The dog was staring at Dexi, or more specifically it seemed to be staring at the camera Dexi kept tucked away on the underside of her front foot. In some of the television shows Dexi had watched back at the zoo dogs liked to chase things, bring them back to their masters, only to have them thrown again. Was that what was happening with this dog? It had been an hour and not one of the new arrivals had said a word, so maybe this was an ordinary dog in the way Aurora had been an ordinary panda.
Dexi snapped to attention as Gerry the toucan waddled up to the rabbit, his steps scraping quietly on the metal floor. It took a moment, but the rabbit screwed up its nose and looked up at him with wide eyes, then seemed to get bored and went back to examining the floor.
"Er, hi," Gerry said, extending one wing, "I'm Gerry."
The mouse scurried away into the corner as Gerry's wing moved. The rabbit said nothing, did nothing.
"This is stupid," Dexi said, pointing with her non-camera hand towards Gerry and looking up to Chip. "They're all stupid!"
Chip sighed, and Dexi knew she was in for a lecture. With a brief glance towards the mirror-window, he made sure the hidden camera didn't needlessly face towards it and crossed the few yards between them.
"For the last time," Chip said, glaring at her, "Were you stupid before you came to the zoo? No, you learned how to get food, how to stay alive. That's much more difficult than anything Patrick's asked you to do since. This dog is a sheepdog. I'm pretty sure they get sheep to behave. That also sounds difficult. Conclusion, this is not a stupid dog."
Dexi rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean."
Chip nodded. "I do, yes. And I wish you would stop talking like that."
His voice went soft, which was much more normal for Chip. He never used to tell her off so firmly; that was always Patrick's job.
"Sheep!" the dog shouted.
Chip slitted his eyes and his shoulders slumped with a sigh. "Alternatively, this dog develops the power to speak and nothing I say is of any relevance to you."
Dexi chuckled and darted over to the dog. The dog stumbled back, getting one foot caught in Gerry's sleeping pallet. The foot slid out from under it and it yelped as it collapsed onto its backside.
"Ouch," it muttered. Then its eyes went wide and darted around the room as if it was trying to figure out who was speaking.
"Er, I think I scared it," Dexi said.
Gerry hopped over to her, leaving the rabbit for the moment. "You might want to stop saying 'it'."
"Well, I wouldn't have been saying 'it' at all if someone had told us the sex of these three, but in case you've forgotten MacLean shuffled in here, ushered the animals in, then just left. What am I meant to do with that?"
"She?" the dog said, tilting its head to one side.
"Huh?" Dexi said, turning back to face it.
"I think I am she," the dog explained. "I have she body."
Dexi shrugged and pointed towards the spot in her head that housed her brain, just behind her eyes. "Doesn't have to be your body. My friend Rita has a 'male' body, but she's still a she."
The dog frowned and seemed to literally be chewing it over. "I'm not sure."
Dexi smiled, but quickly stopped when she realised seeing more of her teeth was scaring the dog. "That's alright too. Rita didn't figure out who she was until a while after we all came to the zoo either. I probably should stop calling you 'it' though. How's 'they'?"
The dog nodded. "Alright, uh, sure."
Dexi looked to her left at the rabbit, glad to not have to crane her neck to look up at someone for once. "Don't suppose you have a gender all set and ready to go?"
The rabbit, with wide eyes, shook their head. They cleared their throat and said, "No."
Dexi nodded, then looked further left. But the mouse was still gone from their spot, and after glancing around Dexi still couldn't spot them.
Before she could begin to look around properly, the door flew open. The rushing wind brushed past Dexi even though she was at the other side of the room and she whirled round to face whoever had entered, thwacking the dog with her tail.
"Hi there, Dexi," Haldane said. Her upper and lower teeth were weirdly close together and the muscles in her throat seemed to be a little strained. "Could I borrow you for a moment?"
Dexi literally swallowed in an attempt to keep back the retort that she'd been borrowing them for almost a week already. She imagined that if she'd had a similar shape of neck her throat would have looked similar to Haldane's as she replied, "Sure thing, Miss."
