The chamber in the sky, p.1
The Chamber in the Sky,
To N, D, and T
in the House of Hounds
About the Author
Mr. and Mrs. Thatz stood in a motel room in Gerenford, Vermont, staring at the air conditioner. They were waiting for a call from the police. Their son, Brian, and his friend Gregory had been missing for days. At this point, the police thought it was unlikely that the boys were still alive.
“They’re gone,” whispered Mrs. Thatz. “Don’t tell me they’re not.” She stood in front of the air conditioner. It jumbled her hair.
“We don’t know they’re gone,” said her husband. “Things, you know, show up. People show up.”
“They’re gone, Steve.”
“Don’t say that.”
“They’re gone.” She started to cry.
The boys had disappeared without a trace. A week ago, they’d taken a train to spend a weekend in the mountains with Gregory’s cousin Prudence. They were supposed to have called each day they were there. But they hadn’t. Instead Prudence had called and left a message that no one could understand.
When the Thatzes had discovered their son had vanished, they’d taken the first train to Vermont. They had seen the house where Prudence lived and where the boys had slept at least one night. The windows were smashed and the door hung open. It looked like there had been a riot. There were planks nailed to the window frames and black streaks burned onto one of the walls.
Now the Thatzes stood in their Vermont motel room and waited for someone to call. Mr. Thatz flipped his phone open. “I’m going to listen to the message again.”
“Okay,” said Mrs. Thatz. She turned away.
Mr. Thatz hit 1 to play his messages. The first and only one saved was from Prudence, left a few days before. She had called both the Stoffles and the Thatzes, one after the other, from a pay phone in the local Halt’n’Buy. The message made no sense to them.
“Hi, it’s Prudence. Mr. and Mrs. Thatz? Hi … Look, Gregory and Brian — I can’t explain, but they’re … they’re okay…. Not really. They’re not okay. They’ve gone away, but they’re coming back. I’m going to make sure. Don’t worry. Look, there are these … there are people called the Thusser…. They’re coming. Brian and Gregory are trying to stop them. I know that sounds — All right. I’m sorry. I don’t know how to explain anything. I’ve got to get back under the mountain. I have to be there when they try to come back. But I just wanted you to know that — don’t worry. Or … I don’t know. Maybe worry.” Then, very rushed, “Look. Bye. I’ll tell you … soon. Bye.”
Mr. Thatz stood with the phone to his ear after the message played. A metallic woman’s voice asked him whether he would like to delete the message, play it again, call back, or save it. He murmured, “Save it.” He didn’t move except to break the connection with a nudge of his thumb. He still faced out the window.
“‘People called the Thusser,’” Mrs. Thatz repeated. She stared at the bed.
Mr. Thatz asked, “What does she mean?”
“Who knows?” said Mrs. Thatz. She shook her head with disapproval. “That girl.”
Mr. Thatz closed the phone. He handed it to one of the men in long overcoats who sat on the bed. Their eyes were entirely black — no white, no iris. Their ears were long and pointed. There were three of them sitting on the bed.
“Honey,” Mr. Thatz said, “I was thinking of going out to get some subs. Want one?”
“I’m not hungry,” said Mrs. Thatz.
The men watched them from the bed and from the chair, and one was curled up on the floor, chewing away at something he’d found in the knocked-over trash can.
Mr. Thatz stared out the window. In the parking lot, Thusser men and women with black-orbed eyes stood around in groups of two or three. A car was overturned on the bright green lawn. A line of human children in summer shorts and grubby tees walked past as if in a dream. A man had collapsed on the balcony and lay facedown.
A platoon of Thusser soldiers marched by on their way to another town, another church steeple, another mini-mall. No one seemed to notice them.
Down in the motel office, the desk clerk had almost been absorbed by the desk, though much of his head, one of his eyes, and all of his hair could still be seen. The gray surface of the desktop was pocked and bubbled with acne where it met and submerged his cheek. His fingers, projecting from the desk like a corpse’s from ice, twitched around the key to room 27.
Shut up in the closet, his girlfriend lurked and hissed like a cat.
In another world lay the Great Body. No one knew what it looked like on the outside — whether it had flippers or feet or limbs at all. Its alien organs sprawled across unimaginable distances, crammed into arches of skeleton more massive than mountains. Entrails were wound around systems of stomachs as large as continents. And deep in one of those stomachs, Thusser soldiers spread like an infection — tiny, black-clad figures skating across great flat marshes of slime to invade the higher organs.
Elsewhere, hanging from spurs of bone, there were clusters of hearts, each brimming with a different liquid — some a glaring blue, others cool and green.
In one heart, there was no blood. The valves that might have once pumped some foreign fluid were stopped up, crammed with a tangled growth of fibers. In the two huge chambers of that Dry Heart was a desert, lined with crystal salts.
Far off in that shining desert, slowly approaching the forest of fibers at the tip of the ventricle, leaving tracks that stretched almost back to the ramshackle city of New Norumbega, was a small company of kids on beasts.
