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Blood on the rock scramble at the base of the mountain, blood on the trail leading up.
Fresh blood, bright red blood. I'm two steps out from behind a boulder at the base of the mountain when I see it. I react instinctively, slip back behind cover, and watch. And wait.
And frown -- should've smelled that blood long before I saw it. More proof, if I needed it; my senses ain't what they used to be. I ain't what I used to be. Cheery thought. I set it aside, circle around the scramble so that I'm upwind, and move closer.
Fifty feet away, I get my first whiff -- blood, and the body to go with it. A second later, I see the corpse, obscured by the brush. A desert bighorn, a couple of huge bites missing out of its hindquarters.
I freeze, wait a couple of minutes. Nothing. No sound, no scent. Whatever killed the sheep is long gone. I move in to get a closer look at the kill, and that's when I notice something else is gone, too.
The sheep's head.
I find that ten feet away from the body, bit clean through at the neck. The bighorn -- it's a ram, a big one, a couple hundred pounds, antlers four feet across -- has a look of resignation on its face. Looks like a deer trapped in the headlights, seeing death coming straight at it and knowing there's nothing to be done.
No need to wonder what killed it; I find the evidence right next to the body. Animal tracks, cougar tracks. There's a good number of the big cats scattered throughout the DNR. I ran into one the first day I got here, a female stalking two bighorns, a mother and her lamb. The female saw me coming, growled, tried to warn me off her prey.
I growled back and stared her down. She slunk off into the forest, and disappeared.
That cat was maybe six feet long, a hundred eighty pounds. The one that made these tracks was a helluva lot bigger. A helluva lot more massive. Three hundred pounds, easy, judging from the depth of the spoor I'm looking at. A male, judging from the size of the pad. Maybe as much as eight, nine feet long.
I straighten up and frown.
The cougar that weighs three hundred pounds ain't been born yet.
The cougar that can take a sheep's head off with a single bite ain't been born yet, either.
Something strange going on here.
I feel a little tingle in the base of my spine: excitement. I ain't felt that in a while. I look toward the top of the mountain. The blood leads that way.
My feet are heading in that direction almost before I can stop them.
And then I remember.
I came here to get away from strange. To get away from everything that might remind me of the unusual -- the uncanny, you might say -- and the life I used to lead. Before that life was ripped away from me.
Three-hundred-pound cougars that can rip off a sheep's head in a single bite? I want no part of them.
I move off the trail, fade back into the pines.
Night finds me back at my campsite.
It's about five miles due north of where I found the dead sheep, high up in the rocks, a bedroll tucked under a boulder. I'm eating jackrabbit again; or I will be, once it gets dark, and I can risk a fire. The DNR rangers don't know I'm here, and that's the way I want to keep it. I want my privacy. I want my space.
I want to figure out what comes next.
I've been here a couple of weeks now. Left my bike in the brush outside the refuge, at the base of Tickapoo Mountain; left most of my possessions with it. Took a knife and a canteen and started hiking.
I've been here since, sometimes in the woods, sometimes in one of the mountain caves. Living off the land, keeping out of sight. This part of the DNR borders on Nellis Air Force Base. There's more traffic than you'd expect around. Some military, some rangers, some other campers as well. At a guess, I've seen a couple dozen people since I've been here.
Nobody's seen me. Nobody will, unless I want them to.
I skin the rabbit and grab up some brush to make a fire. Could've taken a few high-tech gadgets from the mansion, I guess, make this part a little easier, but that wouldn't be getting away from everything then, would it?
The sun goes down; reds and oranges fill the sky, casting shadows on the slopes around me, on the desert below. The colors remind me of Jeannie, a little bit. This part of the refuge reminds me of somethin' else, too: Canada. The wide-open spaces, the stark landscape...the past. People I've grown apart from, people I've let slide away from my life. People who lived, people who died.
The sun goes down; the stars come out. Eventually, I light the fire, and I eat.
When I'm done with that, I spread out the bedroll and lie down.
