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Story 1

Bo Balder


Bo has published stories in Penumbra; Stitches, Witches and Bitches (Evil Girlfriend Media); and Ancient New Anthology from Deepwood Press.

She's also published a Dutch language YA novel(Daughter of the Djinn, Books of Fantasy, 2011).

Bo is a graduate of Viable Paradise.

Link to Bo's website:

"Many the Sorrows He Suffered at Sea" is the story of an unusual homecoming, leading to the reopening of old wounds and the resurrection of an Atlantis-like culture and its people.

Editor's note: The numbering system used in this story is base eight. Instead of multiples of ten, for example 10, 100, 1000, etc., multiples of eight are used, that is, 8, 64, 512, etc. The footnotes refer to the decimal equivalent of the octal numbers and are located at the end of the story. Enjoy.









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 lips.


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[1], hale and hearty. But only two-and-a-half times eight[2] 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 ‘guilt’.

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 there now.

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 the odds?

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 stairs' shadow.

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 nanites.

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 own.

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.

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 true.

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 voice.

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 us?"

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 yourself."

She flapped her arm. "Boys. Chop his disgusting head off."

"Wait! Wait!" he cried out. "Can't I say – I need to say something."

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 gnarly toes.

"Kill him!" Sengshi's daughter said, but it lacked conviction.

"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 people.

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 flanked her.

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 like that?"

"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 way.

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 didn’t care.

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 pleasant.

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 thrown off.

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 himself.

"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 speak.

The old men bowed to him. He bowed back, just to be polite.

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 chords.

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.

His cloud!

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 [3]what's-her-name 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 palace.

The villagers reached him. They halted several arms' length away.

"Sorcha?" Arangzhi said. Tears meandered over her seamed cheeks.

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 fell.

 The End


[1] 192

[2] 20

[3] 323


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