Mutants. Since the discovery of their existence, they have been regarded with fear, suspicion, and often hatred. Across the planet, debate rages: Are mutants the next link in the evolutionary chain . . .
. . . or simply a new species of humanity fightingfor their share of the world? Either way, one fact has been historically proven: Sharing the world has never been humanity’s defining attribute . . .
“ ‘We are not enemies, but friends,’ ” the tour guide said as she led the group through the East Wing entrance of the White House. “ ‘We must not be enemies,’ ” she continued, pausing to let them gather inside the foyer beneath one of the presidential portraits that lined the wall. “ ‘Though passion may have strained, it must not break the bonds of our affection.’ Abraham Lincoln.”
Alicia Vargas had made this speech hundreds of times, yet she had a knack of making it sound as though she’d just thought it up. She was a short young woman who looked barely out of college, with big, wide-spaced eyes, an open face, a ready smile. That way, you’d miss the fact that those lustrous eyes never stopped moving from person to person among the group she was shepherding along, or that the drape of her blazer masked the Sig-Sauer pistol resting in its snap-draw holster at the small of her back.
Alicia Vargas was Secret Service, just like the tall, broad-shouldered, stone-faced men in business suits who stood at intervals along the walls. At the reception desk and at the doorways leading to the interior of the White House were their equally imposing uniformed counter-parts in the Executive Protection Service. When the decision was made to continue public tours, in spite of the ever-present threat of global terrorism, the Secret Service had insisted that its people take over the job of guides. They understood the political and public relations realities of the office, but their job was to protect the man who held that office, and from that perspective, they argued, you could never be too careful.
Offering up another smile, Alicia indicated the portrait that hung behind her, the sixteenth in the line of chief executives that began with George Washington and culminated today in George McKenna.
“President Lincoln said that in his first inaugural address. It’s one of my favorites. I like to think, especially with all that’s happening in the world, that those words are more important than ever.”
With an apologetic gesture, intended to put the tourists at ease, she led them toward the security desk.
“I just want to repeat what you were told at the Main Gate. Obviously, with the President in residence today, we want to be especially careful. One at a time, please approach the desk, present a photo id, place your bags and purses on the conveyor belt, and pass through the metal detector. Your possessions and all cameras will be returned to you when you leave. I know that sounds harsh, but I hope you understand.”
One man in the back caught her eye. He was wearing a Red Sox baseball hat, pulled low. He wasn’t doing anything wrong; far from it. His body language was totally relaxed and easy. Maybe that was it. Most people visiting the White House came through the door excited, upbeat, impatient, and impressed. Then, seeing the airport-style X-ray console and the metal detector, even the best of them got nervous, wondering if they’d inadvertently brought something that would sound an alarm and get them into trouble.
Red Sox didn’t seem to have a care in the world.
Quickly, as she ushered the first woman in line through the cage, Alicia recalled the scene at the Pennsylvania Avenue gate, where the tour had been admitted to the grounds. She’d watched them come through on the surveillance screens and now that she replayed the scene in her mind’s eye, there had been no Red Sox hat in the group.
Turning back to look for him, she registered a faint sound, the bamf of imploding air, like when a balloon pops.
Red Sox was gone.
From the East Wing entrance, a broad hallway—called the Cross Hall—runs lengthwise through the heart of the building. Originally, this had been the area where the everyday work of the household was done—the rooms housed butler’s pantries, closets, and the like—but successive renovations and the growing need for space had transformed them into formal receiving rooms: the Roosevelt Room, the Vermeil Room, the China Room. At the moment, none of them was in use, which is what caught Special Agent Donald Karp’s attention when his peripheral vision registered some kind of movement in one of the doorways.
When he turned to peer down the corridor, all he saw was shadow inside the deep alcove—that was one of the problems caused by the comparatively low, vaulted ceiling, it made the hallway hell to light properly. He knew it was probably nothing, but he was bored and in the mood for even a minor break in routine. Once before he’d opened an office door and found a couple of mid-level staffers behaving far too friskily for their own good. They’d been lucky they weren’t fired on the spot, but they really should have known better.
To his surprise, as he stepped closer to take a proper look, someone was there—though for some reason he wasn’t sure until the figure stepped clear of the shadow, a lean-bodied man whose stoop-shouldered stance belied the fact that he was roughly Karp’s height, wearing non-descript clothes and a Red Sox baseball cap. Boyoboy, would he have fun roasting Alicia’s ass for being so care-less as to let a tourist stray from the group.
