by George Salis
This earth seems like a place you would call home, until you see a cluster of scintillating hooks descending through the sky and disappearing into a cityscape. Minutes later, hundreds of humans, pierced through the cheek, the hand, or even the genitalia, are pulled upward between the buildings and over the skyscrapers, through the atmosphere and into the frigidity of outer space. The source of the hooks is indiscernible, but you get the feeling that this is less an earth than a farm, ripe for the picking. The harvesters, smoke-obscured, are meticulous and methodical. But miscalculations happen, and humans that are pulled up too slowly become bloated and frostbitten, while those pulled up too quickly experience a barotrauma that explodes their eyeballs, prolapses their cochleas, and, on occasion, spontaneously ejects their brains, the parietal bone popping open like a missile hatch. These spoiled humans are thrown back as is, stuck in orbit among satellites and other debris or burnt to a crisp by atmospheric friction. Whether the harvesters discard them because they are inedible or unsellable or unable to be experimented upon is unknown, though it is believed that nutrition, economy, and science all play a role in the harvest. Fluxes of radiation borne of solar flares or other cosmic phenomena sometimes cook the humans as they are being reeled in through space. Yet this product is not thrown back. At such times, humans down on earth can just barely hear a celestial crunching, similar to the crackling of an aurora overhead, but combined with the harshness of something like deep-fried crickets. In response to this din, the humans stopper their ears with the palms of their hands and squeeze their eyelids together, attempting to unsee the imagined rows of serrated teeth, the miasmal burps of pleasure, the unidentifiable remains floating within cauldron stomachs, the defecation of pyramidal pellets containing shards of bone, broken jewelry, tufts of hair, semi-dissolved leather belts, shreds of cloth, and occasionally ellipsoid pairs of silicone.
Over time, the harvesters will become more accurate in their reaping, and so fewer humans will be thrown back, but presently the earth seems to rain ravaged humans as much as they are ‘evaporated,’ which is one of the euphemisms used by the fearful. To address that issue, humans invent a global fleet of mobile nylon nets used to catch the discarded humans over land or sea. Thus it is discovered that some humans, although not frosted by space or sickened through decompression, are still deemed subpar by the harvesters. Likewise, children below the age of twelve are invariably released, probably in compliance with some intergalactic regulation. The latter are the most resilient, but many ‘recycled’ humans, as they are dubbed, are caught dead, with their brains lobotomized or decorticated by the hooks, their bodies charred from the fall. Yet there is still an abundance of survivors whose stories become a source of terror, wonder, and inspiration.
A six-year-old boy is caught safely over the Atlantic, but found to have been skinned by the time he passed through the stratosphere, with a part of the adamantoid hook still jutting from his temple like an antenna. His corneas vaporized by ultraviolet radiation, he claims to have seen, up there, ancient astronauts in an inverted nimbus. He saw how their forms dissipate and coagulate at will, becoming tools, symbols, and what might have been their bodies, amorphous structures which echo the pillars of Greek antiquity. These beings are the Cosmic Parents of humans, the Creators and Liberators. “The journey of the hook,” the boy professes, “tests our purity and weighs our sin, for the abacuses of their consciousness can only bear so much darkness.” How can a child know these things? Some think that he is a kind of spy, yet another way to lure them, while others develop a faith in his messages, selling all their material belongings and cutting off every relationship before impaling themselves on the nearest hook, usually through the temple, in the way of the child mystic, the stabbing motion itself as innocent and alleviating as putting one’s head upon a pillow at night.
When a middle-aged woman is caught in a net at the edge of the Sahara Desert, the velocity causes her epidermis to roll into itself like a sleeping bag, her head at the claustrophobic center. Members of the rescue team carefully unroll her and determine that she was filleted of every bone, but her skin was left intact, except for a hole in her cheek from which globules of saliva dribble. What alarms them is the fact that her left eye gazes out of her right ear canal and her other eye is fixed on what appears to her as an ocean trench (later discovered in the sphincter). More than this, her heart fell to the heel of her left foot, her lungs expand and contract within her right thigh, her bowels are where her brain should be, and all the rest is equally jumbled for lack of a skeletal system. They temporarily patch the cheek-hole with gauze, which helps her say, “I heard them speaking, but not, I heard their actual thoughts, the layers and layers, the calculations. Numbers. That’s what we are to them, numbers in the mind. And me, I was an outlier. An outcast.” She only survives for a few seconds after her enigmatic comment, loose parts of her flipping and flopping from occasional wind, until a simoom nearly blows her away. Caught by her kidney-bulging wrist, a man leads her whipping body through the sandy gusts and folds her neatly in an SUV’s trunk. By being an organ donor, she is able to save other Recycles. At her funeral, she is lowered into the earth inside a matchbox for a coffin. Because of her, the term ‘spineless’ is now synonymous with bravery and resilience.
