The door closed behind him. Ender studied the scene intently. With the beauty of it, he cared less for survival than usual. He cared little, at the moment, what the game of this place might be. He had found it, and seeing it was its own reward. And so, with no thought of consequences, he jumped from the ledge.
Now he plummeted downward toward a roiling river and savage rocks; but a cloud came between him and the ground as he fell, and caught him, and carried him away.
It took him to the tower of the castle, and through the open window, bearing him in. There it left him, in a room with no apparent door in floor or ceiling, and windows looking out over a certainly fatal fall.
A moment ago he had thrown himself from a ledge carelessly; this time he hesitated.
The small rug before the fire unraxeled itself into a long, slender serpent with wicked teeth.
"I am your only escape," it said. "Death is your only escape.
Ender looked around the room for a weapon, when suddenly the screen went dark. Words flashed around the rim of the desk.
REPORT TO COMMANDER IMMEDIATELY. YOU ARE LATE. -- GREEN GREEN BROWN.
Furious, Ender snapped off the desk and went to the color wall, where he found the ribbon of green green brown, touched it, and followed it as it lit up before him. The dark green, light green, and brown of the ribbon reminded him of the early autumn kingdom he had found in the game. I must go back there, he told himself. The serpent is a long thread; I can let myself down from the tower and find my way through that place. Perhaps it's called the end of the world because it's the end of the games, because I can go to one of the villages and become one of the little boys working and playing there, with nothing to kill and nothing to kill me, just living there.
As he thought of it, though, he could not imagine what "just living" might actually be. He had never done it in his life. But he wanted to do it anyway.
Armies were larger than launch groups, and the army barracks room was larger, too. It was long and narrow, with bunks on both sides; so long, in fact, that you could see the curvature of the floor as the far end bent upward, part of the wheel of the Battle School.
Ender stood at the door. A few boys near the door glanced at him, but they were older, and it seemed as though they hadn't even seen him. They went on with their conversations, lying and leaning on bunks. They were discussing battles, of course; the older boys always did. They were all much larger than Ender. The ten- and eleven-year-olds towered over him; even the youngest were eight, and Ender was not large for his age.
He tried to see which of the boys was the commander, but most were somewhere between battle dress and what the soldiers always called their sleep uniform-- skin from head to toe. Many of them had desks out, but few were studying.
Ender stepped into the room. The moment he did, he was noticed.
"What do you want?" demanded the boy who had the upper bunk by the door. He was the largest of them. Ender had noticed him before, a young giant who had whiskers growing raggedly on his chin. "You're not a Salamander."
"I'm supposed to be, I think," Ender said. "Green green brown, right? I was transferred." He showed the boy, obviously the doorguard, his paper.
The doorguard reached for it. Ender withdrew it just out of reach. "I'm supposed to give it to Bonzo Madrid."
Now another boy joined the conversation, a smaller boy, but still larger than Ender, "Not bahn-zoe, pisshead. Bone-So. The name's Spanish. Bonzo Madrid. Aqui nosotros hablamos espa¤ol, Se¤or Gran Fedor."
"You must be Bonzo, then?" Ender asked, pronouncing the name correctly.
"No, just a brilliant and talented polyglot. Petra Arkanian. The only girl in Salamander Army. With more balls than anybody else in the room."
"Mother Petra she talking?" said one of the boys. "She talking, she talking."
Another one chimed in. "Shit talking ... shit talking, shit talking!"
Quite a few laughed.
"Just between you and me," Petra said, "if they gave the Battle School an enema, they'd stick it in at green green brown."
Ender despaired. He already had nothing going for him: grossly undertrained, small, inexperienced, doomed to be resented for early advancement. And now, by chance, he had made exactly the wrong friend. An outcast in Salamander Army, and she had just linked him with her in the minds of the rest of the army. A good day's work. For a moment, as Ender looked around at the laughing, jeering faces, he imagined their bodies covered with hair, their teeth pointed for tearing. Am I the only human being in this place? Are all the others animals, waiting only to devour?
