"I just didn't know if you knew what time it was--"
"I always know what time it is."
Bean sighed inwardly. It never failed. Whenever he had any conversation with Ender, it turned into an argument. Bean hated it. He recognized Ender's genius and honored him for it. Why couldn't Ender ever see anything good in him?
"Remember four weeks ago, Bean? When you told me to make you a toon leader?"
"I've made five toon leaders and five assistants since then. And none of them was you." Ender raised his eyebrows. "Was I right?"
"So tell me how you've done in these eight battles."
"Today was the first time they disabled me, but the computer listed me as getting eleven hits, before I had to stop. I've never had less than five hits in a battle. l've also completed every assignment I've been given."
"Why did they make you a soldier so young, Bean?"
"No younger than you were."
"I don't know."
"Yes you do, and so do I."
"I've tried to guess, but they're just guesses. You're-- very good. They knew that, they pushed you ahead--"
"Tell me why, Bean."
"Because they need us, that's why." Bean sat down on the floor and stared at Enders feet. "Because they need somebody to beat the buggers. That's the only thing they care about."
"It's important that you know that, Bean. Because most boys in this school think the game is important for itself-- but it isn't. It's only important because it helps them find kids who might grow up to be real commanders, in the real war. But as for the game, screw that. That's what they're doing. Screwing up the game."
"Funny. I thought they were just doing it to us."
"A game nine weeks earlier than it should have come. A game every day. And now two games in the same day. Bean, I don't know what the teachers are doing, but my army is getting tired, and l'm getting tired, and they don't care at all about the rules of the game. I've pulled the old charts up from the computer. No one has ever destroyed so many enemies and kept so many of his own soldiers whole in the history of the game."
"You're the best, Ender."
Ender shook his head. "Maybe. But it was no accident that I got the soldiers I got. Launchies, rejects from other armies, but put them together and my worst soldier could be a toon leader in another army. They've loaded things my way, but now they're loading it all against me. Bean, they want to break us down."
"They can't break you."
"You'd be surprised." Ender breathed sharply, suddenly, as if there were a stab of pain, or he had to catch a sudden breath in a wind; Bean looked at him and realized that the impossible was happening. Far from baiting him, Ender Wiggin was actually confiding in him. Not much. But a little. Ender was human and Bean had been allowed to see.
"Maybe you'll be surprised," said Bean.
"There's a limit to how many clever new ideas I can come up with every day. Somebody's going to come up with something to throw at me that I haven't thought of before, and I won't be ready."
"What's the worst that could happen? You lose one game."
"Yes. That's the worst that could happen. I can't lose any games. Because if I lose any--"
He didn't explain himself, and Bean didn't ask.
"I need you to be clever, Bean. I need you to think of solutions to problems we haven't seen yet. I want you to try things that no one has ever tried because they're absolutely stupid."
"Because even though there are some better soldiers than you in Dragon Army -- not many, but some -- there's nobody who can think better and faster than you." Bean said nothing. They both knew it was true.
Ender showed him his desk. On it were twelve names. Two or three from each toon. "Choose five of these," said Ender. "One from each toon. They're a special squad, and you'll train them. Only during the extra practice sessions. Talk to me about what you're training them to do. Don't spend too long on any one thing. Most of the time you and your squad will be part of the whole army, part of your regular toons. But when I need you. When there's something to be done that only you can do."
"These are all new," said Bean. "No veterans."
"After last week, Bean, all our soldiers are veterans. Don't you realize that on the individual soldier standings, all forty of our soldiers are in the top fifty? That you have to go down seventeen places to find a soldier who isn't a Dragon?"
"What if I can't think of anything?"
"Then I was wrong about you."
Bean grinned. "You weren't wrong."
The lights went out.
"Can you find your way back, Bean?"
"Then stay here. If you listen very carefully you can hear the good fairy come in the night and leave our assignment for tomorrow."
"They won't give us another battle tomorrow, will they?"
