"We've had our disappointments in the past, hanging on for years, hoping they'll pull through, and then they don't. Nice thing about Ender, he's determined to ice within the first six months."
"Don't you see what's going on here? He's stuck at the Giant's Drink in the mind game. Is the boy suicidal? You never mentioned it."
"Everybody gets the Giant sometime."
"But Ender won't leave it alone. Like Pinual."
"Everybody looks like Pinual at one time or another. But he's the only one who killed himself. I don't think it had anything to do with the Giant's Drink."
"You're betting my life on that. And look what he's done with his launch group."
"Wasn't his fault, you know."
"I don't care. His fault or not, he's poisoning that group. They're supposed to bond, and right where he stands there's a chasm a mile wide."
"I don't plan to leave him there very long, anyway."
"Then you'd better plan again. That launch is sick, and he's the source of the disease. He stays till it's cured."
"I was the source of the disease. I was isolating him, and it worked."
"Give him time. To see what he does with it."
"We don't have time."
"We don't have time to rush a kid ahead who has as much chance of being a monster as a military genius."
"Is this an order?"
"The recorders on, it's always on, your ass is covered, go to hell."
"If it's an order, then I'll--"
"It's an order. Hold him where he is until we see now he handles things in his launch group. Graff, you give me ulcers."
"You wouldn't have ulcers if you'd leave the school to me and take care of the fleet yourself."
"The fleet is looking for a battle commander. There's nothing to take care of until you get me that."
They filed clumsily into the battleroom, like children in a swimming pool for the first time, clinging to the handholds along the side. Null gravity was frightening, disorienting; they soon found that things went better if they didn't use their feet at all.
Worse, the suits were confining. It was harder to make precise movements, since the suits bent just a bit slower, resisted a bit more than any clothing they had ever worn before.
Ender gripped the handhold and flexed his knees. He noticed that along with the sluggishness, the suit had an amplifying effect on movement. It was hard to get them started, but the suit's legs kept moving, and strongly, after his muscles had stopped. Give them a push this strong, and the suit pushes with twice the force. I'll be clumsy for a while. Better get started.
So, still grasping the handhold, he pushed off strongly with his feet.
Instantly he flipped around, his feet flying over his head, and landed fiat on his back against the wall. The rebound was stronger, it seemed, and his hands tore loose from the handhold. He flew across the battleroom, tumbling over and over.
For a sickening moment he tried to retain his old up-and-down orientation, his body attempting to right itself, searching for the gravity that wasn't there. Then he forced himself to change his view. He was hurtling toward a wall. That was down. And at once he had control of himself. He wasn't flying, he was falling. This was a dive. He could choose how he would hit the surface.
I'm going too fast to catch ahold and stay, but I can soften the impact, can fly off at an angle if I roll when I hit and use my feet--
It didn't work at all the way he had planned. He went off at an angle, but it was not the one he had predicted. Nor did he have time to consider. He hit another wall, this time too soon to have prepared for it. But quite accidently he discovered a way to use his feet to control the rebound angle. Now he was soaring across the room again, toward the other boys who still clung to the wall. This time he had slowed enough to be able to grip a rung. He was at a crazy angle in relation to the other boys, but once again his orientation had changed, and as far as he could tell, they were all lying on the floor, not hanging on a wall, and he was no more upside down than they were.
"What are you trying to do, kill yourself?" asked Shen.
"Try it," Ender said. "The suit keeps you from hurting yourself, and you can control your bouncing with your legs, like this." He approximated the movement he had made.
Shen shook his head-- he wasn't trying any fool stunt like that. But one boy did take off, not as fast as Ender had, because he didn't begin with a flip, but fast enough. Ender didn't even have to see his face to know that it was Bernard. And right after him, Bernard's best friend, Alai.
Ender watched them cross the huge room, Bernard struggling to orient himself to the direction he thought of as the floor, Alai surrendering to the movement and preparing to rebound from the wall. No wonder Bernard broke his arm in the shuttle, Ender thought. He tightens up when he's flying. He panics. Ender stored the information away for future reference.
