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Richard Levesque has spent most of his life in Southern California. For the last several years he has taught composition and literature, including science fiction, as part of the English Department at Fullerton College. His first book, Take Back Tomorrow, was published in 2012, and he has followed it with other science fiction and urban fantasy novels, novellas, and short stories. When not writing or grading papers, he works on his collection of old science fiction pulps and spends time with his wife and daughter.

The Somniscient by Richard Levesque

When reformed dream hacker Nix Nighthawk's sleep chip malfunctions, he is forced to seek help from a world he is trying to avoid—his old friends in the pirate dream network. But that world has changed, and Nix soon finds himself at the center of a complex plot to overthrow the vast corporation that controls every aspect of society. Betrayed by his lover, his friends, and even the technology that defines him, he has to choose: go back to living his safe and controlled existence, or be the hero and join forces with the revolutionary known only as The Somniscient.

CURATOR'S NOTE

I'm a sucker for the science fiction of ideas. Give me a thought-provoking concept and wrap it up in a compelling story about the people affected, and you've got me halfway there already. Enter, The Somnicient. Have you ever wanted to be able to control your dreams? Maybe even write the script? But if that became possible, who would bother to write their own? In this chilling exploration of the near future, an entertainment technology giant dominates every facet of human life: from the dreams you dream, to the apps you use to talk about them. They even control the very currency of exchange. So the burning question now is: when dreams are big money, who will be allowed to sleep? – Jefferson Smith

 

REVIEWS

  • "If you want to enjoy the sort of SciFi that makes you think rather than just dazzle you, this is a must read."

    – Eduardo Suastegui, author of the Tracking Jane and Our Cyber World series
  • "In The Somniscient, Levesque has come up with one of the first original themes in cyberpunk in years…I have been an avid reader of cyberpunk since the early days of Rucker and Gibson when the term was first coined. Levesque stands on their shoulders with his latest contribution to the genre, and cyberpunk fans will enjoy the well-conceived technology, its implications for society, and the stories of a few denizens of this dystopia trying to make a better life and a better world."

    – Brian Holt Hawthorne, Amazon Review
  • "Richard Levesque has created another vivid world extrapolating technology advances… This is a very readable and entertaining book…The world of creating and selling dreams, which can only be redeemed by earning Zees just so you can sleep, is weird, creepy, and inventive."

    – Cellophane Queen, Amazon Review
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

Nix Nighthawk was tired.

This was nothing new.

Nix Nighthawk was always tired.

He had grown used to it, as had almost everyone he knew.

When he allowed the Crawl to draw his attention from the Creator pane or the technical manuals he had open in the different windows of his mind's eye, he saw post after post of people lamenting their lack of sleep, praising this or that stimulant, or describing plans for illegally boosting their REM the next time they earned enough zees to run their sleep apps. There were some people, of course, for whom zees—and thus sleep—was not a problem, people who weren't plagued by fuzzy thinking and who didn't need eye drops at all hours of the day and night to keep from feeling like they'd just come out of a sandstorm, their eyelids scraping across their eyeballs with each torturous blink. But those people weren't really Nix's friends, at least not any more; they were just on his Crawl because weeding out his crop of friends was one task he truly had no time for—not if he was going to meet his quota and get some sleep.

He sat in his ergonomic chair in the Cube he shared with Fidget on the thirty-second floor of the enLIGHTen flagship building, his wrists on the arm wrests and his feet perched on the perfectly adjusted stool attached to the chair. His fingers twitched involuntarily as he coded, as though they really tapped at a keyboard. The only keys he needed, though, were the ones in his mind's eye; he thought the code, and it appeared in his Creator pane, line after line of it, an endless string of letters, numbers and symbols. They were his livelihood, each keystroke the equivalent of work done by miners or seamstresses from the past, striking with a pick or completing the last stitch on a piecemeal shirt before starting the next one.

It was mind-numbing work, made no easier by sleep deprivation. Succumbing to distraction was a normal thing for any coder, and Nix wasn't immune. The Crawl pulled him away from his Creator pane, and the pain of wakefulness dragged him back, usually after a chagrined look at the little red circle in his mind's eye.