He reached for the man’s shoulder.
“Excuse me, sir, are you lost? I’m afraid you can’t leave the group—”
The man rounded on him—and Karp gasped, goggle-eyed, to find himself face-to-face with a demon. Skin so dark a blue-black it was as if the man were cloaked in his own personal shadow, the only points of color his gleaming yellow eyes. The ears were pointed, the teeth had fangs, and the hand that grabbed Karp’s wrist possessed two fingers instead of the normal four.
Training took over. Without a conscious thought, Karp went for his gun—and a forked tail wrapped tight around his throat, cutting off his cry of alarm. The tail spun him like a top into the alcove, and he felt a blinding pain as the side of his head cracked hard into the arched stone. After that he never felt the blow to the side, chop to the neck that finished the job of knocking him unconscious.
It was all over in a matter of seconds, but those seconds made the difference.
From the East Entrance came Alicia Vargas’ shout—she was already through the hallway doors, coming at a dead run with sidearm in hand, ahead of the other agents and uniformed officers.
Karp’s partner was closer. He lunged for the intruder, who tripped him up with a sideways sweep of the legs—ditching his shoes in the process to reveal elongated, weirdly articulated feet with a two-toed configuration that matched his hands. The intruder leaped across the hall for the opposite wall, somehow grabbing hold of the falling agent’s gun and pitching it clear. His leap landed him up by the ceiling. To Alicia’s astonishment he stuck there, three-quarters upside down, as though fingers and toes were tipped with Velcro.
Above the chandeliers, he was suddenly hard to see, and Alicia realized with a shock that he was blending with the ceiling shadows. Against a dark background, the intruder’s indigo skin made him functionally invisible.
With a snarl, he was gone, scampering faster than her eye could swallow, around the corner toward the executive offices of the West Wing.
Alicia had a mini-mike clipped to her sleeve; she used it now.
“Code Red,” she cried. “Code Red. Perimeter breach at visitors’ checkpoint! Agent Vargas in the Cross Hall, ten meters in from the East Entrance. Intruder is hostile, two agents are down. Threat to Braveheart!”
At the rear of the mansion, in the opposite wing, President George McKenna was working the phones, applying a measure of charm—with just the faintest edge of threat—to a senator hoping to make some political ink by throwing a monkey wrench into the latest administration initiative. The President was a rancher by temperament and wished, as he found he often did since assuming the Oval Office, that he could solve the problem by simply hog-tying the man and planting his brand indelibly on that arrogant posterior. He liked cows better than legislators. At least they knew their place.
He looked up with irritation as the door to the outer office burst open and Sid Walters, the head of his protection detail, strode inside. He was about to lose his temper—which was legendary—when he realized that Walters had his gun in hand and, from the look on his face, he wasn’t going to be interested in any comment the President had to make.
“Say again,” Walters snapped into the mini-microphone clipped to the cuff of his shirtsleeve, “how many are there?”
“What the hell—” the President began, but all questions and any thoughts of protest evaporated as a half-dozen more agents rushed into the room to form a living shield around his desk. The two biggest stood on either side of him. Four of the team were in suits, with pistols in hand, but these last two were in full combat gear, helmets and flak jackets, with MP5 submachine guns in their hands. McKenna had been to war, he’d been shot; he knew at a glance that this was no drill. These men believed he was in deadly danger, and they were prepared to give their lives to save him.
McKenna heard a tinny voice demanding attention, belatedly realized he was still holding the phone.
With a calmness that astounded him, that he never dreamed he possessed, the President raised the receiver to his ear.
“Trent, I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now, something’s come up. I’ll call you back, soon as I can, all right?”
Without waiting for an acknowledgment, McKenna hung up. He sounded so normal, not scared at all. The analytical part of him knew that fear would come later and that it would be very rough indeed. If there was a later.
He looked at the pictures on his desk, thankful now the first lady was in San Francisco and the kids were at school. Nobody home but him.
“Sid?” he said.
“You’ll be fine, sir. You have our word.”
The West Wing was a madhouse, agents trying to evacuate the presidential staff at the same time they were hunting down the intruder. There was no pretense of order; that had vanished with the first gunshot. The guards weren’t polite and they weren’t gentle. Their goal was to get everyone clear as fast as possible. Thing was, they were just as scared as the civilians.
