Wraith: New Excerpt

Wraith by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens
Wraith by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens
Wraith offer a no-holds-barred adrenaline rush perfect for fans of high-speed thrillers (Available April 26, 2016).

In 1995, the CIA made a breakthrough that they hid from the world because it would change everything in modern science—but some secrets can't stay hidden. A rogue force has learned how to make disembodied minds capable of lethal action. Ghosts have been weaponized, and now a Russian general has infiltrated the U.S. with a squad of “berzerkers”—an army that can't be killed because they're already dead. Only one person knew the general's plans, but she died in a car crash. The only person who can communicate with her is the cop who was at her side when she died—and now he must race to stop a force that could end life as we know it.

1

Only forty feet away

It was late at night, and the two sicarios were bored. They saw and heard nothing of the soldier’s advance on them. They were gunmen for the Sinaloa Cartel, assigned this night as sentries. Here in the lifeless moonscape of the Sonoran desert, they had no reason to think anyone would be insane enough to confront them and risk the wrath of the powerful men they served. They were invincible.

That attitude made them an easy target.

One gunman sat slouched in a black Range Rover. He and his partner had parked it across the narrow dirt road, though any intruder could easily drive around. The desert’s sparse brush and dry rocky soil was no barrier to vehicles.

The second gunman maintained a watch beside the Rover, his AK-47 rifle carelessly hanging on its strap from his shoulder.

In still air, crickets sang. There was a breeze, but only just. If the moon had been full, instead of a new thin crescent, they might have seen a dry branch move or a dead leaf stir. Or the slow wave of shifting leaves among the scattered clumps of jojoba and brittlebush: the only sign of the soldier’s presence as he closed in on them.

Thirty feet.

The sentry in the Rover lit a cigarette, and two hundred feet away, General Stasik Borodin blinked as the small yellow star of a lighter’s flame flared against the speckled blue wash on the screen of his thermal imager. The appropriateness of the moment appealed to him. A last cigarette for the condemned.

The general changed the aim of his viewer, training it on his soldier. ODIN.

Twenty feet.

On-screen, ODIN’s heat signature was barely discernable, a cloud of pixels, the palest of blue against darker blue, shifting continuously from what might be the shape of a man to something more ephemeral, as if imaging only an illusion of reality.

Ten feet.

Inside the Rover, the glow of the first sentry’s cigarette tip brightened, dimmed. Outside, the second sentry rested his rifle on the Rover’s hood, stepped away, unzipped his pants. At the side of the road, a pool of heat grew as he relieved himself.

Closer now, another unseen dry branch moved. Another unseen dead leaf stirred.

On-screen, the general watched a pale cloud coalesce, a shadow taking form behind the sentry on the roadside, directly in view of his partner, if he’d paid attention.

A sudden scream cut off a second after it began, but was loud enough and long enough to alert the sentry in the Rover.

On-screen, the yellow shape that was the second sentry moved abruptly, a cigarette’s tip flickering as it spun away, tossed through the vehicle’s window. The door burst open and the sentry leapt out.

On-screen, a cool blue cloud swept over the sentry’s yellow form. This time the scream was a strangled gasp followed only by sudden heat blossoms—blood against a windshield—glowing brightly for an instant before darkening as they cooled.

The general lowered his viewer, nodded to Captain Konstantin Korolev, crouched beside him.

In Russian, Korolev spoke softly into a small radio. The mission continued, on schedule. The van could proceed.

*   *   *

Six minutes later, the tires of the Russians’ dust-streaked panel van crunched over gravel as it drove into a floodlit courtyard. The structure beyond, stucco with a red-tile roof, was modest, at odds with the expensive cars parked outside. The cartel had intended the house to be little more than window dressing—nothing that would call attention to itself or what lay beneath it. But the Mercedes and Bentleys were the giveaway, incompatible with such impoverished surroundings, and thus easy to identify.

ODIN had arrived at the nondescript building first. The bodies of two more gunmen, backup to the pair of sentries on the road, lay sprawled on the ground, chests flayed open, shards of broken ribs startlingly white in the floodlights’ glare.

The small hacienda’s windows shone with light. No sign of awareness of what had happened just outside.

The general looked past the hacienda, to the scattering of pinpoint lights a mile or so distant, rippling in the desert air: a small community of homes across the border. Arizona.

Soon.

In the courtyard, the general’s five-man squad opened the back of the van, hefted out the six VEKTOR containment units.

Each of the prototype devices could have been mistaken for a metal footlocker: scuffed drab green paint, three feet long, two feet wide and high. Unlike a simple locker, each unit also had a small control panel with a number pad and screen display. To one side of the panels, eight-digit tracking codes, each different, were stenciled beneath the same figure: the three interlocked triangles of the valknut. It was an ancient Norse symbol found on the graves of warriors, also known as the knot of the slain. It had been etched onto the original einstone, though not by its unfortunate most recent owners. Knowing that the history of the remarkable object reached back far beyond the madness of the past century, the general had selected it as a fitting insignia for the tenevyye voiny, his shadow warriors.

Five of the units were sealed, and all status lights on their panels glowed steady green. The sixth, ODIN’s, was open. Only one of its six lights was green; the other five pulsed red. The unit’s charge was fading.

“Sir, we’re ready.”

Beneath Korolev’s military precision, General Borodin sensed unease. This man was loyal to him, as was the squad he led. But none of them were used to this technology. Borodin was. He had had no choice.

“Have them assemble.”

