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The 17
By Mike Kilroy

Part I
Prologue

His name was something that no human could pronounce.
Perhaps the name that was the closest was George.
George, tall for his race—another word that no longer had a human equivalent—approached the cage with caution. He had no idea what a human in this evolutionary stage was capable of doing. Perhaps those of this thin, gangly adolescent’s race could punch their way through the field that separated captured from captor. Perhaps the boy in the prison could zap him with mental telepathy, or control his mind and make him do things he would not normally do.
George was not taking any chances.
The boy did not look dangerous as George peered at him through the field of white light that swirled like an aurora. The boy sat on the cot—a strange contraption humans used to sleep—with his knees pressed into his chest and his head buried in his arms. The boy heaved violently, which startled George, who jumped back with a fright.
Was that an attack?
“I believe that is what humans call crying.” George was startled again by those words. They fell from what passed as the lips of his friend, whose name was unpronounceable by humans.
Perhaps the name that was closest was Fred.
“Crying?” George asked. He had never heard of such a concept.
“It is what they do to cope.” Fred turned one of his five eyes to look at the boy. “Strange things they are.”
George was confused. That was rarely the case. Of all the species in all the corners of the galaxy he had seen, very few surprised him.
Humans surprised him.
So odd they were; so complex; so full of vast kindness; so full of treachery, too; so conflicted.
So fascinating.
“Why this creature?” George asked, staring at the boy who did a thing George now came to know as sobbing. “Is he the best the race has to offer?”
“Oh, no,” Fred answered, making a clicking, clacking noise that to their race meant a scoff. “He is really quite the dullard. He is really quite average—the perfect specimen. We cannot glean anything from the best a race has to offer, or the worst for that matter. No. Nothing can be cultivated from them. We can take so much from him.”
“Can he help us?”
“Perhaps not. His species add so little to the universe. They think they are alone. They think their lives weigh so much on the cosmos. They have no idea how little and insignificant they are, but, they are part of the fabric and deserve study.”
“Seems like a waste of time.” George hated to waste time.
“Oh, no,” Fred clicked and clacked again. “I quite like this one. You know they simulate war … for fun … in video games. They also wage it fiercely all over their planet.”
War for fun? George was appalled by that. George had seen war. There were many words in their ancient texts about war. There were many words in their current texts about war. George had lost so much to war.
“Savage species,” George said, turning his five-eyed gaze back to the boy. “He doesn’t seem like a warrior.”
“No,” Fred said. “He certainly is not.”
Fred turned and slithered away, leaving George alone with the boy. George was startled again as the adolescent lifted his head and seemingly peered at him through the field. George could have sworn the boy could see him. Of course, he could not. He had only two eyes—how strange, how primitive—that couldn’t possible connect with him. Yet George couldn’t help but think he had.
There was something about the boy. Feelings stirred in George he never knew he had. If his race had a heart, it would have certainly broken for him.
“I’m sorry, Homo sapien boy.” George meant it.

Part I
Chapter One
Can You Not

Zack Earnest had found himself in confined places before. Usually, it was in his locker at Mount Blue High in Farmington, Maine.
Bullies put him there. He was a popular target. It was his skinny arms and his mussed coffee-colored hair, he figured. Or it was his lack of interest in Alpine and Nordic skiing, the sports of choice at the school. Or it was his aloofness toward the Cougars’ football and basketball squads.
Whatever it was, Zack disliked his lot in life then.
He particularly hated it now.
This cage was different. He had no idea how he found himself in such a situation. It was a small jail—not as small as my locker, but still. And it was generic. The walls were metallic and smooth, an almost steel color. The floor was just as drab and gray, made of some sort of stone. There was no place to pee, and this concerned him greatly, and no place to crap, which concerned him more still. The cot on which he sat was hard and uncomfortable. The fabric was coarse when he rubbed his trembling hands on it. It was also cold. Wisps of his breath tumbled from his thin lips when he exhaled.
And he was alone—not necessarily a bad thing. He quite liked solace; But not here, not now.
Now he wanted to see a face. Any face would do; even the face of his drunkard father; even the face of his distant mother; the face of his kidnappers, surely.
