The Planets Series – Saturn

I sat alone in the small, dark cockpit large enough to fit one average sized person and no more. My senses tingled as the lights on the dashboard blinked yellow and orange in my peripheral vision. I dipped my head to look left, then right, through the side windscreens of my pod at 2 of my opponents. It gave me some small sense of relief to see that each of them looked as nervous as I felt.

My ear piece crackled to life giving me a jump. My AI co-pilot, VAHMIS (Vehicle and Human Maintenance Internal System), advised me that the race would commence in 2 minutes time and that he had began warming the engines. The large transparent bag strapped to the right hand side of my seat expanded with a dark yellow as I involuntarily emptied my bladder for what felt like the hundredth time since I’d climbed in the pod. I compulsively checked to make sure my feeding tube was plugged in correctly above me then sat back to take in the view in front of me.

2 or so clicks (km’s) ahead of me stood the enormous, terrifying black void. Only the twinkle of star light and the shining of 2 or so of Saturn’s 62 moons provided a hint of illumination ahead. The mixture of the gritty brown and icy white track below me seemed to be swallowed up by the darkness as it disappeared off into the distance.

This was it. I’d literally dedicated my life to this moment. 12 participants. 550,000 miles. 1 lap. I would be navigating this icy, rocky terrain for a period of 2 days (or slightly less I hoped). But the navigation was only half the battle. The other, arguably tougher test, was the mental game. Confining yourself to a small box with only a computerised voice in your ear for company and carrying out all bodily functions through tubes was not everyone’s idea of a good time. It was all I had dreamed of since I was kid.

In the 3 days previous I had embarked on an intensive stretching routine for 4-6 hours a day. This would allow my body to settle come crunch time. I’d also went through 2 hours daily digestive therapy involving a number of terrifyingly huge needles. This would provide me with a specially developed serum to relieve my body of all requirement to sleep for the following 72 hours, maintaining my optimal functionality for what was to come. The reported after-effects weren’t pretty – a migraine on steroids mixed with temporary paralysis of the body – but these were the sacrifices those at the very top of their field required to make and I was more than ready to make them.

“30 seconds” crackled VAHMIS. As the familiar cranking, whirring and whooshing of machinery and engine fire burst into life my small pod raised itself slightly above the track until it hovered a metre or so in the air. Following my pre-race routine, I slipped in my gum shield to avoid crushing my teeth during the initial acceleration and then commanded VAHMIS to commence playing my personally devised playlist. An aggressive, thumping bassline filled the space around me and vibrated through my whole body. I watched the lights above me begin their ten step sequence to indicate the start and bit down hard on my gum shield.

As they hit green I slammed both feet down onto the accelerator and planted them as hard as I could. My teeth bit down even harder on the protective shield in my mouth whilst my head and neck slammed back against my chair. Pinned there for a number of minutes I began to panic as blood poured onto the panel in front of me. On cue, VAHMIS indicated to me over the pounding bass that I was experiencing a number of ruptured blood vessels in my face but it was not a risk to retaining normal physical or mental functions. Great.

I felt a slow trickle of relief as the initial rush of acceleration eased and I settled into a steady pace on the shoulder of the defending champion who had evidently elected to make himself the pacemaker. I could see on my screen that one pod had already crashed out, disappearing wildly off the pod’s radar as their name was dramatically scratched from the digital leaderboard. 11 of us remained.

With 499,000 miles to go, I spat my bloody gum shield out, checked my vehicles’ vitals across the panels in front of me and slowly began to settle my nerves.

The annual F Ring Endurance Grand Prix around Saturn had begun.

The Game

Sam Thompson removed his jar of coffee and ‘Mr Grumpy’ Mr Men mug, placing it on the cabinet above him then emptied his pockets, placing his phone, wallet and keys into his small locker.

Zombie-like he trudged through to the clinically white small kitchen area and filled his mug with boiling water from the communal urn. Slamming the fridge shut he spun round and filled his large mug up to the top with milk.

It was 8 weeks since Sam’s wife had given birth to their first child, Harry. The period of paternity leave had been dream-like as Sam and his wife Holly had existed in their own little bubble, changing nappies, sharing feeding responsibilities and making lots of tea and coffee for excited visitors. The little guy had quickly become the centre of their world and at times Sam couldn’t remember what life had been like before Harry had come along.

