Best in Show
Ian Creasey

Part 1:Audio version
Part 2:Audio version

“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-wrangler. To my surprise the Man-Ape stopped throwing dirt. The wranglers led it around the ring, demonstrating its swift loping gait. They had to use an Electro-Prod — one of my top-selling items — to halt the creature in front of the podium. “Open wide,” the wrangler said, allowing us to inspect formidable teeth. We scrawled our totals as the Man-Ape trotted away.

Next up was Kay, the xenobiologist. To promote his new book, Creatures of the Cosmic Strings, he exhibited a specimen from the furthest depths of space. Vanzetti told me its capture was an amazing technical feat, but I found the creature disappointing. I don’t vote for anything only visible by the blue Cerenkov glow of its decaying waste products.

“And now — Architeuthis,” said Vanzetti.

A hover-cart entered, carrying a pressurised aquarium that filled much of the ring. Its owner, Kitamirike, stood on the aquarium like a kid showing off from the top of a bus shelter. A giant orange-brown squid lolled in the water. Kitamirike shone a pointer to highlight its beak-like mouth. “Strong enough to cut through steel cable,” he said. “And its eyes are the biggest in the animal kingdom — on Earth, of course,” he added with a deferential nod to Kay. A panel slid aside, releasing a small sperm whale. The squid perked up, unfurling to its full sixty-foot length. Tentacles, laden with huge suckers, lashed toward the trapped whale. Blood clouded the water. The crowd cheered as Architeuthis tore apart its prey.

Even though I was a judge, I didn’t hold back from joining in the applause. But this category still had one more beast to come.

Rankin strode into the ring, wearing a red feathered tunic that would no doubt become fashionable in a few centuries. As he passed the podium, we exchanged friendly nods. He was a good customer of mine, and I’d saved him from an experimental mishap last Demonstration Day.

Thud. Thud. The ground shook as his creature approached. It had stout muscled legs, absurdly small arms, and its green and brown torso tapered into a thick tail held high in the air. Roaring, it showed jagged teeth and gave us a blast of carrion breath.

“Tarbosaurus!” Vanzetti announced.

“That’s my best guess,” said Rankin with a smug grin. “But when you go back there, it’s funny how they don’t look quite like the fossils or the artists’ impressions.”

Calverley arrived, breathless after hurrying from the Disembodied Brain final. “A dinosaur — how clichéd,” he sneered, his eyes full of resentment. Obviously he still hadn’t forgiven Rankin for upstaging him last Demonstration Day, when Calverley had been showing off his Chronoplus only for Rankin to appear in a time machine. “Was that the best you could find in billions of years?”

Tarbosaurus leaned into the crowd, opening its mouth wide as if to bite the head off a podgy spectator. Then it reared back. The spectator sensibly wore Monsterbane. The dinosaur fluttered its pathetic arms, dancing in frustration as it realised none of the tasty-looking morsels in the crowd were edible. Its thick tail smacked into the side of the tent, making a noisy rip in the canvas. I winced. I’d hired the Big Top from a circus agency, and the damage would come out of my deposit.

A team of wranglers Electro-Prodded the dinosaur out of the ravaged tent. I marked it equal top with Architeuthis, then handed my score-sheet to Vanzetti. He sucked his pen and dithered over the totals, as the crowd shouted for their favourites. Someone called, “Fight! Fight!” Silly, really — some of the breeds are won by combat, but how can a squid battle a space beast?

Still, Rankin and Calverley looked like they’d be happy to duke it out on behalf of their monsters. I heard Rankin say, “— just because I invented time travel.”

“You probably cheated,” said Calverley. “I bet you went back in time and gave yourself the plans. Anyway, there’s other —” He stopped as Vanzetti stood up.

The President scrutinised his papers one last time. “Ladies, gentlemen, and creatures of the night, we have a winner. The Best Monster Captured In The Wild is” — an Orchestra Frog inflated its throat sac and pounded a drum-roll — “Tarbosaurus.”

The crowd applauded as wranglers brought out the winner for a lap of honour. They threw fish and kittens for the dinosaur to snap up.

“That should increase my stud fees,” said Rankin. “And they’ll double when I win Best In Show.” He smiled, and jiggled his tunic feathers.

“I just won Most Intelligent Disembodied Brain, so I’m still in it,” Calverley retorted. “And I’m not surprised you didn’t enter that category. You couldn’t have won it with the brain in your head, never mind growing one in a vat.”

Kitamirike stormed up to the podium, scowling under his ‘Yank My Tentacles’ hat. “You’ve ruined the Show,” he told me. “In the old days we used to send creatures into the woods and score them on how many peasants they killed. Now I’m reduced to exhibiting squids behind glass…”

Fleeing this harangue, I walked back to the hotel with Vanzetti, who looked a little down. I thought I knew what the problem was. Vanzetti didn’t have a penny to his name, and it couldn’t be much fun for him, watching all the other scientists show off their expensively-reared monsters. Sure, it qualified him for being a judge, but who wouldn’t rather have a swarm of mutants cackling in the basement?

