Selected

Most mornings were the same back then. I woke up, I had breakfast, I got dressed and went to school. 5 days a week, every week for 8 years. The morning in question was just another one of those. 1 Wednesday in 1 week out of 52, but when I close my eyes I can remember it all like it was yesterday. 

I can taste the corn flakes and fresh milk I had for breakfast, I can smell the toast and coffee my father was eating as he sat at the breakfast table across from me, I can hear the morning radio playing away to itself.

I can see the puppy-dog eyes Robbie, our dog, was giving me as he tried to guilt me into stealing him a piece of toast from my father’s plate.

I can hear the shower getting switched on upstairs and my sister wandering from room to room singing to herself as she busied herself getting ready for school.

Most of all though, I can hear my mother’s weeping. Over the radio, over my sisters singing, her weeping drowns it all out. I can see her face as she appeared at the kitchen door mumbling to herself through streams of tears, holding in her hands a blood red envelope.

I can hear the smash of my father’s coffee cup hitting the floor. I can sense the panic from Robbie as he scattered and scampered out the kitchen in fear.

I can see the deep, black lettering of my name on the envelope and I can see my mother’s eyes, bloodshot and haunted as she laid it down on the table in front of us all.

Dear Brandon,

As you are aware, since the enactment of the Bardow Selection (Scotland) Act 2024, all citizens of Scotland can be selected at random to become recipients of Dame Yanzi Bardow’s life enhancing medicine. It is estimated, but not guaranteed, that the medicine will increase life expectancy of the lucky recipient by an additional 50-80 years.

The legislation states, in line with the Transan Global Agreement 2024 (TGA ’24), any Transan Government introducing the use of the Bardow medicine must take appropriate steps to regulate the population of the country. Where a country does not take these steps, appropriate action will be agreed upon by the Transam High Court, Washington DC. To ensure Scotland adheres to the conditions set out by the TGA ’24, all citizens of Scotland can be selected at random to to be terminated.

I am writing to advise that you have been selected for termination.

Please accept my apologies to your family for this inconvenience, however I am delighted to advise they will be provided with a Government grant of £500 which can be used to part-fund your funeral proceedings.

Within 5 working days you will receive, by drone delivery, a package which you can inject to carry out the termination. Further details can be followed in the attached guidance document ‘How to administer your terminal injection‘.

If you have not carried out the termination within 5 working days of receiving the package we will take swift and appropriate action against you and your next of kin.

I thank you for your sacrifice and know you will join me in wishing the recipient of the Bardow medicine, Lord Morton Brown MBE OBE, well for his extended future.

THUG SI A BEATHA AR SON A TIRE, FUAIR SI BAS AR SON A TIRE

Yours,

William H Ferguson, Minister for Population and Environmental Control

I stood rooted to the spot, staring at that word. “Terminated”. A cold chill took over me and the room seemed to dim in colour. My stomach churned as the floor beneath me began to tilt. I felt like I was being spun round a kaleidoscope of greys and blacks. I couldn’t even take in the commotion around me. Mother had passed out on the floor next to me, my Father and Sister were fussing around her bringing her back to consciousness.

“Brandon?”

“Brandon??”

My Father’s hand gripped my shoulder tightly from behind. Still stunned and wobbly, I allowed myself to be spun around and pulled tightly into his embrace. His chest bobbed my head up and down as he quietly sobbed whilst simultaneously gripping me tighter and tighter as if he could squeeze away what the Government had decided on for his son. “It’s OK” he mumbled, maybe more to himself than me “I’ll do something about this.”

Since it’s commencement 5 years ago, every single recipient of the Bardow medicine had been some old, rich, white person. Whether a man or woman, they always had some initials after their name or had some connections to the Scottish Parliament or Scotland’s Royal Family.

We weren’t living in the slums, but we weren’t eating caviar every night either. I saw how hard my Mother and Father worked to provide for us every single week. My Father worked his job as a freelance journalist well into the evening most nights, sometimes starting his morning before the milkmen woke up. My Mother juggled three different jobs across the week including cleaning toilets every Saturday morning at our local leisure centre. Much of my Saturday morning social media mentions consisted of me being tagged in a recently used toilet with a witty message about my Mother cleaning up after them.

After the first couple of years of the medicine lottery we didn’t really take much notice of it. Media coverage tended to focus on celebrating whatever privledged person had become recipient of another 50-80 years on this dying planet. We didn’t really think it was ever anything that would ever affect us.

Of course, the person who the media now referred to as ‘the leveller’ i.e. the poor person selected for termination was always someone from a poor or working class background. A 46 year old joiner, a 25 year old Polish bus driver, a student nurse placed here in an exchange agreement with the German Government, a 17 year old black girl who had gathered a large following online through her brilliant songs addressing social issues in the country. And now me. A 17 year old mixed race kid from a working class background with two hard working parents who have only ever tried to live well and provide for their family. It stunk. Selected at random, yeah sure.

