This story was entered in the July-August 2010 Short Story contest at Science Fiction and Fantasy World, and was fortunate enough to win. It’s also a sort of prequel to a story that’s been in my head for a long time, introducing younger versions of two characters who play a part in the later tale.
They said that Jalk could hold his breath for days, that even the fastest of the Beach Lords couldn’t escape him, that the Kraken would think twice before trying to pull him down into the depths. Some had even whispered that he had mentored Grampu himself, however impossibly old that would make him.
None of which mattered much to Haek. He wanted nothing to do with the scarred old killer whale.
Jalk floated silently before him, appraising him with his one good eye. The other nearly blended in with the great white patch above it, long ago clouded over by some ancient battle. Other scars ran across the Jalk’s hide, some long and ragged, others neat and round, verses in the song of a long life in Mother Ocean.
“So you’re the heir, eh?” Jalk said finally.
Haek just stared at him. Let Jalk deal with some silence now.
Jalk chuckled. “Oh, you’re Tund’s, all right. You’ve got the same stubbornness he had.” He pushed himself closer with a quick stroke of his flukes. “All full of tide and no shore to break upon.” He pushed himself into a lazy circle around Haek.. “It was a day and a half before your father spoke to me. The longest I’ve had to wait. Not sure if I finally made him angry enough to snap at me or if he just got tired of the sound of my voice.” He brought himself to a stop, his snout nearly touching Haek’s. “So you’ve got a ways to go before this even begins to bother me.”
“It’s you who are bothering me,” Haek grumbled.
“Ah, he speaks!”
“And you’d be wise to watch your tone! Remember to whom you are speaking.”
“Oh, would I now? And who are you then?”
Haek showed his teeth. “I am Haek, son of Tund, Chief of the Deep Rift Ukina! One day I shall take his place as Keeper of the Bargain!”
Jalk shook his head sadly. “No. Who are you?”
Haek’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“Precisely why you’re here,” Jalk said, turning his great bulk gracefully in the water. “When you’re ready to begin, you’ll know where I am.” Then he worked his great tail and began to swim away.
“And your father waited two days before finding me,” he added with a turn of his head. He thrust upward, breaking the surface. After a deep breath, he dove, vanishing into the darkness with a few powerful strokes.
Haek watched him descend, quivering with barely restrained fury. Who was this old fool to speak to him in such a way? From the looks of him, this Jalk was one breath away from going to Shore, and yet he presumed to lecture the son of a Chief? Haek was tempted to swim away and leave the grizzled excuse for an Orca waiting in whatever part of Mother Ocean he’d dragged himself into.
But then he’d have to tell his father he’d given up. And the lashing he’d take for that was bound to be worse than anything Jalk would put him through. Tund was a hard old Orca, having weathered many battles with the Shok-to tribes, taking claim of the vast sea lion nurseries away from the savage great whites. For that, Tund was looked on with admiration and reverence, one of the greatest Ukina chiefs of all time. And of course, as his son, Haek was expected to be as great, if not greater. A measure he could already feel he was not living up to.
So it was either endure the rude foolishness of one old killer whale or the biting disapproval of another.
“Bones,” he grumbled, and swam off after Jalk.
Haek’s lungs screamed. He could see rippled sunlight above him. Too far above him. His tail pushed madly, but the speckled light seemed to grow no nearer. Blinking dots of color crept into the corner of his vision, and he swam as much to escape them as to reach the air above.
Then he burst through the surface, his blowhole sending forth a great spray as it expelled the stale breath he’d been holding. He gulped air hungrily, clearness returning to his sight.
And the first thing he saw was Jalk. Laughing.
“Well, I suppose that’s a start,” he said.
“Start?” Haek said. “I stayed down as long as I possibly could!”
“You stayed down as long as you thought you could.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Oh, no difference. If you’re content being beached on What Is instead of swimming free in What Can Be.”
Haek closed his eyes, swallowing down a bitter retort. Three days of this now. Three days of being taunted and nearly drowned, all wrapped in mad talk that seemed to do nothing but swim around in search of its own tail.
“Now?” Haek gasped.
“Yes. Unless you have more pressing matters to attend to?” The wrinkled eye stared at him calmly. There would be no argument.
So Haek took a breath and headed into the depths once again. He felt the water around him grow colder as he descended, and soon the light was gone and all that was left to guide him were the sounds floating through the deep. Off in the distance, he could hear one of the Aengilae groaning a lonely ballad, hoping another humpback somewhere might join the song. Occasionally came the fleeting chittering laughter of a Chitarkei, probably a squid, as it danced after its prey. And always the low rumble of Mother Ocean herself, moving her vast body with current and tide. Haek knew all these sounds well, and knew how to push them away when listening for something in particular. But now, as he dove, he let them drift through his mind to accompany his thoughts.