Internal surveillance cameras were proving worse than useless; their quarry moved too fast, with an agility that put monkeys to shame. By the time the guys watching the monitors could yell a warning, it was already too late.
Toby Vanscoy found that out the hard way. He was clearing a suite of offices, herding people toward the Press Room because it had a clear route to the outside, when a scream right next to his ear alerted him to the danger.
He reacted as he’d been trained: He took a split second to confirm the target, then opened fire. His weapon was a Sig-Sauer P226, one of the finest handguns in the world, and like every agent in the President’s detail, he was rated expert. As fast as he could pull the trigger, he emptied his fifteen-round magazine, and impossible as it was for him to admit—in the heartbeats he had to do so—not one of his rounds came close.
The intruder bounced off the walls, he leaped from floor to ceiling, he ran as easily upside down as he did on the floor, he almost seemed to dance around Vanscoy’s shots until, so smoothly that it seemed choreographed, he hurled himself through the air in a somersault that ended with both feet hammering Vanscoy full in the chest.
It was like being hit by a battering ram. Vanscoy flew backward through the air, holding on to his gun but losing the replacement magazine he’d been trying to load, to crash through the set of double doors that led to the main suite of offices.
The intruder followed, straddling Vanscoy’s body only to find a half-dozen agents blocking his way. He glanced over his shoulder to see a half dozen more taking position behind him. Scarlet dots flared all over his torso as he was illuminated by their laser sights. The agents all had good cover; he was wide open. They could fire at will with minimal risk to their colleagues. They pinned him with pistols, with automatic weapons, with a sniper rifle centered right on his head. It was a drop-ceiling over-head; if he tried to stick to it, the removable panels would simply collapse. They figured they had him.
The intruder looked down, almost in surprise, at the grating sound of Toby Vanscoy’s voice. Battered and broken as he was, the agent had his own weapon in atwo-handed grip, aimed right up at him.
“Hands behind your head,” Vanscoy ordered. “Get down on your knees! Right now!”
“Right now!” repeated the lead agent from the groupahead of them. “No tricks, or we’ll fire.”
The intruder snarled, baring fangs. Vanscoy pulled thetrigger, hammer falling uselessly on an empty chamber . . .. . . and the intruder vanished.
“Mr. President,” snapped Sid Walters, one hand pressing against his earbug in a vain attempt to make sense of all the chatter jamming his radio, “we’ve gotta go!”
Hank Cartwright, his deputy, grabbed Walters’ arm. “We don’t know the sitch, Sid. We don’t know how many there are. We’ve got a solid defensive position, we’ve got the firepower. We’re better off staying put!”
Walters turned on the other man in a fury. He was boss, he called the plays, there wasn’t time for debate—but before he could say a word, both entrances to the Oval Office crashed open to admit the agents who’d been stationed outside. They were coughing and choking, shrouded in gouts of thick, oily smoke.
That same instant, the intruder appeared in midair, right in front of Cartwright. Without missing a beat, the assassin lashed out with a powerful kick to the chest.
Even with Cartwright’s flak jacket and equipment blunting the force of the jackhammer blow, it was enough to throw him off his feet and into the agents behind him.
Walters managed to snap off a shot, but his target disappeared. Before he could react, he felt the intruder’s tail around his neck, and then he was flying himself, tumbling over one of the couches and in among the agents who’d fallen in the doorway. As he struggled up, searching desperately for a weapon, one part of his mind kept repeating over and over, like a mantra: He’s got a tail! He’s got a tail! Even with the creature right in front of him, real as life, he still couldn’t believe it. He’s got a tail!
Again and again and again, the intruder disappeared, to materialize somewhere else in the office, turning the confined space of the room to his advantage as he made mincemeat of the President’s bodyguard. It all happened so fast Walters would have to register the events in retrospect. At the moment, sick at heart, he simply realized he was too slow. There was nothing he could do to save his President.
Alone now, with no one to protect him, George McKenna sat in his seat of power and stared into the in-human eyes of his assassin. The eyes were strangely drained of color, and it struck him that they were dead. What little hue they possessed was an afterthought, lacking anything resembling humanity.
The intruder had a knife, big and gleaming. Wrapped around its hilt was a brilliant red ribbon marked with flashes of gold. Poised on the edge of the desk, he rose above McKenna. The President had never been more scared, and yet never more calm. A line from somewhere or other popped from memory: “When the end is all there is, it matters.” If this was his end, he’d do the office proud.