Captain Korolev joined his four-man squad as they took up their positions: each man standing beside an individual unit. Though they were dressed as civilians in jeans and denim jackets, that they were soldiers was obvious. Each with broad shoulders, powerful chest and arms, lean face. But not just soldiers: Spetznas. Special forces.

Korolev alone stood out because of the long scar that ran across the side of his head, a slash of white flesh startling against his close-cropped, black hair, fading into his cheek. Scars were to be expected; he was a decade older than the other four and had seen the most action. At fifty-five, Borodin was the oldest, and his own scars were of a different nature: those of the heart that had turned his short hair, and his annoying three days of stubble, death white. Combined with his lean frame and deeply lined features, he looked older than his actual age. His blue eyes still burned with the drive and purpose of youth, though these days that purpose was personal. The stirring patriotism and love of Motherland that in earlier years had inspired him had died long ago.

At Captain Korolev’s signal, all five squad members entered security codes on the sealed units’ panels, then stood well back as the safety locks disengaged.

The five units hissed open.

As always, there was nothing to see, until there was.

Five young soldiers, in black battle dress without insignia, stood at attention where none had been a heartbeat before. Expressionless, blank eyes stared straight ahead. The general didn’t know what they saw. Nor did he want to.

He steeled himself to speak without emotion. “ODIN…”

A heartbeat later, a sixth soldier stood before him.

Borodin pointed to the hacienda. “Kill them all.”

Six young faces changed. Eyes grew larger, darker, drawn back into the shadow of thickening brows as six mouths began to twist in soundless snarls and twelve hands became twelve clawed fists.

Borodin knew that, somehow, he wasn’t seeing changes in what they looked like; he was seeing changes in how they felt. Whatever the truth of his perception, it didn’t matter. What they could accomplish did. Those few who had seen the shadow warriors take action had another name for them, as old as their fabled insignia: Berserkers.

As one, the six turned to face their objective. As one, they took their first step, then the next, and then they were moving so swiftly it was as if their limbs blurred into smoke as they flowed across the courtyard, smearing like a torrent of black water to sweep up the hacienda’s walls and doors and windows and—

pass unobstructed through them.

Five seconds, then the first cries inside. Five seconds more, and the thunderous stitching of automatic rifle fire ratcheted, muffled only by the massive doors.

More shouts. More sounds of violation—falling, crashing. Bright flashes of weapons fire lighting up the windows.

Then the double front doors burst open and a man in a dark suit charged out, whirled around to raise an Uzi submachine gun to stop what melted through the wall to chase him.

A black-clad soldier. ODIN.

The man in the suit opened fire, no possibility of missing.

ODIN rushed forward, untouched, unharmed.

The man swung his weapon like a club, and it slipped through his attacker just as the bullets had. Shouting disbelief, the man swung again to no effect.

ODIN’s face contorted, filled with rage as if he’d felt each bullet, each blow. His arms swung up, then down, and they passed—

into the man’s chest.

The man’s expression of shock changed to one of searing pain and terror.

In the courtyard’s floodlights, ODIN grinned, exultant, as his arms gained substance, no longer smoke but solid, as deep within the victim’s chest spear-like fingers ravaged bone and organs.

The ghastly shrieking ended only when the soldier ripped the man’s lungs out through his shattered ribs.

The lifeless body dropped to the ground and ODIN stared down at it, his features as inhuman as his actions, blood and gore clinging to him like savage war paint.

The hacienda was silent. The objective had been achieved. The cartel and its gunmen might have been prepared to face down the federales or even a Mexican Army unit at this location, as unlikely as that possibility might have been. But nothing could have prepared them for what they had faced.

General Borodin checked to be sure his men were ready by the units. Only then did he address the soldier, still focused on his kill.

“ODIN. To me. Stand down.”

The soldier slowly raised his head, regarding him with deep-set eyes, defiant.

The general recognized the madness in them, the fury unleashed, unwilling to be contained again.

He spoke again, decisively, using the voice of command. “All of you. Stand down.”

The remaining five silent soldiers re-formed beside their comrade, so quickly it was as if they had always been there. All with the same crazed eyes, blood-splashed bodies. Coiled potential trembling in uncertain balance.

“The mission is accomplished.”

All too slowly, Borodin saw the change pass through them. Their faces lost the shadows and angles of bloodlust, became blank again. For a moment, they seemed to blur out of focus; then the blood spatter and bits of broken flesh that had clung to them fell free, fluttering to the gravel.

Borodin was in control again. He suppressed relief. There could be no sign of weakness before these soldiers. “Captain, call them back.”

Korolev entered a code on the number pad of the unit beside him, and ODIN twisted into a thread of what might have been black mist, then was gone. In rapid sequence, the squad activated a second unit, then a third, fourth, and fifth, as one after the other, all but one of the silent soldiers vanished.

“General! At the window!”

Borodin reacted swiftly to Korolev’s shout, at once seeing the spectral face of a young woman pressed against the glass of the hacienda’s largest window. Her eyes were wide, her mouth gaped open, her features frozen in shock by what she’d witnessed.

She stared at him as if she somehow knew him.

Impossible.

Borodin turned to the last remaining soldier.

“TYR. New mission. Kill her.”

Blurring with motion, TYR transformed, sped forward.

The woman in the window fell back from sight, swallowed by shadows.

A dark formless shape reached the window, passed through it.

Borodin waited for the scream.

The victims always screamed.

Tonight was different.

 

Copyright © 2016 Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens.

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JUDITH and GARFIELD REEVES-STEVENS are New York Times best-selling authors of speculative fiction ranging from near-future thrillers and suspense to contemporary urban fantasy.

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