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Canaries

LYSCom is recruiting on your campus. You're one of two dozen students sweating in a seminar room, agonizing over an application form.
Working with those less fortunate you spy on the forms of the people near you.
Not interested in a big salary as long as I have a job I care about.
If you get this job, you'll live with these people for two months, helping others and facing new challenges every day. Will their bland, worthy aspirations get on your tits? Absolutely. But you need a residential job until term starts again. The campus halls are locked and your Ma's renting out your old bedroom to a junior electrician.
Your own application sounds too heartless, too efficient, by comparison. You add a treacly sentence--my long-term goal is to make the world a better place--and sign off--Abbie Oderinde.
The results will be announced in an hour. Nervousness draws you like static to the other applicants, and you cluster on the college green. They all look about eighteen, like you. Mostly women, like you. White and well off, not like you (so if you get the job, they'll already be working with those less fortunate).
"What did you write on your form?" asks Tamsin. She looks like a fawn, brown hair and big eyes. She volunteers with refugee kids. "I sounded like such a do-gooder!"
"I driveled on a bit about social justice," says Ed, a gangly politics student of no particular gender.
Everyone laughs and admits, yeah, they're do-gooders. They liked the vague but worthy LYSCom job advert--change places, change lives. They each have a different unrealistic guess as to the specifics of the job.
Even the dismal pay is a draw for them. You're practical, you've done a lot of sums; a proper job would pay more, but work out worse after rent and bills. But God, the other applicants are actively smug about being paid peanuts. It puts a seal on everyone's sanctity.
Why does their do-gooding grate on you? You agree with them: the world's skewed. But they're so bloody sure that they're the right people to straighten things up. And that confidence comes from the skew being firmly in their favor.
The LYSCom spokeswoman trots out onto the grass to announce the successful applicants to the group. She mispronounces your name and beams. Thank the Lord--you've got the job.
"Thank you for your dedication!" says the spokeswoman. "Together, we're going to transform distant, inhospitable environments. Together, we'll test whether they can sustain human life."
Fantastic! You're going to be a coalmine canary.
The others whoop with excitement. And why not? It's exotic, it's daring, and it's making the world a better place.
You're paired with Ed. Tamsin swears she'll keep in touch. Now they're not your rivals, you feel more generous. These people might do some good; why not let them try? Why pre-emptively kick them in the teeth?
Maybe your pragmatism, of which you're so proud, is actually holding you back. Maybe it's just low self-esteem in a fancy suit. Maybe their effortless confidence will rub off on you. That could be useful.
"It's a city made of snow!" Through the comms, Tamsin gasps like a boy wizard meeting a dragon in a kid's film. "With ice domes! It's so beautiful!"
Wherever you're sent, you vow, you're going to be totally chill about it.
You and Ed are put down in a desert. Grass creeps up out of the sand, then shrubs spring from the grass, trees from the shrubs. Then walls of butter-colored rock: a stepped city, carved into the side of a mellow yellow mountain. Over the city flap huge white shade-sails. Like a ship in the desert.
"What's it look like?" Tamsin pleads, over the comms. "Ed? Abbie?"
"Hot," you say.
"Bit dusty," deadpans Ed.
You enter the empty city. It's too big, it's God-scale, but the buildings are made of rounded sandstone so that even the largest looks warmly human.
"Strange style," says Ed.
"Yeah. Sort of... Biblical-futuristic?"
"It's odd--they must have used incredible equipment to build it, but it looks rather organic."
"Yeah." That makes you wonder what kind of tools LYSCom has. You imagine a tiny crew of LYSCom workers opening a huge wound into the side of the hill, doing in an hour what innumerable hands couldn't do in an age. Then buildings rising out of the ground like an exhalation.
You and Ed are allowed--encouraged--to go anywhere. You're free-range canaries. You choose a building, push a wooden door. Indoors, the arched roof is hung with starry lamps.
"What do you think this will be?" asks Ed.
"A school?"
There's no furniture yet, but you find a kitchen with meters of worktops.
"This kitchen could serve dozens of families," Ed says, while you eat from tins. "Or young people, living in dormitories. I expect LYSCom's got interesting plans. They don't need to stick to one house per family, one room per kid--those Western cultural norms."
"I used to share a bedsit with my Ma and my brother." You're pointing out that you're normal, Western, and cultured, and that Ed's being clueless. Ed just nods, as though you're agreeing.
That night, you compare notes with Tamsin. She's feeling daunted in her huge warm cave complex. "But it's OK. If there are going to be thousands of people living here--maybe refugees...."
She's saying: If they can, I can. And if I don't, they can't.
She's in touch with some of the other new employees, who've been sent to an empty tropical island, or a steaming jungle, or a rocky sea-lashed shore.
You submit your first nightly report to LYSCom. Everything's functioning, everything's fine.
You find another room, unroll your sleeping bags. Ed paces the length of it before lying down. "Twenty-four."
"What?"
"People who could sleep in here, in bunk beds. Rather incredible."
On the second day you and Ed are told what you were sent to perform. LYSCom asks you to check that the surfaces of the walkways and steps are safe and even. So you climb cobbled paths, cross un-tilled terraces.
"Did they ship the soil out here?"
"Maybe there's some sort of quick-growing plants," says Ed, reaching down to touch the earth. "Then ravenous quick-digesting microbes...."
