Wish You Were Here

by Donald McCarthy

Photo by Massimiliano Morosinotto

There are snowmen in the desert. Two lines of them, in fact, flanking the bandstand and continuing behind it, although I can’t make out how many linger back there. I doubt the world of Berrion has seen many snowmen in its time. It’s hot as hell here even at the high latitude of the northern continent. The land at the equator? Intolerable for humans.

Music carries across the desert. I recognize the song, a playful one from before the Exodus from Earth, but its name escapes me. The song’s intensity grows as Kev and I trek closer to the bandstand. The musicians perform on a wooden platform in the sand, an endless blue sky behind them, the sun looming low on the western horizon. A brunette woman sings about needing somebody to love while four men play guitars and drums. They’re dressed in all black, which must be brutal in this heat. Doesn’t look like it’s paying off for them, either, as the hundred or so people who mill about in front of the stage barely pay the band any attention. Instead, they talk among themselves, a hint of anxiety and anticipation humming around them.

My eyes are drawn back to the snowmen. All are built the same. Three large snowballs piled on top of one another, two sticks for arms, charcoal for eyes and mouths, and, yes, a carrot for the nose. Not one of them looks in danger of melting. I have no idea what to make of this sight, but it certainly does not endear me to the cult of lunatics my boyfriend brought me to.

Oh. Excuse me. They’re not a cult.

Kev insisted on this when we rested in bed, tangled together a week ago. “They’re people finding a purpose. Maybe even a solution of sorts.”

I could see little in the dark, but I made out his brown hair as my chin rested on his chest, his body beneath mine. I felt his stomach rise against me as he breathed. “You don’t feel like you have a purpose?” I asked. I left unsaid what this meant about our relationship.

“It’s not just me. It’s all of us. We conquered space, and we’re still a poor excuse for a civilization. Half the colonies are failing. And the other half have failed and just won’t admit it.” I heard the anxiety in his voice. It’s subtle, most won’t catch it, but it’s there. I thought about rubbing his back, but I didn’t; sometimes his anxieties force me to think about things I don’t want to. “If this group is right,” he continued, “then we have to go. They said they’ve made contact with something not of this universe. And, yes, I know that sounds crazy but whoever or whatever they got in touch with might have, I don’t know, solutions.”

“Solutions? To what?”

“I don’t know. Our existence. Why we keep screwing up no matter where we go.”

I stayed quiet for a little bit and then asked, “How did you find these people?”

I could see his eyes in the dark as he looked up at me. “A pamphlet on my desk at work. Addressed directly to me. Old fashioned, right? That alone caught my attention. I don’t know how they knew I’d respond, how they knew what I felt. But they did.” He paused and added, “They call the beings they’ve met the Council. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering what the Council is.”

So, now we’re here. The sand invades my hair and sweat slithers across my body. During the seven mile walk from the spaceport (God forbid these lunatics arrange for vehicles), I thought about turning around every second. I think Kev needs to see this gathering, though. He needs to see this summoning fail. He’s always been a bit fanciful. Our friends say my rather literal personality helps ground him. I think that means they think me a bore. Well, better a bore than a believer in whatever the hell this nonsense is. I’ve read about groups like this before, albeit not this specific one. Many are religious in nature, believing they’ve found a divine presence. Some have absurd names out of old religions, while others, like this one, seem to enjoy being nameless. Perhaps they think it gives them gravitas.

When we reach the others near the stage, a few give us nods, but most seem confused about what to do next, although some do bop their heads along with the music. Most wander around, sometimes whispering to one another. Whoever leads this gathering has not revealed themselves. I half expect no one to show up, all of us gradually coming to terms with this being a practical joke. The presence of the snowmen certainly doesn’t promise anything serious.

A short blond woman separates from the crowd, approaching us. If Berrion’s conditions bother her, she shows no indication. Her hair lies straight, and freckles dot her sweat-free face. “Hi, there,” she says. “Who are you two?”