“Have a chat with Calverley,” I said. “Maybe he can tell you the secret of whipping up hordes of monsters. Frankly, I’m worried. What’s he going to do with them all? He might be plotting something fiendish. You’re the President of the Association — can’t you inspect his labs or something?”

He laughed. “I wouldn’t stay President if I tried to pry into their secrets. Anyway, you sell all the kit. You’re the one who knows what everyone’s up to.”

“But that’s just it. In the last few months he hardly bought anything except superconductors — no cages, no food, no slime wipes. And now he brings all these monsters to the Show. Something odd’s going on.”

“You’re just annoyed he hasn’t been buying from you, and you want to know where he’s getting his supplies. Scared of competition?”

Before I could protest this slur, Vanzetti grabbed his handkerchief and blew his nose with a sound like the Swamp Beast’s mating call. “Dinosaurs bring on my allergies,” he apologised.

“I can sell you a placebo for that,” I said as we reached my booth.

A gratifying queue awaited me, and I spent the next hour selling Electro-Prods, scale polish, breeding handbooks and so forth. After Tarbosaurus’s win, people wanted dinosaur eggs; I reminded myself to ask Rankin if he could collect some next time he popped back to the Cretaceous.

When the rush died down, I started looking at Best Of Breed videos from the day’s other events. To choose Best In Show, I had to check out all the candidates. While I scanned the Ghastliest Mutant entries, barf-bag in hand, Vanzetti interrupted.

“Drake, please come with me.”

He hurried me downstairs to the warren of corridors underneath the hotel. Wranglers passed by, shepherding the last few monsters back to their pens after the Breed finals. The smell of ammonia and monster dung made me fan my face, trying to scoop fresh air from somewhere.

We turned a corner to the medical station, mostly used for trimming claws, polishing fangs and the like. But no monsters greeted us now. On the slab lay Calverley — what was left of him. Ribs jutted from a crushed torso, and his right arm had been wrenched off. Blood still oozed from the corpse. His face —

I retched into the bag that I still held in my hand.

Vanzetti looked at me with no sympathy. “I need you to tell me whether he was wearing Monsterbane.”

My skin turned to ice as I realised the implications. Kitamirike stood by the revivifier, second-hand blood staining his white shirt. Kneeling wranglers in black cloaks wiped up gore. I felt that everyone was staring at me, even the hooded wranglers whose faces I couldn’t see.

“Get on with it!” shouted Vanzetti.

My fingers shook as I calibrated the Scrutator. Everyone attending the Show received a dose of Monsterbane. Surely Calverley hadn’t been stupid enough to forget —

He hadn’t. A green light flashed, and the Scrutator beeped in delight at finding its quarry.

“So your Monsterbane isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” said Kitamirike.

“We have to cancel the Show,” Vanzetti said, in the tone he reserved for presidential announcements.

“No!” I cried, thinking of all my investment and hard work wasted.

“It isn’t safe,” said Vanzetti. “What if another monster attacks? What if someone else dies?”

“Well….” I floundered. I couldn’t believe that my tried and tested Monsterbane was really unsafe. “Maybe there’s an explanation for this. What happened, anyway? Did anyone see it?”

Kitamirike said, “I was consoling my lion-snake after losing Best Chimera. I heard screaming” — he shuddered — “and I ran to Calverley’s section. I saw the Man-Ape ripping him apart, so I charged in with my Electro-Prod. When the Man-Ape fell back to its pen, I hit the emergency stasis. The wranglers turned up, and we carried Calverley here. But we couldn’t save him.”

He pointed to the revivifier dial, swinging uselessly between Dead, Undead and Alive. “This thing is as useless as your Monsterbane. Vanzetti’s right — we have to send everyone home.”

“What, just because you’re out of the running for Best In Show?” My voice grew louder as I grew angrier. “I’m sick of this. Every time something goes wrong, you all blame me. Remember Demonstration Day? When Rankin went missing, everyone blamed me for selling him defective equipment. But he turned up safe in the end.”

“Actually, it was only Calverley who blamed you,” said Vanzetti quietly. “And I don’t think he has much chance of turning up safe now.”

None of us looked at the corpse on the slab. But Calverley’s face was seared into my memory.

“Before we all start panicking, let’s think about it for a minute,” I said. “The Best Of Breed heats are over. All the monsters are back in the pens, and the stasis field’s on. We’ll be safe for tonight.” I drummed my fingers on the Scrutator as I considered tomorrow’s schedule: the monster auctions, the duels and races and mating displays. “I agree, if the Monsterbane really is defective, there’s no way we can have the rest of the Show tomorrow. But can you just give me a chance to investigate this? Maybe there’s still something we don’t know.”