He thought of it that way—as a red circle—even when it had filled almost to green, the thin sliver of red indicating that he had not yet filled his quota, had not yet earned enough zees to be able to run his sleep app for a few hours. That was how it appeared now, a tiny line of red in an otherwise green circle, and if he focused on it for too long, letting its allure keep his mind from building more lines of code, the thin line would start to thicken imperceptibly, and sleep would be that much further away. It was the red that stopped him from feeling as free as he once had felt, and so it was the red that he focused on when he looked at the circle.

You always were a glass-half-empty guy, he thought as he re-focused on his Creator pane. It was the kind of thing Kingston would have said to him when they were actual friends, not just people whose posts showed up on each other's Crawl. There had been no Cube back then, no padded ergonomic chair. And Nix had had far more than just the Loop in his brain; he'd been hardwired with more illegal tech than most hackers had ever even heard of, all thanks to Kingston. Sleep had been a matter of will then, something taken for granted. The zees had piled up so high in his accounts—both legitimate and all the other shadow accounts Kingston had set him up with—that he hadn't really valued them or any of the shiny things they'd bought. But it hadn't lasted. And now the tech and the accounts and the zees and the sleep were all just things he used to have, replaced by lines of code, a soft chair and a Cube.

And Fidget.

She was the only shiny thing he had now.

And he promised himself he wasn't going to take her for granted.

He turned in the chair to look at her, his eyes needing a second to adjust to the actual world, not the panes in his mind's eye. She slept on the futon—the only furniture in the room besides the two ergonomic chairs—dressed in simple gray cotton underwear and a tank top. Her straw-colored hair fell halfway across her face as she lay on her side, one arm stretched out onto his side of the futon. She looked so contented, he told himself, and for what must have been the ten-thousandth time in the last three months, he wondered how he'd gotten so lucky.

That was really all it had been—luck. Coming up short on zees week after week, having to borrow against his account just to get an hour of sleep per night, Nix had been desperate. He'd applied for a Cubemate, someone to split the charges that enLIGHTen levied against his account—rental of the Cube and its furniture, the cost of electricity, temperature stabilization, fresh air piped in from the ducts, monthly cleaning of the carpets, and so on. When Fidget's profile had shown up as a match in his Crawl, he'd told himself she would be easy on the eyes and moved forward with the process. It had been chaste at first, with clearly demarcated boundaries and a staggered sleep/work schedule that would make the futon available to one and then the other, never both at the same time. But that hadn't lasted long. Simple proximity had done the trick. Just being around each other all the time, catching the other person's scent, sharing food, and having little conversations that turned into bigger ones…it hadn't been many days before they were on the futon together, her fingers like feathers on his skin.

Of course, with their relationship taking on more complexities, the efficiency of their sharing a Cube vanished. They burned through their leisure time together—both staying in and going out—and soon love had made the relationship economically null, as they were both back in the same places they'd occupied before establishing the partnership. It hadn't taken long for Nix to realize Fidget was far more efficient at their work than he was; with one or two jobs, she was back in the green with plenty of zees to fritter away on nights out or time spent together, hands clasped as they cuddled on the futon, a synced movie playing through each of their Loops. For Nix, such extravagances meant sacrificed sleep and diminished efficiency when he climbed out of their shared reverie to get back to work.

It wouldn't be long, he told himself, before she'd tire of him having to work so much just to function. She needed a man like Kingston Maribou, one who could lavish her with the luxuries of leisure. Why she hadn't landed such a man by now, Nix could not guess and was afraid to ask. She'd be gone soon enough, he knew. Until then, he would enjoy what he had.

Now they tried their hardest to end up on the futon together, but it didn't work out that way often enough. Usually one or the other was sacrificing green space in his or her account circle so they could be intimate with one another, the red sliver increasing in size proportionately with the pace of their respiration, and when it was over one would go back to coding while the other slept, an empty space on the futon calling out to be filled.

Nix forced himself to turn away and get back to work, wondering not for the first time if he and Fidget would be better off leaving enLIGHTen behind. They could forget about coding and tech manuals and help forums, could stop hoping for an easy assignment that would mean quick zees and lots of sleep, could drop the REM boosters and stimulants that kept them going from one day to the next. But what would they end up doing instead? Retail or service jobs, he supposed. A fixed number of zees for a ten hour shift would be nice, but there would be no Cube to come back to; they'd end up sharing a tiny place with ten other people just to be able to make ends meet—and that was only if they could find jobs and only if those jobs lasted. Coding for enLIGHTen wasn't paradise, but the company wasn't going anywhere.

