The universe is dangerous, wondrous—a vast canvas upon which humanity sketches its hopes for the future.
In this anthology, you'll find seventeen tales of conflict and heroism, exploration and discovery, endurance and triumph. Flee the apocalypse of modern-day Earth, fly a fighter in the cold emptiness of deep space, and find new life on the distant shores of an alien world. You might even discover something about yourself as each author opens a window on the soul of mankind. Who are we, really? Should we survive? How do we become something greater without losing what makes us human?
Open this collection and take your first steps into tomorrow. Travel the cosmos to find amazing adventure. Walk beside unforgettable characters on the bridge across the stars...
Featuring a Foreword by Kevin J. Anderson
- David VanDyke - "As the Sparks Fly Upward"
- Ann Christy - "Peace Force"
- Felix R. Savage - "Scrapyard Ship"
- Lindsay Buroker - "Here Be Dragons"
- Chris Dietzel - "The Gordian Asteroid"
- Craig Martelle - "The Trenches of Centauri Prime"
- Josi Russell - "Broken One"
- Chris Pourteau - "The Erkennen Job"
- Daniel Arenson - "The Firebug and the Pharaoh"
- Rhett C. Bruno - "Interview for the End of the World"
- Steve Beaulieu - "Night Shift"
- Lucas Bale - "A Friend to Man"
- Jason Anspach - "...Space Pirates"
- Will McIntosh - "Drive"
- Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff - "Water Babies"
- David Bruns - "Take Only Memories"
- Patty Jansen - "This Deceitful State of Truth"
"This is an excellent anthology which I thoroughly enjoyed... Hours of fun for less than the price of a coffee."– Sfcrowsnest
"The stories in this anthology, however, work perfectly together and demonstrate the true power of short fiction anthologies - providing you with a vast field of authors across different styles but each writing to their strengths."– Amazon Reviewer
"This collection flows smoothly from one story to the next, and I had a hard time putting the ebook down. I know it is a good book when I find my daydreams reliving and expanding on the story in the book. I highly recommend this collection to any Sci Fi fan"– Amazon Reviewer
Interview for the end of the World
Rhett C. Bruno
142 Hours Until Impact…
"Come in," I said.
My office door creaked open. A security guard ushered in the Titan Project's next candidate. I quickly downed the remnants of a glass of lukewarm whiskey in my liver-spotted hand to calm my mind, then placed it down behind my computer screen. The guard and I exchanged a nod and he bowed out of the room, leaving myself, and the candidate, alone.
He didn't make it more than a step before he stopped to stare out of my window at the tremendous spaceship docked in the center of my compound. It was the pinnacle of my illustrious technical career which had left me one of the richest men on the planet. At least until a massive asteroid was discovered hurtling toward Earth with no intention of stopping, and money became as useless as the paper it was printed on. People had given it a number of creative nicknames like "The Devil's Fist," or "Ragna-Rock," but in my opinion there was no reason to call it anything different than what it was. The end of Earth as we knew it.
"Congratulations on making it this far, Mr.—" I hesitated at his name. I'd conducted thousands of interviews by then and was beginning to lose count. I glanced at the already opened resume on my computer. He was Frank Drayton. Twenty-seven years old and he was already a world-renowned horticulturalist. Not the most exciting job, but a very necessary addition for a colony on a hostile world. He was marked for likely acceptance, but nobody got a spot in the Titan Project without me looking them in the eyes first.
"Drayton," I finished.
He blinked as if waking from a dream and hurried over to my desk. "Director Darien Trass. You can't even begin to understand how much of an honor it is to meet you," he said. He extended a trembling hand.
I shook it without standing. It was as clammy as a teenage boy's on a first date so I quickly let go. "I'd prefer we'd never have to meet at all, Mr. Drayton," I said.
His lips twisted and his gaze turned downward. He said nothing.