The sky is pitch-black, except for a faint glow near the horizon, way to the south. Las Vegas. The city's only about forty miles from here. Forty miles, and a world away. I'm in the middle of the biggest wildlife refuge on the continent, the DNR -- Desert National Refuge. A million or so acres of just about every kind of climate you could imagine, from pine forest to desert and everything in between, all wilderness, with just a bare handful of paved roads. One of the few places in the country that ain't choked with ATVs and RVs and people whose idea of roughing it is no electric toothbrushes.
It's a place of solitude, like I said. Which suits me fine at the moment.
I got some heavy thinking to do.
I lie back, focus on the stars again, and the night sky.
One minute I'm looking up at the Milky Way, and the next...
I'm right in the middle of it.
I'm flying. In a Blackbird SR-71, suited up for EVA, headed toward a space station. Flying off to save the world again, which back in the day was my job.
I'm dreaming, of course. Dreaming like I have every night for the last two weeks.
Dreaming of the day I died.
My name's Logan, by the way. Just one word. First, last, categorize it however you like; tell you the truth, I'm not sure which it is. I got a problem with my memory, you see: I don't have one. At least, not one that dates back to when I was a kid. Oh, I flash on images sometimes -- a man, a woman, a girl with red hair -- but I can't make heads or tails of them.
I got the government to thank for that.
The U.S. government, and what they did to me in pursuit of what you might call the perfect weapon. Who they thought might be yours truly -- the old Canucklehead right here, talking to you.
My first coherent memories are from a couple dozen years ago, after I escaped from Uncle Sam's tender clutches and went north of the border, where I ended up working with the Canadians for a while. A special branch of the Canadian government, set up by a scientist named Jimmy Hudson, for special people like me, and Veronique Campion, and J. C. Perrault, and Stephen St. George. Special, as in blessed -- cursed, if you like -- with extraordinary powers. Something in our genetic makeup, our DNA. Something that made us a little more than human. Not Homo sapiens. Homo superior. Mutant.
After a while up north, I returned to the good old U.S. and joined up with another team of mutants. That's where the saving-the-world part of my life comes in.
In the dream -- the dream where I'm in that space station, suited up for EVA, walkin' straight into the fight that's going to end with me dyin' -- I'm surrounded by that other team, those other mutants. Along with us on the trip is our leader, a guy named Charles Xavier, Professor Xavier -- who just happens to have the ability to read, and control, people's minds. A mutant himself, Xavier owns the mansion we operate out of; we live there, too. It's a refuge, not just for us but for a whole group of young mutants he's brought there, kids Xavier's taught how to cope with their powers, taught how to cope with the fearful, hostile, angry world that Earth can sometimes be. Xavier himself never gets angry, though; he's always calm, always trying to talk to the people -- or the things -- attacking us, always preaching negotiation, understanding.
Always, that is, except for this time. Except for this trip in the Blackbird, in my dream, which really isn't a dream at all but me reliving the past, reliving what happened two weeks back. In this dream, Xavier's jaw is set. So is his mind.
We're heading toward a space station parked around Earth called Avalon. We're heading for a showdown, and Xavier's already told us it's going to be kill or be killed.
As usual, he turns out to be right.
The part of the dream where I die -- where who I am is literally ripped away from me, ripped out of me -- wakes me up, like always. I lie in the bedroll, stunned, feeling the pain, the shock, all over again, seeing my friends' faces hovering above me, hearing them whisper to each other ("Is he all right?" "Is he goin' to live?") as if I'm not right there listening to every word they're saying.
After a while, the voices -- and the pain -- fade away. I sense the sky around me beginning to lighten. A few birds chirp; branches rustle in the wind.
Something's watching me.
I can feel it -- a presence, an intelligence nearby.
I get to my feet it in a slow, natural, Gosh-ain't-I-tired kind of way, as if I haven't got a care in the world. I do the necessaries, I stretch my muscles, I slip on my boots.
I set off down the mountain. A few hundred feet on, I make my move, ducking back into the scrub. I listen for the sounds of someone following me. I don't hear them. I double back toward my hideout, as close to silent as I can get.
I reconnoiter in a long, careful ellipse, circling the entire camp. I find nothing. No trace of anyone or anything. I do a second pass, a wider circle. Still nothing.
