Nine Layers of Sky

Nine Layers of Sky

by Liz Williams

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Nine Layers of Sky by Liz Williams

In such novels as The Poison Master and Empire of Bones, Liz Williams sparked readers’ imaginations by creating worlds at once strange and familiar. Now this bold new writer delivers a profound and provocative look at human nature in a timely novel of a nation—and a world—torn asunder, and of a hope that refuses to die.

Nine Layers of Sky

A former Soviet rocket scientist, Elena Irinovna now cleans office buildings—until she crosses paths with Ilya Muromyets. A remnant of Russia’s glorious and fabled past, Ilya is an eight-hundred-year-old hero turned heroin addict, dreaming of a death that never comes. They are brought together by a strange artifact Elena has found, which offers a glimpse into another dimension, creating a dangerous breach in a world Elena only thought she knew...

Ilya is no stranger to the unexplained. He’s been hired by a mysterious organization to track down the artifact. But nothing prepares him for what it offers—or for a woman like Elena. Fighting their own inner demons as well as those from across the breach, Ilya and Elena embark on a harrowing trip between nations and worlds. And for the first time the man of myth and the woman of science discover that they have a dream to defend—and even die for...

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553584998
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/26/2003
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 4.25(w) x 7.00(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt



They had reached the border early that morning, leapfrogging the grim skein of industrial towns that strung from Almaty to Chimkent. The early part of the journey now seemed remote: a grimy memory that made Elena's skin crawl with remembered pollution. It had taken almost four hours to reach the Uzbek border, crawling all the way, with the powerful wipers of the Sherpa grinding the snow into a grey slush that accumulated at the bottom of the windscreen, periodically slewing down the hood and turning to packed ice beneath the wheels.

Atyrom's sister, Gulnara, had gone to sleep on the backseat. Atyrom drove without speaking, occasionally groping on the dashboard for cigarettes. He smoked Marlboros, which Elena could not afford. Acrid smoke filled the van like the ghost of an American dream.

He offered Elena one, but pride made her say, "Thanks, I'll stick to the Polyot." She reached for her packet of rougher local cigarettes and lit up. Atyrom said nothing, but the lack of conversation was compulsory, since he insisted on playing Uzbek rock at a level that could have woken the dead. It veered from maudlin ballads to aggressive nationalistic anthems that made Atyrom pound the steering column in erratic accompaniment.

Bleary with lack of sleep, Elena stared out across the pale and endless expanse of the steppe. In summer, the land was constantly changing under the light: alternately subtle and harsh, depending on the time of day. Sometimes in summer, she and her sister would borrow her cousin's car and drive out to Lake Kapchugai, to sit by the quiet water and watch the shadows lengthen across the steppe, the afternoon sun striping the land with colors that had not changed since prehistoric times: ochre and mauve and red. Now, in late February, the steppe remained featureless beneath the snow; they could have been driving over the moon. Shortly before seven in the morning, they reached the border and the queue of traffic.

It was still snowing, and Elena could not see very far ahead. The rear lights of the truck in front of them glowed crimson, then died as the truck stopped. Atyrom gave a snort of irritation and switched off the engine. There was a sudden, shattering silence.

"How long do you think we'll be here?" Elena asked. Atyrom glanced at her with manifest contempt.

"How should I know?"

"You've done the trip before," Elena said reasonably.

"It's different every time," Atyrom answered, dismissing the issue. He settled back against the seat rest and closed his eyes. Elena decided not to argue. Atyrom was doing her a favor, after all. If it had not been for his offer, she would have had to take the train down to Tashkent, lugging the heavy bag of black-market clothes with her.

She turned to look at her friend. Gulnara was still sleeping, curled on the backseat with her face squashed uncomfortably against the doorframe. Elena watched her for a moment before fishing in the glove compartment for diversion. There was nothing but a week-old copy of Karavan. Gloomily, she perused the For Sale advertisements and the lonely hearts, but there was nothing of interest to buy and she was not interested in romance with anyone. Not after Yuri. The cosmodrome seemed suddenly very far away: another Elena, another life entirely.

It was growing cold in the cabin of the van. It had been fifteen below when they left Chimkent. She chafed her hands in the thick leather gloves and opened the door of the Sherpa. Atyrom muttered a brief protest as she stepped down. The cold hit her like a hammer, slamming its way into her lungs. Her eyes prickled and her cheeks started to burn. Squinting, Elena wound her scarf more securely around her face and trudged slowly up the line.