"Relax," I said. "I only wish the world's circumstances were different." I gestured toward the hard, plastic chair set on the other side of my desk. "Please, sit. "
He released a string of low, panicked laughs as he sat down. His index finger immediately started tapping on the arm of the chair. I took that moment to study him. Heavy beads of sweat rolled down his forehead and he was in desperate need of a shave. The loose-fitting suit he wore could have used the attention of a decent tailor. Not that I could judge him for that. There were probably none left open on Earth to visit.
I wasn't surprised by any of it. It was the same situation with almost every candidate who entered my office. After all, it's not every day a human being has to interview for a chance to escape the end of the world.
"Now," I began. "There's very little time left, so let's try to keep this as brief as possible. In this room your accomplishments are no longer in question. Extraordinary as they may be, they are no more impressive than the thousands of others who have stepped through that door. You're here, Mr. Drayton, so that I can find out who you are."
"I…" He swallowed and took another deep breath. His finger stopped tapping, and then he looked me directly in the eyes for the first time and said: "I understand."
"Good. I presume my assistant, Kara, already briefed you on the Project and showed you around the compound?"
"She did." He looked back through the window. "I didn't realize how big the ship was until I got up here though."
"Not big enough," I lamented.
This time I joined him in staring at the colossal ship propped on the opposite side of my half-mile-wide compound away from all the buildings. It had the appearance of a tapered skyscraper wrapped in bowed metal plates. The final layers of radiation shielding were being installed by a carefully selected workforce before its imminent departure, when the only plasmatic pulse drives ever to be used non-experimentally would allow it to reach Saturn in two years.
Mr. Drayton was awestruck, but the view made me want to crawl inside a bottle. It's not that I wasn't proud of the ship, but the pale mark in the blue sky above it—the asteroid growing closer every day to becoming a meteorite—was where my gaze always tended to wander. There, and at the horde of people camped out in the desert on the other side of the twenty-foot-tall concrete wall surrounding the compound, hoping to earn a spot onboard. Armed security drones swept the area to keep them at bay along with the many security officers posted along it.
Mr. Drayton turned back to me. "How many can it hold?"
"The ship. How many people can it hold?"
"Three thousand," I stated. "Four hundred and six spots have already been filled by my remaining staff. Individual accomplishments aside, I assure you that they had to meet the same, stringent criteria as candidates such as yourself. They're all that remains of Trass Industries. It felt wrong to ask anyone to help me construct the Titan Project without guaranteeing them a spot on it."
The conditions for selection were simple, at least in that they eliminated more than ninety-nine percent of humanity. Other than having to bear an appreciable level of expertise in a field that would benefit the new world, the simplest requirement was that every candidate had to be between eighteen and thirty-five years old. They also had to be in optimal physical health and clear of all chronic diseases. Kara administered the physicals, and nobody who failed ever made it through my door. Those who remained untethered by marriage were preferred, since their significant others would have to meet the same conditions. Lastly, anyone with young children was eliminated. There were fears on my research team that an underdeveloped body would be ravaged by the trip through zero-g. I also wasn't keen on taking anybody willing to leave their offspring to die alone.
"Three thousand…" Mr. Drayton muttered after a lengthy silence.
"Yes," I said. "No more, no less. Every traveler will be kept in a state-of-the-art hibernation chamber for the duration of the two-year journey. The low activity state will allow us to conserve the limited resources we're able to bring until we can establish an operating colony on Titan. It's my job to whittle the list of more than one million suitable candidates to that minuscule number. Sneak in one extra and I might as well invite the mob camped outside of my compound."
He glanced nervously back out of the window. "Are those really all candidates?" he asked. "Everyone I passed out there claimed to have met with you."
"Not all of them. You can thank whichever rejected candidate decided to break our non-disclosure agreement and leak what was going on here for that. I had to promise fifty spots on board to some of the finest soldiers in the world in order to keep the project safe. We're lucky we're in the middle of the Arizona desert; otherwise I'd need even more."
"It wasn't easy getting out here with all of the airlines shut down, that's for sure. It took me a day just to find a gas station that wasn't abandoned or torn apart."
"Yes … I suppose I was crazy for thinking I could keep the Titan Project safe from the widespread, doomsday hysteria."
