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.
Chapter 7 -- Salamander
"Isn't it nice to know that Ender can do the impossible?"'
"The player's deaths have always been sickening. I've always thought the Giant's Drink was the most perverted part at the whole mind game, but going for the eye like that-- this is the one we want to put in command of our fleets?"
"What matters is that he won the game that couldn't be won."
"I suppose you'll move him now."
"We were waiting to see how he handled the thing with Bernard. He handled it perfectly."
"So as soon as he can cope with a situation, you move him to one he can't cope with. Doesn't he get any rest?"
"He'll have a month or two, maybe three, with his launch group. That's really quite a long time in a child's life."
"Does it ever seem to you that these boys aren't children? I look at what they do, the way they talk, and they don't seem like little kids."
"They're the most brilliant children in the world, each in his own way."
"But shouldn't they still act like children? They aren't normal. They act like-- history. Napoleon and Wellington. Caesar and Brutus."
"General Levy has no pity for anyone. All the videos say so. But don't hurt this boy."
"Are you joking?"
"I mean, don't hurt him more than you have to."
Alai sat across from Ender at dinner. "I finally figured out how you sent that message. Using Bernard's name."
"Me?" asked Ender.
"Come on. who else? It sure wasn't Bernard. And Shen isn't too hot on the computer. And I know it wasn't me. Who else? Doesn't matter. I figured out how to fake a new student entry. You just created a student named Bernard-blank, B-E-R-N-A-R-D-space, so the computer didn't kick it out as a repeat of another student."
"Sounds like that might work," said Ender.
"OK, OK. It does work. But you did that practically on the first day."
"Or somebody. Maybe Dap did it, to keep Bernard from getting too much control."
"I found something else. I can't do it with your name."
"Anything with Ender in it gets kicked out. I can't get inside your files at all, either. You made your own security system."
Alai grinned. "I just got in and trashed somebody's files. He's right behind me on cracking the system. I need protection, Ender. I need your system."
"If I give you my system, you'll know how I do it and you'll get in and trash me."
"You say me?" Alai asked. "I the sweetest friend you got!"
Ender laughed. "I'll setup a system for you."
"Can I finish eating?"
"You never finish eating."
It was true. Ender's tray always had food on it after a meal. Ender looked at the plate and decided he was through. "Let's go then."
When they got to the barracks. Ender squatted down by his bed and said, "Get your desk and bring it over here. I'll show you how." But when Alai brought his desk to Ender's bed, Ender was just sitting there, his lockers still closed.
"What up?" asked Alai.
In answer Ender palmed his locker. "Unauthorized Access Attempt," it said. It didn't open.
"Somebody done a dance on your head, mama," Alai said. "Somebody eated your face."
"You sure you want my security system now?" Ender got up and walked away from his bed.
"Ender," said Alai.
Ender turned around. Alai was holding a little piece of paper.
"What is it?"
Alai looked up at him. "Don't you know? This was on your bed. You must have sat on it."
Ender took it from him.
ENDER WIGGIN -- ASSIGNED SALAMANDER ARMY -- COMMANDER BONZO MADRID -- EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY -- CODE GREEN GREEN BROWN -- NO POSSESSIONS TRANSFERRED
"You're smart, Ender, but you don't do the battle-room any better than me."
Ender shook his head. It was the stupidest thing he could think of, to promote him now. Nobody got promoted before they were eight years old. Ender wasn't even seven yet. And launches usually moved into the armies together, with most armies getting a new kid at the same time. There were no transfer slips on any of the other beds.
Just when things were finally coming together. Just when Bernard was getting along with everybody, even Ender. Just when Ender was beginning to make a real friend out of Alai. Just when his life was finally getting livable.
Ender reached down to pull Alai up from the bed.
"Salamander Army's in contention, anyway," Alai said.
Ender was so angry at the unfairness of the transfer that tears were coming to his eyes. Mustn't cry, he told himself.
Alai saw the tears but had the grace not to say so. "They're fartheads, Ender, they won't even let you take anything you own."
Ender grinned and didn't cry after all. "Think I should strip and go naked?"
Alai laughed, too.
On impulse Ender hugged him, tight, almost as if he were Valentine. He even thought of Valentine then and wanted to go home. "I don't want to go," he said.
Alai hugged him back. "I understand them, Ender. You are the best of us. Maybe they're in a hurry to teach you everything."
"They don't want to teach me everything," Ender said. "I wanted to learn what it was like to have a friend."
"Yeah." Ender smiled back.
Alai suddenly kissed Ender on the cheek and whispered in his ear. "Salaam." Then, red faced, he turned away and walked to his own bed at the back of the barracks. Ender guessed that the kiss and the word were somehow forbidden. A suppressed religion, perhaps. Or maybe the word had some private and powerful meaning for Alai alone. Whatever it meant to Alai, Ender knew that it was sacred; that he had uncovered himself for Ender, as once Ender's mother had done when he was very young, before they put the monitor in his neck, and she had put her hands on his head when she thought he was asleep, and prayed over him. Ender had never spoken of that to anyone, not even to Mother, but had kept it as a memory of holiness, of how his mother loved him when she thought that no one, not even he, could see or hear. That was what Alai had given him: a gift so sacred that even Ender could not be allowed to understand what it meant.
