TERRA NULLIUS • by Alexander Burns

Iona, on duty at ten minutes to midnight, smiled over her cup of coffee. Everything was running smoothly. She closed her eyes and listened to the machine hum. Encased in rows of transparent tubes, volunteers slept while verisimilitude engines pumped dream energy from their minds into the great machine. Those pumps led to the empty incubator near the ceiling.

Beyond the windows that lined the front of the machine, the rest of humanity partied. It was New Year’s Eve. There were fireworks, music, dancing, fucking. Iona felt a pang of regret that she was on duty this year, but she’d see it next time.

Further still, beyond the parties, there was nothing. The planet, the last habitable planet in the multiverse, thrived as the remnants of humanity ignored it in favor of the machine. Beyond that planet and its star, nothing remained. The void’s implacable entropic forces had swallowed everything.

Iona’s eyes snapped open as an alarm pinged — an imagination deficiency. Yasamin, patrolling the tubes, stepped lightly to the problem sleeper and knelt to read the display.

“Marko Bran,” Yasamin called. “Not getting much out of him. We might should pull him out.”

Iona tapped her nails on her mug, her gaze soaking in the displays. “Cutting it close, but we’re still on track,” she said.

More lights flared red. The troubled sleeper had infected the network, and those closest to him, who should be sharing his dreamscape, were crashing from REM to dreamless deep sleep.

“Shit,” Yasamin muttered, moving from tube to tube. “We’re losing these.”

Iona watched the needles waver as alarms wailed. The machine would still work with a shortage of dreamers, but the result would, at best, be a less than stellar year for the recipients. At worst, the birth would fail completely, and the void would race backward in time until it consumed everything. Every year they laid in the past granted another year in the present, like sliding a block into the bottom row of a tower of blocks.

“I better go in. Should have gotten decaf,” she said with a grimace at her half-finished coffee.

She’d forgotten how snug the tubes were (or maybe they hadn’t been so snug when she’d been a young volunteer). Yasamin shut the canopy, then held up two fingers. Two minutes. Iona shivered as the neural uplink plugged into the back of her head.

She fell into the dream in the span of a blink. Wind whipped at her naked body as she plunged through clouds into open sky. A vast canyon sprawled below, sprinkled with cities and monsters. Starships roared overhead, launching small craft to intercept fleets of flying wooden galleons. On the horizon roared an enormous hurricane. The shared dreamscape built by the hundred volunteers.

Marko Bran fell screaming alongside her, his body vague and shimmery, barely clinging to sleep. Iona reached out to grasp his hand. His screaming trailed off, and he looked over at her with a groan.

Marko said, “I’m screwing it all up, aren’t I?”

“Absolutely,” said Iona. “I mean, look at this. The naked falling dream? Come on.”

Marko’s eyes blinked fast, fighting back tears. “I knew I shouldn’t have volunteered. I can’t think of anything! I’m not creative like all of you!”

“It’s not about you, Marko. Look.”

To their left, a great silver cord had begun to stretch from the earth, reaching toward the sky. Iona guided them closer, and it was a thick bundle of metal cables. It inched toward the stratosphere as someone far below weaved it from dreamstuff.

“Is that a space elevator?” Marko asked. “I saw one when I was a kid, before the void.”

The cable wavered and began to tip. “Whoever’s building it isn’t having much luck,” said Iona. “An incomplete memory, maybe.”

“No!” Marko cried. He stretched out an arm and caught the end of the cable. It began to fray in his hands.

“What does it need, Marko?” Iona asked.

He stared, face tight with concentration. “A cabin. And propulsion.”

Marko closed his eyes, his mouth working silently. Mathematical formulas began to glow in the air, and a shape slowly coalesced around them. It was a simple steel box with sliding doors on one side. But it was enough, holding fast around the disintegrating tip of the cable.

Whoever was working on the ground must have seen Marko’s efforts — more cable spooled up to coil inside the cabin.