Ever since the leak, I couldn't even leave the Trass Industries Compound without being hounded or having my life threatened. Rich, poor, it didn't matter. People had begun to realize that the united efforts of governments around the world to divert the asteroid were futile, and that the only way to ensure survival was to leave Earth behind. There were other corporations developing space-stations that would orbit our homeworld or attempting to establish colonies on the moon. But with so many people being crammed onto them, an unpredictable percentage would likely suffocate before their populations leveled out to suit their life-support systems. The safety of my compound was indebted to a majority of Earth choosing to camp outside of those projects rather than crave a trip to an uninhabitable moon millions of miles away.
I sighed. "It doesn't matter anymore. In a week the asteroid will hit, and we'll be on our way to the freezing plains of Titan."
"Why not Mars, or Europa, or anywhere else closer? Your message didn't say."
"As you well know there is no second Earth in our solar system, Mr. Drayton. I chose based on potential. There is a wealth of resources and fuel on both Titan and Saturn which will make generating enough energy to stay warm relatively simple once we're able to repurpose the ship into a settlement. The thick atmosphere also removes the issue of radiation from the list of concerns. We'll need all the help we can get. Establishing renewable sources of food on any world not meant for life will take time."
For the first time since our meeting, Mr. Drayton's eyes glinted with the confidence of a man who had risen to the top of his field. "I think I can help with that," he boasted.
"I've met with three other candidates who claimed the same," I countered. I held up my finger before he could offer another predictable response. He slouched into the chair and allowed me to continue. "As I indicated earlier, your accomplishments are no longer in question. It was only your highly scrutinized thesis on vertical farming at Cornell that encouraged me to reach out to you as a candidate. I appreciate boldness. I can design all of the spaceships and facilities I want to, but without food they'll be little more than oversized, metal tombs."
Mr. Drayton sat up. "You read that?"
"I don't take this task lightly, Mr. Drayton. I'm always thorough with my research."
"Of course you are." He leaned forward and wrapped his hands around the rounded edge of my desk. "I've read all of your work," he said. "Your 2021 paper about how you pioneered your zero-emissions, automated vehicular network to reduce traffic and eliminate accidents in Detroit was … well it was life-changing."
I raised an eyebrow. "Life-changing. That's new. Though it all seems rather trivial compared to what we're working on here, doesn't it?"
All of the color drained from Mr. Drayton's cheeks. I could see his lips twitching ever so slightly as his brain struggled to come up with a response that wouldn't make him seem more foolish.
"I appreciate the compliment," I intervened. I folded my hands on my lap and established direct eye-contact with him. "Okay, as long I've answered all of your questions, I'm going to ask you a few of my own. I want you to be as honest as possible."
He nodded. His finger started to tap the arm of his chair again, but he held my gaze.
"Okay," I said. "Your information states that you're not married and don't have children. Do you currently have any manner of significant other?"
Mr. Drayton shifted in his seat. "Not for about two years," he said, clearly perturbed. "Divorced."
"Ah. I have had plenty of those walk through these doors, eager to get away. It'll get easier with time."
He exhaled. "I hope."
I turned to my screen for a moment, trying to make it look like I was reading something so I didn't rush things. After countless interviews it was difficult for them not to feel rehearsed. "So, where were you when you heard about the asteroid?" I asked.
He continued looking in my direction, though his stare grew unfocused. I could read the struggle all over his face.
"Mr. Drayton?" I said.
"Sorry." He shook his head and reestablished eye contact. "I was with my ex-wife. I suppose you could say we didn't agree over why the asteroid is going to hit Earth. She turned her complete attention to our church and trying to repent for her sins so God might reconsider his judgment. It was like she completely forgot about our…" He paused. It took him a few seconds to gather himself so that he could continue. "Anyway, I tried to go along with it while I could, but eventually I decided that I'd rather take a chance at living."
"We all responded differently." I remained indifferent on the why's. The only thing in the world that mattered to me after I found out that a rogue asteroid the size of Texas had somehow been re-routed toward Earth was getting humanities best and brightest off it. A branch of Trass Industries had been focused on commodifying space-travel at the time, so it seemed like a logical transition … my next real challenge after effectively eliminating car accidents throughout the United States.
