Chapter XCIII: Journey to the Heart of Darkness
5 April 1610
The Jungle Fighter Weapons School’s facilities was a preponderance of barracks and stockades that rested on a hill near a small river with its bank easing into the water like a lazy puma taking a drink. The facilities were part of a cleared plot of land with a ringlet of half broken stones forming a perfect polygon around the central block—it was obviously an artificial clearing that was done ages ago.
When the Spaniards first began fighting in the New World it was enough to merely cow most of the native cities into submission with superiority of Arms, but it became more and more apparent that a special group of individuals was needed to keep order and military presence in the deepest of the Empire’s jungle territories. This was why the school existed.
The School was founded on the principle of learning from the local natives and experience about warrior tactics and was funded remotely by the Viceroyalty in Mexico City. The initiative was secretive and it was for that reason that it was set in a distant and remote portion of the jungles of southern Mexico. Most of the instructors were veterans of those who fought in the peninsular campaigns in the Yucatan or other places where the density of the rainforest meant they acquired some acumen in the harsh way of life. Survival, traps, hand to hand combat, tracking: all of these things were taught by these veterans as well as those converted natives who lent their expertise.
Colonel Miguel was one of these veterans and he held sway over the compound and its adjoining town like a minor potentate. There were stories of his work in New Granada including when he managed to eliminate ten jungle opponents at their own game in the space of eighteen hours. For that, he was nicknamed by his friends víbora or Viper. Nicknames were a policy that the Colonel encouraged among his men. He would say that when you are in the jungle, you adopt a new identity—in that combat situation, there would be another you that would guide you to survival. A Frenchmen who had been recruited to the school had once called such a nickname a nom de guerre. After a while some of the villagers who provided the camp with most of its food started calling them guerillas thanks to the term. It was something most of the Spaniards ignored, however.
The Lieutenant who ran most of the classes for the Colonel was a Dutchman with the kind of serious face that made him perfect as headmaster for the soldiers. For being known for enforcing discipline that often saw many of the veterans—regardless of age—forced to stand in the rain while holding buckets aloft, the Lieutenant earned the ironic moniker of “Jester”. For someone as strict as he was, however, Jester surprisingly let it stick.
The school was not an easy one either. Sometimes the young men would go without food for three days at a time and told to scavenge for their own meals in the outlying brush while the officers ate the fattened wild boars that would be sold to them by the villagers. It was usually not the intense physical training that forced some to drop out, however. One of the only men to ever leave the facility was a young lancer nicknamed “Cougar” who had suffered a kind of fever that the doctors on the facility could not cure. Many said it was madness—that Cougar saw something in the jungle during an exercise that scared him half to death.
The villagers had said that it was the black spirits of the forest that brought damnation on the white skinned strangers. Many of them would remind the men on the base how the very presence of their wooden constructions was blasphemy against all of the men who died on that very ground. They wouldn’t be too far from the truth: the site was an old Mayan city that had already been ruined well before the Spaniards first scouted the area out. Years before that the entire population had apparently died of a plague of some kind—something the local villagers said was due to their inability to please the Sun god.
It was a natural place to have a small community, however, with ready access to the River. The villagers insisted that the desecration of where the ancient temple was brought wrath from Tepeyollotl and his black spirits. The Colonel would reassure his men that the only thing driving out white men from their rightful place in the Yucatan were the black panthers native to the area—these were the real “black spirits”.
As if to add further re-assurance against such rumours, the planners of the school had a chapel built atop where the ancient Mayan temple was although, because of their remote location, a priest only came around twice a year to administer the sacraments by boat. Especially in the New World, priests were in sharp demand for their services; after the miracle that Juan Diego saw more than half a century ago, there were more and more converts each day which left the chapel at the School empty for most of the year. Without a spiritual guardian, most of the men took to consorting with the women of the village—although this was usually punished by Jester and the camp had some understanding of discipline.
It was about that same time that Herr Gehirn had come down a strange contraption on the river. It was like a boat but made of steel and iron and propelled itself through some kind of machine at the tail end. This German had brought something to trade with them.
It was marketed as a remedy at first; to aid with various diseases and maladies. Colonel Miguel saw well enough the euphoria in his soldiers’ eyes whenever they were in the infirmary. Some were even said to have willingly let themselves be injured during practice to go to the doctors where supply of the substance seemed to always be in danger of running out. But as if just on the tip of despair, Herr Gehirn would return with a fresh shipment without asking for anything in return. “The first one’s for free,” the German had said.
It was administered through strange devices. Kind of like a sewing pin but much larger; a kind of marriage between a needle and its eye—that eye which the substance passed through. It relieved pain and certain madnesses especially after rigorous tortures in the field. The Colonel, out of curiosity, began to use it recreationally. After tasting its effects, he had Jester try it as well. And that was when Herr Gehirn started to ask for gold in return for the product.