Then he remembered Alai. In every army, surely, there was at least one worth knowing.
Suddenly, though no one said to be quiet, the laughter stopped and the group fell silent. Ender turned to the door. A boy stood there, tall and dark and slender, with beautiful black eyes and slender lips that hinted at refinement. I would follow such beauty, said something inside Ender. I would see as those eyes see.
"Who are you?" asked the boy quietly.
"Ender Wiggin, sir," Ender said. "Reassigned from launch to Salamander Army." He held out the orders.
The boy took the paper in a swift, sure movement, without touching Ender's hand. "How old are you, Wiggin?" he asked.
Still quietly, he said, "I asked how old you are, not how old you almost are."
"I am six years, nine months, and twelve days old."
"How long have you been working in the batle room?"
"A few months, now. My aim is better."
"Any training in battle maneuvers? Have you ever been part of a toon? Have you ever carried out a joint exercise?"
Ender had never heard of such things. He shook his head.
Madrid looked at him steadily. "I see. As you will quickly learn, the officers in command of this school, most notably Major Anderson, who runs the game, are fond of playing tricks. Salamander Army is just beginning to emerge from indecent obscurity. We have won twelve of our last twenty games. We have surprised Rat and Scorpion and Hound, and we are ready to play for leadership in the game. So of course, of course I am given such a useless, untrained, hopeless specimen of of underdevelopment as yourself."
Petra said, quietly, "He isn't glad to meet you."
"Shut up, Arkanian," Madrid said. "To one trial we now add another. But whatever obstacles our officers choose to fling in our path, we are still--"
"Salamander!" cried the soldiers, in one voice. Instinctively, Ender's perception of these events changed. It was a pattern, a ritual. Madrid was not trying to hurt him, merely taking control of a surprising event and using it to strengthen his control of his army.
"We are the fire that will consume them, belly and bowel, head and heart, many flames of us, but one fire."
"Salamander!" they cried again.
"Even this one will not weaken us."
For a moment, Ender allowed himself to hope. "I'll work hard and learn quickly," he said.
"I didn't give you permission to speak," Madrid answered. "I intend to trade you away as quickly as I can. I'll probably have to give up someone valuable along with you, but as small as you are you are worse than useless. One more frozen, inevitably, in every battle, that's all you are, and we're now at a point where every frozen soldier makes a difference in the standings. Nothing personal, Wiggin, but I'm sure you can get your training at someone else's expense."
"He's all heart," Petra said.
Madrid stepped closer to the girl and slapped her across the face with the back of his hand. It made little sound, for only his fingernails had hit her. But there were bright red marks, four of them, on her cheek, and little pricks of blood marked where the tips of his fingernails had struck.
"Here are your instructions, Wiggin. I expect that it is the last time I'll need to speak to you. You will stay out of the way when we're training in the battleroom. You have to be there, of course, but you will not belong to any toon and you will not take part in any maneuvers. When we're called to battle, you will dress quickly and present yourself at the gate with everyone else. But you will not pass through the gate until four full minutes after the beginning of the game, and then you will remain at the gate, with your weapon undrawn and unfired, until such time as the game ends."
Ender nodded. So he was to be a nothing. He hoped the trade happened soon.
He also noticed that Petra did not so much as cry out in pain, or touch her cheek, though one spot of blood had beaded and run, making a streak down to her jaw. Outcast she may be, but since Bonzo Madrid was not going to be Ender's friend, no matter what, he might as well make friends with Petra.
He was assigned a bunk at the far end of the room. The upper bunk, so that when he lay on his bed he couldn't even seen the door; the curve of the ceiling blocked it. There were other boys near him, tired-looking boys, sullen, the ones least valued. They had nothing of welcome to say to Ender.