He could glean no purpose for these dives, save to see how long he could hold his breath. Which he could have done comfortably at the surface, without the frenzied rush back to light and air. He felt certain a good part of it was Jalk simply taking pleasure in being able to tell a Chief’s son what to do, a clanless old whale reminding the world he could still bite. Why Tund allowed the antiquated tradition to continue was a mystery; from what Haek had seen of Jalk, the whole thing was a test of patience more than a chance to learn anything about being a Chief.
Pain tore down his side like thousands of tiny claws, ripping him from his reverie. The laughter he’d heard earlier was close and loud, filling his head in the darkness. Then a voice like teeth on bone drifted through the water.
“Bargain-keeper deep swimming not listening easy eating!” Another line of pain wrapped around Haek’s other side, and he could sense a large presence looming up from below him, tightening the grip it had on him. He felt more arms writhe over him, latching on like ramoras, resisting the frenzied thrusts of his tail.
The squid had him. And the familiar yearning in his lungs had begun.
Haek desperately tried to control the rising panic within him. The Chitarkei had long been outcasts, solitary wanderers who seemed to have as little use for their own kind as they did for the other Great Clans of Mother Ocean. Their resemblance to the Kraken played no small part in that. Few would willingly swim with ones who called to mind that great slumbering evil, and legends told of a day when the swirling dances and clattering songs of squid and octopus would finally be answered by the call from their dark master to join him in the depths, from whence they would rise together and lay claim to the world. And now it seemed Haek would soon be nothing more than a sacrifice to that madness, a story to be told to young Ukina to scare them into behaving.
It felt as if a wave roared past. A high shriek cut through Haek’s skull, and suddenly the grasping arms went slack and the water around him grew warm and thick. Without thinking, he beat for the surface, not caring what had pulled him back from the brink. The shrieking below him suddenly stopped, and the wave was roaring again, coursing up behind him, but he didn’t care if the Kraken himself was following him. He needed to breathe.
Light slowly grew around him, the chill fading from the water, and he could see gentle waves breaking above him. He spared not a look behind him, all his being focused solely on breaking the surface and filling his lungs. But he could feel his tail pushing ever more weakly, could his body slowing. Instead of dying alone in the dark depths, he would die in sight of the light.
He stopped swimming, and felt himself begin to float down. Flashes of light danced in the corners of his eyes, and he thought of his father. Would he be disappointed when Jalk told him that his son never returned to the surface? Or relieved that he wouldn’t have to watch Haek grow up to be less than he was? Would he even mourn?
I’m sorry, Father. Even if you might not be.
Then the ocean floor rose to meet him. It gently stopped his descent, then began pushing him back to the surface, moving with the same roar Haek had heard before. The Kraken, he thought weakly, before all went dark.
Haek floated in clear blue water, shafts of white light shimmering down around him. Calm enveloped him, and though he knew he was below the surface, he felt no need to breathe. Even the current of the ocean was a gentle rocking that suggested peace and comfort.
And before him was Grampu.
All Ukina revered the name of Grampu, the one who had made the Bargain that named the Orca as the supreme hunter of Mother Ocean. From him had come all that it was to be Ukina, all their ways and traditions, and all that to which each Chief aspired. Haek was not a small Orca, but Grampu made him feel like a barnacle on a great blue. His hide shone in the shafts of light, for his entire body was the color of Haek’s underside, a pure radiant white that almost hurt to look at. Not a trace of black could be seen save for the two eyes that fixed themselves on Haek.
“Who are you?” The voice filled the water like a crashing wave, vast, but strangely familiar.
Haek swallowed, not knowing if he dared speak. But those questing eyes pulled an answer from him. “I am Haek, son of Tund, Chief of the Deep Rift Ukina.”
“No. Who are you?”
Haek’s eyes widened. The voice was Jalk’s.
“I … I don’t know.”
Grampu nodded. “Now you begin to understand.”
“Am I dead?”
Grampu’s chuckle was like thunder. “Oh, I should say not. Only very close. But you have to be in order to see me this way. Fear not, though. You aren’t going to die. More like a birth, actually.”
Haek’s mind whirled with questions. “You don’t look like I do.”
“You see me as I was before the Bargain. Before I agreed to take the darkness as our mantle. And as our reminder.”
“A reminder of what?”
