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THE ENGINE


written and illustrated by Richard Crist


CHAPTER 1


THE MYSTERIOUS CAVES IN THE CATSKILLS

Talking to a dark-haired girl who stood next to him, twelve-year-old Robert sat in his wooden chair in the tiny rustic classroom. The last class of the night had just ended for the five or six students. Robert looked toward the doorway that led to the back room. At that moment he realized that the teacher, who somehow had conducted the class while hidden, was about to show himself by bursting past the hanging cloth that covered the opening—and a moment later, it happened. The teacher rushed into the classroom and toward the children. The charge terrified Robert. I can’t look at his face, he thought.

The next instant Robert was wide-awake. The clock by his bed read 3:35 a.m. A warm summer-night breeze blew in through the nearby open window, but he was shivering. This dream always frightened him. Not the learning part of course, but the last part, when the teacher entered the room.

The katydids were calling in the tall elm trees that bordered the field behind the house. The same nightmare—again, he thought. Yet something about the dream always had seemed to him to be distinctly undreamlike: although he never could remember what the lessons were about, he knew with certainty that a number of classes always took place during the night, each one covering a different subject, and that the sequence of the classes was always the same. Such detail in dreams, he thought, isn’t usually that regular or predictable. He closed his eyes and fell back to sleep.

The next morning Robert bounded down the stairs and joined his mother and father at the table for breakfast.

The dining area was in one corner of the large living room, part of the original colonial-era house that made up the core of a series of later additions. Robert's father, Steve Bennett, had bought the place five years before, as a second home. He ran a well-known, lucrative graphic-arts studio in New York City, and every year, at the end of June, he moved the entire firm upstate to the Catskills for the summer—his three artists always could find places to stay there and were happy to spend two months in the country with their families.

“So what’s up for today?” Robert’s dad asked, sipping his coffee.

“I’m gonna look for the old tanner’s cabin. I figure it must be farther up the creek, near the rock wall.” The wall was on their property, toward the northwest.

“Don’t go climbing that wall,” said Elizabeth, his mother, as she spooned scrambled eggs onto his plate. “I’ve seen that wall. It’s very high, and it could easily collapse. Promise me you won’t climb it.”

“I promise, Mom.”

“You know, it could all just be a folktale,” Steve said. “There may not be remains of any cabin up there at all.”

“I know. But if it’s there, I’ll find it,” Robert said. He was determined. In fact he felt compelled to take on this search. This was his mission.

Right after breakfast, with a compass and penknife in his pocket, he took off across the turnpike and up to the end of the dirt road that cut through the field across from the house. Then he hiked up into the forest.

It took him about five minutes to get to the creek. He followed it upstream for a couple of hundred yards until he reached the old wall. His plan was to look on both sides of the creek for the cabin’s foundation. He crossed the creek on stepping-stones and went uphill, a little farther into the woods.

After exploring the far side of the creek for a while, he approached a low, natural, rocky ledge. At one end of the outcrop, he saw the result of a recent mini mudslide. Some large mud-covered rocks at the base of the ledge looked like they had slid down from the top not long ago. Robert remembered the terrific thunderstorm they’d had a couple days before and figured it had caused this. A vertical crack had sliced through that part of the ledge.

As he approached the crack, he saw that, since it was long, and fairly wide in places, and because the sun was in just the right position, enough light fell through the crack and onto interior portions of the rock to allow him to see pretty far in. Normally he wouldn’t bother investigating a crack in a rock, but something about this one fascinated him. He even wondered for a moment why this particular crack might seem special but wasn’t able to identify the reason.

He got close to the opening and peered in. He had the distinct impression that the narrow gap opened into a larger opening at the back. Near the bottom of the crack, the shadow of Robert’s head obscured the sunlight, but as his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he spotted a small, flat, light-colored rectangular object on the floor of the opening.

What is that? he wondered. He picked up a stick and used it to try to maneuver the object out of the crack but was unsuccessful.

