Kronnus 13, p.1
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Kronnus 13


  KRONNUS 13

  JAMES SHARKEY

  Copyright © 2016 James Sharkey

  All rights reserved.

  To Connor

  Table of Contents

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  1

  Kronnus 13—the name every parent dreads to hear. When the Kronnus 13 letter drops through the letterbox, precious time with their children is reduced to days. A bleak letter informs them whether their children will live or die. Most receive the bad news letter, a brief rejection note with a standard apology:

  I am sorry to inform you that your child, , WILL NOT fly to Kronnus 13.

  Please accept our condolences. We continue to search for a cure.

  Those who receive the Good News Letter (GNL), do not consider it good news. A lonely existence on a distant planet is dire news for most twelve-year-olds. The lucky few receive the same letter with two words different. The apology for their child's impending departure remains the same:

  I am pleased to inform you that your child, , WILL fly to Kronnus 13.

  Please accept our condolences. We continue to search for a cure.

  Live or die capital letters display the outcome, the only reading required.

  The Unlucky Thirteen virus is the reason for the letter: a death sentence for most children turning thirteen. A few children are immune, but none carry on life as usual. Healthy children are separated from their family and never seen again; tested on to find a cure. A cure—along with the source—continues to elude scientists. No deadly mosquito bites transmit the virus. The only reason given–age!

  The deadly virus lasts for three weeks and has three stages: week one - headaches and nausea; week two - dizziness and fatigue; week 3 - vomiting and diarrhoea. Death arrives on day twenty-one, every time without fail. Children celebrate their thirteenth birthday at death's door, unless they receive a golden ticket.

  Government resources did not extend to flying thirteen-year-olds to a distant planet. They could ill afford to send astronauts into space, never mind children. Not in this age of debt. Trillions owed to the unseen; the rich; the tax free; the real rulers of the world.

  One such man was Dr Daniel Kronnus, owner of the Kronnus Space Agency. His dark brown eyes, shaved head and curved scar under his eye suggested convict, but the sharp, expensive suits he wore oozed elegance. Inventions and scientific breakthroughs made him rich over the years. Number one on the Rich List for fifteen years in a row afforded him the title of most powerful man on Earth, which allowed him to set up his own space agency. He invented a space-plane capable of travelling farther than ever. Travel to planets beyond the reach of conventional space travel was now possible. His work in wormhole physics went beyond theories. He discovered a wormhole: a bridge between solar systems and named it the Kronnus Bridge. The wormhole led to a new uninhabited planet which held the answers scientists failed to produce. The cure was not a special serum or antidote obtained from the planet's resources. It was not medicine from the planet's herbs. The planet was the cure.

  Dr Kronnus began his search for a cure in the first year of the virus for selfish reasons: his son was twelve years old. He gathered the best doctors and scientists from around the world and established the Kronnus Foundation. Outstanding minds searched for a cure, but found nothing. Time ran out for Daniel Kronnus and his son. The virus hit him two weeks before his thirteenth birthday. In desperation, he flew with his son on the space-plane through the Kronnus Bridge. Kronnus was confident another atmosphere would kill the virus as he had a theory that a dying Earth was to blame for the virus. The frantic father and son arrived on day nineteen of his son’s symptoms. After a few hours the symptoms disappeared, but when they attempted to return to Earth, it ended in failure. The virus lay dormant on the new planet, but returned as soon as they left the planet's orbit. They were now permanent residents on the new planet.

  Daniel Kronnus was a brilliant man who divided opinion: a hero who found a cure, a devil who transported children to another planet, and a god who decided who lived and died. Kronnus Space Agency owned the only transport capable of travel through the Kronnus Bridge. The Space Agency Board included the richest men on the planet. The fat cats made the rules and decided which teenagers lived. They decided who would receive the golden tickets. And it wasn't only children that travelled to Kronnus 13. Experts from all walks of life received the same golden ticket. Only professionals at the top of their game received a ticket. Teenagers alone could not build a new civilisation.

  Parents had an anxious wait before they found out if their child lived or died. News of their children's departure came in the form of a letter three weeks before their thirteenth birthday.

  The accepted children believed in a brave new world or a scared new world. The brave looked forward to an adventure—travel through space to a planet a million miles away. The scared saw it as a prison sentence: a new life without friends or family. They would learn how to grow up themselves, without parents to guide them through adolescence.

  A short, bleak future lay ahead for those under the age of thirteen. Children under thirteen played a banned computer game as a mini rebellion. The game was based on the virus and called Impending Teenage Doom. It involved shooting useless scientists unable to find a cure, and the last level was a fight against the biggest boss of them all, Dr Daniel Kronnus.

  Few parents had any hope left. They still prayed for a cure—a cure that had so far baffled the finest scientists from across the globe. Until then, parents waited, hoped and prayed to a god most did not believe in. What god would kill off thirteen-year-olds? What god would kill all human life? But pray they did—religiously! Not that it helped. Too many deaths with no end in sight. The only survivors sent to Kronnus 13. An Earth without humans was a distinct possibility.