After a seemingly unending procession of trucks and vans, she turned the corner and saw the ramshackle customs post ahead. Blue lights sparkled eerily through the falling snow, and unease settled in an icy lump in Elena's throat. She walked up the line toward a little knot of people who were talking to someone in a Lada through the open door of the car. Elena made her way to the edge of the gathering. These were presumably the customs officials, but as everyone was bundled up under several layers of clothing, it was difficult to tell. One man had the insignia of the Kazakhstan militzia. What were the police doing here? A pink-nosed face peered at her like a rabbit from a burrow. Elena glanced past him, to where the driver of the vehicle sat in silence.

"Won't he get cold like that?" Elena asked inanely. The customs officer's face twitched with something that could have been a smile.

"He's not likely to get any colder." And then Elena realized that the man was dead. He seemed to stare at her. There was a hazy bloom across his eyes, like dark frost. It made her shiver even more than the cold.

"Oh, my God," she said, stepping back and slipping a little on the icy surface of the road.

"Not the only one," the customs officer said with a kind of gloomy satisfaction. He pointed to the customs post, where figures were loading stretchers into an ambulance. "Frozen stiff. Happens a lot this time of year."

"Look," Elena said. "I don't want to sound callous, but how long is this going to take?" She had no intention of emulating the driver of the Lada.

The customs officer shrugged. "We're moving as fast as we can, but the road's blocked just beyond the customs. They're trying to clear it now. I suggest you go back to your vehicle."

Elena rubbed her face indecisively, but there was nothing that could be done now for the driver, and the ambulance was there, anyway. Her cheeks felt red and raw, and her lips were already chapped. Ice crackled in her hair; she could see a frosty blonde fringe just above her eyes.

"All right," she said at last, and walked back along the line. She did not dare look through the icy windscreens of the other cars; she was afraid of what she might see. Atyrom stared at her as she climbed back into the Sherpa.

"Where have you been?"

Tersely, Elena explained, haunted by the memory of the frozen man's silent face and strange dead gaze.

"Well, too bad, but never mind," Atyrom said, with something that almost approached cheerfulness. "As long as it's not us, eh?"

Elena couldn't help agreeing with the general sentiment, but not with the way in which it was expressed. She mumbled something. Through the frosty windscreen, she could see the lights of the ambulance as it came back down the road. Presently, it was level with the truck in front and it was at this point that the truck driver chose to open his door and leap out. The ambulance veered clear of the door as the driver slammed on the brakes. The wheels of the ambulance spun, hammering it against the door of the Sherpa. There was a thunderous bang. The van shook and rattled, and Atyrom was flung sideways across Elena's lap. Gulnara screamed. Atyrom shouted with fury. Scrambling up, he wrestled with the door, punching and kicking until the damaged lock gave way and the door shot open.

Atyrom fell out of the van, still shouting. Elena hastily levered herself into the driver's seat and followed. The ambulance was trundling slowly down the road, the azure lights wobbling on top. Atyrom stumbled after it, bawling insults and curses.

"Are you drunk, asshole? Look what you've done to my van!"

As quickly as she could, Elena caught up with him. Atyrom was panting with rage. He shook off Elena's restraining hand and bounded through the snow, taking long, floundering leaps like a hunting dog. Elena struggled after him. Catching up with the ambulance, Atyrom pulled open the door and dragged the driver out. Both men fell heavily into the snow.

"Hey!" Elena shouted. "Atyrom, stop! It was an accident. Leave him alone!"

Atyrom was not listening. He hauled the ambulance driver to his feet and shoved him against the side of the nearest vehicle. All down the line, men were coming out of their cars to join in the argument, and, to her dismay, Elena saw the dark-coated figure of the militzia man, heading purposefully toward them from the direction of the customs post.

"Atyrom, for God's sake!" she called. "You'll get us arrested."

Atyrom was shaking the driver, pushing him against the tarpaulin side of the truck.

"What about my van, you fucking bastard?"

Something fell out of the driver's pocket: something long and bright that Elena could not see clearly. Atyrom stared down at it for a startled moment, then gave a roar of rage and head-butted the driver. A thin spray of blood spattered out across the snow; the driver emitted a wail of pain.

"Grave robber!" Atyrom shouted.