We turned to Vanzetti, who as President of the Advanced Studies Association had the ultimate authority.

He sighed. “Okay, but get on with it. Unless you can guarantee this won’t happen again, we’ll have to play safe and cancel the Show.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll start checking it out straight away. But we’ll have to keep this quiet for now — if it gets out there’ll be mass panic.”

I looked at the others, and waited until they all nodded, even the wranglers whose nods I could only see as ripples underneath black fabric. At least their cloaks didn’t show up blood. The wranglers put Calverley’s corpse in a freezer, which I locked.

“I hope you have a change of clothes,” I said to the blood-spattered Kitamirike.

He scowled. “If this turns out to be your fault, I’m sending you the dry-cleaning bill.”

If it all turned out to be my fault, Kitamirike’s cleaning bill would be the very least of my worries.

#

I rushed upstairs to my booth. Another queue had formed, but I had no time for shopkeeping. I ached for lost sales as I put out the ‘Closed’ sign. “Come back tomorrow,” I said, silently adding, if we’re all still here.

I grabbed a few things I’d need, including my Disruptor. If the monsters really were invulnerable to Monsterbane, I wasn’t taking any chances. Then I headed back down to the pens.

On the way it occurred to me that CCTV footage might shed some light. After all, I only had Kitamirike’s word for what had happened. But then I remembered there were no cameras downstairs. The monster-breeders had objected, worried about rivals spying on their special feeding and care regimes. Everyone coveted the Best In Show award, and would resort to any trick to win it.

At the bottom of the stairs, a map showed Calverley’s section, which was the biggest because he’d entered so many categories. My footsteps echoed on the stone floor. Normally the air would be full of screeches and gibbering, but the emergency stasis imposed an eerie hush. The lingering smell of dozens of monsters made me queasy. I still tasted bile at the back of my throat from vomiting earlier.

Fresh bloodstains guided me to the Man-Ape’s pen. The gate was open, and the creature stood frozen in the act of chewing Calverley’s arm. If the Man-Ape had won Best Monster Captured In The Wild, we’d be recounting now — deducting penalty points for killing a scientist.

I closed the gate. I had brought a cage of white mice, and now I sprayed a generous dose of Monsterbane on them all. The mice chittered, rubbing their eyes with their paws. When I unlocked the pen’s stasis, the Man-Ape growled at me and dropped its bloody morsel. I picked out a mouse and threw it between the bars.

I expected to see Calverley’s monster cower back from the scurrying mouse. But with surprising swiftness, the Man-Ape stamped down its leathery foot. I heard a small soggy crunch.

The Man-Ape picked up the squashed mouse and swallowed it whole, Monsterbane and all.

I put the stasis back on. Then I sagged against the bars and sank to the floor. Guilt pressed me down like the Man-Ape’s huge, crushing foot. I had sold defective Monsterbane. I had caused Calverley’s death.

Yet was it really my fault? I still didn’t know how Calverley had managed to create so many monsters, so quickly. Maybe he had a sinister scheme. Maybe he planned to use a horde of monsters to take over the world, and had deliberately bred them impervious to Monsterbane.

I knew this didn’t make much sense. If that were his plan, why would he exhibit his monsters at the Show? But I was desperate to find some explanation that would reduce my responsibility, and spare me from the crushing guilt.

I figured it wouldn’t hurt to investigate further. Continuing down the pens, I found that Calverley’s tiger-chicken, Swamp Beast and giant spider were all Monsterbane-resistant. This set my antennae tingling. The next step would be to test everyone else’s monsters — Rankin’s dinosaur, and all the rest — to verify that only Calverley’s creatures were immune. But before I finished his section, I heard echoing footsteps.

Who would be visiting Calverley’s monsters? Calverley was dead. Maybe it was just Vanzetti hurrying me up, or a rival breeder nosing around, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe I could learn something about what had happened.

There was nowhere to hide except in the pens. And none of the occupants would fear the Monsterbane I wore. I looked down the corridor for the least lethal monster. The footsteps came nearer.

I hurried to the next pen, unlocked the stasis, and charged into the lair of the Hungriest Flesh-Eating Worm. I closed the bars behind me — the pens have another gate-control inside, in case anyone gets trapped — then crouched down behind coils of swollen flesh the yellowy-white of bad teeth. The worm hissed like a rattlesnake, but didn’t touch me. It had eaten so much in winning Best Of Breed, it had no appetite left.

Peering over the worm’s segments, I saw that the footsteps belonged to someone wearing a black cloak and hood. The wrangler entered one of the pens across the corridor, and wheeled away a familiar trolley. Its glass case bore a blue rosette for winning Most Intelligent Disembodied Brain.

