Was North America once home to an advanced society, which mysteriously disappeared over forty years ago? Did its people possess technologies now lost to us in the modern age? Does evidence of their great civilisation still survive today?
This is the fervent belief of one Spartacus Jones, forty-three year old Milwaukee piano salesman, former Boston under 14 junior chess champion and would-be saviour of the Western world. Many, many years of painstaking study, much too much coffee and far too little sunlight have fed his unshakeable conviction that in the 1940s and '50s, America was inhabited by highly evolved, technically superior beings who had access to - amongst other things - flying spacecars, matter transmutation podules and bionic moonboots.
It is tempting to think of Jones as delusional or maladjusted. Indeed, it's difficult not to consider him some sort of fruitcake, lame-brain, or screaming mentalist. The more vindictive amongst us could, I'm sure, given pen, paper and a couple of hours, come up with all manner of suitably derogative synonyms, and this is just the sort of thing that Jones' more vehement critics get up to. At the core of Jones' claim, however, is the evidence that he has amassed over the years and, more specifically, the curious documents that he stumbled across in 1983.
Not that 1983 had been a good year for Spartacus Jones, marked chiefly by the break up of his marriage. Four years previously he had been fortunate enough to win a holiday in Brazil in a breakfast cereal competition, and it was here that he met the gorgeous and exotic Maria. It was love at first sight. Jones was entranced by her sultry Latin beauty and her infectious and outgoing personality, and she in turn found herself deeply attracted to Jones' steady job and American passport. They returned to the States and wed immediately, and what followed were four blissfully happy years for Spartacus Jones. The marriage had its ups and downs, of course, just like any other union, but Jones rarely questioned his wife's frequent nights away from the family home and her many trips to visit 'sick relatives'. Neither did he challenge Maria's lavish shopping expeditions which regularly netted her all manner of expensive jewellery, perfumes and designer clothing. It was all paid for from her own pocket. Evidently she had some additional source of income, for which he was too grateful to pry.
Then came the fateful day when Jones' fairytale came crashing down about his ears. Maria had been away for several days. She hadn't called, she'd left no messages, and whilst this wasn't an entirely unprecedented occurrence, Jones had the strangest feeling that this time it was different. He paced around the house all day, unable to settle. When she finally did turn up that evening, Jones knew instantly from the expression on her face that it was all over. She told Jones that she had been having an affair with one of the Chicago Bears - she couldn't remember which one - and she was going off to live with him because he had his own plane. She packed two suitcases and left that night. Spartacus Jones was distraught. It was the blackest day of his life. And such was the esteem with which his wife was held in the neighbourhood that many of the young men in the area were equally upset when they heard the news.
It might have been easy for Jones to go to pieces at this point. It might even have been excusable. After all, here was a likeable, if unremarkable, young man. Sensible, level headed, holding down a steady job, and considered to be an asset to his community, his family and his firm. That night, the night Maria left, he had sat there in the dark on the back porch until the sun came up, asking himself why. Why had his life fallen apart? Didn't he deserve to be happy? Where had he gone wrong? By the time the first purple rays of morning had crept above the rooftops and boiled away the night, every trace of self-pity had worked its way through his system. He had a new resolve, a new determination to turn his fortunes around and build a new life for himself. But before he did that, he had to destroy the old one.
He sold his house, the home they had shared together, then quit his job and moved to Milwaukee. The property he bought was run down, almost on the point of collapse - just the sort of thing he was looking for. He would fix it up, lose himself in building, and sawing, and hammering. The renovation of the house would be the metaphor for the rebuilding of his life. Little did he know it at the time, but that house held a few surprises that would change his life forever.