He could hear the scurrying of someone outside his jail, but couldn’t make out who it was. He listened to a disconcerting clicking noise, a sound he had never heard before.
“Hello!”
Might as well call out.
“Um. Hello!”
Zack heard nothing but the air wheezing through the vents of his jail.
“C’mon. What’s the deal?”
He had failed. With nothing more to do, he slid onto his side on the hard, coarse mattress, tucked his hands under his head and closed his eyes.
“Please,” he whispered to God—if there was one. “Please let me be okay.”

***

Zack awoke in a completely different place than where he had fallen, finally, to sleep. This place was not a jail, but a shrine to all things seventeen-year-old boy.
The hard cot was replaced by a plush rust-colored leather couch. On the coffee table sat a pair of Xbox controllers and a stack of video games. One of the myriad of Call of Duty titles was set aside. A Monster energy drink sat on a coaster next to the stack of games.
Zack looked up to see a giant sixty-inch plasma television fastened to the cream-colored wall. He pushed his legs out and rolled to a seated position. His bare feet came down onto the eggshell shag carpet. He dug his toes into it. That soothed him more than anything else in his surroundings.
And they were such nice surroundings.
There was a sunroof cut into the slanted ceiling above him and he could see the sky, azure blue with wisps of white, puffy, cotton-ball clouds drifting by. The walls were barren, but there were plush loveseats, tables and bureaus scattered about. He could see a kitchen off the spacious room to his left and another hallway that led to somewhere to his right.
It looked like a house, a nice, warm, comforting house.
He tried to keep a smile off his face, but that was futile. He didn’t want to show his jailors, who were obviously trying to placate him, that their plan was working. But who was he to fight?
It was working.
There were snacks, too. Not traditional snacks, but a bag of Olive Garden croutons sitting on the table next to him.
His captors knew him well.
Zack grabbed a controller, pressed down on the Xbox symbol and leaned back on the couch. It swaddled him in comfort. As the game fired up on the large television and the sounds of gunfire echoed throughout the room, he caught sight of a figure standing in the arch of the hallway.
It was a girl, and she said, “Um. Can you not!”
She was a pretty girl, a gorgeous girl, with coal black hair flowing down past her shoulders; thick, red, plump lips; and dark haunting eyes. She was wearing yoga pants—oh how Zack loved the girls who wore yoga pants—and a white tank top with the letters CHS across her ample chest.
She was perturbed. “I mean, really? You’re gonna play a video game at a time like this?”
Zack was at a loss for words. That wasn’t all that unusual when he was in the presence of a beautiful girl. But, of course, this situation was a tad different. He stood, dropped the controller to a soft landing on the couch, and stammered in his speech.
“Yeah. Sorry. Um. Hey.”
The girl sighed.
“You just got here, so I’ll let it slide. Okay. So, what’s your deal?”
“My deal?”
“Yeah. You’re deal? We all have a deal.”
His deal was he didn’t really have a deal. He wasn’t all that special, really. He was different, sure, but not extraordinarily so. He thought deep thoughts. He pondered things he was sure the jocks and the prom queens and the cheerleaders with ribbons in their hair never once dreamt.
Does that make me so special that I would be kidnapped and placed here?
“I’m not that special.”
“I can see that.”
She didn’t have to be so rude. “What’s your, um, deal?”
The girl sighed. “You all ask that.”
Zack was alarmed. “There are others?
The girl nodded as she walked to the love seat and plopped down onto it. She draped her legs over the armrest. “With you, that makes seven of us.”
Zack’s heart pounded and he became panicked. He hated that feeling. He thought by now, and with as many times as he felt that particular sensation, he’d be used to it.
He wasn’t.
The girl pumped her legs over the edge in a rhythm that oddly soothed Zack.
“I’ll give you a minute to process that,” she said.
A minute passed.
“Okay. Let’s start with an easy one. What’s your name?”
“Zack.”
“Nice name. I have a brother named Zack”
“What’s your name?”
“You’ll laugh.”
“No I won’t. How bad can it be?”
“It’s bad. Stupid parents.”
“C’mon.”
“Zill.”
Zack laughed.
“Told you! God! Why do you all laugh!”
“I’m sorry.” Zack really was.
