I notice the faint sounds of the ingress ports opening, on schedule, as they do every 10 minutes or so throughout the day. They hover just on the edge of hearing, but I am so attuned to this environment now that I note them especially. They mark the passage of my day.
Two or three minutes later, a swarm arrives once again, the sound of thousands of tiny wingbeats echoing around the cavernous building. As they drop nearer to where we sit on our various platforms, their excited chitterings become audible.
They move fast, and are hard to see before they reach the last 10 feet or so of their descent towards you. I spot the messagebirds meant for my station fairly late this time around, and blame it on the lack of light. As much illumination as possible is natural here, filtered in from great windows in the higher reaches of the centre, but by the end of the day shift in the winter months, there is little light left.
A group of 5 messagebirds drops onto the far platform of my desk, their last communicative chirps to each other fading as they stow their wings carefully, flush with their ovoid bodies. I notice immediately from the yellow chevrons on the middle bird's wings that it has come from the Department of Public Perceptions, and will be, in their eyes at least, of the highest priority.
The little machines are now looking at me expectantly with sharp little eyes. I point at the PubPercept bird, and it cheeps happily at me, before scuttling across my desk and hopping onto the access port. Its eyes glow bright as it interfaces with my computer, and then it falls still as its mind unfurls across the trio of screens laid before me.
Most of the information I can retrieve from the bird at this point is irrelevant - video footage of its view during its journey, mappings of course deviations, ident data for the sender. I ignore the screens that are offering these, and concentrate on the destination information.
The message is for the Department of Public Safety, one of the departments attached to this centre. Sometimes it's necessary for me to read the message contents in order to determine the right recipient, but in this case I don't bother, since my screen is impatiently scrolling the name of Hugo Root, director of the department, at me.
This is an easy one. I touch a few points on the screen, so familiar through habit, and the message skips away through the internal network to Mr Root.
Message sent, the various data streams on my screens fold back into nothing, as the bird purges its memory of this successfully completed mission. After a couple of seconds, its little head twitches slightly, its eyes brighten once more, and it leaps from the dataport. Chirruping a short, sharp sound I always take to be "goodbye", it launches itself slowly into the dim spaces above me, moving upwards towards the egress ports, where it will receive instructions on where to go next.
The following 3 messages are equally simple. Another for PubSafety, one for PubWorks, and a message for the family of a Junior Guardian, routed to me because this is the nearest message centre to their Government residence.
The final bird is somewhat different, a curious little thing, much larger than the other 4 I've just dispatched. It seems older, and I can see hints of rust on its little 3-jointed legs. It chirps at me impatiently, the tone harsher than those of the Government birds I deal with most of the time.
As it moves towards the data point, I realise that it must be a personal attendant machine, one of the models which were so fashionable 15 years ago, but have fallen into disuse. It settles on the port, and information begins to fill my screens as usual. Suddenly, however, they freeze. Puzzled, I peer at the bird for any signs of trouble.
I can hear a slight mechanical whirring coming from inside it, and as I look, a small hatch on the side of the bird opens, and a small card, a real paper card, emerges from it.
The card has one word written on it, shakily.
I sigh deeply. It is a while since one of these has landed on my desk.
This message centre, Probito District 3, is attached to the Emergency Response Unit of PubSafety. Or rather, it would be attached to such a unit if it still existed.
Advances in medicine are a wonderful thing, and the past 50 years have seen miracle upon miracle worked. Where once, trained doctors were required to see to the merest break of a bone, now the average citizen, armed with a cheap portable medikit, can deal immediately with most serious injuries and ailments.
Some things, of course, are too serious to deal with. Transport accidents in particular, a fragile human body hit by a machine moving at 300 kph, these things still tend to be fatal. Generally, though, if a medikit can't deal with an injury, there is little chance of it being treatable.
And so our infrastructure of ambulances, doctors, hospitals, has dwindled into nothing. In all but name, that is. Whatever the practicalities of medical care in our times, the Government in its wisdom realised that people still needed hope. That there needed to be another safety net beyond the power of a friendly stranger wielding their ubiquitous little green case, that if it looked like the medikit wouldn't work, someone would still be there to make it better.
And so Probito District 3 Message Centre still receives distress calls. 3 blocks away, a large building, apparently occupied, and marked "Emergency Response Teams" stands empty inside. And when I receive a message like this, there is only one thing I can do with it.
I quickly tap several little-used options bunched together in one corner of my leftmost screen. The bird on my dataport twitches slightly as I reconfigure its memory. It will now believe that its job has been done successfully, and that it must return home immediately.
The dataport releases it, and it looks at me silently for a moment, as if thinking something to itself. It is more than a little disconcerting. I wonder if it knows what is really happening here. Suddenly, it launches itself into the air above me, and is gone.
I turn back to my screens, still containing frozen copies of the bird's data. I package up the location data and sender ident data, and re-route it to the centre's egress ports, where it will be passed to a bird for carriage to the Department of Sanitation. It's their responsibility to sort out dead bodies before too many people see them. Job done, my screens fade back to empty grey. I sit back and take a deep breath.
Whenever I deal with one of these, I sit for a while afterwards, stuck in a kind of shell shock. Hope, that essential human thing that we still need on some basic, primal level, no matter how much we communicate, or how sophisticated we make our channels. Hope is the sole reason for this ridiculous facade I participate in, offering that last snatch of hope, those last few seconds before helplessness crowds in.
The cry for help is a depressing way to end a shift. I pick up my coat from the small cupboard behind me, and set off down the stairway that links my platform to the nearest elevator core. I'm too inwardly occupied to talk to anyone tonight, and pass a silent journey in the lift back to ground floor.
As I leave the giant cone of the Message Centre, I tilt my head right back, as I do most evenings, and look up at the vast metal curve towering away from me into the darkening sky. As I look, a flock of 70 or so birds leaves one of the middle-level egress ports, wheels around in front of the building momentarily, and then splits, each bird speeding into the night with a message for another part of the city. I wonder if my final message of the day is among them.
Hope. Some of us, of course, charged with providing it to others, know that there is none. That there are some last chances with absolutely no reprieve. Before I step out to cross the transit-way that heads west out into the desert, I look very, very carefully, both ways.