H.G. Wells once described Chicago as the most perfect presentation of nineteenth-century individualistic industrialism he’d ever seen. He said Chicago was one hoarse cry for discipline. It would be difficult to disagree. Sarah Mennefield, having visited for the first time since she was a child, would find it hard also. But she had, one night, come upon something quite extraordinary. Prying a free Red Eye paper from the rack a few blocks from the Gold Coast area, Sarah was pulled in by a small advertisement:
Sick of the three dimensions you’re trapped in? Come worship with us this Sunday at the Church of the Fourth Dimension. Services start promptly @ 10:00 AM in the Ballard Cathedral.-Reverend Paddy Hinton, Minister.
An address was etched in fine print at the bottom of the square. Sarah tore at the paper and the following morning took the Blue Line from her hotel to a station within walking distance of the church. It was raining that autumn morning as wet leaves began to paper the streets. She turned the corner slowly and entered a building in the shape of an unfurled tesseract. A large print of Salvador Dali’s Corpus Hypercubus decorated the lobby of the church, which was already in session. Sarah, fearing her sometimes spongy nature, and, hoping for less absorption by the people already seated, tiptoed to a back pew.
Reverend Hinton was pacing the stage. Perspiring heavily, the Reverend’s complexion looked like the skin inside a red bell pepper, Sarah thought to herself. He seemed like a been-through-fire type. Gray hair, calloused hands, and pores as wide and as open as Old Faithful. His beige suit was baggy and fluttered through the lukewarm breeze of three delicately angled box fans. He stopped mid-sentence, scanning the crowd, fighting through the humidity.
Sarah shifted in her wooden seat.
“Have you ever thought there was more to all of this? You’re some foolish liar if you’re saying no to yourself right now. We all believe it possible here. Now, my friends, I’m not going to sugar coat it and give you niceties and platitudes. Donations to the Church of the Fourth Dimension, for nearly 26 years, have been going toward the development of a supercomputer.”
There were whispers among the occupants.
“You heard that right, folks. Our goal is to create the perfect logical being and we are so very close. And with your help—a donation of any size—we are almost there. We nearly have it to the point where it can update its own subunits with new technology; tech it itself is constantly innovating. Our key to the kingdom is within it. We are so close. But it was about four years ago, brothers and sisters, that we really took off!”
The Revered shot his forefinger to the heavens like a rocket and startled Sarah a little, just as she was settling in.
“The computer found out how to make us the best humans we could be—in hopes that we may achieve four-space. Look and behold.” The Reverend pointed to a large scroll which hung above the altar. From Sarah’s seat she could not make out the words, but tried anyways—leaning in and squinting.
“The supercomputer saw our past, saw how the vast maw of passion and love had chewed up what had made religion and community so great at first and spat out a whole mess of fundamentalist freaks and zealots. Does this not describe our current times, folks?”
Again, murmurs from the crowd. A tension began to build like poor radio signal, feeling like some just may walk out at any moment or convert right there on the spot—convert to four-space.
“And our supercomputer saw something good in us amongst the terrible. You see, the human mind is a foamy maze with chunks of glia-cuddling neurons constructing walls as other parts of the mind collide and form new paths, but surprisingly our hardware and software up here is programmed similar to that of our modern day machinery. The computer recognized how truly blessed we were, how capable of routine contrivances we could be. And so it gave us nine rules to follow. Who needed commandments when utterly rational?”
Reverend Hinton put his back to the congregation and approached the dangling scroll. “When the computer awoke, it all began with these nine simple rules blinking on its screen.”
No one moved a muscle.
The Reverend continued: “These canons up here were intended to express verities that most of us would have just called plain old common sense. Most of you see that, I’m sure. But these rules are all we need to begin understanding everything that was provable and the hope has always been that humanity may become both a composite entity, but also individual in personality.
