Sunday, September 8, 2013

WisCon 37 Spontaneous Writing Contest

Below are the 8 submitted entries in the 2013 WisCon Spontaneous Writing Contest. Each contestant was given 60 minutes to build a story around a couple of paragraphs of supplied dialog.

There were 10 registrants, and the 1st 8 who were physically present on Saturday morning became the official contestants.

Many thanks to Joe Alfano, S. Brackett Robertson, and Eric Vogt for taking time out of their convention schedules to judge the entries.


1. You must be a registered member of WisCon 37 to participate. There is no registration fee. There are no age limits or other restrictions.

2. You must provide your own computer.

3. Register for the contest by e-mailing your name to with the subject line “WisCon SWC”. Your name will be numbered in the order in which it arrived.

4. The 1st 8 people on the list who are physically present in the spontaneous programming room (Conference Room 1) at 8:30 AM on Saturday morning (for example, #s 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 9, 11, and 12) will be the contestants.

5. Each contestant will get a USB flash drive which contains a single RTF (rich-text format) document. That document will contain a few lines of dialog. Your task is to load the document onto your computer, construct a story that incorporates the supplied dialog, save it back to the flash drive, also as an RTF document, and turn it in within 60 minutes. We’ll take care of printing them out.

6. A panel of judges will read each story and rank them from #1 to #8. The best average score wins 1st prize (fame, honor, and $50). Next best wins 2nd prize (nod of appreciation and 30 bucks). A crisp Andy Jackson to #3. The other 5 get their stories posted on a wall.

Story A: Figurines, by Dylan Moonfire

Viola sighed as she pushed her way past the broken door. Her boots crunched against splinters of wood and stone. The air stunk of fire magic and the sensation of walking into it sent her skin crawling. It was Mudd's magic, that much she could tell. Only his resonance set off the twinge in her back whenever she got close. She clenched her right hand tightly until her leather glove creaked from the tension.

The city guards never understood the need for evidence. They burst into the room, magic flying and swords flashing, without a concern for bringing up the criminals up in front of the courts.

For the third time that morning, Viola wondered if the street guards were actively trying to make their job harder. She was new to the district and fresh out of training, but the sheer destruction they left behind was nothing compared to the college's descriptions of procedures or her own internship.

It took her a few careful steps into the destruction before she could identify the purpose of the front. It was a tailoring shop, judging from the shredded clothes and sodden mass of fabric samples. That would be Isir's spells, he was the water mage and somewhat of a creep when she first arrived. He was handsome enough, if you didn't mind a lazy eye that always dripped tears. He also had three wives, so there had to be some merit to the magic. But, at the moment, she just looked at his handiwork with a sinking feeling of despair.

Further into the destruction, a false stone wall had been blown into a hidden area of the block. According to the design for the building, it was suppose to be part of a warehouse on the other side of the block, but according to the investigating guard, someone managed to brick it off a few decades ago.

Little numbered cards sat in the destruction. Each number looked as neat as if it was printed one of those strange, magical printing machines over to Podarin City, but she knew it was just Mudd's handwriting.

"Don't ruin my crime scene," said Mudd from the darkness. Even the sound of his sharp voice sent a twinge down her back. His footsteps made no noise as he stepped out of the darkness, but the sense of magic scraping against her nerves flared up.

When she was a girl, she thought city guards were handsome men with chiseled chests coupled with an inability to keep their shirts on. And, in the college, it was true. But, Mudd was completely the opposite of her teenage dreams. He wasn't fat, but neither was he fit. Just a little belly and balding on the top. He wore gloves like hers, but they were dyed a purple that didn't brush off on anything else he touch.
She fought the urge of annoyance. "I know."

His eyes, a brilliant brown, stared fixedly into her eyes. The sensation of discomfort spread out along her back, itching along her spine and shoulders. "And yet, you are about to step on a curve of glass."
Viola gasped and looked down, a blush on her cheeks. Pulling her foot back, she looked down. It looked like a little glass figurine that had shattered. It also appeared to be insignificant, but Mudd didn't consider anything unimportant when it came to crime scenes.

She pulled a black board from her back and tapped it twice as she cast a short spell. The board hummed as it shed dust and lint. From the corner of her eye, she noticed Mudd flinching and scratching his wrist.
Setting the board on her knee with a practiced skill, she spread her hand over the glass and closed her eyes. Her palm tingled and she sank into the sensation. It was magical, but quickly fading. Whatever spell was in the glass had been ruined when the glass shattered.

