I knew him simply as Wolverine.
He had a name, of course, but no one ever used it—as if no one could credit him with that much humanity. The only person who did call him by name was Major Stryker. That was sort of an irony, because he was the one who had given Wolverine the nickname the rest of us knew him by.
I’m told there’s a hilarious story behind that. I really don’t think I want to know.
Once upon a time, they were close. Killing together is an intimate thing, and they both enjoyed their work. They were waging their own private war against nature. Their reasons were different, but their desire was the same: death to mutants.
But there came a day when even Stryker no longer spoke his name. Something had changed; Wolverine had changed. For a cog in the Major’s painstakingly ordered machine, that was a fatal mistake. One moment of doubt, one flaw that displeased Stryker, and he became merely a broken part to be replaced…
Or in this case, to be retooled into something more useful.
I had seen the plans, even before, when they were just one of Major Stryker’s dark whims. Now I watched the construction of a surgical theater, equipped with things that sent a thrill of horror down my spine, and I knew why Wolverine no longer had a name—not even to Stryker.
He could have resisted. He could have killed us all… but instead he lay quietly in his quarters, and waited.
As fate—or Stryker—would have it, I was the one to bring his waiting to an end.
A blizzard had descended on Alkali Lake that night, and on the surface, icy winds battered the trees and whipped the snow into blinding torrents. Yet in the bowels of the complex, the climate never changed; the dimly lit underground corridors were humid and slightly too warm for comfort, as always. I traced my way down them with a reluctant step, not eager to perform my task. Technically my watch had ended, but the Major had given me one last order for the night: to deliver a message, dictated casually and offhandedly, as though it were a requisition for paperclips.
It was the same way he treated every death warrant.
When I reached the unmarked metal door of my destination, I hesitated for a long moment before knocking. There was silence at first, and then a gruff voice answered, "Come in."
Wolverine’s quarters had always made me a little uncomfortable. There was never a trace of any personal belongings: no pictures, no keepsakes, not so much as a single book in the recessed shelf on the wall. The average prison cell had more character than that small, barely furnished room.
He was sitting behind the desk, looking up at me with the keen temper of an animal whose prey had been startled away by human intrusion. Noticing that he had one hand inside the desk drawer, I was reminded of every cheap suspense movie I’d seen as a kid. In those, a man might have had a gun hidden there—but no, not Wolverine. He didn’t use guns; they were too impersonal.
I was used to the long, calculating moment of silence, as the animal inside him evaluated me and dismissed me as non-threatening. It was pure instinct, a reflex I wasn’t sure he could override even if he wanted to. At last he withdrew his hand from the drawer and shut it, then reached for the cigar that sat smouldering in an ashtray.
"I’m a little preoccupied, Corporal, so if this is a social call…"
I squared my shoulders and took a deep breath. "It isn’t, sir. I have a message from Major Stryker. He said he’ll be expecting you at oh-seven-hundred… and he said you’ll know where."
Wolverine understood. For a moment he sat still, and there was no expression to speak of on his face, but something in his eyes shifted and darkened. Slowly he took the cigar and crushed it into the ashtray, then looked up at me.
It was the first time I had ever felt something less than contempt for him.
"Is that all?" he asked quietly.
"No. He also asked me to give you something." With that, I lifted the small but costly bottle of fine whiskey Major Stryker had given me to pass along.
For a moment, a grim smile shadowed Wolverine’s face. "So, he’s finally paying off his gambling debts. He owes me ten of ’em… but I guess this is all he thinks I’ve got time to collect."
I didn’t like to imagine what sort of wagers Wolverine and Stryker might have made. That bottle of whiskey may well have been bought with someone’s blood. Shifting my weight uncomfortably, I leaned forward and set it on the edge of the desk.
"I’ll tell him you’ll be there," I murmured, turning to leave.
"He knows." Behind me, I heard him pick up the bottle. "Have a drink. Like old times."
Reluctantly, I turned.
Due to his mutant stamina, Wolverine had never been subject to the alcohol rationing that was imposed on the enlisted men. He was also strangely tolerant of me. Besides Stryker, I was the only man whose company he had ever deliberately sought. At some point I came to realize that getting me drunk was sort of a game to him, but there were many times when I just didn’t care.
On this night, however, there was no game. I was in the presence of a man effectively sentenced to death. He had asked for my company, and I couldn’t refuse.
