The Jungle Labs Panel

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“Papa, where’s Darla?” Wendy asked. She whined slightly.

Aaron looked down at the wolf and did his best to mask the irritation he was feeling. “She’ll be here soon.”

“But why couldn’t she come with the rest of us?”

A rude, but brutally honest answer flashed through his head, but in the interest of setting a good example, he said, “There was some confusion. Uncle Terry’s taking care of it.”

“She’ll be here before we have to out there, right?” The young wolf looked anxiously at the door.

“She will.”

Tiffany let out an amused huff. “We won’t be able to get Lisa out if she isn’t.”

Lisa’s spotted tail, which stuck out from behind the couch, twitched irritatedly. “Shut up,” she said.

“Be nice,” Aaron said. He knew Tiffany well enough to know she was nervous herself, even if she’d never admit it. She could handle crowds better than Wendy or Lisa, but they were dealing with thousands of people. Even her stubbornness couldn’t stand up to those kinds of numbers.

She wasn’t wrong about Lisa, though. She was the shyest of the girls, and didn’t do terribly well with crowds in the best of situations. If it came down to it, he’d just go out with Ginny, Tiffany, and Wendy. He wasn’t going to force Lisa out there without Darla.

Darla didn’t have problems with crowds. She loved them. She was a golden retriever, after all. And her confidence made her sisters more at ease. It was an old trick of show animals, and the main reason he had insisted on including a dog along with the more exotic animals the producers had wanted.

“Uncle Terry will fix it,” Ginny said, not looking up from the puzzle she was working on. “He’s smarter than the man in the red shirt.”

Aaron thought that if ‘the man in the red shirt’ had been smarter, they wouldn’t have this problem in the first place. He didn’t say it out loud, though. Ginny was almost guaranteed to repeat it at the worst time.

Terry slammed the door open, storming into the waiting room. Darla trotted in behind him. Wendy immediately ran to her sisters side, rubbing muzzles with the dog. Ginny and Tiffany were more restrained, but also went to greet Darla, and even Lisa poked her head out from behind the couch.

“Jungle cats and fricking wolves are okay,” Terry snarled, “but the golden retriever’s not allowed because it’s against the rules. Of all the idiocy… I was this close to gouging out my own eyes so I could claim she was a service dog!”

“I’m sorry?” Darla said, uncertainly.

Terry took a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down. “It’s not your fault, Darla. The man had more rules than common sense. Normal dogs aren’t allowed in the convention hall. He didn’t seem to realize that you being a panelist makes you an exception.”

“Are normal tigers allowed in the convention hall?” Tiffany asked.

“Normal tigers aren’t allowed in the city, so they don’t have specific rules for them here,” Terry explained. He turned to his brother. “Is everybody ready? We’re already late.”

“Now that Darla’s here,” he said, giving the dog’s ears a scratch. “At least as ready as they can be.” He looked over the four animals gathered around him, and Lisa, still behind the couch.

“There’s going to be a lot of people here,” he told them. “More than you’ve ever seen before. But they’re all friends. They’ve all seen our show, and they just want to meet you in person.”

 

The first half of the panel went better than Aaron had expected. Brad Walker, the Jungle Man, was hosting. And as long as he was asking questions, the animals were content to largely ignore the giant crowd watching them.

When they reached the audience Q&A portion, however, he could see the girls all tense up. Except for Darla, of course, who got up and walked to the front of the stage, her tongue hanging out in a doggie grin.

A teenage girl approached the microphone, slightly nervous. She wore a tiger-striped hoodie, complete with ears.

“Hi, um. I’m Stacey. I love the show. Tiffany’s my favorite.” She gave a little giggle and gestured at her hoodie. “Well, obviously.”

“You have good taste,” Tiffany said.

Stacey laughed a little more. “Thanks. Um… I was wondering, what do you think about the Jungle Labs fan fiction?”