Ender tried to palm his locker open, but nothing happened. Then he realized the lockers were not secured. All four of them had rings on them, to pull them open. Nothing would be private, then, now that he was in an army.
There was a uniform in the locker. Not the pale green of the Launchies, but the orange-trimmed dark green uniform of Salamander Army. It did not fit well. But then, they had probably never had to provide such a uniform for a boy so young.
He was starting to take it off when he noticed Petra walking down the aisle toward his bed. He slid off the bunk and stood on the floor to greet her.
"I bunk in the front because I'm the best sharpshooter in Salamander Army, and because Bonzo is afraid I'll start a revolution if the toon leaders don't keep an eye on me. As if I could start anything with boys like these." She indicated the sullen-faced boys on the nearby bunks.
What was she trying to do, make it worse than it already was?
"Everybody's better than I am," Ender said, trying to dissociate himself from her contempt for the boys who would, after all, be his near bunkmates.
"I'm a girl," she said, "and you're a pissant of a six-year-old. We have so much in common, why don't we be friends?"
"I won't do your deskwork for you," he said.
In a moment she realized it was a joke. "Ha," she said. "It's all so military, when you're in the game. School isn't like it is for Launchies. Histories and strategy and tactics and buggers and math and stars, things you'll need as a pilot or a commander. You'll see."
"So you're my friend. Do I get a prize?" Ender asked. He was imitating her swaggering way of speaking, as if she cared about nothing.
"Bonzo isn't going to let you practice. He's going to make you take your desk to the battleroom and study. He's right, in a way-- he doesn't want a totally untrained little kid start screwing up his precision maneuvers." She lapsed into giria, the slangy talk that imitated the pidgin English of uneducated people. "Bonzo, he pre-cise. He so careful, he piss on a plate and never splash."
"The battleroom is open all the time. If you want, I'll take you in the off hours and show you some of the things I know, I'm not a great soldier, but I'm pretty good, and I sure know more than you."
"If you want," Ender said.
"Starting tomorrow morning after breakfast."
"What if somebody's using the room? We alway's went right after breakfast, in my launch."
"No problem. There are really nine battlerooms."
"I never heard of any others."
"They all have the same entrance. The whole center of the battle school, the hub of the wheel, is battlerooms. They don't rotate with the rest of the station. That's how they do the nullg, the no-gravity-- it just holds still. No spin, no down. But they can set it up so that any one of the rooms is at the battleroom entrance corridor that we all use. Once you're inside, they move it along and another battleroom's in position."
"Like I said. Right after breakfast."
"Right," Ender said.
She started to walk away.
"Petra," he said.
She turned back.
She said nothing, just turned around again and walked down the aisle.
Ender climbed back up on his bunk and finished taking off his uniform. He lay naked on the bed, doodling with his new desk, trying to decide if they had done anything to his access codes. Sure enough, they had wiped out his security system. He couldn't own anything here, not even his desk.
The lights dimmed a little. Getting toward bedtime. Ender didn't know which bathroom to use.
"Go left out of the door," said the boy on the next bunk. "We share it with Rat, Condor, and Squirrel."
Ender thanked him and started to walk on past.
"Hey," said the boy. "You can't go like that. Uniforms at all times out of this room."
"Even going to the toilet?"
"Especially. And you're forbidden to speak to anyone from any other army. At meals or in the toilet. You can get away with it sometimes in the game room, and of course whenever a teacher tells you to, but if Bonzo catch you, you dead, eh?"
"And, uh, Bonzo get mad if you skin by Petra."
"She was naked when I came in, wasn't she?"
"She do what she like, but you keep you clothes on. Bonzo's orders."
That was stupid. Petra still looked like a boy, it was a stupid rule. It set her apart, made her different, split the army. Stupid stupid. How did Bonzo get to be a commander, if he didn't know better than that? Alai would be a better commander than Bonzo. He knew how to bring a group together.
I know how to bring a group together, too, thought Ender. Maybe I'll be commander someday.