Chip gaped at her as she walked past, and she hoped he wouldn't worry too much. Any worrying he did do would have been justified, of course, especially since the last time Dexi had left them she'd returned babbling strings of numbers and random letters. Haldane had fed maths problems directly into her brain to optimise how fast she could solve them and for a long time afterwards her vision had been made up entirely of bright red characters on a dark black background.
"Follow me," Haldane said, though what she thought Dexi had been doing up to that point was a mystery to her.
Haldane led her round a series of uniform right-angled corridors, left, left, right, left, each of the distances between the turns always exactly the same. The walls were all the same dark blue, and in between each turning there was a door in the midpoint of the distance. Finally, Haldane swung one of the doors open, and if Dexi hadn't known better she'd have guessed it was at random.
But it wasn't random.
There were many things in the room, many of them probably very interesting scientific instruments that would probably be used to drive her mad on one of the approaching afternoons. But Dexi saw only one thing.
"Aurora!" she screamed.
She sprinted forward into the room and barrelled right into Aurora. Aurora gasped, and Dexi realised too late that she had definitely winded her, but then her fluffy stomach shifted and she drew Dexi forward into a hug. Aurora was giggling; Dexi was holding back tears.
"As heartwarming as this genuinely is," Haldane said, "We have a problem."
Dexi reluctantly drew away from Aurora and forced herself to stay calm. Haldane could probably have guessed how emotional she would be at this reunion, but she didn't need the satisfaction.
Haldane pointed at a screen at the back of the room, which was showing the room Dexi had just come from.
"I didn't do anything!" Dexi shouted, "They just started talking!"
Haldane shook her head. "I know, I know. This has merely confirmed our theory that the anomaly was confined to the original test subjects not because the treatment you had undergone affected only you but because you were not near any other animals to infect."
"What?" Dexi exclaimed. "I didn't understand much of that but did you just call me an infection?"
Haldane shook her head and put her hand to her forehead. "Sorry, I'm not great with words. Just watch."
She pressed a button on the side of the screen and the picture changed to a very similar room, but different in that it contained only a mouse, a rabbit and a dog. The sound beeped on, and Dexi realised that they were talking in one word sentences to each other. Then the screen changed again, and this time showed a mouse, rabbit and dog trudging around the room and making ordinary animal noises.
"Those are the animals furthest from you," Haldane explained. "The animals in the room in between seem to have developed some level of intelligence, but not equal to those actually sharing your space. So, like when the frog, Treego, spent time with Aurora, something in your being is passing to the other animals and changing them too. Oh, it also doesn't seem to matter what size they are."
Dexi's bottom jaw fell open, bumping against the ground. "So that's why you sent in animals of different sizes. That's why you sent them in at all. As a test? That poor dog is now trying to understand the concept of gender because you lot wanted to test something out?"
Haldane spread her hands. "How do you think you came to be in the first place. Patrick McAfferty was trying something, per our instruction, on you."
Dexi shuddered, but forced herself to continue. "Patrick didn't know what he was doing - he never meant to do it. And he's spent all this time trying to figure out what he did. It eats him alive!"
Haldane raised an eyebrow. "Look, you really ought to check yourself before you get all high and mighty. Your friend Patrick has been tasked by us to figure out a way to reverse the process. Granted he's doing a terrible job of it, so you're probably safe in your little carnival, but you don't know everything about what you're talking about!"
Haldane's breath was sharp and shallow. Dexi had never seen her like this. But the shock of seeing her so rattled paled in comparison to the cold trembling that had begun to wrack her body. Patrick was trying to put them back? That just was not possible.
Haldane spoke in a softer voice. "I'm sorry. You may think we're monsters, but you need to have full context before you speak. I need to go back to watching the screen now. I want to see if removing you had any affect on the animals' rate of development. You seem to have taken Patrick's role, the parental figure. I'm trying to figure out if they form strong primary bonds like infant humans."
Dexi was still quivering with rage, but as Aurora stroked her softly along the ridges of her snout, she realised something she always hated realising. She was powerless; there was nothing she could do.