When Whales Fall
by Darcie Little Badger
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.
“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.”
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.
A nomad came two cycles later. By that time, only sour gristle clung to the great white bones. The nomad circled the skeleton, each loop tighter, until Discord could not ignore him anymore. “Hello,” she said. “Are you here to see our garden?”
The bones and ground had blossomed with shelled snacks, crabs, and hairy red splotches. Several hagfish nibbled on its flaking vertebrae. The nomad floated above the whale’s skull. Like most life-givers, he had just two tentacles and a powerful tail well-suited for speed.
“Not this time, friends. I have news from The Boiling Trench.” He showed them a black glass sphere, the protective fetish carried by merrow who spoke for trench elders. “She Who Rumbles, our wise elder, beseeches all fit merrow to support her battle against the air beasts.”
Melodious and Quick loomed over the nomad, clking and glowing pink-curious. “Why would any trench elder bother with war?” Melodious asked. “They have more important work.”
The nomad’s colors changed, until he was white and red-speckled, like the whale skeleton. Quick made pleased sounds. “So talented,” she said, her body lit white to illuminate his color tricks.
“Thank you,” he said. “To answer your question: the air beasts ride a many-chambered shell, a behemoth, a whale taker. The elder must destroy it.”
“Then why build an army?” Discord asked.
“We merrow must protect her from –“ he pointed to the spearhead Discord wore against her belly; only the metal had survived two cycles. “– harpoon.”
“Ahr-uuh?” Quick imperfectly repeated.
“Very close,” he said. “Air beast words are challenging. You need flexible voice strings.”
“So we will be her shield during battle,” Discord said. Her brood had survived twenty-nine cycles because she knew when to fight and when to hide beneath the muck, and this war against behemoths was no time for heroism. Anyway, if hundreds really gathered at the western slope, what good were just three more soldiers?
The messenger said, “Word is out. You anointed this whale with merrow blood.”
“Five invaders challenged us.” She considered the fuzzy red splotches, wondering if they grew where the berserker had bled. “These are desperate times.”
“They do not need to be,” he said.
Quick tugged on Discord’s fin. “May we fight?” she asked. “Please? Probably Mother can protect our whale until we return.”
“If we return,” Melodious corrected. She popped a mussel in her mouth and cracked its shell between her teeth. “We should follow him west, Discordant Hum.”
“You, too?” Discord asked.
“The trench elders are law,” she said.
Their whale had wasted away. Hungry times were returning. Discord considered the harpoon blade; its triangle-shaped point, hooked to snag the flesh, was sharper than anything crafted in the blue-bright trench forges. The air beasts were dangerous. “Melodious,” she said, “inform Probably Mother that we have been conscripted.”
The messenger’s skin flushed green-pleased. “You made the right choice,” he said. “It will be a ten-sleep journey across the plain. After that, we go north and stop at the wall-fortress.”
“Wall-fortress?” Discord asked. “What is that?”
“A true wonder. Come!”
Across the abyssal plain, with nets-turned-supply-bags hanging from their bellies, they followed the messenger. Their tails undulated sideways, a movement that complemented long-distance swimming more than the rapid kicks of battle, hunts, or play. Along the way, they ate translucent holothurians, sustained but never satisfied by the water-filled tubes.
“I miss whale garden food,” Quick said. She plucked a holothurian from white-gray mud. It contracted and thrashed in her grip.
“Finish your snack, Quick Squeak!” Melodious said. “Poor, suffering creature.”
“Only you could sympathize with a blob.” Quick dropped the holothurian. “I have no appetite for garbage anymore. Messenger, can we go fishing?”
Simultaneously, Discord and the messenger said, “No.”
“Not here,” Discord continued. “Our lures may attract squid. Big squid.” Merciful trenches protected them from gnashing beaks, hooked arms, and lashing tentacles!
“We could slay it,” Quick said. However, she did not broach the subject again.
As they journeyed, the messenger recruited others: two broods and six nomads. Their numbers emboldened him; after the tenth sleep, he sang, “When heroes die, their spirits fall and dance beneath our yawning Earth, where brightly burns Her brimstone heart, its light an endless orange-proud.”