These tales of survival fuel a kind of arms race between the harvesters and the harvested. First, a brain trust is assembled by almost every government to determine what exactly attracts humans to the hooks, but this proves futile, for it is a mystery shrouded by amnesia and mythology. Some say you hear a soothing muzak, with coveted items of masscult, like smart phones or sex toys, glistening on the tips of the hooks. Others believe you are pulled in by the sobbing voices of deceased loved ones, finding them spiked through the chest and begging to be saved. A few conjecture there is a sibilant snake coiled around each hook like a worm, entreating you as if you were Eve, offering apples of knowledge, figs of immortality, a feast of the sensorium and the soul. Regardless of whatever temptation, the governments agree on a global law that forbids anyone to be within five miles of a hook and, like a total eclipse, to never look at one directly.
In the event of a hook cluster, cities are made to evacuate. Strategically placed megaphones rattle buildings’ windows with monotone messages: “The hooks do not have your best interests in mind. Do not approach the hooks.” Families sardined in cars drive past digital billboards that read: Stay Happy & Hookless, with a vintage vista of undisturbed family life in the background. Hazmat teams, with tinted visors that only allow them to perceive the lines of the hooks, sever those ominous parallels using saw-toothed scissors attached to long poles. The grounded hooks are then treated like irradiated bear traps, and so other hazmat team members drive over them in a tank-like vehicle, finding the hooks via GPS and sucking them into a vat of acid. With time, the harvesters reinforce their lines with a plasmid aura that liquefies the scissors. They also infect the billboards and announcements with subliminal messages that equate the hooks with a shortcut to paradise. The humans soon develop meteorology that forecasts the when and where of a hook cluster. Less winds, more lubricating moisture in the air, the presence of fog to hide the hooks, all and more help to determine where they will descend next. This makes evacuation more effective and less haphazard. In response to this, the harvesters eventually deploy decoy clusters of hooks, catching the populations mid-exodus. So continues this game of cat and mouse, until you see a cluster of hooks descending, not upon a city, but a country, then a continent. Across the globe, hooked humans are being pulled through the clouds, the spheres, looking down on a world shadowed by themselves, by an entire species. The few million or so humans who are not caught immediately begin their immigration to an unfinished project, evading falling shoes, hats, glasses, and bodily fluids along the way. At the center of each continent is an incomplete underground metropolis. This will be the final step in the arms race, claimed the world leaders, who are now being reeled in by the harvesters, inhaling between screams the metallic stench of outer space. Here we will live and flourish in peace.
Due to their intercontinental reaping, the harvesters are forced to incubate and breed humans, then throw them back down in a newly developed shrink-wrap that dissolves by the time they alight on the ground. But in the midst of desolate cities, the test tube humans become savage cannibals, reminding the harvesters of the tainted meat of millennia past. Yet the harvesters are not unwise to the layer of prime crop hidden beneath the surface, and after a century passes, they release a moon-sized chum bucket into orbit that slowly tips over and pours allamones over the earth. Golden spheres resembling dandelion seed heads swirl through the stratosphere and troposphere, the beginning of a nuclear summer. The nostrils of humans twitch amid the balm, the aroma, the perfume, the bouquet, the incense. They emerge from their subterranean safety to witness what appears to be a shattered sun as sparkling sky. Many stick out their dry tongues to let stray flecks settle on their taste buds and melt into a sexual urgency, others take deeper breaths and experience a desperate depression. Some pick up handfuls of the accumulated allamones and grind them into their eyes then use their stained fingers to brush their gums, quivering with euphoric revelation. The final goal of these states of mind are the same: every human skewers themselves on the nearest hook with divine gratification.
Not many years after, the harvesters net the entirety of the earth and begin to haul it away. The few thousand humans that survived the maelstrom of allamones catapult into the net by the interruption of the planet’s rotation, then press back down to earth’s surface as the net tightens. Eventually the lack of sunlight causes a worldwide ice age, which has the benefit of keeping the meat preserved. If the humans could open their frozen eyes, they would see other netted planets being pulled next to theirs like the trophy heads of colossi.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, Three Crows Magazine, Mad Scientist Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook and Instagram (@george.salis). He is the editor of The Collidescope.