One thing he could remember, however, and had been fantasising about since Harry’s Moses basket had replaced his bedside table, was how good it had felt to wake up naturally after a sleep longer than 4 hours. He was happy to split the baby responsibilities with Holly, he wouldn’t have had it any other way, but he missed his bed. He missed a decent sleep.

“Hey Sammy boy!!! how goes it?”

Jack Fennel flew into the kitchen area like a cyclone, slamming cupboard doors, throwing his tupperware lunch into the fridge and spinning to look at his workmate.

“Aye, not bad Jacko, how’s you” muttered Sam. It was as auto-pilot a response as you could get. All over their office-space you heard variations of the same conversation. Pleasant morning greetings followed by hollow small talk as people started their days. One of these days someone will answer that question truthfully, thought Sam, and the person asking the question probably won’t like the answer.

“Excellenttyyyyy” Jack replied enthusiastically in a faux Spanish accent. He was a morning person, everyone in the office commented on it. As sure as it was likely to rain in Scotland’s capital city where they worked, you could guarantee Jack would be bright eyed and bushy tailed first thing in the morning.

“Well?” Jack prodded at Sam’s shoulders as he trudged from the kitchen to his desk. “Well??” he repeated. Sam, concentrating on the task of not spilling his coffee during the walk, ignored him and slumped down into his chair. He unlocked his computer and turned to look at Jack. “What are you saying pal?” he asked.

“Wellllll???” asked Jack, a giant smile on his face and jazz hands shaking directly in front of Sam’s tired eyes. “Did you watch the game last night? It was amazing! What a masterclass from Messi eh?”

Football had been Jack and Sam’s common interest when they’d both started together at the company on the same day. It was an easy conversation piece to break the ice and as much as Sam enjoyed watching games when he was younger, in recent years he’d fallen out of love with football.

The outrageous sums of money shelled out by British clubs who were predominantly owned by Russian oil barons and Saudi Prince’s to kick a ball about had left him soured. In a world where his newborn child’s children may not even have a planet to live on, he couldn’t swallow watching talentless athletes being paid £100k a week to flop and roll about on the floor feigning injury in an attempt to con their way to a victory.

If Sam had a fiver for every time he had been asked this question by Jack – “did you watch the game last night?” – he’d have been able to pay to take Harry and Holly to Disneyland for his 1st birthday.

Whenever he was asked about the game which had been on the previous night, Sam had politely feigned interest with enough vague knowledge of some of the players Jack was enthusing about to hold a convincing conversation. After 10 minutes of an expletive filled rant from Jack about the influence of Italian defending on the Chelsea back line, Sam would nod, shrug his shoulders and turn back to his computer. This, he had learned, would signal to Jack that the conversation was over and he’d bound across the office starting up the same conversation with whatever poor soul was stupid enough to make eye contact with him. He was like an energetic puppy. But even the cutest of puppies urinate on carpets and tear apart your brand new sofa.

They had been going through the motions of this conversation about ‘the game’ for 18 months now.

“I’m saying” replied Jack in a mocking tone “did you see the game? You must have surely?”

“Do you know me and Holly had a kid 8 weeks ago mate?” replied Sam.

Jack looked at him blankly. “Uh, yeah. Enough about babies though! That’s women’s chat!” he laughed. “Did you watch the footy last night?” He shrugged off Sams question and pursued his opportunity to wax lyrical about Argentina’s greatest gift to the beautiful game since Diego Maradona.

“No mate. I was in my bed by 8 o clock. Holly stayed up to do the late feed and then I was up again at 2am to feed Harry. I didn’t get back to bed until 5am so I’m really quite knackered. Do you mind if I just crack on here? I’ve got things to do and I really need this coffee.”

“You didn’t watch the game?” Jack said, his face contorted in disgust. “It was the Champions League semi finals, how could you not have watched it?” he was incredulous. It was as if Sam had said he’d went into town and beaten up a few homeless people then burned down an old folks home for good measure. Jack took a minute to let this information sink into his hyperactive brain.

“Sam” asked Jack sheepishly. “Yes, mate” Sam replied without looking up from his computer. “Did you really watch the game or are you having me on?”