“I’m Becca,” I say. “This is Kev.” I add, “And this was his idea.”

She laughs. “I love a reluctant guest. They’re the ones it’s fun to win over.”

Her voice is high, like a child’s. It annoys me. “That’d be an achievement.”

“I’m Melinda,” she informs us. “Where are you two from?”

“Simia,” Kev puts in. “I’m a teacher. Becca’s an engineer. Works on spaceships.”

“Very cool,” Melinda says. The bright blue sky above starts to harbor some white clouds, one of which shadows her.

“What about you?” I ask her. “Where are you from?”

“I’m from everywhere! But I was born on Chanaris.”

I have only the vaguest notion of where Chanaris is. One of the newer colonies, famous for its sometimes-purple skies. “Didn’t like it?”

“Well, I like to stay in motion,” she says. “I’ve always enjoyed seeing what else is out there.”

I’m ready to walk away, but Kev asks, “And what have you seen? Have you seen them?”

“Them?” Melinda asks. “How dramatic! But yes, I have. I’m the Council’s representative.”

“Really?” Kev asks. “You’ve met them?” He sounds desperate, which worries me. I knew he felt lost, sure, but perhaps I’ve been underestimating just how lost. Maybe seeing this summoning fail won’t be good for him. Maybe it’ll break something in him. I resist an urge to grab his arm and pull him back to the spaceport.

“Oh, many times, yes. They’re not exactly an alien species but not human, either. Something bigger and better than both. I’d say they’re magnificent, but that doesn’t do them justice.”

I put out my hand to prevent Kev from talking. This will go better in my hands. “You’ve met the Council?” There’s a chuckle in my voice, but as soon as I say the question, I get the distinct impression of being watched. No one else looks our way, though, and I am not going to consider the snowmen.

“I certainly have,” Melinda replies. Her smile tightens, her eyes widen. “I’ve been to their home, actually. It made me understand how much humanity has wasted. How much we’ve ruined. It made me understand how much better it could be, too. You’ll see.”

“Did you happen to swallow or smoke something right before that little visit?” I ask.

“Funny. But no. I don’t need to do things like that to achieve peace now. Maybe it’s different for you.” She leans forward. “The existential dread used to eat me up. I’m sure you know what I mean. I think almost every person does. I’m offering a solution.”

“And how is this Council a solution?”

“Let’s just say they offer an existential answer to an existential problem.” She claps her hands together and her expression brightens. “But I need to get going. We’re about to begin, and they’ll need me.”

Once she’s gone, I say to Kev, “Not sure I’d want to go with the Council if we have to put up with people like her.”

He stands next to me, but he’s not present. His eyes have glazed over.

“Kev,” I say.

“Sorry, sorry,” he mutters. He looks even more like a boy than usual. “I was just thinking about, well, the place she went to. What that’d be like.”

“She’s either crazy or a con artist. Don’t get your expectations for this too high.”

“She said she’s met the Council.”

“And I can say I’m still twenty. Doesn’t make it true!”

He snorts. “Why would you want to be twenty again?”

“You know what I mean.” I soften my tone. I don’t want to hurt him. He’ll be hurt enough when he realizes this will lead to nothing. There’ll probably be some nonsense performance, maybe people saying they can feel the Council’s presence, but, in the end, he’ll be let down. It’s not that his concerns about human civilization are wrong, I feel them, too, but I’m not convincing myself that our species’ mistakes can be fixed by the Council or whatever other metaphysical nonsense Melinda and her pals want to pretend they can feel.

“Well, we’ll find out soon enough,” he says.

I shrug, eyeing the snowmen. Not even a trickle of water rolls off them despite the rising heat as the day creeps forward.

“Do you know what those snowmen are for?”