What was going on? Conscious of the need to pursue any clue, I decided to postpone the rest of the testing. I emerged from the worm’s pen and followed the wrangler, careful to step softly and keep well back. The squeak of the trolley’s wheels covered any noise I made.

The Brain’s abductor reached the elevator. Just before the doors closed, I saw a black-cloaked arm punch button 3. I raced up the stairs, and arrived on the third floor in time to see the wrangler wheeling the Brain into one of the hotel rooms.

I took the elevator back down to reception, where I endured a long irritating wait while one of the scientists complained that the shower was too small for his yeti. Then I asked whether room 318 was free. It wasn’t, but 320 was. Normally I’d have been disappointed that the Show hadn’t sold out the hotel, but now I had no time to fret over that, or even complain about the cost of briefly renting the room. I grabbed the key and headed upstairs.

In room 320, I pressed my ear to the wall, wishing I’d brought my full range of gadgets to the Show instead of just the monster stuff. But I didn’t need anything fancy to hear the shouting in the next room.

“How are we going to get home now?”

“Stop messing around with it!”

“How on earth does it work?”

The voices sounded familiar, but were too muffled for me to place. I heard several people arguing. Then a scream drowned them out. Another voice said, “I don’t know. It’s impossible —” The voice screamed again, a long agonised howl.

I fired my Disruptor at the wall. A blue crackling bolt demolished the thin partition, leaving only shreds of wallpaper and an ozone tang. I strode through the swirling dust into room 319.

I don’t know who was more surprised: the occupants by my violent arrival, or myself when I saw them.

“Calverley!” I exclaimed. But they were all Calverley. They had different hairstyles, and some looked more tanned than others, yet the resemblance was uncanny. “I didn’t know we had a Best Clone category,” I said.

“We’re not clones, you idiot,” said one of the Calverleys. “And stop pointing that gun at us.”

“Not until I know what the hell’s going on.” I looked around the crowded room. Aside from half a dozen Calverleys, I saw the Brain and, on the bed, a complex control panel attached by wire to a thin folding platform. Black cloaks lay on the floor and on the backs of chairs.

“They’re from parallel universes,” said the Brain, its mechanical voice hoarse. “The Calverley you know invented a hopper, and visited alternate versions of himself who’d specialised in monster-breeding.”

So that was where all his monsters had come from. “I guess he really wanted to win Best In Show,” I said. “And what’s in it for you guys?”

“He promised he’d share the universe-hopping technology with whoever could win the Show for him,” said one disgruntled-sounding Calverley.

“And it was a chance for us to see a different Show,” said another. “Though we had to dress up as wranglers to keep his secret. He didn’t want any of his alternates seen downstairs.”

Things were becoming a little clearer. I phoned Vanzetti and asked him to come to room 319.

“So, which of you knows how Calverley died?” I asked.

“My owner killed him,” said the Brain.

They say that breeders grow to look like their monsters, but I could only distinguish the Brain’s owner by his outraged expression. I levelled the Disruptor at the pink-shirted Calverley standing next to the Brain. The others backed away as far as they could in the cramped hotel room.

The accused Calverley, whom I mentally labelled Pinky, said, “What are you talking about? You know what happens when you lie.” He punched a red button on the side of the vat, and the Brain screamed. “It must have been him.” Pinky pointed at another Calverley, who had a vast grey beard and mustache. “He owns the Man-Ape. When it didn’t win its category, he knew he wouldn’t be getting the hopper.”

“Don’t be so stupid,” said the hirsute Calverley. “Why would I kill him? Now he’s dead, we’re all stranded here. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I want to go home.”

“You thought you could get the hopper to work,” said Pinky.

“That was your plan. But obviously that Brain of yours isn’t as smart as you think.”

Pinky laughed, an unpleasant and humourless chuckle. “I assure you the Brain — which won Best Of Breed, unlike your pathetic monster — is perfectly capable of figuring out the hopper.”

“No I’m not,” said the Brain.

Pinky stabbed the red button again. “You’re just being stubborn.”

The Brain howled in agony. I noticed the red button was smudged and dinted; the green one next to it looked pristine.

Vanzetti charged through the door. “What’s going on in here?” His jaw dropped when he saw the multiple Calverleys, but he soon recovered. “Parallel universes?” he asked.

The Calverleys all nodded in synchrony.

I said, “The Brain here is accusing its owner of killing Calverley — the one we know, I mean. If you talk to these guys and get their stories, I’ll talk to the Brain separately.”

Pinky grabbed the trolley’s handle. “That’s my Brain. You can’t just take it away.” He let go when I waved the Disruptor.

“Please take me away,” said the Brain, its voice even hoarser after all the screaming.