Sam’s heart thumped in his chest as his blood bubbled to boiling point . His sleep deprived brain sent adrenaline flushing throughout his body. Jacks mouth gaped wide open as Sam’s mouse disintegrated in his bright red hand. He flopped back in his chair before Sam grabbed him by the badge-covered lapels of his jacket and screamed in his terrified face. “I. DIDN’T. WATCH. THE GAME. YOU. IMBECILE” he raged. “I’M TIRED AND JUST WANT SOME PEACE. PLEASE JUST SHUT YOUR MOUTH!!”

He threw Jack back down into his seat and stormed off to the kitchen area. Breathing hard, he filled his coffee cup, slowly coming to the realisation of what he’d just done. Four of his colleagues popped their head round the kitchen door to ask if he was OK and to congratulate him on finally shutting Jack up. He assured them he was fine and just needed five minutes. He wasn’t proud of himself for losing his cool and felt bad for Jack, who just wanted someone to chat to. He shuffled back round to his desk with the intention of apologising.

“Listen Jack” started Sam in a low voice, his head dipped in regret “I’m really sorry about that, I’m not sleeping well since..”

“It’s fine!” interrupted Jack, puppy-like excitement had returned to his face and he was smiling erratically at Sam. “Did you watch the game though? You must have!”

By the time the twinkling shards of glass from the 3rd floor window had stopped raining down around Jack’s lifeless body which lay contorted, leaking pools of scarlet on the car park below, Sam was in his car and already out of the office car park. He opened his window and flicked on the radio, allowing the breeze to cool his adrenaline sapped face.

“This is BBC Radio 5 Live.” said the soothing voice of the radio presenter. “So, Maureen, before I ask you about what weather we’ve got coming this weekend, I have to ask you…” “NO!” screamed Sam. “DON’T YOU DARE!!” he shrieked.

“….did you watch the game last night?”

The Book Assignment

After another round of aimlessly running his index finger along the dusty row of books, Thomas sighed and slumped down in the uncomfortable plastic chairs which were dotted around the school library. He was running out of time now, the library closed at 4pm and it was pushing 3.40pm. He had been here since lunch time and was yet to find anything he was remotely interested in.

Mr Graves had been clear about the assignment. Pick a non-fiction book, preferably an autobiography, written about someone you’ve never heard of. The 3 month assignment then required pupils to read the book, do some follow-up research then submit a report to Mr Graves about who the person was and what you’d learned about them. Tomorrow, Thomas would be required to tell Mr Graves the book title and subject, right now he was looking at failing the assignment before it had even began.

His friends had been so excited to come along to the library after class had finished. They were all having a great time picking out all sorts of weird and wonderful titles, laughing at the strange characters who adorned the front covers. Mrs Mayer, the head librarian, had warned them that if she’d heard anymore laughing and shouting when there were people trying to study they’d all be banned for a month. She explained to them in great length how she she’d happily tell Mr Graves why none of them could complete their next English assignment. As their heads dropped and they apologised in whispered grunts and shrugs, she returned to her task of stamping a large pile of returned books with a smug look of satisfaction on her face. This ticking off had resulted in the group grabbing books in the ‘biography’ section of the library at random and trudging out one after the other like a conga line of extras from Night of the Living Dead.

Thomas, though, couldn’t find anything that interested him. That’s why he’d decided to use his free afternoon to find something and someone he could get lost in. He had an obsessive behaviour type and he felt there was no use spending 3 months researching, reading and probably obsessing about someone if they’re as dull as dishwater.

Sat there, drifting off into thought, Thomas cursed Mr Graves. Why couldn’t they have done what his brothers class had done only 2 years ago? That would have been so much better. They had each got to pick a book and research someone they classed as their hero. Thomas’ brother, Barry, had ended up actually meeting his hero, footballer and infamous granny-botherer Wayne Rooney, after messaging him on the social media site Twitter to tell him all about the assignment.

These thoughts vanished suddenly as Thomas was jolted backed into the present when the library bell rang out to signal 3.45pm.

“15 minutes children! grab your books and bring them to me at the desk” announced Mrs Mayer.

She pursed her lips and seemed to be making a particular point of looking directly at Thomas. He acknowledged her with a nod of the head and pushed himself out of the small, uncomfortable chair. The plastic arms clung to his thighs as he tried to make his way out of it, almost as if to try to coerce him into sitting back down again. He shrugged it off and gave it a little kick back under the small desk.