We sat together around the kitchen table and agreed to try to go have a normal day, the bills didn’t stop needing paid just because we’d received this. We’d talk again tonight, a bit of time would give us all an opportunity to try to think a bit clearer.

I opened our front door and was immediately blinded by a flash from a giant, remotely operated camera, it was sat on a tripod on large, all terrain wheels. Some journalist obviously didn’t have the balls to brave the outskirts of Edinburgh so had instead decided to send in the machines. Unfortunately, the camera wasn’t alone. Around 10 or 12 drones zoomed around above my head, each one with voices shouting questions at me as they swooped down towards me at increasing speed. With the focus on keeping my head remaining on my shoulders, I jumped back into the house and shut the door.

The following day was worse. Our whole family had been plastered across the media’s 24/7 breaking news ticker for much of the day and night. Sat holed up in the house we spent most of our time staring at eachother and consoling my Mother. That was until the next breaking news of the day exploded onto the screen.

The reporter stood in front of a grey stone pathway with a professionally trimmed garden running up either side of it. In his face you could see the reflection of blue and red flashing. As he tried to speak he was knocked sideways by a line of black-clad men wearing helmets and thick vests. SPS was emblazoned across the back in bright yellow and white reflective material. The reporter returned back onto the screen and began to describe the scene.

A hostage situation was ongoing and he had been told that the Special Police Scotland branch had surrounded the house and were believed to be attempting to negotiate with a lone combatant. Just as he was about to explain where the location was, my phone exploded with WhatsApp notifications. 20 or so urging me to click a link. Distracted from the TV, I clicked the link and was taken to a streaming site I didn’t recognise.

What I saw, I couldn’t comprehend. What looked like a balaclava’d man was stood in a large living room with a camera trained on him. A small older man, clearly terrified, was perched down in front of him with the butt of the man’s gun placed to his head.

With a large intake of breath my family were suddenly around me, eyes fixed on my phone too. The TV had been muted as we huddled round watching the small screen.

“I am the rich man’s nightmare.” the man bellowed. “for too long they’ve taken from us and filled their own egg timers to the brim. Lord Morton Brown. This privileged, rich, white, 76 year old man here has been randomly selected to receive the Bardow treatment.” for a second he had released the gun from the terrified man’s head to accentuate air quotes when he had said the word random. At this movement the older man had cowered and screamed.

“For the first time in your life, my privileged friend” he continued looking down at the top of the man’s head “you have been incredibly unlucky. Not only have you been selected to receive the Bardow medicine but you’ve also been randomly selected by me, the Reaper.. ” the word random triggered air quotes and a scream again “…for execution. This is for you Brandon.”

A pop filled the air. The older man slumped to the ground out of the grip of the masked man. Red spilled from the top of his head. The masked man walked towards the camera, he held up a piece of paper with the phrase “#forBrandon” and the stream turned to static.

The Morning Of

The soft wetness against my lips was heavenly. Those big beautiful red lips were intoxicating.

It was the first time I’d been kissed like that in years. I disappeared into a divine trance as her hard, sandpapery tongue ran across my face. Wait a minute? Sandpapery? Tongue? All across my face?

“Albert!!”

I sprang up from my pillow and wiped the dog drool away from my face, the dampness disappearing but that horrible slippery feeling never quite coming away.

I squinted through a blur of tiredness at my 5 year old black labrador, Albert, sitting bright eyed by the side of my bed looking at me with expectation in his eyes. His tongue lay lazily on his open mouth, half hanging out like a beach bum sleeping on a hammock. They say dogs are intelligent animals but when Albert would look at me like this I had pause to question that theory.

His tail was going mad, helicoptering it’s way round and round and up and down behind him. I patted him on the head, giving him what he craved to prevent him taking off towards the ceiling. “OK mate, I’ll get up, I’ll get up” I grumbled. With that he hopped up on the bed in celebration and begun to cyclone his way around me. I grabbed his legs and we had our customary morning wrestle.

I’d had Albert since he was a puppy, in fact I picked him up the same day I got the keys to my place. It was a culture shock for me, to say the least. I’d gone from living with my Mum who catered to my every need to living in my first flat with a new roommate who liked nothing more than to cock a leg and pee on the floor and chew on the corner of walls. With being so concentrated on Albie, I think it helped me settle into life on my own. Or at least the life of washings, ironing and homemade cooking. Whatever I had, he had. None of that nonsensical stuff you read on the internet, how could I possibly sit and tuck into a steak whilst my boy sat and stared at me pushing pedigree chum around a bowl. Nope, Albie was my equal and I made sure he was treated that way.

