CATEGORY: Secret Identity Management Variables
RULE 967.2b: Managing Your Love Life Is No Easier for Geniuses
SOURCE: Professor Incognito, Instigator of Martian Rule
VIA: Austin Grossman
Our first journey into the realms of madness looks reasonable enough. How crazy can an itemized list really be? Well, in this story, a simple list of Professor Incognito’s apologies reads like the confession of a remarkably evil genius.
Professor Incognito likes to live the lifestyle of any classic supervillain. He’s got secret rooms and hologram projectors, midnight costume changes, and plans for sentient tigers.
There’s just one barrier lying between him and perfect happiness: his fiancée. Is there any way to explain to her that beneath his mild-mannered façade as a physics professor, he’s got the skills to take over the galaxy? Is there any way to reconcile a relationship built on lies? And should he wear his costume to their next couple’s counseling appointment?
Beneath the humor, this tale asks a more chilling question: What role do secrets play in our relationships—and do we really want to know everything about our partners? It doesn’t take a genius—evil or otherwise—to fear the consequences of a love built on lies.
PROFESSOR INCOGNITO APOLOGIZES: AN ITEMIZED LIST
If you’re receiving this message then you have probably made a startling and disturbing discovery regarding the nature of my scientific work.
Please forgive the unsettling nature of my appearance—the holographic projector is my own invention and probably very lifelike apart from the change in scale, which I believe lends a dramatic effect. I understand if it initially gave rise to confusion, panic, or small-arms fire. Needless to say—I have to add this—your puny human weapons are powerless against me.
I am recording this because I just gave you the key to my place, and although we’ve had the “boundaries talk” several times these things still happen and I wanted to have a chance to explain.
To get this far, you must have found the false wall I put in at the back of the bedroom closet. You must have pushed aside the coats and things, found the catch and pulled it aside to see the access shaft and the rungs leading downward to an unknown space deep beneath this apartment complex.
Did you hesitate before descending? Perhaps you still supposed this might be a city maintenance tunnel—strange, but surely more plausible than what followed. You must have started the elevator manually. (I’ve always admired your resourcefulness at moments like this.) And then you would have had to guess the combination to the vault door; tricky, but then of course you would know your own birthday. So maybe then you realized where you were, as the vault door opened and the rush of escaping air ruffled your black hair, and you crept inside, lips parted, flashlight at the ready. And you heard the electrical arcs sizzle and smelt ozone, and the glow of strange inventions cast a purple light onto your face, and you found yourself standing inside my secret laboratory.
Maybe this is for the best, you know? I think you should sit down—not on the glowing crystal!—and we can talk. This may take a while but fortunately the silent countdown you’ve triggered is quite lengthy.
I completely agree that this is very legitimate breakup material. I know that’s what Kris would say—will say—she’s said it about a lot less. Plenty of people—say, InterPol or the federal government, or the Crystal Six—would take matters much, much further. They’ve certainly tried.
This isn’t the first time I’ve faced discovery. Secret identities are fragile things; you set up a dividing line in your life that can collapse in an instant, that can never be reestablished. You yourself have already come close to the secret so many times, come so close to stumbling into the clandestine global conflict that is my nightly pursuit.
(The hero Nebula came close to unmasking me in Utah, before I lost her in the depths of the Great Salt Lake. In Gdansk I matched wits with Detective Erasmus Kropotkin. But always I knew you, Suzanne, were the greatest threat to my domination of the world.)
In any case, I’m afraid this knowledge will do you no good. As I am constantly having to inform people.
I said “explain” but I think I really mean “apologize.” And, truthfully, most of my apologies aren’t very sincere. Typically I make them just before or after an unspeakably evil act. Before hurling a helpless superhero off a tall building, I say things like, “Please forgive my rudeness,” as a kind of facetious witticism, a quip to break the inevitable tension.
I’m going to try and be more sincere this time, partly on the advice of our Doctor Kagan but also out of a sense that if I owe anyone on this terrestrial globe, which I will shortly crush with the burning talons of pure science, an apology, it is you.
So I’d like to issue this apology regarding my rudeness, a boilerplate phrase but maybe on this occasion it can stand in for all the small inevitable, innumerable items that must go unsaid in this list: toilet seats left up, dinners missed, gestures of tenderness that went unmade when they were needed most. And, yes, for the mighty and terrible engines that must, even now, be warping through the ether toward your pitiful planet.
In the interest of precision and sincerity I’d like to itemize this list as far as possible, which I know is a little too much like one of our counseling sessions. I know you’re probably going to break up with me again. But please, bear with me.
