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Empire of Bones

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Empire of Bones

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Author: Liz Williams
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 2002

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Millions of years ago alien beings seeded Earth with their genetic strands to create a new outpost of intelligent life. Now their descendants have returned to Earths skies, drawn by their detection of a Receiver, a human with the genetic ability to tap into alien communications. It is the signal that Earth is ready to be absorbed into a vast galactic empire.

Jaya Nihalani has been a prophet, a crusader, and a terrorist, fighting for the rights of her despised Untouchable caste. Now she lies in an Indian hospital, dying of a hideous disease. Her head is filled with voices and visions; her body is aging rapidly, inexplicably. But the voices and visions are no disease. Jaya is the Receiver whom the aliens intend to heal, enlighten…and use.

Soon the subcontinent erupts in riots and chaos as powerful forces attempt to co-opt the enigmatic alien emissaries, and a shocked world awaits its fate. Jaya must somehow discover the plans of her perfect and powerful friends. Have they come to end human suffering, or to make it worse? Should she help themor lead the impossible fight against them?


The Conjuror's Daughter

Varanasi, India, 2030

I used to be a goddess. Not that that's much use to me right now, Jaya thought as she stood angrily in the hospital corridor. Catching a glimpse of herself in a laminated display cabinet, she had to stifle a smile at the notion of deity. They'd issued her with a shapeless nylon gown; she looked small and bent and old, somehow out of place in this gleaming new ward. She gripped the edge of the cabinet to steady herself.

"Mrs. Nihalani," Erica Fraser said, with barely concealed impatience. "This is the fourth time this week! Whatever are we going to do with you?" "I want to leave." Jaya tried to sound calm, but her gnarled hand shook as it clasped the edges of the cabinet. She could feel her body trembling. "I'm not a prisoner here." That was true enough; this was nothing like jail in Delhi, nothing like Tihar.

"Well, I'm afraid you can't. You're in no condition to go wandering off. And where would you go? When we found you, you were living on a waste dump. You're crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. Mrs. Nihalani, we're only trying to help." "I know that," Jaya said, through clenched teeth. "And I'm grateful, but--" It was a lie.

She knew she should have felt a little more thankful, but Fraser was so patronizing. Every day, Jaya was reminded in one way or another of how fortunate she had been that the UN medical team had chanced across her crumpled body and brought her here to this shining new hospital wing. She was safe now, the doctor told her. Here, she would be cared for, perhaps even healed. Inside a little bubble of the West, sealed off from the unspeakable chaos of her country, which Jaya called Bharat, and the doctor called India. She was very lucky, Fraser told her each morning. It was starting to sound like a threat.

"And what about other people?" Fraser demanded now. "This part of the world's seen a dozen new diseases in the last ten years alone, and I'm damned if I'm going to release another one into an overpopulated area." There was nothing she could say to that, Jaya thought. How could she tell the doctor that she knew her illness wasn't contagious, presented no threat to anyone but herself? And how do you know that? Fraser would ask. Jaya would have to reply: Why, because the voice in my head tells me so. But if she said that, any chance she'd have of getting out of here would be gone. She felt her hands clench into fists, the joints stiffened and painful.

"I don't understand why you want to leave," Fraser said plaintively. Jaya could almost hear the unspoken thought: Why are these people so ungrateful? "You told me that you've spent the last few years scavenging for medical waste on the dumps, ever since you were widowed. What kind of a life is that?"

The life of a jackal, hunting the edge of sickness, where life wears thin. The voice echoed in her head, a little wonderingly, as though the notion was new to it. For the thousandth time, Jaya asked the voice: What are you? But there was no reply.

"Mrs. Nihalani!" Fraser said, sharply. "You're looking very tired. I think we'd better get you back to bed, hadn't we?" She took Jaya firmly by the arm. For a crazy moment, Jaya wondered what the reaction would be if she turned to the doctor and told her: Sorry, can't stay. I've got a voice in my head and a revolution to run. Well, that would really put the cat among the pigeons, to use Fraser's favorite phrase. The truth was one luxury Jaya couldn't afford. How could she tell the doctor who she really was?

