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CHAPTER 11


A FRIEND

Around ten o’clock that night, Robert went to bed and was falling asleep when the doorbell rang. He turned on the bedroom light, put on a robe, and went to the door. Maybe Mr. or Mrs. Besch wants something, he thought. He turned on the outside light and peered out the window, but no one was there. He unlocked and opened the door, and once again found a note taped to it. As before, he heard a car driving away, north on the avenue.

He brought the note in, closed the door, and switched on the kitchen light. He stood by the door and read the word-processed text.

Dr. Bennett,

The short woman with curly blond hair is a US congresswoman whose opinion can make the difference between a complete cover-up and a partial one. I believe Orten has shown the congresswoman altered reports of yours and has convinced her that although Atlanian culture produced some advanced technology, it was a superstitious culture, the artifacts of which are of little value for modern society. He has totally misrepresented the Truth Engine to her and vastly minimized its importance. As long as she misperceives the need for secrecy as outweighing the benefits to society of our (your) find, she will go along with a blanket cover-up.

She badly needs to hear your point of view. She needs to understand how Atlanian culture has much to offer, so that she’ll understand why it’s important for the world to know about the discoveries at Nell’s Koppie. But it’s my understanding that Orten also has maligned you personally in his discussions with the congresswoman. I believe the general knows alien visitation is real, but the congresswoman does not, and Orten has mentioned your openness to such notions in order to make her believe the lie that you are an unserious person. Because of this, she may not want to talk to you. I can’t directly intercede on your behalf at this point. I hope you can find a way to reveal to her who you really are.

You are a good man, Robert. Know that you have a true friend here.


“I don’t know who you are, friend, but I thank you. You do know me,” Robert said out loud. But he wondered, What woman with curly hair?

The next day, when Robert pulled up at the site, Orten, Jennifer, Jonathan, and Karen were standing outside the gate, talking with the general and four other people—three men and a woman—who were unfamiliar to Robert. The woman was short and pleasant-looking, and had curly blond hair. He parked near the group, got out, and walked to the gate. So that’s the congresswoman, Robert thought. Are these the people who are really in charge here? A congressional delegation maybe, here to get a firsthand look at the site?

As Robert walked toward the koppie, he received no indication that anyone wanted him to join the conversation, so he continued toward the gate. Orten said something he couldn’t make out, and everyone looked at Robert, watching him as he went into the site.

The fact that Robert had found the Pangaea of Beauty map in the Room of Stereopticons proved to him that the room belonged in the Beauty category, so he went upstairs to take a look around in there. No one had figured out yet how to get the stereopticons to work, nor had anyone even found any pictures or transparencies that might have been used in them. He went into the room, which contained the three stereopticons and three wooden chairs, and examined one of the stereopticons closely, looking at the lenses and the lens holders, and inspecting the wooden parts. On the open back of the cabinet, attached to the edges on both sides, were several small metal hooks. On the front of the stereopticon, at the lower right, was a small shelf, on top of which was a ball that reminded Robert of the trackball on a laptop computer. The team had connected two wires from the generator to a socket in the bottom of the device.

Maybe parts are missing, he thought. He couldn’t imagine how the device might have worked. For a stereo effect, a pair of images would have to be placed somewhere inside the cabinet. But where are the images? he wondered. Did Kholoruuf take them with him when he left?

Just then he heard the group coming up the stairs. He turned to face the door. Orten entered the room with Jonathan and the VIPs.

“We call this the Room of Stereopticons,” Orten said. “That’s Dr. Robert Bennett, our semiautonomous team member. We couldn’t have found this place without his help.”

“Hello,” Robert said with a smile, nodding to the group. The VIPs said hello as well, but none of them smiled.

“These instruments pose a mystery for us,” Orten continued, “because we haven’t figured out how they might function.”

Members of the VIP group walked over to the stereopticons to look at them more closely. Robert thought this would be a good time to engage the curly haired woman in conversation. He started to walk toward her, but Orten, clearly pretending not to notice he was blocking Robert’s path, walked in front of him.

It was obvious to Robert that Orten didn’t want him to talk to the woman. Robert went to another part of the room and again tried to approach the congresswoman, and again Orten blocked his path.

When the group left the room, Orten was last. As he went into the hallway, he looked at Robert as if to say, “Did you get the message?”