The gunshot made him jump in his chair.
The intruder cried out, dropping the knife as he clutched at a shoulder suddenly turned scarlet from the impact of a 9mm shell. Instantly, his expression changed. He looked suddenly shaken, confused, and as McKenna watched, the creature’s eyes changed, gaining color and vibrancy and . . . awareness.
Absurdly the thought came to McKenna: He doesn’t know where he is. He doesn’t know what’s happening!
The intruder looked around and saw Alicia Vargas standing in the doorway, pistol leveled.
Before she could take a second shot, he was gone—with the same characteristic bamf that came from air imploding inward to fill the empty space left by his body when it disappeared. And also, the President realized, the faintest scent, reminiscent of sulfur and brimstone.
“Sir?” Alicia asked as she hurried over to him, avoiding the bodies of her fellow agents, her eyes never at rest as they swept the scene for the assassin or any like him, her gun cocked and ready. “Are you all right, Mr. President? Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine, Alicia, I’m fine.” It was a lie and both of them knew it, but he was the President and this was the time for lies like that.
“What the hell was that?” he wondered aloud.
“Damned if I know, sir. But I sure hope he doesn’t come back.”
“Amen.” The knife, superbly balanced, had landed point first, its weight stabbing deep into the wooden desktop. As he touched the ribbon, McKenna realized that the black flecks were writing.
“What the hell is this?” he asked aloud.
On the ribbon, printed in black, was a demand—or perhaps, he thought, suddenly heartsick, a declaration of war: MUTANT FREEDOM NOW!
He came in to Alkali Lake the back way, over the mountains from the north. He cut through a saddleback notch and made his way down to the glacier by a trail so poor even a bighorn sheep would think twice about trying it.
Before reaching the base of the escarpment he went to ground, taking cover in a jumbled pile of scree and rocks that gave him a superb view of the glacier and minimal chance of being seen himself. The last stretch was open country; he’d have to wait for the right moment to make his approach. He didn’t mind. When he had to, he could be inhumanly patient.
There was a road up to the complex from the south, as miserable in its own way as the path he’d followed. Blacktop asphalt, barely two lines wide, beat to shit by the pounding of too many heavily laden trucks over too many years with hardly a thought given to maintenance. It wound its way better than seventy miles through the snowy mountains, with a decent-sized town at the far end that catered mainly to the hunting and camping crowd who wanted something wilder than Lake Louise or even Jasper. There was a hamlet some fifty miles farther that consisted of a saloon, some gas pumps, and a batch of cabins that rented by the hour.
Trouble was, if he took the road, they’d know he was coming.
He was a short man, with a stocky, powerful physique, as though the frame of an athletic six-footer had been squashed down to five and change. To look at his face, you’d think him a young man, his features weathered by a life spent mainly outdoors. His ress—jeans as worn as his boots—marked him as an itinerant wrangler or cycle bum, blue collar for sure. This was a man who worked with his hands, not his mind.
His hair was dark, sweeping back from his forehead in a wave that looked natural on him but somehow . . .wrong for a human being. He wore his sideburns long, right down to the line of his jaw, in a fashion more in keeping with the nineteenth century than the twenty-first.
His eyes were the giveaway. Like his hair, they were right for his face, yet at the same time they had no right belonging to one so apparently youthful. These eyes missed nothing and had seen too much. They were the eyes of a hunter. A predator.
His name was Logan, but the only reason he knew it was that it was printed on his dog tags. A name, a serial number, a blood type. No indication of nationality or branch of service. The only clue, if you could call it that, was that the information was printed in Roman letters. Not Arabic, not Cyrillic, not Chinese or Japanese kanji. He had no past worth the name, only a present filled to bursting with questions. Here was where he hoped to find some answers.
But first he needed a storm.
He got a beaut.
It came in during the night, boiling off the Continental Divide with winds and snow to spare, a howling monster that seemed bent on scouring the landscape down to bare rock. The rocks afforded a fair measure of protection from the wind, but there was nothing he could do about the cold. The temperature was close to freezing before the storm. Once the blizzard started, it quickly dropped past zero. His jacket was fleece lined, but against this kind of elemental fury, that was no help at all. Hypothermia set in almost immediately. It was a pain, but he’d endured far worse. As often as he froze during the night, his healing factor kicked into gear and brought him back to life.