* * *
I, Professor Incognito, hereby issue apologies regarding the following:
RE: ANY CONFUSION YOU MAY BE EXPERIENCING AT THIS MOMENT
It must be a shock to learn that the person you think of as your hardworking, decent (perhaps a bit dull) fiancé is in reality the terrifying, fascinating, inexplicably attractive figure of Professor Incognito. You’ve heard of me, I suppose? A name synonymous with evil and brilliance the world over? I hope so. I made a point of mentioning it enough times.
I think—and I think Doctor Kagan would agree—that this might be really, really good for our relationship. You often spoke of a remoteness about me, a part you simply couldn’t reach. Maybe that was the reason you were attracted to me in the first place, that you sensed on some level a mysterious unknowable chamber you couldn’t find a way into. On some level you guessed what it might be, that I had hidden away my glittering machines, seething chemical vats, the mutation ray in a place you’d never reach.
Of course you did. People have levels, you would say. Engineering levels, generator levels. Hydroponics.
RE: WHAT HAPPENED AT DINNER WITH YOUR PARENTS THE OTHER NIGHT
Your father’s remarks about Martians were both irresponsible and uninformed, but that’s no excuse for how I reacted. But, and at the risk of repeating myself: the Martians are an ancient and noble culture who built golden pyramids long before human life appeared in North America.
RE: ANY SLIGHT UNAVOIDABLE DECEPTION
It didn’t start out this way. In the beginning everything was much as it appeared to be. I was a young physics researcher with a hopeless crush on a brilliant colleague. It would have been ridiculous, even if I weren’t five foot four, even if I weren’t maybe the most awkward individual on the planet. I would never have dared speak to you. That first kiss outside the student center is still as miraculous to me as the sunrise might have been to our primitive ancestors, long before science simultaneously cleared everything up and made it all more confusing.
And it’s strange because it was on the very day of that kiss that I had the first whisper of the insight that would make my career, crack open reality, and ultimately lead us to this conversation.
I knew, before anything else, two things: one, that it was the greatest scientific discovery in a hundred years, and two, that you could never, ever be told of it.
RE: OUR DATE ON THE EVENING OF JANUARY 25 2007
Yes, I was irritable and distracted at dinner, and I didn’t listen properly to your story about Eileen and the paper’s managing editor, whatever his name was, which I think, in retrospect, was more entertaining than I gave it credit for. It’s not an excuse, but that was the day of my first experimental proof of concept. I had discovered there is—layman’s terms: a gap in the world—a space between the atoms … if you knew where to look for it. A scientific principle with endless applications for the manipulation of matter and energy.
I could have told you about it, and I didn’t. I still don’t entirely know why. There were legal reasons, of course; you would have been an accessory under the law. And my secrets were dangerous. I’d be protecting you as much as myself. But I’ll be honest: as my career progressed those reasons came to matter less and less. I know now that I can protect you in other ways, that the law can be bought, my enemies crushed or intimidated.
You were the most important person in my life, the one who knew me most intimately. Why couldn’t I tell you? Maybe I was afraid you would contact the authorities. Or steal my ideas. Or call me insane.
Maybe I knew you wouldn’t choose me if you knew everything about me. And maybe being in love means you never get to be a whole person again. The moment we met I became two people: the one I decided could be with you, and the one left over, the person I am by myself. A person who I could never, ever let you meet, and who became the greatest criminal genius the world has ever seen. I used to marvel at that fact that you didn’t have a hidden side, that you’re the same all the way through. How can a person not have a secret and glorious part of themselves that the world absolutely must not see?
In three more weeks I had a working blaster, and we met to see Hannah and Her Sisters at the Regent. I fell asleep on your shoulder, dreaming the genetic code for a race of sentient tigers.
I don’t know how we each ended up thinking the other was a light opera fan. And in my defense, the reviews were very positive—I think the word “rollicking” appeared more than once. Believe me, I died a trillion deaths as we sat there together and watched undergraduate theater majors milk a comic Gothic pastiche for cheap laughs.
It was late fall, and when we met outside the theater your cheeks stood out pink against your dark green overcoat. We left our coats on inside, and all I remember of the play was feeling the cheap stiff wool of mine brushing up against your shoulder. Afterward, I walked you back to your dorm and we lamely joked about how bad it had been, and you couldn’t see how flushed my face was.
That was the day my prototype force field stuttered into life, and I’d laughed and fired a dozen test bullets, then had to blame the gunpowder smell on my roommate’s cigarettes. You sent me home.
Pausing on your doorstep, I looked up at the stars, clear and bright in the Midwestern sky, and began to formulate the glittering digital architecture that would become Craniac XII. But I foresaw neither its first words, nor its tragic final act.