At lunchtime, Robert walked out of the gate and headed toward the white RV. Orten, several of the team members, and the VIPs were standing by the cars, shaking hands and talking. Since other members of the crew were there, Robert walked up to the group.

The congresswoman was speaking. “So tomorrow morning at nine,” she said. “At the restaurant on Long Street. We’ll see you there.”

Orten walked over to Robert. “You’re not invited, Robert,” he said, and walked away.

The visitors got into their black sedan and drove off.

I may have dropped the ball, Robert thought. But then again it might not be too late. He had noticed that Jonathan seemed to be friendly with the VIPs and had been almost the only one in the Grayling group to have shown any friendliness toward him—he might even be his mysterious, note-writing friend.

On the way into the RV, Robert caught up with Jonathan. “Are you going to the Long Street get-together tomorrow?” Robert asked.

Jonathan seemed a little surprised at the question, as if he thought Robert shouldn’t have asked it. “Yes,” he said.

Robert pulled his little notebook out of his pocket, tore a page out, and wrote his phone number on it. “Would you please give this to the congresswoman? I’d like her to call me,” he said, handing the paper to Jonathan. He knew he was taking a risk, but felt he had to take it.

“Sure thing,” Jonathan said, as he climbed up into the RV.

At the end of the day, Orten stopped Robert in the upstairs hallway. Orten pulled the note Robert had slipped to Jonathan out of his pocket and handed it back to Robert.

“There’s no reason for Congresswoman Martell to see this note. She wouldn’t want to talk to you—believe me.”

Robert stuffed the note into his pocket. So Jonathan wasn’t my note-writing friend after all, he thought.

“I can’t have people going behind my back here,” Orten said angrily. “I’m taking you off the team. Get your stuff and leave.”

Robert realized immediately that there was no way in the world Orten would ever change his mind about kicking him out. He’d clearly decided Robert was no longer an asset and, in fact, probably had been looking for an excuse for some time to get rid of him. Orten never would allow him back into the site.

I blew it, Robert thought. I should’ve waited and found another way to contact the congresswoman. Feeling he’d failed, he piled his equipment into his 4Runner, got in, and drove back toward Fresnaye. Where do I go from here? he wondered as he drove. He still had full control over his Catskills site. Could he reveal that site to the world in such a way that the discovery couldn’t be covered up? But they know that I’ve got this other site, he thought. And maybe that I’ve got the technology they want so badly. They might think I’ll reveal everything we’ve found. They might see me as a threat to their plans. I might even be in danger.

He got back home, had an early dinner, and went to bed.

As he lay in bed, he felt more and more that he might be in serious danger. Maybe they’d want to neutralize him for good. Would they really kill him? Were they that evil? Could his mysterious friend stop them or warn him? Am I in danger right now? he wondered, and sat upright in his bed.

Without turning on the light, he got dressed quickly and went to the front door. He opened it and looked out. No one was there. Were his fears exaggerated? Maybe, but he felt it would be wise to take precautions.

He left the house and got into the 4Runner. He drove down Lion’s Head and turned north onto Regent Road. I’m just being careful, he told himself. There’s probably nothing to worry about, but I might as well put some distance between Fresnaye and me. He kept driving until he found himself on Somerset Road. There he pulled onto a side street and into a little parking lot behind a furniture store, turned off the lights and engine, and sat in the dark.

Maybe I should take a flight back to the States tomorrow, he thought, and try to stay out of sight for a while. He closed his eyes and leaned back in the seat. For some reason he started to think about the Room of Stereopticons and about how no one knew how to make the stereopticons work. He thought of a term he’d seen somewhere: “double glass.” Where did he come across that expression? Of course he knew where he’d seen it; it was in Kholoruuf’s note in the Room of Shields at the New York site. Robert remembered the text, word for word: “Seek out and find the Great Place for Humankind, which contains the deepest secret of the Engine. Look in the room of the double glass.” He opened his eyes. “That’s got to be the Room of Stereopticons,” he said out loud.

Something else was bothering him. His thoughts now turned to the incident on the shore of the Baltic Sea. He thought of the creature’s two big eyes, its apparent predicament, its apparent struggle with the strings on its hood. There was something distinctive about the cloth that the hood was made of, its texture, its bulk, the way it folded. What did it remind him of?

