Last year we revealed the cover to Tim Pratt’s sci-fi fantasy, Doors Of Sleep and now we unveil the cover for its hotly-anticipated sequel, The Prison Of Sleep!
Here’s what you can expect for Zax Delatree’s next adventure…
Every time Zaxony Delatree falls asleep he wakes up on a new world. His life has turned into an endless series of brief encounters. But at least he and Minna, the one companion who has found a way of travelling with him, are no longer pursued by the psychotic and vengeful Lector.
But now Zax has been joined once again by Ana, a companion he thought left behind long ago. Ana is one of the Sleepers, a group of fellow travellers between worlds. Ana tells Zax that he is unknowingly host to a parasitic alien that exists partly in his blood and partly between dimensions. The chemical that the alien secretes is what allows Zax to travel. Every time he does, however, the parasite grows, damaging the fabric of the Universes. Anas is desperate to recruit Zax to her cause and stop the alien.
But there are others who are using the parasite, such as the cult who serve the Prisoner – an entity trapped in the dimension between universes. Every world is like a bar in its prison. The cult want to collapse all the bars of the worlds and free their god. Can Zax, Minna, Ana and the other Sleepers band together and stop them?
We all have to wait until March 2022 to get our hands on The Prison Of Sleep but if you’re like us and simply can’t wait that long, here is chapter one of the new book…
Unicorns • Absent Friends • Sleeperhold • The Cult of the Worms • Necessary Context • Worm Sign • Gigantopithecus or Something • A Fork in the Road
How far I’ve come, and how little I have to show for it.
I’m writing this with a sparkly pen in a notebook I found in a heap of wreckage that used to be a two-story house. There’s a picture of a glittery unicorn with disturbingly human eyes and a toothy grin on the cover, and about half the pages are full of looping handwritten scrawls in pink and purple ink. I can’t read the words, of course, since my linguistic virus only works on speech, not writing, but the genre is pretty clear: this was a diary, probably a teenager’s, or the local equivalent. (The last few pages are full of block letters and underlines. Maybe they saw this war coming. Or maybe the emphasis is about something else entirely.) Fortunately, the original writer only used the front of each page in the journal, not the back, so when I flip it upside down, poof: a whole book and a half of blank pages for me to fill.
I used to have an amazing digital journal, slim and weatherproof, with endlessly scrolling “pages” that I could never fill. I could write it in that journal with a stylus or my fingertip, or even dictate and watch my words appear in print (once my absent friend Vicky showed me how to turn that feature on). In that book, I chronicled my journey through over a thousand worlds, my adventures, my failures (numerous), and my triumphs (fewer, and maybe pointless in the long run). Now that book of wonders is lost.
Just like me.
I can’t possibly recap everything that’s happened since the last time I wrote. I don’t even feel up to filling in the time since the attack on the Sleeperhold, when I was forced out into the lonely vastness of the multiverse again. But here’s a little context, to help anyone who might someday find this document, and actually have the capacity to decipher it.
My name is Zaxony Dyad Euphony Delatree. I was born in a place called the Realm of Spheres and Harmonies, where I worked as a harmonizer, devoted to helping people find fulfillment in their personal lives while also contributing to the betterment of society as a whole. When I was twenty-two years old (probably about four years ago, now, though birthdays are hard to track for reasons that will become obvious), I went to sleep one night in my familiar bed, and woke up in an alien and hostile world.
Ever since then, that’s been my life. If I fall asleep, or otherwise lose consciousness, I leave the universe I’m in, and wake to find myself somewhere else. Sometimes I open my eyes in cities, or gardens, or deserts; tundra or jungles; space stations or caverns or undersea domes. I’ve found myself in worlds populated by humans at every stage of cultural development, from hunter-gatherer to techno-utopian, and in worlds populated by intelligent entities that aren’t human anymore, or that never were; and sometimes I find myself in empty, devastated places, like this one… though rarely worlds where the ruination was so recent. There is still ash raining down outside these broken windows.
I can always escape my problems, as simply as falling asleep… but I can’t retrace my steps. I can’t return to worlds where I’ve already been, because the force within me seeks the new, driving me always to unseen worlds. Except… there is a way to go backward, to visit worlds I’ve already seen, using technology developed by a group called the Sleepers. People who have the same gift, or you could say suffer the same affliction, that I do, along with their allies. Naturally, not long after I met the Sleepers, everything fell apart. I try to stay optimistic, but I’m dirty and hungry and lonely, so this isn’t my best day.
