It makes me a little uncomfortable, writing an introduction to Ender’s Game. After all, the book has been in print for six years now, and in all that time, nobody has ever written to me to say, “You know, Ender’s Game was a pretty good book, but you know what it really needs? An introduction!” And yet when a novel goes back to print for a new hardcover edition, there ought to be something new in it to mark the occasion (something besides the minor changes as I fix the errors and internal contradictions and stylistic excesses that have bothered me ever since the novel first appeared). So be assured-the novel stands on its own, and if you skip this intro and go straight to the story, I not only won’t stand in your way, I’ll even agree with you!
The novelet “Ender’s Game” was my first published science fiction. It was based on an idea—the Battle Room—that came to me when I was sixteen years old. I had just read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which was (more or less) an extrapolation of the ideas in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, applied to a galaxy-wide empire in some far future time.
The novel set me, not to dreaming, but to thinking, which is Asimov’s most extraordinary ability as a fiction writer. What would the future be like? How would things change? What would remain the same? The premise of Foundation seemed to be that even though you might change the props and the actors, the play of human history is always the same. And yet that fundamentally pessimistic premise (you mean we’ll never change?) was tempered by Asimov’s idea of a group of human beings who, not through genetic change, but through learned skills, are able to understand and heal the minds of other people.
It was an idea that rang true with me, perhaps in part because of my Mormon upbringing and beliefs: Human beings may be miserable specimens, in the main, but we can learn, and, through learning, become decent people.
Those were some of the ideas that played through my mind as I read Foundation, curled on my bed—a thin mattress on a slab of plywood, a bed my father had made for me—in my basement bedroom in our little rambler on 650 East in Orem, Utah. And then, as so many science fiction readers have done over the years, I felt a strong desire to write stories that would do for others what Asimov’s story had done for me.
In other genres, that desire is usually expressed by producing thinly veiled rewrites of the great work: Tolkien’s disciples far too often simply rewrite Tolkien, for example. In science fiction, however, the whole point is that the ideas are fresh and startling and intriguing; you imitate the great ones, not by rewriting their stories, but. rather by creating stories that are just as startling and new.
But new in what way? Asimov was a scientist, and approached every field of human knowledge in a scientific manner—assimilating data, combining it in new and startling ways, thinking through the implications of each new idea. I was no scientist, and unlikely ever to be one, at least not a real scientist—not a physicist, not a chemist, not a biologist, not even an engineer. I had no gift for mathematics and no great love for it, either. Though I relished the study of logic and languages, and virtually inhaled histories and biographies, it never occurred to me at the time that these were just as valid sources of science fiction stories as astronomy or quantum mechanics.
How, then, could I possibly conic up with a science fiction idea? What. did I actually know about anything?
At that time my older brother Bill was in the army, stationed at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City; he was nursing a hip-to-heel cast from a bike-riding accident, however, and came home on weekends. It was then that he had met his future wife, Laura Dene Low, while attending a church meeting on the BYU campus; and it was Laura who gave me Foundation to read. Perhaps, then, it was natural for my thoughts to turn to things military.
To me, though, the military didn’t mean the Vietnam War, which was then nearing its peak of American involvement. I had no experience of that, except for Bill’s stories of the miserable life in basic training, the humiliation of officer’s candidate school, and his lonely but in many ways successful life as a noncom in Korea. Far more deeply rooted in my mind was my experience, five or six years earlier, of reading Bruce Catton’s three-volume Army of the Potomac. I remembered so well the stories of the commanders in that war—the struggle to find a Union general capable of using McClellan’s magnificent army to defeat Lee and Jackson and Stuart, and then, finally, Grant, who brought death to far too many of his soldiers, but also made their deaths mean something, by grinding away at Lee, keeping him from dancing and maneuvering out of reach. It was because of Catton’s history that I had stopped enjoying chess, and had to revise the rules of Risk in order to play it—I had come to understand something of war, and not just because of the conclusions Catton himself had reached. I found meanings of my own in that history.
I learned that history is shaped by the use of power, and that different people, leading the same army, with, therefore, approximately the same power, applied it so differently that the army seemed to change from a pack of noble fools at Fredericksburg to panicked cowards melting away at Chancellorsville, then to the grimly determined, stubborn soldiers who held the ridges at Gettysburg, and then, finally, to the disciplined, professional army that ground Lee to dust in Grant’s long campaign. It wasn’t the soldiers who changed. It was the leader. And even though I could not then have articulated what I understood of military leadership, I knew that I did understand it. I understood, at levels deeper than speech, how a great military leader imposes his will on his enemy, and makes his own army a willing extension of himself.
So one morning, as my Dad drove me to Brigham Young High School along Carterville Road in the heavily wooded bottoms of the Provo River, I wondered: How would you train soldiers for combat in the future? I didn’t bother thinking of new land-based weapons systems—what was on my mind, after Foundation, was space. Soldiers and commanders would have to think very differently in space, because the old ideas of up and down simply wouldn’t apply anymore. I had read in Nordhoffs and Hall’s history of World War I flying that it was very hard at first for new pilots to learn to look above and below them rather than merely to the right and left, to find the enemy approaching them in the air. How much worse, then, would it be to learn to think with no up and down at all?
The essence of training is to allow error without consequence. Three-dimensional warfare would need to be practiced in an enclosed space, so mistakes wouldn’t send trainees flying off to Jupiter. It would need to offer a way to practice shooting without risk of injury; and yet trainees who were “hit” would need to be disabled, at least temporarily. The environment would need to be changeable, to simulate the different conditions of warfare—near a ship, in the midst of debris, near tiny asteroids. And it would need to have some of the confusion of real battle, so that the play-combat didn’t evolve into something as rigid and formal as the meaningless marching and maneuvers that still waste an astonishing amount of a trainee’s precious hours in basic training in our modem military.