I'm about to head back to my bedroll and some breakfast when I see it. A lonely clump of grass in a patch of dirt, the blades splayed almost flat in all directions. It doesn't look natural to me. I move in closer and see my hunch is right. Someone stepped down hard on the grass, recently. Tromped on it, left the vaguest outlines of a print. I kneel down next to it.
It's not a human print.
It belongs, I realize, to the three-hundred-pound cougar from yesterday.
Now that's interesting.
There's a boulder ten feet past the track. I climb to the top of it and look down.
And there, a couple dozen feet down the mountain, within easy jumping distance, is my bedroll.
The cat could have reached me with a single leap across those rocks. It could've roared, and attacked, and I would've been pretty close to defenseless. For a few seconds, anyway. I ain't necessarily saying what would've happened after that, but still...
The thing had a good shot at making a meal out of me. Instead, it just sat there, starin'. Why? It didn't make any sense.
That little tingle I'd felt yesterday was back again. Something strange was going on.
Like I said, I wasn't in the mood to go chasin' after the uncanny. But now that the uncanny seemed to be chasin' after me...
Well, least I could do was figure out why.
I head back down to where the sheep was killed yesterday. There's maggots on the corpse already; it's a mess, picked down to the bone in some spots. But my concern ain't the sheep; it's the cougar's tracks. I follow them up the trail a little bit, goin' from scrub to scramble to rock. Big stride on the animal -- huge stride. It went full-tilt down the mountain, full-tilt back up. Made the kill, took a couple bites, and ran like hell. Why? Somethin' must've spooked it, but what could spook a cat that big?
I'm tryin' to puzzle it out when I hear branches cracklin' behind me, the sound of pebbles bein' kicked on dirt.
Somebody's comin'; I decide to stick around and see who.
A few seconds later, a guy comes walkin' down from the rocks, headin' toward me. Big guy. Biceps like bowlin' balls stickin' out from his shirt, a camouflage number that goes with his camouflage shorts. He's wearin' mirror sunglasses and a park ranger hat. That's what he is, of course, a park ranger, comin' east out of the Corn Creek station, probably left his Jeep out on the old Mormon road, walked up this way. No surprise to see him here, but what is a surprise is the pistol on his belt, and the rifle he's carrying.
Not standard park ranger equipment.
"Morning," I say.
He doesn't say anything. Behind those sunglasses, I know he's sizin' me up. Probably not too impressed with what he sees. My boots maybe get me to five-five. I got muscles, too, but not as many as he does. My guess, he goes 250 pounds. I used to get close to 200, but that was with metal added. Now, without... I guess I make 175.
None of which explains the vibe I'm gettin' off him. The way he's lookin' at me, the way his hand lingers near his gun as he gets closer. The smile he puts on his face -- phony as a car salesman's handshake.
I don't get that he's glad to see me off that smile.
I get danger.
"Morning," he says. The name tag on his uniform reads "Osborne." He's got a goatee that isn't much more than stubble; it's reddish-blond, shading to gray. I put him somewhere between thirty-five and forty. I brace for a bunch of questions -- who am I, what am I doin' in this part of the range, where's my campin' permit, that sort of thing. I brace myself for trouble, 'cause I don't have any of that.
Osborne surprises me.
He doesn't say a word.
He steps around me to take a look at the bighorn -- what's left of it, anyway.
He gives it the once-over and then stands, a frown on his face. Before he can ask the question, I answer it.
"Head's right over there," I say, pointing.
He nods and goes to it. Comes back not ten seconds later.
"Helluva thing," he says. "What do you think happened?"
Innocent enough question; but the way he asks it, the way he's standing...
I get the feelin' my answer is very, very important.
I point to the tracks. "Take a look for yourself. The spoor there."
"Spoor," he repeats, sayin' the word as if he never heard it before. Except spoor is just a fancy way of saying animal tracks. There ain't a park ranger alive who doesn't know that.
So maybe he's not a park ranger.
Handful of other things he could be: somebody who gets his jollies goin' around impersonating Ranger Rick, an incompetent who slipped through the cracks...Most likely thing he is, of course, is military. The DNR is huge, but it's just a drop in the bucket compared with the military sites around here. Nellis Air Force Base, Groom Lake Missile Range, Area 51 -- home to all sorts of military personnel and projects.