Ender didn't answer. Bean heard him climb into bed.
He got up from the floor and did likewise. He thought of a half dozen ideas betore he went to sleep. Ender would be pleased -- every one of them was stupid.
Chapter 12 -- Bonzo
"General Pace, please sit down. I understand you have come to me about a matter of some urgency."
"Ordinarily, Colonel Graff, I would not presume to interfere in the internal workings of the Battle School. Your autonomy is guaranteed, and despite our dfference in ranks I am quite aware that it is my authority only to advise, not to order, you to take action."
"Do not be disingenuous with me, Colonel Graff. Americans are quite apt at playing stupid when they choose to, but I am not to be deceived. You know why I am here."
"Ah. I guess this means Dap filed a report?"
"He feels paternal toward the students here. He feels your neglect of a potentially lethal situation is more than negligence -- that it borders on conspiracy to cause the death or serious injury of one of the students here."
"This is a school for children, General Pace. Hardly a matter to bring the chief of IF military police here for."
"Colonel Graff, the name of Ender Wiggin has percolated through the high command. It has even reached my ears -- I have heard him described modestly as our only hope of victory in the upcoming invasion. When it is his life or health that is in danger, I do not think it untoward that the military police take some interest in preserving and protecting the boy. Do you?"
"Damn Dap and damn you too, sir, I know what I'm doing."
"Better than anyone else."
"Oh, that is obvious, since nobody else has the faintest idea what you're doing. You have known for eight days that there is a conspiracy among some of the more vicious of these 'children' to cause the beating of Ender Wiggin, if they can. And that some members of this conspiracy, notably the boy named Bonito de Madrid, commonly called Bonzo, are quite likely to exhibit no self-restraint when this punishment takes place, so that Ender Wiggin, an inestimably important international resource, will be placed in serious danger of having his brains pasted on the walls of your simple orbiting schoolhouse. And you, fully warned of this danger, propose to do exactly--"
"You can see how this excites our puzzlement."
"Ender Wiggin has been in this situation before. Bock on Earth, the day he lost his monitor, and again when a large group of older boys--"
"I did not came here ignorant of the past. Ender Wiggin has provoked Bonzo Madrid beyond human endurance. And you have no military police standing by to break up disturbances. It is unconscionable."
"When Ender Wiggin holds our fleets in his control, when he must make the decisions that bring us victory or destruction, will there be military police to came save him if things get out of hand?"
"I fail to see the connection."
"Obviously. But the connection is there Ender Wiggin must believe that no matter what happens, no adult will ever, ever step in to help him in any way. He must believe, to the core of his soul, that he can only do what he and the other children work out for themselves. If he does not believe that, then he will never reach the peak of his abilities."
"He will also not reach the peak of his abilities if he is dead or permanently crippled."
"He won't be."
"Why don't you simply graduate Bonzo? He's old enough."
"Because Ender knows that Bonzo plans to kill him. If we transfer Bonzo ahead of schedule, he'll know that we saved him. Heaven knows Bonzo isn't a good enough commander to be promoted on merit."
"What about the other children? Getting them to help him?"
"We'll see what happens. That is my first, final, and only decision."
"God help you if you're wrong."
"God help us all if I'm wrong."
"I'll have you before a capital court martial. I'll have your name disgraced throughout the world if you're wrong."
"Fair enough. But do remember if I happen to be right to make sure I get a few dozen medals."
"For keeping you from meddling."
Ender sat in a corner of the battleroom, his arm hooked through a handhold watching Bean practice with his squad. Yesterday they had worked on attacks without guns, disarming enemies with their feet. Ender had helped them with some techniques from gravity personal combat -- many things had to be changed, but inertia in flight was a tool that could be used against the enemy as easily in nullg as in Earth gravity.
Today, though, Bean had a new toy. It was a deadline, one of the thin, almost invisible twines used during construction in space to hold two objects together. Deadlines were sometimes kilometers long. This one was just a bit longer than a wall of the battleroom and yet it looped easily, almost invisibly, around Bean's wrist. He pulled it off like an article of clothing and handed one end to one of his soldiers. "Hook it to a handhold and wind it around a few times." Bean carried the other end across the battle oom.