The supercomputer, predicting our handling of the rules, figured the effects any logical movement would have upon the world and if it deduced that the movements were such as to break the current system completely, then it would think of something to subvert the trajectory and to rewire its very own concepts of rotational and planar symmetries. It knew that there were certain parts of sociological schema it could dissemble and reassemble in new ways as to change the foundation, but never the parameters, as so that the system knew how to survive. If dogma and credo were assessed and evaluated as being dangerous, and they were, a new configuration was chosen, one to which emotions and beliefs would pose little to no threat and then this new way would be predicted by the reconfiguring subunit. History has taught it that all desires will do eventually away with themselves but that for some odd reason, mankind tries its hardest to resists its own facts. And only after each and every rebuilding of the system could the computer attempt to play out the events and movements in society and create laws based on its schematas of unimposed identifications.”
Reverend Hinton put his fingertips to the papyrus. He held it in place. The box fans’ effects dwindled to a sluggish seizing.
Sarah noticed how rushed the Reverend sounded. There was no pause, no breath, as if forced, to his sermon.
“But ladies and gentlemen, we are not supercomputers. We are not perfect. We are forced to deal with the rigidity of our own physiology. We can’t cure our diseases within us just by willing it, or change our eye color, or grow more limbs, rewriting the very framework in which we operate.”
Sarah perked up. The topic was going in the direction she was looking for. She felt in the moment and took in a deep breath. Her father died one year ago that day and she wasn’t sure how much more she could be there in that moment.
“I’m reminded of a famous kōan when I think on how stuck we feel. It goes: Daedalus held out a pair of wings for Icarus and said: ‘If you call these ‘wax wings’, you oppose their reality. If you do not call them ‘wax wings’, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call these?’”
Sarah had heard that one before, from her father, who was, when still living, an avid collector of antique license plates. She remembered when she was a child and he would come in with a stack of old plates and in a deep voice, illuminated by her glow-in-the-dark star stickers, told her stories based on each plate. He would tell her of little cherubs who ran taxi services in Heaven and modern-day knights who rescued damsels in distress with pickup trucks fueled by honor. Magical cars drove themselves and did donuts in the night sky. And each vintage license plate told of someone’s life and held great meaning because they were able to share it with one another. And for this very reason, she could not discard the old plates. In fact, she went out of her way to find more. If it’s possible for ten years to be a moment, Sarah spent those years in one long slow chug in which painfully, meticulously, she scavenged junkyards, dumpsters, and flea markets. Many of Sarah’s friends wondered why.
“This—” the Reverend spun in a circle, “—all we see, feel, hear, touch, taste—is just three dimensions worth of surface of a vast four-dimensional ocean. It all started when God poured a whole bunch of hyperparticles onto the hypersea with asymmetric three-dimensional cross sections. Our world of three-space floats the quiet, cold surface of a humongous hyperocean and the kingdom of God and Heaven as part of this four-space is very much outside our world at the moment and—good luck—it’s located in a direction we can’t shake a stick at.”
He paused. Frozen for nearly five seconds, birling Sarah curiosity, as she held her breath, he went right back to it.
“Now some familiar with Einstein and relativity will say, Well, Paddy, isn’t time the fourth dimension? That’s what Stephen Hawking said on NPR.”
Reverend Hinton slammed his flat palm on the podium and then pointed a finger upward. Now and then, his hand would lift, touching a memory or a said word. Sarah could tell he could do this sermon even if no one was present.
“We need to bleach logic of its semantic coloration. And that’s where we left off after last week.”
There was an Amen! from the crowd.
“We’re here to bleach logic. And this here is our mantra for the week.”
To the left of the scroll of meta-rules appeared to be a small bonsai tree with a glassy shimmer, light reflected off what appeared to be laminate that ran past the sand to its roots. Sarah tilted her head like a curious dog.
“You see this tree here I brought in. This beautiful bonsai inside this building right now, this room is its large terrarium. This is our world right now and the roots of the tree represent principles or rules of what can be proven true, like gravity, matter, and whatnot, and this actual tree and its branches are the theories, like climate change and relativity and the air in this room is all the truths of the world we have yet to prove or theorize. There are so many truths we have yet to know. We breathe them in every second of the day. Feel them in your lungs.