The question becomes, then, why is a military guy disguised as a park ranger?
"Got a dangerous animal here," he says. "Kill a sheep like that."
"Yeah," I say, restating the obvious.
"You better move along -- move out of the area. While we handle the situation."
"I appreciate the warning. But I can handle myself."
The guy -- Osborne -- takes off his sunglasses then. Looks me up and down a second time, a closer look.
I've gone to more than a little trouble to disguise myself. Not that my face is the most recognizable on the planet, not that I expected to run into a lot of people out here in the middle of the desert, but still...
Better safe than sorry.
Hence the slicked-back hair, the full beard. Gives me the Elvis-meets-Jim Morrison look. Somethin' in Osborne's gaze makes me think he ain't buyin' it.
"I know you, don't I?" he asks.
"I don't think so."
"What's your name?"
I ain't in the habit of givin' that out to strangers, so I say the first thing that pops into my mind.
"Summers. Scott Summers."
It's a name out of my past, a guy I've known for what seems like forever. A guy with no sense of humor whatsoever; I'm making a joke.
Something flashes in Osborne's eyes for a split-second, gone almost before I can register it. But it was there, no doubt about it.
He recognizes the name.
He can't put me with it, though. Good thing.
"Well, Mister Summers, whether or not you can handle yourself, I'm asking you to move along. Could you do that for me, please, sir?"
It's phrased like a request, but it's spoken like an order. From a guy who's used to giving 'em.
I consider it, and the situation.
The three-hundred-pound cougar, the headless sheep. The "park ranger," and his command. The vibe I'm getting off Osborne, like if I don't move along voluntarily, he'll make me. Or try to, anyway.
Something strange indeed going on here.
I give him my best "yes sir" face and voice and smile, and then I do just like Park Ranger Osborne suggests.
I move on.
Fifteen minutes later, I double back.
Before long, I got Osborne -- or his trail at least -- in my sights. He, in turn, is following the cougar's trail up the mountain. Osborne's tracking skills are pretty mediocre -- more proof that the ranger uniform he's wearing is a fake. He makes more noise than a semi goin' down a country road. He walks right past tracks a blind man could sniff out.
Thing is, for every trace he misses, the cat left a half-dozen more. It's almost as if the thing wanted to be followed.
The trail leads from the corpse up the mountain, into the rocks, into a cave, and then back out again, weaving in and out among the ledges and the deadfalls, up away from the desert floor and the scrub, into the higher elevations.
Farther up the mountain, I can see snow. Funny place, the DNR. Like I said, you got every kind of climate you can imagine here; you can go from desert to pine forest in an hour's hike.
Pine forest is exactly where I am now, in among a stand of bristlecones, clinging to the side of the mountain. These trees are just about the oldest, longest-living species on the planet. Thousands of years old, some of 'em. I put my hand on one as I walk past; the bark is rough and a little sticky with sap.
The tree smells like winter, like Canada. Like the past.
I take a deep breath and close my eyes.
Images flash through my mind: me and Jimmy Hudson and his wife Heather, ice-fishing out on Burns Lake; me and Jimmy in those stupid uniforms the bozos from Quebec made us wear, goin' toe-to-toe in those stupid drills they thought could teach us how to fight.
Me and Ronnie -- Egret -- dangling our feet off the dock, that last summer of her time with us. The summer before she lost her powers.
She shrank down right before my eyes after the accident; slid away from us, from me, and into her shell. I told her to keep her head up; who she was hadn't changed at all, just 'cause she couldn't do the things she used to. There was still a place for her with the team.
"You don't understand," she told me. "You can't understand."
I stop dead in my tracks then, in the middle of those Nevada bristlecones, and realize she was right. I had no idea what I was talking about then. None at all.
Now I do. Now I know exactly what she felt must have felt like, with everything that had defined who she was suddenly gone, stripped away. A third wheel, a useless appendage.
'Cause that's how I feel now.