  For the last seven years Brey Kronnus had thrived on Kronnus 13. The virus remained dormant, and he was in better health than ever. Brey had grown into a kind young man who helped the new arrivals settle on Kronnus 13. He understood what the kids experienced and acted as a mentor. Although, he had an advantage to other kids: his father lived with him. A benefit other parents did not receive. This boy was the parents' hope. Parents prayed to Kronnus instead of God. They prayed for selection. They prayed for a happy new life for their children.

  The parents who lost their children to Kronnus 13 stared at photos, distant memories. They received no news of their children and assumed their child survived the flight. They received no news on how they were coping? Did they make friends? Were they happy? The parents who lost their children to the virus stared at photos, distant memories, but only remembered a horrible death. Whichever outcome, they were distant memories.

  Healthy teenagers became a thing of the past. Teenage tantrums disappeared with them too, but how the parents longed for them. In the past, attempts to silence screams were futile. Now they would be happy if their teenager shouted because they only played games for three hours and their friends played all night.

  "Why are you smiling at me when I'm screaming at you and being selfish?"

  "Because you are alive. Have as many tantrums as you want, sweetheart!"

   "Claire gets all the clothes she wants and I get NOTHING! Why are you being nice when I am yelling at you and being inconsiderate?"

  "Because I love you and I can hear your voice, my cherub."

  The teenagers who escaped the first coming of the virus were now in their twenties. Soon, no more twenty-somethings, no more thirty-somethings, no more anybody.

  The population reduced in the last seven years, and not just because of the virus. A small percentage of the population decided against raising children. What was the point? The choice was to lose their child to a virus or a distant planet at age thirteen. No hope of continuing the family line. No hope of grandchildren. The tree stopped with them. The optimistic majority predicted a cure was close at hand and continued family life as normal. Life would continue; it always finds a way.

  The government incentivized childbirth after the population dwindled. They showed their successes every chance they got and swept the failings under an increasingly mounting rug. In their infinite wisdom, they posted facts and figures that showed the triumph of the plan. The statistics did not show orphaned and abused children increased with the population growth. A short sighted, middle-aged man who proposed the idea did not care that people had babies to make money then abandon or neglect them. The government scrapped the plan after five years. Five years too late for the orphans and neglected. The short sighted, middle-aged man became rich, supplemented with a pension any normal person could only dream of. A government official—with about as much tact as a government official—named the virus Unlucky Thirteen.

  Zak Connors had given up hope for a cure: it was too close to his thirteenth birthday. He stared at the snowdrop coloured bedroom wall and focussed on four words scribbled in red crayon. Two outcomes with no choice—DEATH OR KRONNUS 13.

  2

  Zak Connors was nearly thirteen, which meant he would die soon. The average lifespan had decreased somewhat since the virus. Zak was tall for his age, with short, black scruffy hair, cool without trying. He didn't care if he was good-looking. The one job of the mirror in his bedroom was to make sure everything looked in order: no bed hair and no crumbs. Expensive brand names were essential, and he owned the newest gadgets and consoles. He had to; he was almost a teenager, almost a dead teenager. Zak lived with his aunt and uncle and was lucky in many respects. Aunt Olivia loved to shop for clothes, but hated gadgets and gaming. Uncle Jack loved gadgets and gaming, but hated clothes shopping—especially expensive brands. This caused constant arguments, but Zak always ended up the victor when he used the made-up bully card:

  "Kids get bullied if they don't have the latest trends. Yes, I agree, it is a sad state of affairs, but it’s how things roll. Do you want me to be THAT kid, Uncle Jack?"

  Aunt Olivia agreed on the clothes front and was the only parent allowed to buy clothes. "Uncle Jack has zero style or taste, so never let him buy clothes."

  Uncle Jack lived within his means, which his friends and family (those useless with money) often mistook for being tight. He often reeled in his wife and Zak with a reality check when they returned home with overpriced clothes.

  "Have we won the lottery, and no one told me?" said Uncle Jack, on a loop.

  "No, Uncle Jack, we haven't won the lottery," said Zak, when his uncle complained. "#YOLO. That's what Aunt Olivia says."

  Aunt Olivia never returned Zak's clothes, and his whining often went ignored. Well, always ignored. The story differed when the merchandise included gadgets, games or consoles. Uncle Jack considered Zak a gaming friend, but Zak's opinion differed due to his uncle's inefficiency in killing zombies.

  "I didn't get to play with gadgets when I was young, so it is only fair he is not deprived," said Uncle Jack when his wife complained.

  "Is that because you are so old, Uncle Jack?" said Zak.

  "Err…you should be on my side, Zak."

  "Err…oh yeah, I agree. I shouldn't be deprived because…what he said." Whatever the argument, Zak came out on top.

  Zak had two types of friends: internet gaming friends and real friends. The gamers had three traits: avatar, voice, and shooting skills. The real friends had the same traits, but he spoke with them face to face, and had more discussions about zombies. The collective name for him and his real friends was the internest.