The weather system proved to be as fast-moving as it was intense. Toward morning, a shift in wind velocitytold him it was time to get moving. Timing was perfect. The fury of the storm had probably nailed any of the installation’s remote sensors positioned to watch the “back door.” And any living sentries were just as likely to be hunkered down in their bunkers, dreaming dreams of “Baywatch.”
He was in place by dawn, a spectacular sunrise that went hand in hand with the equally impressive—although far more bleak—vista that spread out below him. Dominating the scene was the dam, a thousand feet high, three times that across, holding back a lake that stretched for miles. A huge generating station at its base told the reason for its existence, to provide an inexhaustible source of hydroelectric power. Thing is, there were no towering pylons marching away downriver to carry all this energy to a hungry populace. What was generated here stayed here, to be used by the Alkali Lake Industrial Complex.
There was a fence blocking access to the crest of the dam, but it was no obstacle. The poles and links were so rusted and twisted by the fierce mountain weather that he simply stepped over. He found an older sign than the first, barely held to the fence by a scrap of wire, informing intruders that this was a government installation, a military base, and top secret besides, and warning of the most dire consequences if anyone was of a mind to trespass.
Below the dam, the forest had been cleared for the better part of a mile to allow for the construction of the base. The layout of the complex was circular, like a defensive laager, and the scale was as impressive as the dam itself. This place had been built to last.
So why had it been abandoned?
The whole base was covered with snow, drifts piled over doors and windows. What roads he saw were cracked and blistered, with weeds and flowers and the occasional small tree sprouting to reclaim the land that was rightfully theirs. Windows were mostly broken. No vehicles. No tracks in the snow save his own.
Once he made his way inside, it wasn’t any different. Long hallways and empty offices. They’d packed up the incidentals but left a fair amount of furniture, all of which had suffered from the assault of the elements, summer and winter. But the basic structure of the buildings—thick metal walls—was surprisingly sound. It was com-posed of a succession of strong points, compartments that could become individual fortresses all their own, almost as if the builders were as worried about an assault from within as from without.
He wandered without obvious direction, trusting his feet and his instincts to lead him. Most of the time he trusted them far more than his intellect. To him, thinking was a liability—took too long, led down too many wrong paths. His body was a much more dependable instrument.
He caught a strange scent but wasn’t worried. It was only a wolf, which seemed as curious about him as he was about the buildings. They stood watching each other from opposite ends of the room for a few moments before the wolf calmly turned tail and padded down a nearby flight of stairs.
Intrigued, Logan followed, into a darkness so complete even his extraordinarily sharp eyes weren’t of much use. He pulled a mini-Maglite out of his jacket pocket, which revealed a large, circular room, as bare and non-descript as everywhere else in the base.
Suddenly the wolf howled, the noise amplified and echoed by the cavernous space. It was a primal sound that went straight to Logan’s back brain, as it was intended to, as it had since men and wolves first shared this wilderness, and he reacted accordingly. He spun into a crouch, ready for a fight, and bared his teeth in a flash of familiar pain as three gleaming metal claws, each as long as his forearm, punched out of the body of his clenched right hand. They made a distinctive snikt sound as they emerged, like a rifle bolt being engaged. They were forged of a metal called adamantium, and they could cut steel as easily as air. The claws had bionic housings built into each forearm; his healing factor handled the wounds they made each time they were used. That same metal was laced through his skeleton, creating an amalgam with his bones that made them virtually unbreakable.
He hadn’t been born this way. Someone had done this to him. His whole life since, the parts he remembered, anyway, had been devoted to finding out who, and why.
The wolf was sitting in another doorway, but as Logan swung his light around he lost all interest in the animal. He crossed to the wall and raised his right hand to chest height. There were three marks in the metal, deep, parallel gashes, as though someone had slashed at the steel.
He placed his fist by the doorjamb. His claws were a perfect fit.
He had an answer. Once upon a time—a very long time ago—he had been here.
He looked down, but the wolf was gone, with a fast-paced click of claws on concrete to mark its hurried exit to the surface.
With an equally distinctive snakt sound, his claws went away. Reflexively he wiped the little bit of bloody residue from between his knuckles and took one last look around the empty room.
He wasn’t done searching, but he was done here. Time to go home.