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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