by E. Saxey
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.
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.