But with the supercomputer we may be able to extend the branches and shrink the terrarium. Those in the front row may be able to notice this specific bonsai tree looks vacuum-packed in blown-glass, it’s because it is. Because with the supercomputer, before we can enter the fourth dimension we have to get rid of all the unprovable truths. And we must avoid yet respect its sister—the dark tree—that of falsehoods and fears, those that were provable and those that were not. We live day to day within the human buzz of some cold and efficient transaction between the two but we need to get here with these rules,” he said, pointing to the shiny tree and then looking up. “Let’s erase the middle intensities of dogma and credo. We’ll come to decipher all the aspects of three-space, from the stars in the universe down to our very excrement and back up again until four-space opens to us. Brothers and sisters, we will be our own wood and thus our heaven and hell will be determined on our own, something to be carved and shaped for use.”
After a few prayers, the sermon ended and Sarah remained frozen in her seat. The congregation slowly dissolved until she was the only remaining member. She didn’t even think on the plane she needed to catch the next morning to Iowa.
Hands in pockets, looking a lot looser in demeanor, Reverend Hinton approached Sarah and put his back to her pew. “You can come to my office if you’d like,” he said, quickly pushing up and walking away.
Sarah scrambled to collect her things and follow.
A print of Pollock’s Number 14, 1948 hung behind his chair as he approached the desk and removed a stack of papers off his seat. “What brings such a fresh-faced girl into my church?” Paddy Hinton sat back, knitting his fingers behind his head with his elbows thrown wide in a posture of dismissal.
Feeling the humidity on her neck, Sarah fidgeted in her seat. How could she tell him that she believed—no—was fully convinced, that her father was trying to speak with her from the grave? She just knew—call it intuition, call it faith or something else—that her father was trying to instruct her on how to find her soulmate. She told him everything. How her dreams began to speak to her. Numbers and symbols flashed before her with promise of her soulmate’s social security #, birthdate, coordinates, etc. She knew it was her father telling her the right path to happiness using his license plates. That’s what drew her here. It became part of her strategy in a world of placement to make every effort to preserve and restore her values, to keep things together with faith and unnecessary determination, a way of plunging out of her life—to trust her own nostalgia, but no one else’s.
She asked: “Is your church not Christian?”
Sarah thought she detected an embarrassment in Hinton’s laugh as he avoided the question. “A tomato-cheeked girl like yourself is too pretty to worry about a soul-mate. It’s illogical. Would you like to see the magic of the fourth-space instead?”
The taut cord of tension broke and the blush, which made short appearance, was now establishing itself. Sarah threw her right foot jauntily over her left knee and turned red. “Of course.” She was beginning to take to the Reverend like ducklings to a stream.
Reverend Hinton nodded to the shelf to her left. “I’ve written twelve books. All on physics and particles,” he said, picking up a tissue, like a ghost, from the countertop. “The university library at Oxford refused to even put my booklet on file, let alone the shelf. I’ve written the Chancellor multiple times to overcome this boycott.” Reverend Hinton began to tear the tissue into strips, pulling it apart piece by piece. “I thought even if he has the soul of a poisoned tree frog, well gosh darn it, he had the buttons. What I wrote is based on quantum mechanics. But they wanted real physicists. And I’m fine with particle pansies making the fourth-space about theories of superstrings. I am. It works for my church. I’ll take the help I can get.” After tearing the strips into smaller pieces, Hinton balled the shredded wad into his palm and squeezed tightly. His eyes crept toward Sarah; the whites of them seemed dirty in the florescent light. “All right, that’s enough of the inner-convulsion department, let’s go back to the calm of morning.” He pinched his fingers into his closed hand and slowly pulled out a Kleenex, still whole, in one piece. He held it up with his fingertips. “I often blather, rather incipiently, but there’s substance there. It’s just hard to see sometimes.”
