Read an Excerpt
Stanislaw Klemp sat cross -legged on the drab, gray, polyblend carpet that covered the floors of the Stacks' lowest levels, inhaled as deeply as he could (which, due to his asthma, wasn't very), then released the breath in a long, ragged exhale. Klemp loved the Stacks, especially the windowless depths where the mingled odor of paper mold and library glue was strongest and no one, not even the bawdiest and most desperate freshmen in search of privacy, ever came. He listened to the timer that controlled the overhead fluorescent fixtures go click, click, click, and waited for the moment when the lighted row would flick off and the world would be plunged into a profound darkness broken only at the far end of the row of shelves by the half-visible "Exit" sign.
He glanced again at the wadded-up ball of university stationery that lay to his left, just beyond arm's reach. Klemp could see the outline of the official seal of Empire State University through the back of the page, and he briefly wondered if he might somehow derive satisfaction from burning the damned thing. He'd started to reach into his pants pocket for his butane lighter when he reconsidered. The fire suppression system would activate and flood the room with inert gas, which, while not enough to suffocate him, wouldn't do him any good, either. He remembered reading about how Reed Richards, Empire State University's most famous (as opposed to infamous) alumnus, had designed the system and paid to have it installed. Apparently, Richards had spent almost as much time down here amongst the rows and rows of books as Klemp himself had. Once, that thought had delighted the young man, but tonight the idea only filled Stanislaw Klemp with self-disgust. In what now seemed the distant past, he had imagined that someday people might speak his name and Richards' in the same breath, as in "Wow, did you hear what Klemp has come up with this time? We haven't seen a mind like his come through ESU since..." And et cetera.
But now what were they going to be saying? What word was going to most likely be said in the same sentence as "Klemp"? He tried to remember the exact words the dean of the Graduate School of Engineering had said, but the only ones that stuck in his memory were "lax" and "disappointing" and, most important, "funding discontinued." Klemp's grandmother, a tiny, shriveled, desiccated, beetleshaped woman who wore only black and had a mustache thicker and darker than the feeble one Klemp had sported for a brief spell last semester, had used similar words when describing him. "You're a lazy boy," the old hag would spit at him during one of her volcanic tirades. "Just like your father -- God rest his worthless soul. He was lazy too. Got by on good looks and charm, but wouldn't ever turn his hand to an honest day's work." The implication here, Klemp understood, was that he didn't even have the advantages of good looks or charm to help him get along in the world. He was, he knew, a sunken-chest, no-chin runt, with a hairline destined to end in a comb-over. Girls didn't just turn away from Klemp or pretend he wasn't there; they actually seemed to look right through him, as if he was invisible.
Invisible. Like Susan Richards, the Invisible Woman. Except, of course, Susan Richards wasn't always invisible and when she wasn't, she was one of the most beautiful women on the face of the planet if you believed what every celebrity rag and Web site had to say on the matter. And who was she married to? Why, Reed Richards, of course.
Klemp lowered his face into his hands and mimed a scream. ARGHHH! he thought. If I lose my grants, I'll have to go back there and live with her! His grandmother was the only member of his family still alive, if "life" was an attribute a scientist could truthfully ascribe to the shrunken, leathery old gargoyle. Klemp had not communicated with her for years, not since the day the acceptance letter had arrived. He tried to find an iota of savor left in that single moment of triumph, but found the memory as dry and desiccated as the mold covering the pages of the ancient volumes that surrounded him.
After being accepted, unfortunately, Klemp had learned two profound things about himself -- 1) he didn't like to work and 2) he had a talent for slipping between cracks. For almost four years, he had exploited the system and learned to exploit his "invisibility," though in the back of his mind he had always known that someday the dearth of measurable progress would come back to haunt him. Sooner or later, he knew, the Powers That Be would notice that the grant and scholarship checks were going in one end of the machine but that nothing useful was coming out the other.
