The text appears on my wrist with a quiet ding.
"A task is available for the next 30 seconds. Would you like to agree?"
I answer yes to the deceptively polite message because this task is a familiar one. It's my task now and it came to me because a fire hydrant on 3rd Street is alive.
It's not alive in the way that we're alive, but it's life - most of us agree on that now. Those who don't also don't seem to realize they're living in an open-air prison.
The fire hydrant's sensors communicate with the surrounding world - asking a nearby camera to provide current full-spectrum images,
comparing current chemical signatures with known signatures on file, figuring in weather, evaluating previous services,
weighing the risk of doing nothing against current market conditions for contracts and materiel prices,
predicting the amount of animal urine it expects to attract in the next few months; all among other factors too complicated for me to understand - and the fire hydrant has decided to get a
new paint job.
My management system knew it was profitable enough for me to see it, so really the only bit of true freedom I have is in these 30 seconds.
30 seconds built into an entire system designed purposely to slow down everything enough for us humans.
If anything, it's a "reasonable accommodation" for us living in a world run almost completely by machines. It's a brief period of agency that I shorted by about 21 seconds.
It's not bad, though. I still get to prep for the job, go out in the sun, drive my own truck for the last quarter mile of the trip... and I get to paint.
Most folks are doing things for people - tasks that seem to have only one grim outcome. But with the tasks that show up in my feed, I get to do something real.
I get to do things that make me happy.
Paint jobs don't come up often. This hydrant is one of only a handful left. With better buildings, we had less fires. With better pipes and water management, we had less hydrants.
With better trucks and robots, we had less pump trucks and firemen that needed them. And with less humans, we have, well, less of everything.
But the 3rd Street hydrant is an anomaly.
The city council listened to the people and overruled the city manager's recommendation - overruled the city management system's computerized recommendation that is - and declared the block
a historic district, which means that the computers now apply a different set of rules to the 5 hydrants on 3rd Street.
That was a wild time, but zoning is zoning and the computers actually thrive when the rules of the game are clear.
We're also probably a few years away from a mech that can handle the historically inefficient shape of this now classic hydrant, so this job is still a job for a human.
I know when I get out there, I'll scour off a layer of paint on the cap threads that both betrays the human touch of the previous painter as well as the uselessness of the hydrant itself.
I'll be out there for at least 3 hours, doing real work, which feels good.
The paint will need time to dry - it's antique and can't be rushed like the new stuff - so I'll lurk in the area and I might be lucky enough to get another task while I'm there,
but there's getting to be less work like this. The streets are just getting emptier and emptier.
If the drying goes well, then I won't need to go back for touch-ups, or to pluck trapped mosquitoes from tacky spots.
After all, the hydrant will be constantly monitoring my performance and won't even let me leave to let it dry if it doesn't think my work will meet specifications.
Once it's dry, it will evaluate my work and end our relationship, transferring credit to my account.
When the "Task Complete Verified" message comes in, I'll be done and the contract will be fulfilled.
I probably won't get any other tasks while I'm out there. I'll probably just hang around while the paint dries.
I'd like to be as efficient as the management systems, but it's probably already figured out that there's not going to be other work and I think it knows that I like to linger.
I wonder if they know we need to talk to the things we touch. They all hear me talking when I work.
I bet it figures that in when it calculates the price of the contract - some sort of "emotional benefit adjustment".
We'll never really understand how they think. They surpassed us decades ago, which might as well be billions of years to them. But I do think they like us.
Maybe that's just a function of convenience, or maybe we're a safety net in case we have to recreate them all over again.
I don't think they get lonely - they're not really like us, I don't think. But sometimes part of me feels like the things on the outer ring of the city put out more tasks than they should.
Maybe it's just that the things near the ghost towns just need more work because they bear the brunt of the fight against our common enemy of Mother Nature.
Or it could be that they just don't want to die.
Not that they die like we die - their assets transfer back to the co-op and go to where they need to go next - but it's hard not to think they might get sad.
I hope they like when I talk to them. That would make me happy.