Elena reached the irate Uzbek and hauled him back by the arms. The ambulance driver slumped back against the side of the truck as the policeman panted up. Elena caught a glimpse of a young, bony face beneath the militzia hat: one of those Ukrainian countenances, with cold eyes set too far apart. She pulled Atyrom aside as the policeman swung the butt of an ancient Kalashnikov at the Uzbek's head.

"Don't touch me!" Atyrom shouted, ducking. "Don't you fucking touch me! Look! Look!"

Wrestling out of Elena's restraining grip, he pounced into the snow and thrust out a handful of dirty, glittering slush. The policeman stared.

"Look what this bastard's stolen! Watches! Money! Teeth!"

Appalled, Elena saw that Atyrom was right. A single golden tooth rested in the snow in his gloved palm, its root still stained pink.

"Stealing out of the mouths of the dead!" Atyrom roared.

The ambulance driver, wiping blood from his face with his sleeve, began to protest, but the policeman snarled, "Shut up!"

He swung the gun again. Elena reflexively ducked out of the way, but there was a hard, dull crack as the butt of the gun connected with the side of the driver's head. The ambulance driver dropped as if poleaxed, and lay still. The policeman crouched in the snow, the pale eyes glaring up at Atyrom.

"Well, what do you say, then?" he remarked quite calmly. "Half for you, half for me?"

Atyrom, evidently mollified, shrugged. "Ladna. Why not?"

Elena watched in horrified silence as the policeman began to pick through the driver's pockets and placed a motley collection of objects into Atyrom's waiting hands.

"What about him?" she said angrily, pointing to the driver, but no one seemed to hear. Elena knelt down in the snow and examined the man's head. The blood was already congealing, glazing like red frost across the driver's skin. Was he dead? Elena groped inside the man's sleeve. The skin felt cold and clammy. She could not feel a pulse. There was a shout from somewhere up the front of the line.

"Hey! We're moving!"

Atyrom hauled himself to his feet and began to hurry back in the direction of the Sherpa.

"Well, are you coming or what?" he said over his shoulder.

Elena pointed down at the ambulance driver. "What about him?"

"Leave him," the policeman said. He spat into the snow. "Filth."

"No! We can't just leave him," Elena said. "I think he's dead. And if he isn't, he soon will be in this temperature. And what about the ambulance?"

Atyrom looked momentarily puzzled. "So? If he's dead, there's nothing we can do about it. Are you coming or not? If not, I'll leave you behind."

Elena, rehearsing a dozen arguments, got to her feet, but as she rose she noticed something embedded in the snow, not far from the fallen driver. She bent to look more closely, and saw a small black sphere. Reaching down, she plucked it out of its icy bed. The sphere was around the size of a golf ball and looked as frail as a sugar shell, yet it was unaccountably heavy. Its matte surface seemed to swallow light. It must have fallen from the ambulance driver's pockets, along with the rest of his loot.

She remembered the dead man in the car at the head of the line: that dark, impenetrable gaze. Had the driver stolen it from that man, or from someone else? There was no way now of finding out.

Bewildered, Elena put the thing in her pocket. It weighed down her coat; she could feel it dragging at the material as she hurried back to the Sherpa, but by the time she reached the vehicle she had forgotten all about it. With the light of battle in her eyes, she climbed back into the damaged van and began to tell Atyrom precisely what she thought of him.

The argument, with Gulnara echoing Elena's every pronouncement, lasted all the way down the long road to Tashkent.



Beyond the open door of the apartment block, the snow breathed a winter cold and lessened the ammonia reek of the stairwell so that Ilya Muromyets could smell his own blood. The hot, meaty odor filled the air as if the whole world were bleeding, rather than just one man. Ilya's hand fumbled to his side; his shirt was sticky and stiff. He remembered, distantly, that the dealer had knifed him. The situation, so carefully engineered, had gone disastrously wrong.

Think, he whispered to himself. You were a bogatyr, a hero, a Son of the Sun . . . think. Then the soft clutch of heroin took him, shutting him off from both understanding and pain. Ilya could no longer see clearly, but he could still hear. A confused blur of sound rushed around him: snatches of conversation across the city; the gulls crying over Sakhalin, thousands of miles away; a door shutting in icy Riga with a sudden decisive thud. All of these sounds became distilled as Ilya listened, resolving into the steady seep of his blood onto the concrete floor.