  Zombies held no fear for the internest; a decomposing, ravenous, brain-eating zombie proved no match. Each member had the perfect way to kill a zombie; the most popular involved axes and chainsaws. The most creative, involved an intricate trap with vegetarian sausages and a sprinkling of irony, but was the least popular. They could cope with the living dead, albeit within videogames, but becoming a teenager scared the balls out of them and gave them an awareness of their own mortality. Frightened little boys did not talk of death, too scared in case emotions rose to the surface. They saved their tears for bedtime under the covers. No one dared cry in front of their friends, even if the subject was a dark, incurable, virus-ridden death. Zak was first to turn thirteen, and they feared for him the most. His birthday and death were three weeks away; the first of the internest to leave one way or another. Discussions of the virus rarely came up unless it included zombies. They spoke of life on Kronnus 13 and if games consoles were guaranteed, they would fly to the planet in an instant, or however long it took to fly to a distant planet. But the internest wanted to stay on Earth. The main reason to stay was the number thirteen in the name of a planet—worst idea ever.

  Zak held no superstitious beliefs. If a bird crapped on him, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He did not believe in luck for the rest of that day because a bird bombed its squittage on him. A twelve-year-old crapped on by a bird in front of school friends meant a humiliation for the rest of the week and for the rest of their school life from the annoying runt who never forgot. Zak would not win the lottery because a bird emptied its bowels on his shirt. Not to mention that age prevented him from buying a ticket. Zak did not agree the number thirteen was unlucky. He believed in a scientific breakthrough for the virus. The world would be a desolate place in the next fifty or sixty years if a cure was not discovered. Zak had a selfish reason for the lack of superstition towards the unlucky number thirteen. His birthday party this year would be the most exciting ever, but occurred three weeks before his actual birthday. Zak wanted to have it on his birthday, but his aunt and uncle lied. "Sorry, Zak, that weekend is fully booked."

  "Yeah, right, they're just scared," said Zak, one hundred percent positive of beating the virus. He considered being one hundred and ten percent or a million percent positive, but remembered how he hated judges on talent shows.

  'A million percent YES'.

  Their lack of understanding of the percentage function always bemused him.

  Zak had suffered more than his friends in the last few years, and not just because his aunt and uncle enjoyed talent shows. The disappearance of his parents prepared him more than most for depressing situations. Zak had lived with his aunt and uncle for the last seven years and resigned himself to the fact he would never see his parents again. Unless they reappeared in the next three weeks, he had already said his last goodbye. They disappeared seven years ago in mysterious circumstances and the police found no clues. His aunt and uncle were never sure how Zak would react, so they only spoke of them if he asked questions. "They both loved you so much, Zak."

  He loved his parents, and it hurt how much he missed them, but he never let it show. An imaginary bottle inside him stored his emotions. Anger escaped the bottle intermittently: anger towards his parents for disappearing. Love and happiness remained encased in emotion-proof glass and only escaped to nullify the anger.

  His aunt and uncle became wonderful stand-in parents. Their lives transformed overnight: aunt and uncle to parents, but they did not complain, they soldiered on. They were blood, it was their duty. Zak had moments when he felt alone. It was his parent's job to love him, mollycoddle him, and help him grow and mature. Dead or not! Angst was his favourite emotion; he liked angst. He wasn't a teenager yet, but he learned that angst could get time alone when needed.

  Doomsday drew closer for Zak. A dark circle closed in on his life, but he pushed it back with sarcasm when he was with his friends.

  "They say a cure is around the corner."

  "That will be Alison Cure who lives around the corner at number forty-two."

  "Can't you take this seriously, Zak?" said Nolan.

  "Hmm…let me see. Two outcomes await me: stay on Earth with a few weeks to live, or travel light years to a distant planet where I may never see my friends and family again. So, why would I take it seriously?"

  "Yeah, good point. Soz!"

  "Let's not talk of the virus and pretend it won't happen. We can’t stop it, unless any of you become a medical researcher overnight. If I get accepted I'll go and I'll see you all there when it's your time. Until that happens, talk of Kronnus 13 is off limits, unless it involves Kronnus 13 and a zombie invasion. And never say 'soz' again in my presence."

  "Yes, Zak, oh great and powerful one."

  They stood up together to shout their motto. The internest raised their clenched fists in line with their shoulders and paused for three seconds. The group thrust their fists towards their testicles (their own testicles) and shouted their motto in unison.

  "LIVE LONG. BALLS TO KRONNUS!"

  3

  Zak lay in the damp grass as motionless and tedious as the rock beside him. The daisies oscillated in the breeze like a violent metronome, but did not disturb his concentration. He focussed on the prey and controlled his breathing. The target edged towards him with his weapon ready for action. Zak's enemy scanned the woods for his invisible prey, oblivious of his impending doom.

  Zak remained calm and breathed steady. The final target was locked in his sights; the mission complete with a few more steps. His target paused and crouched. Zak did not panic and dragged his red stained clothes through the long grass and weeds. He was king of the jungle, studying his prey. Patience and maximum efficiency required. He stalked his prey and gave nothing away to the soldier who lay crouched ahead of him. One bullet remained in the chamber. One chance for his kill shot. One step closer to victory. Zak took a deep breath and exhaled in silence. He had to disable the target; they were depending on him. The target tiptoed forward, making as little sound as possible and sensed his target was near. Zak, the camouflaged sniper, lay motionless in the grass, smirked and squeezed the trigger gently in preparation. The target was in range; this was it. Zak snapped his finger back and released the shot. The projectile zoomed through the air and connected with a red splatter. The target fell to the floor in slow motion. Zak's job was complete. Game over.