Already he had produced two glasses from somewhere and was filling them. I accepted one as I sat down on the edge of the bunk, and watched with little amazement as he downed the entire contents of his glass in one gulp. I had seen him do it before. He refilled it, then sat back in his chair and sighed quietly, closing his eyes.
I studied him for a moment. He looked little older than me, although I knew he was. I wasn’t sure of his exact age, but I had picked up a stray hint of World War II in his past now and then. I wondered if there were other mutants as old as him. If they had been populating the world for that long, the future of our work did not look promising.
Wolverine opened his eyes and glanced up at me, with a dullness that owed more to weary resignation than to the alcohol. "Never been much of a talker when you’re drunk… and I guess this is my last chance to ask. So tell me something, Corporal. I know you don’t like the Major any better than you like me—so why are you here?"
Taken aback by the question, I frowned. "I’d rather not discuss it."
"C’mon." he smiled grimly. "It’s not like I’m gonna remember this conversation a day from now."
That truth struck me sharply. I sighed, shrugged my shoulders, and took a deep drink of my whiskey before I answered.
"My brother was a mutant."
Wolverine raised an eyebrow. "Was. Then I take it he’s not is anymore."
I looked away from that strangely calculating gaze, feeling the familiar bite of regret. Not remorse for having done what I had; merely regret that it had to be done at all.
"He was dangerous," I ground out slowly.
"Ah." A faint, hard smile crossed Wolverine’s face. "Now I understand."
"You. The reason you hate." He leaned forward, staring intently at me. "It’s about jealousy. Nature picked your brother over you, and gave him something you could never have, so you envied him. Now you envy all of us in his place, and that scares you. That’s what makes you hate us—the fear of that little part of you deep down that wants to be us."
"You’re wrong," I replied coldly, and insisted to myself that I believed that.
I didn’t envy Wolverine. I didn’t. He was an animal; he was less than human. He lived only for the hunt, the satisfaction of his bloodlust. He cared nothing for the hope of a better world, the reason I fought against the genetic plague of inhumanity that had claimed my own brother.
Wolverine subsided in his chair again, with a shrug and a hollow smile. Something about his expression—the calm complacency, the arrogance of him—stirred me to anger.
"And where does your hate come from?" I challenged him. "You’re a traitor to your own kind."
A strange light came into his eyes. For a moment, his smile became real, in a way I had never seen it before. There was neither the cold anticipation of a predator, nor the bitter irony of a man defeated. For a moment, he had remembered happiness.
"I was," he answered quietly.
The sudden understanding left me speechless.
Wolverine had betrayed Stryker. That was the reason he was now fated to oblivion. He had forsaken his devotion to the cause, and… oh, god—he had done it for love. It could have been for nothing else.
Such a love should have made him more dangerous to us all than any other mutant in the world… yet here he sat, spent and surrendered, patiently waiting for Stryker to erase his mind and mutilate his body. Was it a desire for penance, and if so, for what? For betraying us… or them?
I had been wrong, before. His humanity deserved a human name.
That mutants could possess humanity—that they could love, and hurt, and grieve…
I looked at him again, and for the first time, I realized what would be lost with his destruction. It was more than an exceptional skill, more even than a living memory of history that might survive generations to come. Although shattered and broken, his soul still burned with… something… that this world would never see again.
Oh, yes—that much I could envy.
With deliberate movements, I drained my glass, then leaned forward to stare at him. I was drunk enough by now to ask the one question I truly wanted an answer to. I just hoped he was drunk enough to answer.
"Why are you letting him do this?"
It was a vague and sloppy way to ask, but Wolverine understood. He met my eyes with a clear, direct gaze, and I realized he wasn’t drunk at all—but he answered anyway.
"Because I’m done," he said quietly.
Now it was my turn to understand… and to my surprise, I did.
He was done with killing. Done with Stryker. Done with a past that had left him nothing but rage and pain, and a future that offered him only the same. Done with being what he was, and with trying to be something more; done with everything that made for whatever semblance of a life he had.
His acceptance was his suicide. Whatever was left when Stryker was finished, it would not be him, and that was the way he wanted it.
I was suddenly aware that he was watching my face, seeing all of my thoughts written there. A hard smile twisted his lips, and he shook his head slowly.
"Don’t pity me, boy. Save it for yourself—because you’re fighting a war you can’t win."
