Vocations don’t grant vacations. I’m supposedly on holiday in London when I get an offer no reporter could refuse: to see a unicorn in the wild.
I’m with my friend Samantha, hanging out at her Dad’s pub after a long night’s clubbing, still wearing our dance-rumpled dresses, dying to get out of our heels. Sam’s father, Will, is tending bar tonight, so it’s the perfect spot for late-night chips and hair-of-the-dog nightcaps. Plus, most of the clientele is over fifty. We wouldn’t have to spend all evening judo-throwing chirpsers. (And yes, this Latina’s been in London a full eight days and has decided to adopt every bloody Britishism she hears. Deal.)
It was a good plan while it lasted. Sam flicks her head toward a guy sitting alone, staring at us over his drink. He could be my dad, if my dad had forgotten to bring a condom to his junior prom. Short, stout, but really fit, as though a cooper had built his torso. The man’s never heard of moisturizer. He’s wearing a black pinstripe shirt with a skinny leather tie, black pleated pants and black ankle-boots. I’m sure it was some cute sales girl who had dressed him—because nobody who cared about him would’ve let him leave the house looking like dog’s dinner.
And now—shit—I have stared at him too long. He comes over, beer in hand.
“Ladies,” he says.
“We’re not hookers,” says Sam. “I know these dresses might give a gentleman the wrong impression.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” I add, big smile.
“Right,” he says, and turns on his heel.
“Hold on, Gavin,” says Will, who’s just pulled up with my Moscow Mule. “Don’t let these two termagants scare you off. Make a little room for Gavin, Sam, will you?”
Gavin considers us a moment, then pulls up the stool next to Samantha and offers her his hand. “Gavin Howard.”
“Oh!” says Sam. She’s suddenly unironically warm—a rare demeanor for her. “You’re the forest ranger. Dad’s told me about you. I’m Sam.”
I put out my hand. “And I’m Gabi Reál.”
“A pleasure,” he says, then proceeds to purée my knucklebones—one of those insecure guys who has to try to destroy the other person’s hand. Charming.
“This man’s a national hero,” Will says to me. “He’s keeping our unicorns safe.”
Now that is interesting. Back in the States, we’ve heard reports of unicorns appearing in forests throughout Great Britain. But in this age of photo manipulation it’s hard to get anyone to believe anything anymore.
So I say as much: “Plenty of Americans don’t think unicorns are real, you know.”
“Oh, they’re real, Ms. Reál,” says Gavin, pleased with his wit. As if I hadn’t heard that one twenty billion times.
“Americans,” says Samantha. “You never think anything interesting could possibly happen anywhere else in the world, do you?”
The Brits share a chuckle. I don’t join in.
“We shouldn’t insult our visitor,” says Will. “I mean, if the Americans were to tell us snaggletoothed pookahs started appearing in California, I’d want better proof than a picture.” He leans to Gavin and adds, “Gabi’s a reporter for The San Francisco Squint. Her column’s called ‘Let’s Get Reál.’ Two million read it every week, don’t you know.”
Gavin sizes me up like a squinting jeweler. “I have no patience for falsehood. I wish more people would ‘get reál.’” His voice gets weirdly sincere.
I lean toward him and say, “Me too. My column’s subtitle is ‘Truth or Death.’” I smile and sip my Mule.
It’s not the first time I’ve chirpsed to land an interview. Gavin drinks the rest of his beer but never takes his eyes off me. Neither do Will or the slightly disgusted Sam, who sees exactly what’s happening.
But screw her; a story’s a story. Gavin sets down his glass and says the words I am longing to hear: “You know, I’m working the New Forest this weekend. If you’d like, it would be my pleasure to take you with me. You might just see a unicorn for yourself.”
• • • •
I thought this would make a nice fluffy piece for my column. I mean, unicorns!