“There’s Jungle Labs fan fiction?” Aaron asked. A chuckle rumbled through the audience. “Seriously, though. I haven’t really looked into it myself, and the girls can’t read yet.”

Terry pulled his microphone slightly closer to himself. “I would like to remind any aspiring writers out there that the girls are only children,” he said, his voice amused. “So keep it clean, okay?”

The next person was a young man, dressed in a Jungle Labs t-shirt.

“My question is for Wendy and Tiffany,” he said. “Do you ever miss real hunting?”

“Do you?” Wendy replied.

The young man laughed. “But your both, like, apex predators. Don’t your instincts ever make you want to catch your own food?”

“Wendy would probably starve if she had to catch her own food,” Tiffany said with a huff.

Wendy stood up, growling slightly. “Would not.”

Aaron cleared his throat loudly. Wendy turned her head sharply away from Tiffany, then walked over to take the pillow Darla had been using earlier, which was farther away from Tiffany.

“The girls spend a lot of time playing games designed to appease their instincts. I don’t think most of it gets on to the show, though.” He looked at his brother, who nodded.

“When they’re playing on the paddock, they look like pretty much any animals playing. If people are interested, though, we can put some up on the website. What do you say?” Terry held his hands out invitingly to the crowd, who cheered. “All right. I’ll see what I can do. Who’s next?”

A middle-aged woman. Compared to most of the con-goers, she was dressed almost formally; she wore a long, black skirt and a red blouse. She walked up to the microphone with a business-like edge to her steps.

“What gives you the right to play god?” she demanded. “What gives you-” Aaron couldn’t make out the rest, as her mic was suddenly cut and she was drowned out by the boos and jeers from the rest of the audience. A red-shirted security officer stepped between the woman and the nearest audience members, even as his partner started escorting the woman out of the hall.

Aaron held up a hand for silence, but the crowd was too worked up. He saw Darla retreat back to her sisters, who all moved closer together. Except for Lisa, who was hiding under his chair.

He spoke anyway.

“Ma’am, I am always willing to engage in civilized discussions about the ethical ramifications of my work. But this is a fan convention. If you want an interview, I’d suggest you go through official channels.”

She glared murderously at him, before the security officer continued walking her out. When the doors swung shut behind her, the crowd burst into applause.

“All.. all right,” Brad Walker said, “What’s the next question?”

Ginny’s Birthday

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Ginny looked at the cake, then up at Aaron.

“Papa, why is the food on fire?”

“It’s not the food that’s on fire,” he explained. “It’s the candles.”

“Oh,” the gorilla said, still sounding a little confused. “Why are the candles on fire in the food?”

“Do you know what day it is?”

Ginny shook her head, but Darla barked for attention.

“I know! I know!” she said excitedly, her tongue lolling out of one side of her mouth. “It’s Ginny’s birthday! Was I right? Was I right?”

Aaron looked at the golden retriever in surprise. “Yes, you are. How did you know that?”

“Uncle Terry told me. He said that Ginny was born on April sixth, and that’s today. An’ Tiffany was born on the twenty-fifth. An’ Wendy was born two days after that, an’ Lisa wasn’t born for a whole ‘nother month.”

It wasn’t entirely surprising that Darla knew so much. A lot of her pack mentality had remained in her during the uplift, and she payed a lot of attention to things that affected her sisters. He was a little surprised that she could remember dates so well. Most of the animals still had problems with any level of abstraction when it came to numbers.

“Do you know when you were born?”

She closed her mouth, whining slightly as she tried to think of an answer. “Um… after Ginny, ’cause she’s the oldest… but before Tiffany, ’cause she’s younger than me…” She whined louder in what Aaron knew to be a sign of frustration.

“You were born on April nineteenth,” he told her. He’d have to pay attention to that in the future. Her interest in the other animals was one thing, but it was possible the uplifting process had impaired her sense of self-identity.

“April nineteenth,” she repeated, then looked up at him with doleful eyes. “Can I have a treat?”