As a tripwire it wasn't too useful, Bean decided. It was invisible enough, but one strand of twine wouldn't have much chance of stopping an enemy that could easily go above or below it. Then he got the idea of using it to change his direction of movement in midair. He fastened it around his waist, the other end still fastened to a handhold, slipped a few meters away, and launched himself straight out. The twine caught him, changed his direction abruptly, and swung him in an arc that crashed him brutally against the wall.
He screamed and screamed. It took Ender a moment to realize that he wasn't screaming in pain. "Did you see how fast I went! Did you see how I changed direction!"
Soon all of Dragon Army stopped work to watch Bean practice with the twine. The changes in direction were stunning, especially when you didn't know where to look for the twine, When he used the twine to wrap himself around a star, he attained speeds no one had ever seen before,
It was 2140 when Ender dismissed the evening practice. Weary but delighted at having seen something new, his army walked through the corridors back to the barracks. Ender walked among them, not talking, but listening to their talk. They were tired, yes -- a battle every day for more than four weeks, often in situations that tested their abilities to the utmost. But they were proud, happy, close -- they had never lost, and they had learned to trust each other. Trust their fellow soldiers to fight hard and well; trust their leaders to use them rather than waste their efforts; above all trust Ender to prepare them for anything and everything that might happen.
As they walked the corridor, Ender noticed several older boys seemingly engaged in conversations in branching corridors and ladderways; some were in their corridor, walking slowly in the other direction. It became too much of a coincidence, however, that so many of them were wearing Salamander uniforms, and that those who weren't were often older boys belonging to armies whose commanders most hated Ender Wiggin. A few of them looked at him, and looked away too quickly; others were too tense, too nervous as they pretended to be relaxed. What will I do if they attack my army here in the corridor? My boys are all young, all small, and completely untrained in gravity combat. When would they learn?
"Ho, Ender!" someone called. Ender stopped and looked back, It was Petra. "Ender, can I talk to you?"
Ender saw in a moment that if he stopped and talked, his army would quickly pass him by and he would be alone with Petra in the hallway. "Walk with me," Ender said.
"It's just for a moment."
Ender turned around and walked on with his army. He heard Petra running to catch up. "All right, I'll walk with you." Ender tensed when she came near. Was she one of them, one of the ones who hated him enough to hurt him?
"A friend of yours wanted me to warn you. There are some boys who want to kill you."
"Surprise," said Ender. Some of his soldiers seemed to perk up at this. Plots against their commander were interesting news, it seemed.
"Ender, they can do it. He said they've been planning it ever since you went commander."
"Ever since I beat Salamander, you mean."
"I hated you after you beat Phoenix Army, too, Ender."
"I didn't say I blamed anybody."
"It's true. He told me to take you aside today and warn you, on the way back from the battleroom, to be careful tomorrow because--"
"Petra, if you had actually taken me aside just now, there are about a dozen boys following along who would have taken me in the corridor. Can you tell me you didn't notice them?"
Suddenly her face flushed. "No. I didn't. How can you think I did? Don't you know who your friends are?" She pushed her way through Dragon Army, got ahead of him, and scrambled up a ladderway to a higher deck.
"Is it true?" asked Crazy Tom.
"Is what true?" Ender scanned the room and shouted for two roughhousing boys to get to bed.
"That some of the older boys want to kill you?"
"All talk," said Ender. But be knew that it wasn't. Petra had known something, and what he saw on the way here tonight wasn't imagination.
"It may be all talk, but I hope you'll understand when I say you've got five toon leaders who are going to escort you to your room tonight."
"Humor us. You owe us a favor."
"I owe you nothing." He'd be a fool to turn them down. "Do as you want." He turned and left. The toon leaders trotted along with him. One ran ahead and opened his door. They checked the room, made Ender promise to lock it, and left him just before lights out.