RE: THE FATE OF YOUR MUCH-VAUNTED CAPTAIN ATOM.
Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha. Well, maybe I won’t apologize for that.
(There are frequencies of sound inaudible to the unaugmented senses of homo sapiens. But you knew that, didn’t you?)
RE: MY METHODS
Crude, perhaps? Not so wholesome as you would prefer? You don’t even know the history of the world I live in and the conflict that formed it. The moment you commit a crime in a costume you see new truths about the world. You probably think Mage-President Nixon never reached the moon.
Consider: Do you remember that weekend, we drove for four hours in a snowstorm to visit your brother and his wife. We went the last two hours without talking, not angry—just in a shared reverie as the world darkened and we felt like the one warm dry place in an infinite plane of blue-white snow and black trees and wet, gritty highway.
You didn’t know it, but Iluvatar was following us—one of the Mystic Seven—but she knew I wasn’t going to try anything. She lagged behind, further and further back into the dusk and the storm.
We drove on. I thought about how much power an Unspace generator could make; I thought about what kind of treads a cybertank should have to cross this terrain, and if your brother was going to be a jerk to me the entire time, and how many human skulls would go into making a really nice throne, and whether there was enough power in all Unspace to get me through this weekend, and if Craniac XIV could untangle all the messed-up stuff in your family.
RE: ANY INCONVENIENCE I MAYBE CAUSING YOU
Yes, well, you see, I haven’t mentioned it but you may be staying here quite a while. Don’t try to run. Do feel free to explore, though. Given what you’ve said about my housekeeping in the past, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
You know I don’t like to boast, but I’m really pretty proud of this place. I broke ground on the first chamber and a simple ventilation system while you were at your mother’s in Baltimore, but since then it’s actually gotten quite extensive. When the construction robots really got going, it all just spiraled—a generator room, shock chambers, plasma containment, the xenoapiary, the panopticon, the emergency launch tubes. The catacombs below the lower level seem to be naturally occurring, but I never quite got to the bottom of some funny seismic readings. Best not be too curious.
What you’re seeing is the real thing I built during the better part of our life together. We’d see a movie or have our study night and around 2 a.m. I’d come back here, get into costume, and duck into the secret passageway. Sometimes I’d still be spacey and distracted for a while but I eventually I’d shake it off and spend three or four hours adjusting the nutrient fluid for a dinosaur embryo, or trying to tune in to the exact broadcast frequency of a dying star, or laying the plans for another sub-basement. I’d get the robots going on the next phase then emerge through one of the four exits on Linden Street to see the sun coming up. I’d get a coffee then hurry through the quad to introduce freshmen to the basic equations of sound propagation. Then home to sleep, to wake up in the afternoon to see you again.
It was perfect in a lot of ways; I’m sad it’s over.
It wasn’t easy. There were more last-minute costume changes than I can tell you. We’d have coffee and I’d be shaking off the effect of a stun-ray, or waiting for news of my unmasking. The heroes knew for a fact I lived in this area. Captain Atom even snooped around our department at school, asking after anyone who kept strange hours, had strange ideas and perhaps a lack of interest in social activities. It would have been obvious if only they had been looking for a real person—they were looking for a stereotype. My precautions were effective but I think you were the real reason they never picked up on who I was.
I liked being your boyfriend. There were the times when it was absolutely the most blissful moment a person could have to leave the lab and know I’d be having a dinner with you. When we walked in the street holding hands, I’d want to check to see if people were watching just so they’d know how lucky I was.
And then, of course, there were the times when I felt like I was trapped inside a collapsing star which is in my own brain and threatened my ability to even think original thoughts, when it felt like I’d made the most awful mistake in the world.
I know there must be a way to have a relationship that truly works, and I have faith that, with your understanding—and the aid of my Martian allies—we can find it. (More on that presently.)
RE: WHAT OUR COUPLES THERAPIST CONSIDERS AN INADEQUATE EFFORT AT COMMUNICATION
I understand why you left, that first time. You knew there was something missing, and I knew it too. I just couldn’t tell you.
There have been a hundred moments when I was on the brink of telling you. I tried to say the words out loud. I knew you were a physics major and all, but I didn’t think you’d be into it—power and wrongdoing—it was too strange. And I admit, a part of me worries that if I told you about it, the secret part of me would disappear.
And it’s too complicated now. If I’d just told you at the very start, maybe you could have understood, but now? After the diggings and archenemies and sea planes … If I started now I’d have to explain how I came to speak Mandarin and what happened to my original eyes. It’s gone a little far.
I have my problems with Doctor Kagan, as I know you do too, but we agreed to keep seeing him and we will, although that may prove more awkward in the days to come.
