"All right, it's off. How's he doing?"
"You live inside somebody's body for a few years, you get used to it. I look at his face now, I can't tell what's going on. I'm not used to seeing his facial expressions. I'm used to feeling them."
"Come on, we're not talking about psychoanalysis here. We're soldiers, not witch doctors. You just saw him beat the guts out of the leader of a gang."
"He was thorough. He didn't just beat him, he beat him deep. Like Mazer Rackham at the--"
"Spare me. So in the judgment of the committee, he passes.
"Mostly. Let's see what he does with his brother, now that the monitor's off."
"His brother. Aren't you afraid of what his brother will do to him?"
"You were the one who told me that this wasn't a no-risk business."
"I went back through some of the tapes. I can't help it. I like the kid. I think were going to screw him up."
"Of course we are. It's our job. We're the wicked witch. We promise gingerbread, but we eat the little bastards alive."
"I'm sorry, Ender," Valentine whispered. She was looking at the bandaid on his neck.
Ender touched the wall and the door closed behind him. "I don't care. I'm glad it's gone."
"What's gone?" Peter walked into the parlor, chewing on a mouthful of bread and peanut butter.
Ender did not see Peter as the beautiful ten-year-old boy that grown-ups saw, with dark, thick, tousled hair and a face that could have belonged to Alexander the Great. Ender looked at Peter only to detect anger or boredom, the dangerous moods that almost always led to pain. Now as Peter's eyes discovered the bandaid on his neck, the telltale flicker of anger appeared.
Valentine saw it too. "Now he's like us," she said, trying to soothe him before he had time to strike.
But Peter would not be soothed. "Like us? He keeps the little sucker till he's six years old. When did you lose yours? You were three. I lost mine before I was five. He almost made it, little bastard, little bugger."
This is all right, Ender thought. Talk and talk, Peter. Talk is fine.
"Well, now your guardian angels aren't watching over you," Peter said. "Now they aren't checking to see if you feel pain, listening to hear what I'm saying, seeing what I'm doing to you. How about that? How about it?"
Suddenly Peter smiled and clapped his hands together in a mockery of good cheer. "Let's play buggers and astronauts," he said.
"Where's Mom?" asked Valentine.
"Out," said Peter. "I'm in charge."
"I think I'll call Daddy."
"Call away," said Peter. "You know he's never in."
"I'll play," Ender said.
"You be the bugger," said Peter.
"Let him be the astronaut for once," Valentine said.
"Keep your fat face out of it, fart mouth," said Peter. "Come on upstairs and choose your weapons."
It would not be a good game, Ender knew it was not a question of winning. When kids played in the corridors, whole troops of them, the buggers never won, and sometimes the games got mean. But here in their flat, the game would start mean, and the bugger couldn't just go empty and quit the way buggers did in the real wars. The bugger was in it until the astronaut decided it was over.
Peter opened his bottom drawer and took out the bugger mask. Mother had got upset at him when Peter bought it, but Dad pointed out that the war wouldn't go away just because you hid bugger masks and wouldn't let your kids play with make-believe laser guns. The better to play the war games, and have a better chance of surviving when the buggers came again.
If I survive the games, thought Ender. He put on the mask. It closed him in like a hand pressed tight against his face. But this isn't how it feels to he a bugger, thought Ender. They don't wear this face like a mask, it is their face. On their home worlds, do the buggers put on human masks, and play? And what do they call its? Slimies, because we're so soft and oily compared to them?
"Watch out, Slimy," Ender said.
He could barely see Peter through the eyeholes. Peter smiled at him. "Slimy, huh? Well, bugger-wugger, let's see how you break that face of yours."
Ender couldn't see it coming, except a slight shift of Peter's weight; the mask cut our his peripheral vision. Suddenly there was the pain and pressure of a blow to the side of his head; he lost balance, fell that way.
"Don't see too well, do you, bugger?" said Peter.
Ender began to take off the mask. Peter put his toe against Ender's groin. "Don't take off the mask," Peter said.
Ender pulled the mask down into place, took his hands away.
Peter pressed with his foot. Pain shot through Ender; he doubled up.
"Lie flat, bugger. We're gonna vivisect you, bugger. At long last we've got one of you alive, and we're going to see how you work."
"Peter, stop it," Ender said.
"Peter, stop it. Very good. So you buggers can guess our names. You can make yourselves sound like pathetic, cute little children so we'll love you and be nice to you. But it doesn't work. I can see you for what you really are. They meant you to be human, little Third, but you're really a bugger, and now it shows."
He lifted his toot, took a step, and then knelt on Ender, his knee pressing into Ender's belly just below the breastbone. He put more and more of his weight on Ender. It became hard to breathe.