Their lumbering steeds each had seven limbs and no head. The beasts were called thombulants; they were painted with stripes and curlicues of crumbling pigment. The riders were teens. One was a girl with fine, aristocratic features, dressed in riding clothes: jodhpurs and a bright red jacket. One was a blond, slim boy with a sly, sarcastic grin. And following their steeds by a few monstrous paces was a thickset boy with black hair and greasy glasses, sweating in the light cast by glowing arteries far above.
The two in front were discussing their favorite smells.
“No way!” said the blond boy, Gregory Stoffle, slapping his saddle. “I love new paint, too!”
“And jasmine,” said the girl, whose name was Gwynyfer Gwarnmore and who would some day be Duchess of the Globular Colon.
Brian Thatz rode behind them sullenly. He took off his glasses and rubbed them on his shirt. He couldn’t get the lenses clean anymore. He was afraid they’d been scratched, somewhere between him crawling through caverns under Mount Norumbega, scampering through a war-torn shanty city under assault by a race of mechanical servants, and ducking from the detonation of a do-it-yourself elfin palace blown to bits by its explosive overlord.
Gwynyfer Gwarnmore laughed. She fixed her long, rippling hair beneath its black riding cap. She was about to name another thing that smelled good when Brian interrupted.
He said, “We’re almost at the Wildwood.” He pointed ahead. About half a mile on, the huge gray strands and fibers were raveled in massive loops and knots. The walls of the heart were clearly tapering now, and all the little veins and arteries could be seen, scribbled on the sky. “Is there anything we should know?”
Gwynyfer glanced back at him. “You don’t spare a great deal of time for chuckles, do you, Brian? You’re very tense-making.”
“I just want to get to Archbishop Darlmore, find out about the way to get the Rules Keepers to return, and prevent the Thusser from invading. I just …” He stopped miserably.
“No favorite smells?” Gwynyfer asked.
Brian frowned. He looked toward the tangles of weird growth sprouting in the tip of the heart. The three beasts and their riders trudged on.
They were on their way into the Wildwood, which clogged the tips of the Dry Heart. Many years before, Archbishop Darlmore, brother of the Empress of these infinite Innards, had given up life in the Court of New Norumbega and had tramped off into the wilderness to become a hermit. He was tired of the elfin Court and its frivolity. He was exasperated by their games and their tea dances, their boredom and their cruelty.
Unfortunately, he was the only courtier who had paid attention to the Norumbegans’ treaty with the Thusser, their great rival among the sublime races. He was the only one who knew how to stop the Thusser from expanding to take over all of New England, upon the Earth, and all of the digestive, pulmonary, and cardiac tracts in the Great Body. If the kids couldn’t find him, there was no way they could stand up against the brilliant sorcery and wicked cunning of the Thusser, who they knew were creeping up from the stomachs toward the Dry Heart itself.
Brian felt a constant anxiety about how far the Thusser had extended their dominion upon the Earth. He knew that time moved differently back there, and that the Thusser had been invading the dreams and the lawns of Vermonters for months now. For all Brian and Gregory knew, each minute spent giggling about snack chips and foot stench was a whole day back on Earth, flipping between dark and light, with neighborhoods falling and humans trapped within their own homes like cattle while the Thusser milked their minds.
Years ago, when Brian had been just a little kid, he had read books of British fairy tales, and they always said that the elves were not like humans, that they didn’t understand the importance of things the same way, that the idea of “right” and “wrong” confused them, and that they kept to strange rules. Brian hadn’t realized what that meant until he met Norumbegans like Gwynyfer. For the last few days, she had been constantly cheerful, but it seemed like nothing mattered to her like it should. She didn’t seem particularly worried about the approach of the murderous Thusser through the stomach of Three-Gut. She certainly didn’t care that hundreds of humans had already vanished back on Earth. But the previous night when they camped, she’d almost been in tears when she saw the wrinkles in her tweed riding costume. (“Nothing ever stays perfect! Nothing in this world or the others!”)
She was, at least, not being as mean to Brian as she had been a few days before. Now she treated him like a little brother. She was always giggling at him for being dull, but the jokes were gentle and even affectionate. She thought he had saved her and her family from an accusation of murder.
When he thought about this, Brian couldn’t even look in her direction — at her slim back swaying on the rippling, ponderous thombulant. Because he had not just saved her and her family from that accusation — he had also, without her knowledge, been the person who had accused her in the first place. It was awful to think about. He’d almost made a terrible mistake.
She didn’t know any of this. But Gregory did, and Gregory was still angry about it. Gregory still glared sometimes at Brian, or hinted that Brian should be more friendly as they traipsed across the burning desert of the Dry Heart.
Brian just wanted it all to be over. He wished he and his best friend could just leave the Great Body and never come back. He wanted to be home. But instead, he was confronted by the tangled Wildwood. They could now see where some of the fibers grew out of the walls and the desert floor itself. It was unclear whether the tendrils were some kind of parasite, rooted in the salty plain, or whether they were part of the alien heart itself.