Gavin—who is completely professional and hands-off, thank the gods—and I are having a delightful Sunday-morning hike through some less-traveled parts of the New Forest. It’s everything an American could want of an English woods: fields of heath; majestic oaks and alders; rivers that run as slow as wisdom itself; and ponies! Thousands of ponies roaming feral and free like a reenactment of my girlhood fantasies.
Of course, that sets my Spidey-sense tingling. Wouldn’t it be easy enough for rumors of unicorns to sprout up in a place with so many darling ponies ambling about?
This is what I am thinking when we come across a thick, almost unbroken trail of blood.
“Hornstalkers,” Gavin says. And when he sees I’m not following: “Unicorn poachers. Of all the luck.”
He calls it in on some last-century transceiver. HQ wants more information. They tell him to send me home and to follow the blood trail with extreme caution. “Do not attempt to apprehend them on your own,” says HQ.
“I mean it, Gavin. Don’t go showing off in front of your lady-friend.”
“I said, ‘Understood.’” He stows the transceiver and adds: “Wanker.” And then to me he says, “Well, Gabi, it’s poachers. Dangerous people. HQ says I’m supposed to send you home.”
“Just try,” I reply. We high-five.
And then we’re hustling through the wilderness, following a grim trail of blood, snapped branches, hoofprints, and bootprints. Gavin jogs ahead, while I do my best to keep up. He’s a totally different person out here, absolutely in tune with the forest. He’s half hound, loping with canine abandon through the woods, then stopping suddenly to cock his head to listen, sniff the air.
It’s also clear he’s used to running with a high-powered rifle in hand. He told me back at the truck that he was bringing it “just in case.” So here we are.
He stops suddenly and crouches. I do too. From one of his cargo-pants pockets he pulls a Fey Spy, a top-of-its-class RC flying drone that looks like a green-gold robot hummingbird.
He tosses it into the air and it hovers, awaiting orders; using a controller/display-screen the size of a credit card, he sends the little drone bulleting into the forest.
I peer over Gavin’s shoulder and am treated to a dizzying live-cam of the terrain that awaits us. Gavin’s a great pilot. The drone zooms and caroms through the woods with all the finesse and speed of a real hummingbird.
And then we see them: the poachers, two of them. They wear balaclavas and camouflage jumpsuits, the kind sporting-goods stores love to sell to amateurs.
Between them walks a girl. A girl on a dog leash.
I’d judge her to be eight or nine. She’s dressed for summer, tank top and shorts and flip-flops; she’s muddy to her ankles. Her head hangs, and her hair, the colors of late autumn, curtains her face. The collar around her neck is lined with fleece. (To prevent chafing, I presume? How considerate.) The leash seems mostly a formality, however, as it has so much slack that its middle almost dips to the ground.
“What the hell?” I whisper. “What’s with the girl?”
Gavin, slowly and evenly, says, “Some hornstalkers believe that unicorns are attracted to virgin girls. So they kidnap one to help them in their hunt.”
“What? You can’t be serious.”
Gavin shrugs. “One too many fairy tales when they were kids.”
• • • •
I can only imagine what is going through that poor girl’s head. Kidnapping alone is already more evil than anyone deserves. But as a girl I loved horses, ponies, and especially unicorns. If unicorns had existed in our timeline when I was young, they would have dominated my every daydream. I can’t imagine how scarred I would have been if I’d been forced by poachers to serve as bait. To watch them murder one right in front of me. Dig the horn out of its skull.
Gavin gives my wrist a fortifying squeeze. Then he hands me the RC controller, takes out his walkie-talkie and, as quietly as he can, reports what he’s seen to HQ. I use the Fey Spy to keep an eye on the poachers. The group is moving forward cautiously. The girl’s gait, stooped, defeated, fills me with dread.
Gavin has a conversation with the dispatcher that I can’t quite make out. When he’s done, he pockets the transceiver and looks at me. Then he holds out his rifle to me with both hands.