  "That's what I'm talking about!" shouted Zak, as he jumped up and pointed to his victim with his paintball gun raised high in the air. A whoop of victory penetrated the air. Captain Connors had won the final battle of the paintball tournament—Last Man Standing—and his team had won the tournament. The victory shout alerted his teammates, and they charged towards him with hands in the air. Pure pleasure oozed over him as they ran towards him and chanted his name. It seemed to take forever for them to reach him. He pretended it happened in slow motion to preserve the moment and keep the victory in his memory forever, or at least until he died.

  "WOT WOT WOT WOT!" shouted the fantastic four, as they punched the air with each word. The gaming kill victory salute transferred to the blood-red battlefield for one day only. Red paint substituted the blood, and it was real for two hours—as close to reality as they would ever see.

  "We let you win cos it's your birthday bash, Zak," said Nolan.

  "Did you balls!" said Zak.

  The victim of Zak's final paintball picked himself up off the ground and walked towards his friends. A red splat partially covered his visor with his frown left visible.

  "Sorry, mate," said Zak, as John approached and removed his helmet.

  "That's okay, Zak, I've had a great day. Apart from the bruise on my butt the size of a…err…very large bruise," said John stuttering.

  "Who did that?" asked Zak.

  "Funnily enough, my OWN teammate," said John, as everyone laughed. "Yeah, thanks Nolan. Git."

  "You got me back," said Nolan.

  "Yeah, but you did it first, which makes you an asshat."

  "Hey, all's fair in love and war."

  "That makes no sense. We were on the same team."

  "Bored," said Nolan. "Don't worry; I splattered our other two teammates. I didn't single you out." They laughed as they nursed their bruises and hobbled back to the changing room. Nolan's teammates gave him a few dead arm punches, revenge for hitting a teammate, but they were all guilty of the same act. It would not have been a proper paintball fight if they weren't, so they all joined in with the dead arm game. Nolan fared the worst.

  Zak and his fellow soldiers gathered in reception to receive their certificates. The dead arm game continued as they discussed the merits of shooting your teammates. Not the honourable thing to do, but hilarious and deemed necessary. The receptionist recognised the bravado of the groups as she handed out the winners and losers certificates and let them off with a few swear words. She understood the thirteenth birthday party rules. At least one of them would not be back soon. The certificates showed that Z Group had won, led by CAPTAIN ZAK CONNORS. It was not just any old piece of paper. The stamp stated he had won the paintball tournament. It stated that Zak Connors was a soldier: a teammate with extraordinary courage who would not back down in a crisis.

  Zak strolled back to the changing room and high-fived his friends—even the losers. He should have been the happiest soon-to-be teenager alive, but something gnawed at him. Sadness crept into his thoughts and pushed happiness back into his bottle. Zak was the oldest of his friends by at least seven months. It dawned on him that this was his last birthday party on Earth. Not his own; that went without saying. He would miss his friend's birthday parties. The warring teams did not notice his glum exterior; they took it as his war face. Zak jumped on to a bench and pushed away the negative thoughts.

  "Oh, balls, he is going to make a speech," said Nolan.

  "Don't worry, I'll be quick; I have one thing to say. I know we don't want to talk about it, but if you want to have a paintball birthday party, then you should. You might not want to have one in my memory, but I won't take it as an insult if you have one. Okay?"

  "Don't worry, mate, I've already got mine booked," said John. The others stared at John, stunned and speechless, until Zak burst out laughing and jumped to the floor.

  "Thanks, mate. I needed that," said Zak, as he placed his hand on John's shoulder. Everyone joined in with the laughter as it was exactly what Zak would have said. "I'm just surprised Nolan didn't say it."

  "Me too. John beat me to it," said a disappointed Nolan.

  The soldiers changed into civilian clothes and walked out the changing room. The changing room door returned them to the real world. They turned into children again; soldiers no more. Zak left second to last, and he slipped his certificate into the bin. He had a great day, but he was no soldier. The piece of paper had meant something when dressed in combat gear, but now it looked meaningless. The certificate reminded him of the change in his future, or lack thereof. Sickness and death, or vacate the planet he had known as home all his life. He had not thought of Kronnus 13 during the party as he did not want to spoil it.

  When they returned home, he ran straight to his room and threw his paint-stained clothes on the messy floor. Aunt Olivia would not give him a telling-off in the morning. Uncle J might, especially if he called him Uncle J. He hated the nickname UJ even more, but Zak had a free pass for the next few weeks.

  "Remember to shower, Zak," shouted Aunt Olivia.

  "Tomorrow," Zak shouted back. "Please," he added, remembering she might let him off with pretend politeness.

  He collapsed on his bed exhausted; paintball had worn him out. He heard his aunt and uncle arguing. Uncle Jack sided with his nephew. The shower could wait.