“That no matter how grim the tide, no matter how deep the anger, no matter how black the sky …” He gestured to Haek’s underside. “… we carry in us the light.”
“I don’t fully understand.”
“Nor do I expect you to. You’ve only just begun the journey. You’ll have your whole life to understand it. And yourself.”
“I don’t think my father will wait that long.”
“Ah yes, Tund.”
Haek’s eyes sank. “He was so worried about sending me to Jalk. Or to you, I guess.”
“All Chiefs worry when it nears their son’s time with Jalk. Some stay with me, never to return. And some don’t accept what I have to tell them, and remain entranced by the power the Bargain has given them.”
“It’s not that. He expects so much of me! I don’t know if I can live up to what he wants me to be.”
“He was as confused as you are. Still is, actually. He still struggles with the idea of the Bargain. Don’t you think he worries you might as well? Or worse, that you might not even make the attempt?”
Haek listened in shock. He found it hard to believe his father had any weaknesses. He was always strong, always stubborn, always so sure of his path. But was that how he truly was, or simply what he chose to show? If what Grampu had said was true — and Haek saw no reason why he would lie — his father was as confused as Haek was, and had been so for far longer. And knowing his son would soon learn what he had learned, what had caused that confusion…
Tund wasn’t worried Haek would be nothing like him. He was worried Haek would be just like him.
Grampu suddenly began to grow brighter, becoming one with the light falling about him. “Ah, you’re nearly awake. Time for me to go.”
“But I have so many more questions!”
“And who says I have all the answers?” He was very nearly transparent now, light shining through him rather than around him.
Haek already felt an emptiness inside him. “Will I see you again?”
“Not like this. At least not until Mother Ocean is ready to send you to Shore. But, if you keep a keen eye, you may see Jalk from time to time, when the need arises. So maybe be a little nicer to him?” He winked, and, with a flash, was gone.
Haek blinked his eyes. He was above the surface of the ocean, but he wasn’t floating. Something firm and warm pulsed beneath him. Then he remembered the moments before he blacked out, and flung himself away from the mass, teeth bared and ready to face the Kraken with his last bit of strength.
Instead a very confused sperm whale stared at him. “I don’t want to fight, but I will if I have to.”
Haek took stock of the whale. He didn’t bear nearly enough scars to be very old, but his huge broad head barely poked above the water, concealing just how big he actually was. It wasn’t unheard of for a pod of Ukina to take down one of the Urkeet-sok, but a single killer whale would be foolish to attack one on his own. “What are you doing here?”
“Saving your ungrateful hide,” the whale said. “Twice, actually.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You think that squid just decided to let you go out of the goodness of its heart?”
Realization washed over Haek. “You were the wave.”
That brought a surprising chuckle from the other whale. “Never been called that before, but yes. Lucky for you the squid I was hunting chose to attack you. You might still be down there.”
“I take it you pushed me to the surface as well.”
The whale nodded. “Didn’t seem to make sense to save you from the squid only to let you drown afterwards.”
“We hunt your kind. We eat your kind. Why would you help me?”
“Didn’t seem like you were planning on eating me when I found you.”
“You know what I mean.”
The sperm whale sighed. “There may very well come a day when you hunt me. And you may actually catch me.” His voice lowered to a whisper. “But no one deserves to die down there in the dark in the arms of a Chitarkei. Not even one whose teeth I may feel in my side one day.”
Haek wrinkled his brow in puzzlement. “Not many feel as you do.”
“Mother Ocean set us on our courses, and we’ve followed them for the long generations since the beginning of the world. I should as much hold it against you as I hold it against the rain for being wet or the ice for being cold.” He grinned. “Besides, if you can’t avoid such a small squid as that, I doubt you’d give me much to worry about.”
Haek laughed in spite of himself. He’d never spoken to one of the Urkeet-sok before, or any other whale for that matter; the hunter usually didn’t exchange pleasantries with the hunted. This whale’s calm acceptance of their respective roles caught Haek completely by surprise. Perhaps there was more to these creatures than just meat and blood.
“Are you going to be all right?” the whale asked. “You seem very far from your pod.”
Now Haek smiled. “Yes. Yes, I’m going to be all right.” He paused. “I would know your name.”
Now it was the whale’s turn to be surprised. “Knowing my name might make it harder to eat me later.”
“I’ll take that chance.”
The whale eyed Haek for a moment. “I am called Atchetuk. And who are you?”
Haek paused. “I am Haek,” he said simply. From the corner of his eye, he swore he saw Jalk smiling.
Copyright © 2010 by Richard F. Dickson. All rights reserved.