Authors: Alex Archer
TORONTO â¢ NEW YORK â¢ LONDON
AMSTERDAM â¢ PARIS â¢ SYDNEY â¢ HAMBURG
STOCKHOLM â¢ ATHENS â¢ TOKYO â¢ MILAN
MADRID â¢ WARSAW â¢ BUDAPEST â¢ AUCKLAND
The Upper Amazon Basin
With a growl of its potent diesel engine, the 124-ton bulldozer rumbled into motion across the clearing. Riding outside the enclosed and air-conditioned cab despite the sweltering wet heat, Henrique da Silva felt the power surge through his legs and spine and exulted. Hanging on with one hand and with the Uzi submachine tipped skyward in the other, he felt filled with power, like a conqueror of old. He could even ignore the seismic jiggle the massive engine's vibration induced in his substantial belly fat, straining against the already sweat-soaked front of his white shirt.
The workers driving the heavy machinery wore coveralls. The heavily armed mercenary force, riding inside and on top of the armored cars that rolled forward flanking him to either side, wore camouflage. But Silva affected dark trousers, shirt and a tie flung rakishly over his shoulder. He was Amazonas State associate secretary for environmental protection. He had an image to project. While some men in his position were only too willing to tart themselves up in rain-forest-pattern battle dress, Silva preferred to distinguish himself from the men he had hired to protect his workers. They too were mere hirelings. He was the man in charge.
Not that that meant he would willingly relinquish his grasp on his submachine gun.
“Your Excellency.” His assistant's voice crackled with worry as much as static in Silva's headset. Silva was hardly an excellency. But he seldom reproved his assistant for using the title. He liked its ring. And once they received the returns for the hardwood from the virgin stand of selva on the clearing's far sideânot to mention certain discreet bounties for dealing with native populations that stood in the way of progressâ
might apply. He knew a number of enterprises where he could rapidly leverage his newfound wealth.
“Excellency, are you sure this is wise? Many men have been lost in this region.” They had landed from a flotilla of riverboats far up the Amazon Basin, distant from anything either man would recognize as civilization.
“Carelessness, Ilyich,” Silva said. “Augmented by silly superstition. Doubtless some earlier parties got themselves ambushed. But we're not going to be put off by a handful of naked savages, are we?”
“But there are storiesâthe hidden city of magicians.”
“Fah. You're a government employee, Ilyich. An educated young man. Not a stupid and ignorant dockhand in Bahia, ready to scuttle off at the first rumor of Indian witchcraft.”
Silva considered himself above all that. The little deer-hide pouch of chicken bones, tobacco and certain other none-too-clearly specified substances he carried inside his watch pocket was merely a memento.
“I'm concerned for our work schedule,” his assistant said. “And costs. Costs, of course.”
“Then let's not delay. Soares? Are your men in readiness?”
“Yes.” The work-gang boss rode another huge bulldozer. He most closely resembled a brick, in shape, complexion, and consistency. He was a man of medium height with dark reddish brown skin, a curly fuzz of red hair brushed with yellowish white around the fringes of a dome of skull, even slightly reddish murky eyes. The single affirmative was all Silva needed or expected of himâhe spoke about as much as a brick. He allowed no nonsense, which recommended him highly for his task, where neither sloppiness nor malingering could be tolerated.
“And you, Colonel Bruckner?” Silva asked.
The security chief was a real German, not a second-or third-generation Brazilian German from down south. He was a veteran of the former East German National People's Army and a thoroughly work-hardened mercenaryâor private military contractor, as he preferred to be called. He was a short man, precise and slim as an ice pick, with a prematurely white buzz cut and coal-black eyebrows over bright blue eyes.
“Yes,” Bruckner replied. “My men champ at the bit. Let's go kill some savages.” His notion of how to deal with indigenous peoples accorded well with Silva's.
“Go,” Silva commanded. With a hand on top of the cab, he waved his Uzi in a rough circle in the air. Few actually saw the gesture; they were either sealed into metal boxes or peering intently at the jungle lying ominously in wait. But it made Silva feel like a conqueror.