   Zak took a deep breath and glowered at the words on his wall as he switched the lamp off and the planetarium on; he loved to fall asleep as he gazed at the stars. Imagination took control, and he sat on the captain's chair of a space-plane orbiting Earth. The space-plane manoeuvred into position. Captain Zak Connors removed something from his pocket, stretched his arm out and twisted his head to focus on the Earth behind him. A smug grin grew as he updated his status—coolest selfie ever! Tiredness overpowered his imagination, and he dozed off within minutes.

  The usual dream floated into his mind as he flew in a cloudless sky. A young child flying on an animal he could not see. A cloaked figure had a secure grip of him from behind, and love surrounded him. Happiness flowed through him and he flew blissfully with the wind in his face. He had not felt this happy in the waking world for a long time and woke up too soon.

  Zak awoke the next morning and stared at the writing on the wall with a throbbing head and a nauseous feeling. The question on the wall would soon be answered. In three weeks, death would visit him or he would visit Kronnus 13. The virus hit him thirteen days before his thirteenth birthday. He awoke to the worst wake-up call ever.

  At least he had kicked his friend's asses at Total Paintball. He might never see them again, but they had fun. His confidence of being immune to the virus, the one in a million unaffected, turned out to be misplaced.

  Zak stared at the wall with a sneer on his face. "Which one for me then, Wall of Doom?"

  He dragged his tired legs out of bed and placed his feet in his jeans. They lay on the floor ready for him to stick his feet in and pull them up. Zak called it efficient. UJ called it lazy. The paint-stained clothes on the floor reminded him of his aunt's request to wash. The shower could wait. He pulled up his jeans and grabbed a black T-shirt from his drawer: a T-shirt him and his friends designed and bought one each. The internest made a pact to wear it on the day they contracted the virus. He pulled out his phone and wrote the text.

  'I'm wearing the T-shirt. Meet at Nolan's at 1pm.'

  Zak walked up to the wall and stared at the writing. He took a step back, raised his right foot and launched it towards the wall. His foot landed on the word 'DEATH' and dented the wall. Zak limped downstairs to the kitchen and found his aunt and uncle sat at the kitchen table in silence.

  "I had an incident with the bedroom wall. Sorry…Uncle Jack." Uncle Jack did not react, like he had borrowed Zak's headphones and teenage attitude. "Hello, I'm saying sorry here…oh," said Zak, as he saw his uncle with a letter in his hands. The envelope sat on the table with a blood-red K13 stamped in the corner. Zak felt a different sickness. Aunt Olivia stared at her husband and he stared at the letter in a trance. The first day of the illness often coincided with the letter. They looked up and stared at Zak, his white face and T-shirt said it all: this was the day. Zak stared at them in turn, but they continued to stare back at him, unable to react. How were they supposed to react to the news? They didn't have a clue. Crying and staring were the only reactions so far.

  "Well," said Zak, breaking the silence. "Death or Kronnus 13? Fly or die?"

  Aunt Olivia wiped away her tears, stood up and stumbled off, unable to bear the pain. She made it five steps before she fell to her knees and sobbed uncontrollably. Her tears did not reveal the answer. Whatever the outcome, her reaction would be the same. Zak stared at his uncle and his uncle stared back. A clueless Zak raised his eyebrows looking for a response. The tender smile his uncle forced out revealed the answer. There would be no attempt at a smile for the other outcome. The question on the wall had an answer.

  Kronnus 13.

  4

  Zak arrived at Nolan's house and rang the doorbell. Nolan's mum opened the door to greet him.

  "Hi, Zak, come in. Nolan is upstairs. Probably wearing his headphones…oh," said Mrs Carter, noticing the T-shirt. "Ah—"

  "It's okay, Mrs Carter, I woke up with the headache and nausea and received the letter this morning. I'm going to Kronnus 13 and I'll see Nolan in a few months."

  Mrs Carter was too shocked to speak and stared right through him. She reached forward and hugged him, wiping away her tears. Zak realised his mistake; it was not an inspired idea to suggest her son might move planets in the near future without her.

  "Don't worry, Zak. The scientists will find a cure soon."

  "Yeah, I feel that way too," said Zak, unsure if Mrs Carter believed him. He bounced up the stairs to escape the awkwardness. Nolan did not hear the doorbell or his mum shouting, and he continued to play his games console. Top of the range headphones attached to his head like a permanent feature and cancelled out all other noise. It was teenage rule number one: thou shalt forever wear headphones to drown out parents. Nolan spotted Zak's reflection in the TV screen and stopped playing immediately. He jumped up and his game face changed to glum in an instant. Zak was the first of the friends to wear the T-shirt; the first of the internest to fly or die. Fly to Kronnus 13 or die on Earth. Nolan stared at the T-shirt in shock; he could not believe the day had come. He stared at Zak and thought of a flaw in the T-shirt plan: Zak had the virus but he did not know the outcome.

  "Well?" asked Nolan.

  "I had a headache and was nauseous earlier, but I'm WELL now," said Zak with a smirk. Nolan forced a smile, but in shock that Zak was still cracking puns as he wore the T-shirt of doom.