“You were saying something about propulsion?” Iona said with a smile. She pried open the doors, and Marko gasped. A pair of dragons, ridden by volunteers, swooped in to grasp the sides of the cabin. Powerful wings beat against the sky, and the cabin rose.

“It’s not just you in here, Marko,” Iona said. “Our salvation lies in solidarity and cooperation. Nobody’s imagination is deficient. Nobody is alone.”

Marko went back to work, constructing a geared mechanism to keep the cable flowing smoothly through the collar in the bottom of the floor. He grinned as it sprouted artistic flourishes and brass knobs.

Iona triggered her admin privileges and snapped back into reality with a gasp.

“You work that magic, lady,” Yasamin said as Iona rose from the pod. “Seconds to spare!”

“He just needed a pep talk,” Iona told her.

Something began to coalesce in the incubation chamber.

“We’ve got birth!” Yasamin smiled. “Wooooo!”

The new year formed in the incubator, nourished by the dreams of a nearly vanished humanity. Nobody knew exactly what a year looked like — only what their meager human brains interpreted through the machine’s lens. For Iona, it was a universe full of galaxies, whirling stars, and planets. A universe full of life.

“Chronal coordinates fixed,” Iona said. “We have 2016 ready to go.”

“Good luck, primitives of the 21st century!” Yasamin cried. She punched the big button, and the machine vented the newly birthed year through its tubes and into the past, exactly at midnight. Outside, the crowds cheered, another year of survival guaranteed.

Alexander Burns lives in Denton, Texas, and writes because he doesn’t have a basement in which to build robots or time machines. His work has appeared at Every Day Fiction, The Future Fire, Big Pulp, and other fine online journals.

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Rate this story:
 average 3.9 stars • 41 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • What a tremendous vehicle for letting imagination imagine itself. I like this a lot – or I would if I weren’t just slightly suspicious it’s not fiction …

  • Joseph Kaufman

    The building of a Year — sort of reminded me of “Cabin in the Woods”, though this was obviously not horror. Absolutely loved the dragons pulling a space elevator, that was fantastic imagery.

    Not quite as fond of “verisimilitude engines”… I am not a vocabulary expert, but all my research points to “verisimilitude” being a noun that means “the appearance or semblance of truth.” In context, though, it is used as an adjective describing the engines. Am I missing something? Even the adjectival form of the word (verisimilar) doesn’t quite click. Perhaps a word like “multitudinous” was being reached for instead? (If the author would like to weigh in, I can make changes to the online story…)

    • Can’t it be a ‘semblance of truth’ engine in the spirit of the infinite improbability drive? I must say it caused me no problem, I rather like the judicious re-purposing of words especially when they bend your mind a bit!

    • It’s actually used here simply as the name of the engine, not so much an adjective.

      • Paul A. Freeman

        ‘Verisimilitude’ is used quite correctly as a modifying noun as in “shoe shop”. Its job is that of an adjective, therefore we can’t have “shoes shop” or “shoes shops”. Just saying.

      • Joseph Kaufman

        Ah, gotcha. I suppose that works! Thanks for clarifying…

    • Chris Antenen

      I looked it up, too, Joseph, and decided that the word was used differently in choosing a descriptive name for the engines because they were not real.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Well–sorry. This felt like an idea dreaming it was a story…
    Fantasy sci fi is a tricky blend and if not properly mixed, the engines will sputter out fast. Incubating a year of collective dreams is a nifty concept, but giving us an actual incubator and some sort of fuzzy corporeal “birth” just doesn’t work.

    Shoehorning “2016” as a conjured year into a story set, presumably, mighty far in the future just felt like, you know, shoehorning…two stars.

    • Carl Steiger

      I’d rate it higher than you did, but I’m also feeling that a lot of the elements here just don’t fit well together. It was when I read the reference to decaf coffee at what seems to be the end of the cosmos that I just said, “nah…”

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        The coffee at the beginning did it for me…

        Cheers, Carl, and Happy New Year to you and yours…

        …and to everyone here, running, writing for and reading EDF.

