"Mind if I sit?" Ender didn't have to turn around to know it was Dink Meeker.
"Ho Dink," said Ender. "Sit."
"You gold-plated fart," said Dink cheerfully, "We're all trying to decide whether your scores up there are a miracle or a mistake."
"A habit," said Ender.
"One victory is not a habit," Dink said. "Don't get cocky. When you're new they seed you against weak commanders."
"Carn Carby isn't exactly on the bottom of the rankings." It was true, Carby was just about in the middle.
"He's OK," Dink said, "considering that he only just started. Shows some promise. You don't show promise. You show threat."
"Threat to what? Do they feed you less if I win? I thought you told me this was all a stupid game and none of it mattered."
Dink didn't like having his words thrown back at him, not under these circumstances. "You were the one who got me playing along with them. But I'm not playing games with you, Ender. You won't beat me."
"Probably not," Ender said.
"I taught you," Dink said.
"Everything I know," said Ender. "I'm just playing it by ear right now.
"Congratulations," said Dink.
"It's good to know I have a friend here." But Ender wasn't sure Dink was his friend anymore. Neither was Dink. After a few empty sentences, Dink went back to his table.
Ender looked around when he was through with his meal. There were quite a few small conversations going on. Ender spotted Bonzo, who was now one of the oldest commanders. Rose the Nose had graduated. Petra was with a group in a far corner, and she didn't look at him once. Since most of the others stole glances at him from time to time, including the ones Petra was talking with, Ender was pretty sure she was deliberately avoiding his glance. That's the problem with winning right from the start, thought Ender. You lose friends.
Give them a few weeks to get used to it. By the time I have my next battle, things will have calmed down in here.
Carn Carby made a point of coming to greet Ender before the lunch period ended. It was, again, a gracious gesture, and, unlike Dink, Carby did not seem wary. "Right now I'm in disgrace," he said frankly. "They won't believe me when I tell them you did things that nobody's ever seen before. So I hope you beat the snot out of the next army you fight. As a favor to me."
"As a favor to you," Ender said. "And thanks for talking to me."
"I think they're treating you pretty badly. Usually new commanders are cheered when they first join the mess. But then, usually a new commander has had a few defeats under his belt before he first makes it in here. I only got in here a month ago. If anybody deserves a cheer, it's you. But that's life. Make them eat dust."
"I'll try." Carn Carby left, and Ender mentally added him to his private list of people who also qualified as human beings.
That night, Ender slept better than he had in a long time. Slept so well, in fact, that he didn't wake up until the lights came on. He woke up feeling good, jogged on out to take his shower, and did not notice the piece of paper on his floor until he came back and started dressing in his uniform. He only saw the paper because it moved in the wind as he snapped out the uniform to put it on. He picked up the paper and read it.
PETRA ARKANIAN, PHOENIX ARMY, 0700
It was his old army, the one he had left less than four weeks before, and he knew their formations backward and forward. Partly because of Ender's influence, they were the most flexible of armies, responding relativeiy quickly to new situations. Phoenix Army would be the best able to cope with Ender's fluid, unpatterned attack. The teachers were determined to make life interesting for him.
0700, said the paper, and it was already 0630. Some of his boys might already be heading for breakfast. Ender tossed his uniform aside, grabbed his flash suit, and in a moment stood in the doorway of his army's barracks.
"Gentlemen, I hope you learned something yesterday, because today we're doing it again."
It took a moment for them to realize that he meant a battle, not a practice. It had to be a mistake, they said. Nobody ever had battles two days in a row.
He handed the paper to Fly Molo, the leader of A toon, who immediateiy shouted "Flash suits" and started changing clothes.
"Why didn't you tell us earlier?" demanded Hot Soup. Hot had a way of asking Ender questions that nobody else dared ask.
"I thought you needed the shower," Ender said. "Yesterday Rabbit Army claimed we only won because the stink knocked them out."
The soldiers who heard him laughed.
"Didn't find the paper till you got back from the showers, right?"
"Of course," Ender said, contemptuously. "I'm not as close to the floor as you are.
More laughter. Bean flushed with anger.
"It's plain we can't count on old ways of doing things." Ender said. "So you'd better plan on battles anytime. And often. I can't pretend I like the way they're screwing around with us, but I do like one thing -- that I've got an army that can handle it."
After that, if he had asked them to follow him to the moon without space suits, they would have done it.
Petra was not Carn Carby; she had more flexible patterns and responded much more quickly to Ender's darting, improvised, unpredictable attack. As a result, Ender had three boys flashed and nine disabied at the end of the battle. Petra was not gracious about bowing over his hand at the end, either. The anger in her eyes seemed to say, I was your friend, and you humiliate me like this?