"Check for magic."

The tension tightened her shoulders. "I am, captain."

She took her time to analyze the magic before she felt comfortable picking it up. She still used a pair of steel rods to do so. She held the board as she stood up and looked around, expecting to see Mudd standing over her.

To his surprise, he was in the corner of the room setting down cards. "What type of magic?"

Her lip curled in a smile. "You don't know."

He looked at her with a hard look. "No, you were investigating it."

The grin dropped. "It's a containment spell of some sort. Looks like it has a physical component along with a mental one. There was something alive in it once."

"Safe to touch?" He gestured down to something on the ground.

She carefully stepped over, still holding the board. Looking down, she saw an intact crystal figuring. It was a male guard of some sort. It was humming from both of their presences. She glanced at Mudd who stepped back.

The humming quieted considerably but didn't stop. It wasn't her magic but neither she nor the figuring were powerful enough to cause the glass to crack.

She held out her hand over the glass and sank into the sensations of magic. Since she knew what to look for, it only took a few seconds before she brushed against the consciousness inside. It felt like a feline and she shivered at the pitiful meow echoing across her thoughts.

"Are they safe?"

She reached down and picked it up to set it on the board.

Mudd clicked his tongue. "A spoken answer would be sufficient."

She fought the urge to snap at him. "They're safe. There is a mind inside them."

"A felony?"

"Yes, if we find a human."

He nodded with approval and pulled a black board from his own bag. Tapping on it, he cleared it off and began to gather up the crystal figurines he identified with numbers.

Viola joined him, shivering as she touched each one. She could hear their cries in her head. Tears burned her eyes, but she forced herself to keep gathering them.

"Picking anything up yet?" His voice cracked, but when she looked over, his face was stoic. It betrayed no emotions that she felt boiling inside her.

"Nothing human. Coupla cats."

Mudd glared at her response. "How do you know they’re cats?" He shook his head. "You can't make assumptions."

Her temper snapped. “How do you know they’re cats? If it looks like a cat and meows like a cat, it’s a cat. These guys think like cats.” She tapped the black board in her hand and the figurines danced on the table.

"And different from dogs, yeah?"

Her mouth closed with a snap. "Y-Yes?"

"Have you found a dog?"

The blush returned. "No, captain."

He gave another nod. "I'll look for the others further in. Could you come up with something I can use. If the magic is this fragile, we need to find something before someone ruins my crime scene."

Her jaw tightened as she stared at him.

Mudd headed into the darkness, his body sparkling with light. He left the black board behind him as the figurines hummed softly.

"Bastard," she muttered, but she set herself down next to the figurines. Spreading her hands out, she sank into the magic enchanting the glass trying to find some way of identifying them beyond the pitiful cries that echoed in her head.

Almost a half hour later, she was crying but she had a spell in her head. Next to her, she had written out the patterns of magic on a notebook. It was always hard to create a spell for another mage, usually it took months to refine it, but ever since she joined the city guards, she had been creating spells on the fly almost daily.

Mudd, who was probably five times her age, continued to push her but he also did the same, using magic skillfully despite the guard's attempt to ruin the crime scenes with their enthusiasm.

She went to set down the board and realized there was a box of food next to her. It was dense breads, sliced meat and cheeses, but it was the cloth underneath it that startled her. It was Mudd's personal lunch.

Viola looked up with surprise at Mudd who stood with another board of figurines. They were humming loudly and sparks rose in the air around them. She gasped and wiped the tears from her face before he noticed.

He didn't seem to notice as he set down the board and backed away. "You've been working for an hour, eat."

"I..." she gulped, "I got the spell." She wanted to show it off, it was something she couldn't have done a month ago.

He opened his mouth to say something, but then smiled. "If you show me, will you eat."

She gave a nod, feeling like a little girl.

He nodded. "Show me, please?"

Viola picked up two figurines. "This is a cat and this is a dog. If you use that spell," she gestured to her notes with the dog, "they'll glow when they are next to something that triggers them."


She closed her eyes and cast the spell. The magic rose around her, a tingle of power coupled with a flash of pain along her lower back. She heard Mudd stepping back and the pain subsided slightly from the interactions of their resonance.