  "Did you receive the letter?"

  "Yes."

  "What part of the writing on the wall have you crossed out?"

  "Kicked out."

  "Not sure I follow you, Zak."

  "Well, I don't have a twitter account so you can't follow me."

  They laughed to lighten the dark moment. The joke was a favourite used for their amusement and the boredom of others.

  "No, but seriously though," said Nolan, bracing himself for the news.

  "Death."

  Nolan stared right through Zak, unable to speak for a few seconds. "Balls, I'm so sorry, Zak. I felt sure you would get Kronnus 13."

  "No, you idiot, I kicked a hole in the wall where I wrote 'Death'. When I woke up, I felt ill, so I got dressed, walked up to the wall, and kicked it. My ninja skills aren't what they used to be and my foot hurt like hell. I limped downstairs and Uncle Jack was reading the Kronnus letter. The K13 stamp on the envelope was blood-red." Zak paused and remembered the moment he saw the red K13 logo for the first time. "The answer to the question on the wall is Kronnus 13."

  Nolan hugged Zak then stepped back and remembered teenage rule number two—no male friend hugging. Nolan was optimistic the internest would meet up on Kronnus 13; he had it all worked out.

  "You are the first of us, but you will not be the last of us."

  "Profound, but you don't know that, Nolan…wait…was that a game reference?"

  "Err…maybe."

  "Well done, you slipped that in nicely. I hope you are right. Anyway, enough of the emotional nonsense—let's play FIFA. I'll whoop your ass one more time on Earth. Hey, maybe next time we play, it will be on a new planet."

  "They'll have to change the name," said Nolan.

  "Change 'International' to 'Universal': FUFA."

  "Think of the corruption if it were planets instead of countries they administered."

  "And the next Universe Cup goes to Kronnus 13, as Dr Kronnus paid us most," said Zak, imitating an announcer.

  "Hey, I've just had a vision. I can see us watching the Universe Cup on Kronnus 13 in three years with our friends."

  "Hell yeah!" said Zak, as they high-fived.

  "We might be playing," said an excited Nolan.

  "Well, I might. You, not so much. Did you forget you are rubbish at football?"

  A pillow to the head sent their life back to normal, and they picked up their controllers, played football and shouted at the computer-generated referee. The referee made decisions based on algorithms rather than human judgement, but they still shouted abuse.

  "There should be a button that allows the players to surround and bully the referee when they disagree with his decision," said Nolan.

  "Sounds pointless," said Zak.

  "Do you mean the players surrounding the referee in real life or the button?"

  "Both."

  "Indeed."

  "Mucho indeedly."

  Nolan's bedroom filled up with the internest, made up of the paintball group. His teammates, Max, Brent and Logan; and his paintball rivals, Nolan, John, Mason and Xavier. X to his friends. X's Dad named him after a character in a film. He loved him for it and his friends never made fun of him!

  Zak was strangely happy. This was what he wanted for his last day with his friends; gaming and talking nonsense, the usual stuff. Gloomy discussion of splitting up forever was taboo. Talk of the virus was only allowed if it included zombies—Zak's major virus disappointment.

  "Do you know what disappoints me most about the virus?" said Zak.

  "Yes, Zak. Yes we do, and you have told us before…many times," said Nolan with a sigh.

  "Well, I'll tell you again, anyway. I'm disappointed that the virus kills after a few random symptoms. The infected should go the way of the zombie. Not a flesh-eating zombie that kills everything, but a mildly irritating zombie that walks funny and is rubbish at football. A bit like Mason." Zak stood up and did his best impression of a zombie playing football. Mason threw a pillow at him and a pillow fight ensued. When they stopped laughing and hitting each other, the zombie conversation continued.

  "I agree the infected should turn into zombies, Zak, but they must be flesh-eating zombies. Mildly irritating zombies do not exist," said Max.

  "Max is correct. There are many types of zombies, but mildly irritating zombies do not exist," said Nolan.

  "Wasn't there a film called Night of the Mildly Irritating Zombies?" said Zak.

  Nolan's mum interrupted the zombie nonsense with pizzas, chicken strips and fruit.

  "I can't understand why you talk about the virus and zombies."

  "I can't understand why you bring us fruit," said Nolan.

  "You are a strange bunch," she said as she left the room and raised her eyebrows at Nolan. She didn't mind them discussing zombies and even ignored the odd swear word. Zak's second last night on Earth concluded once the children finished eating; only strawberries remained. Zak said goodbye to his friends in his usual manner.

  "Later losers," he said as he high-fived them. It was the preferred method of farewell rather than soppy goodbyes.

  "Wait, Zak," said Mason as Zak opened the door. The friends lined up to face Zak, and he grinned. They had to say their last goodbye as their motto: the words written on his T-shirt. Zak copied them as they performed the salute. He clenched his fist and lifted his hand in line with his shoulder, then thrust it towards his testicles and they shouted in unison.

  "LIVE LONG - BALLS TO KRONNUS!"

  They left Nolan's house at the same time with bravado to reunite soon on Kronnus 13, with tears saved for their bedrooms. Deep down they knew they would never see Zak again.

