JB Mulligan
The inverted cup of the hovercraft crossed over the top of the hill and hummed down the slope toward the river. Its landing gear bent behind it at an angle, like the skinny legs of a heron in flight. The scalpel of the search light on its top sliced through the darkness and chased shadows of trees across the meadow. The old woman on board smiled as she saw two small shapes dash across the flat land toward a cluster of rocks at a bend in the river.

She thought that perhaps tonight she would let these two go. Her laugh, in the enclosed space of the hovercraft, was of a bird tearing at the flesh of a pinned and struggling prey. Those who escaped were the strong ones, who would grow. If these two deserved it, they would earn it.

"Did it see us?" The girl's voice was as wispy as she was. Blonde tangled hair dangled past her shoulders.

"Probably." The boy was skinny and a little taller that her. His dark hair was cropped raggedly, and his voice had recently deepened but still cracked when he got excited. He deepened his voice on purpose as he told her they would be safe among the rocks, both because that would make him sound older and safer for her—and for himself.

They huddled together in a crevice and watched the hovercraft circled the rocks three times and then hum out over the river and glide downstream.

"We're safe," she said.

"Come on," he told her. "The Yaga's dawdling. It's going to double back."

The old woman spotted another lone child up in a tree. She circled the tree twice, to be sure the little brat stayed where it was, then lifted up and rushed straight toward the rocks.

When the boy saw her start to circle the tree, he told the girl to lie down next to him in a ditch filled with tall weeds. They were halfway between the rocks and the river, and he had spotted several places where they could duck under cover, before they got to the water and relative safety.

"She did it," the girl whispered. "How did you know?"

"Trust them not to be trusted," he whispered back, and she giggled. There was no harm in their speaking in normal voices, but whenever a hovercraft was near, whispering seemed the right thing to do. Who knew what they could do, or what tools they might develop?

The girl snuggled close to him, and he was aware of the warmness of her, and she felt his reaction and moved a little away, and then moved back.

The old woman muttered to herself at the two escapees, and considered briefly not mentioning them in the report. But there were rumors of terrible things which happened to those who committed such omissions, and even though that idea was probably planted by the Commanders, it was prudent to be accurate. The Day Patrol would have a chance at them.

The child in the tree had started to run toward the far hill when she returned. It would have been more sensible to head to the river. No doubt the pair behind her had done just that. If they were good, and they were lucky, someday their children would find themselves out here. And her great grandchildren would hunt them.

The hovercraft circled the child until it stopped and sat down in the grass, defeated. The old woman pressed a button, and the landing gear straightened and the craft descended and landed, and began its awkward striding toward the prey. The child looked around, its face wet, its mouth wide in an unheard scream, and it got up to run, too late to do so but the body in its final panic reacted as the hook extended and reached toward the child's back.

JB Mulligan has had poems and stories in several hundred magazines over the past 40 years, has had two chapbooks published: The Stations of the Cross and THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS, and two e-books, The City Of Now And Then, and A Book of Psalms (a loose translation from the Bible). He has appeared in several anthologies, among them, Inside/Out: A Gathering Of Poets; The Irreal Reader (Cafe Irreal); and multiple volumes of Reflections on a Blue Planet.

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