Stipends began to disappear. Aside from the bare minimum for food, many of the men refused their pay in favour of this product. The substance was now used outside of the infirmary and each man had to have his share. Consumption increased and the military exercises became less frequent. Discipline began to break down although—through Jester’s best efforts—it kept a kind of semblance of order that was more like a hidden jape than any real structure. Underneath the red eyed stares of the soldiers was an emptiness that needed to be filled by the liquefied form of this powder.
Herr Gehirn asked for more and more gold each time although he only gave smaller and smaller increases in the shipments. When Colonel Miguel complained that they had exhausted all of their funds, Herr Gehirn had told them to dig deep into their pockets. Colonel Miguel should have been surprised at the innuendo. Indeed, the other reason why the location of the base was so secret was because of one of the prizes they kept heavily guarded—a cache of Aztec gold. Transported to that location from further up the river, it was supposed to be an emergency reserve in case piracy in the Caribbean managed more successful raids against the main holds. The Viceroyalty apparently believed that hiding emergency money in the jungle was the safest thing to do.
It was well thought out, however. When the Viceroyalties of the New World decided on this emergency policy, one of their leaders—Renault de Fronsac, Viceroy of California—offered to architect the design of the vault underneath the town. He said he would take advantage of the natural catacombs and sewer systems left behind by the previous civilization to create a nearly impregnable vault that would only open if an officer were to come by and know the various security measures to access the cache.
For those at the School, all they knew of the hidden treasure was that the first line of defense was an immense system of halls and corridors that constituted a kind of labyrinth underneath the compound. The Colonel already knew from discussing the architecture with some of the builders that it was a combination of the natural earthforms, the left behind architecture, and the new innovations by the Viceroy that would make digging into the vault tenuous; literally, any small venture to get into it by unprescribed means would only cause it to collapse on itself. Thousands of tonnes of rock and dirt to go through would take months—long enough for any Imperial army to catch wind of the insurrection or penetration and rescue the gold.
No, indeed, the only way in to would be to hazard the traps and riddles hidden therein. When Colonel Miguel heard from Herr Gehirn that the young lady who was coming was the daughter of the Viceroy and that her train was to get something precious from below, Colonel Miguel could barely hold his excitement.
“Once she opens the vault, I’ll take what she’s after and you can have all the powder and gold that you want,” he remembered Herr Gehirn saying.
“And what will you be doing with this prize that you’d forfeit all that gold?” the Colonel had asked.
“I could tell you,” Herr Gehirn had said with a laugh, “but then I’d have to kill you. Get rid of some of her followers ahead of time if you can; especially the Finn that is with them. The more you can lessen their number, the easier it will be to seize them when they are finished with their work in unlocking the vault.”
To that end, it was the reason why Colonel Miguel had sent some of his best students who understood the necessity of gaining more of the product to attempt to pick off some of the travelers before they reached the base. His best student whom they called “Iceman” for his even-tempered and almost cold-blooded execution of drills, as well as some of the others including “Goose”, “Wolfman”, and “Holy Wood” were sent with a small team to do the deed. A deed, the Colonel later found out, which only succeeded in killing a marine and a few horses. His opponents were certainly an innovative group, the Colonel admitted—especially when they were together.
When that group arrived to the camp, the Colonel made sure that everyone was on their best behaviour. Nothing was to betray suspicion and the guests would be given their full cooperation. The young lady, Madeleine de Fronsac, had delivered the appropriate paper work that was signed by the Viceroy himself. Lodging along one of the barracks that would have been like the backbone of the laying puma along the bank was given to the guests and work had begun the next morning to dig through the entranceway of the underground vault via the catacombs of the chapel.
“We thank you graciously for your hospitality!” Madeleine de Fronsac had thanked the Colonel. It was strange for the older man approaching the last quarter of his life to be so courteous to a young lady, but he let the prospect of more sweet serum dominate his thoughts and motivate him to mildness.
“You and your fellows are very welcome young lady,” he had said in response to her.
The entrance to the underground was penetrated easily and the young woman began mapping out the underground area. Using a string and torches with the help of various men who would move away dirt, rock, and earth, the team slowly made their way through the caverns and artificial edifices. Precise calculations were taken down in the main administrative hall by the studious Madeleine. Each corridor was accurately portrayed and even the depth and incline—something Madeleine used a strange hourglass type contraption with water within—was recorded on the grand map that was beginning to manifest inside the lobby of the office.
“How soon do you think you’ll find your way within, Señorita Madeleine?” the Colonel would sometimes ask impatiently. He found himself compelled to do so—the nights of lacking the powder in his veins grieved him greater and greater each time.
“It’s a massive structure underneath,” the young lady told him, “It would take maybe another day of digging about to find the entrance to the next level. But don’t fear,” and here the young woman seemed to brighten like a miniature star, “with my system, there is no turn or exit that we cannot record and know and thus we will always understand our way within.”