“I know. I know. Zack and Zill. My parents thought it was cool.”
“I think it’s cool.”
Zill smiled. “Well, Zack. There’s a whole crap load of crap you need to know.”
Yes. There certainly was. Zack was full of questions. The first on his mind was how he got here, to this place? He wasn’t ready to put a name to it yet. Hell? Heaven? Kansas?
Zack could see in Zill’s eyes that she had the same queries, the same unknowns biting at her, nibbling on her like insects in the deep woods. He feared she hadn’t the answers either.
“Where are the others?” Zack asked.
Zill’s legs stopped pumping. Only calm. The expression on her face turned sullen and Zack feared the answer.
After a long pause, a pause that seemed like a millennium, Zill answered, “Hunting.”
“Hunting?”
“Yeah. Hunting. They send us out to … kill, I guess. They put us in messed up situations and see what we do. This time it’s hunting.”
“What was it the last time?”
Zill swallowed hard. “Being hunted.”
“Where are we?”
“It changes.”
“What do you mean it changes?”
Zill raised her voice. “I don’t know! It changes. Today we’re here. Tomorrow, who knows where we’ll be? You’ll get used to it.”
“Why didn’t you go … hunting?”
“Probably because I was left behind to deal with you.”
Zill was the welcome wagon. Not very welcoming.
“How long have you been here?”
Zill swung her legs back over the armrest and placed them firmly on the rich shag carpet. She did that thing with her toes, the thing Zack did when he arrived, but it didn’t look to Zack like it soothed her in the least. “I was the first one here. I was in a cell with, like, this most uncomfortable cot. I don’t know how long I was in there. It seemed like forever. Then Harness came and we ended up in a shack in the woods with, like, snow everywhere and it was so cold. We had to melt snow for water and then kill rodents for dinner. So gross. Then we were in a tropical area. It was so nice. Then Cass showed up. She’s so ratchet.”
Zack’s head was spinning. He had known girls like Zill: Self absorbed, dismissive of anything and everything different, wildly insecure beneath of a veneer of superiority.
“You’ve lost track of time,” Zack said, drawing a very stank eye from Zill.
“It happens, you know. So, have any friends back from wherever you are from?”
Zack didn’t know how to answer that. The first thing that popped into his mind was no, not really. Sure, he had acquaintances, people who knew him and smiled and waved in the hallways, people who he sat with at lunch and talked about how boring Mrs. Elder’s sociology class was.
No, not really friends.
Then he thought of Caroline, the one person he knew he could call a true friend. The one person he had grown to care for and appreciate in his young, boring life. She was a lot like him, damaged, but in a more obvious and superficial way.
When she was only five, her left leg was pinned under a carousel. Her tibia and fibula were snapped gruesomely. Being so young, the growth plate was damaged and the break never healed properly. As she reached full maturity, her maimed leg was several inches shorter than the other and she had to wear a special platform shoe on her left foot to level her off.
Others teased her. Zack never did.
They had a close relationship—she was the girl next door after all—but they never dated. They weren’t an item, but she was the closest thing to a first love he had in this world or any other.
It was her eyes that got him: green like the ocean after the storm. He loved the way her hair flowed in curls down to her shoulders like a blonde waterfall and even adored her pale skin that made her lips look even more crimson than they actually were. She hated being so pale, but that’s the price you pay when you live in Maine. Caroline was devoutly against tanning beds and Zack agreed with her logic. There were plenty of things on this Earth that will chop days and years off your life, no need to voluntarily do it to yourself.
He wondered what perils awaited him on this planet. Clearly he was no longer on his.
That was the elephant in the room. He knew it, and he could tell Zill knew it, too.
“I have friends,” Zack finally answered, abruptly. “I think here we need all the friends we can get. Do you have any idea where here is?”
Zill snickered. “No.”
“You were the first one here. Have you had any contact with whatever, um, brought us here?”
“No. Thank God. I don’t want to talk to any creepy alien. Ew.”
Zack did. He was always the type to want to know the why of things. Everything had a reason and there was a reason why he and Zill and the others were here—wherever here was.
“You’re not curious?”
