Maps in a mirror, p.96

Maps in a Mirror, page 96

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  Then Maezr let Ender’s legs fall to the floor. Because the old man still held Ender’s head to the floor, the boy couldn’t use his arms to compensate, and his legs hit the plastic surface with a loud crack and a sickening pain that made Ender wince. Then Maezr stood and let Ender rise.

  Slowly the boy pulled his legs under him, with a faint groan of pain, and he knelt on all fours for a moment, recovering. Then his right arm flashed out. Maezr quickly danced back and Ender’s hand closed on air as his teacher’s foot shot forward to catch Ender on the chin.

  Ender’s chin wasn’t there. He was lying flat on his back, spinning on the floor, and during the moment that Maezr was off balance from his kick Ender’s feet smashed into Maezr’s other leg. The old man fell on the ground in a heap.

  What seemed to be a heap was really a hornet’s nest. Ender couldn’t find an arm or a leg that held still long enough to be grabbed, and in the meantime blows were landing on his back and arms. Ender was smaller—he couldn’t reach past the old man’s flailing limbs.

  So he leaped back out of the way and stood poised near the door.

  The old man stopped thrashing about and sat up, cross-legged again, laughing. “Better, this time, boy. But slow. You will have to be better with a fleet than you are with your body or no one will be safe with you in command. Lesson learned?”

  Ender nodded slowly.

  Maezr smiled. “Good. Then we’ll never have such a battle again. All the rest with the simulator. I will program your battles, I will devise the strategy of your enemy, and you will learn to be quick and discover what tricks the enemy has for you. Remember, boy. From now on the enemy is more clever than you. From now on the enemy is stronger than you. From now on you are always about to lose.”

  Then Maezr’s face became serious again. “You will be about to lose, Ender, but you will win. You will learn to defeat the enemy. He will teach you how.”

  Maezr got up and walked toward the door. Ender stepped back out of the way. As the old man touched the handle of the door, Ender leaped into the air and kicked Maezr in the small of the back with both feet. He hit hard enough that he rebounded onto his feet, as Maezr cried out and collapsed on the floor.

  Maezr got up slowly, holding on to the door handle, his face contorted with pain. He seemed disabled, but Ender didn’t trust him. He waited warily. And yet in spite of his suspicion he was caught off guard by Maezr’s speed. In a moment he found himself on the floor near the opposite wall, his nose and lip bleeding where his face had hit the bed. He was able to turn enough to see Maezr open the door and leave. The old man was limping and walking slowly.

  Ender smiled in spite of the pain, then rolled over onto his back and laughed until his mouth filled with blood and he started to gag. Then he got up and painfully made his way to the bed. He lay down and in a few minutes a medic came and took care of his injuries.

  As the drug had its effect and Ender drifted off to sleep he remembered the way Maezr limped out of his room and laughed again. He was still laughing softly as his mind went blank and the medic pulled the blanket over him and snapped off the light. He slept until pain woke him in the morning. He dreamed of defeating Maezr.

  The next day Ender went to the simulator room with his nose bandaged and his lip still puffy. Maezr was not there. Instead, a captain who had worked with him before showed him an addition that had been made. The captain pointed to a tube with a loop at one end. “Radio. Primitive, I know, but it loops over your ear and we tuck the other end into your mouth like this.”

  “Watch it,” Ender said as the captain pushed the end of the tube into his swollen lip.

  “Sorry. Now you just talk.”

  “Good. Who to?”

  The captain smiled. “Ask and see.”

  Ender shrugged and turned to the simulator. As he did a voice reverberated through his skull. It was too loud for him to understand, and he ripped the radio off his ear.

  “What are you trying to do, make me deaf?”

  The captain shook his head and turned a dial on a small box on a nearby table. Ender put the radio back on.

  “Commander,” the radio said in a familiar voice.

  Ender answered, “Yes.”

  “Instructions, sir?”