"Jesus, don't poke it, then!"
"Fair point. Wonder what food they'll grow?"
You've also been asked to test the chairlift. You're swung over the city on a slim metal cable. A moment of terror--what if it snaps?--then at the top, you step out onto a flowering plateau. White desert foxes streak away between the rocks. Nothing but dunes to the horizon. It's more space than you've ever had.
What would it be like to stay here? Give up college? Would the company let you be a resident, work the fresh earth? You turn to Ed to share the idea, but Ed looks nauseous, maybe with vertigo.
"That lift could only carry twenty people an hour." Ed says.
"So?"
"For a city this big?"
"But it's only bringing people to a park. This isn't where people work, they don't all need to clock on here at 9am."
You both look down at the white sails, the slices of gold between, the desert beyond.
You ask: "So where do you reckon the people will be working?"
"Ed? You awake?"
"Hmm?"
"Ed, why aren't we farmers?"
Silence from Ed.
"I mean, why didn't they send farmers here, instead of us? They'd know about irrigation, climate. We don't know. We can't report that everything's OK."
Ed mumbles that you're educated generalists.
"What use is that? You think we know better than farmers?"
Ed turns over and snores. You shouldn't have asked, but you couldn't sleep.
The city made you stupid, but it's wearing off. Why would LYSCom whisk refugees away to a snow palace, or a flowering desert? Why not spend the money on tents, medicine, peacekeeping forces?
People aren't poor because there isn't space--literal, habitable space--for them. They're not poor because of a lack of ice domes. You're not an economist, but you're not an idiot.
The task LYSCom sends, next morning, is to check the plumbing. You think hot angry thoughts while spinning taps and splashing water into a hundred hand-basins.
You blame the rich kids. You wanted their confidence to rub off on you. Instead, you got their naivety. You imagined this city full of Tamsin's refugees, sleeping in Ed's egalitarian heaps. The old frontier story, but with a happy ending.
You discover narrow staircases in a few buildings, leading to the first human-scale rooms you've seen: the servants' quarters. The style of the city implies a pledge--everything gets better for everyone--but the floor plans say otherwise.
You show Ed. You both look for more proof.
The building where you've been sleeping isn't a school. It's a huge private house. The kitchen is vast, but it's not a canteen.
The soil isn't deep enough for crops. The pools are too shallow for fish farming; they'll be full of slow-circling gold carp which will never be eaten for protein. The building you thought might be the city parliament is kitted out for rock gigs.
"Tamsin'll be furious," says Ed.
"Yeah. She's really..." You think, and swallow, "na´ve" and "deluded." "She's dedicated."
"Still, at least this was uninhabitable land, before," says Ed. "Imagine if there'd been people living here, and LYSCom had turfed them all off...."
"Who told us it was uninhabitable?"
"Oh dear. You won't say that to Tamsin, will you?"
"I suppose you're right," says Tamsin. "You couldn't grow enough food for people to eat, here, even with all the glass domes. And keeping the temperature stable must cost a fortune." She's heard similar doubts from the islanders and the jungle-dwellers.
So none of you have been sent to these exotic locations to make the world a better place. You're not brave canaries, you're underpaid caretakers, tending holiday camps for the hyper-rich.
"What do we do?" asks Tamsin.
"We could publicize it, when we get back," says Ed.
"We can't keep working for them! For weeks!" Tamsin's voice rings round the room where you've been sleeping. It'll echo less when they lay the thick carpet.
You can't afford to break your contract. "They didn't lie to us," you point out. "They just hinted."
Tamsin indignantly disconnects herself.
"But why even hint?" asks Ed. "Why not say: we've built a rather good holiday resort, can you test it for us?"
You imagine students recruited to test this place as a holiday destination. Spilling beer in the fishponds, dangling drunk off the chairlift. With the right company, in the right frame of mind, you might have done that yourself.
But instead, you dutifully examined steps and tested taps. And climbed the terraces like an awe-struck child, and tiptoed across the mountaintop.
The next day, it's still hard to see the city as ugly. It was built to beguile, and it does its job. You don't care. You weren't invested. You were smart. You throw canned meat to the desert foxes. You let the daily tasks from LYSCom pile up and you make your nightly reports entirely at random--yeah, maybe, no.
The following week, LYSCom comes to collect you both. As you lift off, the city looks like a pile of coins, then a heap of sand.
LYSCom pays you off. You get a bar job. You worry about Tamsin.
Then Ed brings a newspaper into your bar. There are a lot of photographs for such a small story, because the images are so spectacular.
You see smoke licking great grey tongues up the sheer white slopes of the snow-city, blackening the dome to a dark pearl before it cracks. Huge fragments rebounding like hailstones. You see a column of steam half a mile high, a pale volcano, because sabotaged water pipes are emptying like a mighty fountain into geothermal boreholes. You see Tamsin led away by police, her fawn-like face ash-streaked and grinning, with one fist punching the air.
"And the moral is?" Ed asks. "Hell really doesn't hath a fury like a woman scorned."
"Or: don't mess with an over-entitled idealist."
"You know, I think we could sell interviews. To the papers. Perhaps?"
You could use the money. Tamsin could probably use it too, for her legal fees.
While you decide, you drink to making the world a better place.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

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