Suddenly it came to him. The pieces of cloth that John and Will had discovered in the Theoretics Library had the very same qualities. Robert thought about the Atlanian Truth-Engine book that discussed the origin of some mysterious cloths. Could the pieces of cloth in the Library be the cloths the Atlanians were so fascinated with? The creature had been pulling strings out of the cloth. Robert had received the impression that the alien was trying to show him something, and somehow he knew that what the alien was trying to show him had something to do with the cloths and the Room of Stereopticons. Could it be that if the cloths were inserted into the stereopticons, an image could be seen through the lenses? Would the pictures reveal the key to the deepest secret of the Truth Engine? Could cords be pulled out of the cloth that would make it all work? Suddenly his mind was putting it all together.

Robert sat up and started the 4Runner. Surely they wouldn’t have changed the locks already, he thought. He didn’t know the night guards well, or their habits, but he figured that whoever was guarding the gate would have to go to the bathroom in the RV every now and then. I’ll be able to get in, he thought.

It was almost eleven thirty when Robert pulled up to the side of the road near Pieter de Bruin’s house. He decided to approach the koppie from the north, since the guard probably wouldn’t be expecting anyone to come from that direction.

He walked through the field slowly so he wouldn’t trip in the darkness. He was carrying a flashlight but thought it wouldn’t be wise to turn it on. At the front of the site’s enclosure, there was a single light, which Robert kept in sight as he made his way across the field.

As he got close to the fence, he worked his way around to the back of the site. Crouching in the bushes, he saw the guard standing near the gate with a rifle strapped to his shoulder. Robert sat on the ground to wait for an opportunity. The white RV was parked about twenty yards from the gate. Two other vehicles were parked nearby, but they always seemed to be there, and Robert was pretty sure no one would be inside the hill. He watched as the guard paced back and forth near the gate.

He thought about the wisdom of his decision to sneak into the site. What exactly could he expect to accomplish? He was sure he had come up with the key to discovering the deepest secret of Kholoruuf’s Truth Engine, but how could this discovery, even if he could accomplish it in one night, possibly improve his situation? Could the stereopticons, built so many thousands of years ago, still work? He remembered the strange circuitry inside the bedroom computer cabinet that Sam and Janice had shown him—the rocklike conglomeration of crystals—and recalled how Janice had suggested the components had a shelf life of a million years.

But what would happen to Robert if they found him in the house? Would his mysterious friend somehow anticipate his actions and be there to help? He thought about how he’d sensed that the alien being wanted to teach him about the cloths. The alien wanted him to discover how to operate the stereopticons. Were “they” around here now? Would they help him in a pinch? He told himself to get a grip; he decided it was raw curiosity that was driving his actions. He had to know what the deep secret was, and this might be his last chance to solve the mystery.

Robert didn’t have to wait long for his opportunity to enter the hill. A little past midnight, the guard went into the RV. Robert jumped up and ran to the gate, unlocked it, went into the enclosure, locked the lock, and went quickly into the hill. As he walked up to the house, he saw that all the lights inside were lit, as he knew they always were.

He went up to the Theoretics Library, took the five cloths out of the drawer they were in, and carried them into the Room of Stereopticons. The stereopticon with the power cord attached to it was on the left, and the three chairs were grouped together in front of it. Robert sat down on the chair directly in front of the lenses and placed the cloths on one of the other chairs. He picked up the cloth on top and unfolded it. Spread out, it was about three feet long on each side.

Robert held up the cloth and examined it carefully. Along the bottom was a band composed of white grains like those he’d seen in the computer, but this cluster was flexible. Near the left and right edges of the cloth were small eyelets, two on each side, each one surrounded by a metal ring. How could cords be pulled out of this? he wondered. He dug his fingernail under one of the rings and pried it up, away from the cloth. He noticed that the ring remained attached at one point. He grasped the ring between his thumb and forefinger and pulled it away from the cloth. Amazing, he thought, as he found himself drawing a moderately thick wire out of the cloth. He noticed that when he stopped applying force, the wire slowly retracted into the cloth. He got up and took the cloth to the back of the stereopticon. Pulling the wires out one by one, he found that the four rings fit snugly onto the four little hooks on the cabinet. When he attached the fourth ring, the cloth lit up, its surface turning a plain, sparkling white.