“This,” he says, “is a Justice CAM-61X ‘Apollo’ sniper rifle. It has a range of 1,700 meters. It’s loaded with .50 caliber Zeus rounds. They’re less lethal bullets. Bad guys get hit by these, they lose all muscular control, shit their pants, and take a nap. Then we just mosey up and cuff ’em.”
I squint. “1,700 meters in a desert, maybe. You’d have to be halfway up their asses to get a clear shot, with all these trees.”
He pats the rifle. “Not with these bullets. They’re more like mini missiles, with onboard targeting computers and everything. They can dodge around obstacles to reach their target. Especially,” he emphasizes, “if we create a virtual map of the forest between us and the poachers.”
Lightbulb. “Which we can make with the Fey Spy.”
He nods. “Listen, Gabi. That girl’s in great peril. We’re on the clock here. We can’t wait for backup.”
As a journalist, my ethics require me to remain disinterested when covering a story. Fuck you, journalistic ethics. “What you need me to do?”
He points at RC display/controller in my hand. “You any good flying one of these?”
“I’m a reporter. I make my living spying on people with drones.”
Gavin smiles. Then: “I need you to fly the Fey Spy back to us, slowly and from high up in the canopy, so that it can map the forest between us and the poachers. Then fly it back over to them and keep them in the Fey Spy’s field of vision. It’ll automatically transmit the map of the forest to my rifle. Once it’s done, it’s as simple as bang bang bang. Everyone goes down.”
I nod in agreement at first, before I realize this: “Wait. Bang bang bang? Three bangs? There are only two poachers.”
His face goes green and guilty. “Well, we can’t have the girl running scared through the forest. She could hurt herself.”
I wait a second for the punchline, because he can’t be serious. But of course he is. “Oh my God. Are you insane? You are not shooting the girl!”
“She’ll just take a little nap.”
“And shit her pants. You said she would shit her pants.”
“She’s not even wearing pants.”
Gavin’s face oscillates between contrarian and imploring. Finally, he shrugs. “Look, if you’ve got a better idea, I’m all ears.”
“I do have a better idea. You shoot the poachers. I’ll handle the girl.”
“Gabi, that girl’s undergone a severely traumatic sequence of experiences. I’m not sure a team of highly-trained psychologists could handle her right now.”
“She’ll be even more traumatized if you shoot her. Look, I admit it’s not a great option. We just don’t have any better ones. As soon as you have a lock on the hornstalkers, you take them out. I’ll fly the Fey Spy to the girl and keep her entertained until backup arrives.”
He should name his eyebrows Super and Cilious. “What if she runs?”
“I’ll go get her myself. She won’t get far. She’s in flip-flops.”
He’s about to argue, but decides against it. “Out of time,” he sighs. “We do it your way. Don’t fuck up.”
Gavin aims the rifle ahead, looks into the scope with one eye, winks the other. I look back to the Fey Spy display screen, catch up with my targets. They’ve barely moved at all. As if they’re not sure what to do next. “I don’t think these guys are pros,” I say to Gavin.
“Unicorn horn is worth a mint,” he says, his aim never wavering. “Every imbecile with a gun wants a piece of the action. Guide the Fey Spy back to us.”
I do, slaloming left and right through the forest in large swaths as I fly. It’s a little over ten minutes before we make visual contact with our hummingbird robot.
“Good job,” says Gavin, checking his rifle’s readout. “We’ve almost got what we need. Steer the Fey Spy back over to them.”
By the time I catch up with the poachers again, they are crouching behind a pair of trees, trying to peer into a hole the wounded unicorn must have punched through the forest as it fled. The girl stands next to the poacher who has the other end of her leash around his wrist. She’s as still as a Degas ballerina.
Within the space of a second Gavin fires two shots, and a blink later the two poachers suffer seizures. They slap at their necks and fall to the ground, their guns tumbling away from them.
I hover in place; I want to see how the girl reacts.
She doesn’t. She just stands above her handler. He is weakly reaching up to her. The leash is looped around his wrist, her neck. Her sheet of yellow-orange hair shields her face from me.