Only thing I couldn’t tolerate though was sleeping together. I didn’t mind at first, he didn’t stink, he didn’t shed a lot of hair. Nope, the problem was that Albie would steal the covers from you in the middle of the night. I’d wake shivering, freezing cold. I’d look over and see him satisfyingly sound asleep rolled up in the covers like a hot dog. So with much regret we went together and picked him out his own giant dog bed to get comfy in. After this, the rude awakening I’d received this morning had become the norm. It was like his stomach had an automatic timer set to go off at 6am. I didn’t mind, if my boy was hungry, he’d get his breakfast and I’d let him out into the garden for a sniff and the toilet. I could head back upstairs for another snooze then we’d head out a run.

Albie is my best mate. He’s my running partner, my guy to watch Netflix with, my dining companion, my football buddy and my therapist rolled into one. I genuinely believe when I look into his eyes and chat to him that he knows what I’m saying. His tail goes like the clappers when I get his Arsenal shirt out before a big game. Sometimes when I tell him for the millionth time about Julia from my work does he let out a fart and walk away? Yes. But not everyone’s perfect. My boy’s as close as it gets.

He flew down the stairs in front of me and bumped the kitchen door open with his nose. He marched straight over to the fridge and looked up. “I know where the food’s kept mate” I said to him, laughing. He just wagged his tail and looked at me hopefully. “Right, what are we on today?” I pulled some chicken sausages out the fridge and threw them onto the gas grill. I clicked on the coffee machine and collapsed onto my kitchen couch whilst I waited for the sausages to cook. Albie ambled over and lay over my feet, keeping them cosy.

As the grill alerted me the sausages were ready, I popped some leftover rice into the microwave and waited. Albie, sat at my side, keeping a keen eye on me as if I may somehow forget that this was his breakfast I was making. I emptied the tub of rice into his bowl and pulled the sausages from the grill. By this point Albie’s drool was dripping on each side like a couple of large vampire-dog fangs protruding from his mouth. “Jeez, lick your lips mate” I said to him. One quick smack of his tongue and the drool disappeared. I laughed and ruffled his coat.

I chopped the sausages and added them to the rice. I pulled some fresh orange juice from the fridge and poured myself some. Albie nudged me again with his head, as if it would have been possible that I’d again forgotten that this food in the dog bowl was for him. “It’s cooling down you maniac” I laughed at him. “You’d burn your tongue!” His tail began to helicopter again as he turned and hopped up on his bench at the table.

I laid the bowl down in front of him and he stared a hole through me waiting on the command. “OK mate” I said and he began scoffing it down. I slumped back down on the couch and slowly began to sip on the orange juice. I popped on some music through my kitchen’s Bluetooth speakers and began to plan our morning run. We were due to do 10km this morning, hence the chicken sausages for him. I was due to run a half marathon only a month from now and my training partner was doing an excellent job of keeping up with my progress.

Run planned, I popped my phone down just in time for Albie to lick his bowl clean of any morsel of food. He lapped himself up a long drink of water and trotted towards the back door. I hopped up from the couch and let him out the back door into our grassed and fenced-off back garden. I left the door ajar for him as he disappeared out and tidied away the dishes from his breakfast into the dishwasher. After that I plonked myself back down, ready to go back upstairs for another hours sleep. After a few minutes of aimless scrolling I realised that Albie hadn’t come back in so I got up and wandered over to the back door. I assumed the kids from next door were out and he was playing up to them, licking them through the fence, an activity they all seemed to revel in.

Instead he was stood bolt still, his back to me, facing towards the bottom of the garden. I couldn’t see past him to see what he was looking at. If anything, it looked like he was stood staring at the fence at the bottom of the garden. “Albie?” I shouted out to him. “In you come mate, I want another sleep.” But he didn’t move. It was then that I noticed that his tail was rigidly tucked between his legs. A horrible feeling came over me and a shiver took over my whole body. I grabbed my shoes and closed the back door behind me, making my way onto the grass. As I approached him from behind I could see he was shaking. His whole body looked like it was vibrating. “Albie?” I asked and he let out a little moan. I touched his body and he flinched, baring his teeth at me and growling, his hair on his back stood on end like a spiky mohican. I fell onto my backside away from him. “Albie?” I asked him “it’s OK mate, it’s me.” His ears flopped backwards and he threw himself between my legs curling himself up in a little ball. “It’s OK mate, it’s OK.” I reassured him. He stayed there, curled up as small as he could make himself, it reminded me of him as a puppy when he would curl up on my lap and crash out after a little wrestle.