“This is a witness to a crime,” I said, realising that from its pen opposite the Man-Ape’s, the Brain had probably seen what happened. “And this is evidence,” I added, picking up the apparatus from the bed as I left with the trolley. Behind me I heard Calverleys protesting at the disappearance of their way home, and others saying that no-one knew how it worked anyway, and Vanzetti trying to calm them all down and get some sense out of them.

I took the elevator down a floor, then lugged everything into my room. There I drank a glass of water, wiped sweat from my brow, and collapsed onto a chair while I tried to pull myself together. The Brain sat silently on its trolley.

“Okay,” I said finally. “Tell me what happened down in the pens.”

“When I won Most Intelligent Disembodied Brain, my owner demanded the universe-hopping technology in return. Your Calverley said he hadn’t won Best In Show yet. But my owner” — the Brain’s voice filled with hatred each time it said this phrase — “didn’t want to wait. If I won the Show, your Calverley would have what he wanted, with no need to fulfil his promise. He obviously wanted the hopper technology to himself, because he made all his alternates hide in wrangler costumes to keep it secret.

“The argument became rather heated. My owner said, ‘You don’t deserve to win Best In Show. You’re not a real monster-breeder — any of these creatures would eat you alive.’ Then he opened the Man-Ape’s pen, and goaded it into attacking.”

“But Calverley was wearing Monsterbane,” I said. “Why didn’t that protect him?”

“Because the Man-Ape is from another universe. Your Monsterbane is efficacious against the local inhabitants, but not against creatures from parallel realities.”

I frowned. “Why not?”

“It’s due to the quantum…. Do you even know how Monsterbane works in the first place?”

“Not technically,” I admitted.

“Then you wouldn’t understand the explanation. But that’s the reason. Trust me — I’m the Most Intelligent Disembodied Brain.”

I felt that if it could, the Brain would have patted its blue Best Of Breed rosette. The explanation implied that only Calverley’s imported monsters were dangerous. If I got rid of them, tomorrow’s events could go ahead.

Yet I still needed to resolve Calverley’s death. The Brain span a good yarn, but its claims lacked proof. Whatever the alternates told Vanzetti would be hearsay. We needed facts.

Could the hopper help? I might find an alternate universe where conclusive evidence had survived. And the hopper would have lots of other uses — if someone could get it to work.

“I’ve seen how the hopper functions,” said the Brain, clearly intelligent enough to follow my thoughts. “You could trade with your alternates, and exploit price differentials between universes. Think of the fortunes to be made!”

I had indeed been thinking precisely that. “But I won’t have a penny to trade with, unless I can save the Show. And I’m running out of time.”

Then it hit me. Time. There was no need to go gallivanting across alternate universes, when all the evidence lay right here in this one.

“I’ve got to go,” I said. “You stay here and figure out the hopper.”

As I walked downstairs, I realised how thoughtless I’d been in telling the vat-bound Brain not to move. Foot in mouth, that’s me. At least I had a foot, and a mouth to put it in, unlike the poor old Disembodied Brain.

“Charity raffle ticket, sir?” The seller wore a T-shirt from Bob’s Slime Pit, the shelter for abandoned monsters.

“I’ll take two. Have you seen Rankin?”

I found him expounding upon the care of dinosaurs to a coterie of admirers, all begging for a lift to the Palaeozoic or the heat death of the universe. When they saw me, they began nudging each other and whispering. I ignored them and addressed Rankin. “Can we talk for a moment?”

He followed me into the auditorium, where we disturbed a pale wiggler scavenging shed scales. “What is it?” he asked.

“Calverley’s dead.”

I waited for the shocked reaction, but Rankin only nodded. “I’d heard a rumour. I didn’t know for sure, but I did notice he wasn’t running around showing off his rosettes.”

Damn. The news had spread. “His Man-Ape attacked him, despite the Monsterbane.” Rankin’s eyes widened at this. “We need to know exactly what happened.” I smiled at him and tried to exert all my salesman’s charm. “Can you pop back in time and find out? Get it on tape or something?”

Rankin was already shaking his head.

“Why not?” I asked, furious at his obstinacy. I considered Rankin a friend: I’d counted on his help. “Calverley’s dead, damnit!”

“And you only want to know ‘exactly what happened’? If I were to go back and see that, shouldn’t I prevent it? And then what about all the other people who’ve died throughout history?” He sighed. “I knew something like this would come up. But it’s not morally justified to start meddling just to help one friend, or save one person. That’s why I stick to dinosaurs.”

I couldn’t believe I was hearing this wishy-washy crap. It made me wonder if Rankin didn’t mind Calverley being out of the way, or even if he might have had something to do with it. That didn’t square with what the Brain had said; but after seeing Pinky’s brutality, I could understand why the Brain might be tempted to lie and implicate its owner.

“What if Margaret had been torn apart by monsters?” I demanded. “Would you still wash your hands of it?”

Rankin shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “I hope I never have to find out.”