Incredible! What an amazing technology, Robert thought. And it’s still working. He went to the front of the stereopticon and looked through the lenses.

What he saw was the 3-D stereo image of a white beach under a blue sky filled with fluffy white clouds. The image was as bright and clear as it must have been in Kholoruuf’s day. A blue-green sea stretched to the horizon. In the center of the scene, walking on the beach, with its head tilted, as if it were watching the camera, was what could only be a pterodactyl. It was huge and covered with a smooth layer of white hair. On the top of its head was a tall, three-pointed crest.

It's so realistic, Robert thought. Incredibly real.

Robert rolled the trackball, and the scene shifted to the right. Now he was looking down the length of the beach. At the lower right, near the camera, was a bush with roundish leaves. He rolled the trackball again and found himself looking away from the sea. In front of him, sitting on a fallen tree and looking into the camera, was a group of three alien creatures, humanoid yet insect-like at the same time, with huge eyes, protruding jaws, and tiny mouths. They wore coats and trousers and held rods in their hands. Around them, on the sandy ground, was an array of equipment—canister-like objects, ropes, and a variety of tools. He found that if he rolled the trackball up and down, he could zoom in and out.

Robert recalled how, in the dialectic on the cloths, the dialectician had tried to prove that the cloths had been created by the “ancient races not of this earth.” Could this be a real photo, actually taken in prehistoric times? Robert wondered. Could earth have in fact been visited in the remote past by otherworldly beings, as the paintings in the Theoretics Library seem to suggest? Could the aliens have preserved a digital file for this image, uncorrupted, for millions of years?

Robert had played computer games and wondered if he could click and move through the virtual space. He tried pressing on the trackball, but nothing happened. He changed the view so he could see the pterodactyl again. Is this what pterosaurs really looked like? he wondered.

He also wondered whether there might be a clue as to the identity of the Great Place for Humankind in the scene, but nothing stood out.

He was eager to examine the other cloths. He disconnected the first cloth, set it on top of the stereopticon, and connected the next cloth in the stack to the back of the cabinet. Then he looked at the glowing surface of the cloth through the lenses. In this scene a feathered dinosaur stood over its prey, a turtle, on a rocky terrain.

velociraptor

The image of the feathered dinosaur

Robert looked around in this virtual space, again finding a group of alien observers, but again he could discern no clues regarding the deep secret of the Truth Engine.

He took down the cloth and picked up the next one. He noticed that something was written on this cloth; he saw very faint red letters running along one edge. He translated the text without consulting the lexicon: “On every old, inhabited world, a Truth Engine has been built.” He connected the cloth to the back of the cabinet and looked through the lenses. This scene was obviously of an alien world. One humanoid alien sat in an enclosure, on top of a platform, at a small round table. Another alien stretched his or her arm out to hand the first alien a piece of paper (or to take the piece of paper from the first alien). An exotic landscape was visible through a large opening in the enclosure. Another alien stood outside looking in.

alien scene

The alien Truth-Engine image

Robert rolled the trackball, and the scene moved a little to the right.

At that moment, he heard Jennifer’s voice behind him.

“What are you doing here, Robert?”

He spun around in his chair. Jennifer stood in the doorway behind the guard, who had his rifle on his shoulder and his sidearm in his hand, pointed at Robert.

Jennifer was smiling. “Carl saw you sneak in. You’re trespassing.”

Robert’s heart sank. At that moment he felt all was lost. “I had an idea I wanted to check out.” He gestured toward the stereopticon. Suddenly his mouth was dry. “I’ve got it working.”

“That’s nice,” Jennifer said. “Very clever of you. But you might want to know that we have plans for you. This’ll make it easy for us.“

“What does that mean?” Robert asked.

“Give me that,” she said to Carl, as she took his gun out of his hand. “I’ll take care of this. You go watch the gate.”

Carl turned to go. “I’ll call Professor Orten,” he said.

