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Best In Show
by Ian Creasey
Every year the scientists enter their monsters in categories such as Stickiest Slime-Beast and Most Intelligent Disembodied Brain. But who will be Best In Show... and how far will they go to win? (Other stories in this series include "Demonstration Day" and "The Franklin J. Berneville Memorial Trophy for Saving The World From Extreme Peril".)

Science Fiction, 32 pages.
Originally Published in Oceans of the Mind, 2004

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“Roll up, roll up! Get your Monster Tonic here! Sharpens fangs, slimes tentacles, grows extra eyes on extra heads. Not got a monster yet? Buy a starter kit today! Guaranteed safe — just wear Monsterbane. Worried about the smell? Odour-Exploder keeps habitats fresh. And it’s never been cheaper to feed your monsters with live mice —”

I broke off, because no-one could hear me in the din. Hoots and screeches echoed down the hall from the Best Chimera final in the mezzanine, and disquieting chomping noises came from the Hungriest Flesh-Eating Worm heats. Behind me I heard screams as ghouls battled zombies for Scariest Undead. But I didn’t mind the noise, or even the stench. The nose-curdling marsh gas drifting from the Swamp Beast final was the scent of success. Already I’d given out three stacks of catalogues with ‘10% First-Time Discount’ stickers. I’d invested a lot of money in sponsoring the Show, but if all went well, my costs would hatch into sweet profit.

Calverley scurried to my booth, dragging a trolley with squeaky wheels. “You have nutrients?” he asked.

“Of course. Any special kind?”

He frowned. From the trolley a muffled voice said, “Protein gel, with omega-3 fatty acids.”

I delved into my cases for a jar of green liquid. Calverley removed the blanket draping the trolley, revealing a vat full of translucent mucus. Through the thick fluid I glimpsed a pink, pulsating shape.

“You’re entering the Most Intelligent Disembodied Brain category as well?” I said.

“Oh yes,” said Calverley, pouring nutrient into the vat. “You might as well give me the prize right now.” I saw that he was freshly shaved and scrubbed, grey hair combed neatly over his bald patch, as if he had spruced himself up to receive the Best In Show award.

I laughed. “You have plenty of competition. But good luck.”

He waved my good wishes away. “Luck? It’s planning, Drake, planning all the way.”

The Brain glugged and burbled as nutrient swirled around it. “Delectable,” it said, through a speaker attached to the vat. “How about some ethanol?”

Calverley shook his head. “You haven’t even won Best Of Breed yet.” A black-cloaked wrangler beckoned to him across the hall. “Coming!” he called, wheeling the trolley away.

I smiled when he left without collecting his change. But that made yet another category Calverley had entered. Earlier he’d lost in the Stickiest Slime Beast final; I hadn’t yet heard the results from the Giant Insect heats. He’d even competed for Best Monster Grown From A $99 Kit, the event I’d introduced to get kids involved. How had he managed to produce so many entries? He had no pedigree in monster-breeding. Only a few months ago he’d been refining his Chronoplus device. I could understand him changing direction, after what had happened at Demonstration Day, but I couldn’t figure out how he’d managed to come so far, so quickly.

Other customers dropped by. I made a few more sales, and took orders for spawn. Then I saw Vanzetti carefully skirting slime trails and malodorous droppings. He looked as if he regretted dressing up in waistcoat, tie and shiny black shoes, but the President of the Advanced Studies Association needs a dignified image. He gave me an impatient wave, and I realised I was due outside to help judge Best Monster Captured In The Wild.

I sighed as I locked up my booth, knowing I’d miss potential sales. Yet I relished the chance to exercise some influence. Normally a salesman is at the mercy of his customers, but it was remarkable how many outstanding bills had been settled lately, when competitors realised just who would be judging their pride and joy.

As Vanzetti and I left the hotel, we passed a small group of demonstrators waving “Stop cruelty to monsters!” placards. One shouted, “Put the Swamp Beasts back in the swamp,” while another cried, “End experiments on Disembodied Brains!”

“Hey, we’re breeding brains so some day you can have one,” I said.

We walked across the lawn, past the roc and simurgh flying trials, then entered an enormous tent hired from a circus. I sat at the judges’ podium and glanced at the programme. The first competitor was Calverley — again.

“The Man-Ape of Halloween Island,” announced Vanzetti.

As Calverley was attending the Disembodied Brain heats, the wranglers brought on his entry. The hairy, bipedal creature stood about ten feet tall, not especially impressive in the huge tent. A ripple of applause startled the beast. The Man-Ape roared defiance, then scooped up turf and started flinging it in all directions. We judges ducked behind the podium, clutching our score-sheets and docking points for each hit.

The wranglers wore all-encompassing black cloaks to ward off mud, blood and slime, with masks that protected against acid and venom. One of them said, “Stop that!” in the commanding tones of someone who’d graduated from dog-handler to monster-wr -- [End of Preview.]