The Athena Project
CHAPTER 1 PARAGUAYAN CHACO TRIPLE-BORDER “SANCTUARY” SOUTH AMERICA
The heat was unbearable. Ryan Naylor was drenched with sweat and the butt of his Glock pistol chafed against the small of his back. Some might have said it served him right. Doctors shouldn’t be carrying weapons; even here. But Ryan Naylor wasn’t just a doctor.
As the thirty-two-year-old surgeon slapped another mosquito trying to drain the blood from his neck, he wondered if he was being led into a trap.
“How much farther?” he asked in Spanish.
“Not much,” said one of the men in front of him. It was the same answer he’d been given repeatedly since they’d gotten out of their Land Cruisers to push deeper into the jungle on foot.
In the canopy of trees above, multiple species of birds and monkeys called down, upset at the alien presence.
Half of Naylor’s Camelback was already empty, but he’d yet to see any of the Guaranis he was traveling with raise their canteens.
The men marched in small-unit fashion, keeping five yards between each other in case of ambush. They carried rifles that looked like relics from the Gran Chaco War of the 1930s. How they managed to keep them from rusting in the oppressive humidity was beyond him. But as he had learned early on, the Guaranis had a much different way of doing just about everything.
Naylor had been sent to Paraguay by the U.S. military to gather intelligence. He was based out of Ciudad del Este, Spanish for City of the East and capital of the Alto Paraná region.
Begun as a small village originally named after a Paraguayan dictator, it had grown to a bustling city of over 250,000 and was an illicit paradise, with trafficking in everything from pirated software and DVDs to drugs, weapons, and money laundering. But there was something else that had attracted the U.S. military’s interest. It was also home to a large Middle Eastern community.
Upward of twenty thousand of the city’s inhabitants were either themselves from or descendants of people from places like Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza. The city even boasted two Arabic-language television stations.
Set against the backdrop of Paraguay’s corrupt government, Ciudad del Este’s Middle Eastern community provided the perfect human camouflage for transient Arab men involved in Islamic terrorism.
Organizations such as al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Al Gamaat, and Al Islamiyya
had all set up shop there. The Hezbollah operation alone was believed to have sent more than fifty million dollars back to the Middle East. In the remote deserts and jungles of the shared border area of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil were multiple terror training camps, more extensive and professional than anything ever seen in Afghanistan or Sudan.
Techniques for building IEDs and explosively formed projectiles were taught and perfected daily with instructors from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Syrian secret service, and Libyan intelligence service whose operatives rotated in and out as “visiting professors.”
As if that wasn’t enough to worry American authorities, Sunni and Shia extremist groups had joined forces to work and train together in the region.
A team of over forty FBI agents had been permanently encamped in Ciudad del Este to map out and dismantle the business dealings of the terrorist organizations, but it was the U.S. military, in particular Army intelligence, that had been charged with locating the terrorist training camps and gathering as much information about them as possible. That’s where Ryan Naylor came in.
Born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut, Naylor had served in the National Guard and attended college on the GI Bill. The Army then paid for him to attend medical school where he trained as a trauma surgeon. Like most surgeons, Naylor had a healthy ego, but it had never blossomed into arrogance. He was actually a very well-grounded doctor.
He stood a little over six feet tall, had brown hair, green eyes, and a handsome face. His mother had been of Dutch descent. He never knew his father.
After completing his residency, he’d pursued a fellowship in plastic surgery. He wanted to do more than simply repair damage, he wanted to make people normal, make them whole again. During his fellowship, he’d found himself drawn to facial surgery, in particular fixing cleft lips and cleft palates. Whether or not the Army felt this was a waste of his time and their money, they never said. All they cared about was that he complete his training and report for duty.
Having done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he fully expected to be sent back to a field hospital, but the Army had other plans for him. They wanted Naylor to become a missionary.
He spent the next year in what he euphemistically referred to as “Spy School.” His high-school Spanish was taken to a level he never would have thought himself capable of, he learned to pilot a variety of light aircraft, the ins and outs of tradecraft, how to conduct deep reconnaissance assignments, radio and satellite communications, and at night, he attended church and Bible study classes.
When his training was complete and he was activated, Naylor volunteered for a Christian medical organization with missions scattered throughout South America. One of their locations was in Ciudad del Este.
There were very few ways an American could get far enough into the Paraguayan sticks to gather effective intelligence. Posing as a doctor was one of the best. By delivering medical care to remote communities, Naylor was in a position to build effective relationships with the people most likely to hear and know about terrorist activities. And that was exactly what he had been doing. He had quickly developed
an exceptional human network throughout most of the villages he served.
Out of the handful of operatives the United States had working in Paraguay, Naylor produced the best reports. Not only did he bring back grade A material from the field every time, but his sources continued to feed high-quality intelligence back to him when he was in Ciudad del Este.
When the man walking in front of him suddenly stopped, Naylor, whose mind had been wandering, chastised himself for not staying focused. Even though the jungle was monotonous and the heat stifling, it was no excuse to get lazy and let his guard down. He knew better.
Two men at the head of their column were having a discussion. In the distance, Naylor thought he could hear a river. Breaking ranks, he walked up to them. “What’s going on?” he asked in Spanish.
“The others don’t want to go any farther,” said one of the men. “I will take you the rest of the way myself.”
“Wait a second. Why?”
“Because they’re afraid.”