Now his mission had changed, and he hurried back to the house. After picking up a flashlight, he looked around for something he could use to grab the object and pull it out. In the backyard, on the bench by the grill, he found his dad’s charcoal tongs and decided they would do the job. Carrying his two archaeological tools with him, he hurried back up to the site.

After Robert checked the cavity with his flashlight and found nothing else in there (he couldn’t see into the larger cavern behind the space in front), he inserted the tongs into the crack. The job was much harder than he thought it would be. He found he could lift the object, but trying to get the tongs and the object out together kept resulting in failure. And the sound of distant thunder added a bit of urgency to the operation.

Finally—very, very, carefully—he was able to dig out the artifact. He laid it in his palm and examined it. It was shaped roughly like a stick of gum with rounded corners but was a little bigger. The main part consisted of a long, gray, piece of what looked like silver. On one side of this silver piece were three identical lines of small, delicately formed letter-like shapes.

Over the past several years, Robert had put together a small but varied collection of foreign coins, so he knew that if the figures were letters, the writing wasn’t Chinese or Arabic or Greek. He had no idea what the language was.

Attached at each end of the object were two half-round decorative finials made of what looked like real gold. He tried to pull the finials off, but they seemed firmly attached and appeared to be only decorative.

The sky grew darker as storm clouds moved in. Robert made it back to the house just as it began to rain.

“Hey, Mom. Look what I found. What is this?”

Elizabeth was sitting at the dining-room table, reading the paper. She looked closely at the object in Robert’s hand. “What is that, Robert? I don’t know what it is,” she said. “Where did you find it?”

“In a crack in a rock ledge,” he said as he sat on the sofa. He turned on the table lamp and held the piece close to the light to study it. It was raining hard now, and the roar could be heard through the screen door. Robert looked out at the summer storm and thought how the delicious smell of the strawberry bush near the house seemed to be strongest when it rained. Then it occurred to him that this storm could cause another mudslide and that he might have to move some rocks and mud to uncover the crevice.

Later that evening, he showed the object to his dad. Steve was intrigued by the piece but also baffled as to what it could be. “Part of a child’s toy or something?” was his best guess.

A picture of the little object

The little object that Robert found

But to Robert this was an artifact from a long-lost civilization, and later events would prove him right. Proof was not to come this summer, though, or the next, or for many years. When he went back to the rock ledge the next day, he did have to uncover the crack again. Using a flat rock, he pushed the mud away from the cleft. A close look at the rock and soil around the cavity, however, didn’t suggest that further investigations could easily be carried out, so he put the project on hold for some future time when he could double his efforts.

When Robert was thirteen, his dreams about the classroom ended. In the last one, he finally looked at the teacher’s face and saw only an ordinary-looking man. He woke up without feeling fear.

Twenty years later

Robert sat in the office of Steve Bennett’s lawyer, Glenn Pearson, as the attorney studied some documents. He put the papers down and looked at Robert. “Well, Dr. Bennett, since your mother died three years ago, and since you have no siblings, everything goes to you.”

Robert nodded. “My dad and I talked about it several weeks ago.”

“This is a rich estate.” Pearson picked up the papers again. “Your father sold his business…um…”

“Two years ago,” Robert said.

“Yes. It was very successful—it grew tremendously over the last decade or so.” He looked at one of the pages. “There are several large bank accounts. And he left you an apartment here in Manhattan, a house and land in Europe—near Lake Geneva—and three hundred acres and a house in the Catskill Mountains. The entire estate is valued at more than seven million dollars.”

“I hadn’t realized it was quite so much.”

Pearson looked over his glasses at Robert. “Steven told me that you have a PhD in…is it archaeology?”

Robert nodded.

“That’s interesting. He also told me you were teaching—at a university in Pennsylvania, is it?”

“Some teaching, some fieldwork. I’m on a sabbatical right now, though, trying to regain focus on my academic work, reformulate future plans.”