And another bit of information, too. Alai did not push off in the same direction as Bernard. He aimed for a corner of the room. Their paths diverged more and more as they flew, and where Bernard made a clumsy, crunching landing and bounce on his wall, Alai did a glancing triple bounce on three surfaces near the corner that left him most of his speed and sent him flying off at a surprising angle. Alai shouted and whooped, and so did the boys watching him. Some of them forgot they were weightless and let go of the wall to clap their hands. Now they drifted lazily in many directions, waving their arms, trying to swim.
Now, that's a problem, thought Ender. What if you catch yourself drifting? There's no way to push off.
He was tempted to set himself adrift and try to solve the problem by trial and error. But he could see the others, their useless efforts at control, and he couldn't think of what he would do that they weren't already doing.
Holding onto the floor with one hand, he fiddled idly with the toy gun that was attached to his suit in front, just below the shoulder. Then he remembered the hand rockets sometimes used by marines when they did a boarding assault on an enemy station. He pulled the gun from his suit and examined it. He had pushed all the buttons back in the room, but the gun did nothing there. Maybe here in the battleroom it would work. There were no instructions on it. No labels on the controls. The trigger was obvious-- he had had toy guns, as all children had, almost since infancy. There were two buttons that his thumb could easily reach, and several others along the bottom of the shaft that were almost inaccessible without using two hands. Obviously, the two buttons near his thumb were meant to be instantly usable.
He aimed the gun at the floor and pulled back on the trigger. He felt the gun grow instantly warm; when he let go of the trigger, it cooled at once. Also, a tiny circle of light appeared on the floor where he was aiming.
He thumbed the red button at the top of the gun, and pulled the trigger again. Same thing.
Then he pushed the white button. It gave a bright flash of light that illuminated a wide area, but not as intensely. The gun was quite cold when the button was pressed.
The red button makes it like a laser-- but it is not a laser, Dap had said-- while the white button makes it a lamp. Neither will be much help when it comes to maneuvering.
So everything depends on how you push off, the course you set when you start. It means we're going to have to get very good at controlling our launches and rebounds or we're all going to end up floating around in the middle of nowhere. Ender looked around the room. A few of the boys were drifting close to walls now, flailing their arms to catch a handhold. Most were bumping into each other and laughing; some were holding hands and going around in circles. Only a few, like Ender, were calmly holding onto the walls and watching.
One of them, he saw, was Alai. He had ended up on another wall not too far from Ender. On impulse, Ender pushed off and moved quickly toward Alai. Once in the air, he wondered what he would say. Alai was Bernard's friend. What did Ender have to say to him?
Still, there was no changing course now. So he watched straight ahead, and practiced making tiny leg and hand movements to control which way he was facing as he drifted. Too late, he realized that he had aimed too well. He was not going to land near Alai-- he was going to hit him.
"Here, snag my hand!" Alai called.
Ender held out his hand. Alai took the shock of impact and helped Ender make a fairly gentle landing against the wall.
"That's good," Ender said. "We ought to practice that kind of thing."
"That's what I thought, only everybody's turning to butter out there," Alai said. "What happens if we get out there together? We should be able to shove each other in opposite directions."
It was an admission that all might not be right between them. Is it OK for us to do something together? Ender's answer was to take Alai by the wrist and get ready to push off.
"Ready?" said Alai. "Go."
Since they pushed off with different amounts of force, they began to circle each other. Ender made some small hand movements, then shifted a leg. They slowed. He did it again. They stopped orbiting. Now they were drifting evenly.
"Packed head, Ender." Alai said. It was high praise. "Let's push off before we run into that bunch."
"And then let's meet over in that corner." Ender did not want this bridge into the enemy camp to fail.
"Last one there saves farts in a milk bottle," Alai said.
Then, slowly, steadily, they maneuvered until they faced each other, spread-eagled, hand to hand, knee to knee.
"And then we just scrunch?" asked Alai.
"I've never done this before either," said Ender.
They pushed off. It propelled them faster than they expected. Ender ran into a couple of boys and ended up on a wall that he hadn't expected. It took him a moment to reorient and find the corner where he and Alai were to meet. Alai was already headed toward it. Ender plotted a course that would include two rebounds, to avoid the largest clusters of boys.
