On the Brink

Award Type
Manuscript Type
As the world begins to burn, Martha learns that she has a place amongst the chosen, but will she abandon her friends or risk everything to save them?


December 2036

Martha’s birthday was passing unnoticed for the first time in her life. She couldn’t be angry about it, given everything, and yet her throat tightened with disappointment each time it resurfaced in her mind. James would be concerned when he realised. She would have to reassure him and the children that the omission was understandable. That even she had forgotten.

Hidden deep within the bags stacked and stuffed around the car were gifts to celebrate future events. She’d started too late in that preparation, after production of luxuries had ceased but, thankfully, before the rest of the populace had accepted the new reality. It had been difficult; the items would be deemed insufficient if given today. Time and scarcity would transform them into extravagances. The gifts would also be a way for her to show her children that she saw them growing and changing and understood what they had lost. She wondered, now, if James had made the same provision for her.

She rubbed hard at her temples, then leant her forehead against the passenger window, trying with all her might to store the journey as James drove along the winding country roads. The air rushing in through the thin opening cooled her face and dried her eyes until they ached. It tasted like dust and singed grass. She wished that it would rain. There would be no other time to smell rain-wet air, drink in the beauty of the drooping ancient trees or experience the sensation of being a part of a grand living world. But the harder she pushed, the more her attention slid down into her loss and away into a bleak future.

Taking a long shaky breath, she turned to look at the children, who were dutifully staring out of the window. Abi’s freshly trimmed hair blew gently in the breeze, frequently drifting across her eyes, but she didn’t seem to notice. Hector held his plastic bucket, filled with new Lego sets, tightly by the handle. His eyes followed a huge group of crows as they hunted low over a field. A murder of crows, such an apt term of venery.

Martha would never again watch crows. Never again think about the impact that they were having on other bird species or worry that they may affect livestock. The preceding months had stripped her life, pared it away in slippery slivers. Each layer brought about a greater sense of vulnerability and change. She no longer felt sure of who she was, except that she was still a mother to these children, a wife to this man. She could be a friend to other applicants and, even, a vet to small livestock in the bunker. She would have other birthdays, build new routines, grow new layers.


January 2035

Martha edged a buckling tower of action figures, books and cars into the sitting room and lowered her stiff joints down to the floor, before flicking through the channels to find something that might alleviate the boredom of gift-wrapping. After several passes, she settled for the end of The Scoop.

Andrew Lane, a man of significant meaty presence and dressed in his usual sober navy suit, concluded the Global Update section with measured authority.

‘and finally, tensions in Latvia increased today when anti-EU demonstrations in Riga descended into violence and vandalism of some of the city’s beautiful 19th century buildings. A spokesperson from UNESCO condemned the attacks on this World Heritage Site and called upon the Latvian government to set out clearer plans to prevent any further destruction.’

Andrew made a heavy pause before turning to his co-presenter with a supercilious expression.

Karen Lawton, intimidatingly glamorous with platinum perfectly coiffed and moving-en-masse ‘Barbie’ hair, became instantly approachable when she gushed forth in her warm Liverpudlian accent.

Today, social media has been ablaze with the suggestion by Professor Michael Phillips, helioseismologist, now there’s a mouthful ...’

Karen paused to give Andrew Lane a little shoulder wiggle and pout. Andrew continued his steady gaze at the camera.

… that our own little sun is about to become a giant!’

Links to Professor Michael Phillips’ MeWe, Vero and Scoop pages flashed across the bottom of the screen followed by a ‘random’ selection of suitably clean comments.

Sounds exciting, doesn't it? But apparently a giant sun is a deadly sun. Well, we don't want you all worrying, so we’ve invited Professor Jake Ryan along to put us straight on the matter.’

The camera panned to the left revealing Professor Ryan, handsome thirty-something in jeans and a woollen blazer.

‘Thank you, Karen, I’m afraid that I cannot agree with Professor Phillips at all. You see, our young sun has at least four billion years left in her, more likely five. That is four to five billion years! I can say with absolute certainty that the sun is not going to change in any significant way this week, this year or this millennium.’

Professor Ryan ended his tiny section with a consciously gorgeous smile and a casual wave.

Karen rocked towards the professor, soaking up his charm like a slightly unbalanced vampire before turning back to the camera.

Well there you go, no worrying about the sun this week, but don't forget to pack your cream if you're off somewhere hot to break up the winter blues. And now the weather, what can you tell us about the weather here on earth, Jenny?’

