“I’m sorry.” The doctor spoke in low tones as we stood in the hallway outside my apartment. “There’s nothing else I can try. Nothing’s working any more. Your only chance is one of them.”
My throat tightened and my fingers fisted at my sides. I nodded. “Thanks,” I said. “For trying.”
He gave a curt nod by way of farewell and headed for the stairs – up, not down; clearly he had other patients to attend to in the building.
I let myself back into the apartment and bowed my head against the closed door, allowing the despair and exhaustion to flood over me for a slow count of ten. At ten, I straightened, shook myself off, and headed to Gabrielle’s room.
“Hey,” I said from the doorway when I saw she was awake.
She twitched her lips, approximating a smile. “Hey.” Her dark face stood out against the pale lemon pillows, hair frizzing around it in an untamed mess. I needed to wash it. Maybe she’d let me cornrow it later on. “Any news?”
I shook my head. “Nothing works any more. The ‘corns have destroyed it all.”
She bit her lip fretfully and looked up at me, eyes wide.
“It’s okay,” I said, hurrying to perch awkwardly on the bed next to her. “We’ll find one. I’ll take you to one if it kills me.”
Gabrielle’s wide-eyed stare became a hard-edged glare. “No you won’t. Don’t say stupid things like that.”
I sagged. “I know. I’m sorry. You know what I mean.”
“Tomorrow then,” I said, patting her hand. “We’ll try first thing.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes, and I stroked her fingers until she fell asleep.
As it turned out, moving Gabrielle was pretty impossible; she was just too far gone to be able to tolerate me bumping and bashing her about, even though I tried to be as gentle as I could. In the end, I stood back, looked at her with grief squeezing blood from my heart, and told her I’d go alone. It was a measure of how desperate she was—we both were—that she agreed without a fuss. I left a couple of days’ worth of food and water within her easy reach (easy, as though anything was easy for her any more) and set off.
From the outside our building looked even worse than from the inside. The buildings in this part of town hadn’t been that great to begin with, concrete crumbling at the corners and paint flaking off in layers, but now they looked downright demolition-worthy. For whatever reason, there hadn’t been many ‘corns in our district, so for the most part they were still standing –but only barely. The business block at the corner of sixty-fifth and ninth had come crashing down last week, and odds were better than even that it was just the first.
Our building had stood up this long; that was great. And having few to no ‘corns in the area meant that we at least still had a steady water supply, and that the food we’d all frantically stockpiled in the first few days of the disaster hadn’t suddenly perished.
But on the other hand, it meant I had no clue where to start looking for one for Gabrielle.
It occurred to me as I reached the outskirts of our area that I’d both underestimated and overestimated the damage the ‘corns had done to the rest of the city, and consequently was terrifically underprepared. I hadn’t brought food or water—not that either would survive if I actually found what I was after—and I had no cash for buying, nothing to trade for bartering.
I ran a hand over my head and inhaled deeply. Never mind. Half the city had nothing left anyway; what difference did one more vagabond drifting with the wind make?
Back in the first few days when the news reports had still been functioning, it had seemed as though the attacks were centred downtown, so when I finally reached the junction with Main I turned right, walking on the road when the sidewalks became too cracked and uneven.
All around me, chaos rippled like an alligator’s pond. Everything concrete was decaying, crumbling, melting or just strewn in chunks all over the ground, exposing wood or metal beams where walls had once stood. Sidewalks cracked and crumbled, overtaken by tufts of knee-high grass and weeds as tall as my hip. The roads hadn’t faired much better, asphalt split and gaping, cars scattered hither and thither like those abandoned after toddler’s play—or a tornado. Most of them were rusting out, plastic dashes melted into garish shapes, synthetic upholstery already nearly weathered away.
Someone honked behind me and I glanced back in surprise. A little [car], one of those new-fangled solar-powered cars that couldn’t top more than [speed] but were supposed to be totally green. Figures they’d be able to survive, although as it wove its way closer I noted it no longer had its original plastic dash, and the seats had been replaced with bare wood benches.
The driver, an older lady probably in her sixties, pulled the car up beside me and wound down her window. “Need a lift?”
I shrugged. “Got no money. No goods for trading.” I held out my hands, indicating that all I had was what she saw.
She smiled, a warm fuzzy thing that seemed far too genuine for the circumstances. “I’m Frankie. Come on, I’ll give you a lift.”
“Jayla,” I said, nodding. “Thank you.”
Frankie had been a nurse, back in the days before, just a year or two away from retirement. She’d spent the intervening weeks since the ‘corns arrived driving up and down any roads she could find that were still passable, helping out as she could. She was more than happy to drop me off in the centre of town, waving me farewell and wishing me luck. “You’ll need it, Ducky,” she said as she shoved the car back into gear and reversed away. “They don’t grant wishes.”
I knew that all too well.
The centre of town was, contrary to expectation, quiet as a rural meadow—or a graveyard. It gave a passable impression of either, knee-high grass rippling through the square, an unbroken blanket of green, building rubble sticking up at odd angles like headstones laid by a drunken mortician. For twenty, thirty, forty minutes I walked, through ways that used to bustle and hustle but now only rustled in the breeze. My hopes fell with my shoulders and stomach. I sat on a stray boulder that looked suspiciously like it had once been a granite head and considered my options: continue on my probably-futile quest for a ‘corn indefinitely, or head home empty-handed and concede defeat to Death.
A shout off to my right drew my attention: a short, black-haired fellow came running into view, waving his hands frantically. “Make way!” he shouted. “Move out of the way!”
I jumped to my feet, staring at him.
“Move!” he shouted again, hands flapping.
“Where?” I called back, gesturing at the lack of cover around.