Jennifer aimed the gun at Robert and with her other hand took her phone out of her pocket. “No,” she said. “I’ll call him. Go watch the gate, and don’t leave your post.“

She kept the gun aimed at Robert as she took a step back into the hallway and watched Carl leave. After a few seconds she looked back at Robert. Then she looked at the gun. “I’m sorry for pointing this at you, Robert.” She tucked the gun into her belt. “Everything’s OK. Don’t worry. I’m on your side,“ she said. She closed her phone, put it back into her pocket, and smiled at Robert. “I’m not going to call Orten,” she said. “Who wants to talk to him?”

Confused, Robert realized things weren’t quite as he’d imagined them to be.

Jennifer walked toward him. “I should’ve known that Orten wouldn’t let you talk to Congresswoman Martell. I probably shouldn’t have suggested you try. But she so much needed to hear your point of view. I wish you could’ve talked to her. I’d have suggested a long time ago that you write to her, but I don’t trust her staff.”

You suggested I talk to her? So you were the one who—”

Jennifer smiled. “Yes, the one who left notes on your door. Kind of cloak and dagger, I know. But it was the only way I could see to communicate with you.”

“Wow. I’m stunned,” Robert said.

She looked at Robert and frowned. “The Grayling Conservancy is a corrupt, corrupt group. If you want to defeat their plans to cover up this discovery and their plans to put artifacts on the market, then I’m here to help you do it. You do want to, don’t you?”

Robert couldn’t control his smile. “I do want to stop them, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to have you as an ally. I had no idea my note-writing friend was you. I was so sure you were one of them.”

Jennifer laughed. “The dragon lady is all an act, believe me. I knew I had to get into Orten’s group, and deception was the only way—but I’ve hated every minute of it.”

“Sounds like there’s a story there,” Robert said. “I thought maybe you met Orten in Nevada.”

“No, our paths never crossed there. I was a student at Penn when Orten was teaching there. When the site in Finland was discovered, the lid of secrecy hadn’t been clamped down yet, and people in the department were talking about the find. Orten was put in charge of the dig. I knew him slightly, mostly by reputation—I knew people who knew him. I realized that with him in control, the world probably never would learn about the discovery, and I didn’t want that to happen. I had Orten pegged. I knew just what kind of person he’d want at his side, and I became that person. It worked. He hired me and thinks he needs me.”

“You played your role very well.”

Jennifer laughed. “They’re scared of me. Even Orten. It’s amazing how some well-placed rumors and a little acting can create a totally false persona.” She turned serious. “You know, the way I see it…the officials in the government who want total censorship, however misguided, are pretty much patriotically motivated. The General has at least that going for him. Orten’s kept his position here by representing himself as a hardline advocate of a complete cover-up. But Orten’s no patriot. He’s absolutely no patriot. He’ll make as many outside arrangements as he can—and he won’t care who he sells to. He’s making plans for…what he calls his ‘deals.’ And he’s promised some of the others he’ll bring them into it.”

“So he doesn’t care if there’s a cover-up or not?”

“Oh, he’s happy with the cover-up because he fears the spotlight of public scrutiny—but, Robert, what he really fears is you.”

“Me?”

“Yeah. You’re the one who found the site. He knows you have a real understanding of this culture…and an appreciation for it. You aren’t known as someone who wants a complete cover-up—in fact he suspects you don’t want one—and he fears that if the government softens its commitment to a wholesale cover-up, they’ll put you in charge here, and then his schemes might come to light. In fact, he’s been afraid that even if they don’t change their view they’ll put you in charge. That’s why he’s been maligning you. Now that you’ve been expelled, Orten sees you as a loose cannon—as even more dangerous.”

Robert shook his head. “That’s not good,” he said.

“I have to tell you,” Jennifer said, “and don’t panic, because we’re not going to let it happen—I promise you—I have to tell you that Orten actually was talking today about…eliminating you, and he meant permanently. That’s how corrupt he is. I was just about to warn you about it.”

Robert sat back in the chair. “Wow,” he said. “I have been feeling I might be in real danger.”

“We won't let anything bad happen,” Jennifer said softly. “But since Carl knows you were here, we’ve got to come up with something.” She looked at the stereopticon. “And this is exciting. How did you get it working?”

Robert was heartened by Jennifer’s confidence and welcomed the change of subject. “It’s a long, incredible story. It has to do with my trip to Finland. I promise to tell you all about it when we have some time to talk. The main thing is that the cloths, the ones from the Theoretics Library, somehow have the images stored on them.”

