The moonlight reflected of Lovelock’s glasses, casting a thin line of white light on the newly plastered wall. He tilted his head to the right, watching the line shorten further and further, till it was nothing a bright speck, passable as a shiny fleck of paint.
He took another pull of the cigarette he was clutching, relishing the sweet, watery taste that could only be classified as a poor shade of yellow.
He checked his watch, stamped his cigarette out and strode out of the building. It was like any other Camp; square, grey, low-ceilinged, and tucked away in the middle of nowhere.
But the previous night, workers had arrived to repaint some of the faded walls, fix some of the locks, and the board that read ‘Her Majesty’s Concentration Facility (Humans Welcome)’ was replaced with ‘Her Majesty’s Concentration Facility, New Hill', with the subtitle of 'Victory to Thee', the country's motto.
The sudden changes were because the surprise audit – Lovelock had it on good authority – was to happen the very next night; this night. His was a relatively new Camp (the third half-year anniversary was coming up in two weeks) and this was his first surprise audit. He knew he only got one chance at a first impression.
He jogged along the stone pathway and stood leaning on the gates. He inhaled deeply, the freshness of the cool night breeze battling the staleness of the cigarette still present in his mouth. He breathed out on his palm, and finding the war leaning towards the staleness, took out a pocket can of breath freshener, shook it and sprayed some in his mouth. Then, for good measure, he counted out eight breath mints and swallowed those too, but their effect was somewhat neutralized by the lack of chewing.
In the distance, he spotted the approaching headlights of a car and scrambled to appear presentable. He scratched his teeth with a toothpick to remove any rogue tobacco stain and wiped his mouth with a crumpled, sweaty handkerchief.
The car stopped a few feet away from him. The glare of the headlights was almost too brilliant to bear, and he had to squint to see the chauffeur running to open the door. The figure that stepped out was tall. Lovelock could not make out the face against the light, but he knew who it was.
As soon as the door closed behind the figure, Lovelock bounded across the three feet that separated them and stooped into a low bow.
“Your Majesty, Victory to Thee,” he said, brushing his lips against the figure’s outstretched hand.
“Lovelock,” said the Queen, turning slightly towards the light, so that Lovelock could catch a glimpse of her face.
She was rather striking in looks; teetering at just the line separating feminine beautiful and masculine handsome. Her turquoise robes billowed about her like a faithful servant, but Lovelock could make out that she was well-built, like a wrestler.
He straightened. “What an honor it is to have you here. For such an eminent personality to visit my humble-”
“You appear to have known I was coming.”
“No, no,” said Lovelock quickly. “Not at all, Your Royal Grace. I was merely out for a minute for a smoke, when-” He stopped abruptly, knowing that he had slipped up. But the Queen merely smirked and nodded.
“If you please, Your Majesty.” Lovelock bowed and pointed the way. She walked gracefully across the grass and swung open the gate. Her bodyguards – two large, armored figures – followed suit, then Lovelock, while a third bodyguard brought up the rear.
They walked in single file along the stone path that led to stairs of the Camp complex.
The Queen stopped at the desk sergeant, who, to Lovelock’s relief, wasn’t dozing as usual. Indeed, he stood up and bowed so low, his nose touched the ground. “My Queen, Victory to Thee,” he murmured.
“Your name?” said the Queen suddenly.
He blinked and looked furtively at Lovelock, who nodded.
“Grimmack, Your Majesty.”
“How long have you worked here?”
“Ten years, Your Majesty.”
“How many humans are there right now?”
Grimmack gasped. He closed his eyes and tried to remember, swaying for a few seconds, then shamefully consulted his notebook. “Four hundred and fifty, Madam.”
The Queen nodded. She patted him lightly with a gloved hand and walked further down the passage.
It split into three pathways and Lovelock hastened to the front. “That leads to Block A, that to Block B, and that to Block C, Your Majesty.”
The Queen paused, then took the passage to Block C. She quickened her pace and Lovelock had to jog to keep up.
The first cell, B1, housed only a single human, scrawny and malnourished. The Queen stopped and glanced inside. He was fast asleep, curled up like a cat in front of a fire. Lovelock didn’t know whether to be relieved or angry; the Queen’s expression was as inscrutable as ever.