When Ender reached the corner, Alai had hooked his arms through two adjacent handholds and was pretending to doze.
"I want to see your fart collection," Alai said.
"I stored it in your locker. Didn't you notice?"
"I thought it was my socks."
"We don't wear socks anymore."
"Oh yeah." A reminder that they were both far from home. It took some of the fun out of having mastered a bit of navigation.
Ender took his pistol and demonstrated what he had learned about the two thumb buttons.
"What does it do when you aim at a person?" asked Alai.
"I don't know."
"Why don't we find out?"
Ender shook his head. "We might hurt somebody."
"I meant why don't we shoot each other in the foot or something. I'm not Bernard, I never tortured cats for fun."
"It can't be too dangerous, or they wouldn't give these guns to kids."
"We're soldiers now."
"Shoot me in the foot."
"No, you shoot me."
"Let's shoot each other."
They did. Immediately Ender felt the leg of the suit grow stiff, immobile at the knee and ankle joints.
"You frozen?" asked Alai.
"Stiff as a board."
"Let's freeze a few," Alai said. "Let's have our first war. Us against them."
They grinned. Then Ender said, "Better invite Bernard."
Alai cocked an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"That little slanty-eyed butt-wiggler?"
Ender decided that Alai was joking. "Hey, we can't all be niggers."
Alai grinned. "My grandpa would've killed you for that."
"My great great grandpa would have sold him first,"
"Let's go get Bernard and Shen and freeze these bugger-lovers."
In twenty minutes, everyone in the room was frozen except Ender, Bernard, Shen, and Alai. The four of them sat there whooping and laughing until Dap came in.
"I see you've learned how to use your equipment," he said. Then he did something to a control he held in his hand. Everybody drifted slowly toward the wall he was standing on. He went among the frozen boys, touching them and thawing their suits. There was a tumult of complaint that it wasn't fair how Bernard and Alai had shot them all when they weren't ready.
"Why weren't you ready?" asked Dap. "You had your suits just as long as they did. You had just as many minutes flapping around like drunken ducks. Stop moaning and we'll begin."
Ender noticed that it was assumed that Bernard and Alai were the leaders of the battle. Well, that was fine. Bernard knew that Ender and Alai had learned to use the guns together. And Ender and Alai were friends. Bernard might believe that Ender had joined his group, but it wasn't so. Ender had joined a new group. Alai's group. Bernard had joined it too.
It wasn't obvious to everyone; Bernard still blustered and sent his cronies on errands. But Alai now moved freely through the whole room, and when Bernard was crazy, Alai could joke a little and calm him down. When it came time to choose their launch leader, Alai was the almost unanimous choice. Bernard sulked for a few days and then he was fine, and everyone settled into the new pattern. The launch was no longer divided into Bernard's in-group and Ender's outcasts. Alai was the bridge.
Ender sat on his bed with his desk on his knees. lt was private study time, and Ender was doing Free Play. It was a shifting, crazy kind of game in which the school computer kept bringing up new things, building a maze that you could explore. You could go back to events that you liked, for a while; if you left them alone too long, they disappeared and something else took its place.
Sometimes funny things. Sometimes exciting, and he had to be quick to stay alive. He had lots of deaths, but that was OK, games were like that, you died a lot until you got the hang of it.
His figure on the screen had started out as a little boy. For a while it had changed into a bear. Now it was a large mouse, with long and delicate hands. He ran his figure under a lot of large items of furniture. He had played with the cat a lot, but now it was boring-- too easy to dodge, he knew all the furniture.
Not through the mousehole this time, he told himself. I'm sick of the Giant. It's a dumb game and I can't ever win. Whatever I choose is wrong.
But he went through the mousehole anyway, and over the small bridge in the garden. He avoided the ducks and the divebombing mosquitoes-- he had tried playing with them but they were too easy, and if he played with the ducks too long he turned into a fish, which he didn't like. Being a fish reminded him too much of being frozen in the battleroom, his whole body rigid, waiting for the practice to end so Dap would thaw him. So, as usual, he found himself going up the rolling hills.
The landslides began. At first he had got caught again and again, crushed in an exaggerated blot of gore oozing out from under a rock pile. Now, though, he had mastered the skill of running up the slopes at an angle to avoid the crush, always seeking higher ground.