RE: THE BREAKUP, MY REACTION TO SAME, AND THE ENSUING STATEWIDE “CARNIVAL OF CRIME” (SO-CALLED)
I think it was harder on me than it was on you. I tried to channel the feeling into my work. I went out and met new people and tried new things. I no longer had to sleep or take breaks except on missions and to make my teaching schedule, which I’m proud of having kept up. It’s harder than you think for a being of pure scientific evil to hold regular office hours. You remember the day I asked you to take me back? You can thank Detective Kropotkin for that humbling moment. The night before, I had snapped the lock of his office door and was busy dusting his things with my nanotech powder. It happened that Kropotkin was waiting for me. He’d come in to work late, unable to sleep. He stood in the doorway looking especially seedy, a checked wool coat pulled on over his pajamas, but the revolver steady in his grip. It’s so obvious Kropotkin is an asshole, even his allies feel sorry for him. He honestly thinks living alone and playing drunk chess on the Internet makes him a tragic hero.
Seeing him there, with his sad little grin, I realized something worse: He thinks he understands me. He actually thinks we’re melancholy companions and rivals in a long dance of good and evil, law and chaos. And seeing him, I felt that I was, indeed, looking into a kind of mirror, but only in that I was turning into a pathetic cliché. I realized that the person I am with you, is also part of the person I am.
The next day I showed up at your work and told you I’d changed, and for once I was telling the truth. I know you don’t want to be serious again too soon, but there are a few things I think you should know.
RE: THE KRIS THING
Do you remember the time when we were forty minutes late to dinner with Kris and—who was it? Bryan?—and you didn’t speak to me the whole ride over except to remind me that the 3A is a toll road and you didn’t have any change? God, did I hate you then, and I’m sure you hated me, although I bet not as creatively.
And of course we got to the restaurant and the moment we got there, you were all smiles and I joined in as much as I could, thinking, god, relationships are a grotesque charade. No one had a bad time even though the conversation was warped by Bryan’s inability to leave even marginally ambiguous statements unclarified, and we were there maybe three hours. By the time we left we weren’t fighting any more; not for any reason, we just weren’t.
I was hoping it would work the same way once I subjugate your planet’s military.
RE: THE SUBTLE, NEFARIOUS MEANS BY WHICH I LURED YOU HERE
You didn’t really think I gave myself away by accident, did you? Am I that sloppy? You saw the laser burn on my jacket lapel a few days ago. You caught a millimeter of costume poking out from beneath a shirt-cuff at the fund-raiser. (I know you did.) All carefully calculated to pique your interest, I assure you. And then I left the secret door open just a tiny crack, just enough for light to leak out.
I knew you’d find me eventually, darling.
Titanium steel bolts are sliding into place to secure the vault door behind you. Don’t be alarmed, and please don’t break anything. I’ve been decent so far, and I’ve taken your abilities into account.
I suppose now it’s time to talk about what happened three weeks ago.
You were away at one of your conferences, and I took the occasion to do a little more digging. Plunderbot and I were making a tertiary excavation on the south side, nothing serious, just laying in more server space and another heat sink, you know? Then we uncovered a power line that isn’t found on the city maps. We dug around it, followed it a few hundred feet until we struck a wall of reinforced concrete. We looked at each other, wordlessly, then I cut into it, making a cylindrical opening, and stepped through into a cool, air-conditioned, well-lit corridor.
It was an underground complex.
I explored further, ready for anything except what I found. That’s right, Suzanne, or should I say … Nebula? I should have known it was you under that cheap disguise. The way you smell when I lean close to you, like no unenhanced human could.
RE: ANY MOMENTARY DISCOMFORT YOU MAY HAVE SUFFERED
The rearrangement of molecules is never a pleasant experience. The disorientation will fade presently. Please be patient until your powers return, at which point if you choose, you can totally start smashing things. But I just needed to feel that I was heard (as Doctor Kagan would have it) on a few final points.
RE: THE FIGHT WE HAD THE OTHER DAY
I’m sorry we both got angry. I shouldn’t even have been robbing that stupid museum. It was a bad day. I’m glad we got to talk, even if it was just a “curse you” and “you’ll never get away with this” thing.
RE: THE MARTIANS
Okay, elephant-in-the-room time. I, for one, choose to welcome our new Martian friends and overlords, and this is a personal choice I hope you’ll be able to respect. Believe me, I know how unpopular this particular stance is going to make me, but I don’t think it’s right to bring politics into our life together. “Overlords” is a loaded word these days, and I know that’s hard to get past. But you know what else is hard to get past? A glowing, golden, invulnerable Martian force field. Political views are, in my view, of secondary importance, once you see an ant grown to a hundred times its normal size.