        • If we lose coffee in the future… I can’t… No… It’s horrible… Stop it!


          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            Not to worry. We’re getting rid of entropy instead…

          • But that might absolve the need for coffee. We need both. 🙂

    • Could you qualify that, Sarah, and say that it doesn’t work for you? It’s a personal view after all.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        I’m not an Alien Overlord or Queen of the Universe, Suzanne, and I think most fellow commenters recognize I always speak for myself, and am not pronouncing any variety of Prime Directive to which anyone else must bow.

  • Michael Stang

    There was a spark of light felt when Iona was helping Marko, but besides that I was pretty much clueless. Sci-Fi needs roots that run deep under a fertile field. Fantasy should boil with larger than life. There was nothing for me to hang on to.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Total confusion for me, I’m afraid. The curse of the eggnog strikes again. Perhaps 1000 words isn’t enough for a story on this scale with such a complex scenario.

  • It got to the halfway point before I ever felt like I ‘might’ have an idea of what was going on. It is flash, so we have to sacrifice something for a story to fit into the word count.

    The clarity of what the ‘present’ of Yasamin and Iona really throws me. Are they in the future building a past that would have already existed? Paradoxical at best. Many time related SciFi stories have these issues.

    Thanks for the story and *plop* Happy New year!

  • This was written well enough to engross me in the scene, and what I saw was vivid and really not that complex. I often find myself lost and confused in sci-fi flash, but not here. I rather liked the idea of birthing a year created by the dreams of people. I found it to be very clever. And the scene when she went in to help the troubled dreamer was just great.

    Some of the word choice was a little odd to me, and the ending–even though it was expected–felt a bit flat to me. Otherwise, I enjoyed this light New Year’s Eve story.

    Thanks for sharing, and Happy New Year!

  • JAZZ

    I studied under the late Joseph Skvorecky. It was my privelege to do so, and I was extremely lucky to get Into his class. He was the most gentlest of men and it became immediately obvious that he was completely devoted to his craft and that he wanted to teach and inspire others in this wonderful world of make-believe. I telll you this because his message to us was “It’s all about once upon a time”….it’s all about story-telling. It’s not about the right adjective/noun/verb….its about the people, the story, the happily-ever-after…..or tragic ending. It’s about the guts of the story, and if you miss that then………well, you got caught up on the wrong thing….

    • Paul A. Freeman

      Shouldn’t that be ‘the gentlest’ or ‘the most gentle’, not ‘the most gentlest’ because once upon a time it was decided that languages need rules to aid comprehension? It was my privilege to teach myself grammar and learn how to incorporate correct English usage (poetic licence excepted) in my storytelling.

      By the way, my latest published short story, ‘The Simple Procedure’, appears in ‘The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories’, published by Constable and Robinson in the U.K. and Running Press in the U.S. – the book has a nice orange and yellow cover, too.

      • 🙂

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        🙂 !

      • JAZZ

        So what you are basically saying, Paul, is that only reviewers with a total command of the English language need submit. This would eliminate many people for whom English is not their first language. Pity..!

        • Paul A. Freeman

          Nowhere have I ever said that only native speakers of English should submit to EDF. What a cheap shot that is.

          • You’re right, you didn’t. But I think the point here is that while picking over the grammar/spelling and the like in a published piece is fair game, applying the same rules to comments may be a bit harsh and could put people off if they felt unable to meet those standards. If we do that, we stifle opinion and EDF is one of the few places where opinion gets a good airing. Not that we always like what it says!