"I'm glad you didn't hesitate," Mr. Drayton said. "You were the only one smart enough to consider running far away from this place before wasting time on anything else."
"The value of a clean slate is lost on many of my peers."
He was handling himself well enough, so I decided it was time to find out what I really wanted to know. I stared at my computer for a few seconds, again so I didn't seem impatient, and then asked, "Why should I choose you to join this venture to our new world?"
Mr. Drayton leaned back and took a deep breath. "Because I've dedicated my life to understanding living things, sir," he said. "We'll need much of the life we take for granted here to blossom if we ever hope to make Titan feel like a new home."
I used my hand to mask a slight grin. There was no doubt he'd practiced that answer in a mirror plenty of times, but I could tell by his eyes that he meant it. It was one of my favorite responses yet. Most candidates couldn't help but list their achievements or mention their will to survive.
"Well said," I admitted. "I think I've heard everything I need to. Thank you, Mr. Drayton." The interview was briefer than usual, but after administering thousands I could size people up quickly. "Please proceed to the waiting area. I will personally inform you of my decision as soon as possible. If you are accepted, you'll be escorted to the safety of an on-site dormitory where you will remain until the Titan Project departs at exactly 8:00 AM on September 30, 2031. Six days from now. If you aren't … Well then Mr. Drayton, I hope you're able to find peace in whatever way suits you."
I stood and extended my hand. He immediately sprung to his feet, almost slipping, and grabbed it.
"Thank you, sir," he said twice as he shook it vehemently. "At least, either way, I'll have accomplished my dream of meeting you."
I released his hand and allowed myself to visibly crack a business-like smile. "Good day, Mr. Drayton."
He backed away slowly, his eyes darting between myself and the Titan Project out the window as he did. Then the door opened and one of my security officers came through. He placed his hand on Mr. Drayton's shoulder and escorted him out of the office.
As soon as he was gone I slumped back into my chair and exhaled. Even the good interviews took a lot out of me. I closed out of his information on my computer, and the screen reverted to my list of candidates. I had to strain my eyes just to keep all the text from looking like one big blob. Like Mr. Drayton, I'd selected every single one of them. There were doctors, theoreticians, physicists, engineers, artists, self-made billionaires and anything else you could imagine, from every country around the globe.
I scrolled down the list. As many as there were, I could remember the face of everyone I'd talked to—accepted or rejected. I always did it personally, though with a cohort of armed guards for rejections, since there was no telling what desperate people would do. Only four hundred interviews remained as I checked off Mr. Drayton. Five of those were experts in the same field as Mr. Drayton who were coming in later that day—so I couldn't be sure if he made the cut yet or not—but I had a good feeling about him.
Ninety-three more were all I could take. With barely a week left until the doomsday clock struck zero, I knew I was cutting it close. But I had to be meticulous. I owed them all that much at least.
Before I could scroll down to the next candidate on my list, an email popped in the bottom right corner of my screen. I didn't recognize the sender, but the subject read: TAKE MY SON AND YOU WON'T REGRET IT. I forwarded it to my junk folder, where thousands of similar emails remained in purgatory.
"If only I could," I whispered.
I reached under my desk to grab a half-empty bottle of whiskey and refill the glass sitting by my keyboard. It was the only thing I could do to quiet the voices of everyone I was planning to reject from bouncing around in my head. I was inches away from having a much-needed sip when my door swung open.
My assistant, Kara, froze in the entrance. Her expression soured when she noticed the glass in my hand. She'd been with me since her parents died in a car accident and left her an orphan at only ten years old. My company was working on implementing the automated vehicle network at the time, so I legally adopted her. At first it was simply a publicity stunt, and then I fell in love with her.
I always found myself shocked when I realized what a beautiful, intelligent young woman she'd grown into. She had the brains to take over Trass Industries from me one day, and if not for the asteroid, I'm sure she would've.