There was a message on his desk.
DON'T BE ALONE. EVER. -- DINK
Ender grinned. So Dink was still his friend. Don't worry. They won't do anything to me. I have my army.
But in the darkness he did not have his army. He dreamed that night of Stilson, only he saw now how small Stilson was, only six years old, how ridiculous his tough-guy posturing was; and yet in the dream Stilson and his friends tied Ender so he couldn't fight back, and then everything that Ender had done to Stilson in life, they did to Ender in the dream. And afterward Ender saw himself babbling like an idiot, trying hard to give orders to his army, but all his words came out as nonsense.
He awoke in darkness, and he was afraid. Then he calmed himself by remembering that the teachers obviously valued him, or they wouldn't be putting so much pressure on him; they wouldn't let anything happen to him, nothing bad, anyway. Probably when the older kids attacked him in the battleroom years ago, there were teachers just outside the room, waiting to see what would happen; if things had got out of hand, they would have stepped in and stopped it. I probably could have sat here and done nothing, and they would have seen to it I came through all right. They'll push me as hard as they can in the game, but outside the game they'll keep me safe.
With that assurance, he slept again, until the door opened softly and the morning's war was left on the floor for him to find.
They won, of course, but it was a grueling affair, with the battleroom so filled with a labyrinth of stars that hunting down the enemy during mop-up took forty-five minutes. It was Pol Slattery's Badger Army, and they refused to give up. There was a new wrinkle in the game, too -- when they disabled or damaged an enemy, he thawed in about five minutes, the way it worked in practice. Only when the enemy was completely frozen did he stay out of action the whole time. But the gradual thawing did not work for Dragon Army. Crazy Tom was the one who realized what was happening, when they started getting hit from behind by people they thought were safely out of the way. And at the end of the battle, Slattery shook Ender's hand and said, "I'm glad you won. If I ever beat you, Ender, I want to do it fair."
"Use what they give you," Ender said. "If you've ever got an advantage over the enemy, use it."
"Oh, I did," said Slattery. He grinned. "I'm only fair-minded before and after battles."
The battle took so long that breakfast was over. Ender looked at his hot, sweating, tired soldiers waiting in the corridor and said, "Today you know everything. No practice. Get some rest. Have some fun. Pass a test." It was a measure of their weariness that they didn't even cheer or laugh or smile, just walked into the barracks and stripped off their clothes. They would have practiced if he had asked them to, but they were reaching the end of their strength, and going without breakfast was one unfairness too many.
Ender meant to shower right away, but he was also tired. He lay down on his bed in his flash suit, just for a moment, and woke up at the beginning of lunchtime. So much for his idea of studying more about the buggers this morning. Just time to clean up, go eat, and head for class.
He peeled off his flash suit, which stank from his sweat. His body felt cold, his joints oddly weak. Shouldn't have slept in the middle of the day. I'm beginning to slack off. I'm beginning to wear down. Can't let it get to me.
So he jogged to the gym and forced himself to climb the rope three times before going to the bathroom to shower. It didn't occur to him that his absence in the commanders' mess would be noticed, that showering during the noon hour, when his own army would be wolfing down their first meal of the day, he would he completely, helplessly alone.
Even when he heard them come into the bathroom he paid no attention. He was letting the water pour over his head, over his body; the muffled sound of footsteps was hardly noticeable. Maybe lunch was over, he thought. He started to soap himself again. Maybe somebody finished practice late.
And maybe not. He turned around, There were seven of them, leaning back against the metal sinks or standing closer to the showers, watching him. Bonzo stood in front of them, Many were smiling, the condescending leer of the hunter for his cornered victim. Bonzo was not smiling, however.
"Ho," Ender said,
So Ender turned off the shower even though there was still soap on him, and reached for his towel. It wasn't there. One of the boys was holding it. It was Bernard. All it would take for the picture to be complete was for Stilson and Peter to be there, too. They needed Peter's smile; they needed Stilson's obvious stupidity.