There had been a time, after all, when a photo of her face adorned every wall from Mumbai to Calcutta. It was a miracle that she hadn't been recognized already; she supposed she had the unwelcome transformations of the illness to thank for that. If Fraser realized that she was harboring a terrorist, Jaya's life would be over. The government wouldn't imprison her this time. They would send the butcher-prince after her. She would rather the sickness took her. But then she felt her knees beginning to tremble, a reaction she always had if she stood still for too long. Scowling with frustration, she let the doctor lead her back to bed. "Tranquilizers," Fraser said, holding out the little capsules. The look on her face brooked no argument. "I think we've had quite enough excitement for one day, don't you?" She stood over Jaya, watching like a hawk. Jaya mumbled her thanks and reached shakily toward the water jug. The doctor's gaze flickered for an instant, and that was all the time Jaya needed to palm the pills and slip them under the pillow. She swallowed, and Fraser looked pleased. "There. Now, no more nonsense. I'll be back later, to run a few more tests. You have a nice sleep."

Jaya's hand curled around the tranquilizers, and she closed her eyes with relief at the small victory. She had almost ten pills now, carefully collected in a fold of the mattress. The doctor might think that Westerners knew it all, but Fraser was no match for a conjuror's daughter. She looked down at her withered hand. The knuckles had swollen, but at least it kept the old ring on her finger: a band of cheap bronze, with a garnet set crookedly in it--the last and only legacy of her mother. Her hands were those of an old woman, a grandmother. When she looked at them, it was hard to believe she was only twenty-eight years old. Jaya lay back on the pillows and closed her eyes. She would wait until she felt a little stronger, and then she'd make another bid for freedom. Until then, there was nothing she could do but lie still, and remember.

JAYA, seven years old, crouched in the dust, watching as magical ash poured from her father's fingertips. Faces jostled above her head, blotting out the bleached heat of the sky. The air smelled of incense and the fragrant bitterness of the ash as it drifted down into the bowls held out by the eager villagers. Jaya glanced up, noting how many of the faces were filled with wonder at this latest miracle, and how many were not. There were a few skeptical expressions toward the back of the crowd, mainly young men, grinning with knowing disbelief.

She heard a whisper: "It's up his sleeve. You can see it, look." Jaya held her breath, but the villagers glanced round angrily at the whisperer. An elderly woman said sharply, "Hold your tongue, Indri Shamal. More respect for the gods might make you less stupid." The villagers nudged one another with sly grins, and Jaya saw the young man's face grow sour. His friends laughed. Jaya breathed out, slowly so as not to disturb the flow of ash, and prayed to whatever god might be listening: Don't be angry. Please don't be angry with us. "See," Jaya's father murmured as the villagers pressed forward to collect the sacred ash. His voice was sweet as candy, with no trace of its usual bitterness. "Vibhuti, the manifestation of divinity. The gods are kind; the gods are wise." He brushed the ash on the forehead of a woman who knelt before him, making a powdery smear between her eyes that covered the red mark of her marriage. She bowed her head in gratitude.

First the ash, then the bowl-and-bean trick, then the disappearing wooden duck in a bucket of water. And then it was time for the real conjuring: the ultimate show, the illusion of death. "You see my daughter?" her father demanded. "She's a pretty one, isn't she? But the gods don't care how pretty you are; they'll take you if they want to, snatch you into death and bring you back to life again . . ." He glanced up with sharp abruptness. "I'll show you what it's like, when the gods decide to take a child. It's a terrible thing. Don't watch if you're faint of heart. But for those who are brave enough to look, take careful note of this ring." He held up a little band of bronze with a garnet set in it. "This is a magical ring, and it can save you from anything."

"Even the new sicknesses? What about Selenge?" asked a skeptical voice. Jaya's father was earnest as he replied, "Anything. As long as you have faith, and have no doubts. The ring will only protect my little girl if she loses her faith in me. But first, she must be silenced, in case she cries out and offends the gods." Slipping the too-large ring onto her finger, he gestured to Jaya, and obediently she knelt before him on the dusty earth. "Your tongue, child." A stillness fell over the crowd, as though time had stopped. Jaya slipped the goat's tongue from her cheek so that it protruded between her lips. At first the trick had revolted her, but now she was used to it. Deftly, brandishing the knife, her father pretended to sever the tongue. Jaya made a convincing grunt of anguish and the crowd flinched. Jaya rolled her eyes in mute horror.

