to work, you know,” I blurted. “He made a pen go.”

He seemed more interested in what I had to say now. “Are you sure of this? It disappeared? Tell me more.”

Dante had tried for weeks to make the grid function. He had created a magnetic grid of wires to go over another metal plate, creating a cage just big enough to hold maybe a loaf of bread, if he wanted to. Along the sides he had labeled it with numbers and symbols I couldn’t decipher. He used strange words that looked beautiful on the page, but were gibberish to me. “Nontrivial Zeros” and “Zeta Space.” I remember them not because they were meaningful, but because they sounded like part of the poetry he was trying to figure out.

The first time he had turned it on, I thought we might have a fire. The wires sizzled and hummed. The energy shimmered a cobalt blue along the wires and within the cage itself. He had placed a pen inside. The pen shimmered blue as well, and then began to melt. Then it burned, and finally sizzled. An energy burst flew up the wires into the computer and it emitted a nasty whooshing sound, an acrid smell of melting plastic filling the air.

The next time didn’t fare much better. Dante decided that the plastic was too vulnerable. And maybe the grid wasn’t aligned just right, something like that. He took my tea cup, one of those cheap ones with no character, and planted it firmly in the center of his wire grid, now a cage. He had spent days checking and aligning the filaments. He had purchased a cheap computer to handle the program, just in case it also died. And he started the process. Okay, I wasn’t fair. It did work better than before. There was the blue glow, but this time nothing melted. Instead, the mug fizzled in and out of view, like an image on a zoopraxiscope. For a split second it wasn’t there, and Dante grabbed me by both arms, lifting me off the floor. He all but dropped me when it shattered, sending porcelain shards in all directions. The pieces didn’t escape the grid, thank goodness, but the computer failed again, and Dante was heartbroken.

“What was he trying to do, Penny?” Dr. Leitner asked.

I thought for a moment. I knew, but shouldn’t Dr. Leitner know? He was Dante’s advisor, after all. “Oh, I don’t know…” I said, lying to the floor.

He was quiet, but I dared not look up at him. I began to wring my hands, something I do when I feel trapped.

“Was he trying to make it disappear?”

That wasn’t it, I knew that much. According to Dante, nothing could ever truly disappear. I felt like Dr. Leitner was treating me like a child, and I resented it. I shook my head no.

“Another dimension, perhaps? Did he say anything about another dimension?” He had raised his voice and it was shrill, not at all kind or patient.

My hands were getting hot from wringing. I nodded. I still refused to look up, but at that moment he slammed both his hands onto the table, sending dust and papers onto the floor. “Did—he—succeed, Miss Sloan?”

I could hear his breathing, heavy. I started shaking. I refused to cry this time. He sat down next to me and pulled my balled fingers apart. He held one hand and draped another over my shoulders.

“We’ll find him, Penny, but you’ve got to cooperate.” He squeezed my fingers.

Another moment went by and I said, “Yes, he got it to work.” I could feel his arms go rigid as he said nothing for the longest time. “He solved his riddle, Dr. Leitner. He finally solved it. He told me every zero had its own space. All he had to do was put something in that space and it would be… um… somewhere else. Another dimension.”

“And he figured out how the grid did that? How to align the grid with the zeros?” His voice got low.

“Yes sir, I think so,” I said. I had seen him do that, not six days before. “A large grid and a small one, the one that made the mug disappear.” Why hadn’t he told Dr. Leitner?

“And these grids, they’re still at your apartment, you say? I think I would like to see these grids of his, Penny.”

I led Dr. Leitner to the basement where Dante had made his grids, both secured to large oak tables he had taken from the university. Both computers were still running, both grids giving off a barely discernible hum. He looked over the larger grid, letting his fingers run over the top, minute sparks following his path. He called up the program, which was running in the background. “You do realize the program is still on, don’t you Penny?” I didn’t answer him. He waited a moment and pulled a pen from his pocket. “Show me,” he said.

I flipped on the smaller grid and took the pen from his hand. “Will this get Dante back?” I looked him in the eye.

“We can only try, Penny. I need to understand and to try.” He gestured toward the small grid. “This one here?”

I nodded and put the pen inside. I started the program as I’d seen Dante do a hundred times. The grid glowed and murmured, this time looking beautiful rather than dangerous. The pen gave off one final blue flare and it was gone. Dr. Leitner gasped.

“Wait,” I said. “Watch this.” I did as I had been taught by Dante, typing in the correct code. The grid hummed again, and the pen was there again. “Check it.”

He picked up the pen for examination. “Ohhhh,” he moaned, like he’d been struck. He held up the pen to my eyes. It was horrible. Taped to it was a message written in Dante’s pointed hand: HELP. He leaned back on the table, both palms cupping the lip. “Tell me, Penny. Did he ever use this larger table?”

How could he know? I knew that Dante believed in this man, but he was making me nervous. “Only a few times,” I said. “Only once or twice, maybe. He found a deer carcass a few weeks back and he—”

“Did he ever use it himself?” He walked up close to me, and I leaned up against the computer, arms up to protect myself, from what I didn’t know, but he scared me. “Did he ever get into the grid himself?” He took hold of my wrists. “Did he, Penny?”

I couldn’t look at him, and I balled my fingers. “Yes. He had me help him four days ago. He said you would be able to get him back. I tried, but he said only you could do it.” Tears slid down my face. “Can you, Dr. Leitner? Please tell me you can bring Dante back.”

He paused. “Now Penny, why do that? I have all of his papers now. I am—was his advisor. I have complete access to this technology, wherever it leads us. Bring him back? I’d be cutting my own throat.”

“That’s not true,” I told him. “He told me to give this to you.” I handed him the note that I had read so many times since four days before, when I had started up the program for Dante. Dr. Leitner, I have the solution. It is not in my notebooks. I have it with me. Come and see.

Dr. Leitner refolded the paper and tucked it into his jacket. “Get me there, now.” He climbed onto the table.

“I couldn’t get Dante back. How can I get you back?” I was shaking horribly.

“Send another pen.” He smiled his wooden soldier smile. “I’ll send instructions.”

So I did it. I followed the instructions Dante had given me. The large cage shimmered and glowed, humming its soft song. I watched Dr. Leitner flick in and out of this dimension, just like Dante had only four days ago. And he was gone.

I got Dante back, just like Dr. Leitner had promised. I did send the pen, and a pad, too. I can’t understand a mathematical proof, but I can follow instructions, and Dante is here with me. I can’t say the same for Dr. Leitner. Some people just can’t be trusted.

Liz Mierzejewski is a mother, wife, teacher and part-time writer of speculative fiction. Her work has been published at Expanded Horizons, Clonepod, the Drabblecast and Dunesteef, along with Toasted Cheese! E-mail: mizem55[at]gmail.com

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