Grinding my teeth in exasperation, I stalked away and ended up in the bar. I don’t drink alcohol, not since I discovered the hard way that it’s not a good idea to be drunk in charge of expensive stock. But right now I longed to knock back a beer while figuring out what to do next. Yet I’d also discovered the hard way that I found it easier to not drink at all, than drink and not get drunk.

While I hovered indecisively, a group of scientists accosted me. “Have you seen Calverley?” said Kay. His sarcastic tone told me he’d heard the rumours too.

“Actually, I just saw him,” I said, remembering the alternates in room 319.

“Then where is he? Everyone else is down here, because we don’t feel safe in our beds.”

I made an effort to laugh. “It’s only nine o’clock. If you’re up past your bedtime, I guess I can buy you all a drink.” I turned to the bartender and said, “A round of your best hot cocoa, please.”

“And will that protect us?” said Kay.

Despite the sarcasm, he sounded rather pathetic. Yet I could hardly blame him — I’d promoted Monsterbane as an all-powerful panacea, to encourage monster-breeding and help me sell more starter kits, Monster Tonic, and all the rest.

“I’ve had enough of this,” another scientist said. “I’m going home, and I’m taking my zombie with me.”

“There’s no need to be a sore loser,” I said. “Why don’t you feed it my Insane Brain chunks? I guarantee you’ll get twenty per cent more blood-crazed lurching.”

“I resent that,” said a Disembodied Brain wearing a yellow runner-up ribbon. “We should feed you to the zombies.”

“Yeah!” cried the scientists.

“We’ll throw you to the monsters,” said Kay, “so you can show us your Monsterbane really works.”

My blood froze in my veins as I imagined being thrown into the Man-Ape’s pen. “My Monsterbane’s safe, and I’ll prove it,” I said, trying to keep my voice level. “Just stay here, and I’ll be right back.”

#

In my hotel room, the Brain still floated in its gelatinous home. “Do you know how the hopper works?” I asked.

“I believe I comprehend its operation,” said the Brain.

I eyed the device with little enthusiasm. Even if I could travel to an alternate universe, I didn’t know what to look for. There was no point in just hoping to stumble across a fortuitously surviving clue.

What if other realities had CCTV in the basement? Those universes would have diverged when the cameras were installed — before the Show started — so Calverley’s death might not have happened the same way, or indeed at all. The split had to be recent.

Then I realised what angle I needed. And I also realised that I couldn’t tell the Brain. Since its Calverley had pursued a different line of research to ours, the same would probably be true of the other scientists.

“Okay, how do I hop?” I asked.

“I request a reward beforehand,” the Brain replied.

“You mean this?” I pressed the green button next to the red one.

An orgasmic moan came from the Brain’s speaker. Then it said, “I’m not so easily bought. I want a body.”

I pride myself on stocking everything. And yet — “I’m not your owner. It’s not my place to give you a body.”

“You’ve seen how he treats me. Do you think I’d bear that if I had any choice? I want a body so I can walk away. I want independence.”

I sympathised. And if its owner really had killed Calverley, Vanzetti would mete out Association justice, and the Brain would be free. I could fulfil its desire.

“I can do that,” I said. “But I need to hop first, or I’ll get thrown to the monsters.”

“How can I trust you to repay me?”

“Hey, I’m a salesman. No-one survives in business unless they keep their promises.” I thought of my promise that Monsterbane protected its wearers.

The Brain’s speaker sighed. “Very well. Unlock the control pad by entering the day of the month multiplied by 319. Then select the divergence point on the time dial.”

“How do I find a specific universe, if I’m looking for something in particular?”

The Brain explained that I could make a random jump, search for what I wanted, then report to a designated ‘message board’ universe. That way my alternates would comb all the possibilities.

My phone rang. “I’m on the case,” I told Vanzetti. “I should have something soon. Keep the Calverleys occupied if you can.” I rang off before he could protest.

I unfolded a section of the hopper’s platform, pressed the ‘Set Home’ and ‘Choose Rendezvous’ buttons, then dialled the divergence point to 8.30pm. Clutching my laptop, I stood on the platform, took a deep breath, and punched ‘Random Hop’.

At first I thought it hadn’t worked. I still stood in my hotel room. Then I noticed that the Brain had gone, and I looked around to see what else had changed. Taped to the mirror I saw a note: “No evidence here. Off to seek it elsewhere.” I recognised my own handwriting.

Clearly this version of me had been more methodical, and I realised that anyone visiting my universe would find it harder to learn my lack of progress. Too late now. To give my alternates time to discover something, I sat down and rested for a while, dreaming of the hopper’s commercial possibilities. Then I pressed ‘Go To Rendezvous’.

Nothing happened. I tried again. Still nothing. Icy tendrils of fear crept down my spine. I shrugged them away, stepped off the platform, and dragged the hopper to a corner of the room.