The odd thing was that some part of him had truly wanted to work, to try to live up to all his "unlimited potential," but then there was this other part of him -- the more persuasive and powerful part -- that took a simple delight in wandering the Stacks like a goat in a grassy meadow, grazing on whatever random bits of knowledge fell under his glassy gaze.
Klemp was quite sure he knew things -- important things -- about a wide array of anomalous and (seemingly) unrelated lore. He sensed that this knowledge was all significant and would someday lift him above the common drudges who struggled so arduously to finish papers, impress their professors, and get good grades. In the pit of his soul, Klemp knew he was destined for greater things. The problem was that academic institutions tended to want a very specific and tangible proof of greatness, the exact kind Klemp did not possess. He had to come up with something soon -- very soon -- or they would ask him to pack up his meager belongings and shove him out the door into the incomprehensible, unforgiving...
The timer on the lights ran down and the world disappeared. Klemp did not curse the darkness -- that wasn't his style -- but he suddenly became aware that the sixty-four-ounce diet cola he had recently finished was sloshing around in his nether regions. He patted his pockets, found the LED torch he carried on his key chain, and flicked the switch. This time, he did curse the darkness, as the damned thing flickered once and blinked off.
Rising slowly, pins and needles pricking him under his skin, Klemp muttered a few choice imprecations and took a cautious step toward where he believed the light switch would be. Something crinkled underfoot and he realized he had just stepped on the wadded-up letter. "Good," he sneered and took another tentative step. He had expected to find a wall and was confused when all he found was empty air. "Wonderful," he muttered and was surprised to hear a small crack in his voice. Klemp didn't think of himself as superstitious or phobic and generally took pride in what he considered to be an unflappable nature, but somehow the darkness seemed more palpable than what he was accustomed to. This darkness, he thought, has texture.
He shook his head, took another half step forward, and this time his searching hands found something familiar: a bookshelf. Klemp frowned, annoyed. Somehow, he had gotten himself completely turned around. Instead of finding the wall with the light switch, he was staggering deeper into the Stacks. Just above his head, he heard a sharp, ringing sound, a thunk! that sent a quivering shiver down his spine and made him take a single unplanned step backward. His foot caught on the edge of what must have been an oversized book and Klemp's knee buckled, sending him tumbling into the shelf. He pawed helplessly at the precariously balanced volumes, but they tumbled to the floor and crashed into his bony shins, sending jolts of pain up his spine. Surrendering to the inevitable, Klemp fell forward under the hailstorm of archaic information, all the time trying (and failing) to protect his face with his forearms. A couple more largish tomes thumped down onto his neck as the headline for tomorrow's student newspaper flashed through his mind: "Scholar's Career Cut Short in Tragic Library Mishap."
The idea held so much appeal for Klemp that he found himself wishing for that last book -- something really big and comprehensive with extra-weighty color plates -- to come crashing down and provide him with a simple solution to his problem. Unfortunately, fate was not so kind, and so Stanislaw Klemp lay there for several long minutes, the unappetizing options not just for the immediate future, but for the rest of his life, slogging through his mind. The idea that death was the solution retreated and another one took shape: None of this, he decided, was his fault. The world was to blame. There were predators and there was prey and all his life Klemp had allowed himself to be treated like prey. At that very moment, he felt the darkness pressing down on him as if it were a tiger bearing down on a gazelle to break its back. Maybe, he decided, maybe the solution is to let the predator in, to become one with the darkness. Maybe...
And then the lights flicked back on.
A security guard -- one of the heavyset retired cops who sat in a booth near the entryway turnstile -- was standing over him shining his giant black flashlight into Klemp's face. "What are you doing down here?"
Klemp's fractured brain parsed the question, but momentarily had trouble making sense of it. Fortunately, his mouth was able to work independently and found an answer. "I'm a student." Technically, he added mentally. For the foreseeable future.
"That's not an answer," the guard growled. "I asked what you're doing down here."
Again, Klemp's mouth came through in a pinch (Way to go, mouth! his brain cheered): "Studying," he offered.