After such a thing nothing could be said. Alai reached his bed and turned around to see Ender. Their eyes held for only a moment, locked in understanding. Then Ender left.
There would be no green green brown in this part of the school; he would have to pick up the colors in one of the public areas. The others would be finished with dinner very soon; he didn't want to go near the mess hall. The game room would be nearly empty.
None of the games appealed to him, the way he felt now. So he went to the bank of public desks at the back of the room and signed on to his own private game. He went quickly to Fairyland. The Giant was dead when he arrived now; he had to climb carefully down the table, jump to the leg of the Giant's overturned chair, and then make the drop to the ground. For a while there had been rats gnawing at the Giant's body, but Ender had killed one with a pin from the Giant's ragged shirt, and they had left him alone after that.
The Giant's corpse had essentially finished its decay. What could be torn by the small scavengers was torn; the maggots had done their work on the organs, now it was a dessicated mummy, hollowed-out, teeth in a rigid grin, eyes empty, fingers curled. Ender remembered burrowing through the eye when it had been alive and malicious and intelligent. Angry and frustrated as he was, Ender wished to do such murder again. But the Giant had become part of the landscape now, and so there could be no rage against him.
Ender had always gone over the bridge to the castle of the Queen of Hearts, where there were games enough for him; but none of those appealed to him now. He went around the giant's corpse and followed the brook upstream, to where it emerged from the forest. There was a playground there, slides and monkeybars, teeter-totters and merry-go-rounds, with a dozen children laughing as they played. Ender came and found that in the game he had become a child, though usually his figure in the games was adult. In fact, he was smaller than the other children.
He got in line for the slide. The other children ignored him. He climbed up to the top, watched the boy before him whirl down the long spiral to the ground. Then he sat and began to slide.
He had not slid for a moment when he fell right through the slide and landed on the ground under the ladder. The slide would not hold him.
Neither would the monkey bars. He could climb a ways, but then at random a bar seemed to be insubstantial and he fell. He could sit on the see-saw until he rose to the apex; then he fell. When the merry-go-round went fast, he could not hold onto any of the bars, and centrifugal force hurled him off.
And the other children: their laughter was raucous, offensive. They circled around him and pointed and laughed for many seconds before they went back to their play.
Ender wanted to hit them, to throw them in the brook. Instead he walked into the forest. He found a path, which soon became an ancient brick road, much overgrown with weeds but still usable. There were hints of possible games off to either side, but Ender followed none of them. He wanted to see where the path led.
It led to a clearing, with a well in the middle, and a sign that said, "Drink, traveler." Ender went forward and looked at the well. Almost at once, he heard a snarl. Out of the woods emerged a dozen slavering wolves with human faces. Ender recognized them-- they were the children from the playground. Only now their teeth could tear; Ender, weaponless, was quickly devoured.
His next figure appeared, as usual, in the same spot, and was eaten again, though Ender tried to climb down into the well.
The next appearance, though, was at the playground. Again the children laughed at him. Laugh all you like, Ender thought. I know what you are. He pushed one of them. She followed him, angry. Ender led her up the slide. Of course he fell through; but this time, following so closely behind him, she also fell through. When she hit the ground, she turned into a wolf and lay there, dead or stunned.
One by one Ender led each of the others into a trap. But before he had finished off the last of them, the wolves began reviving, and were no longer children. Ender was torn apart again.
This time, shaking and sweating, Ender found his figure revived on the Giant's table. I should quit, he told himself. I should go to my new army.
But instead he made his figure drop down from the table and walk around the Giant's body to the playground.
This time, as soon as the child hit the ground and turned into a wolf, Ender dragged the body to the brook and pulled it in. Each time, the body sizzled as though the water were acid; the wolf was consumed, and a dark cloud of smoke arose and drifted away. The children were easily dispatched, though they began following him in twos and threes at the end. Ender found no wolves waiting for him in the clearing, and he lowered himself into the well on the bucket rope.
The light in the cavern was dim, but he could see piles of jewels. He passed them by, noting that, behind him, eyes glinted among the gems. A table covered with food did not interest him. He passed through a group of cages hanging from the ceiling of the cave, each containing some exotic, friendly-looking creature. I'll play with you later, Ender thought. At last he came to a door, with these words in glowing emeralds:
THE END OF THE WORLD
He did not hesitate. He opened the door and stepped through.
He stood on a small ledge, high on a cliff overlooking a terrain of bright and deep green forest with dashes of autumn color and patches here and there of cleared land, with oxdrawn plows and small villages, a castle on a rise in the distance, and clouds riding currents of air below him. Above him, the sky was the ceiling of a vast cavern, with crystals dangling in bright stalactites.