They had to go to B4 before they found a human who was awake. The human was sitting in a corner, reading the Epic.
The Queen cleared her throat and Lovelock rapped on the bars. “Hey, you,” he growled.
The human turned. With a pained expression on his face, he took off his glasses, kept it carefully on the bench and ambled to the door.
"Victory to Thee, Your Majesty," he drawled lazily.
Lovelock was kicking himself.
“Name?” said the Queen.
The human looked first at Lovelock, then at each of the bodyguards, then at the Queen. It took four or five seconds, and in that short time, Lovelock became aware of an extreme tightness in his chest. He realized he was holding his breath and exhaled. The effect was tremendous.
The stillness of the scene was broken, and the human answered, “We don’t have names. Just numbers.”
The Queen nodded, looking pleased, and Lovelock breathed a sigh of relief.
“I like this one,” said the Queen to Lovelock. “I’d like him to be there for the End. What’s your number?” she asked him.
The human gave a wry smile. “162, at your service.” He stamped his left foot and saluted.
The Queen narrowed her eyes, but the poor lighting and his position made it impossible for Lovelock to judge her expression. He slapped the bars with his baton and snarled. “Cheeky-” He was about to swear, but stopped just in time. “Get back in there!”
The Queen walked the full length of the block, till B60, and then strode briskly to the cafeteria. Lovelock served her fresh stew in the cleanest plate he could find.
She smelled it, then gingerly ate a spoonful. “It tastes like trash,” she said, wiping her mouth. “Good. Keep going.” She stood up. “I am satisfied with this Camp. You will receive the full report shortly. But now, shall we move onto dessert?”
Lovelock grinned. “Sure, anything you say, Your Majesty.”
“Attention!” roared Lovelock.
They were standing behind the Camp at the Regulation Forest. Five humans, handcuffed and leg-cuffed to each other snapped into attention. Four of them were handpicked by Lovelock, and the fifth was the human in B4 – No. 162.
“Bow before your Queen!” he hollered. Just for the sake of it, he whipped out his baton and slapped the nearest human across the back. The human whimpered. All five of them bowed in unison.
Lovelock continued, “As you all know, a Camp audit was conducted today. You will be glad to hear that our great Queen (Victory be to her), Lord of all Elves, Conqueror of the Four Seas and Empress of the Universe, is in a generous mood. She has offered a chance for you to be set free from the Camp.”
A murmur ran across the humans.
“We will set you free. If you are able to navigate this wilderness and emerge on the other side, then you are free to go where you please. If not…” He didn’t have to finish his sentence.
No. 162 tried to get up, but Lovelock cried out gutturally and smacked his head. He sank back into a low bow.
“Very well. I will take it that you have understood the rules. You may begin…” His lip curled into a cruel smile. “Now.”
The humans were released. Three of them took off running at once. Two of them stood looking shocked, one nursing her wrists. Lovelock screamed at them and smacked one with his baton, and they sprinted into the woods.
Lovelock watched the Queen closely. It was well-known that the humans never escaped. The Queen knew their every movement even before they had made it. She knew exactly where they were going to be when they were going to be, even before they knew.
Most of the commoners put it down to extraordinary battle experience. After all, she had fought off eighteen hordes of humans in the Species War of 1956.
But others, like Lovelock knew better. It was something called HAIA, or simply the Algorithm, as most, him included, didn’t know the full form.
The Algorithm was an artificial biological software; a surgical modification of the brain. It had taken Dr. Jannick, one of the greatest scientists, over thirty years to perfect it. The Queen was the recipient.
A large number of stories and rumors floated about the people on how she was chosen.
One story said that the Queen had fallen as a child and needed urgent brain surgery. The good Dr. Jannick had convinced the incumbent King to allow him to combine the two surgeries, to which he had agreed.
Another said that an astrologer had foretold that the Queen would wage a war to end all wars against humans. Her parents were so frightened that she would die that they commissioned Dr. Jannick to figure out a way to protect her from any human attack, and thus, the Algorithm was born.
Regardless of the origin, Lovelock knew she possessed the Algorithm, and he was eager to see it work in real life. He vaguely recalled something Sergeant Grimmack had said about it; that she would close her eyes and a third one would open, with lasers and a special light, though how Grimmack would know anything about the Algorithm, Lovelock had no idea.