As I looked towards the bottom of the garden where he’d been stood, I could see that there was some disturbance in the grass. In fact, as I stood up I could see that there wasn’t just a disturbance, there was quite a large area of my grass missing. On further inspection there had been a large, rectangular hole dug out of my grass. “What the…” I muttered under my breath. I looked down to see Albie almost clinging behind my left leg, his tail still tucked up behind him. “It’s OK mate” I said to him, giving him a pat on the head. His scared eyes looked back up at me, suggesting that this was very far from OK and could we just head back upstairs to bed now.

The hole was maybe 4 foot long and around 2 foot wide. It had been clinically dug with sharp, straight edges around it. I stood at the edge and looked in, Albie whined at the top of his lungs. It was a deep hole. But not so deep that I couldn’t see inside it. Maybe 6 or so feet down into the earth, lay something I couldn’t quite believe I was seeing. I dropped to my knees to get a closer look, Albie’s whines turned to scared barks. He began tugging at my shorts, almost succeeding in pulling me away. “Enough!” I snapped at him and he dropped the material from his mouth. Turning and lying down on the grass a foot or so away from me.

I dropped back down to my knees and peered into the dark hole. Perfectly placed at the bottom of this hole which had appeared in my garden seemingly out of nowhere was a small shiny, brown, mahogany coffin. It had gold seals along the sides which shined way more than they had any right to at 6am on a dark winters morning. They glistened at me as I peered closer and closer. On a plaque placed on the middle of it was a name in fancy, calligraphy-type writing. I squinted my eyes to try to make it out but was none the wiser. I grabbed my phone out my pocket and tapped on the torch function. I shone it down into the hole and got a better look at the writing on the plaque. Just as I began to get a better look at it a loud thud came from the box. Albie jumped up from his safe spot on the grass and took off into the house. My heart flew up through my rib cage into my throat and I screamed. I looked up to see curtains ruffling in the windows at the houses either side of me, I laughed and waved up at them, trying to convince them, and me, that everything was OK. I succeeded with one as both neighbours waved politely and disappeared from the windows.

Returning to the edge of the grave, because that’s what this was right? A grave. I kneeled back down and shone my torch back down in the hole. As I did the coffin began to slowly creak a little on one side. After more horrible, aggressive thudding which rattled their way right through my body the coffin began to slowly open. On seeing this I toppled forward, unsuccessfully clutching out at the grass as I fell, head first past it. In the time of the small drop I grimaced, setting my teeth together, bracing myself for the impact of the coffin, but it never came.

Hornswall Pt. 1: Rise of a King

Hornswall, the most Northern of Kingdoms was the very tip of our world. Royalty – loved, respected and feared sat as the centerpiece, the very heartbeat of the Kingdom.

A vast sweeping domain of cities, woods and seasons, Hornswall had once been a Kingdom fractured by borders and dominated by bloodshed for decades. Since the dawn of the first men, five proud families were raised to become combatants in a perpetual chess game for control. The women, most of them more resilient than the warriors they cared for, lived to raise a perpetual carousel of war-hungry centurions.

The Benjon’s. The Hurvants. The Gilliam’s. The Gome’s. The Draff’s. The Dune’s.

For eternity their ancestors had fought tooth and nail to take the Hornswall Throne. To rule across the Kingdom. Only during the Century of Peace and Progress did the conflict take a backstep to politicking. Only for oceans of bloodshed to flood the shores with a horrifying vengeance.

That was until the rise of King Rendan Hurvant of House Hurvant. The Great Unifier. The King of the Black Kings, who would come to be known to history as the King of Kings. He united the Kingdom as one, breaking down the borders and recognising the possibilities that unification would bring their great land. Once it became clear that the myths about the invading tribes from The Southern Border were no longer that and they were the nightmare incarnate the fables had painted them to be, raping, murdering and pillaging their way through Hornswall, unification wasn’t difficult.

Resources were combined, 5 proud armies became one and the Borders which had once sought to divide now united. They became the sites of historical battles at which hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives defending the honour of their beloved Kingdom. The power their fathers and their fathers before them had warred over for millenia was no longer under threat from each other, but from an unknown, terrifying race. The Barbarian’s from The Southern Border were without morals. They tore through the Province, which sat on the Southern side of Hornwalls enormous imposing walls. The Duffs had owned the Province since the beginning of time and would continue to do so until time was no more. Lead by the charismatic ‘Provincial King’ Lariston Duff, the once noble gatekeeping land of the Kingdom was decimated by millions of maniacal, merciless savages. Duff’s proud armies couldn’t stop the onslaught of depravity from their adversaries who appeared to have no purpose but to seek blood, death and destruction.

