Hiram waited amidst the snow, his breath slimmed down to a whisper of itself, slowly tracking the accusing finger of his rifle over each of the soldiers’ heads. The three humans were doing most of the work, which seemed primarily to consist of screaming at the huddle of refugees and occasionally patting them down with the less dangerous ends of their guns. The two mutants stood somewhat apart from it all, as though they were somehow above the tiresome physicality of the whole thing. The one standing a bit further back was the prime candidate for officer, by Hiram’s reckoning – the way he watched the proceedings reminded him of an eagle perched high over a den of tiny mammals, certain of its higher place on the predator-prey ladder.
Suddenly, the shouting peaked. Hiram swivelled his sights over towards the source of the din. One of the humans was dragging something from the crowd, his grunts of effort implying some resistance. The mutants were getting involved now, barking out an alternating string of threats and orders. Eventually, a young, spindly shape was bodily heaved from the mass of refugees, the giant coat upon its back hanging just loose enough to reveal an additional quartet of arms protruding just under the usual pair. It was a boy, probably fifteen to sixteen, somewhat local in appearance and densely muscled despite the obvious signs of malnutrition. In all likelihood, his mutation had optimized him for the purpose of climbing and tumbling – a useful talent to have around for a refugee band. Or for an army.
There was more shouting, more threats and orders. Someone in the huddle was screeching words that, out of practice as he was with the language, Hiram couldn’t entirely discern. The mutants were getting louder, and redder, and harsher. Hiram’s finger slipped down to the trigger…
Tires grumbled against the snowy earth as the truck lurched backwards. For a moment, everything stopped, and Hiram might have actually loosed a tiny little smile.
The officer unfurled into a blizzard of focused rage. He screamed and gestured for his stupid incompetent animal men to get after it, and after a second or two to process it all they did. Hiram waited. He waited till they’d gathered their wits and were pelting through the snow after the runaway truck. He waited till it juddered to a stop among the undergrowth and its pursuers began to catch up. He waited till they were slowing to a trot, the adrenaline fading, their breath growing ragged.
The officer was breathing his rant back in when Hiram pulled the trigger. His throat exploded in mid-curse, a round burrowing straight through the soft tissues of his oesophagus and lodging itself somewhere in his spinal chord. He went down like the string beneath a popped balloon. Hiram swerved over towards the second mutant and fired again, but the man was faster than he’d expected, hurling himself into the cluster of refugees. The bullet lashed through the air and carved a tiny bowl into the temple wall behind him.
The humans had stopped now, glancing feverishly across the trail and over the treeline. Chances were, they were never really soldiers. They were panicking. They were on the razor edge between running and hoping their remaining taskmaster went the way of his superior, or standing their ground and waiting for orders to come. Hiram wasn’t going to let them come to a decision.
The third shot snapped over the landscape, opening a bloody hole in one of the unfortunate humans’ heads, in between his eye and his nose. His body tipped backwards and folded up into the snow.
The two remaining men yelped in horror and veered off in separate ways, plunging into the trees. They were probably out of the equation until a voice sounded over their panicked breathing. Hiram angled his gaze back towards the refugees. Kicking and pushing his way through them was the surviving mutant, bellowing and pointing frantically in his direction. He’d been spotted.
He glanced back at the humans. Sure enough, they were diverting their course, trampling through the undergrowth towards him. One of them fired off a shot, but Hiram saw it going wide before the man had even pulled the trigger.
Leaving the rope, he pulled himself up and bolted down under the low-hanging branches that seemed to reach out from everywhere, leading them further into the withered forest. The moment he was out of sight he hunkered down at the base of one of the sturdier trees. He could hear them converging on his general position – the two humans on his right, closer, and the mutant way further back on his left.
As the thudding of boots closed in he darted out, swinging the rifle about in a precise arc. The butt of the weapon thundered through the unsuspecting nose of the man closest, who flailed backwards in a blur of blood and wheezing, tipping the man behind him just off-balance enough to make a difference. Hiram heard his gun hit the snow and caught, in the corner of his eye, the dark shape of the mutant bursting through the trees. He brought the rifle around and fired into the chest of the already-blinded man, shattering his sternum. His comrade-by-collar regained his footing, but not fast enough – Hiram was upon him instantly, smacking the rifle of his hands and bringing the butt of his gun crashing across his chin.
On the very edge of his vision, the mutant was slowing down, stretching out his hands. As the human before him crumbled to the ground, Hiram grasped a hold of his collar, twisting him about.
There was a sound like a hundred balloons popping at once. Something – pressurized air, psychic force, something – tore into the man, bursting through him with enough force to hurl his body, and Hiram with it, to the ground. As they hit the snow he felt what was left of the man’s ribcage patter down through collapsed lungs, dark red warmth flowing from a torso that was only partly there. A booming, sharp pain suffused his chest. Even through the shield of meat and bone that had been the mutant’s subordinate, Hiram had felt the blast almost like a hammer blow, forcing the breath from his lungs and bruising him down to the marrow.
Sucking his breath back in, he rolled out from under the decimated corpse, just in time to hear the pop-pop-popping rain down and turn what was left of the man into a ragged smear. Leaving his rifle in the snow, he bolted for cover. Behind him, he heard the mutant shout something in what sounded like Taiwanese, before the air burst into popping again and the tree he’d just ducked past split open.
The mutant trudged after him. He was walking slowly now, with confidence and pride. He’d noticed the rifle left upon the ground, and he knew his own powers well enough to know that the interloper had already taken quite a beating. Whoever had turned up to ruin his day, they were disarmed and damaged, and on the retreat. He no longer had to exert himself, just wait for his prey to tire.
He didn’t expect his prey to come back. He didn’t expect Hiram to circle around under the cover of the undergrowth. And he certainly didn’t expect to feel the cold touch of a revolver against the back of his head before everything became nothing.
The mostly-decapitated corpse of the mutant slouched down amongst a withered helix of roots, blood steaming through the snow. Hiram holstered his revolver and, without thought, stooped to rummage through its coat, looking for anything of use. As expected, he didn’t carry a gun, but the other bodies would have plenty of ammunition on them. Hiram was pleased enough with the knife sheathed upon the man’s belt, which – with a bit of cutting and tearing – fitted quite well around his arm.
He retrieved his rifle and plodded back towards the path, where the truck sat half-submerged in the treeline.
“Tag!” He raised his voice over the absent growl of the vehicle’s engine. A few refugees glanced his way, but most of them were too busy with scrabbling up their few possessions. “You can come out now.”