Authors: Orson Scott Card
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 they 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.
“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 of 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.”
"We're trying to save the world, not heal the wounded heart. You're too compassionate.”
"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.
ASSIGNED SALAMANDER ARMY
COMMANDER BONZO MADRID
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.”
Alai nodded soberly. “Always my friend, always the best of my friends,” he said. Then he grinned. "Go slice up the buggers.”
“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 desiccated 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.
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 rolling 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 unraveled 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.