“Single. No kids…”

Robert sensed that Pearson wanted to make conversation. “Almost married a couple times. But it didn’t work out,” he said with a little laugh, embarrassed that he was being so open with someone he hardly knew.

“Are you going to keep the properties?”

“For now, yes. I was thinking of renting out the house upstate. I’m going up there this week to go through Dad’s things.”

“That’s quite a lot of property up there.”

“Dad called it his ‘lucky find.’ He acquired it as a result of chance meetings and having the finances just when he needed them.”

Two days later Robert drove up to the house in the Catskill Mountains. After arriving, he went to work boxing up the things he wanted to take back to Pennsylvania with him. The rest would be sold at an open-house sale.

At about eight o’clock that night, he went up to his childhood bedroom to decide what to take and what to leave behind. He looked at the books in the bookcase. Donnelly’s Atlantis: The Antediluvian World and Churchward’s The Lost Continent of Mu were on the shelf. These books had helped shape his childhood decision to become an archaeologist, even though he no longer found their evidence for lost civilizations convincing.

Also on the shelf, and equally formative in Robert’s life, were editions of Plato’s Timaeus and Critias. These books contained Plato’s account of Atlantis, an island that, Plato claimed, had sunk beneath the sea nine thousand years before his time; Robert still found these texts interesting. Plato implied that the story had come to him through the oligarch Critias, the uncle of Plato’s mother, and Robert found it a little improbable that Plato would falsely attribute a story to such a close relative and contemporary.

Although Robert had decided that reasons to disbelieve in Atlantis outweighed reasons to believe, he disagreed with those of his colleagues who summarily dismissed the notion that highly advanced civilizations, lost to history, might have existed on earth.

Going through the top drawer of his desk, he picked up a sealed and folded envelope; he felt something inside it. After tearing the envelope open, he pulled out the silver-and-gold artifact that had so intrigued him all those years before. He looked closely at it. Real silver, he thought. And this looks like real gold. “You’re the reason I’m an archaeologist,” he said to the little object.

The next day was bright, cold, and windy. The leaves of the maple trees next to the house and along the turnpike shimmered pure yellow in the early autumn light. Robert put on a jacket, grabbed a flashlight (so he could look into the crevice again), and walked up toward the ridge, a place he hadn’t seen since he was twelve. It was a beautiful day for a walk, he thought, and the place where he’d found the mysterious object all those years ago seemed as good a destination as any.

He found the wall, crossed the creek, and after a search, located the stony ridge. He looked for the crack where he’d pulled out the artifact, but that part of the ridge was completely covered up by soil and vegetation. Recalling how he’d seen what had appeared to be a larger space beyond the little rock shelf where the object was lying, he inspected—now with the eyes of an accomplished archaeologist—the top of the ledge, looking for a deep crevice. There was no crevice, but he noticed the forest floor above the ledge seemed unusually flat. He picked up a stick, poked it into the flat area, and struck rock.

How big is this rock? Robert wondered, and kept poking with the stick at different spots until it sank into soft earth. Using this method, he was able to draw a complete outline of the stone in the dirt. He realized he’d drawn a perfect square that was about five feet on each side.

“That’s curious,” he said. “A flat, square rock with a space under it…”

He stood back and looked at the outline and considered how he might investigate further.

Choosing a spot at random, he used a stone to scrape the dirt away from the rock’s edge. “Even more curious,” he said, when he saw a line of tiny, barely visible notches inscribed along the edge. This is definitely interesting, he thought. I’ll need a shovel.

Robert went back to the house, got a shovel from the garage, went back to the site, and started to clear away the dirt from the square stone. Near the middle of the square, he uncovered a manhole-cover-size, flat, stone disk. Inscribed into its center was a line of letters that closely resembled those on the little artifact—in fact Robert recognized the words as ones that appeared on the artifact. Really interesting.