"On a damned Friday night?" the guard asked, his face twisted into disbelief. "Ain't you got anything better to do?"
"Is it Friday?" Klemp asked. "Boy, you can really lose track of time when you're...you know, working on something important."
"But why the hell you gotta do it down here? Ain't you heard of computers?" The questions were still coming, but Klemp could feel the guard's curiosity losing steam.
"Well," Klemp said, "not everything is online." He pawed the ground to his right and grabbed the first volume he found: something hardbound, but surprisingly light and floppy. He held it up and saw by the sharp light from the guard's flash that it was some kind of notebook. "Take this, for example."
"That's what you came down here for?"
"Then why'd you knock over all this other stuff ?"
"Lights went out. I tripped."
"Yeah, I know. I heard you trip from like two floors up." The security guard frowned again, but was out of questions. Moving the flash so he wasn't shining it into Klemp's eyes, he reached down and offered his hand. "I think it's time you called it a night. Maybe go out and get yourself a life or something."
"Sounds great," Klemp replied. "I'll get right on that."
"Right after you pick up all them books and put 'em back where they belong."
"Of course," Klemp said. "Naturally. What else would I do?" He started to pull the books together into a disorganized pile as the guard lumbered toward the light switch and clicked it on. The fluorescents seemed unnaturally bright to Klemp and he held his hands up over his face to block the light. The guard asked, "Do you know where all those go?"
"More or less," Klemp said.
"I thought 'more or less' was one of those things you didn't say in a library. Isn't that how things get lost?"
Klemp considered. There might be a quicker way to get this done. "Maybe I should drop these off at circulation and put them in the pile for books to be reshelved. Just so they get put back right."
"I should make you put them back yourself," the guard growled, "but my wife's supposed to call in a couple minutes and you can't get no damned cell signal down here, so, yeah, that sounds like a plan."
Klemp patted the edges of the books into line, then crab-walked to the corner where he had been sulking, stuffed his crumpled letter into a pocket, and slung his backpack onto his shoulder. Returning to the pile, he hefted them up to his chest in a single jerk and felt something in his lower back go twang! He looked over at the guard, who was standing by the doors to the stairwell, his mouth twisted into a knot of barely contained impatience. Klemp grinned and said, "heh, heh, heh." He didn't chuckle, but actually said the word "heh" three times, as if somehow the two of them were ironically detaching themselves from the same silly, stupid joke.
Klemp pushed through the doors. The guard sighed. They plodded up the stairs, one in front of the other, to the first floor, then wound their way through the empty tables and study carrels to the circulation desk. The guard sighed at least three more times, long, slow, weighty sighs that were designed to communicate his profound weariness, his disappointment and contempt, with the world and all its occupants and especially one in particular.
An eternity passed and then finally they reached the circulation desk. Klemp dropped the pile on one of the carts, his arms and back muscles aching from the strain. He turned to look at the guard and hoped he was projecting something like manly bonhomie: two guys who'd just pulled off a tough, dirty job and now needed to go their own ways, but not without a moment of mutual recognition of what had been accomplished. Even in the dim light, Klemp could see that the guard wasn't feeling bonhomie-ish. He was leaning on the main desk and was pointing the unlit flashlight at Klemp's chest. "What about that one?" he asked.
Klemp looked from side to side, confused.
"That one," the guard repeated. He flicked the light on and the beam picked out the book on top of the pile, the flimsy hardbound book that Klemp had picked out of the pile when the guard had found him. "Wasn't that what you went down there to find?"
Klemp stared at the book and then slowly reached out and picked it up. "Oh," he said. "Yeah. Thanks."
"Don't you need to check it out?"
"Wha...Uh, no. No, I already checked it out electronically. A, uh, precheckout."