In Hornswall they found it in droves. Duff lead what remained of his depleted battalion in tandem with their former bitter rivals, the awaiting army led by ‘The High King’ Huntro Gome. They met them head on. Across the former City of Hallstorm they battled night and day for weeks on end. The once golden roads and fields of Hallstorm were painted red with the blood of men from both sides. The King of Wolves, Walton Dune, and his pack of a thousand Wolf-Men rode out to join the brutal conflict providing a crucial tipping point in the numbers in favour of the defending Hornswall army. It was on the twelfth day of a tumultuous war that Grood Gilliam of House Gilliam, now famously known as The Architect of Desolation for the part he played that day, stood upon the Hill overlooking the chaos before proceeding to slay all before him, beheading the largest and meanest of the Southern Barbarian’s. The tide turned on that day, on that very swing of his sword.

It was that night that King Hurvant joined the battle. Over the following week the allied armies would push the remaining Barbarian tribes back out of the gates of Hornswall, back down through the decimated Province and farther South through The Fernes. It was at The Fernes that the united armies stood their ground and saw off the final, concluding onslaught.

That very night and for the next 3 weeks the army lead by Martal Benjon of the former city of Gern would carry out an operation to restore the Kingdom and the Province to its former glory. This vital and oft overlooked operation earned Benjon the moniker ‘The Burier of Bones’. A fitting but often misinterpreted label which he was happy to wear.

The united Kingdom, backed by representatives from all 6 families, unanimously crowned King Hurvant as their ruler. The Black King quickly sought to name those who had selflessly fought aside him in battle as his lieutenants. Thus, the Black Kings of Hornswall were crowned:

The Executioner, King Losan Hurvant. The brother of the King who had fought side by side with his Royal kin night and day.

King Martal Benjon, the Burier of Bones.

The King of Wolves, Walton Dune.

King Grood Gilliam, The Architect of Desolation.

The High King, Huntro Gome.

The Provincial King, Lariston Draff

The Black Kings would secure the Kingdom of Hornswall and The Province ensuring that no battle like the one which threatened to wipe out their bloodline would occur ever again. Their families, after they were but dust in the wind would continue the tradition. Each Black King made a blood oath before the people of the Kingdom to signify an end to the blood shed by their ancestors and to forever honour the now unified kingdom of their King.

The Unifier, King Rendan Hurvant, the King of the Black Kings sat raised upon his golden throne before his table of loyal lieutenants, The Black Kings. Battle scarred tissue covered his 52 year old face. No longer the powerful warrior he was at age 25 when he lead the final charge against The Southern Border Tribes, he winced, as he did most days, when a flash of bloodshed and a drawn sword haunted his daydreams. Not a day went past when he was not reminded of the battle his kingdom endured. Not a night of slumber had went by without a visit from the men who’s lives he had taken that day. And not a day went past without him visiting the Chantry to give thanks to the Path of the Gods for guiding him to unify the Kingdom either. The act had defined him, not only in title but in character too. It haunted his sanity with every aging day.

“What news from the Province, King Draff?” asked King Hurvant in a gruff tone as he ran his large ring-heavy hand through his thick grey beard. “Nothing to be concerned with beyond the Ferns my lord” replied the beady-eyed Draff. The other Kings banged their large tankards in unison “‘Tis the Path of the Gods” they chanted.

This exchange had opened the counsel since it’s inception. It was the unwritten anguish which plagued every Hornswall family since that momentous day on which the victorious battalions had returned. When would the savages follow again? For more bloodshed, death and brutality. To take the lives of their wives, their lords, their sons, daughters, their lovers, their sisters and brothers. Children with no knowledge of the history of the once fractured kingdom they lived in, had grown up regaled with tales of the brave Black Kings who drove the evil out of the Kingdom back down to the Southern part of the world where no soul dared venture. But the question remained, when would they return?

Somewhere beyond the Southern Border

It was no mirage after all. Liano Roark slumped to his knees and dunked his head deep into the beautiful, blue, flowing water. He stayed under until he could no longer hold his breath. He dropped his satchel and blood stained sword to the ground and considered for a second diving straight into the flowing river. It was going too fast and he knew, given his lack of energy, he’d have been swept away in a wave of beautiful blue relief. His red skin sizzled as he splashed the cool water across his body. He had travelled for what felt like weeks across the barren desert with only the odd scrap of rotten carcass to tame the rumbling he felt in his stomach.

This young warrior, named Maximiliano Roark First of His Name by his mother, aided by the beguiling Princess Junes Hurvant, was to become King Liano Roark: the Ruler of Fate. The King of Autocracy. The Obliterator of the Path of the Gods. And most notably, The King of the Black Kings.

But before all that, he had some savages on his trail and he was in dire need of some food and rest….

The Planets Series – Uranus

I had been climbing for just over an hour and stopped to catch a breath. Below me was a white mist of nothingness. I had no idea how far I’d come but had estimated before I started that the full climb would take me around 2 hours.