“We’re going to have a party, and that means a lot of treats. Go get your sisters and Uncle Terry, and we can get started.”

“Okay!” Darla said, racing out of the room.

“What are those?” Ginny said, pointing to a pile of brightly wrapped boxes.

“Those are your presents,” Aaron told her, “You can open them after we eat.”

“What’s in them?”

He laughed. “Well, you have to open them to find out. That’s the point in a present.

Tiffany was the first to saunter into the room. She looked at the cake, then at Aaron. “Mine?”

“No!” Ginny said. “It’s my birthday so it’s my cake!” She grunted aggressively at Tiffany. The tiger growled in return.

“Both of you calm down,” Aaron said. “Tiffany, this is Ginny’s birthday, so be nice to her. You’ll have your own birthday in a couple of weeks. You wouldn’t like her cake, anyway. We made a special cake for each of you. But Ginny, you need to learn to share more.”

Both the tiger and the gorilla looked away.

“We found her, we found her,” Darla and Wendy sang as they entered flanking Lisa. Once they pounced Tiffany, the young leopard glanced at the cameras, then slunk behind the couch to hide.

“Ready for the first televised uplifted animal birthday party?” Terry said, grinning and waving at the cameras as he entered.

“Bit of a mouthful for the promo spot,” Aaron said, dryly. He walked over to Terry and lowered his voice. “I know the producers wanted the party hats, but I’ve already had to defuse one situation already, and you know they’d all be clawed apart or eaten within five minutes anyway, so can we just skip that?”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll smooth it over later. Ginny’s going to have to wear one for the photo-shoot tonight, though.”

“Ginny’s not the one I’m worried about, but you have to explain it to Tiffany when it’s her turn later this month.”

Terry chuckled. “All we need to do is point out how great Ginny’s shoot went, and she’ll find a way to put the hat on herself.” He clapped his hands. “Okay, Ginny, make a wish and blow out the candles!”

Ginny paused for a moment. “I want a hug,” she said, then added “And a dollie.”

Jungle Labs

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“All right,” Jack Lemmer said, grinning at the camera. “Tonight we have three special guests. They’re starring in the anticipated reality show, Jungle Labs. Please welcome Doctor Aaron Brenner, Tiffany the Tiger, and Ginny the Gorilla!”

The man who entered was a tall, skinny man with wild hair. Walking alongside him was, in fact, an actual tiger, and a young gorilla was holding his hand. He smiled and waved nervously at the crowd before sitting down next to the host. Tiffany sat down next to him, looking warily at the crowd, and Ginny climbed into his lap.

“Dr. Brenner, can I call you Aaron?”

“Sure.”

“Aaron, before I start, I think what we’re all really curious about is the lab coat.”

Brenner laughed. “I’m afraid if I take it off, I’ll forget I’m a scientist.”

“Papa’s smart,” Ginny said in her synthesized voice. She wrapped her arms around his neck in a hug that drew an “aw” out of the audience.

“That’s kind of you to say, Ginny,” he told her.

“Joking aside, the actual photos of your uplifted animals came out last week,” Jack said. ”We were told you had created animals with near human intelligence, and I don’t think I was the only one who was expecting animals that could walk and talk.”

“Tiffany can walk and talk fine,” the tiger said, looking up at the host and growling.

“Don’t growl, Tiff,” Brenner said before turning to Jack. “It took me a while to get the executives to understand it as well.”

“Could you make us some uplifted producers, next?” Jack asked with a toothy grin. Aaron snorted loudly, and Ginny made ape-like chuckling noises.

“That right there, though,” Jack said, pointing at the gorilla. “She can laugh, but when she talks, she sounds all digital.”

“Well, Ginny’s just like any other gorilla,” Aaron explained, bouncing her up and down. “My designs only affect the brain. Her mouth isn’t really designed for human speech. All of the animals have a cyber-voice box installed in their throats that let them speak.”