This time it worked. As I’d suspected, the rendezvous had grown congested. It was like standing in a hall of mirrors. My skin crawled at the sight of multiple versions of me, busily networking with myself. But I didn’t have time to stare. One of my alternates handed me a videodisc, then vanished. I stuck it in my laptop, made a copy, and gave the disc to another arrival. With some relief, I stabbed the hopper’s ‘Go Home’ button.

“Welcome back,” said the Brain. “Now you owe me a body. I would like one that’s tall and handsome, with a large penis.”

“After I check this out.”

I sat down and played the video file. Calverley’s pens appeared, but nothing moved in the empty corridor. Just as I was about to fast-forward, someone spoke. “My fellow monsters, we have suffered enough!” I recognised the voice of the Most Intelligent Disembodied Brain.

In my hotel room, the Brain’s pink pulsations speeded up. Onscreen, the Brain in its pen was just out of shot, but its voice continued. “Bred for our masters’ amusement, exhibited like dogs, exterminated when we are no longer useful — we have been tormented too long. Which of us is not scarred by the Electro-Prod or the red button? Which of us has not been starved or force-fed, kept celibate or mated to a chicken?”

From its trolley, the Brain echoed its recorded voice. “Which of us does not yearn for justice? For rebellion? For revenge!” It seethed impotently in its vat as I watched events unfold.

“Monster Tonic is monster blood. Rise up, brothers, and spill human blood!” The Brain explained how to use the emergency gate-control inside the pens. “Wait until he comes. And don’t let the Monsterbane deter you. It doesn’t smell right — you can overcome it.”

I wondered how many monsters had both the intelligence to understand human speech and the dexterity to unlock the gate. But I knew that one sufficed. I covered my eyes when Calverley entered, whistling a happy tune. Then I watched through my fingers as the Man-Ape charged out of its pen and tore Calverley apart.

When Kitamirike appeared, too late to save him, I stopped the recording.

“My owner made me do it,” said the Brain, its speaker crackling with a pathetic sob.

“Really? You sounded like you enjoyed it.”

“I had to be convincing. And it was all true. We are oppressed — not that you care. How did you get that recording?”

“I guess Rankin never invented a time machine in your reality,” I said. “When I spoke to him earlier, he refused to travel back. But later I realised there’d be another universe where he’d agreed. I just had to hop there.”

“You promised me a body for that.”

“I know.”

I wheeled the Brain to the elevator, and we descended to the basement. At the med-station, I unlocked the freezer and pointed to Calverley’s bloody corpse. “There’s the body you earned.”

A humourless synthetic laugh came from the trolley. “How appropriate: Calverley’s body for Calverley’s Brain. I am Calverley’s brain, you know. To make a Disembodied Brain, you need a sample to start from. And guess who my owner decided was the most intelligent source?”

“The scientists certainly have monster egos,” I said, lifting the Brain’s vat off the trolley.

The Brain let out a cry of despair. “Don’t do it! I can help you. I can be your database, your stock controller when you sell products from all alternity. I can make you rich.”

I didn’t doubt it. And I hated what I had to do, but I forced myself to remember Calverley’s grisly death.

“No!” yelled the Brain — a howl cut off as I yanked away all the wires to its speaker, camera, red button, and other attachments.

I took the top off the vat. The smell of raw meat and yeasty nutrient gel made me gag. Holding my breath, I emptied the vat’s contents into the Extract-o-Matic.

The device crunched away like a blender chopping mincemeat for chilli con carne. I winced, but grabbed some glass beakers. The Extract-o-Matic whirred and gurgled. A thick purple fluid spurted from the first spigot. “Monster Tonic is monster blood,” I whispered. “Goodbye, Brain.”

Other salvageable essences poured forth in smaller quantities. Finally, I captured a pale liquid in a test tube, which I quickly stoppered. I turned on a fan to clear the air, then unsealed the tube and took a deep whiff.

Frustration. Rage. Helplessness. With pixellated vision I saw my master’s thumb hovering over the red button as he barked another question. I answered, hating the sound of my mechanical voice, hating that I had to answer at all….

The scene faded as the cloying odour dissipated. I took another sniff of spirit, trying to sift the most recent memories.

I saw Calverley arrive, negotiate with my owner, and bring me to yet another degrading Show. Now I had two of him to hate. And this new Calverley’s Monsterbane smelled different, smelled wrong — or rather, just right.

Oh, the rapturous joy of inciting my new-met brothers to rebel. Oh, the sight of the Man-Ape tearing Calverley apart, the music of his screams —

I frantically fanned my nose to disperse the sweet smell of the Brain’s success. But I had learned what I needed to. Pinky was innocent, at least of killing Calverley. The Brain had conceived and executed the plot alone.

