Get yourself lost in this brilliantly hypnotic cover for Tim Pratt’s latest novel Doors Of Sleep, which we’re delighted to reveal for SciFiNow readers!
What would you do if you woke up and found yourself in a parallel universe under an alien sky? This is the question Zax Delatree must answer every time he closes his eyes in Doors Of Sleep.
Every time Zax Delatree falls asleep, he travels to a new reality. He has no control over his destination and never knows what he will see when he opens his eyes. Sometimes he wakes up in technological utopias, and other times in the bombed-out ruins of collapsed civilizations. All he has to live by are his wits and the small aides he has picked up along the way – technological advantages from techno-utopias, sedatives to escape dangerous worlds, and stimulants to extend his stay in pleasant ones.
Thankfully, Zax isn’t always alone. He can take people with him, if they’re unconscious in his arms when he falls asleep. But someone unwelcome is on his tail, and they are after something that Zax cannot spare – the blood running through his veins, the power to travel through worlds…
To give you a taster of the excitement that awaits you in Doors Of Sleep, we’re delighted to be able to exclusively reveal the first chapter…
A Parting of the Ways • The What, If Not the Why • A Dark Sea •
Enter Minna • [Unable to Translate] • Another Loss
I yawned – one of those bone-cracking yawns so immense it hurts your jaw and seems to realign the plates of your skull – and staggered against the bar. I was on the third level of the uppermost dome, where the mist sommelier, clad only in prismatic body glitter, puffed colored, hallucinogenic vapor from the pharmacopeia in their lungs directly into the open mouths of their patrons. I turned my face away before catching the overspill from the latest dose: a stream of brilliant green meant for a diminutive person covered in downy fur the same shade as the smoke. I didn’t have much time left; sleep was coming for me, and I wanted to meet it in my right mind.
I stumbled down the ramps that spiraled through the glittering domes of the Dionysius Society, looking for Laini. The glowing bracelet on my wrist flashed different colors when I came into proximity with people I’d partied with during the preceding five days, and I followed the wine-red flash toward a cluster of dancers on a platform under dazzling dappled lights. Other partygoers bumped into me and jostled my battered old backpack, something everyone stared and laughed at here. In a post-scarcity pleasure dome, where anything you desired could be instantiated just by asking your implanted AI to produce it, the sight of someone actually carrying stuff was unprecedented. The locals had all decided I was an eccentric, or someone affecting eccentricity to stand out from the crowd. Standing out from the crowd was almost a competitive sport here.
The locals couldn’t even imagine all the ways I really stood out. For one thing, I didn’t have an implanted AI, something everyone in this world received in their gestation-pods. I didn’t have local tech because I wasn’t a local. I hadn’t been a local any place I’d been for a very long time.
“Laini!” I shouted once I got close, and, though the music was loud, my voice was louder. Before I left home, swept away by forces I still don’t understand, I was trained to mediate conflict, and while mostly I did that by speaking calmly, sometimes it helped to be the loudest person in the room. Laini’s shoulders, bare in a filmy strapless gown the color of a cartoon sun, tensed up when I shouted – I’m trained to notice things like that, too – but she didn’t turn around. She was pretending she couldn’t hear me.
So. I’d been through this sort of thing before, but it never stopped hurting.
I pushed through the dancers – they were human, but many were altered, with decorative wings or stomping hooves or elaborate braids made of vines. In techno-utopian worlds, those things were as common as pierced ears or tattoos back home… though this place wasn’t as utopian as some. In my week here I’d come to realize the aerial domes of the Dionysius Society were home to the perpetual youth of a ruling class floating above a decidedly dystopian world below. It was lucky Laini and I had awakened up here in the clouds. Anyone walking around in the domes was assumed to belong here, since there was no getting in past the guards and security measures from the outside.
Though if we had awakened below, with the dirt and the smoke and the depredations of “the Adverse,” whatever those were, I probably wouldn’t have lost Laini the way I was about to. I’d accidentally brought her to a world that was too good to leave.
I reached out and touched Laini’s shoulder, and she turned, scowling at me, green eyes in a pinched face under short black hair. I was the whole reason she was here, and she clearly wished I would go away. I would leave – I had no choice – but I deserved a goodbye, at least, didn’t I? I touched my borrowed bracelet and put an exclusion field around us, a bubble of silence and privacy on the dance floor.