I know you’ve noticed a change in me since the breakup. I’ve been trying new foods, learning a new language, working out. I’ve got a tracker in the muscle of one arm, and some really cool glowing rocks at home that you won’t like at all. Surprising how things can change, just all of a sudden.
I have new friends now, you’ll be happy to know. Lots of them. They’re an old civilization; they watched us evolve from domed palaces on their homeworld while writing sonnets and sitting under musical crystalline trees. We have long conversations about real stuff: love, philosophy, lasers. I might have let you in on it before but I’ve been a little busy. They can look just like us, you know. They can look like anything they want to.
Maybe this isn’t working for you right now, and I can deal with that. I’m not sure I have room in my life for another friend at the moment. In time, yes, I think you will regret your insolence. Possibly on the asteroid I have picked out, where you’ll be mining sodium. No rush, we’ll clear this up under the benevolent world government we’re planning. That is, once we’re done ending world hunger and, oh, I don’t know, curing cancer? You’ll be in the minority soon enough.
I worked hard on making this Martian thing happen, way before it was considered cool, and now that I’ve gone on record I know what the question is: Do I expect special treatment? I think it would be natural for them to call upon people who understood them from the first, for positions like, I don’t know, administrative director of planet Earth. Honestly, it’s not for me to say. But if you think they’re not listening right now, you’re kidding yourself.
Here’s what I’m saying: Maybe this movie isn’t about me at all. But it should be. The brave one who knew it was all a lie about the Martians, who was the first to stand up and say, hey, call me crazy but I think we can make this work. And maybe this is a lost cause, but right now it doesn’t look like it to me, so we’ll just see who wins this one, fair fight and no regrets. Don’t judge; you don’t know what’s going on in those saucers. It could be pretty great.
RE: WHAT IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN
Well, I suppose this part is the most predictable, isn’t it? It’s a political transition; I think that’s the most sensible term. And there’s a place for you. I got specific with them on this. Their ideas on gender roles aren’t what you call progressive, but that’s exactly what a policy of engagement drives. A two-way street, right? Cultural exchange.
Oh, and the uniform. I’ve laid out some stuff for you to wear, and probably you’ll think it’s going too far, but, you know, if you’re into it, it’s traditional where they come from. I know it’s a little skimpy, but we’ll be altering the weather on this planet soon. I do have two-sided tape someplace. And the headpiece is adjustable. Totally one hundred percent optional.
RE: EVERYTHING, THE FATE OF THE ENTIRE WORLD, AND WHATEVER
I won’t feel bad about the conquest of the Earth; not the destruction of the Capitol Building, or the White House; not tripods stalking the wheat fields; not the sodium mines or the humiliation of your primitive military forces, nor riding in triumph in my robot steed along lower Broadway to Times Square where I will personally accept the surrender of all seven leaders of the UN Security Council. I’m just sorry we wasted so much time that could have been ours, together.
I know we don’t talk much about the future but I have some proposals to make. We’ve talked to Doctor Kagan about models for an adult relationship but it seems to me we’ve been a little unimaginative.
Here’s what I’m saying: It would be terrible if someone were to find any of the equipment in my laboratory. Maybe they could comprehend what it was in time to stop me. It would be perfectly understandable if that person were to appropriate my inventions to use against me. Such a person would earn my undying enmity! In fact, I would be forced to consider that person my nemesis. We’d still fight on a regular basis. (I have a working mirror maze, if that makes a difference to you.)
The choice, Nebula—Suzanne—is entirely yours: everlasting enemies on a post-Barsoomian Earth, or co-regents of the North American province of the Greater Martian Solar Empire? I don’t want you to feel obligated, but yeah, I’m putting myself out there.
I could really commit to this, you know? Long-term. It’s not what you pictured, but be honest: Wouldn’t you have been disappointed with anything else? Shouldn’t there to be something more to a person than what you see walking around every day—an alternate self, a secret identity or two, or twenty. We’ve all had the dream where you find another room in your house you never knew about—if you found it, what would be in there? I thought hard about what that might be, and I’ve done my best to give it to you—something really cool, something scary and brilliant and mysterious all at the same time. Every single day.
Austin Grossman’s first novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, was nominated for the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, and his writing has appeared in Granta, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He is a video game design consultant and a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, and he has written and designed for a number of critically acclaimed video games, including Ultima Underworld II, System Shock, Trespasser, and Deus Ex. His second novel, You, came out from Mulholland Books in 2012, and his short fiction has also appeared in the anthology Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom.
Copyright © 2013 by John Joseph Adams