  Zak spent his last night with his aunt and uncle with more pizza and one final movie night. He loved movies and pizza and his aunt and uncle; the order varied. His last wish was to spend his last night together. And popcorn; there had to be popcorn. Zak chose a three hour extended version of his favourite film.

  "So, you want to watch a film about someone who travels from Earth to a distant planet and encounters strange animals and blue people?" said Uncle Jack.

  "Yup, best film ever."

  "Yeah, great timing. Strange boy," he said with a chuckle.

  It was late when the movie finished and Zak fought sleep for the last ten minutes. He stood up and brushed the popcorn from his T-shirt. Aunt Olivia widened her eyes, but decided against a reprimand.

  "I'm tired. I—"

  "Zak, before you go to bed. I know you don't like discussing your parents, but they loved you so much. Please don't leave here thinking they left because they didn't love you. That wasn't the case," said Aunt Olivia.

  "What was the case? Do you know what happened and just haven't told me?" said Zak abruptly.

  "We don't know what happened to them. No one does. We investigated for years, but got nowhere. The police said they had no leads. They disappeared."

  "Do you think they are still alive? Have they ever tried to get in touch?"

  "We don't know, Zak. We can't say yes and get your hopes up, but we can't say no, as we don't know. They found no evidence to suggest they were dead or alive. We didn't want you to leave thinking they didn't love you."

  "Yeah, I know, I love them. Sometimes I have dreams they are alive somewhere, but I wake up before I find out where. I get these negative thoughts now and then that I did something wrong."

  "You did nothing wrong, Zak. Well, you have done a few things wrong. Strapping the remote to the dog was a particularly bad thing. But you did nothing wrong regarding your parents. They loved you with all their being," said Uncle Jack.

  Uncle Jack was good at making light of situations. Aunt Olivia saw it as an inability to be serious, but Zak liked his way of thinking. He chuckled as he remembered the remote strapped to his dog—Buttons. Uncle Jack found out when Zak asked him if he could change the dog's name to Remote. He told Zak that it wasn't remotely funny, much to the annoyance of Aunt Olivia.

  "I don't remember much before my fifth birthday, but I remember playing with both of them and I miss them so much. I can't explain the reason I never wanted to discuss them. Stupid emotions I suppose."

  "Yes, love can be a stupid emotion," said Aunt Olivia.

  "We love you too, Zak. And we WILL see you again," said Uncle Jack.

  "I love you both too. Do you think we will see each other again, or are you saying that because you have to?"

  "I whole-heartedly believe we will see each other again, Zak. Don't know where. Don't know when. But I know we'll meet again some—"

  "Jack, be serious for five minutes for goodness' sake."

  "It's okay, Aunt Olivia. I don't want us to be morose. Humour is the best way to deal with this, and that's what I wanted to hear. Although, not necessarily in the form of song lyrics," said Zak laughing. "Mime would have been better. And I believe I will definitely see you again."

  Zak did an impression of a mime artist with a sad face, but this time Aunt Olivia saw the funny side. It was okay for Zak to be funny, but not for her husband.

  "You have to believe that, Zak," said Aunt Olivia, kissing his forehead.

  Zak hugged his aunt and uncle then trudged upstairs in a daze. He had kept his emotions in check all day, but it had drained him. Zak did not cry often, but he felt the bottle of emotions inside him shaking, ready to explode and fill the room with tears.

  He had one important task before he went to sleep. Zak logged into his email account and opened the draft messages. The calendar prompt popped up, he clicked on two days ahead and hit send. The emails would be sent once he had left Earth.

   He collapsed on his bed, but before a single tear dropped, he fell asleep, and hoped for the return of his peaceful dream one last time on Earth. Alas, he was mentally exhausted, and no dreams were forthcoming. Zak's next dream would not be on this planet.

  5

  Kronnus Space Agency lay miles from the nearest town. Lakes and patchy land dotted the roads on either side. They had driven there many times to watch the space-planes fly from Earth. Zak watched the wildlife from the car window in a sombre mood. The occasional airboat passed in the distance and reminded him of his last journey through the swamps. Miserable thoughts seeped into his head. No more airboat rides. No more nests as big as him in barren trees. The car drove past a group of cows standing leg deep in the murky water and wondered if he would ever see such a thing again. Would he ever eat a burger again? Was this the final time he counted how many alligators he spied in the water. "See you later, alligator," he said to himself. The awful joke did nothing to dust off the misery. Fortunately, there were no crocodiles.

  Thoughts turned to his new life on Kronnus 13. A movie he watched recently depicted Earth settlers on a distant planet: a bleak affair that did not end well. Would they be living underground as air on the planet was not fit to breathe, or would it be just like Earth? The two-hour drive passed with random thoughts and questions buzzing around his mind. Zak breathed a sigh of relief when the gates of the space agency came into view. The usual protesters lined up outside the space agency, a well-guarded fortress. The space agency was part tourist attraction and part one-way airport of doom; the latter half only allowed entry to those who received the GNL.