I’ve been to a lot of worlds. This is World 1305, I think, give or take a few. I used to keep meticulous track, but since I last wrote, I passed through a lot of worlds very quickly, some familiar, some not. I was also distracted by various astonishing revelations, and also by kissing my long lost true love, who (as you may have gathered) has since been lost again.
I’ve picked up some advantages in the course of my journeys, in worlds even more technologically advanced than my birthplace. The linguistic virus was the first and most vital, since it allows me to understand and converse in most spoken languages, assuming my vocal apparatus is capable of making the right sounds. More recently I’ve had procedures to change the structure of my brain, which in effect means I can stay awake indefinitely. I have to rest, but I just sort of… zone out, sleeping with only one hemisphere of my brain at a time, like some species of migratory birds do during long flights. I don’t dream, of course, but since this all started, I’d stopped dreaming anyway. Being able to stay awake as long as I like has been life-changing – before that, I could never spend more than five or six days in a given world before sleep forced me away, and I could only mange that long through the use of terrifying quantities of stimulants.
Those procedures, along with certain meditation techniques, also allow me to fall asleep at will – in the old days, if I wanted to escape a world, I had to depend on fast-acting sedatives, and that’s not good for your long-term health. In theory, with my new skills, I could just settle down in some nice corner of reality, barring unexpected head injuries. In practice, though, I’ve been on the run, since the attack on the Sleeperhold separated me from my friends.
Oh, yes, I can make friends. If someone falls asleep in my arms, they can travel with me to new worlds… at least until I lose consciousness without them, or they decide they want to stay behind. My friend Minna, who knows more about biology than anyone I’ve ever met, even found a way to duplicate my ability, allowing her to travel with me even if we didn’t fall asleep together… but I haven’t seen her since the day the Sleeperhold fell. I hope she survived – that she’s out there somewhere in the tangle of worlds, doing the work, as I am. I know we may never find each other again. I haven’t given up hope – she’s surprised me in the past – but for now I don’t have the luxury of worrying about it. I’m focused on other things. Survival, of course… but other things, too.
I have been hunted before. Pursued through the multiverse by someone who meant me harm. I didn’t like that much. This time, I’m the one doing the hunting instead. I’m going after the people who destroyed the Sleeperhold, the place that should have been my new home. They tore me away from my friends, from Vicki and Minna and Winsome and Toros and Sorlyn and the Pilgrim… and Ana. Most of all, Ana. Finding her once was astonishing. Finding her a second time was a miracle. I know I can’t expect to find her again.
Toros, the leader of the Sleepers, calls our enemy the Cult of the Worms. We know a few things: they can travel the multiverse, just like I can. They infect other people with that curse as well. (They infected me, though indirectly.) There are lots of them – we don’t know how many – and they’re organized. We think we know their goal: to tear apart the fabric of the multiverse, which is to say, to destroy everything. What we don’t know is why. All attempts at interrogation have failed, mostly for lack of a common language.
But I can speak anyone’s language, and now, I’m chasing them down, trying to track the cult to its origin point. When travelers – like the cultists, or like me – move through the multiverse, we leave traces of damage, fissures in the fabric of space and time, and the Sleepers can detect those. We call them worm-trails, because they look like thin, organic, twisting lines in the air – the bodies of worms, or their tunnels. Invisible to the naked eye, but not to me.
The Sleepers taught me how to follow those wounds in reality. I can see my own, stretching out behind me – and it’s disgusting to even think about it, unspooling behind me at chest-height with every step I take – but I can’t follow it, because I can’t go back. I can follow someone else’s trail, though, through worlds I’ve never visited before – and there are so many worlds, and so many potential paths back to the source. Toros thinks that going to a world that’s already been visited – following an existing worm trail – does less damage to the fabric of reality than breaking new ground. The idea is, you’re following an existing fissure rather than making a new one. I hope that’s true. I’ve been to so many worlds. I didn’t realize I was making pinpricks in reality.
After the attack on the Sleeperhold, I was lost, wandering, going from world to world – but then I found a thread. Specifically, I found a fresh corpse, in a desolate and seemingly uninhabited world: a humanoid, dressed in a motley combination of clothing, with a pack of survival supplies. The worm trail in the air above them proved they were a traveler. Judging by the vomit beside them and the froth on their lips, they’d eaten something poisonous. You can never be too careful when it comes to consuming the flora of strange worlds.
I searched the body, and found the mark on his hip, a diamond-shaped arrangement of dots, these seemingly burned in with a hot iron:
• • •
• • • • •
• • •
I rubbed my chest, just above my heart, absently. The Sleepers call that mark worm-sign, and while they can’t be sure the mark appears on every cultists, it appears on all the ones they’ve caught, sometimes tattooed, sometimes branded, sometimes gouged and scarred. I knew then this was no unwilling traveler like myself, but a member of the Cult of the Worms.