An instant later, I realised why: not one, not even two, but a small herd of glorious ‘corns burst into view, long white limbs stretching, pastel manes and tails flying like streamers, sharp-tipped silver horns glinting in the cold sunlight. Adrenalin shot through my body. I scooted behind some nearby rubble and slammed my back against it. I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed for sanity as the herd thundered past.
Hoof beats began to die away and I let out a cautious breath. It appeared I’d escaped unscathed. I dared a peek over the rubble mound and froze, a scream in my throat. In the second it took to convince my body to work again I realised what I was seeing: not a second herd as I’d feared, but a single, lavender-maned creature being driven by three or four men on horseback. I ducked back behind my rubble, took a few steadying breaths, and peeked out again.
The ‘corn frothed at the mouth, saliva a pale purple that matched its mane and tail. Patches of its cloud-white fur had worn thin on its flanks, and a silvery-steel liquid seeped through. And although the ‘corn still ran, it stumbled and staggered, not at all surefooted like its cousins.
One of the men on regular-horseback threw something at the flagging ‘corn. It hit the ‘corn’s rump and exploded in a puff of dark green powder. The ‘corn screamed and bucked, gathering itself up as though to try for greater speed. Instead, it tripped and fell.
As it slammed chest-first into the ground I realised I was running towards it, and stopped. The hunters were closing in, the ‘corn screaming furiously, but I didn’t dare move. I couldn’t. Everyone knew the stories: ‘corns hurt more than they helped, and through their rabid mission to ‘purify’ the world they were utterly destroying it. If I went close to it while it was angry and hurting, who knew what it might do.
The hunters launched another powder puff. It exploded over the unicorn’s withers; the unicorn screamed. I clapped my hands over my ears and winced at the agony. It tore at my chest and for a moment I couldn’t tell if the agony was mine or the ‘corn’s.
I couldn’t let it suffer like that alone. I darted forward, sprinting hard to make it to the ‘corn before the hunters dismounted. “No!” I threw myself in front of them just as they launched a third powder puff. It hit my shoulder and burst. I cringed, expecting pain, but instead was enveloped in a spicy, herby smell. I frowned at the green mark, confused.
Behind me, the ‘corn screamed again and I whirled towards it, ignoring the hunters striding towards me with murder in their eyes. I dropped to my knees by the unicorn’s head. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Can I do anything?”
A rough hand grabbed me by the shoulder. “What in the blazes do you think you’re doing?” The man spun me around to face him.
“You’re hurting it!” I said.
“Of course we’re hurting it! It’s a bloody unicorn!”
I glanced around at the creature writhing on the ground. “I know. I know it is.” I tugged at my hair. I shot the hunter a desperate glance. “Just… give me one second with it, will you?”
He shrugged and tossed a powder puff in his hand. “Your funeral. You got sixty seconds before I lob this at its nose. That’ll finish it off, and you don’t want to be within blasting range when that happens. You seen what the ‘corns do when they’re happy?”
I nodded, remembering the first time I’d seen one parading down the street, radiating light that cleansed everything in its reach. It sounded great in theory: magical unicorns that appeared out of nowhere, cleansing and purifying the world. The problem was, their definition of clean and pure was pretty darn strict. Synthetics? Gone, and that included building materials, clothing, food—and medicines. Sure, disease and sickness was also purified, but there’s a difference between a cancerous tumour suddenly disappearing, and whole chunks of ‘faulty’ DNA being ripped from someone’s cells. The former you could survive; the latter not so much.
“So you can imagine what will happen when one dies, then.” He stared me down.
I stared back, determined.
The hunter nodded. “One minute.”
I knelt by the unicorn’s face as the hunter retreated to talk with his partners. It whinnied softly and I reached out, fingers trembling. I hesitated right before I touched it. “What are you going to do to me?” I asked, uncertain why I felt so much sympathy for this creature of destruction as it died. Maybe that was part of the power of the ‘corns, luring me in on its deathbed. Maybe it was hope.
I let my fingertips rest against its cheek, pure white hair impossibly soft, like down, or superfine velvet. Heat seared my fingers as energy shot up through my arms and into the base of my skull. Waves of colour and sound shot through my mind, hot, cold, loud, soft, crimson, magenta, viridian, gold. I tried to pull back, but the current of energy held me tight. It poured into me, filling my fingers and toes, hands and feet, wrists, ankles, legs, arms… Warmth suffused me and lifted me to my feet, off the ground, and spun me gently so I scribed a golden circle in the air. I couldn’t tell if the warmth was pleasant or if it hurt; it straddled that strange boundary between pleasure and pain and all I could do was try to breathe through it.
With a sudden burst, the connection severed and I dropped to the ground. I blinked, disoriented, then realised the dark shape in front of me was the hunter, standing over the unicorn’s body as dark green powder dispersed into the air. “Ow.”
The hunter glanced at me. “You okay?”
I looked down at my arms. A frisson of fear travelled through me as I realised my arms were glowing. I stretched, wriggled my fingers, and looked back at the hunter. “Yeah. I think so.”
Another man laughed behind me. “We thought you were a gonner.” He clapped me heartily on the shoulder. Energy sizzled through me and stung his hand. He snatched it back and stared. “What the hell?”
I looked at my fingers again and wriggled them. Energy sparked from fingertip to fingertip. I met the second man’s eye and smiled. “Your skin. It’s perfect.”
He lifted his hands to his face and dragged his fingers slowly down his cheeks, eyes wide. “You,” he said.
I didn’t give him the chance to finish. Who knew what that powder might do to me now? All I knew was that I had to get home. I might not be able to take Gabrielle to a unicorn, or take one to her, but this? This I could take home. I laughed into the wind as I ran. “I’m coming, Gabbi. I’m coming.”