“An Unexpected Honor,” by Ursula Vernon

Illustrated by Conor Nolan • Edited by Joel Cunningham

When Ursula Vernon’s The Tomato Thief won the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novelette, she gave an acceptance speech the likes of which you’ve never heard. The B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog presents it now as an original piece of flash fiction—though the phenomenon it describes is entirely real. You can also download this story for free to read on your Nook app or device.

An Unexpected Honor

By Ursula Vernon

Well. This is an unexpected honor. My fellow winners have said some very meaningful things up here on the stage tonight.

I want to talk to you about dead whales.

Whales are not immortal, so when they die, they don’t just float like really big goldfish—I mean, they do for a bit, and then the body sinks down, down, down, into the lightless depths.

If it happens to be in the Abyssal Zone when it dies, the whale will fall a very, very long way. It sinks, and sinks, and finally it hits the bottom, down in the dark, kicking up sand that may not have moved since our species came down from the trees.

And then the scavengers come, from miles around—the sharks, and the hagfish, and the ratfish, and things we don’t even have names for because we only see them when a whale dies. And they feed on the dead whale. Deep sea starfish crawl toward it, inch by inch, to feast on whale flesh.

And whales are gigantic. It takes, literally, years for the hagfish and the sharks to strip it to the bones.

And then other things come for the bones. There are creatures that spend their whole lives in the water column, just waiting for a whale to die. The zombie worm—and yes, we really call them that—emerges and drills into the whale’s bones. But only the females, because dating is hard when you’re a zombie worm, so if they meet a male in the water column, they swallow him.

And you would swear that there is not an ounce of whale left, but still they come, from miles around. And tube worms and zombie worms dig into the sand for yards in every direction, seeking the tiniest fragment of whale flesh, and they grow like flowers in this lightless garden down in the cold and the dark.

Isn’t. That. Cool?

Now, you’re probably all asking what whalefall has to do with awards ceremonies, or science fiction novelettes, and the answer is: absolutely nothing. But how often do I get to tell an audience this size about whalefall?

So, thanks to my publishers, my husband Kevin, and thank you all. I’m glad you liked my story. Y’all have a good night.

You can also download this story for free to read on your Nook app or device.

Ursula Vernon lives, writes, paints, and firmly believes adults should still be allowed to trick-or-treat in Pittsboro, North Carolina. She is known for her Eisner Award-nominated, Hugo Award-winning graphic novel Digger, and for the children’s books Dragonbreath and Nurk: The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew. Her short story “Jackalope Wives” won the 2015 Nebula Award. Under the name T. Kingfisher, she is the author of several books for adults, including the collection Jackalope Wives and Other Stories, and the recent novel Clockwork Boys.

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