I made and acted on a plan in that same moment. I knew where that cultists had ended up, so I decided to see where they’d come from. Since then, I’ve been methodically tracking his worm-trail back, through world after world – eventually, I’ll find the place he came from, the homeworld of the Cult of the Worm.
That was the plan, after all: to track the cult to its root. Just because the Sleepers were attacked doesn’t mean it’s a bad plan. It might mean it’s a great plan, since the cult went to such violent lengths to stop us. If the others survived, Minna and Vicki and the Pilgrim and Sorlyn and Ana (my Ana)… then maybe we’re all following different paths, left by different people, cultists or victims like me, and maybe… maybe… we’ll track those threads back to their common point of origin. We’ll find the place where the cult began. We’ll figure out why they’re set on ruining the multiverse. We’ll find a way to stop them.
“We.” Such a beautiful word. I hope I get to be a “we” again, instead of just an “I.” I hope they’re still out there, alive, doing the work.
I hope I get to see them again.
Sorry. That ended up being… rather a lot of context. I’ll try to focus more on the immediate situation from here on. I started keeping a journal as a scientific record of my travels, but more importantly, it’s a way to reflect on my experiences, develop insights, synthesize knowledge, and generally figure out what in the worlds is going on, and what I’m going to do about it. It’s also a very cheap and only marginally effective form of therapy, as demonstrated above.
It does feel good to have a pen in my hand, even one with sparkly purple ink. It’s so easy to get distracted by the minutiae of trying not to be eaten by monsters, or dying of exposure, or being dissected by alien scientists. Writing things down reminds me I do have a purpose beyond mere survival. That’s nice.
So. I awoke here, on world 1305 (approximate), underneath a bandstand in a park, and when I crawled out of the leaf mulch and dirt, the first thing I saw was a gazebo, and the gazebo was on fire. The town square was generally in bad shape, with the dirt torn up in a way that suggested tanks or something else heavy on tracks had recently rolled through, though no tanks were in evidence, and there were no corpses, which was a nice change. The sky was dark with smoke, and the noonday sun (just the one, so far) faintly visible in the haze.
I crouched and scuttled, keeping my eye out for soldiers, but whatever battle had happened here had moved on. I didn’t hear any gunshots or artillery or explosions, or running feet or angry voices, so I gradually relaxed. I was wearing my round-rimmed spectacles with the special lenses, and through them, I could see the silvery streak of the dead cultist’s worm-trail just below my eye-level, stretching off into the distance. I had some walking to do. I might as well do some looting along the way.
A black and silver flag full of bullet holes hung limply from a rod over the smashed-in window of a general store. I noticed the front door was four meters high, and that in general, everything here seemed about double my own human scale. I climbed into the window, being careful of the glass, and rooted around, putting a few cans of food and pouches of dried meat (you learn not to wonder what kind, after a while) into my canvas pack. The clothing definitely suggested humanoid creatures, albeit of immense size – maybe they’d evolved from Gigantopithecus or something. I’d seen stranger things. I looked wistfully at a rack of shoes, since my boots were coming apart, but even the smallest options were far too large.
I climbed back out the window and followed the worm-trail. The Sleepers estimate that every branch of the multiverse is directly adjacent to at least three or four other branches, and sometimes more. It’s like standing in a room, surrounded by a lot of doors, and each door leads to a room with a new set of doors, and so on. Why you end up in one particular world over another is less clear. Is it random? Does it depend on where, geographically, we go to sleep in the prior world? Some sleepers think we can guide our destinations subconsciously – by wishing desperately to reach a city, we increase our chance of traveling to a developed world, if such a world is one of the available options. It’s impossible to prove, but it does makes me feel better sometimes.
It’s possible there are many more adjacent realities, of course. Maybe tens, dozens, hundreds, thousands – there are just usually three or four available worlds. We Sleepers never travel to realities that can’t support our form of life, you see. There must be lots of universes without a single patch of ground that can sustain our array of needs in terms of atmosphere, temperature, gravity, pressure, and lack of radiation.
The Sleepers have proven a natural tendency to follow an existing fissure rather than travel to another adjacent world, though – the way a river follows the path of least resistance. It explains how my old friend turned nemesis the Lector pursued me unerringly through so many worlds, once upon a time. Knowing that, I could just lay down anywhere in this war-torn world and go to sleep, and there’s a good chance I’d end up in the right world when I woke… but it’s safer to follow the worm-trail back to the point where it enters a given reality, and go to sleep there. If you bed down beneath the terminus of a worm trail, you always pick up the same trail on the other side.