When she opened her eyes, all the crystalline figures were glowing softly.

"How does it work?"

"The colors and brighten when they see something that would invoke an emotion from them."

She grabbed a piece of paper and drew a squirrel on it. On another page, she drew a stick figure. Folding each one, she waved the squirrel over the figurines. Two-thirds of them began to glow blue. She smiled with happiness, she wasn't absolutely sure it would work.

Waving the stick figure over the figurines, more of them began to glow blue. She remembered the canine sounds she heard as she analyzed the figurines and identified the colors.

"Just like the difference between red and blue. Besides, they’re both normally like, uh, I dunno, a soft glow ... until something lights ’em up. But it takes different things to do it. Cats light up when they see some kind of small critter they can chase, but dogs only do it for people. In f.... Oh, wait! What’s that now?"

In Mudd's hand was a figurine. It buzzed angrily from his presence but it was also glowing yellow. Unlike the rest of them, which were male guards, the figurine in his hand was female dancer.

Setting down the figurine, Mudd stepped back. "I can't do this, mage-sergeant."

She looked at him, a tightness growing in her throat, and then back down. Gulping, she waved the squirrel over the female dancer. It didn't respond. She waved the other page across it and watched the yellow glow spread out from the figure.

Her breath came faster as she waved it again.

"It won't change if you don't change anything. Try something else."

This time, Mudd's sharp words didn't annoy her. She grabbed a piece of paper, wondering what to drew. After a few seconds, she drew the city guard's seal. It was a sloppy version of it, but close enough.
When she waved it over, the yellow glow intensified into a bright red.

"What does it mean?" Mudd asked.

"I-I think it's a human."

And then she heard a little girl crying her head. She sobbed at the sound of it. A tear ran down her cheek before she wiped it away.

"A human girl," she said.

The corner of his lip curled up. "That's a felony."

She let out a shuddering sigh.

Mudd turned and headed further into the darkness. She saw him nod once. "Looks like they didn't ruin our crime scene after all."

Story B: Mission Control, by R. Scott Steele

“Picking anything up yet?”

“Nothing human. Coupla cats.”

“How do you know they’re cats?”

“How do you know they’re cats? If it looks like a cat and meows like a cat, it’s a cat. These guys think like cats.”

“And different from dogs, yeah?”

“Just like the difference between red and blue. Besides, they’re both normally like, uh, I dunno, a soft glow ... until something lights ’em up. But it takes different things to do it. Cats light up when they see some kind of small critter they can chase, but dogs only do it for people. In f.... Oh, wait! What’s that now?”

“What? Let me see!”

“Don’t get your panties in a twist. Give me a second to focus in.”

“Is it them?”

“Not sure. Could be. Here, take a look.”

“They’re big enough to be human. But how can we tell if they’re the guys we’re looking for?”

“Let’s see what happens when they see the bait. If they light up, we’ve got ‘em.”

“What are you using for bait?”

“Like I said, they think like cats, so they’re looking for something small that they can hunt. But they’re bigger than cats, so they’re gonna want something a little bigger. Hang on, I think they spotted it.”

“That? Oh my god, what did you - you didn’t!”

“I told you, they needed something to hunt.”

“But it’s a child! How could you?”

“Don’t worry, we won’t let them hurt it. Besides, they like to play with their food first.”

“They play with it? That’s sick!”

“That’s why we’re here. We’ll get ‘em before they hurt the kid.”

“We better.”

“You worry too much.”

“I can’t help it. I’d like to have kids myself someday, you know.”

“You? Yeah, right! That’s rich. Carlos, they’re on the move. Get your team into position.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just that I have never thought of you as the parenting type. You’re always focused on the job. I bet you don’t even date, do you? Well?”

“All right! I admit it. I haven’t made a lot of time for myself recently, but that doesn’t mean –“

“When’s the last time you went out on a date?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“Come on. You can tell me. I promise it won’t leave this room. Get ready, Carlos, they’re almost at your position.”

“Well… fine. The last time I was out on a date was right after I graduated from the Academy.”

“After… Holy crap, that was, like, eight years ago! No wonder you’re wound up so tight.”

“I am not!”

“Oh, please! You walk around like you’ve got a broomstick rammed up your ass. Ramrod straight and ready to snap.”

“… I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Where are our targets?”