Ender pretended not to notice her fury. He figured that after a few more battles, she'd realize that in fact she had scored more hits against him than he expected anyone ever would again. And he was still learning from her. In practice today he would teach his toon leaders how to counter the tricks Petra had played on them. Soon they would be friends again.
At the end of the week Dragon Army had fought seven battles in seven days. The score stood 7 wins and 0 losses. Ender had never had more losses than in the battle with Phoenix Army, and in two battles he had suffered not one soldier frozen or disabled. No one believed anymore that it was a fluke that put him first in the standings. He had beaten top armies by unheard-of margins. It was no longer possible for the other commanders to ignore him. A few of them sat with him at every meal, carefully trying to learn from him how he had defeated his most recent opponents. He told them freely, confident that few of them would know how to train their soldiers and their toon leaders to duplicate what his could do. And while Ender talked with a few commanders, much larger groups gathered around the opponents Ender had defeated, trying to find out how Ender might be beaten.
There were many who who hated him. Hated him for being young, for being excellent, for having made their victories look paltry and weak. Ender saw it first in their faces when he passed them in the corridors; then he began to notice that some boys would get up in a group and move to another table if he sat near them in the commanders' mess; and there began to be elbows that aecidently jostled him in the game room, feet that got entangled with his when he walked into and out of the gym, spittle and wads of wet paper that struck him from behind as he jogged through the corridors. They couldn't beat him in the battleroom, and knew it -- so instead they would attack him where it was safe, where he was not a giant but just a little boy. Ender despised them, but secretly, so secretly that he didn't even know it himself, he feared them. It was just such little torments that Peter had always used, and Ender was beginning to feel far too much at home.
These annoyances were petty, though, and Ender persuaded himself to accept them as another form of praise. Already the other armies were beginning to imitate Ender. Now most soldiers attacked with knees tucked under them; formations were breaking up now, and more commanders were sending out toons to slip along the walls. None had caught on yet to Ender's five-toon organization -- it gave him the slight advantage that when they had accounted for the movements of four units, they wouldn't be looking for a fifth.
Ender was teaching them all about null gravity tactics. But where could Ender go to learn new things?
He began to use the video room, filled with propaganda vids about Mazer Rackham and other great commanders of the forces of humanity in the First and Second Invasion. Ender stopped the general practice an hour early, and allowed his toon leaders to conduct their own practice in his absence. Usually they staged skirmishes, toon against toon. Ender stayed long enough to see that things were going well, then left to watch the old battles.
Most of the vids were a waste ot time. Heroic music, closeups of commanders and medal-winning soldiers, confused shots of marines invading bugger installations. But here and there he found useful sequences: ships, like points of light, maneuvering in the dark of space, or, better still, the lights on shipboard plotting screens, showing the whole of a battle. It was hard, from the videos, to see all three dimensions, and the scenes were often short and unexplained. But Ender began to see how well the buggers used seemingly random flight paths to create confusion, how they used decoys and false retreats to draw the IF ships into traps. Some battles had been cut into many scenes, which were scattered through the various videos; by watching them in sequence, Ender was able to reconstruct whole battles. He began to see things that the official commentators never mentioned. They were always trying to arouse pride in human accomplishments and loathing of the buggers, but Ender began to wonder how humanity had won at all. Human ships were sluggish; fleets responded to new circumstances unbearably slowly, while the bugger fleet seemed to act in perfect unity, responding to each challenge instantly. Of course, in the First Invasion the human ships were completely unsuited to fast combat, but then so were the bugger ships; it was only in the Second Invasion that the ships and weapons were swift and deadly.
So it was from the buggers, not the humans, that Ender learned strategy. He felt ashamed and afraid of learning from them, since they were the most terrible enemy, ugly and murderous and loathsome. But they were also very good at what they did. To a point. They always seemed to follow one basic strategy only -- gather the greatest number of ships at the key point of conflict. They never did anything surprising, anything that seemed to show either brilliance or stupidity in a subordinate officer. Discipline was apparently very tight.
And there was one oddity. There was plenty of talk about Mazer Rackham but precious little video of his actual battle. Some scenes from early in the battle, Rackham's tiny force looking pathetic against the vast power of the main bugger fleet. The buggers had already beaten the main human fleet out in the comet shield, wiping out the earliest starships and making a mockery of human attempts at high strategy -- that film was often shown, to arouse again and again the agony and terror of bugger victory. Then the fleet coming to Mazer Rackham's little force near Saturn, the hopeless odds, and then--
Then one shot from Mazer Rackham's little cruiser, one enemy ship blowing up. That's all that was ever shown. Lots of film showing marines carving their way into bugger ships. Lots of bugger corpses lying around inside. But no film of buggers killing in personal combat, unless it was spliced in from the First Invasion. It frustrated Ender that Maser Rackham's victory was so obviously censored. Students in the Battle School had much to learn trom Mazer Rackham, and everything about his victory was concealed from view. The passion for secrecy was not very helpful to the children who had to learn to accomplish again what Mazer Rackham had done.