Martha went back to wrapping the final gifts and affixing tags. A huge hoard of paper and plastic noise stacked ready for the morning. Hector will be overjoyed, daddy not so much.

Job done, the temptation to sit outside with a cigarette and glass of red was like a mesmeric weight in her limbs. James was away so she needed to be able to hear the children and feel totally with it in the morning. On the other hand, James was away, so she could smoke without the shadow of his loving disapproval.

Martha walked into the kitchen telling herself that she would be heading straight up to bed but knowing that she would be opening a bottle and digging through the box of odd things to find her rolling tobacco and lighter. Well, it was a Friday after all.

Once settled on the patio she rolled a couple of cigarettes and relaxed deep into the garden chair, allowing the tension in her spine to seep out into the cold wood. The night was heavy and pungent with damp rising from the ground, but the sky was clear and vast.

The Shelton family home, situated on the very edge of town, overlooked a park and play area to the front and arable farmland to the rear. It had been in James’ family for three generations. From the road, which ran between the house and park, it looked like a heavy stone barn sinking into the land with age. Certainly, it would not be described as having curb appeal. Martha had grown quite fond of the house, but it was the garden that she really loved. A newly landscaped garden looks sparse and bald but with patience and care it becomes an intricate cosmos of texture and life and, for Martha, a green walled haven.

The tranquillity faded into boredom as she lit her second cigarette. She began to pick out jobs for the spring, some just distinguishable in the moonlight and others only visible in her mind’s eye. So far from spring there was no push behind the planning, making it a relaxing and meditative process. Areas to be dug over and fencing to be repainted. A pane of glass to be replaced in the greenhouse. Peas, cucumbers and tomatoes to be started in February and maybe some early potatoes. Peppers and salad leaves from March. Perhaps squash in April. The force of the garden grew inside Martha as she planned its future, the rich and complex smells and active granularity of nature becoming more real whilst the thin static-soaked hum of modern life ebbed away.

Martha refilled her glass and was thinking of rolling another cigarette when a sense of alarm arrived, fully formed, like a buried memory sparked by a particular smell. The darkness now felt like an impenetrable wall, or black one-way window, with her blinded and exposed on the wrong side. The cloud cover must have thickened, that’s all, she reasoned. She squinted into the darkness as she hobbled on cold stiffened joints towards the door. This sensation had occurred many times before, either in the garden or during callouts to distant farms and always in the wake of the deep calm that she experienced when adrift from the constructs of modern life.

As usual, the sensation faded quickly once she was indoors, the last clinging remnants of it shaken off as she moved from room to room switching off lamps, straightening things up and making a final check of the children. Abi, sprawled in carefree sleep precariously close to the edge of the bed, gave a few squeaks as Martha lift-pushed her over a little, then wiggled herself back into the same position. Hector the warrior for good, and occasionally bad, lay with a Lego figure gripped tightly in each hand. Both children were dark haired and fair of skin like daddy. Even their scalps smelled like his.

Feeling tired and tipsy but too tense to sleep, she gave in to another sin and flicked through Scoop posts and messages in bed. Karen Lawton was apparently quite right about Professor Phillips’ statement being all over social media. In the Scoop link a burnt orange sun radiated warmth and brought on a pleasant little shiver and snuggle deeper into the covers.

Professor Phillips’ statement was remarkably simple given the magnitude of his claim.

My Name is Professor Michael Phillips. I am an astrophysicist with twenty years’ experience in helioseismic studies. Measuring acoustic waves deep inside the sun, I and my colleagues are able to determine the levels of helium and hydrogen within the core. The sun is powered by the fusing of hydrogen atoms into helium, and historic studies have shown the sun to be young and vigorous.

Seven years ago, I identified substantial changes in these acoustic waves. The gases powering the sun were significantly below projected theoretical levels. Consequently, I calculated that catastrophic structural changes would begin to take place within the sun. These changes impact considerably upon the sun’s expected lifespan.

I have spent the last seven years investigating this matter, working collaboratively with scientists in related fields across the globe. During this time, I have attempted, unsuccessfully, to gain government attention. It is essential that this matter is now taken seriously, that further research is funded and that governments in developed countries begin to plan for the possible impact upon human life.

Please follow the attached links for more detailed scientific information and lists of people to contact in over forty countries.


ColinBfab What a nut job. Don't you think the man would have shared his qualifications and named his employer if this was serious? I mean how many organisations have the equipment to study the sun? All you fucktards liking and sharing need to get a hobby.

