Many the Sorrows He Suffered at Sea
by Bo Balder
The drowned man woke up from the first rays of sunshine
burning on his neck.
Not dead, after all.
He yawned, and it felt like his skin split in dozens of
places. He fumbled at his face with hands like mitts,
swollen and scratched, nails broken and bleeding. Cuts
in need of cleaning marred his skin. As soon as the
thought of water entered his mind, his tongue stuck to
the roof of his mouth, and pain flared in his cracked
Yet thirst meant he was alive. Battered by wave and rock
and beach, but alive.
But what beach, what country? Although the hour seemed
early, the light burned hard and ominous on his
shoulders. He scrambled up, shading his face against the
easterly sun peeking over the rise. He set off towards
the vaguely familiar mass of sheltering cliff.
With the sun finally out of his eyes, he found himself
at the foot of a breathtaking sweep of white marble
stairs. He hadn't seen such unnatural perfection in
years. The steps towered up the mountain, almost out of
sight over his head. They culminated in the graceful
columns and onion domes of something uncannily like the
palace of his childhood. A feeling of dread settled on
his neck, adding to his stoop. He didn't want to be
reminded about his youth and how it had ended.
He looked back over the beach, shading his eyes against
the sun. That heap of rocks under the sand, could it
be the dome of the old beach folly? He must be
hallucinating. Gods, he sure hoped so.
He swiped at the salt stinging his chapped skin and
started up the stairs. After five or six times eight of
steps he was out of breath and his thighs burned. In his
memory, he'd run up stairs like these in one go, light
as a feather, laughing and singing. Even that must have
been enhanced by the clouds, feeding him extra oxygen
and clearing away the fatigue toxins. Now the weight of
those hidden memories hobbled his ankles, turning every
step into torture.
He was an old man, or near enough. Nearly five times
eight was nothing in the old days, when people sometimes
reached three eights of eight,
hale and hearty. But only two-and-a-half times eight
years of living an unassisted life, continuously on the
run, scrounging for food and drink, had turned him into
an old man. An aching back that was starting to stoop,
graying hair, sore feet, loose teeth. Ordinary life was
like the realm of darkness from the old nursery stories,
full of regret and pain.
Why had he bothered to prolong it?
This wave of self-pity forced him to sit down on one of
the little balconies adjoining the stairs. The
once-gleaming stone was dull and chipped. No more
cushions here, no shade. A few haggard shrubs beside the
stairs leaned away from the sea wind. The aqueduct which
had run down, following the curving lines of a famous
poem carved straight into the stone, had stopped
murmuring. He ran his hand through the curls of the word
The poem had been something about the wanderings and the
safe return of an ancient hero. Without the cloud's
enhancement, memories were dim and flat things. And that
was how he liked it, beaten-down memories neatly
shackled in his brain so they wouldn’t bother him.
He refused to believe what his eyes and fingertips told
him. This couldn’t be home. He didn't want it to be. He
had meant never to return, not after what he'd done.
He'd traveled away for nearly thrice eight years now.
The year on the slaver ship shouldn’t have been enough
to bring him to his home shore. And yet he seemed to be
He knew how to find out for sure.
His hand slid around the last curl of the poem, so low
that only a child could have looked at it from
underneath. He felt the ridges under his hand, his
initials, carved with his own hand during weeks of
labor, without the help of his nanites. He'd been so
proud of that.
But it couldn’t be his carving, or his rock. What were
He slid back down and pushed himself back until he could
see the underside of the aqueduct with his own eyes.
Cheek on the sand, which scraped his already sore face
and multiple cuts, he waited until his sun-struck eyes
had recovered enough to see in the semi-darkness of the
There it was. His initials, S. K., Sorcha Kalimataan.
Yes, his name had been Sorcha.
Sorcha closed his eyes and counted to thrice eight. The
initials were still there when he opened his eyes again,
stuttering across the smooth marble. Uncomfortable
sensations roiled in his empty stomach. He didn't want
to feel hope, or happiness, or even just relief. He'd
trained himself not to feel anything.