“No time to be curious,” Zill said as the door swung open and voices boomed into the room. The first one through was a boy holding a bleeding girl in his arms. Then three more entered: an attractive Asian girl with adorable chubby cheeks and soft thin lips; a boy so dark the white of his teeth looked like a string of floating pearls when he opened his mouth, very tall with a shaved head; and a girl, tall and trim, her hair pulled back tightly in a pony tail. She had uncommon definition in her arms for a teenage girl and they were covered in dark, grimy soot.
They all had dried blood on their clothing.
“What took you so long?” Zill asked as the tall fit kid—man really—who had thick arms and well-defined muscles, sandy hair that was wet with sweat but still looked perfectly in place, and the jutting, rigid jaw of one of those actors on one of those MTV or WB shows that made all the girls giggle and swoon. He carried the girl briskly to the couch and dropped her onto the cushions as if he were dropping a bag of potatoes.
It was his eyes that commanded the most attention—deep blue like a polished marble. “Harness, we have a new one,” Zill said, paying no mind to the girl who bled on the couch.
Harness’ gaze turned toward Zack and an odd smirk formed on his face. Zack had learned long ago what a look like that meant. If there were a locker nearby, Zack would surely be stuffed into it.
“Hey, fresh meat,” Harness bellowed. Even his voice was Adonis-like. “Welcome to hell.”
Harness had given this place a name. It seemed to Zack, though, that he quite liked it here. He stood over the girl, who moaned and bled from a wound to her side. The blood seeped out of it, coloring her white tank top a bright crimson. She was sweating and her eyes flittered about.
Before Zack even realized what he was saying, “She’s gonna die,” fell from his lips.
Harness stared at him, his eyes narrowed. “She’s not gonna die. Well, she is, but she’ll come back. They always come back.”
The girl, her skin wan, coughed a spray of blood that hit the carpet like cardinal raindrops. She let out a long exhale and died.
Just like that— poof—she was gone. Her lifeless eyes fixed hauntingly on Zack, who swallowed down crouton-laced vomit that had slithered up from his belly.
“Never seen anyone bite it before?” Harness said, laughing. “Well, get used to it.”
The Asian stared at her with compassion and wiped a stray tear that had trickled down her cheek. She was the only one who seemed to care. Then she and the others walked briskly into the kitchen. Harness laughed, clanged about and popped Hot Pockets into the microwave that their captors had provided.
Zill spoke softly. “One of these days we’re not going to come back.”
“What’s her name?” Zack asked.
“This was, well, is Jenai. She okay I guess. Kind of emo. She came just before you did. This is like the third time she’s died. Kind of the runt of the litter, you know.”
Zack lurched back and nearly lost his croutons again when Jenai began blinking wildly and coughed up more blood. She sat up, blinked even more rapidly and stared at a smirking Zill.
“Jesus, I died again?” Jenai seemed more frustrated than anything else. “Jesus. I can’t believe I died again. Grrrrr. I’m such a loser.”
Harness and the three others entered the room from the kitchen. Harness wiped his greasy lips with the back of his hand. “You’re damn right you’re a loser. Hey, we have a new guy. Maybe he’s more pathetic than you. He looks like he is. Damn. We got another loser. How are we going to compete when we keep getting losers like him and you, Jenai?”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Jenai yelled, stood and bolted down the hallway. Zack could hear the sound of a door slamming.
“Okay. Okay. Okay,” Zack kept repeating “Okay.” He repeated things when he was flustered and confused. He babbled. He was a babbler. It was perhaps his way of mentally processing the events around him. He wondered if it was even possible to mull these kinds of events. “What. What. What …” He was once again babbling, “is happening?”
He heard laughter; the laugh-at kind, not the laugh-with kind.
“Wha wha what’s happening,” Harness mocked. “Look around, noob. What do you think is happening? We’re royally and completely screwed.”
Harness was right. Zack didn’t know why he was here or where here was or who these people were or even if he was awake or alive or dead. He did know one thing: Yes, he was definitely royally and completely screwed.
“C’mon, Harness,” Cass said in a strong British accent. Zack knew she had to be Cass because she, well, did look ratchet with a short shirt, a tank top that displayed an ample amount of cleavage and a face so heavily caked with makeup that Zack wondered what was really under there. She had a ring on her bottom lip that she flicked with her tongue before she spoke. “Give the new bloke a break.”
