Tag likes blood. He savors the sight, the smell, even the taste when hit hard enough to find some of his own in his mouth. He likes the Game and making the other boys bleed. He enjoys his own wounds and wears scars with pride. The Mentors push play to the edge — right to the brink, but never over. Camp boys need to be healthy, not dead. Dead meat is worthless to the Primes.
Harry, Tag’s bunkmate, talks about rockets instead of blood. Harry has dreamer’s eyes which never focus for long on anything but the horizon.
“I’m going to ride someday,” he tells Tag as both boys lean against the inner fence. “I’m going to touch the stars.”
Tag picks at a scab. “Why? We have everything here. They feed us well… studies… and we can play as much as we want.” His brain builds stories with memories, snatches of sweat and blood and the urgent throb of blood through his body as he carries the ball. When he plays, he is alive. The future lives in fog, something he can’t wrap in his fingers.
“I’m going to ride and someday I’ll forget about the fences.” Harry turns his dreamer’s eyes toward Tag. “Don’t you have plans? Haven’t you ever wondered why we are here?”
Tag shrugs. He’s eleven. The fence has always been there. Neither of them knows any boys much older, and even the Mentors look young, mid-twenties at the most. Feelings stir in them, similar feelings with dissimilar ends. Tag wants to make other boys bleed. He wants blood and the throb in his veins. He wants it because as long as he remembers, blood means life. Harry wants rockets and somewhere beyond the reach of fences.
Days pass. They play; Harry dreams.
Other teams shuttle in and out of the fences, boys in baggy jerseys with scrubbed faces and scared eyes. The camp boys frighten the newcomers. Tag likes making them bleed. He lives in a hallway, a narrow passage with two ends — where he started from and where he is going. He carries the ball in the field and stirs dust. He knocks other boys to the hard ground and savors the sound of air rushing from their lungs with “ooofs” and “ugghs.” The shuttle teams never beat the camp boys.
During a Game, a dark-haired shuttle-boy with brown eyes like lumps of night trips Harry and laughs as Harry tumbles.
“Fuckin’ meat,” he says. “You don’t even know you’re meat.”
Harry sniffles and covers his bleeding chin.
“Go ahead and cry. No mother no father, just a bag of spare parts. I feel sorry for the poor bastard who gets your liver.”
Tag boils over; his hands swell into fists. Mentors crowd the field.
The boy with dark hair laughs at Tag. “Whatcha going to do, meat?”
Tag’s fist snaps his nose. The dark-haired boy falls backward, howling as Mentors wrap their arms around Tag and drag him away.
Two days later, Harry is gone. Sterile sheets cover his bed. The week drags, and Tag’s body feels numb, feels like the day after a rough Game with plenty of fresh wounds and bruises. He drifts from the dorms past the field and to the fence beyond. A rocket steams on the launch pad in the distance, and he imagines Harry has his wish.
A Mentor approaches, a young man of twenty. He stands next to Tag, neither speaking.
The rocket bursts from the pad, crawling skyward with a puffy tail of exhaust.
“You’ve been summoned,” the Mentor says.
Tag closes his eyes and sees his own bed with sterile sheets.
“Your Prime is dead,” the Mentor says.
“Prime?” Tag blinks. He’s not sure what the word means. “Dead?”
“An accident. Dead before the techs could get to him. DOA. You won’t be needed. You’re free. They’ve got a family for you.”
Tag stares at the Mentor, trying to find traction with strange words.
“In the main hall. They’re ready.”
“I don’t under—”
“Of course you don’t,” the Mentor says. “You never do. We can’t have you wanting more than this, can we? More than playing the Game and studies and this –” He waves his hand to indicate the compound buildings. “This is everything but it’s done with you now. Your Prime is dead and no one needs your organs, now. You’re done. Fuck. You meatbags can be so stupid.”
Tag holds his breath until the Mentor steps away. Tag’s head spins as though he’d been knocked to the ground. Fog floods his thinking. He sees Harry’s bloody chin. He hears the boy with dark hair saying the words “a bag of spare parts” and tries to remember the joy of making him bleed. He forces his eyes shut and finds a dream of rockets, the stars, and Harry before the harvest.
Aaron Polson lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, half dozen children, and the first half of the Benjamin/Franklin dog duo. Aaron’s stories have been listed as a recommended read by Tangent Online, received honorable mention in the storySouth Million Writers Award and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. Aaron prefers ketchup with his beans and enjoys musical theater.