  Zak slipped down in his seat to hide from the angry parents who vented anger at their children's refused entry. There was no hope of entrance for those not accepted. A waiting list for cancellations did not exist. Everyone who received the GNL attended.

  Uncle Jack parked the car at the Transportation Zone and they traipsed the long walk to the foyer.

  "Don't worry, Zak. We WILL see you again. Do you understand me?"

  "Yes, Uncle Jack, I know. Thanks…for everything," said Zak, as they hugged. Zak expected an avalanche of tears from Aunt Olivia as she had been on the edge the whole journey. Pearl Jam on his headphones drowned out her sniffing, but not to be rude. He remembered a piece of advice from Uncle Jack how the band drowns out her nagging. The music deflected his mind from the separation. Aunt Olivia surprised him with no tears. She lifted her hands towards Zak's head and placed them on either side.

  "Good luck, Zak. Be careful. We love you so much. Be strong," said Aunt Olivia. She didn't want to leave him with a picture filled with tears and remained strong.

  "Don't worry, Aunt Olivia. As Uncle Jack said, we will see each other soon," said Zak with confidence so she would not have a breakdown and cause a scene.

  "All Kronnus 13 passengers go to Delta 13 terminal immediately?" said the voice over the loudspeaker.

  "He might have put some feeling in the announcement, instead of sounding like a robot at a train station," said Uncle Jack.

  "Sounds like that's my train," said Zak, with his last smile for his aunt and uncle. "Guys, cheer up. I'm coming home soon." He lifted his hand to high-five them and they returned the compliment. Zak did not want to make a scene when he left, unlike several parents who were crying and lying on the floor in a state. He wanted his cool persona to remain intact as he walked towards his new life.

  "Zak, before we go to bed each night we will switch on your planetarium and say good night," said his uncle. Aunt Olivia summoned all her strength to hold back the tears as she gazed at her husband. She held his hand and smiled at Zak. Uncle Jack said nothing as she squeezed harder and harder to prevent the flow of tears. The goodbye was unexpected from his uncle, who often said silly things to keep everyone smiling. Zak stared at them and considered a momentous goodbye, but he had nothing left. His uncle's comment drained his strength.

  "If I can't get a planetarium, I will say good night under the stars every night. See ya." With one last group hug, they smiled at each other and then Zak turned around and faced the terminal.

  "WAIT…ZAK…WAIT!" shouted a voice in the distance. Zak turned around as someone ran towards him. Nolan skidded to a halt in front of Zak and hugged him. He paused for a few seconds and composed himself, then handed him eight paintball certificates. Zak's certificate lay folded at the top of the pile.

  "Take these and remember your friends."

  "My certificate…you…you took it out the bin."

  "We're not giving up, so neither should you and we wrote messages on the back. Read them when you get settled." He stepped back and performed the salute at the top of his voice, "LIVE LONG - BALLS TO KRONNUS!" He high-fived Zak then turned and marched off with no more hugs. Zak's farewells did not usually include hugs, and Nolan didn’t want to make a scene in front of everyone. Well, no more of a scene than shouting BALLS TO KRONNUS in the Kronnus Space Agency. Nolan marched back to his parents as a tear trickled down his face, but he did not wipe it away; he did not care.

  Zak sniggered as he watched Nolan march away. The guards tracked his every move, unsure how to punish a child who had defamed their boss, but did nothing. Nolan's mum and dad waved to Zak, and they exited the building as soon as Nolan returned. Zak looked down at the pile in his hands, and realised it was a bad idea to ditch the certificate, but was too proud—or stupid—to retrieve it. Nolan was a great friend, and he was certain they would meet again.

  He returned his gaze to his aunt and uncle and they smiled. He expected tears, but Nolan had transformed the scene and they left each other in a positive state of mind. The goodbye was a short and sweet farewell with a smile and a wave.

  Zak sauntered towards Delta 13 and stepped into the terminal alone. He was in a crowd of soon-to-be teenagers, but had never felt so lonely. Parents and relatives had always been there and did everything for him whether he wanted it or not. Zak liked his independence and was not always appreciative. If they treated him like a baby, he let them know in no uncertain terms...like a baby, but he always apologised after his rants. Hormones got the better of him, but Uncle Jack taught him to apologise when in the wrong.

  "You do not lose if you admit you are wrong: you gain knowledge. If you are always right: you learn nothing," said his uncle philosophically. He told Zak many times that his Aunt Olivia had never mastered that skill. Either that or she was never wrong. He was not alone in being alone. All the kids in the terminal were in the same space-boat. They were ALL alone.

  Zak joined the queue for the reception desk to receive his flight clothes: jumpsuit, long thick socks and plain black trainers. He handed the receptionist the letter and passport with a forced smile. The bemused receptionist shook her head as she checked the documents. Zak had forgotten about the words on the T-shirt, but her disapproving look reminded him. When she returned the documents, Zak produced a cheesy grin and walked off to change. The changing room was sparse with benches and no lockers. A large black trolley sat against the wall with a sign above.

  PLEASE DISCARD ALL CLOTHING APART FROM UNDERWEAR.

  PLEASE DISCARD ANY PERSONAL OBJECTS A
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