“Afraid of what? Sickness? Whatever the people there died from?”
The older man shook his head. “From what we were told, the people there did not die from sickness.”
Naylor had no idea what the people had died from. All he knew was that a villager had stumbled across several dead bodies in a remote part of the jungle, a place no one lived in. The bodies belonged to foreigners, the man had said. Shortly after recounting his tale he had stopped talking. It was almost as if he had slipped into shock, though
some sort of catatonic state was more likely. Naylor wasn’t a psychiatrist, but whatever the man had seen had deeply disturbed him.
The area they were now in was rumored to have housed an al Qaeda training camp at one point, though no one could ever say exactly where. Add to that a report of “dead foreigners,” and that was all Naylor had needed to hear. He had no idea what had so spooked the villager who had stumbled upon the bodies, but his interest had been piqued, and once his mind was set on something, it was impossible to dissuade him from it.
The other men of their party made camp, while Ryan and the old man trudged deeper into the jungle.
Forty-five minutes later, the soft earth beneath their feet turned to what Naylor at first thought were rocks and then realized were actually pavers. Though choked with weeds, it appeared that they were on some sort of long-abandoned road.
They followed the path as it wound down into a wide gulley. There were enormous stones, some twenty feet high and fifteen feet across in places. Some appeared to have been worked with tools. Despite their having been eroded by time and the elements, Naylor could make out letters or strange symbols of some sort on them.
Ryan reached out to touch one of the monoliths, but the old man caught his wrist and pulled his hand back. “The stones are evil,” he said. “Don’t touch them.”
“Where are we?” Ryan asked.
“We are close,” replied the old man as he let go of Naylor and continued. “Close to the dead.”
The gulley was unusually cool. Naylor hadn’t
noticed it at first, but the temperature had to be at least fifteen to twenty degrees cooler. The trees on the ridges above them were full enough that the thick jungle canopy remained intact. Even if somebody in an airplane knew what he was looking for, this little valley would be impossible to spot.
Wildly overgrown, it stretched on for a hundred yards before leveling out and being swallowed back up again by the jungle. Naylor kept his eyes peeled for any sign of recent human habitation, but there were no remains of campfires, no shelters, no refuse, nothing. It was also eerily quiet. He’d been so focused on the road and then the tall stones that he hadn’t noticed that the jungle around them was now completely silent. The screaming birds and monkeys had completely disappeared.
“This way,” the old man said, pointing off to the right, into the jungle.
Naylor didn’t bother responding, he simply nodded and followed behind.
They walked until the pavers ended and kept going. Ryan wondered if this had once been the site of some ancient civilization. He had his digital camera with him and he made a mental note to snap some pictures of the monoliths on their way back. They would add color to his next report.
As Naylor swung his pack over to one shoulder to fish out his camera, the old man stopped and held up his hand. This time, Ryan was paying attention and he came to an immediate stop. He knew better than to speak.
The old man peered into the distance and then said, “Do you see it?”
Naylor moved up alongside him and looked. He
could see shapes, but he wasn’t exactly sure what he was looking at. “Is that a jeep?”
The old man nodded. “And something else. Something bigger.”
All of the Muslims were known by a single term among the Guaranis. “Arabs?” asked Naylor.
The old man shrugged and moved slowly forward. Though the gun had been rubbing his skin raw for hours, Ryan reached back anyway to make sure it was still there.
The closer they got to the objects, the slower the old man moved. They appeared to have been camouflaged. The hairs on the back of Ryan’s neck were starting to stand up.
The first shape turned out to be a truck. The old man raised his index finger to his lips and motioned for Naylor to remain quiet. Ryan didn’t need to be reminded.
As they neared, Naylor could see that the vehicle hadn’t been intentionally camouflaged at all. It had been consumed by the jungle.
It was old. At least fifty years. Maybe more. It looked military. As Naylor studied the truck, the old man moved off to the nearby jeep.
Naylor climbed up onto the running board and looked inside. It had been picked clean. By who or what, he had no idea. He worked his way to the front in the hope of discovering where the truck was from, or to whom it had belonged.
The glass of the gauges was spiderwebbed with cracks, the interior of the cab rusting away. There wasn’t enough sunlight to make out any specific detail.
Naylor unslung his pack so he could grab a flashlight and pull out his camera.
He looked up to check on the old man, who had already moved on from the jeep and toward something else.
Ryan removed his flashlight and put it in his mouth as he searched for his camera. There was thunder in the distance. As he heard the rumble, he glanced at his watch. Every day in the jungle the rain came at almost the same time. He looked back up for the old man but didn’t see him. He couldn’t have gone far.
Finding his camera, Ryan zipped his backpack. He positioned himself where he could get the best shot and powered up the camera.
He took his first picture and the automatic flash kicked in, brilliantly illuminating the interior of the cab. Moving a bit to his left, he had readied his next shot when there was a flash of lightning. It was followed by a scream.
Ryan ran toward the sound of the old man. His screams were like nothing he had ever heard. They weren’t screams of pain. They were screams of abject terror.
He tore through the jungle with his pistol in his hand and his lungs burning. As he ran, the screams intensified. When Naylor found him, he couldn’t figure out what had so frightened him until he followed the old man’s eyes off and to the right. The minute he saw them, he understood why the man was so terrified.
Then Ryan saw something else entirely, and that was when his own blood ran cold.