The guard sniffed, flicked off the flashlight and headed for the front door. "C'mon. Let's get you out of here. My wife's probably already called me three times and I'm going to have to tell her this whole boring-ass story..." He continued to mutter to himself as they walked through the main lobby, their footsteps echoing loudly in the cavernous space. Long banners announcing a seminar called "Fantastic Visions of the Future" fluttered in the air-conditioned breeze. Apparently, the dean had lured back Reed Richards to give a speech or donate a patent or cut a ribbon or some damned thing. Klemp felt a knot of shadows twist in his stomach.
"G'night, kid," the guard said as he unlocked the door, then pushed it open. "Go out and find yourself something else to do besides study. Can't just study your life away."
"No, sir," Klemp said. "You sure can't. Thanks for the advice."
The moment the door slammed shut behind him, a stiff wind born in the northernmost climes of the Arctic Circle swept up 114th Street, slunk up Klemp's untucked T-shirt, and made the skin on his back crawl. Flyers and notices tore off of kiosks; newspapers rattled, scurried, and swirled around Klemp's legs. Shuddering, wrapping his thin arms around his slumped shoulders, he plodded back across campus toward the tiny apartment he shared with two other students. Jerry would be playing some kind of MMOG and Riley would either be sacked out or down the hall hanging out with his girlfriend. Both had completely given up on speaking to Klemp about anything except the current location of either a) food or drink missing from the community refrigerator or b) the lateness of the rent. He decided he would simply creep into his room, lock the door behind him, and never come out. Sooner or later, someone would find him, if only because of the smell.
Passing a trash receptacle, he looked down at the book in his hand and decided that there was no compelling reason to carry it any farther. The prop had served its purpose and even if someone found it in the garbage, they wouldn't know Klemp had thrown it there. He shoved the book against the springweighted flap, but the can was overstuffed and he had to press hard to get past the empty plastic water bottles and the Styrofoam food containers. Another stiff wind snagged the flimsy cover and flipped the book up into a tiny vortex.
Reflexively, Klemp grabbed the book in midair before it was swept away. He felt several pages tear away from the spine. A part of him, the scholar that occasionally struggled to emerge, groaned, and he flipped the book open to inspect the damage. With only the unsteady light cast by the wind-shaken street lamp to see by, Klemp had to hold the book close to his face. Only then did he realize that the print was not typeset, but the very regular, evenly spaced printing of an engineer. He also saw that there were two small, carefully rendered illustrations: a circuit diagram and a mechanical drawing like the kind Klemp had only ever seen in old patents.
The first paragraph on the verso was continued from the previous page and read, "...of the second trial will require a complete reworking of the switching mechanism. I told Victor that I would need to consult with one of my contacts in the electrical engineering building and he responded with his usual condescending manner that he did not have the time. Instead, he found a piece of scrap paper and sketched out the design I have reproduced below. I've checked the library and am now convinced that if we can lay down the resistance coating in a thin enough layer, he may have just tripled or quadrupled the speed of our fastest circuit boards. The man's mind is extraordinary. Von Doom may be the most arrogant prig I've ever meant, but I'm learning more working with him these past two months than I did in the previous seven years of my so-called higher education."
Klemp reread the last sentence three times before the meaning penetrated, and he had to read the first two words seven more times before he would permit himself to believe what he was seeing:
He scanned back up the page and confirmed that he had read the first name right, and there it was: Victor. A high-pitched giggle burbled up out of his throat. Right, he thought. Like another Von Doom attended Empire State. He flipped to the first page and confirmed his suspicion: He wasn't holding a textbook or a memoir or even anything that had been published by the university press -- this was a lab notebook. Before the proliferation of laptop and handheld computers, every science student on the planet had filled up countless thousands of them with their aimless scrawls.
He read the name on the inside cover, written in the same precise hand as in the main text: Frank Forester. Klemp tried to remember if he had ever heard the name before, but nothing came to him. Every man and woman who ever attended or dreamed of attending Empire State University knew the names of its two most famous alumni...well, one famous and one...infamous. But, Frank Forester?
Who the hell was Frank Forester?