The poacher’s hand finally drops. He’s out. It suddenly occurs to me the girl must think he’s dead. Jesus Christ: How much worse can we make things for her?
Gavin’s already charging ahead to the forest to go truss up the poachers with zip-ties. He’ll be there in minutes. All I need to do is keep her entertained until he gets there and make sure she doesn’t—
—no! She slips the leash off the poacher’s wrist and takes off running.
• • • •
Here’s an important safety tips for the kids at home. Do not go tearing as fast as you can through a moderately dense woods while also trying to fly a Fey Spy. You can’t run and watch a screen and steer a robot at the same time. After my fourth stumble, I decide to go with the Fey Spy. It can move through the forest much faster than I can, and it will provide me a map of the forest that will lead me right to her.
It’s the right choice. In minutes, the Fey Spy makes visual contact. I fly it into a small clearing, where a scene plagiarized from a medieval tapestry is already in progress. The girl—the leash still around her neck—is kneeling in front of a horse. Huge and beautiful, chestnut-colored, male. He has folded his legs under him. He can barely keep his dipping head aloft. On his flank a bullet wound yawns; a slow lava-flow of blood gurgles out of the hole. Below it spreads a scabrous beard.
And, spiraling out from the horse’s head, is a horn almost a meter long.
• • • •
We have the Large Hadron Collider to thank for unicorns. Once the scientists at the LHC discovered they could make these adorable microscopic black holes, they couldn’t resist doing it all the time. “They only last for microseconds,” they said. “What harm could they do?” they asked.
How about destabilizing the membrane that keeps other universes from leaking into ours?
Think of our universe as some kid’s crayon drawing on a piece of paper. Take that drawing, and place it on top of some other kid’s. If nothing else happens, the drawing on top will hide the drawing beneath it. But now, take a spray-bottle and spritz the drawing on top. Don’t ruin it or cause the colors to run; just moisten it a little. As the paper gets wet, you’ll be able to see hints of the picture that’s underneath.
The numberless black holes created at the LHC “moistened” the paper on which our universe is drawn, allowing other universes to come peeking through.
Handwringers have announced the inevitable collapse of our universe but, so far at least, nothing so dramatic has happened. And in fact, a great deal of good has come of the LHC’s experiments. Scientists have gained invaluable insights into how parallel universes work.
For instance, we now know that, in at least one alternate timeline, unicorns exist. And a few specimens have found their way into our neck of the multiverse.
• • • •
Even before I entered the clearing, I could hear the girl calling out “Help! Is anybody there? Help us!” Not “Help me.” “Help us.”
So I move into the clearing slowly. The girl sits with the unicorn’s head on her lap, petting his neck. Her face is a tragedy mask.
She asks me, “Are you a hunter?”
I sit next to her. “My name’s Gabrielle Reál. I’m a reporter.”
I nod. “I’m here to help you.”
She feels safe enough to start crying in earnest. “Can you call my parents?”
“Help is on the way, sweetheart.”
She nods. “Can you help him?”
She means the unicorn. How to reply? I will not compound her future suffering with a lie—truth or death, remember?—but I don’t want to heighten her present suffering by lecturing her about the stark realities of life and death. I finally settle on, “I can’t. But I have a friend coming. He’s a forest ranger. If anyone can help the unicorn, he can.”
She nods, sniffles, redoubles her petting. The unicorn sighs, settles further into her lap. I have to dodge his horn. It’s even more amazing up close than any picture I’ve seen. It’s a spiral of silver-gray, pitted and striated, covered with the nicks and flaws that come from a lifetime’s use. It doesn’t feel as cold as I expect; it’s like reaching into a body and touching vital bone.
I should get us away from him, I know. This is a wounded wild animal; he can turn on us at any moment. But the truth is I don’t want to move. I don’t want this magnificent creature to die without knowing some comfort in his passing. It’s a sentimental thought, I know. That doesn’t make it any less authentic.