There wasn’t a shadow of a doubt in his voice. Perhaps he felt he spoke from experience, knowing from his own nature what others like him were capable of. Or perhaps there was more, now that he had discovered something among his own kind to stir his soul. Perhaps it was faith… in them.
Whatever it was, it frightened me to the very core of my being.
"Last call, Corporal." He leaned forward and refilled both our glasses. When he sat back again, he stared with a bitter, rueful smile into the depths of his drink, then glanced up at me with hollow eyes and raised his glass. "Here’s to your future."
He was sincere in his goodwill, but there was something haunting in his words—because in that moment, I realized it was he who pitied me. A dying man had judged his fate to be better than my own.
I could hardly reciprocate the toast, but I raised my glass silently. My hand was unsteady; I drained the whiskey quickly, then set the glass down and stood up, overwhelmed with a sudden desire to be anywhere but that small room.
"One thing before you go, Corporal." Wolverine set aside his still half-full glass. He opened the drawer he had been reaching into when I first came in, and took out…
That was all—a simple envelope, sealed, stamped, and addressed. Somehow it was a letdown.
He gazed at it for a moment, and I thought I heard him sigh as he held it out to me. "I’d appreciate it if you could mail this."
I blanched, remembering that he had been restricted from outside communication. "Sir, I was ordered—"
"I know that." Wolverine gazed earnestly at me. "Look, it’s not classified information or a last confession or anything. It’s just…" He paused, and smiled sadly. "Another gambling debt to pay off."
This was a condemned man’s last request.
Mechanically I reached out and took the envelope. He gave me a faint smile of gratitude and even fondness in return—and for the first time, I truly realized that this was the end. If I ever looked into those eyes again, I would not find in them the man who sat before me now.
"Goodbye," I said impulsively, aware of the strange tone in my voice.
Wolverine said nothing. He merely inclined his head, his smile growing harsher and more sardonic. Then he turned away, searching his pockets for a cigar, and met my gaze no more.
He was done with me now, too.
I closed the door behind me. The letter in my hand, no thicker than a single folded sheet of paper, felt as heavy as a brick. I didn’t look at it as I unthinkingly made my way to my quarters.
Only there, in my own room that was as small as Wolverine’s but not quite as empty, did I lower my gaze to the envelope. It bore no name, only a Colorado street address. I read it slowly, lingering on every line and curve of his heavy, brittle handwriting. I stared at it for a long, long time.
At last I crumpled it up, and threw it into the wastepaper basket.
I wasn’t on duty when it happened.
Save for the mechanisms of the dam, there were no alarm klaxons in the base. Major Stryker’s planning was too careful, too intricate, to admit to any possibility of something going wrong. That was why, by the time the alert spread—by the time I arrived at what he euphemistically called the augmentation chamber—the crisis had already come and gone, leaving only silence in its wake.
The Major’s theoretical chamber of horrors had become one in fact.
Beneath the dimness of smashed and flickering lights, pieces of men I once knew lay scattered on the floor. I could still recognize some of the horror-stricken faces, but the stripes on the sleeve of an arm were all that identified Sergeant Hanson. There was a slaughterhouse stench in the air, a sticky slickness beneath my boots. The entire room had been transformed into the canvas for an insane artwork of blood, signed by its creator with three parallel slash marks.
In the middle of the room, quietly studying one of those bloody signatures, stood Major Stryker.
Very slowly, he turned to face me. He glanced toward the body of Sergeant Hanson, then met my eyes with a gaze that was colder than the raging blizzard up above.
"Find him… Sergeant."
The storm had strengthened in the night, and the surface of the valley was a frozen hell. Howling winds cracked the trees and drove the snow into blinding sheets, obliterating any trail that I and the two men with me could have hoped to find. Even in my layers of Arctic gear and body armor, the breathtaking cold cut me to the bone. If Wolverine had fled into the jaws of this blizzard, I was sure that even he could not survive for long.
He couldn’t have gone far in any case, in that white-out and in his short amount of lead time. Alive or dead, we would find him.
The question was what we could possibly do with him when we did.
I had once seen Wolverine, in an animal rage, take a bullet with hardly a flinch—and that was before Major Stryker’s experimentation. More than ever, guns would be useless against him. Instead, we were armed with tranquilizer darts, loaded with the same drug used to keep him still during the procedure. One shot would kill a dozen ordinary men. Stryker and his technicians had overestimated its effect on Wolverine, but we were promised it would immobilize him long enough to chain him, in shackles forged from the same metal that now armored his bones.