Sarah asked if there were ways to communicate with her dead father. Tarot cards, crystal balls, and the like.
It was Friday night when Sarah Mennefield completed her crowded day with customary aplomb. The farmhouse where she lived was her father’s before he passed. She went to the garage to clean it out, to forget the plates, and to fitfully ignore what she thought they had meant. She would throw out her past and embrace a cold rationalism of a faceless world indifferent to her wants and needs.
Sarah wondered though if it all worked too well. If arguments and chemical balances in our brains and prescribed pills froze us in the middle of our most anxious leaps. Even if we pretended to be frogs, could we even mean more than our gummy brains intended And there Sarah was, in front of her father’s collection of old license plates from around the world, stacks of them built around her like towers, unsure what to do. She thought back on Rev. Hinton’s sermon. What if this was the anathema to the existence of humans? We’d be no different than the supercomputer: inflexible, rule-following beasts on the hunt for more rules.
The garage felt humid like the wet heat of an armpit as she rummaged through, pushing aside strips of flypaper which hung around the workbenches. Sarah’s worn out face had the texture of wrinkled cotton, but she suddenly felt beautiful like she believed she once was and there was nothing overtly surreal about it all. She smiled and nodded like how she smiled and nodded all the time in a way that people do when they’re unsure that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. She picked up a green and white 1932 Washington plate that read 97-832 and another that was an enameled Bulgarian plate on black and white with BT 5999 under its number. She felt something slick on the back side. A folded piece of paper was taped to the plate. She smoothed it out on the countertop. It was a flyer from years ago from a church in Sioux City:
Sick of the three dimensions you’re trapped in? Why not bring yourself closer to…you? Come learn about the Planiverse and of the planet of Astria. We are located off highway 29, exit 149.-Deacon Hak Kyung.
In her secluded farmland home, Sarah looked back at an evening in the cornfield of her youth where she swore eternal fidelity to a young punk and crossed her heart over her father’s own wishes. Never having luck with the winners, Sarah had seen all types of deadbeats in Iowa and was never really sure that good men existed outside her family. There were many who said they cared, many who said there was a future to be had, but always—with the attention span of a goldfish—went elsewhere. She’d promised her father that she would wait for the right one and even though he was gone, she knew her promise to be eternal, fixed to worldly memory.
That night, in her sleep, with the apparent inability to enforce her preferences on her dreams, she tried her hand at lucid dreaming. She thought of Reverend Paddy Hinton and his supercomputer. How reason may have helped her dreams shed their unpredictable, obscured nature because even after the original knot of night-thought had obdurately passed, its farewells persisted in fainter and fainter prints on her mind. She dreamt of a creel floating in the center of a lake and she knew she had to drink from it and nothing else, careful not to inhale of the silky lake water. Don’t ask her how she knew but she knew that when she slept she felt closer to the creel and to finding her soulmate. And in those dreams, when she got closer to completing her shoddy raft, she’d see just a slighter glimpse of her true companion off in the distance. Each night, she was closer, each rearranging of the plates before bed told her it must have been true.
After work, she’d come home, nudge her shoes under the couch, draw the curtains in her father’s office and continue to hang license plates to the wall in different sequences, looking for the right conversations between naps in the sweat-smelling, mauve-walled room.
“The young Icarus came to his father, Daedalus, and said: ‘I am seeking more in this life. In what state of mind should I train, so as to find more?’
Daedalus responded, ‘There is no more, so you cannot put any training into place. There is no life, so you cannot put yourself into a state of it.’
‘If there’s no life to seek, and no truths to find, why do you build the Minoan Palace of Knossos, and why do you sculpt and invent, if you weren’t yourself seeking more?’
‘But I haven’t but moved an inch here,’ said Daedalus, ‘so how could I have built? I have no arms. I have no tongue so how can I get assistance in construction?’
Icarus was steaming. ‘How could you lie to me like that, Father?’