"I could kill you like this," Peter whispered. "Just press and press until you're dead. And I could say that I didn't know it would hurt you, that we were just playing, and they'd believe me, and everything would be fine. And you'd be dead. Everything would be fine."
Ender could not speak; the breath was being forced from his lungs. Peter might mean it. Probably didn't mean it, but then he might.
"I do mean it," Peter said. "Whatever you think. I mean it. They only authorized you because I was so promising. But I didn't pan out. You did better. They think you're better. But I don't want a better little brother, Ender. I don't want a Third."
"I'll tell," Valentine said.
"No one would believe you."
"They'd believe me."
"Then you're dead, too, sweet little sister."
"Oh, yes," said Valentine. "They'll believe that. 'I didn't know it would kill Andrew. And when he was dead, I didn't know it would kill Valentine too.'"
The pressure let up a little.
"So. Not today. But someday you two won't be together. And there'll be an accident."
"You're all talk," Valentine said. "You don't mean any of it."
"And do you know why you don't mean it?" Valentine asked. "Because you want to be in government someday. You want to be elected. And they won't elect you if your opponents can dig up the fact that your brother and sister both died in suspicious accidents when they were little. Especially because of the letter I've put in my secret file, which will be opened in the event of my death."
"Don't give me that kind of crap," Peter said.
"It says, I didn't die a natural death. Peter killed me, and if he hasn't already killed Andrew, he will soon. Not enough to convict you, but enough to keep you from ever getting elected."
"You're his monitor now," said Peter. "You better watch him, day and night. You better be there."
"Ender and I aren't stupid. We scored as well as you did on everything. Better on some things. We're all such wonderfully bright children. You're not the smartest, Peter, just the biggest."
"Oh, I know. But there'll come a day when you aren't there with him, when you forget. And suddenly you'll remember, and you'll rush to him, and there he'll be perfectly all right. And the next time you won't worry so much, and you won't come so fast. And every time, he'll be all right. And you'll think that I forgot. Even though you'll remember that I said this, you'll think that I forgot. And years will pass. And then there'll be a terrible accident, and I'll find his body, and I'll cry and cry over him, and you'll remember this conversation, Vally, but you'll be ashamed of yourself for remembering, because you'll know that I changed, that it really was an accident, that it's cruel of you even to remember what I said in a childhood quarrel. Except that it'll be true. I'm gonna save this up, and he's gonna die, and you won't do a thing, not a thing. But you go on believing that I'm just the biggest."
"The biggest asshole," Valentine said.
Peter leaped to his feet and started for her. She shied away. Ender pried off his mask. Peter flopped back on his bed and started to laugh. Loud, but with real mirth, tears coming to his eyes. "Oh, you guys are just super, just the biggest suckers on the planet earth."
"Now he's going to tell us it was all a joke," Valentine said.
"Not a joke, a game. I can make you guys believe anything. I can make you dance around like puppets." In a phony monster yoice he said, "I'm going to kill you and chop you into little pieces and put you into the garbage hole." He laughed again. "Biggest suckers in the solar system."
Ender stood there watching him laugh and thought of Stilson, thought of how it felt to crunch into his body. This is who needed it. This is who should have got it.
As if she could read his mind, Valentine whispered, "No, Ender."
Peter suddenly rolled to the side, flipped off the bed, and got in position for a fight. "Oh, yes, Ender," he said. "Any time, Ender."
Ender lifted his right leg and took off the shoe. He held it up. "See there, on the toe? That's blood, Peter."
"Ooh. Ooh, I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die. Ender killed a capper-tiller and now he's gonna kill me."
There was no getting to him. Peter was a murderer at heart, and nobody knew it but Valentine and Ender.
Mother came home and commiserated with Ender about the monitor. Father came home and kept saying it was such a wonderful surprise, they had such fantastic children that the government told them to have three and now the government didn't want to take any of them after all, so here they were with three, they still had a Third... until Ender wanted to scream at him, I know I'm a Third, I know it, if you want I'll go away so you don't have to be embarrassed in front of everybody, I'm sorry I lost the monitor and now you have three kids and no obvious explanation, so inconvenient for you, I'm sorry sorry sorry.
He lay in bed staring upward into the darkness... On the bunk above him, he could hear Peter turning and tossing restlessly. Then Peter slid off the bunk and walked out of the room. Ender heard the hushing sound of the toilet clearing; then Peter stood silhouetted in the doorway.
He thinks I'm asleep. He's going to kill me.
Peter walked to the bed, and sure enough, he did not lift himself up to his bed. Instead he came and stood by Ender's head.
But he did not reach for a pillow to smother Ender. He did not have a weapon.
He whispered, "Ender, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I know how it feels. I'm sorry, I'm your brother. I love you."
A long time later, Peter's even breathing said that he was asleep. Ender peeled the bandaid from his neck. And for the second time that day he cried.