Surprisingly my feet felt fine. I wiggled my toes inside my stiff leather knee-high protective boots and felt some joy in being able to still move them. The sharp crampons pointing from my toes held my weight assuredly against the ice, fighting against the 250 mile per hour winds which were trying to tempt my large rucksack, and by association me, out into the cold white abyss below.

Both arms, wedged into the solid white ice in front of me, were fitted with sharp axes on the forearms to assist against the winds. My hands, protected from the biting cold with specially designed gloves which hugged my wrists in a tight, warm embrace, clenched tightly two steel ice tools to help me on my vertical trek. My grip felt great, no cold and thankfully no sweat either. The insulated gloves were doing their job perfectly so far.

With my feet, arms and hands wedged firmly into the ice, I let go with my right hand and pulled my protective face mask around my mouth open ever so slightly. I swung my upper body almost 180 degrees to face the drone which flew level with my face. “1 hour down!” I shouted against the wind, giving it a reassuring thumbs up. I quickly pulled my mask back over, swung back round to face the ice which held me in place and grasped my tool with my right hand. I was ready to start, what I hoped, would be the 2nd half of my record breaking climb. I had agreed to document this momentous, WI8 graded climb, using a state of the art drone which was live streaming my progress directly back to a PPV paying audience back home. The lucky folks sat in their warm living rooms on Earth would be getting a live stream which included a constant monitoring of my mapped progress, my current health vitals including blood pressure and heart rate with some beautiful panoramic shots of the surrounding landscape for good measure.

When I’d initially announced via my social media sites a year earlier that I intended to change the ice climbing game forever by scaling the great Titan Wall of Uranus, there had been much hilarity and guffawing in the dirtsheets about my ambitions to “climb on Uranus”. The laughing soon stopped when I sold the live streaming rights for $4 million. With an endorsement deal signed with Arc’teryx soon after and an agreement in place with SpaceX, my dream had quickly become a reality.

The eerie whistling of the wind filled my entire face mask as I continued the slow lumber upwards. My hands began to shoot with cramping pains and the fear of being caught by the increasingly powerful winds refused to release itself from the tightening in my muscles and the knotting in my stomach. The hardest thing to overcome with ice climbing was never the actual wall you intended to scale, it was the fear. Fear of falling. Fear of missing a foothold. Fear of the crampons slipping and taking you tumbling downwards. This fear radiated around the body, often leaving you feeling like you had competed in a much more physical, violent sport in the days after. Unfortunately for me, once I reached my summit I would still have a solo flight home to navigate, albeit with the assistance of SpaceX’s finest remote pilots guiding the way.

In the last few minutes I had began to feel a peculiar rumbling in the ice. A kind of vibration as I stabbed my tools, arms and feet into it. As it increased I felt as I was scaling some sort of giant speaker belching out a repetitive rhythmic bassline. Increasingly my body shook in time with the force of the pattern.

Just as quick as it had arrived, it stopped. My head snapped forward in a whiplash-like motion and I tightened my grip on my tools. Looking up I could still see nothing but white, however when I reached out to plunge my tool in there was no more ice to meet it. With a rush of adrenaline I pumped my legs upwards and threw my aching body onto a solid rocky ledge. I threw my rucksack off my back and jumped up and down, screaming out into the white sky. I pointed at the drone which buzzed along level with me and threw up the V for Victory sign.

I turned to take in the breathtaking panoramic view around me. As I did, I bumped hard into something solid. Looking up, I gasped and stumbled backwards as a large man, maybe 9 foot tall towered over me. His long red robes and large, thick majestic grey beard blew wildly in the winds.

“wh, wha, whaa” I blurted out incoherently.

“YOU STAND BEFORE I, OURANUS, THE PRIMAL GOD OF THE HEAVENS. YOU HAVE SCALED THE TITAN WALL OF MY PLANET” he bellowed out into the world.

“NOW THAT YOU HAVE CONQUERED MINE, IT IS ONLY RIGHT THAT I NOW CONQUER YOUR ANUS”

As he began to unbuckle his robes, the last thing I remember was his bellowing laughter shaking the entire mountain as I dived off the side into the depth of the white below.

The Planets Series – Jupiter

Juniper Gentlin fiddled with his tie once again, then buttoned and unbuttoned his jacket, feeling the strain of his ever increasing waistline. He shot his hand into his pocket again, reassured that it was still there.

The man behind the large desk in front of him stood to catch his attention, informing him that the Premier would see him now. Juniper took a long inhale of breath through his nose, exhaling violently through his mouth. He gripped the arms of the chair he was sat in and pushed himself to his feet. Go time.