The vehicles swept forward. The mercenaries mostly rode in their six-wheeled armored cars, the workers clinging to the bulldozers or banging around like loads of papayas in stake-bed trucks. Silva rode a precarious perch just behind the monstrous, hot engine. But as the machine's treads bit into the black soil and the great blade began to shove down the tall yellow grass in front, he knew it was worth it.
This land was low but only submerged when the rains caused the great river to rise over its ill-defined banks. The path from their river beachhead led across a wide clearing, with its high grass and anomalous black soil. The rich topsoil was called black Indian earth. Found throughout the Brazilian Amazon, it was supposedly a special soil artificially created by the inhabitants. The undersoil of the Amazon Basin was poor, weak and thin. He believed it had to be some kind of unexplained natural phenomenon. Who could believe ignorant savages could create something modern science was unable to duplicate, and so much of it?
The stink of diesel overpowered even the jungle reek of wet and rotting vegetation. The roar of big engines overpowered everything, enclosing Silva in a microcosm of noise and power. A heavy warm wind blew against Silva's plump face.
Ahead and to the left, a flight of small blue birds rose from the high grass and swirled up chittering in the air, as into an inverted invisible drain. After a reflexive glance at the sudden movement, matched by a sort of interior jerk, Silva ignored them. He was a progressive, a man of the modern world. As far as he was concerned any bit of nature he couldn't bend to the use of the stateâwith a bit of profit on the side for himâwas just clutter.
The associate secretary assumed the white smoke that puffed into the heavy air ahead was some kind of primitive signal by the savages to alert their friends and relatives to the mechanized doom rolling toward them. Then a fierce crack stabbed his ears right through the engine's roar.
The hatches of an armored car just four vehicles to his left flew open. An astonishing quantity of black smoke erupted from them. Men scrambled out, shrieking. They burned with flames that were almost invisible in the bright sunlight.
The associate secretary heard Bruckner curse in his earpiece.
“You said these were just Indians, Silva. Where did they get MILANs?”
Silva was still blinking in amazement at the stricken armored car. It had rolled to a stop. Orange flames jetted from the open hatches. Yellow explosions crashed and flashed through them like fireworks as ammunition belts cooked off inside. The vehicles immediately behind it had stopped, more in response to the sudden attack than any obstacle the wreck posed. The word at the end of the German's sentence made no sense to Silva.
“I hired your men to fight,” Silva replied. “So fight!” As he gave the brusque command machine guns began to snarl from vehicles to either side of his. It made him feel on much firmer ground. He was in charge.
The German had his white-fuzzed head down and was talking into his mike on a different frequency. Over the grumble of engines and the wind-roar of the flames they heard distinct pops from the woods behind them. Having read reports of prior expeditions to this rich virgin district, they were prepared as well as possible. Their 82-mm mortars would clear out any ambushers the machine guns couldn't deal with.
Beyond Bruckner's command car, a yellow bulldozer rolled. It was still immense at half the size of the machine Silva rode.
The laborers riding it wore overalls with no shirts beneath, and hard hats. As Silva watched Bruckner give commands he saw a worker simply slip from the dozer and disappear into the grass. A moment later a second followed, and a third.
The bulldozer stopped. The remaining two laborers riding it jumped off and ran. One screamed horribly as the dozer immediately behind, which had swerved to avoid hitting its suddenly stalled mate, sucked a boot into its treads. His leg was twisted off at the thigh.
More pops from overhead, surprisingly flat sounding, drew Silva's attention upward. He saw dirty gray puffs of smoke unfold against the blue sky overhead. He realized he had not heard the slamming cracks of mortar shells among the trees ahead. Could the savages have somehow exploded the shells in air?
“Impossible!” he exclaimed.
Around him he heard explosions, screams, the rippling of machine-gun fire. The bulldozers had all stopped. Even the armored cars had halted, three of them including Bruckner's out in front of the rest of the mass. The machine cannon in Bruckner's cupola fired, its sound like the fabric of reality tearing right across.