“Can I see?” Jennifer said, leaning over to look into the lenses. Robert moved over for her.

She put her eyes up to the lens. “Wow,” she said. “Amazing. It looks like an alien scene.“

“It’s an alien Truth Engine,” Robert said, “There’s a description written on the cloth.“

“Just amazing, Robert. Amazing.’

“Look at this one,“ Robert said, getting up. He detached the cloth and put up the image of the pterosaur.

Jennifer sat down and looked into the lenses. “Oh, boy,” she said. “It's so real.”

“Incredibly real.”

“What if it’s a…I almost want to say it looks like a real photo—of a real pterodactyl.”

“You know,” Robert said, “I had the same thought. See the trackball down there? Pan the image to see what’s behind the camera.”

She rolled the trackball and laughed. “Aliens on earth in prehistoric times! Just like the paintings.”

Robert looked at Jennifer. Her smile made him smile. This was a very different Jennifer. He had to let it sink in. “Why didn’t you tell me you were on my side?” he said.

Jennifer, still smiling, looked at him. “It was working OK without your knowing,” she said, “and if you’d ever seen me get into trouble, you’d know why I was in trouble, and I didn’t want you to feel you’d have to do something about it. But mainly I didn’t know how good a spy you’d be.” She stood up and walked to the other available chair and sat down. “I wanted your reactions to me to be completely genuine, one hundred percent. Orten’s pretty sharp. If you’d given me the wrong kind of look, or tried to talk to me, he’d have been on to us right away.”

“I can see that,” Robert said. “I’m not sure I’d be a very good spy.”

“I’m good at it, but even I sometimes almost give myself away, I think.” She laughed and lowered her head. “Sometimes I want to give Orten a wink, as if to say, ‘We’re both part of this game’—but of course he doesn’t know it’s a game. Only I know that.”

Robert looked at Jennifer, at the way her jet black hair fell over her cheeks. She’s so beautiful, he thought. She looks like a schoolgirl. Like a schoolgirl? What made me think that? Then he remembered, as a long-buried part of his unconscious mind became suddenly conscious.

“Jenny!” he said, almost shouting.

She looked up at him. “You remember me now, don’t you?”

“They weren’t dreams, were they?” He sat down in the chair in front of the lenses. “The classroom where I studied at night, where they took me at night as a kid. You were there. You and I were inseparable. Now I remember.”

“How much do you remember?”

“Not much. I always thought they were dreams, but now I know it was real, and you were there. And I remember the other kids; I even remember their names. I’d thought they must be dreams because I used to wake up so suddenly. But I’ve read about abductions, and how they can make a person completely unaware of the abduction itself…or the trip back, I guess.” Robert sat back in his chair and fought for composure. “I guess I was abducted? Oh, wow. I remember.”

Jennifer spoke softly. “They never made me forget, but I know they did that to you.”

“You said in your first note that you knew me…”

“I’ve known you for a long, long time.”

“I said ‘they’ took me, but I’m not clear about who that was.”

“There’s an otherworldly presence on our planet, Robert. It was otherworldly beings who taught us things. Somehow they knew we’d be working together as we are now, or maybe they helped make it happen.”

“These otherworldly beings…” Robert said, “are they good?”

Jennifer shrugged. “I don’t know. I feel they’re good, but I don’t know why they’re here, what they’re doing—why they taught us what they did. I just try to always do what’s right. I do think there’s a deep connection between them and the Atlanians, but I’m not clear about that.” When Jennifer said, “a deep connection,” Robert remembered what had brought him back to Nell’s Koppie this night.

“I read something in a note by Kholoruuf,” Robert said, “in another place, in a place I found in New York, on my own property. It spoke about something called ‘the Great Place for Humankind’ that contained ‘the deepest secret of the Engine.’ And then this same place was mentioned in those papers in the Theoretics Library, in that collection called Land and Sea.”

“I remember reading your translation of that,” Jennifer said. “I found that part especially interesting. It said there that the Atlanians found this Great Place; they didn’t build it.”

“Yes,” Robert said. “I can recite the words. It read, ‘Keshekh discovered the Great Place for Humankind, the place built as a repository for the Hidden Doctrine on the identity of the Truth Engines.’ But in the note from the New York site, Kholoruuf ties the secret to this room—he calls this the room of the double glass—something in this room holds the clue as to where the Great Place for Humankind is.”