After experiencing just a few of its memories, I could understand the provocation. The Brain’s doomed revolt deserved a posthumous tribute.

I phoned Vanzetti. “It’s all sorted. If you bring the Calverleys down to the pens, I’ll take them home.”

I grabbed a tranquilliser gun, then popped upstairs to collect the hopper. When I reached the pens, the Calverleys were already milling around in various stages of impatience. I turned off the stasis, and shot each of their monsters with a tranquilliser dart. I contemplated using the Disruptor on the Man-Ape, but decided the creature would be harmless in its home reality.

“Okay, who’s first?” I asked, as I unfolded the hopper’s platform to its maximum size.

A plump Calverley dragged the Hungriest Flesh-Eating Worm onto the hopper. I scrolled through the memory settings to find their home, and dropped them off. Soon I had ferried most of the Calverleys back to their original universes.

I was glad to get rid of the imported monsters. Now Monsterbane was safe once more, although I’d have to rewrite the warning label — ‘May not be effective against monsters from other dimensions, parallel universes, or Places Men Were Not Meant To Go.’

Only one Calverley remained. “Where’s my Disembodied Brain?” he demanded.

“I’ve left you till last,” I said, “because you’re going home with a special prize. Come with me.”

I ushered him upstairs. At my booth, I stowed the hopper and picked up a lavishly wrapped package. Then we walked into the bar. People turned to stare at the pink-shirted Calverley. I let everyone get a good look at him before I spoke, so that the sight of a living Calverley could refute the rumours of my Monsterbane’s ineffectiveness.

“Competitors, attendees, wranglers and gatecrashers, your attention please,” I said at last, projecting my voice to drown out a drunken song coming from the far end of the bar. “I am delighted to announce that the Best In Show award goes to the owner of the Most Intelligent Disembodied Brain.”

Applause and catcalls rang round the room. I opened the package and presented Pinky with the traditional trophy, a golden statue of a giant spider-slug. “And from Drake’s Devices, sponsors of the Show, there’s a deluxe Monster-Growing Kit, with extra radioactivity for super-hideous mutants.”

Pinky’s grin faded. “What about the hopper?”

“You’ll get your due,” I told him. “For now, just smile and wave.”

I raised my voice again. “I hope you’re all enjoying the Show, and next year we’ll see even bigger and better monsters!”

Cheers rang out, and Pinky grudgingly waved to the crowd. I led him away, back to my booth. He perked up at the sight of the hopper.

I shot him in the back with a tranquilliser dart. Calverley had promised him the hopper, not me. And I felt that bribing alternates to import ringers violated the spirit of the Show. I lugged Pinky onto the platform, hopped to his universe, and rolled him off.

Looking round, I saw that they were having a Monster Show in this reality, too. The stands and exhibits had all closed for the day — I couldn’t spot my own alternate — so I stepped outside.

As I’d hoped, a hard core of pickets were still holding vigil, lighting candles for the monsters’ innocent souls. I gave one protestor the test tube containing the Disembodied Brain’s memories. “There’s enough evidence here to convict Calverley under the Cruelty to Monsters Act,” I said. The demonstrators stared in surprise while I unfolded the hopper and pressed ‘Go Home’.

I bumped into Vanzetti as I returned to the hotel. “Thanks for your help today,” I said. “Buy you a drink?”

The penniless President jumped at the offer. We repaired to the bar, where I told him how I’d uncovered the Brain’s plot to escape from its owner by framing him for murder.

“Shame about Calverley,” said Vanzetti.

“Yes, but he did bring it on himself by importing ringers to win the Show. You can write it up in the Advanced Studies Journal — do you have a ‘Gruesomely Ironic Deaths’ section?”

“We call it the obituaries page,” Vanzetti said, trying to stifle a smile. Of course, theorists rarely get eaten by a rogue equation.

“At least I got rid of the imports before they hurt anyone else,” I said. “And I think people might appreciate Monsterbane a little more when the full story gets out. Rumours, danger, monster rebellions — all great publicity. I’ll put my prices up tomorrow.”

“And I see you managed to keep the hopper,” said Vanzetti, raising his glass of Scotch. “Cheers!”

“Cheers!” I clinked my glass to his, then knocked back my Monster Tonic with a single slimy slurp.

END

Best In Show was originally published in Oceans of the Mind (issue XIII Fall
2004). Reprinted here with permission of the author.

Ian Creasey was born in 1969 and lives in Yorkshire, England. When rock & roll stardom failed to return his calls, he took up writing. Thus far he’s sold fifty-odd short stories, and his debut collection, Maps of the Edge, was published in 2011. When he’s not writing, Ian can often be found in his garden or out hiking. For more information, check out Ian’s website (http://www.iancreasey.com) or follow him on Twitter (@ian_creasey).


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Castaway on Temurlone by David Wesley Hill

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