"I thought I told you to knock?" I grumbled. I didn't mean to take such a harsh tone with her, but the whiskey's pungent aroma was wafting around my nostrils and all I wanted was a drink.
"I did. Three times," she said, unable to take her eyes off of my glass. I was glad she didn't comment on it for once. I had too much on my mind without worrying about disappointing her again.
"Oh... Is everything alright?"
"Fine. I just wanted to let you know that your next appointment is almost ready. She just passed her physical."
"You could have buzzed me." I noticed her eyes drift away from the glass in my hand and scan the entirety of my messy office. "Checking up on me again?"
"It's almost five." She took a few long strides into my office and picked up a pile of loose papers. "You need to eat, dad."
"I'll find time for that eventually," I said.
She bit her lip, but decided to move on. "How did Mr. Drayton do?" she asked.
"You know I can't tell you yet." I never allowed her or anyone else to be involved in my decisions. Truthfully, I didn't even want her to have the burden of knowing their names, but I couldn't run both the interviews and the physicals all by myself.
She stopped cleaning and looked at me. "I can help you if you'll let me," she said. "I've met thousands of candidates. I know what you're looking for."
I shook my head. Out of the corner of my eye I could see someone in the desperate crowd beyond the fence of my compound standing on the back of a truck and flashing a sign large enough for me to read: LET ME IN. "No," I said. "It's my responsibility and mine alone."
"It doesn't have to be. You're not Noah, you know. There are hundreds of us who've been here with you every step of the way."
"Don't make the mistake of thinking this is anything like some fable, Kara," I scolded. "His task was easy. The animals he marched two by two couldn't speak to him. They couldn't beg, or offer their billions for a spot. They couldn't send in pictures of their children who now have less than seven days left to live!" I slapped the glass off my desk. Kara yelped when it shattered on the floor. I went still.
For a moment neither of us made a sound. Layer upon layer of silence folded over each other until the tension in the air had my neck itching.
"I'm sorry," I said.
I bent over from my chair and started picking up the pieces until I felt her slender hand fall upon my shoulder. Immediately, my racing heart began to slow. She had a way of calming me which I'll never understand.
"I didn't mean to upset you," she said.
"It's not you."
"I just want to help as much as I can."
I patted her hand. "You are. More than you'll ever know." I stared into her bright green eyes. "It's not because I don't trust you, Kara."
"Every person I say yes to just means there's another one who won't be coming. I can run across the solar system to Titan, but I'll have to remember everyone who sat across from me and didn't make the cut. I'll hear their voices and see their faces every time I close my eyes. You don't deserve to have that on your conscience."
By the end of my venting, Kara was sitting beside me on my desk, the brow of her freckled face furrowed. "And you do?"
"Better me alone than all of us." I forced a smile. "Now, I think I'll take you up on that dinner offer. Why don't you pick something up for us from the café? We can eat after my next appointment." I'd been sick of the food in my compound for months, but since we were in the middle of the Arizona desert and I couldn't leave, options were limited.
"I'm on it." She started toward the exit, then stopped and glanced back at the wet spot on the floor. "Would you like me to pick you out another bottle?" she asked.
I didn't have to work hard to smile after hearing that. "Make it two," I said. "It will be a long week."
"Don't push it. I'll have security send the next candidate in on my way down."
"Thank you, Kara."
The door shut behind her, and I got to my feet and stretched my old legs. I spent so much time in my chair that sometimes I wondered if I'd pass the physical necessary to make it onto the Titan Project. I stepped over the spill and opened a cabinet where I kept more glasses. I grabbed one and held it up to the light. The bottom was a little dusty, but it was clean enough. I carried it back to my desk and filled it until the whiskey bottle was empty.
There were three knocks at my door as I sat back down, along with another email on my computer begging me to take somebody. I closed my eyes and took as long of a sip as I could handle. When I was done, I wiped my mouth and pulled up the next candidate's information. Jillian Stark was a nuclear physicist who worked directly beside a Nobel Prize winner back when that was a thing people cared about.
"Come in," I said.