“I’m fading.” I blinked, and even that was an effort. My eyes were leaden window shades, my breathing deeper with every passing moment, and there was a distant keening sound in my ears. I knew the signs of incipient exhaustion. They had excellent stimulants in that world, but even with my metabolic tweaks, staying awake for five days straight was about my limit.
“Zax… I don’t… I’m sorry… I just…” I could have helped her, said what she was thinking so she didn’t have to, but I stubbornly made her speak her own mind. “I like it here,” she said finally. “I’ve made friends. I want to stay.”
I liked her a little better for being so direct about it, and at least this way there was a sort of closure. My last companion before Laini, Winsome, had gotten lost in the depths of the non-Euclidean mansion where we landed, and I couldn’t stay awake long enough to find them again. (Unless, I thought darkly, they’d abandoned me deliberately, too, and just wanted to avoid an awkward goodbye.) I couldn’t blame Laini for wanting to stay here, either. She’d come from a world of hellish subterranean engines: the whole planet a slave-labor mining operation for insectile aliens, and this playground world of plenty was a heaven she could never have imagined in her old life – the one I rescued her from. We’d been together for forty-three worlds though, the longest I’d kept a companion since the Lector, and it hurt to see her choose this place over me. We didn’t even get along that well, honestly; she was suspicious, quick to anger, and secretive – all reasonable traits for someone who’d grown up the way she did – but that didn’t matter. For a little while, I’d woken up next to someone I could call a friend, and, in my life, that’s the most precious thing there is.
She touched my cheek, which surprised me – we’d been intimate a few times, but only when she came to me in the night, and it was always rough and hot, never afterward discussed or acknowledged. She’d certainly never touched me with that kind of fondness. “I’m sorry, Zax,” she said, and that surprised me even more, and then she kissed me, gently, which stunned me completely. Maybe a week in a place of peace and plenty, with its devotion to pleasure as a pillar of life, had softened her.
Or maybe she was just feeling the all-encompassing love-field brought on by some rather advanced club drugs.
“OK.” I turned away so she wouldn’t see the tears shining in my eyes and made my way across the dance floor, stumbling a little as lethargy further overtook me. I glanced back, once, and Laini was dancing again, having already forgotten me, no doubt. I tried to be happy for her, but it was hard to feel anything good for someone else in the midst of being sad for myself.
I opened up a cushioned rest pod and crawled inside. At least I’d fall asleep in a pleasant place. I curled myself around my backpack – stuffed with as many good drugs as I’d been able to discreetly pocket – and succumbed to the inevitable.
Here’s the situation. Every time I fall asleep, I wake up in another universe. That started happening nearly three years and a thousand worlds ago, and I still don’t know why, or what happens during the transition, while I’m asleep. Do I spend eight hours in slumber in some nowhere-place between realities, or do I transition instantaneously, and just feel like I got a good night’s sleep? I wake up feeling rested, unless I took heavy drugs to knock myself out, and if I fall asleep injured, the wounds are always better than they should be when I wake up, if not fully healed. I inevitably sleep through the mechanism of a miracle, and that’s just as frustrating as you might imagine.
I never have dreams anymore, but, sometimes, waking up is a lot like a nightmare.
After leaving Laini, I woke to flashing red lights and the sound of howling alarms. I automatically pressed the sound-dampening button on my bracelet, but it was just an inert loop of metal and plastic now that the network of the Dionysius Society was in another branch of the multiverse, so the shriek was unceasing.
I sat up, looking around for obvious threats – always a priority upon waking. I was in some kind of factory or industrial space, on a metal catwalk, near a ladder leading up, and a set of stairs leading down. I stood and looked over the metal railing to see gouts of steam, ranks of silvery cylinders stretching off in all directions, and humans (humanoids, anyway) racing around and waving their arms and shouting. One of the workers, if that’s what they were, stumbled into contact with a steam cloud, and screamed as their arm melted away.
I’d be going up the ladder instead of down the stairs, then. I tightened my pack on my shoulders and scrambled up the rungs. Fortunately the hatch at the top was unlocked so I didn’t have to use one of my dwindling supply of plasma keys. I climbed up onto the roof, and the hatch sealed shut after me.