“Don’t worry about them. Carlos took them down ten seconds ago. And look. There’s the kid, safe and sound.”

“So is it them?”

“Just a sec. Scan results are coming in now. DNA…Kirlian…Psychotron…. Yep, we’ve got ‘em!”


“How long have you been after these guys?”

“Three years.”

“Wow. Must be a relief for it to be over.”

“You have no idea.”

“So what are you going to do now?”

“I’m not sure. Whatever the Director wants, I guess.”

“Can I make a suggestion?”


“Take some time off. It doesn’t have to be long, but it wouldn’t kill you to take a vacation.”

“I don’t know…”

“Just think about it. I usually take a couple weeks off between gigs myself. I’m planning on taking my boat out for a tour of the islands.”

“That sounds nice.”

“Damn straight. Nothing but the wind and the waves for two whole weeks. If that doesn’t recharge your batteries, nothing will. So what do you say?”

“Are you inviting me to come with you?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Because we work together, that’s why!”

“That’s the worst excuse I’ve ever heard. You know damn well that interpersonal relationships are allowed. And besides, I think we work well together, don’t you?”

“Well, yeah.”

“So think of it as a team-building exercise. There’s nothing like sailing to get people more in sync with each other.”


“Come on! It’ll be fun!”

“All right! It’s a date.”

“Okay! You won’t regret it.”

“I had better not. Now let’s get this mission wrapped up. I’ve got to go shopping for a swimsuit.”

“Yes sir!”

Story C: A Meeting of Color and Light, by Kara Owl

“Picking anything up yet?”

“Nothing human. Coupla cats.”

“How do you know they’re cats?”

“How do you know they’re cats? If it looks like a cat and meows like a cat, it’s a cat. These guys think like cats.”

“And different from dogs, yeah?”

“Just like the difference between red and blue. Besides, they’re both normally like, uh, I dunno, a soft glow ... until something lights ’em up. But it takes different things to do it. Cats light up when they see some kind of small critter they can chase, but dogs only do it for people. In f.... Oh, wait! What’s that now?”

“It’s a garl,” Langan said, with a resigned sigh as he pulled his blaster from its holster and checked the charge.

“Here? But… HQ said they only haunt the snow regions!” Shaya pulled her goggles up, peering around the alley corner to try to catch a glimpse of the garl with her naked eyes. She’d never seen one outside of the damned interminable training vids, and she was not prepared for the sight. They were listed as hot-blooded reptiles, but its feathers were scintillating, throwing rainbows from even the weak morning light. “So, are the rumors true, then? Them crazy things do hunt the airna?”

Langan grunted an affirmative as he called in the report. Shaya listened to the reply with a derisive curl of her lips. “They want it to do our job for us. Feckin’ lazy—”

“Hey, you haven’t tangled with an airna. If they want—“

His reply was cut short as the shadows erupted with claws and fangs. Shaya scrambled back, sliding on the muck and detritus she’d noticed only as background noise. She scrambled back to her feet as Langan screamed in defiant pain. Despite the blood, despite holding his guts with his off hand, he lifted his blaster to point at the airna, trying to find its eyes. He wasn’t fast enough, and his hand with the blaster in it went flying, spraying Shaya’s face with blood. She flinched, wiped it away, leaving a smear on her cheek like war paint.

Langan shouted a curse, then followed it with her name, the final sound a half-scream. This finally Shaya from her shock, and her training kicked in. She lifted her blaster, pointing it at the monster, made of shadows and all things that cut, and depressed the button.

A weak stream of light erupted, enough to drive the airna back, but not enough to tear it apart.

Langan swore at her as he scuffed his heels in an attempt to move back. “Are you feckin’ kidding me,” he panted, long pauses between words telling Shaya more than she wanted to know about his pain levels. “You didn’t charge it. Useless feckin’ grunts, that’s the first rule—“

She dropped the blaster and grabbed his shoulders, trying to pull him out of the alley, into the light, into safety. “Shut up,” she muttered, her cheeks glowing red. She could see the shadows shifting now, could see the garl moving, and could taste terror at the back of her throat. She hadn’t understood, not really, not until she’d seen it.

“Backup blaster,” he panted, as she flinched away from a claw poking out at her from a shadow behind a crate.

“I tole you, HQ doesn’t authorize them anymore.”