After going to the house again and returning with a crowbar, he went to work to lift the disk. He found he could slip the crowbar under the edge of the disk and lift the stone slightly. He went around the disk several times doing this, until he was able to lift it up and push it aside, exposing a round hole that went through the big square and led to a cavity beneath.

He took the flashlight out of his pocket and shined it into the hole. The floor of the cavity was about seven feet below the opening; a metal ladder led from the floor up to the hole. Did someone, in the last hundred years maybe, build some kind of cellar here, or a bomb shelter? But how would the perplexing inscriptions fit in?

He cautiously lowered himself through the hole and, standing on a rung of the ladder, shined the light around the cave. He saw that he was in a small room of the cave. He looked at the wall in the direction of the rocky ledge and spotted the little stone shelf, with a crack behind it, upon which the artifact he’d retrieved years before had lain. Shining his light to the right, he saw a wide passageway that led deeper into the earth. Opposite to that opening was a metal gate, with a second gate beyond it, and a short tunnel beyond that. Since the short tunnel went toward a hillside on the outside, Robert assumed it served as a second exit.

Just to make sure he wouldn’t get trapped in the cave somehow without anyone knowing, he went back to the house and taped a dated note on the front door that read, “Went for a walk in the woods near the stream.” The owner of the local bookstore, who had been a friend of Robert’s when they were kids, was going to stop by the next day to buy some books. If anything happened, at least someone would know where he was. He put on his boots and a thicker coat, tucked a pen, a notebook and some aluminum foil for samples into his pants pocket, and went back up to the cave. It was now well past noon, but he figured he could have lunch later.

Again Robert turned on his flashlight and went down into the cave; this time he climbed off the ladder at the bottom. Making sure he had solid purchase with each step, he slowly made his way down the incline into the passageway to the right. Within a few yards, he came to portions of a wall that apparently had once sealed the tunnel. It seemed that an old cave-in had destroyed the seal, but he was able to squeeze through the opening and continue his descent. After a few more yards, the passageway opened into a rock-walled room.

What Robert saw as he shined the light around the room took him aback. This was a small chamber, in the center of which stood a strange-looking vehicle, rusted and in pieces, but apparently complete. It was clearly a vehicle; he saw two big spoked wheels, two little ones, a pair of large headlights, and a body with a compartment that had a seat in it.

He studied the car carefully. Close examination revealed fine, well-crafted detail. In several areas, for instance, where there were hinges, he saw complex structures. He could see under the hoodlike panel and made out a simple-looking engine of some sort. He also saw the wheels’ axles but couldn’t spot how they might be connected to the engine.

Was the device a concoction of recent times—perhaps a hoax or the work of an eccentric inventor? Was it a remnant of an ancient lost civilization? If so, where were the remains of their cities, their factories?

A picture of the car as Robert found it

The vehicle as Robert discovered it

Robert couldn’t shake the feeling—and his was an educated feeling—that the little gold-and-silver object, the writing on the rock, and now this incredible vehicle were genuinely strange and belonged to a much earlier time. His enthusiasm began to soar. Had this privilege been given to him—the privilege of uncovering a true lost civilization? Was this—what was happening right here and right now, with only himself as a witness—a historical event, on a par with Calvert and Schliemann’s discovery of Troy?

Get a grip, he thought. What are the chances that an advanced civilization existed in North America then all but disappeared, leaving only a vehicle in a cave in the Catskills? Vanishingly small for sure.

He realized he needed to date the site before he would allow his imagination to run away. Since there was absolutely nothing in this chamber that was familiar to Robert—at least as far as he could see—that connected the site to any known culture or period, he would have to find other means of dating the site. He looked around for organic materials that might be submitted to radiocarbon dating, and located the remains of three tiny plant stems near a small, plain, rectangular ceramic box that may have been a planter. He also saw remains of a wooden wall that apparently had once enclosed the space. Rows of metal pins lined the cave walls, and a small piece of wood was still attached to one of the pins. Plants and wood, he thought. This site can’t be very old.