So he was home. What of it? Surely everyone would be
dead by now, dead and gone. Nobody to point a finger at
him. The clouds had made this place a paradise. Without
their presence, it would hardly be habitable.
He dragged his weary body up the second half of the
staircase. The once famous palace garden was a
desiccated ruin. A few trees still stood within the
walled confines, skeletons of their former beauty. The
grand glass windows were gone. He couldn't remember if
they'd been real glass or force fields generated by the
He ducked inside to get out of the sun. Most of the roof
seemed to be intact. As he passed into the interior
chambers he strode through relative coolness. His feet
took him to the most familiar hallway of all – the one
where his family's bedchambers had been, including his
His fingertips hovered over the remnants of the curtain,
but he couldn't bring himself to open it, and he refused
to even look in the direction of his mother's room. The
contrast between the derelict present and the
glittering, perfumed past of endless parties and routs
and concerts gaped like a wound. His family had wielded
the power of their gene tools and nanotechnology like a
more primitive ruler's whip. Their prerogatives, handed
down to him, had also given him the power to destroy it
All of a sudden, the house's dusty, still atmosphere
stifled him, and he bolted through the hallways and
courtyards until he came out on the land side,
breathless and dizzy from running.
He could sleep in the kitchen, but that didn't solve the
problem of food and drink. The best chance of that was
down the hill, through the gardens and tea plantations
to the old village. Some people had believed in growing
real food instead of the stuff the nanites produced. Or
maybe the peasants' inferior clouds were incapable of
the subtleties of taste his own family's strains could
create. Anyway, a kitchen garden gone wild might still
yield some produce.
The steep path through the tea shrubs, ghostly in their
pale, naked branches, jarred his bones at every step.
The sun's heat seared his neck.
A narrow path branched off to the left. He should keep
going straight down.
He took it anyway, carried there almost against his
conscious will. The boxwood hedge fencing off the garden
was floured with dust, but when he wiped one leaf clean,
he uncovered a deep, green gloss. At least something
still lived. The door likewise was intact. It must have
been a real door. Sorcha touched it to make sure. He
found rough wood and chipped paint, but that didn't take
away from its reality.
He'd encountered nothing but real doors in his
wanderings, but here in this setting they again felt
strange, like when he'd first started out. He'd had to
get used to the permanency of things, and discovered
money and labor, pain and illness.
He pushed the creaking door open and entered the garden
within. The sound of the sea, already muted on this side
of the slope, receded further. The sun only reached the
farthest edge, and the upslope part he automatically
turned to was deep in shadow.
His feet remembered where to go. A row of graves shone
in the dry grass like tears. He thudded hard on his
knees, his heart rattling in his chest. The last place
he wanted to be.
His mother's gravestone was crude, an uneven rectangular
slab completely different from the smooth ellipses on
her left side. Unskilled hands had hewn in her first
name, then run out of space. Arangzhi, it said.
Something inside him hurt. It wasn't his stomach; the
pain throbbed higher up in his chest. Sorcha embraced
his naked ribs in an attempt to stop their heaving,
because it was making the pain worse. His mother had
died ignobly, wasting away from a disease her cloud
should have routinely healed. After a life of only eight
eights or so, she'd fallen prey to a long-forgotten
infection. She'd gotten a fever, taken to her bed, and
within three days she was dead. He hadn't understood her
death at all. His father had been furious.
He wiped away more salt. It dripped onto her grave and
left a dark mark across the ZH, turning it into Z,
ruining her memory even now. He tried to clean it up and
made a muddy mess of the inscription. His fingers ached
with a sudden, stabbing pain.
For a moment his mother appeared in all the color and
glory of detail he used to know. Tall, golden-skinned,
her dark hair full of fragrant flowers that echoed her
wispy dress. A ghost, a memory. He blinked, and after
that couldn't refocus her image into that clarity again.
After her death everything fell to ruin and he'd fled
the bitter remnants of his happy childhood and
harmonious family life. Why was he even here? Why search
for water and sustenance when he might as well be dead?
He'd told himself he'd forgotten what his life was like,
that he'd adapted to the lack of joy, but it wasn't
Sorcha stumbled up, his knees creaking, and ran smack
into a group of people.
He rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn't seeing ghosts.
A small, gnarled woman glared up at him. He would have
given her eight times eight years before, except he knew
better now. She might have as little as five times eight
years. She wore a dirty yellow rag, just like the
watchful men standing at either side of her.
"Who are you, stranger?" she called out in a harsh
The way she pushed a strand of wayward hair off her face
tickled Sorcha's memory.
"I am shipwrecked, good woman," he answered. "I meant no
harm, or disrespect." He added, "Daughter of Sengshi."
He knew her for the architect's daughter, but couldn't
recall her name.
Her eyes narrowed. "You know me?"
He realized his mistake. "A slip of the tongue, madam.
Of course I don't know you." He shook his salt-encrusted
hair before his face, coughing to hide the gesture.
Her mouth dropped open. Her face thrust forward; her
hands lifted in surprise. Comprehension. Recognition.
"You are him. The Prince. Sorcha! How dare you come back
here and defile her grave! After what you did to her!"
The words sickened Sorcha to his stomach. He'd never
meant to kill his mother. It had been a side effect of
the virus he'd asked his cloud to create. He'd meant it
only as a tool to best his playmates. If he'd thought
things through he'd have realized the virus would
multiply and attack everyone else's clouds as well.
Including his own.
Sengshi's daughter stepped closer to him, her face
turning redder with every step, her hands flailing. The
men behind her stepped forward and produced crude but
undoubtedly deadly swords. She shrieked at him like a
teakettle. "Filth! Betrayer! How dare you return. Do you
think we won't kill you? Destroy you like you destroyed
Sorcha didn't expect the wash of feeling that rushed
into his head, making his face burn twice as hot as it
did from sun and salt burn. When he'd destroyed the
world, it had been a selfish, careless act of youthful
stupidity. He stammered out in confusion. He, he wasn't
a betrayer, surely? "I…I…"
"I! I!" Sengshi's daughter retorted, fury distorting her
wrinkled face. She hadn't been that much younger than
himself, he seemed to remember. "All you ever loved was
She flapped her arm. "Boys. Chop his disgusting head
"Wait! Wait!" he cried out. "Can't I say – I need to say
Sengshi's daughter set her arms akimbo."Whatever could I
want to hear?"
Sorcha thought frantically. If he could only postpone
their fury. Talk them into a, a trial!
"I want to say that I am deeply ashamed of what I did. I
have carried the burden of my deeds around with me for
these past two eights and more. I returned to confess my
shame to my mother's grave and ask for her forgiveness."
The last words came out in a thick, choking voice. Tears
ran down his face. His chest hurt and he'd clasped his
hands over his heart. So much pain. It couldn't be that
he meant it, could it? It was just a ruse. A trick,
pretty words to prolong his life a few more seconds.
But the body doesn't lie. Certainly not a body without
cloud mites. His ribs bucked, and he sobbed out his
sorrow and repentance on the woman's feet. He couldn't
stop weeping and pawing her stringy shins. "Forgive me,"
he begged. "Forgive me. I didn't know what I was doing.
I never meant to do harm. Let me atone for what I did.
Do with me what you will, but forgive me first."
A sword slid back into its sheath.
Sorcha's tears obscured his view of the old woman's
"Kill him!" Sengshi's daughter said, but it lacked
"Mother, we can't kill a blubbing old guy," a young
voice said. "Let's just take him home and clean him up.
You can always kill him later."
"You don't know what he did! What my life was like
before his crime!"
"You talk about it every day, so I've got a pretty good
notion," the adolescent voice said calmly. "Come,
grandpa. Let me help you up."
Sorcha would have liked the young man if he could have
spared the attention from the wracking sobs and the pain
in his heart.
They dragged him down the slope in the approaching
evening. It was hard to see where his feet needed to
tread, whether through the diminishing light or the
tears that kept brimming in his eyes. He stumbled, and
every time a sturdy arm or hand kept him from falling.
Wonderful boys. That what's-her-name, Sengshi's
daughter. What a lucky woman she was with children like
that. He had no children. He never would, he supposed.
Another upwelling of deep sadness. Where did all the
moisture come from?