I stood atop a mining or drilling platform, several hundred meters above a vast, dark ocean. The sun was either rising or setting, and everything was hazed in red. The air was smoky and vile, but breathable. I’ve never woken up in a world where the air was purely toxic, though sometimes I find myself in artificial habitats in otherwise uninhabitable places. My second companion, the Lector, theorized that I projected myself into numerous potential realities before coalescing in a branch of the multiverse where my consciousness could persist… but I’ve always been more interested in the practice of my affliction than the theory, and was just happy I’d survived this long.
The water far below was dark and wild, more viscous than most seas I’ve seen, as if thickened by sludge, and the waves slammed hard against the platform from all directions. Occasionally dark shapes broke the surface – giant eels, I thought at first, with stegosaurus spines, but then I glimpsed some greater form in the depths below, and realized the “serpents” were the appendages of a single creature.
The thing in the water wrapped a limb around one of the cranes that festooned the platform and pulled it down into the water with a terrific shriek of metal and a greasy splash, and the whole rig lurched in that direction. The creature grabbed more cranes at their bases and began to pull, trying to rip the whole platform down.
I’d seen enough. I try to save people when I can – I was trained, on the world of my birth, to solve conflicts and promote harmony – but there are limits. If anyone had burst through the hatch after me I’d have given them the option to escape this world, but there was no time to rescue anyone without losing myself. I fumbled in my pack and pulled out a stoppered test tube (my second-to-last) and a handkerchief. I was still bitter about the limitations of the pharmacopeia in the Dionysius Society. They had uppers, and dissociatives, and euphorics, and entheogens, and entactogens, but they didn’t have any fast-acting sedatives. Who wanted to fall asleep and miss the party?
I yanked out the cork and poured the carefully measured tablespoon of liquid into the handkerchief, strapped my pack back onto my chest, and then lay down on the metal of the deck. The rig was already sloping noticeably toward the water, but not so much that I’d slide into the sea before I passed out. I hoped.
I pressed the soaked handkerchief to my nose and breathed deeply. A strong, sickly-sweet odor filled my nostrils, my head spun, everything got gray and fuzzy, and then that terrible world went away.
I woke sprawled underneath a tree, its branches heavy with unfamiliar apple-shaped fruit in an unlikely shade of blue. My head thudded like it always did when I woke after resorting to such anesthetic measures. I sat up against the trunk and did my threat assessment.
I was in an orchard of blue-apple trees, orderly rows stretching as far as I could see, and there were no sea monsters (or tree monsters) in evidence. The air smelled fresh and highly oxygenated, and the skies were a paler blue than the fruit, and cloudless.
I leaned back against the trunk and exhaled. My breath still smelled sweet from the anesthetic. There are sedatives that don’t give me skull-shattering hangovers, but they also work more slowly. Sometimes I need to spin the wheel of worlds again fast, and in those cases, I resort to the hard stuff.
“Where did you come from?” a voice above me said. So much for my operational security. I looked up at a human perched on a large branch, looking down at me – apparently female, around my age, with big dark surprised eyes, skin a shade browner than the trees, and hair in a thousand braids.
“The ocean,” I said, and the language I spoke was strange and harsh. Back home we had a simple, logical, constructed language, but these haphazard, organically developed languages are far more common in the multiverse. (That informality has infiltrated even my thoughts, and the way I write now would horrify my tutors.) Still, it was good to know the linguistic virus the Lector injected into me way back on World 85 still worked. For the first few months after the onset of my condition, before I met the Lector, I had only once visited a world where people spoke a language I remotely recognized. It’s harrowing, waking up every day or three in an entirely alien place, where even if you find people, you can’t understand them. (Not that my days now were much better. Laini had been grim company for most of our time together, but she had, at least, been a brief constant in my ever-changing world: someone who knew me for more than a day or two and then vanished into my past forever.)
“The sea-stead?” she asked. “The seaweed beds?”
“It was more a sort of… factory.”
“I have never seen even once an ocean,” she said, with a note of wistfulness. “I have never been off the farm.” (Maybe that should be “The Farm.”)
“It wasn’t a very nice ocean. Are these fruit good to eat?” I was starving, and while I had some food in my pack, I tried to avoid depleting my rations whenever possible. I never knew when I’d hit a streak of barren or unpopulated worlds and have to dip into my supply.