I scratch the unicorn’s head. He moves slightly toward my hand, grateful. The girl rests her head on my arm, and together we pet him and weep.
• • • •
Thousands of animals—elephants especially, but also walruses, rhinoceroses, and narwhals—are massacred every year for their horns and tusks. The demand for ivory continues with little abatement in places like China, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other countries. In spite of the bans and the international efforts to curb the ivory trade, poachers have no trouble finding buyers with deep pockets and government officials on the take.
In fact, the only thing that has seemed to be effective at slowing down the butchering of these animals has been the introduction of an even more desirable kind of ivory: that of the unicorn.
Unicorn horn is said to possess all sorts of salubrious woo. It can detect and cure disease, anything from nosebleeds to lupus. It’s a universal poison antidote. It can impart superhuman strength, speed, and/or intelligence; regenerate lost limbs; restore sight to the blind; recover sexual potency; reverse aging; raise the dead. Slice it, dice it, powder it, or keep it whole and use it as your magic wand—unicorn horn is good for what ails you.
Of course it has no such properties. But what science has learned already about unicorns is almost as wondrous. Equus ferus hippoceros seems to fit so well into our timeline’s system of classification, there is reason to believe they might actually have existed in our universe at some point and that we may someday find indigenous unicorn fossils. Of the extrauniversal specimens we have encountered so far, male unicorns seem to be up to fifteen percent larger than the modern horse, females up to ten percent. Their large skulls somewhat resemble those of large, extinct species from our Eocene era: save, of course, for the horns sprouting from their head.
A unicorn horn, much like a narwhal’s, is actually a pair of repurposed canines that grow helically from the animal’s palate and intertwine as they emerge from the forehead. Scientists believe that when the unicorn’s ancestors switched from being omnivores to herbivores, evolution found other uses for its meat-tearing teeth. Defense against predators and mating displays are obvious assumptions, though neither has been observed as yet. We have observed, however, them using their horns as “fruit procurement appliances” (Gavin’s words). And since the horn is actually two twisted teeth, it is sensitive to the touch. Scientists are just beginning to hypothesize the various ways in which unicorns use their horns as sensory organs.
In short, the unicorn is an endlessly fascinating animal, one that not only has enriched our knowledge of our own natural world, but the natural world of at least one other timeline. It’s scientifically priceless.
As I sit scratching this dying beast’s head, I wonder Why isn’t that enough? Why do we have to invent magical bullshit? They just got here, and we’re hunting them to extinction based on lies.
But then I grimly smile. Unicorns are not of our timeline. The stragglers who have appeared here came by an LHC-induced accident. No matter what we do here, we can’t erase them from existence in all universes. Even our folly, thank the gods, has limits.
• • • •
Gavin cautiously enters the clearing. The rifle is holstered on his back. He walks in smiling, open-armed, crouching, cautious. He reminds me of Caliban.
“There they are,” he says merrily. “Glad I finally found you. Now we can get you home safe and sound. So let’s get a move on, hm?”
Neither I nor the girl move. The girl’s eyes are locked on Gavin, assessing. “Is that your friend?” she asks me.
“The forest ranger,” I reply. “The men who kidnapped you are going to prison for a long time thanks to him.”
She doesn’t take her eyes off of him. “You said he could save the unicorn.”
Gavin shoots me a look.
“I didn’t say he could definitely save him,” I say. “I said if anyone could, he could. He’s going to try.”
“He can’t just try. It has to work.”
“There, now,” says Gavin, coming over to us. He’s picked up what’s transpired between the girl and I and plays his part perfectly: He kneels down next to the unicorn and pats the beast’s neck, looking at it nose to tail, examining it studiously. But you don’t have to be a unicorn expert to know the animal’s almost dead.
“Right,” he says. “I’m going to have to perform a complicated bit of field surgery on this poor fellow. Gabi, my crew’s half a click south of here. You should head toward them with the little lady.”
