Darcie Little Badger

I am a scientist, Lipan Apache dancer, and speculative fiction writer. I live in Texas with one dog and many books. My previous work has appeared in places like Strange Horizons, Mirror Dance, and Quantum Fairy Tales.

I am a scientist, Lipan Apache dancer, and speculative fiction writer. I live in Texas with one dog and many books. My previous work has appeared in places like Strange Horizons, Mirror Dance, and Quantum Fairy Tales.

When Whales Fall

As the whale corpse landed, Discordant Hum felt auspicious vibrations in the cold abyssal water. “A giant fell,” she said. “It’s ours.” Her body glowed green-pleased. Quick Squeak and Melodious Chord, Discord’s sisters, swam in tight circles above her head.

“What about neighbor broods?” Melodious asked. “They may want it, too.” She waved a tentacle, one of six hanging down her belly, its tip shorn during the last territorial fight.

“You have five spares,” Quick said.

“As a sculptor, I need them all!”

Before the sisters gnawed out from their pearlescent egg sacs, during eras only trench elders had witnessed, there were enough whales for every brood. The giants seeded abyssal oases, their bodies erupting with tube worms, white mussels, and limpets. Though a corpse famine blighted the ocean, Discord had faith that it would pass, and she would fight tooth and fin to see more prosperous times.

“If we take this whale,” Discord said, “its meat can be exchanged for rare stones. Please, Melodious Chord. We need your skill.” With a blade in each tentacle, Melodious fought like a knot of striking eels.

“For olivine, I will fight,” she said.

“For food, too,” Quick added.

For the brood, Discord did all things. “Stay behind me,” she said, “in case I use my killing scream.”

Discord lit her body blue, flashing, a warning: stay away. At the land sight, fine mud particles were suspended around the mountainous corpse. Quick cooed, “Ours, ours.”

“Not yet,” Discord said. She heard a clk, clk, clk. Other merrow had noticed the whale and now approached, their echolocation clks becoming quicker and louder. Five egg-makers, probably brood sisters, descended from the west; by the oblong shape of their scales, Discord suspected that they came from the northwestern plain. “What are you doing in our territory?” she asked.

“Passing through,” their leader said.

“So pass.”

“Our plans have changed.”

“If they now include death, by all means, pester us. My brood has never lost a fight.”

The northwestern leader said, “Now,” and the invaders dropped their travel baskets and drew curved bone daggers. They were inexperienced fighters, Discord thought, because none flanked her. She unhinged her jaw, baring a funnel-mouth lined three rows deep with serrated teeth, and released a killing scream. The leader escaped, narrowly. Two intruders lost consciousness, blood leaking from their outer ears. Two others recoiled from the sonic blast and thrashed with pain. Their bodies glowed brightly white as they tried to discern the world by eye instead of vibrations.

Quick wrapped her nets around the injured merrow, and Melodious hacked off the confused leader’s head with six rapid strikes. It had been a perfect offense. Disable the attackers; behead the leader; victory usually followed. But the headless body continued fighting as blood billowed from its neck. “A berserker!” Melodious said. “What now?” They had not prepared for a berserker because Discord never expected to meet one. Without their core mind, most merrow burrowed in the mud; very rarely, they became unprejudiced killers.

“Dive, Melodious! Dive, dive, dive!” Discord’s voice, though raw from the killing scream, attracted the berserker. She retreated, planning to swim until the wretch bled out, but her plans changed when she noticed a spear protruding from the whale’s back. Discord grabbed the handle and pulled with all her strength; the weapon popped free, and its hooked point impaled the berserker through the heart.

The berserker’s tentacles curled violently, its tail kicked twice, and then it went limp.

“Are you well, sisters?” Discord called.

“Unscathed,” Melodious responded.

“Have we already won?” Quick asked. “That was fast.”

The four surviving invaders escaped Quick’s nets, gathered their baskets, and continued migrating east with their barely twitching, twice-dead leader’s body cradled between them. They glowed violet-sorrowful.

“I wonder if they will eat her body,” Quick said, once the violet lights dimmed with distance.

Melodious swatted her fin. “What a cruel thing to say!”

“How dare you touch …”

“Enough fighting!” Discord said, whirling on her sisters. They had been bickering excessively lately. The whale boon might relieve some stress, but it was only temporary. In two or three gravitational cycles, they would be sucking organics from the mud again, or chasing deep-dwelling fish until their lure lights flickered with exhaustion.

Quick snapped her teeth at Melodious. “May we eat now?” she asked.

“Of course,” said Discord. “Feast. The scavengers are coming.” Soon, hagfish and other beasts would devour the skin, the blubber, the innards, and the half-ton heart.

“What is that?” Melodious asked. She pointed to the spear, its hooked blade dripping with scraps of whale and merrow flesh. “Did the northwesterners drop a weapon? Why would they leave worked metal?”

“I found it in the whale.”

“Somebody attacked the corpse before it landed?”

“Or before it died.”

They turned their faces up, toward the heights where the whale had lived in-between dives and its final, permanent fall. “Impossible,” Melodious said. “No merrow can thrive in that searing bright place.”

“Perhaps,” Discord said. “These are strange times.”

Discord invited one neighbor brood to share the feast. Its leader, Whistle Squeak, was probably their mother. She shared Discord’s unusually sharp dorsal fin and Quick’s yellow-silver irises.

“Congratulations, Possible Daughters,” said Probably Mother. “You claimed a big one.”

“Congratulate providence,” Discord said. “Good fortune slew the whale above our heads.”

“Was it good fortune?” Probably Mother asked. She looked at the spear, protruding blade-up from the mud. “The material and craftsmanship suggest otherwise.”

“You cannot think …”

“I heard that air beasts kill whales now.”

“Who told you that?”

“Shrill Hum from the brine pits.”

“Who told her that?”

“Mournful Groan of the ten-merrow brood.”

“And her?”

Probably Mother glowed yellow-baffled.

“Never mind,” Discord said. “Mother, race me around the whale.”

They played and ate until their bellies ached. When Probably Mother and her brood left, Quick settled on the whale’s head and sang a dirge, her lights dancing through many shades of violet, reflecting sorrow’s complexity. “Join me?” she asked Discord.

“Another time. My voice strings sting from the killing scream.”

Quick gestured to the spear. “The air beasts made that, and you know it. They caused the whale famine.”

“We know nothing of the sort.”

“Probably Mother told me that merrow have gathered near the western slope to fight them.”

“She loves unlikely tales.”

“We should investigate.”

“No, no, no. Let unfortunate broods war.”

When Discord later slept beneath the mud, she dreamed that the whale corpse thrashed until she stabbed its heart with the alien spear. Its blood made the ocean red.