Following the whole length of the trail also increased my chances of finding some evidence or sign of this traveler’s passage. I knew they were a cultist, and it was possible they’d left some evidence about their motives or their people. So far all I’d found was the occasional food wrapper from a different reality or the remains of a campfire, no grimoires bound in human skin or scrawled manifestos about annihilating reality or audio recordings of maniacal laugher.
I tracked the trail out of town, along a paved road, with fields on each side. There were no birds, no vehicles, no people, but off in the distance I saw columns of smoke, and once a fire tornado, fortunately moving away from me. Eventually the trail veered off toward a residential subdivision, and the devastation there was vast – houses (all twice-human-scale) broken into pieces, burned, with great jagged holes in their roofs. Massive vehicles were overturned and smoldering. More flags full of bullet holes dangled limply. There were no people at all, though some might have been hiding in the shells of their homes, I supposed. No corpses, either, which was strange – had they escaped? Evacuated? Been taken prisoner? Was that ash raining from the sky the remnants of the local population, disintegrated by some kind of energy weapon? I was curious, but I had to accept the fact that I would likely never know. Mysteries are just part of my human condition.
I followed the worm-trail into a two-story house, one side caved in, the other mostly intact. The track went through the front door, looped into the kitchen (someone had been foraging), and then disappeared upstairs. Since there was no parallel worm-trail coming down the stairs, that meant my quarry had arrived in this world up there. I climbed the stairs and followed that silvery thread to a child’s room, though the child was probably my size or larger, based on the dimensions of the furniture. I also found this journal, which is a good size for me, and was probably a little pocket-sized thing for the original owner. The worm-trail ended in mid-air over the bed, and there was a smudge of red clay on the blanket – the traveler had appeared right there.
Normally when I find the termination of a trail, I close my eyes and follow it, moving on to the next world. I’ve been doing that ever since I picked up this thread, two weeks after the fall of Sleeperhold, making good time, and not even thinking about keeping a journal. So why did I pick up that dead (or missing, or who knows what) child’s pen and start writing again? Why was it suddenly so important to pause my hunt to stop and reflect?
Because there was another trail in the room, originating just a couple of meters from the first one. That trail didn’t go down the stairs, but out the window. I peered out and found a trellis there, easily suitable for climbing, and based on the trajectory of the track, the other traveler had done just that, and then proceeded into the woods, where I lost sight of their trail among the trees.
Two sleepers had come through here – and not with one sleeping in the other’s arms, because passive companions don’t leave worm-trails. Were they two cultists, traveling together? If so, why had they split up? Were they going in different directions to increase the likelihood of transitioning to different worlds, off on different missions?
I started writing this to organize my thoughts. Because now I have a choice. I can keep backtracking that dead cultist… or I can switch tactics, and follow the other worm-trail into the woods, and try to chase down a cultist who might still be alive. That corpse I found and started following backward in the first place was fresh, and may have been in this world as recently as a week ago. If he arrived at the same time as this other traveler, I could catch up to them, if I move fast. But then what? Try to get answers out of them, sure, but the lack of a common language hasn’t been the only barrier to gathering intelligence. The cultists captured by the Sleepers fight and bite and spit and try to knock themselves unconscious so they can escape – being able to talk to them doesn’t mean they’d be willing to talk to me.
I am good at talking to people, though. Maybe I could pretend to want to join the cult, and get their sales pitch in return. It would be nice to know why they do the things they do – infecting innocent people, flinging them into the multiverse, trying to damage reality. They can’t go back, either, as far as we can tell, so they leave their homeworld and people behind when they set out on their missions. There must be a good reason. Or at least a terrible reason they find compelling.
But if stop tracing this cultist back, I lose my best chance to find their homeworld. Even if I catch this other traveler, and they tell me their entire cosmology, what would I do with that information? I wouldn’t be able to follow his trail back to this point, because there’s no returning to a world I’ve visited before. The doors of sleep only open one way, unless you have access to a sleepercar. What are my odds of finding one of those?
Basically zero. I’d have to hunt around and hope I found some other cultist who’d come a different way, and follow their trail backward, if I wanted to have even the tiniest sliver of a chance of reuniting with Ana and the others again. Finding another trail is probably possible – the local array of worlds clearly sees a lot of cult activity – but it would set me back and take a while. Still. I’m supposed to be finding out information. Isn’t tracking a living cultist worth the inconvenience and the risk? Figuring out the true nature of the threat against the multiverse?
Ugh. Sometimes doing the right thing is the worst.
The Prison Of Sleep by Tim Pratt is out on 22 March 2022 from Angry Robot.