The Alpha Bio Labs main building was made of a grey-blue metal that made it look as congruent to the scenery around it as a swimwear store in the middle of the desert. Flanking the entrance were two of the vast annexes attached to the main block. Each of them was about the size of a soccer stadium. The walls were constructed of the same opaque plastic fabric as the roof. Bing approached it and pressed his ear to the wall, which was pulled so taught that it barely moved under force. If the lawyer listened closely he could hear low snuffling noises and barely audible growls. The fabric sheeting was sealed at the joins and where it met the floor. There was no space for an ant to escape, never mind for a prying eye to see in. Bing headed towards the entrance, leaving Gunderson in the car and told him to wait for a blank text message on his wrist phone. That was the signal for him to make his entrance.
Inside the lobby Bing’s nostrils were met with a hospital-like smell. The cleansers used by the cleaning robots were strong enough to kill any germ, virus, dog, cat, primate or bear that had the misfortune to be on the floor when they started cleaning. The waiting area could be described as ‘functional’ if one was trying to be kind. The chairs were plastic and looked cheap and uncomfortable. They were arranged in perfectly aligned rows to maximise space. There were no artworks, televisions, or magazine racks to be seen as one might expect in the waiting area of a large facility such as this. On the opposite side of the room from the entrance was a plastic reception desk. Behind it was a robot with a CCTV camera for a head and thin, twig-like metal limbs. It was sitting to attention, like a broom standing perfectly balanced on its end.
“Hello, I’d like to speak to a manager,” said Bing. He hadn’t really considered what ‘pretense’ he was going to use to get a meeting with someone who he could interrogate about the attack on Dr Dorrit, but he knew he would think of something.
The robot had made no response. On its chest was a touchpad screen with text and some option buttons:
Welcome to Alpha Bio Labs
My Name is Alpha
Please select your preferred mode of communication:
1. Data entry by way of an external programming device
2. Oral programming language (please select language)
3. Oral conversation (please select language)
Bing sighed audibly and chose option 3, and then chose English, on the basis that he knew nothing of programming, or indeed any other language. The lawyer had come across this type of question when interacting with robots many times before. He couldn’t prove it, but he was highly suspicious that this question was designed to test the intelligence of the person wishing to speak to the robot, and that someone was judging him for having to have a conversation with the machine rather than programming it to give him answers. Another question appeared on the touch screen:
Activate artificial personality and communication-assist mode?
Another trick question, thought Bing. He chose no.
“Welcome to Alpha Bio Labs. My name is Alpha. Please state your query,” said the robot through a monotone voice synthesiser.
“I want to speak to a manager.”
“Syntax error. Please restate your query in the correct syntax.”
Bing raised an eyebrow at the machine. Its CCTV head was locked onto him. It was very difficult to tell if the robot was being sarcastic or not. He tried again:
“Manager. I wish to speak to one.”
The robot did not respond.
No response. Bing closed his eyes and counted to ten, taking deep breaths as he did so. He opened his eyes, tapped the ‘back’ button on the robot’s chest touchpad, and selected the option for the artificial personality and communication-assist mode.
The robot slouched and began to touch buttons on the desk in front of it. The computer screen and telephone system sprang to life. From a drawer under the desk it retrieved a little bottle of nail varnish. The robot unscrewed the bottle top and began applying the varnish to the top inch of its metal fingers. Its voice had changed from the monotone synthesised voice to that of a young sounding female. She was humming and tune to herself while ignoring Bing and concentrating completely on applying the nail varnish.
“Excuse me,” he said, patience wearing thin, “I’d like to speak to a manager.”
“Which manager?” said the robot without looking at Bing.
“Ideally the managing director of this facility, but I will settle for the operations manager.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Do you know the name of the individual you wish to speak to?”
“Hmmm, I don’t think you’ll be able to speak to anyone today. But leave me your name and number and I’ll get someone to call you.” Without looking away from her freshly painted fingertips, she tossed a clipboard onto the reception in front of Bing. He watched as she held her painted fingers in front of her lens; her voicebox made a noise that sounded as if she was blowing on the nail varnish to dry it, despite the fact that she didn’t have a mouth with which to do so. She inspected the still-wet varnish and repeated the blowing charade. The varnish had begun to run down her finger. She tutted loudly and removed a pack of cotton pads and acetone from the drawer. As she unscrewed the top of the bottle she aimed her lens at Bing.
“Was there anything else?”
Bing was becoming seriously irritated by the robot.
“Listen, I really need to speak to someone. Today. It’s an urgent matter.”
Bing could see Alpha’s lens moving behind the glass. He felt her zooming in close to his face and scrutinizing him.
“Fine,” she said with a sigh, “ your name?”
She tapped at her keyboard. “You’re a lawyer?”
“Did you just search for me on the ship’s directory?”
She didn’t answer.
“Yes, I’m a lawyer.”
“Hmm, no, I don’t think that anyone will be able to speak to you today. Good day, sir, and thank you for visiting Alpha Bio Labs.”
“Listen, this is extrem-“
He was cut off by Alpha putting up her index finger to him to shush him while she answered the phone. He noted that her telephone demeanour was infinitely more pleasant than her demeanour dealing with him so far had been. She finished her conversation and noticed that Bing was still standing there. She sighed and stood up, “listen Mr Mulholland. You should leave now. Someone will call you to arrange an appointment. You cannot speak to a manager today.”
Bing was quite taken aback by this. In all his years of being a lawyer, he had never come across a receptionist so efficient. Human or robot. He was actually somewhat jealous that he didn’t have a robot receptionist of his own like this. He did have a robot receptionist but it was a little… odd. That was besides the point. He had come here to find information, and he wanted to find it himself, without Ivan Gunderson coming in with his bull in a china shop routine. He would have vastly preferred to speak to a manager and tease the information out of him, but all was not lost.
“Alright then. I understand the managers are busy, but maybe you can help me: I’d like a tour of this facility.”
Alpha recoiled slightly. “You want what?”
“We don’t do tours of this facility.”
“I think you’ll find that you do. Under regulation 4126.96.36.199 of the ship’s Scientific Undertakings Code, all scientific undertakings must provide a tour to any person or persons who request them. Of course, there is the provision that you only have to provide one tour per day, but since you didn’t seem to be aware that you even provided tours, I take it that you haven’t provided a tour yet today.”
Alpha tapped her fingers to the bottom of her lens.
“It just so happens that Ivan Gunderson, the ship’s chief of security, is right outside. He was the one who drove me here. I would hate to have to go out to him and say that I’m being refused a tour in violation of ship regulations.”
Alpha snapped back into her chair and began rapidly tapping at her keyboard. She lifted the phone and pressed ‘0’. Bing heard a series of clicks from whoever was on the other end of the phone, Alpha responded with a string of panicked-sounding whistling noises of different lengths and frequencies. There was a further brief exchange of clicks and whistles. She put the phone down and stood facing Bing.
“Mr Mulholland, would you like to come this way?”