He had been sat opposite the ‘autobiography’ section and as he stood up the pitch-black spine of a book caught his eye. It was tucked in between 2 brightly coloured books which each had small square pictures of their subject with bright, witty titles dancing down the sleeves. This one, however, was completely black. He placed his finger on the top of the spine and gently pulled it out, blowing the dust off the front cover. It was completely black. No title, no author – just black. He flipped it over to check out the blurb on the back, but to his surprise the back was the same as the front – completely blank, pitch black. This was clearly odd but it was also really intriguing to Thomas. The mysterious cover had drawn him in, he needed to find out more. His quiet surroundings and the ticking clock evaporated as all he was concerned with at that moment was opening the first page and finding out more. His eyes danced across the page as he took in the introduction.

“My name is Frank McQueen. I’m 25 years old and I’m a Newark native. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve walked up and down these streets my whole life, as a kid and as an adult. If you’ve lived here and walked these streets too, we’ve probably bumped into each other once or twice. But, you wouldn’t know me. I’m no-one. No-one has ever given me a second look. I’m a boring-looking average Joe. I look like every other dumb schmuck who sleepwalks his way through his life from being a gormless kid beat up at school to suffering through some dead end job to make ends meet. No-one will remember me. No-one.”

Wow, thought a dejected Thomas. That’s about as boring as it gets. That’s the dull dishwater he was looking to avoid. Mr Graves had said they should look for a book that would challenge them. Thomas thought the only thing challenging about this book would be staying awake to read it.

“Ouch!!” shrieked Thomas. Pain radiated between his shoulder blades as something piercing struck him and burrowed into his muscles. He spun, switching his focus from the words on the page of disappointing mystery book to the cause of the pain. Mrs Mayer was stood staring down at him, hands on her hips, lips pursed like she was sucking on a lemon with a solitary long red nail pointed directly at him.

“2 minutes Thomas.” she squawked. “Some of us have homes to go to you know.”

He looked down and realised, in his haste, he had dropped the black book at his feet when he had been prodded in the back by the stuffy librarian. As he reached down to pick the book up with the intention of disappointingly putting it back on the dusty shelf, he noticed it had landed open on the following page from where he had been reading. Putting Mrs Mayer and her oddly sharp, painted talons to the back of his mind, he read on.

“My name is Frank McQueen. I’m 25 years old and I’m a Newark native. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve walked up and down these streets my whole life, as a kid and as an adult. If you’ve lived here and walked these streets too, we’ve probably bumped into each other once or twice. If you’re a dirtbag, a scumbag peddling drugs to our kids or fancy yourself as some kind of kingpin, well we’ll have definitely bumped into each other. You’d know me. I’m the guy you met in the dark. The guy who made you rethink your career choices. I was your worst nightmare. I’m the man they called the New Jersey Devil and I stalked the streets of our great city from 1982 to 1987 wiping scum face-first from the earth. This is my story.”

“Wow” said Thomas out loud into the silent room. He grabbed his bag from his feet and ran to the check out desk. Mrs Mayer sucked her teeth and tutted as he snatched the book back from her and flew out the library door in a haze of excitement.

Wrestling With My Demons – The Mike ‘Miracle Man’ Morrison Story

The following is an excerpt from the controversial autobiography of professional wrestler Mike ‘Miracle Man’ Morrison. Get your copy in Hardback, in the Kindle Store or on Audiobook when it’s released 14 September 2019

Chapter 14 – Revival

The least expected revival in the wrestling business came at a time when I was sure I was done. I was a journeyman. 46 year old, living on the road 320 days a year. My kids were in school and I was missing out on them growing up, every time I’d get a text or a Facetime I’d be staring into two ever-growing, ever-changing faces. And they were staring into the face of an ever-aging, out of shape, has-been. Sure, whenever we rolled into Pittsburgh I’d see them but it was never for long enough. With both knees having been replaced, my right shoulder hanging on by a thread and the threat of another concussion looming over me, I’d almost made the decision to pack my bags and tell the company I was done after Ring Revolution, our year end PPV. That was until that fateful August Monday night.