“Of course! I can share some of my fraction with you. I am Minna. Senior grafter here, but this is my free half-day. What are you called?”
“Zax.” Zaxony Dyad Euphony Delatree – given name, family name, earned name, sphere name, but none of that had meaning except in the Realm of Spheres and Harmonies, and I hadn’t been there since I was twenty-two. I thought about the family, friends, and lovers I’d unwillingly left behind as seldom as possible, for the same reason I don’t shove pointy sticks into any wounds I sustain. “I’m a… traveler.”
“I did not know that was the name of a job.” Minna looked at me very seriously. “Do the [unable to translate] send you to the different biomes to make sure all is right and well?”
I didn’t hear the words “unable to translate,” just slippery syllables. The Lector’s world was techno-utopian, and occasionally there were concepts the linguistic virus he’d developed had a hard time parsing. Usually those concepts involved horrible nightmarish things. “Something like that.”
“Tell me of the places you have seen!” Minna hung on my every word as much as she hung onto the branch.
I looked around the orchard. “Places with no trees at all,” I said, “just rocks, but some of the rocks grow, like trees, and they shine. Places with just one big tree, and a city in the branches. Forests where no person had ever walked before me. Beaches with white or golden or black sand, or all three at once, the water warm or chilling or bubbling or even, once, alive. Mountains with air so clear and crisp you can see for hundreds of miles, and mountains where the fog never lifts and the inhabitants are all born blind. Cities so big you could walk all day and never reach the outskirts, full of temples and factories, towers and parks.” I tried to focus on the good trips. I could have told Minna about places where the sun was a dying ruby, where people were just vessels for intelligent parasites, where the trees were carnivorous and ambulatory, but why frighten and confuse her?
“Really? So many places, all different? What a life, so full of wonders. You must be a rare lineage from heirloom stock.”
“I don’t know about that. Traveling is… it’s like life, I guess. Sometimes it’s wonderful, and sometimes it’s terrible, and sometimes it’s boring.”
“That does not sound like life as I know it.” Minna dropped down from the branch and landed beside me. She wore a jumpsuit dyed unevenly blue, and her hands were stained the same color. She’d plucked a fruit on the way down, and began cutting up the blue apple with a pretty silver knife. She handed me a thick wedge of fruit. It was blue all the way through. “Here you go. The fruit in this sector boosts your immunities. We are going to graft them to mood enhancers, to make the eaters feel good and be healthy too, but the [unable to translate] have not yet settled on which strains to use.”
I grunted and took a bite. The flesh was crisp and sweet, and I gobbled it up and licked my fingers.
“Golly, you hungered.” Minna handed me the rest of the fruit, and I chomped it down.
“Thank you for that. Do you live nearby?” I’d eaten, and now it would be nice to get under a roof. I’d been in too many places where terrible things came from the sky.
“I live on the Farm.” Minna sounded confused that I’d even asked. “Did you want to see my room? Is that part of the inspection?”
Before I could answer – I was debating whether it was better to let Minna think I had special status here or not – a horrible buzzing, humming, clattering noise arose, and I shot to my feet and looked around. “What is that?”
“A harvester.” Minna smiled. “Is this your first time on a farm? They might be loud and scary, I think, if you are new, but they mean you no harm.”
A mechanical spider ten meters high rose up above the trees to my left, its body a silvery sphere, its countless arms whirling and spinning, some tipped with blades, others with jointed claws, plucking fruit and pruning back branches all at once, tossing blue apples and cut branches into a funnel on top of its body. The harvester came closer, its delicate segmented legs stepping over, around, and through the branches, moving fast. I snatched up my pack and backed away.
“Do not be afraid. The harvester has scanners, and it can tell workers from fruit.”
I hesitated, but Minna seemed so unworried that I stood beside her as the spider scuttled down the rows toward us. The machine didn’t seem to notice me at all, and it was almost past us when one of its lopping pincer arms reached out and severed my left arm just above the elbow.
Tim Pratt is a Hugo Award-winning SF and fantasy author, who has also been a finalist for World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Stoker, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards, among others. Since 2001 he has worked for Locus, the magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field, where he currently serves as senior editor. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and son. Click here to pre-order a copy of Doors Of Sleep.
Doors Of Sleep by Tim Pratt is out on 12 January 2021.