Silva felt his own machine slow. He pounded on the top of the air-conditioned cab with a palm. “Go! Go, you cowardly piece of shit! Or I'll have you and your whole worthless family sent to the gold camps!” He did not have to tell the driver a steady stream of humanity flowed into the camps. And almost none returned.
Lights flickered among the trees, still over two hundred yards ahead. Silva had never been under fire before but he couldn't help recognizing muzzle-flashes. These savages were well-armed. The evil small-arms merchants had much to answer for.
Yet despite the screams and blasts all around he felt no fear. This wasn't real somehow. He could feel nothing, not even the Amazon heat. He was just barely aware of shock waves drumming against his cheeks. Besides, he was preparedâhe was the master of the situation. So the savages had gotten guns from some traitor. He had a preponderance of force. He had Germans, damn it!
“Bruckner,” he shrieked. The German showed no reaction. Though he was barely twenty yards away he couldn't hear the associate secretary over the head-crushing racket. Silva fumbled with the channel setting on his communicator. “Bruckner, deploy your men! Attack, damn you! They're nothing but a handful of primitives.”
the German replied. Silva was outraged. He resolved to see to Bruckner when this was done. The man was incompetent, and trying to cover it with impudence in the very belly of battle!
“Soares,” Silva commanded his labor chief, “keep your machines moving forward. If they fear danger, there's more of it here in the open.” And even more if they fail me! he thought furiously.
There was no response. Just a crackle in the headset.
“Soares!” he shouted in his microphone, as if that would help. “Answer, damn you.”
“He can't, Excellency.” He heard the voice of Ilyich Chaves, his personal aide. It shook so badly he could barely wring sense from it.
“Why not?” Silva shrieked.
“An animal,” Ilyich said. “Some horrid beastâit leaped from the grass.”
“Get hold of yourself, imbecile! Speak sense!”
From the right he saw a sudden flicker of yellowâ
It emerged from the grass and sprang from the black Indian earth. A great cat, thick bodied, spotted with black rosettes, ears pressed flat to a skull that gleamed like gold in the sunlight. It hit Bruckner in a sort of flying tackle, rocking him back in his seat.
” Silva breathed. “A golden
” It was a jaguarâand more than a jaguar. A huge golden one. An almost mythic beast of the great Amazon woods, seldom seen but always feared.
The German's gloved fists beat against the great cat's shoulders as it sank huge yellow fangs into his neck and dragged him out of the hatch onto his back atop the armored vehicle. The beast pounced and raked open Bruckner's camouflage battle dress and the Kevlar vest beneath as if they were wet tissue paper. Then it began to scoop the guts right out of the mercenary's living belly, kicking with its monstrous hind legs.
Bruckner's screams put the thunder of battle to shame.
More motion snapped Silva's attention away from the nightmare spectacle. His own machine lurched to a final stop.
A young man stood before him, fifteen yards away, clearly visible through a gap in the grass. He was nude, tall and lean and muscled like a god. His long, handsome, high-cheekboned features were impassive. Dark brown dreadlocks cascaded about his broad shoulders.
“Bastard!” Silva shrieked. He clutched the Uzi in both hands and ripped a burst from right to left. It should have stitched the man across his washboard belly. But even as the associate secretary brought his weapon up, the man sidestepped into the high grass and was gone.
Silva sprayed the grass with bullets. The tall stems might shield the naked savage from view, but they wouldn't keep copper-jacketed lead out of his golden hide. The Uzi's heavy bolt locked back as the magazine ran dry. Cursing, weeping in frustrated fury, Silva fumbled in his pockets for a backup magazine.
Triumph thrilled through him as his fingers closed around a cold steel bar. “Ha! Ha!” he shouted, pressing the latch and dropping the spent magazine from its well in the Uzi's pistol grip.
A figure reared up beside him as from the depths of his own nightmares. An anaconda, a huge serpent with mottled brown-and-yellow scales glistened in the hateful sun. Its head was as large as a bull mastiff's. The eyes were huge and golden and seemed to glow with terrible intelligence.