Of course, as soon as word got around that Ender Wiggin was watching the war vids over and over again, the video room began to draw a crowd. Almost all were commanders, watching the same vids Ender watched, pretending they understood why he was watching and what he was getting out of it. Ender never explained anything. Even when he showed seven scenes from the same battle, but from different vids, only one boy asked, tentatively, "Are some of those from the same battle?"
Ender only shrugged, as if it didn't matter.
It was during the last hour of practice on the seventh day, only a few hours after Ender's army had won its seventh battle, that Major Anderson himself came into the video room. He handed a slip of paper to one of the commanders sitting there, and then spoke to Ender. "Colonel Graff wishes to see you in his office immediately."
Ender got up and followed Anderson through the corridors. Anderson palmed the locks that kept students out of the officers' quarters; finally they came to where Graff had taken root on a swivel chair bolted to the steel floor. His belly spilled over both armrests now, even when he sat upright. Ender tried to remember. Graff hadn't seemed particularly fat at when Ender first met him, only four years ago. Time and tension were not being kind to the administrator of the Battle School.
"Seven days since your first battle, Ender," said Graff.
Ender did not reply.
"And you've won seven battles, once a day."
"Your scores are unusually high, too."
"To what, commander, do you attribute your remarkable success?"
"You gave me an army that does whatever I can think for it to do."
"And what have you thought for it to do?"
"We orient downward toward the enemy gate and use our lower legs as a shield. We avoid formations and keep our mobility. It helps that I've got five toons of eight instead of four of ten. Also, our enemies haven't had time to respond effectively to our new techniques, so we keep beating them with the same tricks. That won't hold up for long."
"So you don't expect to keep winning."
"Not with the same tricks."
Graff nodded. "Sit down, Ender."
Ender and Anderson both sat. Graff looked at Anderson, and Anderson spoke next. "What condition is your army in, fighting so often?"
"They're all veterans now."
"But how are they doing? Are they tired?"
"If they are, they won't admit it."
"Are they still alert?"
"You're the ones with the computer games that play with people's minds. You tell me."
"We know what we know. We want to know what you know."
"These are very good soldiers, Major Anderson. I'm sure they have limits, but we haven't reached them yet. Some of the newer ones are having trouble because they never really mastered some basic techniques, but they're working hard and improving. What do you want me to say, that they need to rest? Of course they need to rest. They need a couple of weeks off. Their studies are shot to hell, none of us are doing any good in our classes. But you know that, and apparently you don't care, so why should I?"
Graff and Anderson exchanged glances. "Ender, why are you studying the videos of the bugger wars?"
"To learn strategy, of course."
"Those videos were created for propaganda purposes. All our strategies have been edited out."
Graff and Anderson exchanged glances again. Graff drummed on his table. "You don't play the fantasy game anymore," he said.
Erider didn't answer.
"Tell me why you don't play it."
"Because I won."
"You never win everything in that game. There's always more."
"I won everything."
"Ender, we want to help you be as happy as possible, but if you--"
"You want to make me the best soldier possible. Go down and look at the standings. Look at the all-time standings. So far you're doing an excellent job with me. Congratulations. Now when are you going to put me up against a good army?"
Graff's set lips turned to a smile, and he shook a little with silent laughter.
Anderson handed Ender a slip of paper. "Now," he said.
BONZO MADRID, SALAMANDER ARMY, 1200
"That's ten minutes from now," said Ender. "My army will be in the middle of showering up after practice."
Graff smiled. "Better hurry, then, boy."
He got to his army's barracks five minutes later. Most were dressing after their showers; some had already gone to the game room or the video room to wait for lunch. He sent three younger boys to call everyone in, and made everyone else dress for battle as quickly as they could.
"This one's hot and there's no time," Ender said. "They gave Bonzo notice about twenty minutes ago, and by the time we get to the door they'll have been inside for a good five minutes at least."
The boys were outraged, complaining loudly in the slang that they usually avoided around the commander. What they doing to us? They be crazy, neh?
"Forget why, we'll worry about that tonight. Are you tired?"
Fly Molo answered. "We worked our butts off in practice today. Not to mention beating the crap out of Ferret Army this morning."
"Same day nobody ever do two battles!" said Crazy Tom.
Ender answered in the same tone. "Nobody ever beat Dragon Army, either. This be your big chance to lose?" Ender's taunting question was the answer to their complaints. Win first, ask questions later.
All of them were back in the room, and most of them were dressed. "Move!" shouted Ender, and they ran along behind him, some of them still dressing when they reached the corridor outside the battleroom. Many of them were panting, a bad sign; they were too tired for this battle. The door was already open. There were no stars at all. Just empty, empty space in a dazzlingly bright room. Nowhere to hide, not even in darkness.