Brian said, “My mom’s spaghetti sauce.”
“What?” said Gregory.
“My favorite smell,” explained Brian glumly. “She uses white wine and some cinnamon. She makes it once a week.”
His friend shot him a look of annoyance. “Great,” said Gregory. “Fascinating.” He asked Gwynyfer, “So, how do we find Archbishop Darlmore in that big mess?”
“He’s no longer an archbishop. After he went flitters and became a hermit, he was defrocked.”
“No. Just had the pointy hat taken away. And some absolutely darling brocade skirts.” She half turned in her saddle and rummaged in one of her saddlebags, pulling out a map drawn with ballpoint pen on the back of an envelope. “The Empress’s directions aren’t absolutely clear. There are roads bored through the Wildwood. We follow the main one in and then we go … why, I guess sort of wiggly to the left.” She turned the envelope sideways and traced the route again. “It should be obvious when we get there.”
They entered the Wildwood. Great cables uncoiled around them. Each one was ten or twenty feet across, at least. The mess loomed above them, a vast gray cloud of looped confusion.
The road was a set of five thick strands braided together. It rose above the heart’s floor and led directly into the tangle. The kids and their thombulants continued without a word.
It took some time before Gregory and Gwynyfer began whispering cutely to each other again.
Around lunchtime, they reached a small village hanging from stalks. Gwynyfer suggested that they buy some meat pies at a store there and save their provisions for later.
“Great idea,” said Gregory. He started to climb down the leather ladder from his saddle before he noticed that Gwynyfer wasn’t moving. “You coming?” he asked.
She laughed. “Into the bakery? No. When one is of the blood of the ancient families of Norumbega, one doesn’t speak to hawkers of meat pies. Or carry small change.”
“So you’re staying here.”
She smiled. “Quite. Sitting haughtily astride my steed.”
“And Brian and I are going in.”
“Otherwise, they’d have to purify the room before I visited. In a ritual. It’s kinder to them, really, if I stay outside. They’d be terribly put out.” She made a cute little wave. “So … thanks much!”
Brian and Gregory went in to buy the pies.
As they climbed a winding staircase to the dangling bakery, Gregory looked back at her. She was poised on top of her thombulant, fastening the straps on her saddlebags.
“Doesn’t she look amazing?” said Gregory. “Come on. She is a girl who looks great on a big, seven-legged monster. She sits the best on a seven-legged monster of any girlfriend I’ve ever had.”
Brian didn’t say anything.
“Don’t get all sour,” said Gregory. His eyes got hard. “Last week, you accused her of murder. And you were wrong.”
Brian shrank. “I know,” he said. “I feel really dumb.”
“She thinks you’re some big hero. She’s being really nice to you. Really nice. So don’t be such a jerk about her.”
Brian nodded, accepting his scolding. He opened the door to the bakery.
When they came out with the pies, Gwynyfer couldn’t believe they’d gotten her chicken. She wanted something called tongue of vunch. She sent Gregory back.
He bowed like a butler, smirked, and jogged back up
She clapped with delight to see him run.
That night, they slept at an inn that swung from several strands beside the braided road. Gregory and Gwynyfer sat for a long time on a balcony overlooking the whorl of fibers. The building rocked quietly as they sat whispering to each other about sports teams they followed. The ice in their drinks rattled from side to side as the inn rocked. They held up their palms to stop their glasses from sliding off the overturned crate that served as a table.
Brian was trying to sleep in his room. He hated the motion of the inn. It made him slightly seasick. He could hear the other two talking on the balcony.
None of them noticed that another guest was slipping down the staircase, wearing complicated goggles. They did not see him creep out to the stable across a rope bridge. They didn’t hear the creak of the stable’s side door, or see him disappear inside.
Ten minutes later, he was climbing the stairs again, his odd, inhumanly bunched body hopping giddily with each step.
In another day, the three had turned off the main road and were deep into the tangle. They no longer passed shacks hanging from the strands above them like hardscrabble Christmas ornaments. They rode single file on a couple of strands that were bound every once in a while with a loop of fiber.
They came across a notice board sticking out of the path at a crossroads. There was mail tacked to it, and a couple of copies of the Norumbega Vassal-Tribune were nailed open so people passing could read the stories of the week. Brian saw the headlines, which were disastrous and all too familiar: The invading Thusser Horde had taken over the mannequin fortress of Pflundt, and now controlled all of Three-Gut; the palace at New Norumbega had exploded; there was a new truce with the Mannequin Resistance, who were aiding in the defense against the Thusser; there was a benefit concert to aid the nobles who’d lost their mansions in the recent fighting: the New Norumbegan Consort would be playing a program of composer Gwion Bach’s symphonies for lutes, harps, violins, and viols made of various skulls (wolf, cow, and griffon).