“Inspiring lyrics,” Discord said. “Do you anticipate casualties?”
“Some. The searing heights are treacherous.” Indeed, up there, water alternated between fatally bright and fairly dark. Merrow could survive during the latter phase, but there would always be risks in shallow places: low pressure and high temperatures, height-induced hallucinations, unconsciousness, beasts with teeth and pointed bills that tear apart defenseless bodies.
Her brood rarely ascended beyond the mid-ocean; Discord could not predict how the near-surface conditions would affect their bodies. Near the slope, where the ground became lumpy with sediment flow debris, she gathered three rocks and fashioned weighted belts with Quick’s spare nets. If she or her sisters fainted in the searing heights, their belts would pull them to safety.
“Thank you,” Quick said, “but did you need to destroy my best net?”
“Yes. Our lives depend on it.”
“I can string them with lucky beads,” Melodious said. As a youth, she learned practical crafting from trench scholar-merrow, just the basics, though Melodious pined for more. Unfortunately, advanced knowledge had a steep price; scholar-merrow were cloistered in deep trenches. The life-givers could not wander, and the egg-makers forsook their broods.
“When you enter the searing heights, the beads will absorb strain until they crack,” Melodious said. “If that happens, dive.” As they travelled, she carved crystalline chips with hole-punched centers. Her able tentacles moved in a skilled flurry; the battle-crippled sixth rested against her travel bundle.
“Finished at last,” she said. “Sisters, do you hear voices?”
“More than voices!” Quick said, glowing pink-curious. “In the distance – can you sense it? Merciful trenches! Amazing!”
They approached a wall of air beast shells, some tinier than minke whales, others larger than blue whales. Hundreds of merrow soldiers swam inside and around the wall, clking and chattering.
Discord had seen an air beast shell once before, during her youthful pilgrimage to The Boiling Trench, It That Cracked The Basin In Twain. At the time, she and her sisters were small, translucent, and voiceless. Like all hatchlings, they chased the trench’s call, an enticing vibration that did not tickle mature ears. Somewhere between their nest and the trench, they encountered several rectangular slabs, fuzzy with marine snow and worms. After wise scholar-merrow had instructed her in battle, language, crafts, and lore, Discord realized that the slabs had belonged to a crumbling air beast shell.
“You were right about the fortress-wall, messenger,” she said. “Wondrous thing! Where did they all come from?”
“The slope – especially this location – is a hotspot for air beast shells,” he said. “These sank without our intervention, and the army assembled them into a fortress.”
“Was there anything inside?” Quick asked. “Probably Mother says the shells are filled with treasure.”
“Metals, tools, trinkets, food,” the messenger explained. “But treasure goes fast. Right now, the shells are hollow. You may explore …” He spun in the water. “Excuse me while I resolve a fight.”
“What fight?” Quick asked, but he was already darting toward the fortress. “Curious. I suppose he heard merrow arguing.”
“How? I can barely hear my thoughts!” Melodious said. The water trembled with hundreds of clks and voices. Disturbed sediment and marine snow, fluffy chunks of detritus raining from the heights, obscured both sight and sound.
“He must be accustomed to chaos,” Discord said. She noticed that the other soldiers possessed traits from all corners of the ocean; it was a cosmopolitan group. The other elders surely rallied behind She Who Rumbles. “Sisters, make camp south of the wall, away from the cacophony.”
Later, when most others slept, Discord explored the fortress-wall. Merrow filled its labyrinthine rooms, huddled beside siblings and friends. Some chambers were vast, and others made her claustrophobic. In one medium-sized chamber, she discerned pleasing flourishes on the walls, curled indentations and ridges. The air beasts were artistic.
Discord returned to her sisters, who slept well beyond the wall to escape the distracting murmurs of six hundred dreamers.
“What was it like?” Quick asked.
“Crowded, confusing. No artifacts remain.”
“We should rest,” Melodious said, shaking mud from her head. “This may be our final sleep.”
“You mean final sleep before battle?” Quick asked.
“Yes, of course I do.”
Discord felt heavy, much too heavy; she touched the belt around her waist. She had carried it to the fortress-wall in case the battle started prematurely. “I will protect you both,” she promised. “When the time comes, stay near me, and do as I say.”
