Authors: Andy Griffiths
The whirling in Zack's brain subsided and he and his mother gazed out the window together, as the brown hole receded into the distance.
âZack,' said Judi, âI want you to know that I hope you will continue your bum-fighting career, if that's what you want to do.'
Zack nodded. âThanks, Mum,' he said.
âBut you must promise me one thing,' she said.
âSure, Mum,' said Zack, still trying to make sense of what had just happened. âWhat is it?'
âYou must promise me that you will never go near a brown hole again!' she said.
âI didn't exactly go into that one on purpose,' said Zack.
Judi Freeman put a finger across her son's lips. âListen to me, Zack,' she said. âBrown holes are terrible and dangerous things and should be avoided at all costs. You might have got lucky this time, but normally not even the most experienced, most skilled bum-fighters stand a snowball's chance in hell of surviving a firstâlet alone secondâencounter with one of those monsters.'
Zack tried hard not to smile. Silas Sterne must have given the same lecture on interplanetary bum-fighting every year since the beginning of the univarse. He didn't doubt that Silas Sterne was telling the truthâat least the truth as he knew itâbut he wondered if it was the whole truth. Zack couldn't help wondering whyâout of all the places they could possibly have landedâthe brown hole had deposited
them on Uranus at almost exactly the same spot where his parents were. He couldn't explain it, but it seemed more than just coincidence. Zack suspected that the univarse was perhaps more mysterious than Silas Sterneâor indeed anyoneâhad dared to imagine.
Despite these thoughts, however, Zack nodded solemnly as his mother continued. âBecause make no mistake, Zack,' she said. âThat is what they are! Monsters! They'll suck you in and chew you up!'
âYes, Mum,' said Zack.
âDon't “Yes, Mum” me!' said Judi. âJust promise me on your honour that you will NEVER go near one EVER again for ANY reason.'
Zack nodded, feeling the weight of the moment. âOkay, Mum,' he said. âI promise.'
âGood,' Judi said, relaxing a little. âGood boy.'
The bum-mobile touched down smoothly on the Bum-fighting Academy landing strip exactly one week later at 0900 hours Earth time. James taxied to the terminal and shut down the engine.
Despite having sustained massive zombie bumvasion damage, most of the buildings on the bum-mobile port were still standing. Normally at this time of the morning it would have been busy with trainee bum-fighter bum-mobile pilots practising take-offs, landings and mid-air manoeuvres, but today it was deserted.
Zack opened the hatch, climbed out and untied his bum from the back of the bum-mobile.
It was shivering and exhausted, but otherwise okay.
âThanks,' said Zack, holding his bum up to his face. âYou did a great job. I know we haven't always seen eye to eye, but you really came through for me. I'm proud to have a bum like you.'
âAnd I'm proud to be your bum,' it said. âNow shut up and reattach me: I'm freezing!'
Zack smiled and pushed his bum down the back of his trousers. âI'll have you warmed up in no time,' he said.
Zack looked up and saw Eleanor watching him. As soon as he caught her eye she glanced away.
âCan you hear music?' said James.
âYes,' said Judi. âIt's coming from the chapel.'
âLet's go check it out,' said James. âBut be careful. And be quiet. We have to make sure there are no zombie bums left. It could be a trap.'
Eleanor, Zack and Judi nodded.
They armed themselves with bum-guns and crept up the hill.
What they saw at the top amazed them.
The Bum Hunter, the Kicker, the Smacker and all of the Academy's trainee bum-fighters were there. The front of the chapel seemed to be buried in flowers.
âWhat's happening?' whispered Zack.
âLooks like a funeral,' said Eleanor, smiling.
âWho for?' said Zack.
âUs,' said Eleanor.
âUs?' said Zack. âBut we're not dead.'
âYeah,' said Eleanor. âI know that. And you know that. But they don't know that.'
âShouldn't we tell them we're here?' said Zack.
âAnd spoil the surprise?' said James. âNot on your life! Besides, it's not often you get to attend your own funeral!'
As they crept up closer to the front of the chapel, the music stopped. The Kicker stood up and addressed the congregation.
âI'm a man of few words, but Silas has asked me to say a bit about Zack Freemanâone of our dear departed comrades for whom we have gathered here today to rememberâand I'm very proud to do so.'
The Kicker paused.
The cadets were silent.
âI'm going to be honest,' said the Kicker. âWhen I first met Zack Freeman I didn't see a bum-fighter. All I saw was a frightened and confused little boy. And a clumsy one at that. But, by the toes of my favourite kicking boots, did that frightened, confused and clumsy boy learn fast!
âNot only did he defeat Stenchgantor single-handedly with nothing more than a pair of smelly socks, but he fired a harpoon into the Great White Bum and then, as if these services to humanity weren't enough for one boyâfor one lifetimeâhe risked his life to save the world by lighting a match inside a fully loaded bumcano!
âIn the process he came to earn himself a nomination for the Bum Hunters' Hall of Fameâthe youngest person ever to be nominated for such an honourâand he achieved this without even
having earned his elementary bum-fighter's certificate.'
At this the cadets burst into applause. In fact it was all Zack could do to stop himself from applauding as well. It was difficult to believe that the Kicker was talking about him and not somebody else.
âAfter that,' said the Kicker, âZack came here, to the Academy, to study for that bum-fighter's certificate, and it is here that I must make a confession. We bum-fighters are trained to not make mistakes, but I made a terrible one. One that I will never forgive myself for as long as I live.'