“Come with me, sweetie,” I say to the girl, standing and holding out my hand. “Let’s get you back to your parents.”
She doesn’t look at me. “I want to stay,” she says flatly.
“We have to let Mr. Howard do his work,” I say. “He’s the only chance the unicorn has. You want to help the unicorn, right?”
“The best way for us to help is to get out of the way.”
She considers this, pets the horned horse more vigorously to help her think. Then—so, so carefully—she sets the unicorn’s head on the ground, scoots her legs out from under. The unicorn is well beyond noticing such subtle kindnesses. Its black unmoving oculus reflects the clouds.
The girl rises and takes my hand. “Please do what you can,” she says to Gavin.
Gavin opens a leather satchel of sharp instruments on the ground. They look a little crude for the fine cuts operations usually require. They look like tools for an autopsy: for sawing, hacking, flensing off.
“Don’t you worry,” Gavin says to the girl. “I’ll have Mr. Unicorn patched up in no time.”
• • • •
The support team is everything I could want from British rescuers. I’m offered tea and blankets and biscuits and a satellite phone. I call my editor and confess how I blew the story.
“Fuck journalistic ethics!” she says. Love that woman.
The support team does even better with the little girl. They’ve got her sitting on the tailgate of a pickup, drinking tea from a thermos, wrapped in a blanket she doesn’t need. They washed her feet. A comfortingly overzealous Mary Poppins kneels behind her in the bed of the truck and brushes out her hair. The woman chats nonstop the entire time, a stream of solicitous chatter that, like all good white-noise machines, is threatening to put the blanketed girl to sleep.
But the girl wakes up immediately when Gavin rejoins us.
I have exactly one second to gather the truth from his body language. Then Gavin sees the girl scrutinizing him and muscles up a smile. He marches over to her with his elbows out, like he’s about to start a musical number. “How are we doing? My people taking good care of you?”
“Did you talk to your mum and dad? I bet they were glad to hear your voice.”
“We’ll, you’ll be back with your family in a few hours.”
“Did you save him?”
He had to know that question was coming, but in the moment he still finds himself unprepared to answer. “Well,” he says slowly, looking down, “it wasn’t easy.” But then, looking at her conspiratorially: “But yes. I saved him.”
“Really?” Her voice is chary.
Gavin clears his throat. “We had to pull a bit of a trick to pull it off. You see, unicorns really are magic in their own universe. But when they come here, suddenly they’re as normal as any other horse.”
“Sure they are, in their own time and place. Unicorns don’t die or get sick or grow old in their own universe. Once I got him back to his rightful place, he healed up like that.” Gavin snaps.
The girl blooms. “You can do that?”
“Sure I can. Can’t I, team?”
“Yes. Oh, certainly. Do it all the time,” says the team.
The girl is looking from face to face. She seems better. Finally she looks at me. “Is it true, Ms. Reál?”
“If Mr. Howard says so,” I say before I can think about what I’m saying.
Gavin’s lying out his ass. It’s not like there’s some handy stargate we can push unicorns through to send them back to their universe. They’re the first verifiable case we have of a living creature passing between timelines, but that may only be because, since they don’t exist in this one, they were easy to identify. Millions of animals may be traveling back and forth between universes, or maybe just unicorns. Who knows? Certainly not us, not yet. We have zero idea how to send them back to their rightful reality.
So why am I not telling the girl all this?
Because doing so will gut her afresh. Because there’s such a thing as mercy. Because she can learn what really happened later, when she’s stronger: maybe even from me, if she happens to read this article. If you’re reading this, P————, I’m so sorry. As a reporter, I’m supposed to be a steward of the truth. But as unheroic as it sounds, it’s better to lie and stay alive. Way, way better.
I take P————’s hands and look her in the eye when I say, “Sweetie, I promise you, that unicorn is as alive as you and me.”
Spread the word!