Ender recognized the towel as their opening point. Nothing would make him look weaker than to chase naked after the towel. That was what they wanted, to humiliate him, to break him down. He wasn't going to play. He refused to feel weak because he was wet and cold and unclothed. He stood strongly, facing them, his arms at his sides. He fastened his gaze on Bnnzo.
"Your move," Ender said,
"This is no game," said Bernard. "We're tired of you, Ender. You graduate today. On ice."
Ender did not look at Bernard. It was Bonzo who hungered for his death, even though he was silent. The others were along for the ride, daring themselves to see how far they might go. Bonzo knew how far he would go.
"Bonzo," Ender said softly. "Your father would be proud of you."
"He would love to see you now, come to fight a naked boy in a shower, smaller than you, and you brought six friends. He would say, Oh, what honor."
"Nobody came to fight you," said Bernard, "We just came to talk you into playing fair with the games. Maybe lose a couple now and then."
The others laughed, but Bonzo didn't laugh, and neither did Ender.
"Be proud, Bonito, pretty boy. You can go home and tell your father, Yes, I beat up Ender Wiggin, who was barely ten years old, and I was thirteen. And I had only six of my friends to help me, and somehow we managed to defeat him, even though he was naked and wet and alone -- Ender Wiggin is so dangerous and terrifying it was all we could do not to bring two hundred."
"Shut your mouth, Wiggin," said one of the boys.
"We didn't come to hear the little bastard talk," said another.
"You shut up," said Bonzo. "Shut up and stand out of the way." He began to take off his uniform. "Naked and wet and alone, Ender, so we're even. I can't help that I'm bigger than you. You're such a genius, you figure out how to handle me." He turned to the others. "Watch the door. Don't let anyone else in."
The bathroom wasn't large, and plumbing fixtures protruded everywhere, It had been launched in one piece, as a low-orbit satellite, packed full of the water reclamation equipment; it was designed to have no wasted space. It was obvious what their tactics would have to be. Throw the other boy against fixtures until one of them does enough damage that he stops.
When Ender saw Bonzo's stance, his heart sank. Bonzo had also taken classes. And probably more recently than Ender. His reach was better, he was stronger, and he was full of hate. He would not be gentle. He will go for my head, thonght Ender. He will try above all to damage my brain. And if this fight is long, he's bound to win. His strength can control me. If I'm to walk away from here, I have to win quckly, and permanently. He could feel agan he sickening way that Stilson's bones had given way. But this time it will be my body that breaks, unless I can break him first.
Ender stepped back, flipped the showerhead so it turned outward, and turned on pure hot water. Almost at once the steam began to rise. He turned on the next and the next.
"I'm not afraid of hot water," said Bonzo. His voice was soft.
But it wasn't the hot water that Ender wanted. It was the heat. His body still had soap on it, and his sweat moistened it, made his skin more slippery than Bonzo would expect.
Suddenly there was a voice from the door. "Stop it!" For a moment Ender thought it was a teacher, come to stop the fight, but it was only Dink Meeker. Bonzo's friends caught him at the door held him. "Stop it, Bonzo!" Dink cried. "Don't hurt him!"
"Why not?" asked Boozo, and for the first time he smiled. Ah, thought Ender, he loves to have someone recognize that he is the one in control, that he has power.
"Because he's the best, that's why! Who else can fight the buggers! That's what matters, you fool, the buggers!"
Bonzo stopped smiling. It was the thing he hated most about Ender, that Ender really mattered to other people, and in the end, Bonzo did not. You've killed me with those words, Dink. Bonzo doesn't want to hear that I might save the world.
Where are the teachers? thought Ender. Don't they realize that the first contact between us in this fight might be the end of it? This isn't like the fight in the battleroom, where no one had the leverage to do any terrible damage. There's gravity in here, and the floor and walls are hard and jutted with metal. Stop this now or not at all.