Langan muttered some imprecation from a dead age, and she slapped the compression skin around his stump a little less gently than she should. He hissed, his dark skin turning a sickly shade of grey.

She looked away, into the eyes of the airna, and fell. Its eyes swirled, scintillating like its feathers, and it spread wide wings as it turned its head side to side, studying her. She felt it in her head, trying to bridge some gap between them full of color and sound she could not hear or see.

It hopped between them and the wall, eying the darkness, and the darkness hissed, just like a cat. The airna chirped, a strangely musical sound, and then it struck. Shaya startled at how fast it moved, and then hunched her shoulders against the sounds of the garn’s apparent agony. High pitched warbles punctuated hissing snarls and screams, and she shuddered. She held fast to the compression skin, though, despite the urge to cover her ears against the monstrous sounds.

She spotted Langan’s face, looking past her at the battle, and could not help but turn and look.

The airna held light, and its cupped its wings and drove shards of light into the shadows, into the garn. The garn slithered, trying to hide in pockets, in holes, in the bits of darkness that humans had built around their dwellings and marketplaces. It struck out with slashes against the light from pockets of darkness, trying to score a blow, trying to defend itself. It shivered from everywhere. Even the tiniest shadow, cast by a brick on the mortar that held it in place, could hold pieces of garn.

As the airna drove the light into the wall, the garn disintegrated, screaming, lashing out with its claws, with teeth. But they bounced off the airna, gaining no purchase. Shaya crossed herself even though she hadn’t been to church since she was 12, watching the airna bleach the bricks with light.

She had to look away as the airna increased the brightness, until it was a white mist against her eyelids, false heat and warmth. Within moments, it was over.

She opened her eyes again, this time to red brick, white mortar, and an airna studying her. Langan grabbed her arm weakly as she started to stand up. “What’re you doing? You can’t—“

“I think I can,” she replied, shaking free. “I’ll be back.”

She approached the airna carefully, slowly. It continued to flick its head back and forth, staring down its short, curved beak at her. Every movement it made, its feathers shimmered, shifting from blue to silver to red to gold… Shaya couldn’t even name some of the shades.

She reached out a hand, and heard “ahh,” in her head, and suddenly she knew.

“Its name is Garakh,” she said in wonder.

Story D: Hunters in the Shadows, by Joyce Frohn

“Picking anything up yet?”

“Nothing human. Coupla cats.”

“How do you know they’re cats?”

“How do you know they’re cats? If it looks like a cat and meows like a cat, it’s a cat. These guys think like cats.”

“And different from dogs, yeah?”

“Just like the difference between red and blue. Besides, they’re both normally like, uh, I dunno, a soft glow ... until something lights ’em up. But it takes different things to do it. Cats light up when they see some kind of small critter they can chase, but dogs only do it for people. In f.... Oh, wait! What’s that now?”

“It’s white.”

“Yeah, I know. I watched Barney, too. It sure glows. Real bright, too. Gotta have magic. Let’s get it. “

“Ah, Clyde have you noticed how big it is? It’s bigger than we are. “ He pulled himself up to his full four foot height.

Clyde chuckled and flexed all four arms. “So’s most humans with magic
but we get’em any way.”

“Usually we wait until they’re drunk.”

“Look, if we get this whatever to the Boss we won’t be the ones having to go out in this weird dimension. We can stay home. Nice cobwebby dungeon. TV from six dimensions. Not just the stupid stuff from here.

Checking everbody else's stuff. Flirting with the pretty goblins.“ His grin showed his teeth, all five of them.

D.B. sighed. “OK, we can try. Which end you think got the head on it?”

Clyde motioned D.B. down into the bushes at the side of the road. They peered at the glowing white blur across the road from them. They darted across the road the moonlight making their shadows dance wildly and dived into a ditch. They poked their heads cautiously out of the ditch. “It’s just standing there.”

“Mebbe, it’s dead.”

Clyde punched him in the shoulder. “Dead things don’t glow and don’t stand up.”

“Mebbe it’s drunk.”

“Drunks don’t stand up to good neither.”

They peered at it. Four legs, each longer than either of them was tall. A breeze blew by and they ducked to cover their scent. Clyde punched D.B. “That ends just a tail. Flaps in the breeze. Heads up there.”

D.B. swallowed. “Yeah. Way up. How are we going to reach it?”