  The voice was definitely familiar. “Bean?” Ender asked.

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Bean, this is Ender.”

  Silence. And then a burst of laughter from the other side. Then six or seven more voices laughing, and Ender waited for silence to return. When it did, he asked, “Who else?”

  A few voices spoke at once, but Bean drowned them out. “Me, I’m Bean, and Peder, Wins, Younger, Lee, and Vlad.”

  Ender thought for a moment. Then he asked what the hell was going on. They laughed again.

  “They can’t break up the group,” Bean said. “We were commanders for maybe two weeks, and here we are at Command School, training with the simulator, and all of a sudden they told us we were going to form a fleet with a new commander. And that’s you.”

  Ender smiled. “Are you boys any good?”

  “If we aren’t, you’ll let us know.”

  Ender chuckled a little. “Might work out. A fleet.”

  For the next ten days Ender trained his toon leaders until they could maneuver their ships like precision dancers. It was like being back in the battleroom again, except that now Ender could always see everything, and could speak to his toon leaders and change their orders at any time.

  One day as Ender sat down at the control board and switched on the simulator, harsh green lights appeared in the space—the enemy.

  “This is it,” Ender said. “X, Y, bullet, C, D, reserve screen, E, south loop, Bean, angle north.”

  The enemy was grouped in a globe, and outnumbered Ender two to one. Half of Ender’s force was grouped in a tight, bulletlike formation, with the rest in a flat circular screen—except for a tiny force under Bean that moved off the simulator, heading behind the enemy’s formation. Ender quickly learned the enemy’s strategy: whenever Ender’s bullet formation came close, the enemy would give way, hoping to draw Ender inside the globe where he would be surrounded. So Ender obligingly fell into the trap, bringing his bullet to the center of the globe.

  The enemy began to contract slowly, not wanting to come within range until all their weapons could be brought to bear at once. Then Ender began to work in earnest. His reserve screen approached the outside of the globe, and the enemy began to concentrate his forces there. Then Bean’s force appeared on the opposite side, and the enemy again deployed ships on that side.

  Which left most of the globe only thinly defended. Ender’s bullet attacked, and since at the point of attack it outnumbered the enemy overwhelmingly, he tore a hole in the formation. The enemy reacted to try to plug the gap, but in the confusion the reserve force and Bean’s small force attacked simultaneously, while the bullet moved to another part of the globe. In a few more minutes the formation was shattered, most of the enemy ships destroyed, and the few survivors rushing away as fast as they could go.

  Ender switched the simulator off. All the lights faded. Maezr was standing beside Ender, his hands in his pockets, his body tense. Ender looked up at him.

  “I thought you said the enemy would be smart,” Ender said.

  Maezr’s face remained expressionless. “What did you learn?”

  “I learned that a sphere only works if your enemy’s a fool. He had his forces so spread out that I outnumbered him whenever I engaged him.”

  “And?”

  “And,” Ender said, “you can’t stay committed to one pattern. It makes you too easy to predict.”

  “Is that all?” Maezr asked quietly.

  Ender took off his radio. “The enemy could have defeated me by breaking the sphere earlier.”

  Maezr nodded. “You had an unfair advantage.”

  Ender looked up at him coldly. “I was outnumbered two to one.”

  Maezr shook his head. “You have the an
sible. The enemy doesn’t. We include that in the mock battles. Their messages travel at the speed of light.”

  Ender glanced toward the simulator. “Is there enough space to make a difference?”

  “Don’t you know?” Maezr asked. “None of the ships was ever closer than thirty thousand kilometers to any other.”

  Ender tried to figure the size of the enemy’s sphere. Astronomy was beyond him. But now his curiosity was stirred.

  “What kind of weapons are on those ships? To be able to strike so fast?”

  Maezr shook his head. “The science is too much for you. You’d have to study many more years than you’ve lived to understand even the basics. All you need to know is that the weapons work.”

  “Why do we have to come so close to be in range?”