The sisters burrowed underground and became dreamers, too.
A low rumble shook them awake. The elder’s call: fight, children.
“Already?” Quick asked, reaching for her nets.
“Leave them,” Discord said. “We cannot afford more weight.”
“What if the air beasts attack?”
“Nets and daggers are no match for harpoon.” She shone multicolor-aggressive. “If they come into the water, our teeth will suffice.”
Discord turned her face up. She could sense the elder poised halfway between the ocean floor and surface, her body slightly larger than a blue whale, but the distance protected She Who Rumbles from greater scrutiny. Discord wondered if that was intentional. They were mysterious, trench elders.
The army gathered over the fortress-wall and began to ascend northwest, guided by blue-lit scouts. Discord maneuvered her brood into the group’s center. “Avoid the edges,” she said. “We are safer here.”
Higher, the army swam. Higher, higher. Discord felt the ocean’s embrace weaken. At first, it was exhilarating, like escaping from gravity, but then pain swelled behind her eyes and throbbed with every heartbeat, every swish of fin and tentacle. Weaker merrow fainted; their bodies sank like corpses. Much to Discord’s pride, her brood survived the ascent. However, when the near-surface water rolled, her spirits fell. Maybe they should have feigned sickness; in their weak state, anything but still water could be deadly.
“Now,” the messenger shouted. “Shine brightly!”
The rocking water pushed Discord to the army’s western edge. There, she discerned the behemoth approaching. It cut between air and ocean, its belly pressing below the water’s surface.
“Brightly!” The messenger shouted. “Our bodies will be her beacon!”
The army glowed indigo, no-emotion-indigo, because indigo light travelled far in water. Many merrow entwined tentacles to resist separation, but Discord wove between bodies, searching for Melodious and Quick. She clked rapidly, discerning impossible things: bodies fusing and warping, the army becoming one beast. Altitude sickness had affected her senses.
Quick’s voice rang out. She was singing a dirge. “For whom does Quick sing?” Discord said, nearly squeaking with relief. But before she reached her sister, the army sang along. Their unified voices were so powerful, she wondered if Probably Mother could hear them across the ocean.
The behemoth stopped its forward motion just above-north of Discord, within harpoon striking distance if the rumors could be trusted. She readied herself for an attack but none came. Instead, the ship bobbed languidly. In the silence following the dirge, she could hear water slapping against the behemoth’s sides. Faint music – its alien notes shrill and mournful – slipped under the ocean. The air beasts were singing, too.
It surprised Discord, though she knew they spoke a rudimentary language. Near-surface scouts had recorded over two hundred air beast words, including harpoon. Yet words and music were different; the latter spoke to an emotional core.
Baffled, Discord missed her chance to call Melodious and Quick.
The trench elder rose, her cavernous mouth yawning. She rammed the behemoth; it rocked side to side but did not crack. The elder lashed it with her barbed tentacles and gnawed on its belly with ten thousand teeth, but it still resisted her. The army had anticipated a one-hit success; at this rate, air beasts would riddle She Who Rumbles with spears. “Surround the behemoth!” Discord shouted. “Confuse them!”
Other merrow took up her call and moved to the highest waters, swarming around the behemoth, their bodies a glowing shield. A splash. She tasted diffuse blood; a merrow had been injured. Quick? Melodious? No. A nearby stranger, pierced through his tail by a lance. Mercifully, the blade was not hooked. Discord helped him wrench free.
“Retreat,” she told him. “Return to…”
There was a sharp crack, and the trench elder dove. Half the army followed her, whistling victoriously.
“Sisters!” Discord said. “Where are you?” Had they descended? Were they injured? She scoured the water; nearby, the behemoth reared back, as if trying to leap from the ocean. Air beasts dropped, their limbs flapping clumsily. Merrow dragged them below surface to loot and then devour their bodies. The ocean was thick with shouts, bubbles, and debris. Pungent with blood.
There were merrow floating overhead, many dead, others dying. She recognized spear wounds in a few, but the rest must have succumbed to altitude sickness.