"My heart," said Crazy Tom, "they haven't come out yet, either."
Ender put his hand across his own mouth, to tell them to be silent. With the door open, of course the enemy could hear every word they said. Ender pointed all around the door, to tell them that Salamander Army was undoubtedly deployed against the wall all around the door, where they couldn't be seen but could easily flash anyone who came out.
Ender motioned for them all to back away from the door. Then he pulled forward a few of the taller boys, including Crazy Tom, and made them kneel, not squatting back to sit on their heels, but fully upright, so they formed an L with their bodies. He flashed them. In silence the army watched him. He selected the smallest boy, Bean, handed him Tom's gun, and made Bean kneel on Tom's frozen legs. Then pulled Bean's hands, each holding a gun, through Tom's armpits.
Now the boys understood. Tom was a shield, an armored spacecraft, and Bean was hiding inside. He was certainly not invulnerable, but he would have time.
Ender assigned two more boys to throw Tom and Bean through the door and signalled them to wait. He went on through the army quickly assigning groups of four -- a shield, a shooter, and two throwers. Then, when all were frozen or armed or ready to throw, he signalled the throwers to pick up their burdens, throw them through the door, and then jump through themselves.
"Move!" shouted Ender.
They moved. Two at a time the shield-pairs went through the door, backwards so that the shield would be between the shooter and the enemy. The enemy opened fire at once, but they mostly hit the frozen boy in front. In the meantime, with two guns to work with and their targets neatly lined up and spread flat along the wall, the Dragons had an easy time of it. It was almost impossible to miss. And as the throwers also jumped through the door, they got handholds on the same wall with the enemy, shooting at a deadly angle so that the Salamanders couldn't figure out whether to shoot at the shield-pairs slaughtering them from above or the throwers shooting at them from their own level. By the time Ender himself came through the door, the battle was over. It hadn't taken a full minute from the time the first Dragon passed through the door until the shooting stopped. Dragon had lost twenty frozen or disabled, and only twelve boys were undamaged. It was their worst score yet, but they had won.
When Major Anderson came out and gave Ender the hook, Ender could not contain his anger. "I thought you were going to put us against an army that could match us in a fair fight."
"Congratulations on the victory, commander."
"Bean!" shouted Ender. "If you had commanded Salamander Army, what would you have done?"
Bean, disabled but not completely frozen, called out from where he drifted near the enemy door. "Keep a shifting pattern of movement going in front of the door. You never hold still when the enemy knows exactly where you are.
"As long as you're cheating," Ender said to Anderson, "why don't you train the other army to cheat intelligently!"
"I suggest that you remobilize your army," said Anderson.
Ender pressed the buttons to thaw both armies at once. "Dragon Army dismissed!" he shouted immediately. There would be no elaborate formation to accept the surrender of the other army. This had not been a fair fight, even though they had won -- the teachers had meant them to lose, and it was only Bonzo's ineptitude that had saved them. There was no glory in that.
Only as Ender himself was leaving the battleroom did he realize that Bonzo would not realize that Ender was angry at the teachers. Spanish honor. Bonzo would only know that he had byen defeated even when the odds were stacked in his favor; that Ender had had the youngest child in his army publicly state what Bonzo should have done to win; and that Ender had not even stayed to receive Bonzo's dignified surrender. If Bonzo had not already hated Ender he would surely have begun; and hating him as he did, this would surely turn his rage murderous. Bonzo was the last person to strike me, thought Ender. I'm sure he has not forgotten that.
Nor had he forgotten the bloody affair in the battleroom when the older boys tried to break up Ender's practice session. Nor had many others. They were hungry for blood then; Bonzo will be thirsting for it now. Ender toyed with the idea of going back to take advanced personal defense; but with battles now possible not only every day, but twice in the same day, Ender knew he could not spare the time. I'll have to take my chances. The teachers got me into this -- they can keep me safe.
Bean flopped down on his bunk in utter exhaustion -- half the boys in the barracks were already asleep, and it was still fifteen minutes before lights out. Wearily he pulled his desk from its locker and signed on. There was a test tomorrow in geometry and Bean was woefully unprepared. He could always reason things out if he had enough time, and he had read Euclid when he was five, but the test had a time limit so there wouldn't be a chance to think. He had to know. And he didn't know. And he would probably do badly on the test. But they had won twice today, and so he felt good.
As soon as he signed on, however, all thoughts of geometry were banished. A message paraded around the desk:
SEE ME AT ONCE -- ENDER
The time was 2150, only ten minutes before lights out. How long ago had Ender sent it? Still, he'd better not ignore it. There might be another battle in the morning -- the thought made him weary -- and whatever Ender wanted to talk to him about, there wouldn't be time then. So Bean rolled off the bunk and walked emptily through the corridor to Ender's room. He knocked.