“I don’t want you to think I was trying to pry your other discovery out of you,” Jennifer said. “I want you to know that, as far as I was concerned, you could keep that secret until you knew me better.”

“Oh, I know you, Jenny. You were the nicest kid in class…and somehow I feel I knew you after that too—I did, didn’t I? Somehow I feel now that I know you as well as I know anyone.”

“Yes, you knew me after that. I hope it all comes back to you soon.”

Robert sat thinking, trying to remember.

Jennifer’s tone was reassuring. “It’ll come to you. I’m sure of it,” she said softly.

“Anyway,” Robert continued, “this Great Place for Humankind, this deepest secret of the Engine—I feel sure that the clue to where it is will be found in these images, in the cloths.”

“Well, let’s take a look at them,” Jennifer said.

They looked through the cloths’ images, taking turns at the lenses, examining each one carefully. They studied the pterosaur cloth, the feathered-dinosaur cloth and the alien Truth-Engine cloth. The fourth cloth showed another alien scene—a pastoral image of fields, a stream, and strange-looking trees. The image on the fifth cloth showed a group of wooden buildings next to a creek in a dark forest. Aliens were peering out of windows at a small herd of what appeared to be some kind of four-legged birds or feathered dinosaurs by the water’s edge. In none of these images could Robert or Jennifer find anything that seemed to be a clue.

Robert sat back in his chair. “Well, that’s all the cloths we have. They’re amazing, but they don’t contain any clues, as far as I can tell. What time do you have?”

Jennifer checked the clock on her cell phone. “A quarter of two.” Then she thought for a moment. “You know, Robert, there’s one more cloth.“

“Where?”

“In the inner Core Room.”

“Oh, yeah,” Robert said. “That folded-up piece of cloth on the pedestal.”

“Let’s go get it.”

They went together to the top of the staircase and stopped to make sure Carl wasn’t in the house. “Maybe you should get it,” Robert said.

“Yeah,” Jennifer said. She went down to the Core Room and brought the cloth back up. They walked back to the stereopticon, and Jennifer unfolded the cloth.

“There’s some writing on this one too,” Robert said, pointing to a line of faint, red marks along one edge.

Jennifer looked closely at the marks. “What does it say?”

Robert studied the writing. “Tuur tshaak tsel motek: Dark footsteps to…” He looked up at Jennifer. “What is motek?”

She took out her phone and brought up the Atl dictionary. “‘M-o-t-e-k…’ It means ‘tower.’”

Robert hooked up the cloth to the back of the cabinet. As the cloth lit up, Jennifer looked into the lenses.

“It’s this house,” she said. “Look.” She got up and offered the chair to Robert. He sat down and looked at the scene.

The quality of this image wasn’t quite as good as the others. He saw some fading in spots and some dark horizontal streaks in other places; even so, the degradation was minimal. The house, painted a soft green, could be seen—from the front and a little to the side—under a deep-blue sky. A paved road ran from left to right across the field of view.

“Do you see a tower?” Jennifer asked.

“Let’s see…” Robert said, as he moved the trackball. He panned the scene to the right until he saw the road vanishing into the distant hills. He moved the scene a little farther, and there was the tower. “Yes! There are some buildings over there, and among them is a small tower, maybe a half mile from the house.” He zoomed in on it. “It’s a small, wooden tower. Take a look.” He gave his seat to Jennifer.

She looked into the lenses. “So…where would that tower be in actuality?”

“It’d be…It looks like it’d be northeast of here.”

Jennifer kept looking at the scene. “Could we find that site?”

Robert thought about it. “I wonder if the Atlanians preserved that site too. But ‘dark footsteps to the tower…’” Robert said.

Jennifer looked up at him. “Stairs…in the dark? Or walking at night?”

“Or underground?” Robert said.

“A tunnel,” both said together.

“I’ve never examined the northeastern part of the basement,” Robert said. “Have you?”

“No. No one has, as far as I know. In the two weeks since you found the key to the basement, we’ve been focusing on the Room of Dangers. I did see Orten shining his flashlight into that corner, though. If anyone went back there, they didn’t find anything interesting enough to report on.”

“Let’s take a look.”

To next chapter (Chapter 12)