“Seriously? Look at him.” Even when Harness spoke, his muscles flexed and he looked like a god. “He can’t help us. He’s just going to drag us down.”
“Help you do what?” Zack asked.
Harness drilled a hole in Zack with his eyes. “Win, stupid. When we win we get stuff. When we get stuff, we can forget for at least a little while that we’re in hell. When we lose, it sucks.”
Zack was curious. “Is that what this hunting is about?”
“Duh,” Harness taunted. “That’s all we do here. Compete against the others. It never ends. The places change. The weapons change. But that’s it. Over and over and over again. Now with, what, seven of us it’s gonna get even harder. And we get you. I bet you can’t even lift your own weight. Great. Just awesome.”
Harness took a final angry bite of his Hot Pocket and stalked off down the hallway.
Zill looked at Zack and shook her head. “He’s competitive. And he’s right. We need to win. You don’t want to lose. Losing is, like, really bad.”
Zack wondered just how bad.
“What happens when you lose?”
“You get put back in that room with just the cot and nothing to do but think. It’s awful.”
Zack could understand that. Just those few hours he had spent in that cell were enough. He couldn’t imagine being put back there again.
Jenai wandered back into the room, wiping wetness from her cheeks. Cass put her arms around her and hugged her. The African-American boy and Asian girl did the same, and then stared at Zack with curious looks.
Zill noticed the inquisitive stare-down. “Guess I should introduce the rest of us to you. Brock is the black guy. Pretty handy with a weapon. He’s not a bad dude.”
Brock held out his hand and Zack shook it, wincing as his fingers closed around his like a vice.
“This is Mizuki. She’s a tough chica, can fight just as good as Harness.”
Mizuki’s handshake was even stronger than Brock’s, but she had a soft glint in her eye. “I know it’s a lot to take in, but you have to get yourself together,” she said in a perfect American accent. “Who knows what the ‘liens will throw at us tomorrow?”
Zack was confused.
“’Liens?”
“Aliens,” Mizuki said. The others laughed.
“We don’t know they are aliens.” Brock said.
“Then how do you explain what’s been going on, the changing climates,” Mizuki said with a firm, calm voice. “The changing accommodations?”
“We’re dead.” Brock answered, bluntly.
Zill rolled her eyes. “And you’ve met Cass and, well, you sorta met Jenai.”
Harness sauntered into the room, tightening his belt. “And me. Don’t forget me. Let’s have a little powwow, get oriented with the nerd.”
They sat in a circle on the plush couch and chairs and told stories of their young lives before they ended up here.
Harness was a classic jock, the star of his high school football team in New York. He was also the star on his basketball and baseball teams and won two state javelin titles with throws in excess of two-hundred feet. He got poor grades, but not because he was dumb, but because he didn’t apply himself to the material.
Zack thought him cliché.
Mizuki lived in the United States all her life, her parents moving to San Francisco from Japan when she was just in her mother’s womb. She, too, was all too stereotypical for Zack. An honor student. Captain of the debate team and blunt in her opinions almost to a fault.
Cass was London born and raised and walled up inside. It was the broken home, Zack, thought. Or maybe it was just because she was British.
Jenai was quite a bit like Zack: A loner, average in almost every way. She was short—maybe 5-foot-1 and very dainty. Got good grades, but wasn’t exceptional in anything.
And then there was Brock, who had the typical back story of a young black man trying to rise out of the projects and make something out of his life. He was often overlooked and underestimated, but he was well-spoken, smart and capable. He could have fallen into gang life growing up in the bad part of Detroit—Zack wondered if there was a good part—but he resisted, ignoring peer pressure.
His older brother was gunned down in a gang fight when Brock was just a boy and he swore to not follow the same path.
Zack found all of their stories contrived and too perfect. It was as if they were plucked out of one of a billion teen movies and plopped into this situation. None of them were special; quite the contrary.
There was something wrong with each of them. They were all flawed. They all had a zit they couldn’t pop, a boil they couldn’t lance, a blemish they couldn’t hide.
What could their captors possibly want or need with them?

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