"Now. Lie down." Jaya's father covered her with a grimy cloth, blew into the fire so that the smoke swirled upward, and swept the blade of the long knife across her throat. She saw the blade come up, red and dripping. The crowd gave a great gasp, but Jaya lay still. Once, the smoke had made her eyes water; she had long since learned to keep them closed. She held her breath. The thick goat's blood seeped in a pool beneath her neck; she could feel the punctured bladder nestling softly against her ear. Her father was speaking, covering her deftly with the cloth, and she knew that he was drawing the attention of the crowd, the conjuror's sleight of hand and slip of voice that makes everyone believe that nothing has happened at all. A few seconds: enough for Jaya to worm her hand up to her throat and wipe away all trace of the blood from her neck. The cloth was snatched away; she sprang up, smiling. "I'm alive!" she cried.

The crowd, pleased to be so deceived, burst into applause. After the show, Jaya's father sat and smiled beatifically, staring into the hot pale sky as if his gaze were fixed on Heaven. He did not ask for money, but soon the bag that Jaya held was full of notes. Jaya closed the bag, and her father took her by the wrist and hauled her up from the ground. The villagers were reluctantly dispersing. "Well?" Jaya's father said sharply, into her ear. "That showed them, eh?" There was always this same sour triumph after a successful performance.

"Your dad might be just a poor untouchable, but he can still fool his betters, isn't that so?" His face twisted, and Jaya held her breath, waiting for the familiar litany. "Untouchable, indeed! I had a good job, once--I worked in a laboratory. I was paid decent wages, and then they brought in this caste restoration program--The old ways are the best ways, they said. The country needs stability, they said. We all have to knuckle down. Who has to? Us, that's who, the lowest of all, nothing but cheap labor and now even less than that . . ." It was a familiar complaint, and the slightest thing would set it off. Jaya just nodded dutifully and followed her father as he limped through the village, his head held high with a pride he could barely afford.

Later, beneath the shadows of the neem trees which lay beyond the village, her father said, "Show me again." He watched closely as Jaya held her small hands out before her, ghostly in the light of the fire. A coin tumbled from her fingers. "Again." She palmed the coin, twisting her hands over and over again to show that there was nothing concealed, the coin resting between the backs of her fingers. "No, that's no good. I can see the edge."

Jaya looked up and said with guilty defiance, "I can't do it. My hands are too small." "It doesn't matter whether your hands are small or not. These tricks are best learnt while you're young; I've told you a thousand times. If you were a boy--" He broke off. His hand cuffed the side of her head, not lightly. "Watch what I do." The coin glittered in the firelight as his skillful hand turned. "Now, again."

SHE thought she would never learn, Jaya remembered now. Once, these tricks would have been the province of the conjuror's son alone, but Jaya had no brothers. Her mother had died, leaving only a cheap garnet ring and the memory of sandalwood, faint and fragrant as the smoke from the funeral pyres. Her mother, so her father said, had not liked tricks and conjuring, for all that she'd married a gilli-gilli man. But within a year or two, Jaya had picked up all the tricks that had made her father's name as a magician, a man to whom gods listened.

Memory unscrolled like a film: now, from the prison of the hospital bed, Jaya watched herself traveling the dusty roads of Uttar Pradesh. She saw her father sitting back on his heels in the dirt as his magical child conjured ash and money and medals and rings to fool the villagers of rural Bharat. She saw the avid gaze of the crowds as she was killed and resurrected, over and over again. She saw the seeds of her life beginning to green and grow. The summers wore on and the rains still came, but each year was drier than the last. By the time she was ten, Jaya had made a name for herself in the district. People seemed to trust her, though she didn't understand why that should be. Even then Jaya knew that her life was a lie. Tricks and conjuring and illusion--it was like eating air. Every time she performed a faked miracle in a god's name, she expected Heaven to strike her down. But it never happened, and at last she came to wonder whether the gods were even there.

Yet she was always troubled by the sense that there was something more, something beyond the lies and the tricks. In the stillness of the long, burning nights, she lay awake, listening, and it sometimes seemed to her that she could hear a voice, speaking soft and distant beyond the edges of the world. It was faint and blurred with static, like a radio tuned to the wrong station, but she did not think it was a dream--though maybe, she would muse, it was just that she wanted too much to believe. The voice fell silent, for months at a time, and Jaya would give up hope all over again, but then she'd hear it once more. It was the only secret she had.

Copyright © 2002 by Liz Williams


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