He picked up a piece of wood and a sample of the plant debris for testing and wrapped them in foil.

Shining his flashlight up to the ceiling, he saw a small, shiny, black dome that may have been a lighting fixture, but he couldn’t find a switch anywhere in the room. He then left the chamber and continued down the narrow tunnel.

Robert counted his steps to the next chamber: twenty-seven. This room was somewhat larger than the first and was surrounded, inside the rough stone walls of the cave, by a smooth, segmented, curved granite wall, rounded at the top, which didn’t reach the ceiling. In the center of the room stood a large bronze statue of a weird-looking bird whose body was shaped like a high-sided bowl. The body/bowl was about five feet in diameter from rim to rim. On the bowl’s right side was a small staircase—the bird and stairs being of one piece—which facilitated entry into the bowl.

The floor of this chamber was uneven though covered with flat rocks. Here and there several pools of water had collected. Short metal posts were set into the floor in a straight line that extended from the bird to the room’s inner wall.

A picture of the Cave Bird

The cave bird as Robert discovered it

He left this chamber and walked 121 steps through a steeply down-sloping, high-roofed passageway to a third—and apparently the last—room. This room, like the others, seemed to Robert to have been roughly hewn out of the natural rock, though it was difficult for him to be sure. The ceiling and floor, as well as the back wall and the walls to left and right, all were totally unrefined in appearance. But the far wall, the wall Robert had faced when he had entered the room, was completely flat. In the center of this smooth, gray, highly polished wall was a door—or at least a set of inscribed lines delineating the shape of a door and its plain casing.

Above this door shape, also inscribed in the flat surface, was a symbol that featured two-overlapping rings. Like everything else in these chambers, the symbol seemed utterly unfamiliar to Robert. Although he was confident he would remember its appearance, he took out his pen and his little notebook and, holding the flashlight under his chin, drew a sketch of the figure.

The inscription above the door

The two-rings symbol

Robert studied the door and considered what it might take to get through it. He felt that if he could open the door he might find out who had created these caves—if indeed someone had created them—who had made these strange objects, and why the objects had been interred here.

After reexamining the strange objects he’d found, he decided it would be dark outside soon, and he wasn’t sure how much longer his flashlight would hold out. Elated, he quickly climbed out of the hole, covered it with pine branches, and went back to the house.

The next morning Robert sent the plant and wood samples to a radiocarbon dating laboratory in New England for testing. Wanting to spend the whole day at the site, he called his friends to break a dinner date for that evening and phoned the bookstore owner to cancel the visit. Then he hiked back to the caves with a tape measure, a camera, a battery-powered lantern, and a bigger notebook. No matter how old the site turned out to be, he thought it would be worthwhile to document it.

A picture of the little object

The strange motor

After descending into the cave, he took a few minutes to reexamine the car. The engine didn’t seem to have any moving parts and was very simple. He could find no fuel tank, so he guessed the car had been powered by electricity—but the only battery-like object he saw was a two-and-a-half-inch-diameter, smooth, white, Saturn-shaped object, with two wires attached to it, a thin one on top and a thick one underneath. Could such a small object have powered the car?

A picture of the little power source

A power source?

A picture of the car as it was

Reconstruction: graphical reconstruction (GR) #NY1521: the full-size car in the first cave, as it would have originally appeared

He spent the day taking pictures, making measurements, and drawing a map of the site. Then he went back to the house, found a tarp in the garage, and took it up to the site to cover the opening. As he walked back to the house, he thought about his find. Maybe a reclusive sculptor lived in this area once, he mused. Maybe—say, sixty or seventy years ago—the sculptor created these strange objects for his own private gratification. Robert contemplated this explanation for a moment. No, he thought. The car was not handmade. It was surely the product of a sophisticated manufacturing process. And how realistic is it to suppose that the massive bronze bird came into being as the product of one person’s secret art project?

This was a genuine mystery.

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