It took almost another hour for the sliver of red to disappear altogether from his status circle. Had it been Fidget with this assignment, or the majority of coders in the building, it wouldn't have taken as long to reach full green status. Nix's problem wasn't that he didn't code well—he could learn new languages and systems and applications as well as the next person, and there would have been a time not long ago when he would have put every other coder on the thirty-second floor to shame. No, Nix's problem—and he hated to admit it—was that he was getting old. At 33, he just wasn't as sharp as he'd been ten years ago when he'd been a high end hotshot working for Kingston Maribou, and he felt a million miles away from the whiz he'd been twenty years ago when he'd first started earning zees as a freelance dream hacker. The time would come, he knew, when he wouldn't be able to keep up, when the assignments that the twenty-year-olds could practically do in their sleep would just take him further and further into deficit, when the stimulants and sleep deprivation would add up to the inevitable mental breakdown or heart attack. Nix wasn't sure which he'd prefer, but he was resigned to his fate, rushing forward to meet his end like in one of those old songs about a fast freight train on a wrong-way track.

For now, the inevitable collision was still a long way off. As if to prove it, he ran the last of his checks and got no errors. Then he submitted his work and a few seconds later was rewarded with a message acknowledging its receipt and completion.

Letting out a long breath, he closed the Creator pane, the manuals, and the help forum. Then he checked his account, clicking on the mostly red circle in his mind. 4.38 zees, it read. 4.38 hours of leisure. 4.38 hours during which his sleep function would now be allowed to run. Now that he could focus on something other than the Creator pane, other parts of his body started checking in. The ache in every muscle and joint, the pressure behind his eyes, the slight ringing in his ears—all told him how desperately he needed every second of the sleep he'd managed to hold onto. If he was going to do anything besides sleep, it would be to slide out of the padded chair he'd been working in, shuffle the few feet to the futon, and wake Fidget for sex.

He looked at her, thought about waking her, but knew he was too tired to spend any kind of quality time with her. Plus, it just wasn't polite to wake someone. He didn't know the status of her zees, after all, didn't know how long she'd had to work to earn this sleep. Maybe her recent frivolities had drained her account, and the sleep she was getting now would have to last her a while.

Checking their shared account in his mind's eye, he saw that Fidget had a movie queued up for them to watch together. But with his 4.38 zees already slipping down toward 4.35 and another assignment awaiting him once his account went completely red, he knew he wouldn't have the time to watch it with her. He'd just have to download the memory of having seen it so they could talk about it later.

He got up and went to the door, which slid open silently to admit him into the beige hallway. Immediately assaulted by the low volume electronic tone that hummed perpetually in the corridors to discourage loitering, he passed a dozen doors, each emblazoned with its Cube number and the enLIGHTen logo—a meditating Buddha with a light bulb for a head—before coming to the restroom he and Fidget shared with the rest of their floor. A few minutes later, with water freshly splashed on his face, he went back to the Cube and unlocked it remotely with the keychain app in his Loop.

Fidget still slept. He nodded his approval, smiling at how beautiful she looked even when asleep, and then dropped down onto the futon. He had 4.29 zees remaining, almost four and a half hours to sleep. Ever so gently, he traced the tiny raised patch of skin behind Fidget's ear, his finger outlining her Loop the same way he would have rubbed her nipple on a day when they were more in sync, and then he lay back on the futon.

He waited a moment before launching the sleep app that would allow the Loop to take him under. Without zees in his account, it wouldn't run, his brain incapable of slipping out of wakefulness, but there were zees today, 4.27 of them now. Out of habit, he set his Dreamcatcher app even though in all the years he'd been using it, he'd had only one dream worthy of selling. Then he scrolled through a dream screen, wondering if he should run one or just let nature take its course.

His favorites were bookmarked, of course, and the nice thing about working for enLIGHTen was that they were all free to employees. The selection, if he'd been blessed with the leisure time to search it, was infinite. Flying dreams, movie dreams, sex dreams, adventure dreams, running dreams…the list went on and on. And then there were the nightmares, for people who were into that sort of thing. Some people had managed to turn dreaming into a profession, and their followers awaited every new release, chatting it up on the Crawl, propelling dreams and dreamers into icon status. One good dream, he knew, and he'd be set. It was the same fantasy for everyone on the Crawl.