Even with the seemingly boundless resources available at Empire State and through the wondrous Internet, it took Klemp a surprisingly long time to find the answer to his question. When he finally uncovered the truth, he knew that some person or agency had done their level best to erase every vestige of Frank Forester's existence, and most particularly his relationship to ESU, from all public records. Study of the notebook explained why: While Victor Von Doom had been the creator of the experimental machine that had damaged his face and (many said) his sanity, Von Doom had not been the one to throw the switch. That dubious honor belonged to Frank Forester.
As every ESU student knew, Von Doom blamed Reed Richards for the accident, though it was unclear whether he believed Richards had committed a sin of commission or omission. Several years later, Richards and his best friend, Ben Grimm (another ESU grad); his girlfriend, Susan Storm; and her brother Johnny had "borrowed" an experimental rocket, gone into space, and been doused with an unknown form of radiation that transformed them into superhumans: Mr. Fantastic, the Thing, the Invisible Woman, and the Human Torch, respectively. A short time later, Von Doom -- who had more or less disappeared from the face of the planet -- reappeared as the armored Doctor Doom and quickly established himself as the Fantastic Four's archnemesis.
That's the story everyone knew, and a good story it was, too. The single new detail that Stanislaw Klemp had uncovered was that Von Doom had an assistant. In retrospect, this made perfect sense: How could an underclassman -- even one with a reputation for resourcefulness and brilliance like Von Doom -- have had access to the expensive equipment he needed to build his device? Von Doom might have been able to procure some of the electronics, but how could he have signed out the lab space and booked the time he would have needed to log on to the university's mainframe and perform the extensive calculations? Simple answer: He couldn't have, but an advanceddegree student like Frank Forester could have and, according to his notes, did.
As far as Klemp could tell from the notebook, Forester had been a diligent but unremarkable student. From the bits and pieces of personal comments scattered through the notebook, Klemp decided that Forester's greatest talent was recognizing talent in others. No other details about him were available. His alpha and omega were simple: He helped Von Doom build his machine and then, boom, he was dead. End of story. What had happened to his possessions, his research, his notebooks, his stuff ? Klemp found nada, zip, zilch, zero. Doom's hyperreality seemed to have robbed his assistant of some level of tangibility. Klemp sympathized with the departed and almost wished he could do something to honor Forester's memory. Almost. Maybe after he became rich and famous, Klemp decided, he would pay to have a plaque to Forester placed somewhere down in the Stacks, something tasteful and discreet. Above all, it would have to be discreet.
In the indeterminate interim, Klemp had work to do, and he knew he could not make, would not make, the same mistake that Von Doom had. He would not be smug or proud or vain. He knew how to take good advice where and when it was offered, and there it was on the second-to-last page of the notebook, a margin note written in blue pencil: Victor, it read. Recheck this set of calculations. I think you've substituted the wrong equation. And then the signature: two initials -- R.R. And then, under that: This is weird stuff. Be careful.
In his heart of hearts, Klemp believed it must have been that last phrase that did it. Von Doom must have rankled at Richard's nagging, but he wasn't stupid. He would have rechecked his work if it hadn't been for that last little bit of condescension: Be careful. Victor Von Doom hadn't gotten to where he was at that point in his life by being careful.
Stanislaw Klemp stared at the notation. He drank it in. He made it part of his soul. He would recheck the equations. He would re-create Victor Von Doom and Frank Forester's machine, only his version would work because he was smart enough to listen to Reed Richards when he'd said, "Be careful." Of course, he would never tell anyone that the machine hadn't, strictly speaking, been his idea, but that was what science was all about: building on other people's work, standing on the shoulders of giants.
He would make the machine work and then, oh, then...
Klemp felt the corners of his mouth start to inch up, but he resisted the pull and kept a straight face. He didn't rub his hands together or laugh maniacally, either. Only crazy people did things like that, and he wasn't crazy. Not even a little bit.
Copyright © 2008 by Marvel Characters, Inc.