They scrubbed him clean in a hot bath that smelled of
tea leaves. He felt dull and tired, hardly even
wondering about their attempts to clean him up. They
burned wood to heat the water. They had rough woven
cloth made of clouds-knew-what kind of plant. The
effort. The time. Before he fled his old life, he'd
never realized how much labor everything required if one
didn't have nanites to manufacture things. Maybe he
should have learned a real trade, instead of trying to
scrape by with the minimum effort. Make something that
would last. Such an appealing notion.
They fed him rice and tea and brought him to a hovel
with a heap of straw inside. Great gifts from such poor
Thinking was hard. His body seemed determined to make
him feel everything he hadn't felt in twice eight years
and more. The loss of his mother, the gradual failing of
all the cloud systems, his ignominious flight in
unaccustomed darkness, the years of homeless wandering.
He didn't sleep much that night, and when he did,
nightmares plagued him. He killed his mother many times
in many ways that night, all of them designed to wake
him up sweating, heart pounding.
A colorless dawn arrived.
Sorcha sat up and wiped the night sweat off. Whatever
the day would bring, he hoped it would end in death. He
didn’t want to live with this guilt.
He waited on his rustling pallet, sitting because he
couldn’t bear to lie down on his aching hipbones and
shoulders. The hut was already warming up in the morning
sun when the rickety door opened and Sengshi's daughter
stepped in. This time several even older men and women
The oldest-looking man cleared his throat several times
and then spoke in a reedy voice. "We believe in your
contrition. You may atone by your death. Do you accept?"
Oh, they were sneaky buggers. Asking for his permission
to kill him? If he'd been in any other kind of state or
in less pain, he might have laughed. Instead, he bowed
to the old man and answered in a voice that again
surprised him with its choked and broken sound. "I
accept if you will forgive me."
His words caused a stir among the men. A discussion
started up, one Sorcha sensed had been repeated many
times during the night.
"Hear his words, feel his sorrow. How can we kill a man
"He is the Prince, he is Sorcha Kalimataan. We know he
caused the clouds to die. What else can we do?"
Sengshi's daughter argued. She looked straight at Sorcha,
throwing words at him like arrows. "We all loved your
mother, you know. She never abused her position."
Sorcha bore it with bowed head. He had nothing left but
to die with dignity. It was better to die at home, among
his own people, and accept responsibility for his deeds.
Strange thing, his gut actually agreed with this. And it
was better. He was glad to be home. The
rational part of him, the part that had caused the harm
and kept him stubborn and alive during his exile was
baffled, but didn't fight.
All the village folk must have come out to stare at the
stranger whom they were going to kill. They were a
miserable, skinny lot, badly dressed, and covered in
sores. The children's bellies bulged in an unhealthy
Something landed with a soft plop against his upper arm
and oozed down. A wizened yellow fruit that had rotted
before it had properly ripened. Did they mean it as a
slight? Sorcha grimaced and lifted his head high. He
Then the next object hit, and the next. He did
care. He bowed his head to show he cared. It was
terrible to be home and to be pelted with rotten fruit,
and… he sniffed. Worse. The villagers were so poor that
they ran out of fruit pretty quickly and spittle was the
only thing they had left.
Saliva felt warm when it hit you, and then cooled off
rapidly. Sorcha accepted it with as much dignity as he
could, defenseless, bruised from the sea, dressed only
in a salt-stained rag. He missed his cloud as if he'd
lost it yesterday.
The old men led him away from the village, back up the
mountain on a different trail. Now and then during the
climb he caught sight of the palace, the pale pink
spires flashing in the sun. He would die with his
childhood as his last memory. Not bad at all.
He kept wiping moisture off his face. Might be sweat,
but if he were truly honest, they might as well be
tears. He sloshed with unidentifiable emotion. Sadness
maybe, or guilt, or regret. Definitely one of the
negative ones. Now that his death was getting so close,
the relief he'd felt when he'd accepted responsibility
was fading. Death might be pleasantly free of burdens
and pain, but the process of getting there would be less
The old men led him to the right, onto a rocky plateau
protruding away from the main slope. They pushed him to
the edge of the overhang. Beneath him lay the village,
the square filled with black and gray heads staring
upwards. A wild guess would be that he was going to be
Or, considering the age and infirmity of his captors,
they were going to invite him to throw himself off. He
swallowed. This was the moment of truth. Could he follow
up on his brave words and his heartfelt emotion? Or
would he run, as he had before?