They froze as they heard crackling brush coming their way. Clyde pulled them both under a bush that hung over the ditch as he got the net out of it’s pouch. All of his fifteen fingers spread the net to its fullest. D.B. drew the transfer circle on a flat patch of mud, with his tail. A split hoof with a fringe of white fur parted the bushes directly above them. Clyde started to chew a fingernail. D.B. sucked on his tail.

A second hoof joined the first mere inches from their heads. There was more rustling as a shiny white horn followed by a horse-like head came through the bushes. Clyde jumped forward and threw the net over its head. D.B. grabbed for a long slender leg.

For a moment all Clyde knew was that he was flying through the air and then he slammed into the thing’s neck. Hard. The net was hanging in shreds around its neck and he could only hang on for dear life.

There was someone screaming over and over and he wished they would stop and then he realized he was. So he stopped. He could hear D.B. moaning but couldn’t see anything but shredded net and shiny white fur. This was bad. A new net, no one had needed a new net since that idiot DuBob at tried to grabb that lady and gotten the plane, too. And DuBob was still trying to pay it off.

Just then a shake of the neck told him he had bigger problems than a shredded net. He clung to the net but the hole got wider. As he slid down, he tried to hang on but a hoof came up as he reached the thing’s chest and knocked Clyde to the ground and pinned him there. Another hoof neatly scrapped D.B. onto the ground. With a split hoof apiece on their chests, they shuddred as they heard the sound of more hooves coming.

Cassy and Molly tapped horns in triumph after shoving their catch through the portal Molly had drawn in the dirt with her horn. “Two goblins and a dreither-made net. We won’t have to go out for years. I can’t believe they sat under that bush, like they were waiting for us. Now, we can stay home in a nice bright pasture and…” Molly said.

“And maybe make time with that nice Pegaus.” Cassy chuckled.

“Yeah. All we have to is put with all the congralations on ‘selflessly helping keep magic in the human realm’. Like any of us care about that.”

Molly nodded. “Wish we could have saved the cats, though. Cats I like.”

Story E: Stakeout, by Katie Clapham

“Picking anything up yet?”

“Nothing human. Coupla cats.”

“How do you know they’re cats?”

“How do you know they’re cats? If it looks like a cat and meows like a cat, it’s a cat. These guys think like cats.”

“And different from dogs, yeah?”

“Just like the difference between red and blue. Besides, they’re both normally like, uh, I dunno, a soft glow ... until something lights ’em up. But it takes different things to do it. Cats light up when they see some kind of small critter they can chase, but dogs only do it for people. In f.... Oh, wait! What’s that now?”

“I dunno. Squirrel?”

“Nah. Squirrel are flickery. Excited. Besides, who would want to be a squirrel?”

Kai slumped against the brick wall behind her. Stake out was always problematic, and she got the assignment more than the rest of the team because she could read the frickin’ auras. She wasn’t sure how any of her colleagues could figure anyone out without the information in them. Jackson was the strategist, plotting out how the quarry thought. She saw the past and the present. They made a good team.

“Why would they even come here?” Kai asked.

Jackson squatted, poking a stick at a lump of something on the ground. Cloth maybe? Too small to be alive. She hoped.

The rodent scampered off, not human.

“How’s Mel?”

“He’ll be okay. They bruised him up good, but nothing broken.”

“Good. If he hadn’t found that warehouse, we’d never have discovered what they were up to. Although, I mean, I’m glad he’s not too bad off for your sake too, and for his…” She trailed off, wishing she was better at that sort of thing. Jackson and Mel had been together for a long time, and her partner’s light patterns had twisted almost out of recognition when he heard the news. But it was more than one person, even a friend getting all broken, or her partner’s grieving. The empty bodies they left behind were the most horrifying thing she had seen, even after years on the squad. She knew Jackson just saw them as mindless, but to see people without their lights, without their… souls, disturbed the foundation of her world. Everything had light. Trees. Even rocks a little.

It had been just as disturbing to see the lightless cats, breathing, walking, but with nothing to give them personality. Whoever was doing this had started small. Not with plants. Whoever was doing this didn’t seem to think of plants as containing life, perhaps. But rodents, then cats and dogs, some strays, then pets, then people started turning up with no self, no personality, no ability to talk, just motor skills to walk, and a blank gaze that gave her the shivers.