“Sisters!” Discord wound through the battle zone. Her sisters might be unconscious and floating. They wore belts, yes, but equipment could fail. She had to check, just once. As Discord moved, every tail swish burned; she felt lightheaded and dizzy; the rock belt pulled her down; the lucky beads snapped. To resist sinking, Discord untied her belt and strapped it to a moaning, height-sick merrow. “Thank you,” he murmured, sinking gently.
“My name is Discordant Hum,” she called. “Please remember it, in case I …”
“Discordant Hum,” he repeated, again and again, until she could not hear him anymore. With renewed strength, Discord moved north. She would circle the battle zone perimeter once, only once, and then descend.
There! A large body floated nearby. At first, Discord thought several merrow had embraced as they died, but no: it was a tiny air beast shell. Curious, she put her head above the water and clked. Unfortunately, her inner ears were failing. She opened her eyes.
The first things she saw were lights. A second ocean glittered overhead, its bioluminescent spots white and blue. The scholar-merrow taught her that all existence resided in two oceans and the savage space between them. In certain holy places, where no merrow could survive, the land jutted above water and bridged the worlds.
Voices drew her attention; seven air beasts huddled in the small shell. She wondered if they were family. “Monsters,” the biggest air beast said. “They are like no fish or squid I’ve ever seen. Row! By God’s grace, we will reach shore.” Half a dozen flat-ended poles arced through the water and propelled the shell away from Discord.
She let them retreat in peace.
Discord finished her search well after the behemoth fell. Debris and bodies – all merrow, for the air beasts had been devoured – bobbed overhead. She called her sisters one last time: Melodious Chord. Quick Squeak. Nobody responded. She did not even hear pleas from strangers anymore. Discord dove, but she could not escape the heights. Her body descended a few meters, tired, and then rose as it succumbed to buoyancy. Again and again, she tried to escape, and each dive was shorter until it took all her strength to remain submerged.
Soon, she had no strength left.
She rolled face-up to behold the second ocean. New lights had emerged from its depths, some smaller than a grain of mud. One winked at her, the cheeky creature. Hello. She lit her body bright white and wondered if they were watching her shine, too.
“I see you.” Quick’s voice. “Discordant Hum. I see you.”
Discord turned, now floating with her back against the air, and saw Quick ascending with frantic tail kicks. They reached for each other, and as their tentacles entwined, Quick stopped fighting her weighted belt and let gravity pull them both into the cold, heavy depths, where Melodious waited.
“My sisters,” Discord said. “My sisters.”
“What happened then?” Probably Mother asked. She and her brood drifted under the whale’s ribs and played with the air beast artifacts Discord, Melodious, and Quick had brought home: gold pendants that opened like clam shells, several sharp hooks, and one large metal canister.
Discord said, “We rested inside the behemoth. It was filled with treasure and food, just like you promised. The messenger arranged a celebration feast to bless the sixty casualties. After that, we swam back here.”
“What an adventure, Possible Daughters!”
“There will be more,” Quick said. “The air beasts ride many behemoths. Merrow soldiers are gathering on the southeastern slope, where He Who Gnashes, wise elder of The Whirlpool Trench, has planned another attack.”
“Are you going to fight?” Probably Mother asked.
Discord made an amused squeak. “Not this time.”
“Not for a long while,” Melodious said.
“Maybe,” Discord said. “The famine will end, one way or another. If air beasts continue poaching our whales, their shells will be acceptable replacements.”
Probably Mother opened and closed the gold pendant, making pleasant clack, clack, clack sounds. “Violence,” she said. “What a pity.”
Indeed, in the memory of elders, no gardens were anointed with blood. Sometimes, Discord pined for the lives of her ancestors.
But at that moment, as Melodious danced between columnar whale ribs and Quick played with their spoils of war, she felt perfectly content.
About the Author
Darcie Little Badger is a Lipan Apache writer with a PhD in oceanography. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Elatsoe, won the Locus award for Best First Novel and is a Nebula, Ignyte, and Lodestar finalist. Her second fantasy novel, A Snake Falls to Earth, was published in November 2021 received the Newbery Honor and is on the National Book Awards longlist. Darcie is married to a veterinarian named T.
About the Narrator
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards.
She co-hosts Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and all four Escape Artists podcasts, and runs Toasted Cake.
Find her at tinaconnolly.com.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.