Brianna Bullen is a Deakin University PhD student writing a creative thesis on memory in science fiction. She has had work published in journals including LiNQ, Aurealis,
The Last Giant Panda
Every morning, the worker put on her panda suit to work with the cubs. They did not want human intervention, and yet they asked this of her. The cubs needed to be taught how to be pandas. Every night, she would clock off work at six and shed herself, before getting into a different suit. Her panda body would be a corpse on the floor, before it was strung up on a coat hanger and put away for the next day. Her large head would sit on the upper shelves, staring down at her with large felt eyes, which obscured how small the eye holes and field of vision actually were.
She had the job for two years when talks began for automation; a robot panda would not bare the scent of humans, and would not make them reliant on human contact. She argued a robot would deprive them of spontaneity, the ability to respond to their personalities and play, and would not give them the genuine love and experience that came with touching another living biological organism. There was connection there a machine could not emulate, as much as they would be able to model the appropriate moves and be . The zoo found her list ‘ridiculous, and frankly anthropomorphizing.’
The only problem they foresaw was cost: it was a large immediate investment for long-term gain. Her wages were much less in the short-term. They made a metal bear, and tried it out. It had patches of fur crudely glued on. The cubs ran away as the noise of moving gears was too loud for them. Her co-worker joked they some people ran from cars and construction machines when they were first introduced. It would take time.
The engineers worked to decrease the sound and artificial movements of the machine. They observed footage of pandas moving, coding their rolling lumber into circuitry. Advanced artificial intelligence was programmed in, enabling them to respond to the environment and actions of the cubs to an individual degree. They claimed by the end, none of them could tell the difference between beast and machine. Some even spoke of ending the breeding program all together; it was a waste of time and resources. Pandas could be replaced by machines, and the public would not know the difference.
She told them they were not watching the pandas closely enough.
They decommissioned the program shortly after the zoo’s management overheard these plans. The head engineer was later found hanging in her apartment. These events may or may not have been related.
She got her job back, and her suit.
She saw the bi-color babies through her limited lens. Inside this body, they were her own. She let them crawl on her chest, their heavy fat and muscle compressing down, but she did not complain. They chewed on her fake face. Bat with claws. She’d push them over when they got too rough, and sometimes just for fun, and watch them roll over like giant pom-poms. They were as serene as little Buddha, with tragic black eyes. In their simulated natural environment, bamboo shot up in stratified straight lines. Plush green glass took up all the color of her city, the panda’s black and white making her feel peppermint-flavored peace. She had raised six before the automaton, watched them grow up into sulkier teens, their eye markings taking on the brand of teenage Gothic rebellion. Then she’d get reassigned when they no longer needed her. Her latest two were already starting to grow, nearly matching her sixty kilograms. She was grateful for their remaining time. With any luck, they would not be the last pandas. Her supervisors, however, thought there was something changed about them. Something wrong. They were more curious and adventurous than they should have been. In the wild, this would have been a problem. Thankfully, they were safe inside their glass, little living biology specimens.
The last panda in the wild died on a Saturday. She continued with her work until the Thursday, but something integral and unnamable had been lost. She resigned the following Monday, citing irreconcilable differences with the world.
Three days later, her first cub was introduced to the breeding program. Given a diet of bamboo shoots and panda porn, the zoo was hopeful for success.