I got the call from show writer Dirk Henley that I was to meet him in the writers room as soon as I got to the building that evening. This wasn’t too peculiar an event, normally if I was going on first to open the TV show it would be to job to (lose to) whoever they wanted to get over. They’d let me know who it would be and in what fashion. I’d then meet up with whoever the new young wonderkid was I was laying down to that night and work out the details of our match. As I knocked and went in, I realised there were alot more bodies in the writing room than normal, including Henley, the boss Harrison Pritchard and our companies champion, Achilles Cage.

Cage was the biggest thing in the wrestling business, probably ever. He was so over with every single demographic that he’d never had to pay for gas or food as we travelled across the country that year. The fans absolutely adored him. As did all the guys (and girls) in the back. He represented us professionally across every platform. Articulate and intelligent he could hold his own debating politics on Good Morning America just as well as he could throw a football and bench press the equivalent of a large family of Samoans with the guys in the gym. Only in his mid-20’s, he was destined to be a star for the next 25 years at least.

Cage, glistening gold Championship belt thrown over his shoulder, welcomed me into the room with a chiselled, handsome smile and laid a large hand on my shoulder as I walked in. Pritchard, backed by four or five writers, looked extremely animated as he began to explain my segment in the show that evening. To my utter astonishment he explained that they were going to turn Cage heel tonight, in my hometown. For those that aren’t up to speed on their wrestling vernacular, the companies blue eyed boy would be turning bad guy. Remember, Cage was the darling of every living room in America and he was making the company so much money through merchandise that they could have probably put him out in the middle of the ring reading a telephone directory and still made a profit. So, to turn him heel was a shock to say the least. The part I didn’t get at that point was why Pritchard emphasised that this was my hometown and, more to the point, why he was telling me.

“Obviously you’re massively over with the fans Mike, especially here.” he began explaining. “Yes, you’ve had some bumps in the road lately but you were a Territories legend. First ever NCPW champion, first ever PNWD champion. You’re a living legend. To people in this town, you’re a hero.” I felt my chest begin to swell with pride, then, just as I began to feel some warmth course through my my cold, aching body, POP! I was deflated like a burst balloon. “That’s why you’re the perfect guy for Achilles to turn on. We’re going to use you to turn him heel, tonight. I want you guys in a tag match against the Boom Benders. You guys will beat them handily then Cage will turn on you after the match. I want you to get up and make it a fight, but you’ll take a severe beating, that’s how it has to be to get him some serious heat. Cage, you know how to work the crowd after that. This is history in the making guys! The biggest star in our company turning heel on the hometown legend. Achilles, this’ll set you up for a momentous rivalry with Black Mamba which we’ve planned to go right up until Ring Revolution”.

Admittedly I was excited, slated to work with the biggest star in the business again after years of jobbing to younger guys on the come up. I’d be top billed with Cage on the Monday Night Mat Slam TV show, something for my kids to boast to their friends about on Tuesday morning at school.

Cage and I met with the Boom Benders backstage to scope out the plan for the match. The Boom Benders aka Jackie Ace and Fergus ‘Braveheart’ Ferguson are two amazing guys, genuine lifelong friends of mine. They wouldn’t mind me describing them as a couple of journeymen wrestlers – they’d done it all in this industry as solo competitors – but recently they’d built themselves a new lease of life and a huge following as a heel tag team in the company. Their ‘Here Comes the Boom’ shirts were in the top three sellers in the company, just behind Cage and Mamba’s merchandise.

The plan, as we had put it together, was for me to basically take a beating from Jackie and Fergus for a good ten minutes, allowing them to showcase all their best tandem moves. They were so innovative as a team and produced so many new, original moves together. Eventually, though, I would counter and tag Cage in to unleash hell on them and finish them off with us ending up eventual winners. This was a fairly standard, well used tag team blueprint: one of the good guy takes a beating from two heels, eventually he tags in the hero, the hero whips some ass and finishes the match off. That would only be the appetiser though. As Pritchard had told us earlier, the real main event of the show would be the heel turn of Cage.

The tag match went without a hitch, almost exactly as planned. The beating I took from the Boom Benders was brutal and convincing. Given the number of matches I’d had with both Ferguson and Ace across the years as single competitors, our chemistry was excellent. I was selling their moves like I was back in my twenties. The crowd were eating it up, booing them and chanting for their Miracle Man almost non-stop. From their perspective their hometown hero was being given a hellacious beat down. Ultimately, once Cage got in, he cleaned house quickly and put them both away in impressive style.