In the bathroom, he was washing his hands when somebody spoke to hmm. "Hey, they putting babies in Salamander uniforms now?"
Ender didn't answer just dried off his hands.
"Hey, look! Salamander's getting babies now! Look at this! He could walk between my legs without touching my balls!"
"Cause you got none, Dink, that's why," somebody answered.
As Ender left the room, he heard somebody else say, "It's Wiggin. You know, the smartass from the game room."
He walked down the corridor smiling. He may be short, but they knew his name. From the game room, of course, so it meant nothing. But they'd see. He'd be a good soldier, too. They'd all know his name soon enough. Not in Salamander Army, maybe, but soon enough.
Petra was waiting in the corridor that led to the battleroom. "Wait a minute," she said to Ender. "Rabbit Army just went in, and it takes a few minutes to change to the next battleroom."
Ender sat down beside her. "There's more to the battleroom than just switching from one to the next," he said. "For instance, why is there gravity in the corridor outside the room, just before we go in?"
Petra closed her eyes. "And if the battlerooms are really free-floating, what happens when one is connected? Why doesn't it start to move with the rotation of the school?"
"These are the mysteries," Petra said in a deep whisper. "Do not pry into them. Terrible things happened to the last soldier who tried. He was discovered hanging by his feet from the ceiling of the bathroom, with his head stuffed in the toilet."
"So I'm not the first person to ask the question."
"You remember this, little boy." When she said little boy it sounded friendly, not contemptuous. "They never tell you any more truth than they have to. But any kid with brains knows that there've been some changes in science since the days of old Mazer Rackham and the Victorious Fleet. Obviously we can now control gravity. Turn it on and off, change the direction, maybe reflect it-- I've thought of lots of neat things you could do with gravity weapons and gravity drives on starships. And think how starships could move near planets. Maybe tear big chunks out of them by reflecting the planet's own gravity back on itself, only from another direction, and focused down to a smaller point. But they say nothing."
Ender understood more than she said. Manipulation of gravity was one thing; deception by the officers was another; but the most important message was this: the adults are the enemy, not the other armies. They do not tell us the truth.
"Come, little boy," she said. "The battleroom is ready. Petra's hands are steady. The enemy is deady." She giggled. "Petra the poet, they call me."
"They also say you're crazy as a loon."
"Better believe it, baby butt." She had ten target balls in a bag. Ender held onto her suit with one hand and the wall with the other, to steady her as she threw them, hard, in different directions. In the null gravity, they bounced every which way. "Let go of me," she said. She shoved off, spinning deliberately; with a few deft hand moves she steadied herself, and began aiming carefully at ball after ball. When she shot one, its glow changed from white to red. Ender knew that the color change lasted less than two minutes. Only one ball had changed back to white when she got the last one.
She rebounded accurately from a wall and came at high speed back to Ender. He caught her and held her against her own rebound, one of the first techniques they had taught him as a Launchy.
"You're good," he said.
"None better. And you're going to learn how to do it."
Petra taught him to hold his arm straight, to aim with the whole arm. "Something most soldiers don't realize is that the farther away your target is, the longer you have to hold the beam within about a two-centimeter circle. It's the difference between a tenth of a second and a half a second, but in battle that's a long time. A lot of soldiers think they missed when they were right on target, but they moved away too fast. So you can't use your gun like a sword, swish swish slice-em-in-half. You got to aim."
She used the ballcaller to bring the targets back, then launched them slowly, one by one. Ender fired at them. He missed every one.
"Good," she said. "You don't have any bad habits."
"I don't have any good ones, either," he pointed out.
"I give you those."
They didn't accomplish much that first morning. Mostly talk. How to think while you were aiming. You've got to hold your own motion and your enemy's motion in your mind at the same time. You've got to hold your arm straight out and aim with your body, so in case your arm is frozen you can still shoot. Learn where your trigger actually fires and ride the edge, so you don't have to pull so far each time you fire. Relax your body, don't tense up; it makes you tremble.