“If you could just face the pad and hold very still” instructed the man behind the desk. The security pad scaled the full height of the wall in front of Juniper. It scanned him from head to toe and then a burst of light blinded his vision. When he opened his eyes the reception he had stood in had gone and he was stood facing a large imposing oak door with the title of ‘Premier Benchoullah’ marked across it. He knocked once then delicately pushed open the door.

“Junie!!”

Premier Edson Benchoullah rose from behind his desk to greet his old friend. Genuine affection laced his tone as they first shook hands then embraced. “Please. Sit”. He gestured to a large comfortable looking couch in the corner of the office.

Benchoullah was of small height but he had a large, undeniable presence. His every word was complemented by a jerking gesticulation. The Jupitan media had referred to him as ‘The Italian Stallion’ an old earthling term, such was his habit of using his hands whilst conversing just as much as his voice.

The two old friends shared a drink and reminisced. It had been a lifetime ago that they had bunked together whilst serving with the Jupitan Army. International Service was required of every Jupitano ages 18-21 and it was a right of passage for every member of society. Every Jupitano had their own anecdote about their time fighting The Great Red Spot, the famous anticyclonic storm at the heart of the Solar Systems largest planet.

“So Junie, what brings you to see me today?” asked the Premier, placing his hand on his old friends knee affectionately.

Juniper cleared his throat.

“Well Premier, you may be aware that I was recently elected leader of the UMJ.” He bristled, awaiting a reaction from the notoriously hot-headed Premier. Instead the response was non-plussed. “UMJ?” asked Benchoullah.

“The United Moons of Jupiter?” replied Juniper. “I was elected by voters from all 79 moons, Premier. Having moved off-planet ten years ago to Europa, it occurred to me that decisions are made here on the mother planet which directly affect billions of families living on our moons. I felt someone should be representing the views of the UMJ to try to influence decisions made by you and your Cabinet. I’ve come to you today with a proposal, Premier.”

Benchoullah stood from the couch and paced the room. He began nodding and muttering to himself. Finally, he fixed his gaze back on Juniper. “Well, that’s quite the tale” he chuckled. “As you well know Junie, the Luna’s who elect to live on our moons do so off their own volition. They are afforded no Jupitan rights and nor are they, technically, able to call themselves Jupitano.” He scratched at his chin and ruffled his hair, pacing again as if trying to solve a puzzle which had a missing piece.

“So, let me get this straight“ he went on. “You’ve decided to cash in on our relationship to see what you can get for these billions of Luna.” It was a statement not a question.

“Please Premier” said Juniper “we prefer not to use that word, we see ourselves just as Jupitan as you do.”

The word ‘Luna’ was a derogatory term used by the Jupitan to refer to those who lived on the 72 surrounding moons. It’s origin came from the Earthling phrase ‘lunatic fringe’ meaning a political group which shared extreme or foolish ideals.

Benchoullah threw his hands in the air. “Well they’re not fucking Jupitano” he spat. “I govern this planet Junie” He rumbled, arms flying in different directions to pontificate his annoyance. “And you fucking Luna’s will accept any decision I make. You’ll get on with it whether you like it or not” he banged into a chair whilst pacing and turned to kick it hard across the room.

“No Junie” he continued. “I’m sorry but you Luna’s will be happy with what you’ve got. You’ll take what you’re served, you’ll eat it up, smile and ask for more.”

Juniper sighed. He knew Benchoullah as a hot-head from their time together and what he’d watched on TV but he hadn’t expected this reaction. Regretfully he placed his hand into his pocket, felt the device between his thumb and forefinger and clicked it three times.

“I’m very sorry old friend. My intention was to come here and talk things through. Have a measured discussion about what you could offer us. I never wanted this.”

The man from behind the desk who had beamed Juniper through, entered through the office door behind him. He held an automatic pistol in one hand and a recording device pointed at Benchoullah in the other. The Premier shielded his eyes from the shining light coming from the recording device. Suddenly, he saw the weapon.

He began to protest at Juniper. He tried to reason, then he aggressively spat threats then pathetically begged for help, snivelling and crying on his knees.

Juniper took the weapon from the man and turned to face the recording device.

“My name is Juniper Gentlin. I am the leader of the United Moons of Jupiter. This man here makes decisions everyday which affects billions of people living on our planets‘ moons. I came here today to discuss the rights of those people to state their opinions on decisions which affect them. He refused. Therefore, this is now a coup. The UMJ runs this planet.”

He turned and blasted a hole through Benchoullah’s forehead. Blood and brain matter spattered the walls and carpet. He turned back to the recording device. “I suppose you might say the Lunatics have take over the asylum.” He kicked Benchoullah’s lifeless body, adding “and nobody calls me fucking Junie anymore”.