  “The ships are all protected by forcefields. A certain distance away the weapons are weaker and can’t get through. Closer in the weapons are stronger than the shields. But the computers take care of all that. They’re constantly firing in any direction that won’t hurt one of our ships. The computers pick targets, aim; they do all the detail work. You just tell them when and get them in a position to win. All right?”

  “No.” Ender twisted the tube of the radio around his fingers. “I have to know how the weapons work.”

  “I told you, it would take—”

  “I can’t command a fleet—not even on the simulator—unless I know.” Ender waited a moment, then added, “Just the rough idea.”

  Maezr stood up and walked a few steps away. “All right, Ender. It won’t make any sense, but I’ll try. As simply as I can.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “It’s this way, Ender. Everything is made up of atoms, little particles so small you can’t see them with your eyes. These atoms, there are only a few different types, and they’re all made up of even smaller particles that are pretty much the same. These atoms can be broken, so that they stop being atoms. So that this metal doesn’t hold together anymore. Or the plastic floor. Or your body. Or even the air. They just seem to disappear, if you break the atoms. All that’s left is the pieces. And they fly around and break more atoms. The weapons on the ships set up an area where it’s impossible for atoms of anything to stay together. They all break down. So things in that area—they disappear.”

  Ender nodded. “You’re right, I don’t understand it. Can it be blocked?”

  “No. But it gets wider and weaker the farther it goes from the ship, so that after a while a forcefield will block it. OK? And to make it strong at all, it has to be focused, so that a ship can only fire effectively in maybe three or four directions at once.”

  Ender nodded again, but he didn’t really understand, not well enough. “If the pieces of the broken atoms go breaking more atoms, why doesn’t it just make everything disappear?”

  “Space. Those thousands of kilometers between the ships, they’re empty. Almost no atoms. The pieces don’t hit anything, and when they finally do hit something, they’re so spread out they can’t do any harm.” Maezr cocked his head quizzically. “Anything else you need to know?”

  “Do the weapons on the ships—do they work against anything besides ships?”

  Maezr moved in close to Ender and said firmly, “We only use them against ships. Never anything else. If we used them against anything else, the enemy would use them against us. Got it?”

  Maezr walked away, and was nearly out the door when Ender called to him.

  “I don’t know your name yet,” Ender said blandly.

  “Maezr Rackham.”

  “Maezr Rackham,” Ender said, “I defeated you.”

  Maezr laughed.

  “Ender, you weren’t fighting me today,” he said. “You were fighting the stupidest computer in the Command School, set on a ten-year-old program. You don’t think I’d use a sphere, do you?” He shook his head. “Ender, my dear little fellow, when you fight me you’ll know it. Because you’ll lose.” And Maezr left the room.

  Ender still practiced ten hours a day with his toon leaders. He never saw them, though, only heard their voices on the radio. Battles came every two or three days. The enemy had something new every time, something harder—but Ender coped with it. And won every time. And after every battle Maezr would point out mistakes and show Ender that he had really lost. Maezr only let Ender finish so that he would learn to handle the end of the game.

  Until finally Maezr came in and solemnly shook Ender’s hand and said, “That, boy, was a good battle.”

  Because the praise was so long in coming, it pleased Ender more than praise had ever pleased him before. And because it was so condescending, he resented it.

  “So from now on,” Maezr said, “we can give you hard ones.”

  From then on Ender’s life was a slow nervous breakdown.

  He began fighting two battles a day, with problems that steadily grew more difficult. He had been trained in nothing but the game all his life, but now the game began to consume him. He woke in the morning with new strategies for the simulator and went fitfully to sleep at night with the mistakes of the day preying on him. Sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night crying for a reason he didn’t remember. Sometimes he woke with his knuckles bloody from biting them. But every day he went impassively to the simulator and drilled his toon leaders until the battles, and drilled his toon leaders after the battles, and endured and studied the harsh criticism that Maezr Rackham piled on him. He noted that Rackham perversely criticized him more after his hardest battles. He noted that every time he thought of a new strategy the enemy was using it within a few days. And he noted that while his fleet always stayed the same size, the enemy increased in numbers every day.