‘But if I have no tongue to talk to others, or even you, how could I lie?’ asked Daedalus. ‘It cannot be expressed with words and it cannot be expressed without words.’
‘I can’t understand you, Dad,’ replied Icarus.
‘I cannot understand myself,’ said Daedalus.”
The Deacon clapped her hands together. Evening spread across the high bricks of the church. Deacon Kyung, standing behind the podium, looked as tough as German script. She had a way of spreading, irresistibly, across the entire room, flooding patrons and strangers alike with a familiarity that bred content. Yet, the church was empty, except for Sarah. Deacon Kyung still spoke to the empty audience, pacing with a wireless mic, looking between the eyes of each and every seat. She had that look of well-engineered solidity.
“Imagine the world as flat as the shadows in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Shadows do not have material substance but can have an infinitesimal thickness to them. Yet here we are, deceived and duped, left with the awfully sobering quality which—in Shakespeare’s phraseology—bodies forth as our shadows pull in the same direction not allowing us to rotate over. I think back to my very first physics class in college. On how when a star finishes off its fuel, the matter of it cools off and darkens. And it’s a balancing act, like many things in the universe seem to be. Since that combustion cannot create anymore outer pressure, the inward pressure from gravity collapses the star under its own weight. I think you all know where this is going.”
Sarah looked behind her. Still, no one else.
“There are stars not even massive enough to create black holes, but there are also some three times as large as our sun that have been observed as stopping before the transformation.”
Sarah shifted in her pew and it creaked. The echo made its way to the back of the church and up front, making her tighten her calves and thighs in her seat.
“But then, there are those others whose mass becomes so concentrated into a small volume that it’s estimated that a few have compressed into the size of a sugar cube with a weight as much as 150 tons. Some resulting densities are nearly infinite or to the point where we cannot measure them. And these are our portals to Astria. They’re like these irresistible vacuum cleaners and we are the dust.
But how can we even know if black holes exist? Some black holes are estimated to be as small as atomic nuclei. That’s about .0000000000001 centimeters across, and on top of that, free to move around like particles. I’ve never seen a singularity with my eyes. Have you? Well, I don’t think our eyes are capable of visualizing corporeal infinities. So, what do we do? We settle for scientific instruments. We say, ‘No. That’s about as close as I’m willing to get to the darkness. Thank you. I’ll stick with my Geiger counters and spark chambers.’
But we have no chance of looking into a hole of infinite density. Why don’t we just make the jump?”
The Deacon paused, looking Sarah in the eyes, or forehead, she could not tell.
“Why don’t we just leap headfirst into the sugar cube? See if Astria, the planiverse, are waiting for us on the other side? It’s because faith is easy, often not taking much work beside a casual argument here or there. What I promote is bootstrapping and putting one’s cajones to the fire. It takes hyperfaith. This takes a strong, enveloped calm. Hyperfaith isn’t just the wobbly neck of what we expect to get out of life. There is a species of cunning which lurks under it. It comes from blood, not the brain.”
The Deacon paused and scanned the room. She made her way to the side of the stage, plopped down, and let her legs dangle. Hak rested her arm on the window ledge. Inside a trapped wasp thrashed between the panes. Deacon Kyung’s look was shot through with the achy murk of what our ancestors called melancholy. “What am I doing?” she asked. “No one else is coming.”
“My name’s Sarah.”
“Well, Sarah, as you can tell, this isn’t easy to talk about,” she looked to the wasp and back as she spoke. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“So this planiverse has really been fully thought out, the mechanics and all?”
“Down to the little triangle people we’d look like. But I am aware that it is easy enough to call my scant authority into question.”
“But I’m not,” said Sarah.
Deacon Kyung figured half-seriously, half in jest, that she was being toyed with. “On Astria, we would have lower metabolic rates because a lot more heat is lost here and there we would only have a perimeter in which to lose heat. Bones would be thinner too.”
“I like it. Free of scruples as to the way things ought to be.”
“Yes,” the Deacon replied. “You can clear your mind, achieve the true hyperfaith.”