Jones knew very little about the history of the building, or its former occupants. The property had been standing empty for some years before he had taken it, and it still contained some of the furniture and belongings of the previous tenant. A local church bazaar was the grateful recipient of much of it. However, it wasn't until two months later that he investigated the attic. Crawling up through the narrow hatch he peered though the swirling clouds of disturbed dust, picked out by harsh slivers of sunlight that filtered in through the warped joists and broken roof tiles. He found the usual heirlooms and mementoes preserved amongst the forgotten bric-a-brac. Dusty and brittle, they told their own story. There was an ancient wooden clock, carefully wrapped in newspaper. Its tawny ceramic face might once have stared down at its owner from the mantelpiece in the dining room, or in the kitchen. There was a wedding dress, faded and fusty, and folded delicately in tissue paper. Beside this, a brown paper bag contained a collection of fragile, yellowing newspaper cuttings, recording the fortunes of the local college football team. Perhaps one of those dark, smudged little faces in the photograph was the man who had once lived here?
Then he found the case.
It was a big, brown canvas thing, with rounded edges that gave the mistaken impression that it was bulging. Jones would not have given it a second glance, had it not been securely locked. Intrigued, he fiddled with the little brass clasps, hoping that age would have taken its toll and he would be able to pop them open without too much fuss. In the event, it took a slightly more sturdy approach with a screwdriver to prise them away. Opening the lid he found it was packed with documents of some kind. Quickly, he dragged the case over to the edge of the roofspace, where a missing tile cast a circle of light into the shadows like a bright spotlight. Blinking the darkness from his vision, Jones examined the contents of the case with rapidly growing awe.
From the moment he first saw those brightly coloured pages, Jones instinctively knew that he had stumbled across something extraordinary; something that he had never seen before. The documents appeared to be some form of ancient books or magazines. They were extensively illustrated, the pages filled with frame after frame of colourful pictures which seemed to tell a story. And what a story ... a strange, futuristic world in which the miraculous was commonplace. Rocket cars that could zip through the skies at a hundred miles an hour. Intelligent robots to carry out dangerous and menial tasks. Supermen with fantastic powers of invisibility, x-ray vision and animal mesmerism. It was a world of wonders, where cities were built in the skies and men travelled to other worlds to do deadly battle with terrible inhuman creatures.
Jones instantly realised the importance of his discovery. Here was real documentary evidence of a previously unknown civilisation - possibly the only such evidence that remained anywhere in the world. He put his house renovations on hold and set about trying to unlock the secrets of these ancient texts.
He studied the manuscripts for months, poring over every word, every picture, every detail. Most of the pictures were annotated with captions and speech bubbles, and he quickly realised that deciphering this strange script would be the key to understanding the whole collection. He spent many long hours in the languages section of the local library, comparing the words to examples of Arabic texts, early European languages and ancient Egyptian, but he got nowhere. Then, one evening, just as he was about to retire for the night, he glanced over a couple of the magazines one more time, and several of the words began to look vaguely familiar. Reaching hastily for a dictionary he flicked frantically through the pages to confirm his hunch. Suddenly it was clear - the captions were written in English! Excited, he sat down at his desk and began to read with new vigour.
From that point on his work progressed in leaps and bounds. Here was the story of a civilisation that had existed in the early half of the twentieth century, in what is now the present day USA. Staggeringly, not only had they conquered space travel by the 1920s, they had also established contact with many alien races. Jones decided to christen these marvellous people 'Marvelites'. Their achievements in computer technology, bio-engineering, sub-atomic physics and modular warp matrix engineering were vastly superior to anything we can boast today. Gradually, Jones pieced together an incredibly detailed picture of these people, noting their eating habits (pills mostly) fashion trends (capes were in, big time) and even their sanitary arrangements (the zero-inertia sonic toilet must rank amongst one of the greatest inventions of all time).
The only question Jones couldn't answer was what happened to them? How can such a technologically advanced people simply disappear, almost overnight? By the late fifties and early sixties, the civilisation was at its height, but a couple of years later it has gone, and no trace of it remains today.