We had only to avoid the unspeakable new weapons that had marked a bloody trail through the base.
Ahead of us, a massive fallen tree lay half-buried in snow, forming a steep bank. Positioned several yards to my left, Corporal Bennett reached it first. I started to call out that we would circle around the snowbank, but he had already leaped up onto the white drift, groping for a handhold to pull himself up.
I heard his scream as I saw an explosion of white… and red.
Mercifully, unlike those other men back at the base, I don’t think he ever knew what hit him.
Wolverine must have taken shelter among the tree’s branches before they were covered by snow. It was his form, at least, which burst from that cover, with ice and frost and streaks of blood clinging to his bare skin—but whatever semblance of humanity he had ever possessed was gone. His roar of rage was that of an animal, something that knew nothing but its own pain, and fought back the only way it knew how.
With its claws.
I saw them. I saw the bloodied gleam of metal protruding from Wolverine’s hands, in the frozen instant after Bennett fell; after those claws had passed through an armored soldier as though he were made of paper.
On sheer instinct, I leveled the rifle that was modified to fire the specially designed tranquilizer darts. I took aim, squeezed the trigger…
…And it jammed.
My other man, Stone, was too slow to react and too close to run. As Wolverine connected with him, I heard the sound of a dart misfiring from his rifle; then metal against metal, a ghastly ripping noise, and another scream that was cut off abruptly.
Crouching over the unmoving body, the new blades between his fingers buried to the knuckles in Stone’s chest, Wolverine looked up at me.
I dropped the rifle and reached for my holstered sidearm.
With a fantastic bound, he was on me. I could barely comprehend the speed of his movement, but I felt the impact—and as I tumbled into the snowdrift beneath him, I knew that I was dead.
I felt one short, sharp pain in my arm, and my fingers opened, the pistol falling from my suddenly nerveless grip. It took me a moment to realize why. My arm was pinned by his left-hand claws; the outer blades had sunk into the snow on either side, but the center one had impaled it clear through, just above the wrist. His right claws hovered over my throat, close enough to feel their razor-edge every time the pulse jumped in my veins.
But I wasn’t dead yet—and I didn’t understand why.
He was looking down at me, his lips drawn back in a snarling grimace, his chest heaving as he panted like an animal. In his eyes there was no trace of recognition, of rational thought, and yet…
There. For just an instant, there was a spark, a flicker of consciousness in his empty eyes as they met mine. Something about his face relaxed, almost imperceptibly. This change passed like a shadow, but some of the raw savagery seemed to fade with it. His weight on top of me eased, and then the silence was broken, by a sound I would never be able to forget.
Suddenly, I was alone.
Alone in a blizzard, with two dead comrades and a bleeding hole in my arm.
I was numb as I tore a makeshift bandage from Stone’s coat, staunched my wound, and finally dug out my radio to call for help from the base. I was thinking and acting, but my soul felt as empty as the one I had seen in Wolverine’s eyes.
I couldn’t delude myself that I had been shown mercy, or that he had remembered me. There was something else he saw when he looked at me; the final, fading ghost of a memory, or something more primal than that. It was more than I knew, and more than I wanted to know.
Before I closed my eyes, far away in the distance, I could hear the howling of wolves.
I must have passed out before the retrieval team reached me, because I woke in the infirmary, where my arm was being treated. Sometimes I think I remember being questioned there, perhaps even under the influence of drugs—but at other times, I think that was only a dream. In any case, Major Stryker received my report, but he never approached me about what had really happened that day.
As time passed, I tried to forget about Wolverine. To forget what he had become, and what he was before; to forget our last conversation, and most of all, his last request. But I couldn’t. For whatever reason, the address on the envelope I had thrown away was forever locked in my memory. Guilt and fascination rested on those few scrawled lines. What kind of person had Wolverine thought worthy of his final words? Who had I denied that closure?
After two years my curiosity got the better of me, and I went on furlough to Colorado, where I found myself sitting in a parked car in a quiet Denver suburb.
I don’t know what I expected to find at the address Wolverine had written to, but the modest duplex was far from anything I could have had in mind. It looked like some kind of a dollhouse, sunshine yellow with green shutters and daisies in the flowerbeds, a perfect match for the bright spring weather. The very thought of Wolverine in such a place was almost laughable.