He could still run. The old dodderers wouldn't be able
to keep up with him, even if he was no spring chicken
"Prince Sorcha," the oldest relic said. "We offer you an
honorable death. We invite you to step over the ledge."
"I will," he said his mouth so dry he could hardly
The old men bowed to him. He bowed back, just to be
Well. Now he had to make his feet walk over the edge. He
shuffled down the slight slope. Even the shrubs had
given up clinging to the bare outcropping. The rock
beneath his feet moved and he froze until it felt stable
again. How silly not to want to fall off when he was
going to hurl himself into the abyss anyway.
The sun glared down on him. The air smelled of rosemary
and his own disgusting sweat. Far below the straw roofs
looked homely and comfy. His blood rushed around in his
head, making him dizzy. He swallowed convulsively, but
the frog in his throat remained stubbornly there. The
smell of his own fearful sweat nauseated him.
He took a deep breath and stepped off into nothing.
For a heartbeat he fell. His head snapped back and a
scream started working its way out of his throat. Should
he count? Look up or down? The moment seemed to stretch
out endlessly, yet his scream hadn't reached his vocal
Something hooked his shoulders with painful claws and
jerked him backward. He screamed. It didn't matter. The
air above him beat as if with giant wings.
He was still falling, but the ground below him slowed
its rush towards him. He craned his neck to see what
flapped above him, an eagle maybe? But instead he saw
the shimmer of cloud-formed wings. Giant, translucent
white wings, set with feathers that gleamed and
flickered in and out of existence
His cloud was back.
But the cloud was too small and inexperienced to float
him. He slammed down on the ground with sickening cracks
and snicks of his legs and hands and nose. The wings
imploded with a whoosh.
He didn't care. His cloud was back. Already the bone
breaks were healing, his cuts and scrapes were knitting
back up, and everything seemed so clear. The miserable
village huts with the bluegrass thatches, the five
sixty-fours and three
inhabitants all looked sharper and brighter and closer.
He remembered the whole poem that curlicued its way down
the beach stairs. And Lo, the lost hero returned home
and killed his wife's evil suitors.
He tottered up on his healing legs and took a careful
step. Gone the back aches, gone the corns, the shooting
pains up his leg. He lifted a hand and it looked like it
used to, smooth, brown, the nails gleaming and neatly
trimmed. A tear formed in his eyes but the nanites
wicked it away at his command.
His cloud was back. He could go back to life as it had
been. Joyful, easy, beautiful. No pain, no hunger, no
disease. His bodily fluids must have awoken dormant,
dried-out nanites nestling in the dust of his initials,
or on his mother's grave, or something he'd touched in
The villagers reached him. They halted several arms'
"Sorcha?" Arangzhi said. Tears meandered over her seamed
He smiled at her. She'd been his childhood playmate.
Strange that he remembered only now. She'd been named
after his mother, after all.
He hesitated, reeling with warring emotions. He could
order his baby cloud to remove the unwanted emotion. He
could. But he didn't.
He'd run away from the shame and the memories, but if
he'd stayed, the resistant strain of nanites might have
been discovered much sooner. Of course his cloud
wouldn't let him die. His family was dead, and so were
their clouds. The peasants' inferior type of nanites
didn't have the capability to create new strains.
Could it be only coincidence that his cloud had returned
just when he grew up and repented? The rational part of
him knew this was magical thinking, but his gut didn't
want to take the risk of becoming cloudless again.
He reached out and she took a step forward, close enough
to touch her. He bent and kissed her just below the eye,
licking a tear away. His cloud particles jumped over the
fluid bridge formed by saliva and tears.
All of them. They would kindle in Arangzhi. She deserved
his new cloud more than he did.
Sorcha's newly healed leg buckled underneath him. He