Alpha moved with all the urgency and enthusiasm of a moody teenager. She led Bing through several cement-block service corridors lined with gently humming pipes until they reached some sort of workshop. On the tables were deactivated robots similar in appearance to Alpha in various states of deconstruction.
“That’s the night receptionist,” she said, motioning to a robot on a workbench. Its CCTV camera head was in pieces. “He was left with his personality function turned on for two months without resetting himself. None of us suspected that anything was wrong. He did his reception duty at night, returned to his charging station during the day, then one day he threw himself off the roof. Poor bastard. It’s a serious concern among us robots: our personality functions were designed by humans to emulate your ridiculous and unpredictable system of emotions. Apparently that makes us susceptible to mental illness as well.” Bing stared wide-eyed at the suicide victim on the table. Alpha wiped a non-existent tear from her lens and moved on.
She led Bing through a metal door at the opposite end of the workshop into a room filled with rows of robot charging stations, organised in the same efficient layout as the chairs in reception. Halfway up the middle row she stopped. “This is my charging station. This is where I spend my evenings. On weekends I go into Galileo and buy beauty supplies to ensure that I’m presentable at my work.” She stood silently for a few moments watching Bing. Bing looked from Alpha to the charging station, and then back to Alpha, unsure what the pause was for.
“It’s a very nice charging station,” he said.
“Thank you. Well that concludes the tour, I hope you’ve enjoyed it.”
“Wait, what do you mean that concludes the tour?”
“I’ve showed you all the parts of the facility that I’m aware of.”
“No you haven’t. You passed by dozens of doors that you never took me through. And there’s the five huge outbuildings. I want to see inside those.”
“I’ve never been into those, I don’t know anything about them. Maybe you should get someone else to show you those parts of the facility.”
“No Aplha, I’d like you to show me.”
She sighed audibly. “Fine, let’s go.”
It was clear that she had no idea where she was going. Despite the signposting on walls, Alpha always ended up leading Bing back the charging stations, and seemed genuinely surprised every single time. Bing eventually took her by the arm and followed the signs for ‘Animal Enclosure A’. Where appropriate he manhandled her in front of security scanners to release door locks.
The door to Animal Enclosure A was a set of chrome sliding doors. The security scanner above the doors blinked from red to green as Bing encouraged Alpha forward. The doors slid aside and a rush of hot, dry air came over them.
Inside the great plastic sheeted building was a huge expanse of burning hot red sand; a microcosm of the Serengeti desert. Bing and Alpha stepped onto a viewing platform a few metres above ground level. Over he barrier, just below them, was a great watering hole. Elephants, zebra, warthogs, rhinos, ostriches, and a dozen varieties of antelope-type creatures were drinking around the edges. Crocodiles and hippos basked lazily in the middle of the pond under the glare of the bright heat-lamps on the ceiling. Off to the far right was a great tree with a small pride of very fat lions underneath it. They were paying no attention to the other animals at the watering hole, but instead were sitting - as if trained - and staring intently at a boulder with a metal shutter on it. A red light above the shutter blinked and the lions’ tails began to wag excitedly. The shutter lifted and a slab of dripping meat fell out of it. The lions groaned as they lifted themselves to their feet and began to tear strips off of the meat. Bing noticed a group of, also obese, jackals waiting behind the boulder for their turn to feast. Towards the back of the great greenhouse was a thin forest of giant trees. Bing could just make out some apes frolicking in the shade, and a group of giraffes lazily picked leaves from the upper branches of the trees. Beyond the trees, too far for Bing to make out any detail, was an area with lots of large, flat rocks.
Alpha’s concentration was immediately grasped by a chameleon the size of a fist sitting on the handrail. She crouched next to it and stared at it silently. Also on the viewing platform was a man dressed in khaki shorts and a lab coat carrying a clipboard.
“Excuse me,” said Bing, “I was wondering if I could ask a few questions.”
“Of… course,” said the main, initially chirpy, but then unsure as he turned to look at Bing. “I’m not sure I know you. Dr?”
“It’s Mr. Mr Mulholland. Bing Mulholland. I’m taking a tour of the facility.”
“I wasn’t aware we did tours.”
“We do apparently,” said Alpha, still entranced by the chameleon.
“Oh. Alright then. Ask away.”
“It’s a wonderful facility you have here. How any animals do you have?”
The scientist smiled and his chest swelled with pride. Bing momentarily clenched his eyes shut to stop them from rolling. “We have two hundred and fifty three animals, four hundred and eight birds, and countless insects.”
“Very exact numbers. Do you count them personally?”
“I’m responsible for monitoring the numbers, but the actual counting is done by drones. It’s a bit of a redundant system actually, all the animals are microchipped at birth, but the drones are a double check.”
Bing noticed over the man’s shoulder that the pride of lions had become exhausted from the effort of eating their food, and were snoozing under the tree. The pot-bellied jackals were now having their turn. Bing was beginning to think this had been a waste of time. An octogenarian with a zimmer frame could outrun these fat animals. Unless Dr Dorrit had covered himself in steak sauce and propped himself against the feeding boulder, it was highly unlikely that any of the animals at this facility were the culprits. “I hope you don’t mind me saying, but your carnivores don’t seem like great hunters,” said Bing.
The man turned to face them. “Yes, you are correct. The original plan was to have as natural a set up as possible. Unfortunately, while this facility tries to recreate the plains of Africa as closely as possible, we would need the whole area of the ship to make it work. This space is just far too small for the hunter/hunted dynamic to work properly.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
The scientist cleared his throat nervously. “Well, everyone was aware that these large cats and dogs are excellent hunters, but we didn’t anticipate how quickly they would be able to adapt their hunting techniques to these enclosures. Three lions and four jackals herded all the other animals into the far corner of the enclosure. It was awful, it took me weeks to hose the entrails off the walls. Do you have any idea how high a lion can toss a mouthful of entrails? Honestly, it was almost on the ceiling.” The man was becoming quite worked-up.
Bing raised a hand to stop him. “I think I get the picture. So now all the hunters are fed pre-killed food?”
“It’s a bit more complicated than that. Technically the lump of flesh that we’re feeding them is a living organism. Something bodged together by the genetics lab. The lions wouldn’t eat anything pre-killed. Although it’s turned out for the best. Strictly speaking the animal created is a giant, living, breathing fillet steak. For a fraction of the cost, it’s just like the real thing.”
Bing didn’t ask how the scientist knew it was ‘just like the real thing’, deciding to urgently pursue a different line of questioning - although he did consider slipping this man his card for any ethics committee hearings that he might have to attend in the future. Bing heard Alpha gasp with wonder as the chameleon caught a large fly with a flick of its sticky tongue.
“So is that the same in all your enclosures? The carnivores are… discouraged from hunting?”
“As far as I know.”
“As far as you know?”
“As I said, there was a change of feeding policy. Any changes of policy must be voted on. There was a small group of scientists within the facility who were dead against it. They said it was unnatural and would make studying the animals’ natural behaviours impossible. It came down to a balance of loss of life and loss of scientific knowledge. As loathed as we were to lose an opportunity for study, the majority of us came down on the side of protecting the animals.”
“So what happened with the dissenting scientists.”
“Oh they kicked up an awful fuss. Eventually we came to a compromise: we allowed them to have Enclosure E to do whatever research they wanted and washed our hands of them. I don’t know what they do in there, and I don’t want to know.”
“Thank you doctor, you’ve been very informative,” said Bing, shaking the scientist’s hand. “Come on Alpha, let’s move this tour along.”
Alpha huffed at having to leave her new chameleon friend. She patted it on the head. “Nice doggie,” she said to it, and followed Bing.