I sat across the street for a long time. Maybe I was hoping the person who lived there would come out, but they never did, and I was left watching the scenery. It was just another lazy Saturday morning in America, where children played in their front yards, and joggers tried to top their best time, and old folks stopped to chat with their neighbors as they walked the dog.
It was all so… real.
Closing my eyes, I rubbed my thumb against the scar Wolverine had left on my arm. That was real, too. He owed me something for that, and if there was anyplace where I could collect on that debt, it had to be here—even if it was only in the satisfaction of my curiosity. His secret in exchange for my blood.
Resolved, I got out of the car, crossed the street, and went up the walk to the second unit of the duplex. On the door hung a grapevine wreath decorated with silk daffodils, making me wonder yet again what interest such a benign and cheerful place could have held for Wolverine. I hesitated briefly, then at last raised my hand and knocked.
After a moment, the door opened, and I found myself looking into a young woman’s very blue eyes.
For an instant, I saw in them a flash of hope… and I knew. I knew it was him she had hoped to see on her doorstep. She quickly smoothed over her disappointment, but I saw it, because I knew to look.
"Yes?" she asked uncertainly.
I tried for my most charming smile as I launched into the excuse I had prepared. "Could I use your phone for a minute, ma’am? I came from out of state to visit a friend, but I just can’t seem to find his house. I need to call him and try to get some better directions."
She frowned, but she obviously decided I didn’t mean her any harm, because she stepped back to let me in. "Sure. The phone is on the end table."
I stepped into the small, neat living room, and she stood by the door as I pretended to make my call. When I had finished the charade, she said kindly, "It’s a pretty warm day out there. Would you like something to drink before you go?"
Something primitive and powerful suddenly stirred within me. The girl was beautiful, and good, and she had belonged to Wolverine—and I could admit to myself at last that I did envy him, wholeheartedly. Because I wanted her.
I knew she was worth wanting, if he had spared a few of his last thoughts for her.
Managing a weak nod, I smiled at her. "That would be great."
I married Amanda six months after we met.
She doesn’t really know what I do. The official line is that I work for a special R&D division of the Army. As for the scar on my arm, I told her I’d once been hit by a bullet during active duty. She thinks that’s also the reason why I spend so many sleepless nights.
But now the fear that really kept me awake all those nights has come true. After fifteen years, Wolverine has returned to Alkali Lake—and he isn’t alone.
Deep down, I always knew our war would come to this; I just didn’t expect it to come from him. At least not like this. Not for a reason that meant more than his own vengeance.
We all became dead men when Colonel Stryker took those children from the school.
I have children of my own. I can imagine what I’d do in Wolverine’s place, if someone tried to take them away from me… the way I already took Amanda from him. I know that, even if he doesn’t. I can appreciate the irony of it all.
I’m oddly at peace with what I know is about to happen. I’d like to think I’ll have the chance soon to face my brother and ask for his forgiveness. A perverse part of me hopes it will be Wolverine who sends me to meet him—but somehow I don’t think it will be. His quarrel is with Stryker. He remembers that much. Maybe he also remembers that he trusted me once, before I took everything he left behind.
Either way, the last time I looked into his eyes, out there in the snow, all those years ago… I knew then that I would never die by his hand.
But I will die, very soon.
I have plenty of regrets, of course. No man who serves William Stryker could make it through life without at least a few. But I stand by my intentions, if not my methods; I wanted nothing more or less than to protect the human race. In the end, the only regret that matters to me is that I never told my wife the truth about the scar on my arm: that it was left there by the man she loved before me.
That’s why I’ve written a letter of my own.
I’ve left it here, in the same bare room where Wolverine once gave his letter to me. When he and the other mutants overcome us, if they capture the base, he’ll find it waiting for him. It asks him to see that Amanda and my sons are taken care of—and in return, it offers him what few answers I have to give. The name Stryker took from him, the little I knew of his life that was. The truth may be a cold comfort to the man he’s become, but I think he may still want to know.
I found the glasses sitting on the desk, exactly where we left them that night. The whiskey bottle was dry and dusty, but I picked up my glass anyway. Fifteen years later, I could return the toast he once proposed to me, after all… and I think some part of me even meant it.
"Here’s to your future."
© 2005 Jordanna Morgan -send feedback