The Kicker's voice was wavering. The Smacker put her hand on his shoulder. The Kicker took a deep breath and continued.
âZack quit the course after only a few weeks, believing himself to be a failure because he was unable to complete routine simulated bum-fighting missions. But the fault was not his, it was mine. After returning from the bumcano I broke the first rule of bum-fighting: I forgot to wash my hands. As a consequence I believe I picked up some sort of infection. I haven't been feeling one hundred per cent for some weeks and I can now see that during that time I made a terrible error.
âBelieving I had set the simulator on the basic level of difficultyâwhich was appropriate for Zack at that stage of his trainingâI didn't realise until he'd left that I'd mistakenly set it for the most extreme level of difficulty possible. Far from failing the simulated missions, ladies and gentlemen, it was a wonder that he managed to survive any of them for as long as he did.
He didn't deserve my condemnationâin fact not only did Zack easily complete the requirements for his bum-fighter's certificate, but he also deserves a special medal of excellence for simulated bum-fighting achievement.'
âWell done, son,' whispered James, patting Zack on the back.
âWe're proud of you,' whispered Judi.
âI told you you were a bum-fighter!' said Eleanor.
âI helped too,' said Zack's bum, but nobody was paying it any attention. They were all looking at Zack.
Zack, however, couldn't speak. He was in a state of shock. To have been sucked into a brown hole and survived was one thing. But to go from the bottom of the class to the top was something else altogether.
âWho knows what the potential of this boy might have been?' said the Kicker. âHad he continued his training here he might have acquired the extra skills he needed to survive his clearly fatal encounter with the zombie bums from Uranus.'
The Kicker's voice was cracking badly now, but he was determined to get to the end. âI can only ask his forgiveness,' said the Kicker, âand present him posthumously with this certificate and this medal .Â .Â .'
âGo get it!' said Eleanor, digging Zack in the ribs. âYou've earnt it!'
Zack grinned. He got to his feet and walked to the front of the chapel. âI believe those are mine,' he said to the Kicker.
There was a collective gasp from the congregation.
âZack?' said the Kicker. âYou're alive!' He threw his arms around Zack. âCan you ever forgive me, boy?'
âAre you kidding?' said Zack. âYou saved my life. Without experience of bum-fighting at that level I wouldn't have stood a chance!'
âSpoken like a true bum-fighter!' said the Kicker, handing him the certificate and pinning the medal to his vest.
Zack shook the Kicker's hand and turned to face the congregation. âI'd like to dedicate these awards to three of the best and bravest bum-fighters I've ever known: the Forker, the Flicker and the Pincher.' He looked up into the sky, tears rolling down his cheeks. âThese are for you, Granâwherever you are.'
The congregation bowed their heads in respectful silence.
Meanwhile, James and Judi, followed by Eleanor, moved to the front of the Chapel to comfort Zack. They were quickly joined by the Smacker, Silas Sterneâand even Mittensâfor one enormous group hug.
âDad!' said Eleanor, kissing Silas's face. âI'm so sorry we had to lock you all in the simulator!'
âAre you kidding?' bellowed Silas, wrapping Eleanor in a bear hug. âWe had a GREAT time! Three days of non-stop virtual bum-fighting! Of course, nothing beats the real thing, eh, boy?' said Silas, nudging Zack.
âYou're right about that, sir!' said Zack, beaming with pride.
âBut what about the zombie bums that attached
themselves to you?' said Eleanor. âHow did they get out of the simulator?'
âThey didn't,' said the Smacker.
âBut,' said Eleanor, flashing an alarmed glance at Zack, âthen that means .Â .Â .'
âDon't worry,' said Silas. âThey're not going to hurt anybody where they are.'
âBut where are they?' said Eleanor.
The Smacker laughed. âThey melted in the heat of the simulated bumcano,' she said. âGave off a terrible stink. I copped a lungful or two, but you know I've never felt better in my whole life!'
âI know exactly what you mean!' said Eleanor, nodding.
âJust do me a favour,' said Silas. âNext time you lock us in a simulator for days on end, don't forget to leave us some FOOD! We almost tore each other apart until we found a stockpile of virtual anti-bum energy bars.'
Before Zack could ask Silas how they could possibly melt zombie bums with simulated heat and survive on simulated food, his father came up and slapped Silas on the back. âAnd how about you do me a favour,' said James. âNext time you decide to leave us all alone on Uranus,' said James, âwell, just DON'T!'
âSorry about that,' said Silas, âbut when you've gotta go, you've gotta go!'
James, Judi and Silas laughed.
Zack looked at the certificate in his hands.
âYou've got to be happy with that, Zack,' said Eleanor. âCongratulations.'
âThanks,' said Zack, âbut I'd be happier if I knew what happened to my gran.'
Eleanor nodded. âIt's really hard, Zack, I know, but try not to worry too much. Your gran is one tough old bum-fighter. Whatever happened and wherever she is, I reckon she'll be able to look after herself. I pity any bums that get in her way, though.'
âDo you think there are bums in other parts of the univarse?' said Zack.
âI don't know,' said Eleanor. âBut if there are, I'm sure Mabel and her Angels will whip them into shape.'
âYeah,' said Zack, wiping a tear from his eye. âI think you're probably right.'