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            I think, Suzanne, that Paul was pointing out the absurdity of emphasizing–not for the first time–a claim to qualifications to critique others’ comments based on advanced studies with a renowned teacher, and not quite supported by the evidence in written samples provided …

            Further documentation of a certain inability to muster cogent argument has been thoughtfully provided below…

          • That isn’t the point I was responding to, what people choose to say about themselves is their own business. This was about the implications of scrutinising comments as if they were editorially curated publications.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            ADDENDUM to already posted comment:

            I will further say, Suzanne, that it took me a couple of years as reader/author on EDF to truly value Paul’s perspective. His responses to many of my stories drove me nuts.

            But he became one of the people I missed most during my time away in the wilderness. It’s one thing to use words. It’s quite another, and much rarer, to love and value and cherish their infinite layers of meaning and to consider each one worthy of time and thought, in all of one’s writing, and reading.

          • I’m not sure what you expect me to say to that.

          • Paul A. Freeman

            I knew Najib Mahfouz, so obviously I’m more qualified to talk about writing than anyone else. Therefore everyone’s expected to nod their heads in agreement since you’re all obviously overly impressed.

      • Joseph Kaufman

        I think this branch of the thread has gone on lone enough. It is of no service to the author or the craft of writing as far as I can discern.

    • Joseph Kaufman

      Jazz, I like your story, and have to say I agree with it, for the most part.

      But I was one of the folk who “missed” a certain word and had a question about it. Are you saying I shouldn’t have queried about that? Sometimes I have a problem understanding what exactly you are trying to say. Can you elaborate what “wrong thing” I got “caught up” in?

      Can you say something of more substance so that we can grab on to something and understand where you are coming from?

      • JAZZ

        JESUS WEPT

        • Joseph Kaufman

          That doesn’t really have any more substance, so any more posts like these will simply be deleted.

          I posted my response to you as a moderator, trying to give you the benefit of the doubt as to the point of your comment. Responding with “JESUS WEPT” nullifies that benefit.

      • I’m not sure what’s going on, but I want to be clear that JAZZ isn’t me, the author of the story.

        • Joseph Kaufman

          Alexander, I apologize if my use of “story” made it sound like I was referring to your published work. I edited my comment to make clear I was referring to JAZZ’s anecdote about interpreting fiction.

  • Chris Antenen

    My, what a long and interesting discussion among really smart people. I know I learned something, but since Sci Fi is the last genre (Oh, how I hate that word! It’s almost as bad as per se.) on my list, I have to work hard to critique. This was a joy, but my admission that Sci Fi is not my thing may make my evaluation valued less than I’d like it to be, but since we seem to be into critiquing the critiques . . . as my grandson says, “Whatever.”

    The visuals were exquisite and the humor woven deftly “The naked falling dream? Come on.” Also triggering her ‘admin privileges’ was funny to me. I have a computer that only I use, and each time I buy a new one, I have to make sure I have ‘admin privileges.’

    There were so many ideas that spurred exotic pseudo-life on earth events: fraying cables, flying dragons – HP, birthing a nation, brass knobs, and ‘nobody is alone.’

    I’ve always been ‘about the story’ when evaluating a flash. This was a story and it drew in this non-believer. Bravo 5 stars. Writing was superb. I was there.

    I guess I should have subtracted one because the references to coffee left me cold.

  • Von

    I thought this quite lovely. Iona comes across as strong, heroic, kind of humorous, a character I’d thoroughly enjoy reading about again. Marko, too, was well imagined. This is the second New Year’s story I’ve read today, and the two mirror each other in their themes of solidarity and cooperation, yet each author approached them quite differently. I like to think/wish that many writers are thinking along the same lines for 2016, and as we know, writers CAN change the world. Perhaps we can change it before the need for such extreme measures is necessary. Happy New Year!

  • Sheila Good

    Although sic-fi is not a genre I profess to read often, I found this story delightful. The imagery was vivid and the concept engaging. A new year birthed from our imaginations and the “novel” idea we all have them – excellent. I found the story intriguing and inspirational. Thanks Alexander for sharing.

  • Erin

    I really enjoyed the story. Fun and great images with a neat twist. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  • Well this is a story of imagination all right. I enjoyed reading it.