"BATTLE ROYAL", A short-story by Adrian Hudson

The sun was shining. The band played another nameless piece of music, as they had yesterday, and the day before that. Three Villagers played croquet on the lawn and tried to let each other win. The whole Village was relaxing and it seemed as if even the surveillance eyeswere blinking lazily. No 6 stared intently at his new chess partner. "Where?" he demanded. The Villager smiled and moved another piece. "I said where is the Admiral?" repeated No 6 as his Black rook took a White bishop to leave his opponent in check. "Oh dear, this is tricky,' said his opponent. A frown, then a smile. He moved his White queen backto cover his king. "Thought you'd got me there!"

"He was here yesterday," No 6 persisted, speaking now through clenched teeth. "What happened in the night?" "Night? ... It's still your move,' replied his opponent. The smile was a little uncertain now. No 6 glanced down and took the White queen with his rook. Too quickly, his opponent castled, leaving No 6 with the opening he needed to win. "The night," said No 6, his hand hovering over the board, "when things go... bump!" His Black rook took its White counterpart. Checkmate.

No 6 flipped open the chess box and began filling it with the pieces. "I'll take this, then," he said, picking up board and box. "The Admiral wanted me to have it." If it was possible for a Villager to be agitated on a day like this, the chess player would have been agitated now as he stared at No 6. But it wasn't - so he wasn't either.

"Oh, No 6, going somewhere?" The speaker was No 2, with his all-too friendlyfixed smile and school-boy-chum manner. "Not at the moment." replied No 6 smugly. "But any day now..." No 2 ignored the familiar remark. "I see you play chess. Any good?" he said with fake interest. "Better than you, I'm sure!" said No 6.
"We shall see." He struck the thought from his head. Wherever and whatever this place was, it would never be home. As he entered his dwelling, he tripped headlong over a repair man crouched down next to the door.

"Sorry, No 6," he said. "Your door won't open." "A little push goes a long way," said the Prisoner. He stooped to gather up the chess pieces, which had cascaded over the carpeted floor as he fell. As he did so, he spotted something odd - very odd! The two queens in the chess set were different. The White queen was wrong - it was too short, wider than the other pieces, and in a slightly different style. No 6 knew that when things got broken in the Village, they were always repaired or replaced magically the next time you looked. So this must be deliberate, he mused.

At that moment, a slight hum behind No 6 indicated that the repair man was leaving or someone was entering - or both. "Mind if I come in?" No 2 was already striding into the room. "My home is your home," No 6 said sarcastically. No 2 thought for a moment. "Yes, I suppose it is," he smiled. There was a brief silence as No 2 put on a face to show he was pretending to try to remember what he had come for. Eventually, he put on another face to show he had remembered. "I just popped across to see if you would like a game of chess on the lawn." No 6 put on his faintly interested face, just to show that two could play at that game. Then he paused for a while-to show he could do that, too. "I'll be right there," he finally replied. No 2 was turning to go when No 6 added, as casually as he could muster: "I don't suppose it would be any good asking you what happened to the Admiral?" "Who?" 'Thought not," said No 6. "Never mind." No 6 slipped the White queen into his pocket as the door opened for him to leave.

The pieces were already in place on the human chessboard as No 6 slipped into his seat facing No 2. "The White queen doesn't look familiar,' said No 6 quizzically. "Oh, the old queen's retired. Legs not what they used to be! " replied his opponent. No 2 indicated an elderly Villager sitting ready to watch the game from a high-backed wicker chair. A thought crossed No 6's mind. "I've changed my mind," he said. "I don't really feel up to a game after all." No 2 put on his specially-reserved look of concern. "My dear chap, are you not well? We don't want to lose you, you know. Why not stop off at the hospital for a check-up, just to be on the safe side?"
Another Villager stepped up to take the vacant seat, and the game was already in progress as No 6 slipped away.

"No 42, can we talk?" The old lady in the wicker chair didn’t move as No 6 sat down beside her. "It's about the Admiral. Do you know where he went?" No 42 turned slowly, and then, with deep sincerity, and a brief glance over her shoulder, gave No 6 a fixed stare. "No 2. has no chance," she said. "What?" No 6 twitched visibly. "He's left his king completely unprotected," she said, nodding at the game in progress below her.
No 6 sighed and moved away. Wrong queen. He didn't realise that all the time the game had been unfolding on the lawn, No 2 have been watching the conversation from his high chair. Now No 2's gaze dropped to a small white chess piece resting in the palm of his hand. He gave his first real smile for a long time.

The game was nearing its conclusion, with White defending fiercely in one corner. Despite a small surge of hope as a Black bishop was stolen, White soon lost its queen, and the outcome became inevitable - another victory for No 2. As the White queen left the board, No 6 confronted her. "I suppose you've come about the Admiral," she said. "He told me to expect you." They sat in the Village cafe and No 6 ordered two lemon teas. After a pause, he turned to the woman and said: "1 hope they forget me as quickly when I escape." The White queen looked to the left, then right, and then said in a whisper: "Escape?" "Did he?" demanded No 6. "Yes," she replied. "How?" "There is a way. I'll show you." No 6 sat back in his chair, and felt in his jacket pocket - but the chess piece was no longer there.

On the lawn, the human chess pieces were lining up for another game as a new opponent took up No 2's challenge. A couple of moves had been made by either side when No 2 glanced across the piazza and saw No 6 and the White queen heading in the direction of the woods. "We're here," she said after they had made their way along a path for several hundred yards, and then pushed their way through the undergrowth. No 6 moved forward to get a clear view of what the queen was showing him. In the small clearing was a mound of freshly-dug earth. Its only marking was a small white chess piece. "Escape!" she said triumphantly. At that moment, No 2 appeared behind them. Silently, he passed his scarf and badge to the White queen. The new No 2 gave No 6 a wry smile. "Wrong queen, No 6," she said. "Your No 42 was a known conspirator. She gave some the escape they desired, when they were too weak to do it for themselves - and if we allowed it.
"The Admiral here got his escape, and he left you the clues to follow him - if we hadn't got to No 42
first." "But why?" said No 6. "Why the charade. If you thought I might......." "'You kill yourself, No 6? Oh no! You were my test, not the other way round. If you had detected me, I wouldn't have been No 2 material. I really should thank you, No 6, for falling so completely for my little trick."

The Butler was smiling as he watched the monitor view of No 6's dwelling. Someone had set up the Admiral's chess pieces as though a game was in progress. The Black king was on its own in the centre of the board, with a White queen placing it in check. In one corner, the White king was totally protected by pawns. The new No 2 appeared behind the Butler and glanced up at the scene. She laughed out loud...