I turn to see a short, older man. He’s bald and a little hunched. He squints so much that I cannot make out his eyes. “No idea,” I say, not eager to make conversation with any of the other loons here. I glance to Kev, hoping he’ll get me out of this, but he’s talking to another couple. Not sure how he found them so fast. How long had I been staring at the snowmen?

“No idea?” he repeats.

“No, and I’m not too worried about it. Although, I am somewhat curious about what their insides must be like. I assume there’s something mechanical in them, and I wouldn’t mind knowing it.”

“You’re a mechanic?” He smiles, and it hits me he was once quite handsome.


“I was a designer of spacecraft,” he says.

Despite myself, a little curiosity rises thanks to finding a like-minded individual. “You designed spaceships? I’ve worked on them the past decade.” I have trouble imagining how someone in our field could end up in a place like this. Maybe he has a husband or wife who dragged him to this desert.

“Oh, interesting.” He rubs at his nose. “I’m retired now, but I designed them for five decades. Good years, all things considered. As good as things can be, I suppose. Where do you work?”

“Simia,” I say. “At the Parallel Port. I’m mostly a manager of other engineers nowadays, but once an engineer always an engineer in my book. I’m still a union woman.”

“You ever work on the VX-89?”

A beautiful ship. One of my favorites. I have a least favorite, too. The NR-22. Worked on that in space once. Almost died. Seven engineers were vacuumed when an airlock malfunctioned. They froze in space while screaming. But I don’t want to think about that. That needs to stay buried. “Yes, did you design that?”

“I can’t take all the credit,” he replies. “But I was on the team. I was onboard for its first voyage, too. Went all the way out to Wellhole. Fascinating, really. I’d never been that far away from the heart of the colonies before. In fact, I’d barely been away from home. But being on the outskirts, well, it’s a hell of a thing. Was to me, at least.” He chuckles, but there’s no humor in it. The band behind us starts to wrap up, and the quiet only adds a sad tone to his words. “It was demoralizing, too. You ever been out that far?”

I shake my head. This, in fact, is the furthest I’ve been from Simia. Maybe that’s part of why I’m so grouchy about this. Maybe I don’t like being so far from my routines. Routines can be so comforting even when they’re a pain.

“The damned thing is there’s nothing to see,” he continues. “Just nothing. That’s the direction we’re expanding in, too. Sure, Wellhole is the outskirts now, but in one hundred years? No, it’ll be someplace further out.” He waves his arm at the horizon as if there’s something past the wooden platform to see. “Yet, there’s only emptiness. Since humanity fled Earth, what have we found? Nothing. What have we achieved? Nothing. Seventy-two colonies of humans, and we all hate each other. There’s our stunning success.”

“I think that’s how it was on Earth before the Exodus, too,” I comment. But I take his point. That angst has been with my generation and, it appears, the generations before me. Humanity may expand, but it doesn’t learn. We destroyed Earth’s climate. Now, we’re destroying everything out here, too. Ours is a depressing tale. “I was wondering how someone as educated as you ended up here, but I think I get it now.”

“And you?” the designer asks. “Shouldn’t I be just as surprised to see someone like you here?”

Damn right he should. “Boyfriend.”

“Strange place to look for one.”

I laugh. “No, no. My boyfriend dragged me here. He’s talking to that couple over there.” But he’s not. Instead, he’s talking to a newcomer, a tall man with long gray hair who wears a coat that almost taps the sand. “Christ, Kev is going to meet everyone here, isn’t he?”

The designer crosses his arms, looking out at the growing crowd. “So, if you were dragged here, then what made your boyfriend come?”

I pause before answering. “I’m still not sure.”

“I see.”

“It’s frustrating,” I admit. That he’s someone in my profession makes me feel comfortable with him. I don’t like that I feel I need someone to be comfortable with here, but I do. There’s something off. Something that makes me need stability. “I don’t know what he’s looking for. He seems to think the Council will have solutions to his anxieties, which is starting to make me anxious. Or maybe letting me know about anxieties I already had. I don’t know. I really don’t.”