They had found one site left behind – the one that Mel had come out from all bloody and bruised – that had scientific equipment set up. Flasks, glowing with life, sat lined on shelves. Some had fallen, and the glow, strong enough to have been in a breathing, thinking being, soaked into the concrete floor. She wondered what would happen to the concrete. She wondered where that life had come from.

She shook her head.

“There!” A stronger light was coming toward them. Jackson looked in the direction she pointed. The light was strange, stronger than it should have been for a person, but strange, fragmented. It was as if it had been stitched together like a quilt. Kai now knew what they were wanting to do with the life they had been stealing. Jackson was right, too, that this was where they would come next. Horrifyingly right.

The arching front door to the boarding school was closed, but the person with the strange lights walked along the wall to a custodial door in the back. The alley they stood in hid them from his view. Kai could see his face by the patchwork light. Except for the damage to his light, he looked unassuming, a plain, genial face that no one would note in a crowd.

After a moment, the door opened from the inside. Someone in the school was helping him!

She tried to see the face of the helper, but only caught a flicker of the light from behind the door. Quickly, Jackson walked to the door, and caught it just as it was about to close, sticking a barrier between the door and the latch, so their quarry would be able to hear the sound of the door closing.

After a few moments, Kai joined him at the door, and Jackson eased it back open. The hallway was clear. They had to catch them, had to see what they did, in order to stop it. It killed Kai to risk even one more being to this damage, especially a child. They would have to catch it in time. There was no other option.

Kai caught a flicker of the light at the end of the hall. She indicated the direction to Jackson, and they followed it. It was a classroom, and a child lay asleep on the teacher’s desk. The helper must have drugged the child, brought him down away from the others. Their quarry had donned a white coat, as if this were science, instead of travesty, and was setting out flasks, tubes, machines. A face mask went over the child’s nose and mouth, to catch the breath. Like the myth about cats, he would steal the breath, Kai thought.

Just when she could take no more, Jackson pulled his stunner, and nodded to her. She already had hers out. They stepped forward, fired. Their bodies slumped.

“Stop,” she said, although the stunners had done more than the word. “Stopped.”

Story F: Cat Scan, by Katje Sabin

Mist and shadows ahead, which might be what they call atmosphere in another place, but here it seems almost greasy. Garbage used to mean a meal, but now it mostly means cover and scent camo. Great fun when you have the nostrils of a virtuoso, let me tell you.

Clomp, clomp. For once, the moon is actually visible through the sulfurous cloud cover, and I can see it's time for the new guy to show up. I get settled on my perch to watch the fun.

"Hey, Rhonda. How's it going?"

"Hiya, Seb. Been a quiet night so far. Fine with me."

"Have you done your rounds yet? I need to finish cert on the bioscan."

"Oh, right." She digs into her hip pack. "Here, go for it."

She's tall and reeks of coconut oil. He's trying to act like she's a buddy, but he's easier to read than a newborn kitten: she's the boss and he desperately wants her to like him.

"So how long have you been on this route? What kind of stuff do you normally see at night around these parts?"

"Lost count. Couple years, I guess. We get the odd drifter out here, and gangs of tweakers trying to find windows to break, but the smell drives most folks away."

That's not an accident. Rot and urine and insects create such a lovely bouquet. He fumbles with the device while she smirks at him. He doesn't have a chance with her, but he doesn't know it.

“Picking anything up yet?”

“Nothing human. Coupla cats.”

“How do you know they’re cats?”

“How do you know they’re cats? If it looks like a cat and meows like a cat, it’s a cat. These guys think like cats.”

“And different from dogs, yeah?”

“Just like the difference between red and blue. Besides, they’re both normally like, uh, I dunno, a soft glow ... until something lights ’em up. But it takes different things to do it. Cats light up when they see some kind of small critter they can chase, but dogs only do it for people. In f.... Oh, wait! What’s that now?”

Whoops. His show-off jabber reminded me of the crunchy bug I had for dinner, and I must have dropped my lids for a second. Quick quick, pay attention. She leans over to check his screen.

"What the hell is that?"

"I was hoping you knew."

I catch a whiff of it. The night has just gotten a lot more interesting...

"Didn't you read the manual?"

"Who reads the manual?"

She pulls something from her belt and whirls around, very quietly. He wets his pants, very quietly. I decide that "interesting" and "losing one of my lives" are not the same thing, and silently back into a pile of soggy cardboard.