  He asked his teacher.

  “We are showing you what it will be like when you really command. The ratios of enemy to us.”

  “Why does the enemy always outnumber us?”

  Maezr bowed his gray head for a moment, as if deciding whether to answer. Finally he looked up and reached out his hand and touched Ender on the shoulder. “I will tell you, even though the information is secret. You see, the enemy attacked us first. He had good reason to attack us, but that is a matter for politicians, and whether the fault was ours or his, we could not let him win. So when the enemy came to our worlds, we fought back, hard, and spent the finest of our young men in the fleets. But we won, and the enemy retreated.”

  Maezr smiled ruefully. “But the enemy was not through, boy. The enemy would never be through. They came again, with more numbers, and it was harder to beat them. And another generation of young men was spent. Only a few survived. So we came up with a plan—the big men came up with the plan. We knew that we had to destroy the enemy once and for all, totally, eliminate his ability to make war against us. To do that we had to go to his home worlds—his home world, really, since the enemy’s empire is all tied to his capital world.”

  “And so?” Ender asked.

  “And so we made a fleet. We made more ships than the enemy ever had. We made a hundred ships for every ship he had sent against us. And we launched them against his twenty-eight worlds. They started leaving a hundred years ago. And they carried on them the ansible, and only a few men. So that someday a commander could sit on a planet somewhere far from the battle and command the fleet. So that our best minds would not be destroyed by the enemy.”

  Ender’s question had still not been answered. “Why do they outnumber us?”

  Maezr laughed. “Because it took a hundred years for our ships to get there. They’ve had a hundred years to prepare for us. They’d be fools, don’t you think, boy, if they waited in old tugboats to defend their harbors. They have new ships, great ships, hundreds of ships. All we have is the ansible, that and the fact that they have to put a commander with every fleet, and when they lose—and they will lose—they lose one of their best minds every time.”

  Ender started to ask another question.

  “No more, Ender Wiggins. I’ve told you more than you ought to know as it is.”<
br />
  Ender stood angrily and turned away. “I have a right to know. Do you think this can go on forever, pushing me through one school and another and never telling me what my life is for? You use me and the others as a tool, someday we’ll command your ships, someday maybe we’ll save your lives, but I’m not a computer, and I have to know!

  “Ask me a question, then, boy,” Maezr said, “and if I can answer, I will.”

  “If you use your best minds to command the fleets, and you never lose any, then what do you need me for? Who am I replacing, if they’re all still there?”

  Maezr shook his head. “I can’t tell you the answer to that, Ender. Be content that we will need you, soon. It’s late. Go to bed. You have a battle in the morning.”

  Ender walked out of the simulator room. But when Maezr left by the same door a few moments later, the boy was waiting in the hall.

  “All right, boy,” Maezr said impatiently, “what is it? I don’t have all night and you need to sleep.”

  Ender wasn’t sure what his question was, but Maezr waited. Finally Ender asked softly, “Do they live?”

  “Does who live?”

  “The other commanders. The ones now. And before me.”

  Maezr snorted. “Live. Of course they live. He wonders if they live.” Still chuckling, the old man walked off down the hall. Ender stood in the corridor for a while, but at last he was tired and he went off to bed. They live, he thought. They live, but he can’t tell me what happens to them.

  That night Ender didn’t wake up crying. But he did wake up with blood on his hands.

  Months wore on with battles every day, until at last Ender settled into the routine of the destruction of himself. He slept less every night, dreamed more, and he began to have terrible pains in his stomach. They put him on a very bland diet, but soon he didn’t even have an appetite for that. “Eat,” Maezr said, and Ender would mechanically put food in his mouth. But if nobody told him to eat he didn’t eat.

 
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