“Lot of confusion in your voice,” the designer replies. “Understandable. Any fear, though?”

Annoyance rises at the question, and I try to tap it down. “Fear of what?”

“If the Council does exist, then that’s an earthshattering revelation.”

“Earth has already been shattered,” I reply.

“Touché. But I think humanity meeting the Council may even eclipse that in terms of historic events.”

“Are you afraid?”

He shakes his head. “Not one bit, not one bit. I’d be more afraid if I was on the Council’s end of this, actually.”

“What do you mean?” But I know.

“Would you want to meet us? With our record? Imagine if we ran into an alien species and found out that they’d ruined their own world and were in the process of ruining many more. I wouldn’t want them over for dinner, I know that. Think about it: we must look terrifying to outsiders.”

He may well be right, but I don’t want to go too far down this path. I fear that the more I agree with him, the more likely he’ll start proselytizing about the Council bringing a new dawn or something. “I’m just happy to see a fellow math geek,” I say.

“From one math geek to another, I’d encourage you to consider new possibilities,” he says. “I’ve always found that if someone has an open mind, then you can be shocked at how quickly they’ll adapt.” He taps his nose. “Trust me on that one.”

“Have you been to a gathering like this before?”

“Yes, once,” he replies. “Most people here are new, though. That’s the point. You really only need one of these experiences, and if you’re willing to come out her in the middle of nowhere, then we know you’re dedicated. I only came back for a special reason. In fact, it’s about to start, and they’ll need me on stage.”

I want to ask him why, but he moves quickly, rushing through the throng of people now gathered. The crowd swallows him, and I do not see him again until he’s helped onto the stage by Melinda and another man.

Kev comes to my side, wrapping his arm around my waist. I think he’s comforting himself as much as me. “Looks like it’s getting rolling,” he says.

“You been making friends?” I ask. I plan to give him a hard time about leaving me alone for a while, but his response makes me reconsider.

“I heard some pretty strange things,” he says. “About the Council. About what people are afraid of. About their hopes, which are always, I don’t know, ill-defined, I guess. Hoping for hope. And then there are some people sound downright nihilistic.”

Despite the heat, I find myself glad to have him against me. “You want to stay?”

“Yes,” he says. “I want to see what happens. I want to see if they’re offering something real.”

“Me, too,” I admit.

Kev turns. “Really?” A few beads of sweat rest on his forehead. I resist the urge to wipe them away. I’m always fixing him up. He somehow never notices how unkempt he can be.

“Really,” I say. “I’m doubtful anything will happen, but, yeah, at this point, I do want to see.”

On stage, Melinda claps her hands together. The sound is sharp, and everyone silences. Behind her, three people stand as still as can be. One is my new friend, the designer; the other two are a man and a woman, both younger than me. Each stand about ten feet apart from the others, hands in their pockets. My designer friend seems to be fiddling with something in his pocket, but I’m not sure. Behind them, the endless desert lurks.

“Thank you for coming,” Melinda says. “The Council appreciates you. They will speak to you soon, once the proper arrangements have been made.” She smiles, almost skipping as she strolls back and forth across the stage. “I can tell some of you are excited. I can tell some of you are rolling your eyes. And I can tell some of you are scared. Well, let me assure you, you won’t be letdown, and none of you are in harm’s way no matter what happens up here.”

The three behind her stir. The looks on their faces, well, it is as if they see a sight both beautiful and horrifying. They remove something from their pockets, but I cannot tell what.

“The Council can only speak through new mouths,” Melinda states. “It is amazing and terrible, but doesn’t that describe so much of life’s memorable moments?”

