Apr 30 2013 8:00am
Professor Incognito Apologizes
Enjoy this reprint of Austin Grossman’s “Professor Incognito Apologizes: An Itemized List,” a short story from John Joseph Adams’ recent anthology The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. Austin Grossman’s second novel You is available now from Little, Brown. For more information on the Mad Scientist's Guide, check out it's website here!
“Professor Incognito Apologizes” is both a heartfelt mea culpa by Professor Incognito on the event of his beloved discovering his disturbing experiments and an in-depth FAQ on how to adjust to that newfound knowledge. It provides an excellent blueprint for young mad scientists to follow when confronted with investigatively inclined significant others.
If you’re receiving this message then you have 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 do still happen.
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.
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 (which I am constantly having to remind people).
I’m not good at this. Most of my apologies happen when I say things like, “Please forgive my rudeness,” as a kind of facetious witticism, a quip to break the inevitable tension before some unspeakably evil act. 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.
(I have so much to apologize for. Please include in the spaces in between, all the small inevitable, innumerable offenses—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.)
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. Engineering levels, generator levels. Hydroponics.
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 physic 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.
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 fan of light opera. 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.
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.
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.
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: 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 what my real life was 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 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 sorry 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 our relationship felt like being trapped inside a collapsing star, 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 why I came to I speak Mandarin and what happened to my original eyes. It’s gone a little far.
RE: the breakup, my reaction to same, and the ensuing statewide “carnival of crime” (so-called)
I tried to channel the feeling into my work. 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 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, bottle of Scotch in one hand, 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 out, 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 just now
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 need to feel that I am being 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 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? Oh yes, 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 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.