Jones believes the answer lies with a document he has labelled "Wondrous Tales, Issue 67", which tells of the attempted invasion of Earth by a race called the Zelloids. This is not, in itself, unusual. The history of the Marvelites is littered with such stories. The alien invaders are always despatched, usually as a result of the heroism of one individual working against the odds. Names like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers crop up often in these stories, leading Jones to infer that they were great military commanders whose exploits were widely celebrated by the people. However, it seems that neither Flash or Buck were available when the Zelloids came to call, and even Spiderman and The Green Hornet were otherwise engaged. Angry that the Earthmen's spandex mines on the planet Zantox had encroached upon their galactic territory, Zorkon, king of the Zelloids demanded satisfaction. With his spacefleet poised in attack orbit around Earth, he challenged the President of Earth to hand-to-hand combat. The President of Earth declined, claiming that as Zorkon had four times as many hands as he did, the contest would be totally unfair. Enraged, Zorkon ordered his spacefleet to target the planet with their deadly Brain Ray, which would fill the humans' heads with mindpuke, causing them to explode. Fatally.
Whilst most archaeologists and historians refuse to lend any credence to Spartacus Jones's theories of a lost civilisation, there could be solid, tantalising evidence under our very noses. The Empire State Building in New York has long been shrouded in mystery. Opinion varies wildly on its origins. Some scholars believe that it was erected in the middle of the nineteenth century, and was originally a lighthouse. Others are convinced that it is much older, built by Viking settlers who established a colony in Manhattan long before America was 'discovered'. There are even some scientists who believe that it wasn't built at all, but is a natural feature formed by millions of years of erosion by wind and rain.
Spartacus Jones subscribes to no such theory. He is convinced that it was built by the 'Marvelites', probably as a tomb for Errol Flynn. He believes that a thorough excavation of the building will reveal the burial chamber, as well as a quantity of precious jewels, and possibly the secret of eternal life. However, his attempts to investigate the site have so far been thwarted. On each of his previous visits he has had his trowel confiscated. He has since been prosecuted for vandalism and is banned from the building for life.
The document ends with the words 'Continued Next Issue', but Jones can find no Issue 68 amongst the collection. He believes the issue was never completed. The end of the Marvelites must have been as swift as it was terrible. Jones envisages scenes of chaos, with streets awash with exploded brains and burnt out skulls. It's a horrific image, but a cautionary one. One day, it is to be hoped, we will reach the same level of technical and intellectual achievement as the Marvelites. One day we too might venture out into the depths of the cosmos, or slip through space to some other dimension. It would do us well, Jones warns, to remember the example of the Marvelites, wiped out ultimately because of their insatiable lust for spandex.
But sadly, no one wants to listen to Spartacus Jones. Historians refuse to entertain his outlandish notions. Magazines and newspapers return his articles unread and ignore his letters. He is now convinced that one day the Zelloids will return, and though he continues to try and alert the world to the danger, his efforts are to no avail. Meantime, he is preparing. Using his dog-eared collection of 'ancient texts' as a guide, he is busy trying to replicate the technology of the Marvelites. He frequently scours the local hardware and electrical shops in search of valves, crystals, cables and magnets. He created quite a stir at first, dressed in his spandex leotard and flowing cape - which he claims protects him from the gamma rays that are constantly beamed at him from somewhere in the vicinity of the Crab Nebula. The locals are used to him now. He still lives in that little house he bought for himself in Milwaukee, but no doubt the previous occupants wouldn't recognise the place now. There are aluminium sheets up at all the windows, to guard against 'laser attacks'. Inside there are rooms full of televisions and radios, which blast out white noise 24 hours a day. They are 'listening to the stars' according to Jones. There's an experimental transmutation platform, a prototype time machine and even a fully functional zero-inertia sonic toilet.
There's also a room in which he keeps a small photo of his ex-wife and a few of the clothes that she chose to leave behind, but Spartacus Jones never goes in there.
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