This afternoon, there was a lot of chatter about a pirate uploader called The Somniscient. He'd gotten quite a following over the last few months, releasing dreams outside the enLIGHTen system, giving them away for free and watching the fan base—and enLIGHTen's ire—grow with each new dream. Nix had tried a few of The Somniscient's wares and had seen the attraction; they had an uncanny cinematic quality, and the dreams' creator somehow always managed to dream about the same things, giving his fans a sense of the familiar with each new variation.

The dreams fell into different categories, cleverly marketed. For men, the Jack Malloy dreams were the big draw. Malloy was a hard-boiled detective who was always running through dark, wet streets, dodging bullets, or exchanging innuendo-laced banter with femmes fatales. Sometimes the dreams had him catching a bad guy, and sometimes he was catching a beating from thugs or corrupt police officers. The dreams had no real plot, just exciting situations that always seemed incredibly real.

Women tended to follow dreams featuring Kitty Roswell, a post-Victorian heiress/adventuress who was always dashing around the world in the most glamorous clothes, catching the attention of princes and scoundrels and always staying just ahead of their advances. Kitty explored goldmines in the Amazon jungle and crossed the Sahara with a retinue of faithful servants, always building her riches and seeking romance. Even with a smudge of Mongolian mud across her cheek or a curl of red hair plastered with sweat to her forehead, she always looked confident and alluring, her secret smile promising hidden truths and surprising revelations.

For the kids, it was Jumpsy Panda, an ursine pop star of indeterminate sex who traveled the world in a huge jet and put on concerts for thousands of screaming fans, always returning home to play with friends on a palatial jungle gym complete with rope ladders, tunnels, and invisible rooms. Nothing bad or dangerous ever happened in Jumpsy Panda dreams; they were all just fun, fun, fun.

How The Somniscient could create such consistent worlds in his subconscious and call them up seemingly at will in his dreams was a mystery, which was a huge part of the attraction. Many claimed fraud, and there were theories that the dreams were somehow computer generated, that they were the equivalent of video games or CG films. But there was still such a dream-like quality about them that even the most skeptical could not deny.

Nix knew that the real reason everyone wanted to share The Somniscient's dreams was quite simply because they weren't sanctioned, that running a Somniscient dream on one's system left the consumer vulnerable to viruses and parasite programs; it was that risk and the thrill of getting raw dreams that hadn't gone through enLIGHTen's vetting process—dreams in which anything could happen—that pulled people in, turning the curious into the converted. It wasn't all that risky, Nix knew. Most unsanctioned dreams were fine. And when you factored in the proletarian, egalitarian proclamations that The Somniscient introduced his dreams with, you got a pirate product that seemed like the real thing—something meant for everyone, not a Trojan horse waiting to breach the gates of anyone's system.

All the chatter about The Somniscient's latest release made Nix curious, and he clicked a few posts to see what the fuss was all about. The first post read, "Great stuff as usual, vivid as hell. But then at around four minutes in…DAMN!!! You'll want to run this one again and again." Every other post carried a similar message, yet none were any more specific.

Okay, he thought. It wasn't going to cost him any zees, and if this many people were functioning well enough to go on the Crawl after experiencing the dream, it should all be fine.

He ran a quick search, found the file, and set it to run as soon as he slipped into REM sleep. Automatically, a video screen popped up in his mind's eye, playing The Somniscient's introduction. There was no way to shut these things off once the dream had been selected, so Nix did his best to ignore it; the messages were always in the same vein.

"Hello, children," The Somniscient said, his habitual salutation. The voice was electronic, distorted and pitched low, but not so low as to be slowed down and distracting. The Somniscient was always in shadow, a silhouette against a swirling red background. "I've got something special for you today. A dream that will make the nightmare of your life just a little more tolerable. Maybe you'll come back and back again to sample it. I only wish the time would come when you could visit me whenever you wish, not when your masters dictate. Now…dream with me, and wake renewed." The image faded and the window blinked shut.

Nix rolled his eyes. In his Dream app's preferences panel, he checked to make sure that the "Remember Dream" box was clicked. Then he launched his sleep app and was finally at rest.