The three behind her are holding knives, I realize. But this understanding comes far too late for me to do anything. They don’t hesitate, you see. I don’t know if that’s better or worse. It means they are true believers, I suppose. Certain in their righteousness. In their madness. They lift their arms and slit their throats in one swift motion. The noise of their skin being sliced reminds me of a zipper. The blood comes fast, happy to be let loose. None of them fall, though. They remain standing, perhaps held up by an unseen force. But they do die. There’s no question about that. Their color fades, and whatever existence lies in their bodies flees through the new smiles.

No one else moves. I wait for someone to run from this scene, but no one does. Maybe we’re all waiting for someone to take the first step. I am not sure what to think, what a normal reaction to this should be. Kev tightens his arm’s grasp around me, and I can sense the fear radiating inside him. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more alone. To die is human, of course, but looking at the corpses, knowing only they knew their last thoughts, reminds me of how solitary our ends are. The designer up there will be me one day. Another meaningless death, all my minor successes forgotten once I’m gone.

These dreadful thoughts threaten to swallow me. They come from somewhere deep, and I know they’ve always been inside. Will that be how it always is?

Thank you.

The voice seems as if it is nowhere and everywhere. It comes from a place of power, and it keeps me still.

The Council has heard humanity’s cries for help. Your people’s screams are imprinted on the stars. It was not difficult for us to find you. We followed the path of your species’ anguished howls. Your species has made so many mistakes, but you are the ones aware of that. For that, you deserve compassion and love. We are here to grant you both.

I should run. Everyone should run. But we don’t. The Council’s voice dances through the air, at once terrifying and calming. Melinda, damn her, was right about life’s memorable moments. I realize not one word she said to us was a lie. My stomach turns, unsure how to handle that.

Do not fear for the deaths of those on the stage. They are not real. They are, ah, the word you have for it would be replacements. You, too, can be replaced should you come with us. No one will know you left. You will not have to worry that your families and friends will sob. They will never know until they, too, decide to join the Council. Your replacements will be their guides.

I find the voice’s location: it comes from three open throats. I do not know what this means, how this can be. The voice mesmerizes me in its totality. It may as well be a god. The confidence it contains makes me wonder if it’s ever had a worry in the world, if it’s ever seen friends die, if it’s ever seen dreams fade.

“What is going on?” Kev whispers.

His voice is an abomination. “Quiet,” I hiss.

We can give birth to your replacements right here. It will require a sacrifice, but that has already been secured. Melinda has seen beauty, and she will die to make sure you can all experience it, too.

Melinda bows, her blond hair bobbing. There’s no fear from her. Is that insanity or magnificence? Is that an attitude I should desire or scorn?

You can run from us if you want. There will be no harm done to you. But, first, see your replacements. Know that you can come with us. Understand our offer. Do not deny yourself the possibility of an existence free of the pain your species has engulfed itself in.

“It’s worth it!” Melinda shouts.

Then, she is on fire.

What ignites the fire is unclear, but it starts around her feet, eagerly making its way up her pants. The flames jump around her lower torso, brewing a scent of burnt meat. Melinda does not cry out, not even when the fire wraps itself around her chest. She smiles and does not stop smiling when the smoke clouds her face. She stands impossibly still and impossibly tall, just like the dead behind her, and she becomes a burning beacon of the desert.

Some of the crowd begin to flee, running back to the spaceport, the cinder of a woman their breaking point. Others stand still, waiting for what comes next. “Should we go?” Kev asks me.

“I don’t know,” I reply. That’s a lie. I want to hear the voice of the Council again. Just one more time. I want to have its confidence, its fearlessness. It’s not afraid of mistakes, it’s not afraid of war, it’s not afraid of starvation, it’s not afraid of any of the fears that have long driven humans to cruelty and madness.

Around us, a murmur grows. I hear words muffled together. “The snowmen. The replacements.”

The snowmen come apart, snow flying around us despite the hot desert air. Some of it launches from behind the bandstand, and I realize there must be rows of snowmen behind it. From the broken snowmen, come us. I see a double of Kev, naked, stepping out of a snowman, his hair wet, his eyes vacant but slowly lighting up as if awareness dawns within him. Is he seeing Kev’s life? Our life together? And what does he make of it? Is it a life he’s happy to step into or does he see what awaits him and wonder why he couldn’t be someone else? He stumbles forward, almost bumping into a few of the other replacements.