“My men have tried to scout out the area before,” the Colonel felt it safe to admit, “but we could never get far even with a rope to find our way back. Some of the men compare it to being in the jungle. Feeling our way through the insufficient light, even our voices echoed and doubled back at us. Our very footsteps began to scare us after a while as if, when they echoed back, it was the very heart of darkness beating.”
“Heart…” Madeleine repeated. There was a small explosion on the girl’s cheeks and a grin dominated her face. “I’ve figured it out! Don’t worry, Colonel, I think I may have just solved the mystery of this labyrinth!”
The Colonel could not help but be infected by her grin and left her to her work. Until they open the vault gateways, none of the men at the camp could disturb or give away the plot brewing amongst them. Some of the godless soldiers even had trouble hiding their lecherous eyes from the buoyant young lady. It was lucky for her that the Dutch soldier always seemed to be at her side. Not today, however, the Colonel mused. Willem Van Axel had finally accepted an invitation to rest at the refectory—which by now had more resembled a tavern with the drinking of the soldiers. It was there that the Colonel made his way across the courtyard for.
“It’s good of you to join us today, Willem!” the Colonel attempted to ingratiate himself to the young man as singing and drunkenness had already dominated most of the late evening. Most of the exercises were finished and the men were attempting to stave off their addictions with a bit of bacchanalia.
“Thank you, Colonel. I’m still trying to figure out everyone’s names so you’ll have to forgive me,” Willem smiled back honestly while taking a sip from his mug. The Colonel nodded and allowed the young man to return to his intermingling with the soldiers although he kept a stealthy eye on him.
Despite the macabre machinations that would eventually lead to the young man’s death, Colonel Miguel found that he had come to like Willem the most. Like the rest of them, he was a soldier. He had great taste in women, and he was not secluded like the Finn or the Spaniard and not so saucy like the sailors that came with them. Willem was one of them—uncomplicated and generous. It’s a pity he was going to die in the end. Colonel Miguel shook his head and took a mug from the countertop grunting his disapproval despite the overtures of laughter from everyone else in the room.
Willem was standing up. “Well thanks again everyone for your hospitality,” he said to them as the crowd started to jeer his departure, “I better get back to helping the excavation.” The room was a gallery of teeth and distended lips. Willem brought his hand down to pat “Goose” on the shoulder and for a second—no, less than that—Goose winced at the touch on his shoulder. The Colonel could see it and he understood why: that was where Goose was shot by the very same young man that now bid him farewell. What was worse, the Colonel could see past the forced laughter of his guest—He knew Willem had seen the wince.
Rodrigo could only wince as he watched the nurses change the bandages on Junno Taguchi. He could not help but be slightly entranced by the wound, however. It was a strange cut, a sideline insertion as if Taguchi’s side was about to be flayed. The disgusting nature of it digressed from its obvious purpose: it was a strike far from any internal organs or major arteries or veins.
“Something is not right here…” Rodrigo whispered to himself, “Was he hesitating or did he spare his life?”
“Probably both.” It was Carlos’s voice behind him. “Mostly assault and theft on his list, but never murder,” the young man continued from behind Rodrigo. Both, however, were facing through the glass on the door that separated the hall from Taguchi’s bedroom where the nurse was quietly cleaning the dried up blood from the previous night on the prince’s body.
“So you think he really just did it for the money?” Rodrigo asked without turning away.
“We managed to get the texts he was exchanging with the professor at the college that seems to be connected with the Wolves and Ming Clique,” Carlos reported while handing over the papers to Rodrigo. Rodrigo’s fingers took the sheets carefully as if he was afraid any small movement might crumple them and mar their whiteness. As his eyes scanned the pages, his countenance became more troubled.
“Did he make any calls?” Rodrigo asked.
Carlos shook his head. “None of the satellites recorded any wireless activity from where we were aside from the texts. Nothing on the landlines or the PC either… why?” It was then that Carlos began to see the worry in Rodrigo’s face.
“Last night… he called me Janus… but none of the texts mention him ever finding that out…”
Carlos waited a moment before speaking. “That could only mean one of two things, Rodrigo…”
“But you did a background check already; he wasn’t connected at all with the Wolves or the Ming Clique, right? Otherwise they wouldn’t have let a crown prince like Taguchi near him…”
“Then that only leaves one other option…”
“That’s impossible… even if he knew that about me, how could he know it was me?”
“Do you think he could be working for a third party? Someone aside from the Chinese and Germans?”
“A third party?” Rodrigo puzzled. This can’t be right, he thought. But that would be the only other explanation. He had to face the truth that the secret about his nom de guerre was, perhaps, unfolding and, worse yet, that some maverick out for money was tampering with Keys that would unlock the End of the World.
Chapter XCIV: Maverick (coming soon)