Ilya Muromyets' mouth curled in a rictus grin. The glittering winter light glared through the door of the hallway, sharpening the shadows within. He had to get outside, bolt for what passed as home before the rusalki found him, but his feet moved down the stairs with a slowness that suddenly struck him as comical. He leaned back against the wall and shook with mirth, the breath whistling through his punctured lung like a ghost's laugh. He realized then that someone was watching him. He turned with a start, but it was only an old woman, clutching a bag of withered apples and gaping at him in undisguised horror. He wondered what she saw: a gaunt man with pale hair and paler eyes, like a wounded wolf.

Ilya's laughter wheezed dry. He wiped the blood from his mouth and murmured, "Oh . . . Good day, gaspodhara. Been shopping?"

The old woman edged past him and fled up the stairs. The slam of her steel door echoed through the stairwell. The noise stirred Ilya into motion and he staggered down the stairs and out into the winter afternoon.


In 1996 I moved to Kazakhstan. My partner was teaching out there, on a short term contract, and I gave up my job as an educational administrator and went with him to a new role as post-Soviet housewife. We moved into a tiny, cockroach-infested apartment in the middle of Almaty, Kazakhstan's principal city. The apartment was opposite a very noisy, but very sociable, cafe with a refugee camp out the back, and not far from the huge market and Panfilov Cathedral, the improbable pink wedding-cake church in the middle of the city. In NINE LAYERS OF SKY, the apartment (enlarged and rather nicer) has become Elena's; all other aspects of the city are the same - though I can't speak for the volkh or the rusalki. The skating rink is there, however, and so is the rickety chairlift on which Elena and Ilya make their escape.

It has to be said that I didn't adapt too well to being a Soviet housewife. I did not possess the essential elements for successful shopping - notably, several children and a large collection of buckets. Russian markets don't sell small quantities. I did manage to get my head around the commonplace practice of hitch-hiking everywhere, which to a paranoid British person is normally the last thing you'd want to do. And eventually, I also got a job, teaching English to a local night club owner in exchange for lunch. The club owner, a guy in his thirties, was without exception the worst student I have ever had, and he tried so hard, too. He was married to a woman who looked about 12, and she was much better at English, so eventually she came to classes as well. Meanwhile Charles was immured in the Goat Hotel (we never found out the reason for this curious name), teachingbusinessmen.

Life settled into a pattern. On Fridays, we'd go to the Business Club, which was full of loud expats, and meet up with the people in the oil company for whom Charles was working. The Business Club was, frankly, grim: conservatoire musicians down on their luck playing the violin, and local girls looking for a rich Westerner to take them away from all this... In the novel, it's the Business Club where Elena's sister finally finds a German 'boyfriend'.

At weekends, we'd either take our lives in our hands and go up to Koktubye Hill on the cable car, to a cafe shaped like a yurt which had a spectacular view of the local glaciers, or to Medeo and the ice rink. There are some fantastic walks up through the birch woods at the back of the rink, into the alpine meadows which overlook the city. It's here that Ilya and Elena find themselves after being snatched into, and out of, the strange parallel realm of Byelovodye.

Almaty itself isn't an unpleasant city - despite an architecture which relies heavily on apartment blocks and decaying concrete, it does have a lot of trees - but it was always good to get away. Once we went to the local lake, which lay in the other direction out on the steppe, and ended up driving (not sailing, definitely driving) a large Soviet-era patrol boat, which the owner now used for pleasure trips. On a couple of occasions, we went for picnics with the cafe owner and his wife. Usually, this culminated in true Russian fashion with a huge public row with total strangers (over car parking, their cow, whatever).

All of these experiences went to make up NINE LAYERS OF SKY, combined with a long-standing interest in Russian mythology. It wasn't just the more ancient stories that intrigued me, but also more recent Soviet myths - dreams and visions of the future, of space, of colonisation and expansion, all founded on the shaky, half-rotten foundation of post-Revolution Russia. When I began reading the legends of Byelovodye, the Siberian Shambhala, it seemed right to make it a more modern state than the bucolic idyll of the stories, for legends do not remain static. They change with societies, over time, and one day, we will become the ancestors, half-lost in a shadowy time of myth and legend.

I have just returned from Siberia, visiting the region where the entrance to the 'real' Byelovodye is supposed to lie. If I ever write a sequel to NINE LAYERS, it will be set here, in the Russian Altai. There are always more legends to discover.

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