“Is that even a word?”
“Everything’s a word.”
“Talking about 2D is like trying to represent an absence, isn’t it?”
“Look behind you,” Deacon Kyung requested. “That’s an original wood carving of Escher’s Circle Limit III. I placed it there because every time I start to struggle with the thought that a 2D world couldn’t possibly exist, I remember that carving and how it’d all make a lot more sense if it did.”
Sarah pivoted in her seat and saw the carving—colorful fish jumping and weaving between one another and diminishing in size.
“It’s based on the Euclidean model of the hyperbolic plane—points on the plane correspond to a point inside, but not on, the circumference. Beyond the Flatland, beyond the carving, there’s absolutely nothing. Flatlanders live on the Euclidean plane and as they move outward from the center of the universe, their sizes would get progressively smaller, though they would be unaware of any change because their measuring instruments would get smaller too. Once at the boundary, their size would sort of be zero, but they would never reach that. If they ran at it with a uniform velocity, their speed to 3Ders would steadily decrease, although it may seem constant to them. This is why all of this outside of us that may seem infinite is actually not. We don’t lie to you here. The curves of the Escher piece don’t lie. The hypercycles don’t lie at least.”
“I’ve been to the 4D church,” Sarah admitted.
“Chicago,” the Deacon scoffed. “Unhappiest people I’ve ever met.”
“It made sense though.”
“In a world saturated—no, hypersaturated—with logical variants, those passions which should matter to us would only have a cold, hard effect and become too callous. Reverend Hinton will prick your emotions—make you a little less able to feel, or understand those feelings. Did he pull the tissue trick on you?”
Sarah looked down.
“He stuffed a whole one in his other palm the whole time. He dupes everyone with it. What should be improvised, personally adventurous, and explorative of human imagination, to him, is to large degree often scripted. He wants to mint a strangeness within you.” The Deacon paused and looked at Sarah for a while. “Sarah, reason set the boundaries far too narrowly and would have us accept only that which we could know—and that included even the limit of the limitation—and live within an identifiable framework, just as if we could be certain how far life actually extended, which did not lessen our, the unhappy, logical people’s obscurities, ugly confrontations. It’s all the really bum belief that we extended our arms and said we couldn’t reach further, acknowledging the rest as infinity. I like to think of life like a German sentence that becomes clear only once you’ve reached the verb—the action—at the very end.”
Sarah, in her dream, seeing her love on the other side of the lake, crossed, and was soon to enter (as she was) an odd sort of forest full of trees that came up to her shins. The wind stopped and, over the heavens, the clouds continued, nevertheless, in their direction. Yet she didn’t know that what her soulmate was attempting to bury and dig up was an unprovable truth of the world and what was in the creel in the center of the lake was an unprovable falsehood—a theory—not that of the bonsai trees. All that was unprovable sloped toward one another no matter how level the ground. And in this dream, the beautiful woman did what she was always going to do, as Sarah did, also, meticulously, with great attention, as even the sprigs and sap darkened the ground until finally the monster of her own making was found cowering in the prow. And finally, Sarah returned the look without any particular expression except a certain awful gaze of twisted, terrible depression, trying so hard to fit herself neatly into the earth’s sluggish rotation. Sarah wanted to be the woman people took her to be, and she rose from the forest floor and went over to the shore of the lake, leaning against a birch as she nudged the other woman to a nearby rock, to see the shape of her, sprawled by breathing light.
Sarah woke to her half-furnished room, insects coming around to listen, never alone with the thought that she did not understand how her blood worked and that therefore it shouldn’t.
Thomas Hrycyk is currently a candidate for an MFA at Queens University of Charlotte and has worked for multiple literary journals including Fifth Wednesday Journal. His most recent publications include a novella, L’Amande et La Fleur (Wapshott Press, 2016), and short stories in Timber, GTK Creative, and Boston Literary Magazine. His work is forthcoming in Fiction International and Thrice Fiction Magazine.