It was the only practice Ender got that day. During the army's drills in the afternoon, Ender was ordered to bring his desk and do his schoolwork, sitting in a corner of the room. Bonzo had to have all his soldiers in the battleroom, but he didn't have to use them.
Ender did not do his schoolwork, however. If he couldn't have drill as a soldier, he could study Bonzo as a tactician. Salamander Army was divided into the standard four toons of ten soldiers each. Some commanders set up their toons so that A toon consisted of the best soldiers, and D toon had the worst. Bonzo had mixed them, so that each consisted of good soldiers and weaker ones.
Except that B toon had only nine boys. Ender wondered who had been transferred to make room for him. It soon became plain that the leader of toon B was new. No wonder Bonzo was so disgusted-- he had lost a toon leader to get Ender.
And Bonzo was right about another thing. Ender was not ready.
All the practice time was spent working on maneuvers. Toons that couldn't see each other practiced performing precision operations together with exact timing; toons practiced using each other to make sudden changes of direction without losing formation. All these soldiers took for granted skills that Ender didn't have. The ability to make a soft landing and absorb most of the shock. Accurate flight. Course adjustment using the frozen soldiers floating randomly through the room. Rolls, spins, dodges. Sliding along the walls-- a very difficult maneuver and yet one of the most valuable, since the enemy couldn't get behind you.
Even as Ender learned how much he did not know, he also saw things that he could improve on. The well-rehearsed formations were a mistake. It allowed the soldiers to obey shouted orders instantly, but it also meant they were predictable. Also, the individual soldiers were given little initiative. Once a pattern was set, they were to follow it through. There was no room for adjustmemmt to what the enemy did against the formation. Ender studied Bonzo's formations like an enemy commander would, noting ways to disrupt the formation.
During free play that night, Ender asked Petra to practice with him.
"No," she said. "I want to be a commander someday, so I've got to play the game room." It was a common belief that the teachers monitored the games and spotted potential commanders there. Ender doubted it, though. Toon leaders had a better chance to show what they might do as commanders than any video player.
But he didn't argue with Petra. The after-breakfast practice was generous enough. Still, he had to practice. And he couldn't practice alone, except a few of the basic skills. Most of the hard things required partners or teams. If only he still had Alai or Shen to practice with.
Well, why shouldn't he practice with them? He had never heard of a soldier practicing with Launchies, but there was no rule against it. It just wasn't done; Launchies were held in too much contempt. Well, Ender was still being treated like a Launchy anyway. He needed someone to practice with, and in return he could help them learn some of the things he saw the older boys doing.
"Hey, the great soldier returns!" said Bernard. Ender stood in the doorway of his old barracks. He'd only been away for a day, but already it seemed like an alien place, and the others of his launch group were strangers. Almost he turned around and left. But there was Alai, who had made their friendship sacred. Alai was not a stranger.
Ender made no effort to conceal how he was treated in Salamander Army. "And they're right. I'm about as useful as a sneeze in a spacesuit." Alai laughed, and other Launchies started to gather around. Ender proposed his bargain. Free play, every day, working hard in the battleroom, under Ender's direction. They would learn things from the armies, from the battles Ender would see; he would get the practice he needed in developing soldier skills. "We'll get ready together."
A lot of boys wanted to come, too. "Sure," Ender said. "If you're coming to work. If you're just farting around, you're out. I don't have any time to waste."
They didn't waste any time. Ender was clumsy, trying to describe what he had seen, working out ways to do it. But by the time free play ended, they had learned some things. They were tired, but they were getting the knack of a few techniques.
"Where were you?" asked Bonzo.
Ender stood stiffly by his commander's bunk. "Practicing in a battleroom."
"I hear you had some of your oid Launchy group with you."
"I couldn't practice alone."
"I won't have any soldiers in Salamander Army hanging around with Launchies. You're a soldier now."