And, as always, the landslides finally stopped being jumbles of rock. The face of the hill broke open and instead of shale it was white bread, puffy, rising like dough as the crust broke away and fell. It was soft and spongy; his figure moved more slowly. And when he jumped down off the bread, he as standing on a table. Giant loaf of bread behind him; giant stick of butter beside him. And the Giant himself leaning his chin in his hands, looking at him. Ender's figure was about as tall as the Giant's head from chin to brow.
"I think I'll bite your head off," said the Giant, as he always did.
This time, instead of running away or standing there, Ender walked his figure up to the Giant's face and kicked him in the chin.
The Giant stuck out his tongue and Ender fell to the ground.
"How about a guessing game?" asked the Giant. So it didn't make any difference-- the Giant only played the guessing game. Stupid computer. Millions of possible scenarios in its memory, and the Giant could only play one stupid game.
The Giant, as always, set two huge shot glasses, as tall as Ender's knees, on the table in front of him. As always, the two were filled with different liquids. The computer was good enough that the liquids had never repeated, not that he could remember. This time the one had a thick, creamy looking liquid. The other hissed and foamed.
"One is poison and one is not," said the Giant. "Guess right and I'll take you into Fairyland."
Guessing meant sticking his head into one of the glasses to drink. He never guessed right. Sometimes his head was dissolved. Sometimes he caught on fire. Sometimes he fell in and drowned. Sometimes he fell out, turned green, and rotted away. It was always ghastly, and the Giant always laughed.
Ender knew that whatever he chose he would die. The game was rigged. On the first death, his figure would reappear on the Giant's table, to play again. On the second death, he'd come back to the landslides. Then to the garden bridge. Then to the mousehole. And then, if he still went back to the Giant and played again, and died again, his desk would go dark, "Free Play Over" would march around the desk and Ender would lie back on his bed and tremble until he could finally go to sleep. The game was rigged but still the Giant talked about Fairyland, some stupid childish three-year-old's Fairyland that probably had some stupid Mother Goose or Pac-Man or Peter Pan, it wasn't even worth getting to, but he had to find some way of beating the Giant to get there.
He drank the creamy liquid. Immediately he began to inflate and rise like a balloon. The Giant laughed. He was dead again.
He played again, and this time the liquid set, like concrete, and held his head down while the Giant cut him open along the spine, deboned him like a fish, and began to eat while his arms and legs quivered.
He reappeared at the landslides and decided not to go on. He even let the landslides cover him once. But even though he was sweating and he felt cold, with his next life he went back up the hills till then turned into bread, and stood on the Giant's table as the shot glasses were set before him.
He stared at the two liquids. The one foaming, the other with waves in it like the sea. He tried to guess what kind of death each one held. Probably a fish will come out of the ocean one and eat me. The foamy one will probably asphyxiate me. I hate this game. It isn't fair. It's stupid. It's rotten.
And instead of pushing his face into one of the liquids, he kicked one over, then the other, and dodged the Giant's huge hands as the Giant shouted, "Cheater, cheater!" He jumped at the Giant's face, clambered up his lip and nose, and began to dig in the Giant's eye. The stuff came away like cottage cheese, and as the Giant screamed, Ender's figure burrowed into the eye, climbed right in, burrowed in and in.
The Giant fell over backward, the view shifted as he fell, and when the Giant came to rest on the ground, there were intricate, lacy trees all around. A bat flew up and landed on the dead Giant's nose. Ender brought his figure up out of the Giant's eye.
"How did you get here?" the bat asked. "Nobody ever comes here."
Ender could not answer, of course. So he reached down, took a handful of the Giant's eyestuff, and offered it to the bat.
The bat took it and flew off, shouting as it went, "Welcome to Fairyland."
He had made it. He ought to explore. He ought to climb down from the Giant's face and see what he had finally achieved.
Instead he signed off, put his desk in his locker, stripped off his clothes and pulled his blanket over him. He hadn't meant to kill the Giant. This was supposed to be a game. Not a choice between his own grisly death and an even worse murder. I'm a murderer, even when I play. Peter would be proud of me.