All he could do was wait and watch.
It didn’t take long for it to begin. The Queen snapped her fingers and one of her bodyguards rushed forward with a gun. She rested it under her arm, hunching slightly to see through the scope.
Lovelock was surprised. He had seen her strong build, but he thought she would keep it on her shoulders. A newfound respect blossomed in his chest.
She watched quietly for almost a full minute. Lovelock was reminded of her statue in the park a ways off.
Then she fired. A loud, gut-wrenching scream emanated from the center of the forest. Lovelock’s eardrums spasmed and died. The hair on the back of his neck stood up and a chill ran up his spine.
She reloaded. “One down.”
Two seconds later, another shot. Another bone-chilling scream, but Lovelock was ready for it this time. He covered his ears and sank into a crouch, willing his eyelids to almost melt into each other.
Less than five seconds later, yet another shot. And then another.
“Four down,” said the Queen, reloading for the last time.
Lovelock waited. Ten seconds passed. No shot. Fifteen, still no shot. He opened his eyes and looked up at the Queen. Almost immediately, he knew something was wrong. The Queen’s expression had changed. Her thin eyebrows were knitted in a deep frown; not one of concentration, rather one of anger and surprise.
She kept muttering under her breath. “Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong.”
A rustle at a bush nearby.
The four bodyguards whipped out their weapons and formed a circle around the Queen. Lovelock hadn’t realized how tight the circle was until he saw he was less than a foot from the Queen. Or he might have been pushed. He wouldn’t be surprised.
“It’s all right,” said a voice. “You can lower your weapons.”
A human stepped into view; No. 162. Lovelock stood up, legs shaking. He kept his ears loosely covered, in case, as he expected, the Queen would shoot him down immediately. She didn’t.
“I must say, Your Majesty,” he said calmly, “you are one damn fine shot.”
Despite himself, Lovelock grinned.
“Yes, I heard all four of them. One fell not ten meters from me.” No. 162 kept walking closer. As if to stop him, Lovelock heard the loud click of the bodyguards cocking their rifles. He didn’t stop.
“Are you going to shoot me?” he asked. His bright eyes shone with amusement.
“No,” said the Queen. Lovelock blinked. Her voice had changed. It had a softer tone, tinged with… respect? Lovelock cursed himself for not bringing a sound recorder.
“No, we won’t shoot you,” continued the Queen. She moved through a non-existent gap between two nodes of the protection and stood hardly a foot from the human. Lovelock made a mental note to bring a camera for the next audit.
“You seem to have evaded me,” said the Queen, her newfound respect still pervading her voice. “For that, I congratulate you.”
No. 162 inclined his head.
The Queen muttered something imperceptible, though Lovelock could make out the first word started with 'VIC'.
He saw them exchange a long look. He couldn’t make out what it was meant to signify, but as if by mutual consent, the two turned and walked away; the Queen back to the entrance, the human back into the forest. No other mention of the Queen’s failure was made, and Lovelock wasn’t foolish enough to spread it. He just hoped Grimmack wouldn’t be foolish enough to ask why he could hear only four shots.
He escorted the Queen back to the car, murmuring his gratitude at her coming and punctuating each sentence with a bow. She waved him off coolly and stepped into the car. He closed the door and took a step back, watching the machine lurch into ignition and power away, the brilliant white headlights the same color as the full moon.
It was a long time before Lovelock had another surprise audit. He brought both a camera and a sound recorder, and kept it hidden throughout, but the Queen shot all five humans. In fact, she never missed again, and not one word of her one failure was ever revealed to the public.
An even longer time passed before Lovelock heard of the human again. A newspaper report mention a stray human was found dead in a farmer’s shed. How he got there was a mystery for the local police. There was not a single Camp nearby, and the farmers swore to not having harbored him.
Lovelock secretly cut the article out and pasted it on the underside of his desk drawer.
He would often look at it after that, and every now and then, Grimmack would catch him peeking and ask, “What’s that, Sir?”
And every time, a small smile would appear on Lovelock’s lips, conjuring up the Queen’s expression and the human’s, their final exchanged look, and he would close the drawer and look up with a most innocent expression, and say, “Nothing, Grimmack. Absolutely nothing.”