It was at this point that things swayed from the plan.

After the Boom Benders had cleared the ring, Cage gently picked my broken body up from the bloodied canvas and lifted my right arm to the adulation of the crowd. They were going wild. “MI-RA-CLE, MI-RA-CLE!!!” reverberated around the arena. As I raised my left arm in unison, Cage slipped my right arm behind my back, snaked behind me, grabbing me from behind and suplexed me hard onto the back of my neck.

As I landed on the hard, bloodied canvas my brain rattled about in my cranium and my shoulders and back burnt like they’d been set on fire. I lay there, as if I’d been ejected out of a fighter jet, eyes to the rafters as the crowd fell completely silent. They were shocked. I tried to suppress a smile as they’d reacted exactly as Pritchard had hoped. Cage walked over and grabbed me by the hair to lift me back up. He whispered into my ear “one more, then reverse it” I nodded briefly. He slipped my lifeless arm behind my back again and brutally suplexed me once more. This time the boo’s from the Pittsburgh crowd were deafening. My lifeless body lay, eyes closed, as Cage began to berate the crowd and then berate me. He stood over me, arms raised, soaking in the boo’s of the crowd.

He decided he hadn’t gone far enough. He leant down over me and spat directly in my face. The crowd erupted, they began throwing whatever they had to hand into the ring. Drink cup, hot dogs, burgers, programmes rained down on us.

The heel turn plan had worked perfectly. But at what cost? I felt I’d not just been used as part of a plan to get Cage even more over but I’d been wildly disrespected in the process. Spitting in my face? Listen, anyone who has ever worked with me will tell you, I’ll sell every move in the book, I’m happy to be used to put over any new young guy in the industry. I understand how hard it can be to get heat from the wrestling crowds, especially a guy who was so over that he was a household name on every sports and celebrity channel going. But, spitting in my face? What was left of my ego couldn’t stomach that.

“Fuck was that?!” I shouted up at Cage as I lay there as if beaten to a pulp. “It’s cool” he grinned as he bent to pick me up by the hair again “just go with it, I need the heat. OK, reversal time”. As he held my wobbling body by the hair he lifted 3 fingers to the crowd to indicate I’d be going for my third ride courtesy of Cage airways. However, as planned, I slipped behind him and yanked his right arm hard behind his back. “Here’s your fucking heat” I spat into his ear. I grabbed him round the midriff with his arm trapped and suplexed him as hard and fast as my broken body would allow. We both landed with a sickening crack onto the canvas. He screamed. Not, ‘wrestler selling a move’ screamed but genuinely screamed in excruciating pain. I can admit right here right now that I immediately regretted it. I’d lost my temper, the spitting had royally pissed me off. I’d reacted in the worst possible way.

As all this had transpired and I lifted myself up to check on him, the crowd were going absolutely wild for what had just happened. Referees and company officials flooded the ring, pushing beyond me to check on Cage. Within seconds, EMT’s were called and Cage’s battered body was quickly lifted onto a stretcher and moved to the back. The crowd, still believing this was a work, continued to litter him with trash as he was wheeled past them into the back of the arena, beyond the curtain. This poor guy was being stretchered out with what would ultimately result in a broken right orbital bone, a broken right collarbone and a fractured right humerus and he was being pelted with half eaten burgers and watery light beers.

I’d resigned myself to the fact that I would be fired. I’d probably get my ass kicked once I made it into the back from some of Cage’s closest friends, particularly former MMA Heavyweight fighter Mamba. But that was the least of my worries, I can handle myself physically, despite my age. It was the threat of legal action from Pritchard and the company that scared me. I’d not only just ruined their headline feud for the foreseeable future but I’d also just potentially ended the career of the biggest star in the wrestling business.

As the TV show went off the air I soaked in the adulation of the crowd for one last time “MI-RA-CLE” still rang out through the arena and each time I climbed the turnbuckles to raise my arms and thank them, they got even louder. I trudged slowly to the back, the fans chants ringing in my ears.

As I emerged through the curtain into the backstage area, I was met by, amongst others, a red-faced, perspiring Pritchard and a clearly enraged Dax ‘Black Mamba’ Duffee.

Wrestling with my Demons – The Mike ‘Miracle Man’ Morrison Story is in stores 14 September 2019