When the noise dies down, the coconut scent has moved far away. But the remains of the damp khakis tell me there will be good eatin' for the next few days.

I lick my whiskers.

Story G: Blips, by Cislyn Smith

“Picking anything up yet?”

“Nothing human. Coupla cats.”

“How do you know they’re cats?”

“How do you know they’re cats? If it looks like a cat and meows like a cat, it’s a cat. These guys think like cats.”

“And different from dogs, yeah?”

“Just like the difference between red and blue. Besides, they’re both normally like, uh, I dunno, a soft glow ... until something lights ’em up. But it takes different things to do it. Cats light up when they see some kind of small critter they can chase, but dogs only do it for people. In f.... Oh, wait! What’s that now?”

Patrick turned a dial and the scanner focused in on a bright green light in the upper quadrant. "That's no cat. See the size of it? And the color's all wrong too."

Felicity glanced down at the laminated blip guide in her lap. "So, a human then? The color's right for that."

Her instructor shook his head. "Noooo... I don't think so. The color is right, but there wasn't anything there a second ago. We were sweeping this neighborhood specifically because there's been no human activity here in years. And it just shows up out of nowhere? Suspicious."

He tapped the screen as the green dot winked out and then reappeared three centimeters to the left. "Look at that! Yeah, this is definitely fey activity." He turned and smiled wryly at Felicity. "I don't know about you, but I can't teleport, even for short distances."

"Are you sure it wasn't just scanner error? I mean, just yesterday you were telling me the equipment does that sometimes - picks up and then loses the mental signatures, especially if they're not neuro-typical."

"Oh, I'm sure all right. We sometimes drop animal signals, but that's no cat. This one's been consistently bright, and the same shape the whole time. Color's off, but I'm calling it." He leaned over, jotted something on a clipboard, and then passed it to Felicity. "You start the paperwork, and I'll call in the containment team. We'll have it bagged, sterilized, and magic drained within an hour."

Ten minutes later, though, and Patrick was in a heated argument with the containment team. "What do you mean there's only cats down there? There were plenty of cat signals, and this one definitely wasn't a cat. You sure your guys have got their glamour protection gear on? We gave you exact coordinates! I'm looking at it... well, no. But I'm telling you, it was there! Size, shape, motility, everything!"

Felicity shifted awkwardly in the stiff plastic chair as the call went on and on, watching the blips light up the screen. She squinted to make a fuzzy, colorful constellation of the minds moving in and out of the area. She didn't envy the containment team - it was pretty desolate down there. The Fey wars hadn't been kind to the suburbs, and just making their way in past the walls of thorns and quicksand driveways would have been very difficult, especially in the anti-magic protective gear.

When he finally turned his attention back to work, Patrick was more deflated than angry. "Well, so much for that. False alarm. Somehow." He scowled. "Anyway, let's go over to the mall. We've got a good chance of finding a nest over there, and I really want to bag a few today." He started steering the hovership to the north.

She looked up, surprised. "You don't want to get the gear checked and recalibrated? Besides, I thought Jacobs was already sweeping the mall today."

"Is she? I thought we were leaving that for Thursday..."

"And if I recall last week's training, getting ahead of schedule is not generally a good idea. Especially if the containment team is... well, busy. They're going to be a while getting out of that mess, yeah?"

Patrick sighed. "Yeah, you're right. You, uh, passed the test. Or something. Fine. Let's get back to base and grab a bite to eat while the techs check out our gear. We'll talk with dispatch about sweeping a different area today, since this one was obviously a bust. Sorry 'bout this. I really thought we'd bag your first fairy today!"

She smiled. "Hey, don't worry about it. We'll get them all eventually, right?"

"That's the plan" he said, as he turned the ship back to the south again.

Felicity turned her attention back to fixing their daily paperwork. It was a tedious, but necessary part of her cover. Diligent, a stickler for the rules, a bit green (so to speak, both on the scanner and off), this 'trainee' persona had proven most useful for infiltration. She was in a perfect position to learn about the enemy, warn her people, and do the kind of detail work at which she excelled.

It had only taken a sufficiently odd Fey mind to slip past their security screenings. Really, the humans relied far too much on outdated research and some very basic misconceptions. Not everyone thinks alike, and minds can change their colors. And of course, the cats were working for her side.

Story H: Final Exam

[not published by request of the author]