“And how many animals do you have?”

“Why don’t you ask Tiffany?”

“Good idea! Here I am with actual talking animals on my show, and I’m wasting my time with the human. Hey, Tiffany, how- woah!” The tiger had reared up onto her hind legs and rested her paws on Jack’s desk. “Hey, there.”

“Hi.”

“So, Tiffany. How many of there are you?”

“There’s only one Tiffany,” she said.

“I think she’s gonna be the funny one, don’t you?” Jack said, looking at the laughing audience. “How many animals are with you at Jungle Labs?”

“There’s Papa, and Uncle Terry, and Ginny, and Wendy, and Darla, and Lisa. So that’s…” She paused and glanced over her shoulder at Aaron. “Six?”

“Very good,” Aaron said, reaching over to scratch her ear. “Can you tell Jack what kinds of animals your sisters are?”

“No,” she said, dropping back down to the floor. “Can we play?”

“Later, Tiff. You’ll have to forgive her,” Aaron said to Jack. “Keep in mind that while I’ve made her smarter, she’s still a cat, and only a year old.” Tiffany huffed, but she curled up at Aaron’s feet.

“Y’know, I was trying to tell the studio that I wasn’t testing well with young tigers, but they didn’t believe me. How about you, Ginny? Can you tell me what Wendy, Darla, and Leia are?”

The gorilla looked at him with big dark eyes. “Can I have a hug?”

“Now who could say no to that?” Jack asked as the audience fawned and cooed. Aaron passed Ginny over the desk to Jack. She gave him a big hug then sat down in his lap. “Now how about your sisters?”

“Wendy is a wolf, and Lisa is a leopard, and Darla is a doggy.”

“Somebody’s got a thing for alliteration, don’t they?”

“I dunno.”

“Fair enough. So, Aaron, why a TV show?”

Aaron laughed. “Because no one else would give me the money. I had all the theories worked out for uplifting a gorilla, but I needed the funding to do a live test, and nobody was interested. My brother was the one who said we could turn it into a TV show.”

“And you liked the idea?”

“I hated it, but Terry had already pitched it to the network and they’d said yes. It really became a ‘why not?’ at that point.”

“Do you think reality TV is going to be the next big wave of scientific research?”

“I hope not. I love the girls, but as far as experiments go, it’s a bit of a joke. I’m working with five species instead of just a gorilla. I’ve got no control group. I shudder to think of what kind of peer review I’m going to get.”

“Probably an ‘F’ with ‘See me after class’ written in red ink.”

“You’re probably right.”

“What does the studio think about this? The hype’s been absolutely huge!”

“That’s probably because we cost them a fortune. We’re about twice over budget, and we were already the most expensive show in production this year by a large margin.”

“How’d you manage that with these skinflints? Cause they won’t even give me a new coffee maker.”

“Uncle Terry is sneaky,” Tiffany said, still lying down.

“She’s… not wrong on that. I think he led them to think the cost of the experiment was just getting and feeding the animals. He didn’t bring up the licenses, facilities, or the actual machines we’d need to uplift them in the process until after they’d signed.”

“Y’know, I’ve got a contract negotiation coming around soon, could I borrow your brother for that?”

“I’ll have his people call your people.”

“Oh, you’ve got people now? I thought it was just animals.”

“Terry has people. I might have people, but I think Terry’s people take care of my people for me.”

“How about you, Ginny?” he said, turning to look down at the gorilla. “Do you have people?”

“I have Papa and Uncle Terry.”

“Are you excited to be on TV?”

“Can I meet Elmo?”

“We’ll see what we can do.”

“Have your people call my people,” she said, then laughed at her own joke.

“That’s all the time we have for tonight! Jungle Labs starts next Tuesday. Make sure you watch it. You can find more pictures of Tiffany and Ginny, as well as Darla, Lisa, and Wendy at late hour dot com slash Jungle Labs. Can you wave to the cameras, Ginny?”