That's why I'm out here in the middle of nowhere, instead of back in the mansion in Westchester, in the middle of it all. That's why...
I'm so busy thinking about Ronnie that I almost run right into Osborne.
He's coming back down the mountain at a jog. I hear him just in time; I duck behind a bristlecone as he passes. He's got the rifle slung over his shoulder and is talkin' into a cell phone as he goes. Barkin' into the phone is more like it; he's angry. I pick up enough of the conversation to figure out why.
He's lost the cougar's trail.
" -- just ends, dammit. No. Back at the Ark," he says, and then he's past me, and gone.
I wait a minute before stepping out of hiding.
Ark, huh? Wonder if that's some kind of military acronym. Wonder where it is he's going. Wonder what the heck this is all about.
As I'm wondering, I'm walking, following the cougar's tracks up the mountain. Osborne's right; the trail just ends in the middle of a clearing. The tracks just stop, disappear entirely, which ain't possible -- the cat had to go somewhere. I walk a few hundred yards in every direction. Nothing.
I backtrack, taking a closer look at the trail as I go. It takes me a minute before I realize somethin's botherin' me about the cougar's tracks. The cat's stride is too short -- it either got very careful all of a sudden, or...
I pass a bare patch of ground, and the best impression yet of the cougar's pad. The heel -- the back of the cougar's foot -- is too deep, the front too shallow. Doesn't seem right to me. Why? What would cause that to happen?
I'm lookin' at that track when all at once, I get a crazy idea. An impossible idea, one I dismiss the second it pops into my head.
I straighten up. I realize I haven't eaten all day. I'm a little lightheaded; that's why my crazy notion of a second ago. I gotta get some food.
I turn back toward the trail...
And I get the exact same feeling I had this morning. The feeling I'm being watched.
I turn in a slow, careful circle. I look down the trail the way I came. I look into the forest. I look up the slope, toward the mountain face.
A pair of eyes is looking back.
Watchful eyes. Intelligent eyes. Hungry eyes. The animal they belong to is hidden in shadow.
I don't say a word, just meet its gaze. A minute passes.
Then it steps out from the darkness, from behind the rocks, and moves forward.
I blink once, twice, and then a third time. 'Cause I don't believe what I'm seeing.
It's the three-hundred-pound cougar; or, rather, it's the animal whose tracks made me think it was a three-hundred-pound cougar. But it ain't.
The animal I'm lookin' at is a tiger. A white tiger, to be precise. Native to the Asian continent, near extinct in the wild, the biggest and most dangerous of all the great cats. Ten feet long. Five hundred pounds, easy.
The question, of course, is what in the world is a white tiger doin' in the Desert National Refuge? My first thought is Siegfried and Roy -- that the animal escaped from one of the shows down in Vegas and somehow made its way up into the hills.
Only that's not right, because you'd send Animal Control if a tiger got loose from a casino or someplace like that. You wouldn't send a guy like Osborne.
The tiger growls, low in its throat, then opens its mouth, showing fangs half a foot long.
It begins moving forward. Padding straight toward me.
I stand my ground.
Maybe my senses ain't what they used to be, but I think I can still tell when something means me harm. And this animal doesn't. Its measured stride is proof of that; so, though I know it sounds nuts, is the look in its eyes.
So is the fact that it stood over my campsite last night for a good chunk of time and didn't do anything.
"It's all right," I say, kneelin' down, tryin' to put eyes on a level. "Nobody here's gonna hurt you. I'm a friend -- I'm friendly."
The words are less important than my tone, of course. Soothing. Calm.
I swear I can see the tiger relax as I'm talkin'. As if it can understand what I'm saying.
It stops five feet away from me and makes a low noise in its throat.
"Where you from, buddy?" I ask. "What are you doin' here?"
In response, it starts pawin' at the ground -- over and over again with its right paw. With purpose. I don't get why, at first.
Then I look down. My eyes widen.
It's writing letters in the dirt. Four of them; they make a word.
I read it out loud. I look the tiger in the eye.
It makes the same growling noise in its throat as before; only this time, I realize it's not really a growl.
The tiger is trying to talk.
Copyright © 2008 by Marvel Characters, Inc.