SimonJR222 Colin, you have no idea the lengths that they will go to stop this sort of information getting out. You are blind and ill-informed. The sun is dying. First it will INCREASE in size and burn up the Earth then it will shrink. They have deliberately distracted everyone, even good scientists, away from this. Wake up!

ColinBfab REALLY Simon that’s the answer is it, and there we all were thinking it was global warming. Next you will be telling us that the Earth is flat and the moon is actually an alien space station.

AadrikaMoody Colin, we know that the Earth IS flat, NASA have convinced people that the Earth is round but have you ever, with your own eyes, seen evidence of this. If the world is round, how does water not flow away?

ColinBfab Signing off, nut jobs, life is too short to waste on you.

AnnabelleCole Seriously Aadrika, water does not flow off the planet because of gravity, surely you have heard of gravity; it’s the thing that keeps my feet on the ground, though possibly not yours.

Sarah Dunlop Two words: Coriolis Effect. Look it up, simple, measurable, real. Two hemispheres = the Earth is round, end of. I cannot believe anyone still questions this, my mind is boggled. Also, back to the Sun WTF!

Martha put the SyncPad down feeling tense, irritated and unsure which of her three vices was having the greatest impact.


James arrived home as breakfast was being cleared. Hector and Abi stormed the baggage barricades to launch themselves at his knees with ill-aimed kisses and verbal montages of the week’s occurrences, before the final yell of birthday presents and a procession towards the sitting room. Hector demolished the packaging with squeals. Always a grateful little boy, he jumped up between gifts to perform his bouncy little dance of joy.

Martha made some tea and cleared the hallway before sneaking off to get showered and dressed in peace. The winter sun streaming through the bedroom window etched every flaw in her face that bit deeper, making a mockery of her attempts to filler the damage with face cream. Late nights are not kind to the faces of the nearly forty.

Country vets tend to dress with some practicality, looking smart but needing to move freely, layer up in waterproofing and be prepared to accept some premature destruction. Since Martha spent most of her free time either with her children or in the garden there was not a huge incentive for her to make more sophisticated additions to her daytime wardrobe. Opting for jeans and a shirt she surveyed the effect, then added a blue scarf that quite nicely complemented her pale blue eyes and jaw-length strawberry blonde hair. She took a long breath, enjoying the solitude for a few seconds more before launching back into the day.

James was sitting on the edge of his favourite easy chair in the sitting room. He’d pushed the coffee table away at an odd angle to make room for Abi and Hector at his feet and the three of them were walled in by shredded wrapping paper and plastic packaging.

‘More tea?’

James nodded without looking up from the Ninja Turtle training gym that he and the children were assembling.

She watched them for a while without moving. Her body felt heavy, unwilling, because of the alcohol and missed sleep. Eventually she bent down to gather an armload of plastic packaging and carried it through to the utility room where she left it to be sorted later.

The gym was finished by the time Martha returned with two mugs. James was lying on his stomach with a bad guy in each hand. Master Splinter (Abi) put the four turtles (Hector) through their paces as the bad guys prepared to make a sneak attack. Martha took up James’ empty chair and watched.

‘Children, only five more minutes until you need to get washed and changed ...’ She could hear tired defeat in her own voice and tried to brace herself ready for Hector’s response.

‘No!’ Hector’s body immediately began to assume a tantrum-ready position.

‘… for the party, remember? We have to be at The Den in forty-five minutes.’

Hector’s eyes widened into shocked delight and he trembled in place, torn between carrying on with the game and running to get dressed immediately.

‘Come on, we’ve still got another five minutes.’ James edged his bad guys closer as he spoke, and Hector was back in the game.

The battle was quick and brutal, to the bad guys and James’ knuckles. Abi and Hector happily reset the scene for later before charging upstairs to get ready.



Flor I Salcedo Tue, 07/09/2021 - 21:58

This felt like smooth reading and kept my interest. The media announcements really worked for me and that first chapter has me curious as to what she is chosen for. Great job!

Scifari Thu, 09/09/2021 - 10:20

Love the economical prose and the whacky descriptions: "Hector’s body immediately began to assume a tantrum-ready position."

Most grateful for your comments on Love in the Space of Time. Hope to see you on the podium.


EMountford Fri, 10/09/2021 - 19:35

I really enjoyed reading your submission and the central character is very warm and human. There are some wonderful observations on family life and great descriptions, my favourite being the slightly unbalanced vampire! Best of luck Selina