I choose not to see my own. I wonder how they’ve done this. Did they capture our DNA? Or did they do something above human understanding? I recall the pamphlet Kev was given. Perhaps they knew who’d come. Perhaps there was an inevitability to all this.

If you are ready, we are here.  Let your replacements take up your burden while you thrive in our care. Let them go back and guide humanity to a better place.

The white clouds above turn black. Something lingers above them. A long tendril descends, breaking the clouds. The tendril ends with an open hand so large that all of us could fit on it should we choose to. It settles, palm up, a few hundred feet away. Its offer clear, it waits for our decisions.

Around us, a few more people flee while Melinda’s corpse continues to burn, her death giving life to our replacements. The heat of the desert makes the scent of charred meat potent. Humans, it turns out, smell no different than steak when they are cooked. Sickening how we’re so disposable in the end.

Kev nudges me. He gives me the same look he’s given me so many times before: he wants my permission. His wide eyes are like those of a child’s.

I say nothing and look up. I cannot see the Council’s ship above, but I know it’s there. I wonder how many tendrils it has, how many others it’s collected, where it’s been, where it’s going. “You want to go,” I tell him.

He takes my hand and squeezes it. He wants me to squeeze it back, to give him the indication that it’s all okay. I do. I smile, and I lead him. I walk with the confidence of the Council’s voice. Kev follows. He believes that I know what I’m doing. So do I. It’s a lie we’ve silently agreed to treat as truth. We both think it’s better than turning around.

Others cross the desert with us. How similar are their stories to mine? Probably only different in the details. We had all arrived at the same destination: disillusion.

We step onto the hand. It’s soft, almost cushiony, the leathery gray skin giving as we walk across it. The three outstretched fingers curl a little, before the hand takes the twenty of us up into the sky. I look down below, my replacement and Kev’s gone, probably going to the spaceport, probably going home. I wonder if they hold hands, too, and, if they do, if they do it because they want to or out of habit.

There are still some replacements down there, however. The ones whose originals fled, which makes the replacements’ existence as meaningless as mine had been. A few of them open their mouths in silent screams. They must realize their lack of purpose. One of them, a young man, falls to his knees, scratching at his face, scratching until he bleeds. A cruel fate, one that makes me shiver, but I remind myself they’re not real. They’re just replacements. I can’t allow myself to think otherwise. Not at this point.

The hand continues to bring us up. The desert below is soon nothing but a sandbox, although I still see Melinda burn; she has become the desert’s candle. The air becomes chillier as we rise, but the Council’s hand protects us. The clouds are just above. We can touch them soon. Kev was right, I reflect. He just needed me to push him to prove it. That’s why we work so well together despite our differences. That’s why we’ll be happy together in a new place. I know it. I know we did the right thing. I do. I know—

It’s my story now. She’s elsewhere, with the Council, learning the glories of worlds free from humanity’s interference. Now, it’s me. Me and him. Kev. Yes, his name is Kev. And we are the perfect couple, one who will be popular on Simia. Everyone will know us. Everyone will want to be us.

Kev (that is his name, although I had trouble finding it at first) and I are perfect because we are united in the purest of love: love for the Council. Love for something other than ourselves. Love for a universe free of stain. The Council offers that. One need only learn to embrace the beauty of existence’s end. We’ll open eyes and show humanity it’d be far better for the universe for them to jump off the cliff than continue as they are. They just need the wisdom of the Council to give them a push.

When we reach the spaceport, when we first start to see the people that make up the curse that is humanity, Kev asks me, “Do you think it’ll be hard to convince them?”

I sift through the gone woman’s memories. I say, “No.”

He squeezes my hand.