The Planets Series – Mars

I’m writing this on the eve of my 25th birthday.

Can you imagine every miniscule detail of your life being documented on a daily basis? Think of some of the stupid shit you do every day when no-one else is around, then think about everyone you know watching you do it. Bad huh? You might pick your nose on your daily commute. Chat to yourself whilst you pee. Trip up over a pavement then do that little run/jog thing that people do then look around to see if anyone noticed, remember to laugh so people think you’re a good sport. Yeah that would suck right? Now think about not only everyone you know watching you but everyone on the planet watching you. No, everyone on the planets!! That’s right, planets – PLURAL. That anxiety-inducing thought I’ve just introduced to you is my life. You see my name is Martel Venson, you probably know me as Marty or ‘Mars Boy’. I’m the solar system’s first ever Martian.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m not a green skinned little guy with three eyes who flies a saucer shaped ship. No, nothing like that, it’s much more straight forward than that. I was the first child to ever be born on Mars.

In 2040 when humans officially began to migrate to the Red Planet, my parents were part of one of the very first groups to make the momentous trip. Two twenty-somethings with very little money, not much prospects and one very real bun in the oven. After they miraculously won Elon Musk’s Willy Wonka-esque Red ticket competition they were inducted into an intense life changing experience which whisked them away on a one-way journey to Big Red.

Dad had been a great manual labourer on Earth and despite his modest upbringings, he had become instrumental in helping to develop and build the societal infrastructure which we now live in today.

Fast forward 3 months and I was ready to make my first appearance. 10 or so years had gone into prepping and colonising Mars before the first group of travellers embarked on the journey with health and medical care at the forefront of developments. Thankfully therefore, the medical care both me and my Mother received in the Neuralink Royal Medical Centre was technologically groundbreaking and so beyond the medical attention we’d have received had I been born on Earth.

By my 6th birthday the population of Mars had exploded to 4 million. More new migrators were arriving annually whilst the birth of Martian children increased year on year. Even so, The Red Media Team (RTM was our planets flagship mainstream broadcaster) had never forgotten Mars’ favourite son. Luckily for me, my parents in their infinite wisdom, had decided to sell away the rights to my life. ‘Marty – Mars’ First Son’ would be an innovative reality television show which would document, yep you guessed it, the life and times of the first person to be born on Big Red. The 25 year, multi million Musk deal (Musk was the Martian currency, modestly named after the man himself) had dramatically changed my parents fortunes and had cemented me as the planets premier megastar.

I’ve never ever been able to come to terms with strangers approaching me to tell me how thrilling it was to share with me my first bath, my first feed, taking my first steps or horrifyingly my first kiss. It’s absolutely mind bending. And, for me, completely inescapable. On my first ever trip to Earth in my teens I had concocted a foolproof plan to escape the film crew and disappear into anonymity on the planet for the remainder of my days. Foolishly I hadn’t realised RTM broadcast the show into the TV screens of Earthlings too. As I had tried to slip away into a crowd I was chased down a street by a bunch of screaming Earthling teenage girls as they sang in unison the theme song to ‘Marty’. “Mars Boy, Mars Boy, You’re Our Favourite Mars Boy” they sang. Eventually I gave into the inevitable and posed for the selfies they craved.

It’s so incredibly odd how people, Martians and Earthlings alike, treat me as a commodity. An object they want to attach themselves to so that they can post a video or photo online to gain internet points from strangers. Others believe they know me, feel that I’m part of their own family. They’ll stop me and tell me they’ve grown up with me and laugh and joke about some horrible experience of my life I’ve since tried to forget. But I don’t know them. I don’t really know anyone. I don’t have any friends. And I certainly don’t have any girlfriend. I soon learned in my late teens that the type of girl who gravitated towards me wasn’t doing it for my rugged looks and charming personality.

So, although tomorrow I’ll be completely free of the blood sucking agreement which has literally followed me around my entire life, I’ve come to the realisation that I’ll never be free.

“Marty? Where are we going?” enquired the cameraman as Martel Venson put down his pen and slowly walked out of his bedroom, down out of his front door into the enclosed night, safely breathing the internal Martian air. “Marty?!” he asked again, this time with a little apprehension in his voice. Martel approached the emergency doors and typed in a code. He bypassed the external Bio suits hanging by the doors and opened them out into the gravelly red field. He quickly sealed the doors and paced forward. “MARTY!!” screamed onlookers.

Martel Venson, Mars’ first son, fell to his knees sucking for breath that would never come. As he lay alone beyond the transparent quadruply sealed glass a large group of Martians gathered, watching him from inside. They wailed and weeped uncontrollably as Mars’ first son who had shared so many firsts with his fellow Martians shared with them his final ever smile. He was finally free.

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.