The result of my speculations that morning was the Battle Room, exactly as you will see it (or have already seen it) in this book. It was a good idea, and something like it will certainly be used for training if ever there is a manned military in space. (Something very much like it has already been used in various amusement halls throughout America.)
But, having thought of the Battle Room, I hadn’t the faintest idea of how to go about turning the idea into a story. It occurred to me then for the first time that the idea of the story is nothing compared to the importance of knowing how to find a character and a story to tell around that idea. Asimov, having had the idea of paralleling The Decline and Fall, still had no story; his genius—and the soul of the story—came when he personalized his history, making the psychohistorian Hari Seldon the god-figure, the planmaker, the apocalyptic prophet of the story. I had no such character, and no idea of how to make one.
Years passed. I graduated from high school as a junior (just in time—Brigham Young High School was discontinued with the class of 1968) and went on to Brigham Young University. I started there as an archaeology major, but quickly discovered that doing archaeology is unspeakably boring compared to reading die books by Thor Heyerdahl (Aku-Aku, Kon-Tiki), Yigael Yadin (Masada), and James Michener (The Source) that had set me dreaming. Potsherds! Better to be a dentist than to spend your life trying to put together fragments of old pottery in endless desert landscapes in the Middle East.
By the time I realized that not even the semi-science of archaeology was for someone as impatient as me, I was already immersed in my real career. At the time, of course, I misunderstood myself: I thought I was in theatre because I loved performing. And I do love performing don’t get me wrong. Give me an audience and I’ll hold onto them as long as I can, on any subject. But I’m not a good actor, and theatre was not to be my career. At the time, though, all I cared about was doing plays. Directing them. Building sets. and making costumes and putting on makeup for them.
And, above all, rewriting those lousy scripts. I kept thinking, Why couldn’t the playwright hear how dull that speech was? This scene could so easily be punched up and made far more effective.
Then I tried my hand at writing adaptations of novels for a reader’s theatre class, and my fate was sealed. I was a playwright.
People came to my plays and clapped at the end. I learned—from actors and from audiences—how to shape a scene, how to build tension, and—above all—the necessity of being harsh with your own material, excising or rewriting anything that doesn’t work. I learned to separate the story from the writing, probably the most important thing that any storyteller has to learn—that there are a thousand right ways to tell a story, and ten million wrong ones, and you’re a lot more likely to find one of the latter than the former your first time through the tale.
My love of theatre lasted through my mission for the LDS Church. Even while I was in São Paulo, Brazil, as a missionary, I wrote a play called Stone Tables about the relationship between Moses and Aaron in the book of Exodus, which had standing-room-only audiences at its premiere (which I didn’t attend, since I was still in Brazil!).
At the same time, though, that original impetus to write science fiction persisted.
I had taken fiction writing courses at college, for which I don’t think I ever wrote science fiction. But on the side, I had started a series of stories about people with psionic powers (I had no idea this was a sci-fi cliché at the time) that eventually grew into The Worthing Saga. I had even sent one of the stories off to Analog magazine before my mission, and on my mission I wrote several long stories in the same series (as well as a couple of stabs at mainstream stories).
In all that time, the Battle Room remained an idea in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until 1975, though, that I dusted it off and tried to write it. By then I had started a theatre company that managed to do reasonably well during the first summer and then collapsed under the weight of bad luck and bad management (myself) during the fall and Winter. I was deeply in debt on the pathetic salary of an editor at BYU Press. Writing was the only thing I knew how to do besides proofreading and editing. It was time to get serious about writing something that might actually earn some money—and, plainly, playwriting wasn’t going to be it.
I first rewrote and sent out “Tinker,” the first Worthing story I wrote and the one that was still most effective. I got a rejection letter from Ben Bova at Analog, pointing out that “Tinker” simply didn’t feel like science fiction—it felt like fantasy. So the Worthing stories were out for the time being.
What was left? The old Battle Room idea. It happened one spring day that a friend of mine, Tammy Mikkelson, was taking her boss’s children to the circus in Salt Lake City; would I like to come along? I would. And since there was no ticket for me (and I’ve always detested the circus anyway—the clowns drive me up a wall), I spent the hours of the performance out on the lawn of the Salt Palace with a notebook on my lap, writing “Ender’s Game” as I had written all my plays, in longhand on narrow-ruled paper. “Remember,” said Ender. “The enemy’s gate is down.”
Maybe it was because of the children in the car on the way up that I decided that the trainees in the Battle Room were so young. Maybe it was because I, barely an adolescent myself, understood only childhood well enough to write about it. Or maybe it was because of something that impressed me in Catton’s Army of the Potomac: that the soldiers were all so young and innocent. That they shot and bayoneted the enemy, and then slipped across the neutral ground between armies to trade tobacco, jokes, liquor, and food. Even though it was a deadly game, and the suffering and fear were terrible and real, it was still a game played by children, not all that different from the wargames my brothers and I had played, firing water-filled squirt bottles at each other.
“Ender’s Game” was written and sold. I knew it was a strong story because I cared about it and believed in it. I had no idea that it would have the effect it had on the science fiction audience. While most people ignored it, of course, and continue to live full and happy lives without reading it or anything else by me, there was still a surprisingly large group who responded to the story with some fervency.
Ignored on the Nebula ballot. “Ender’s Game” got onto the Hugo ballot and came in second. More to the point, I, was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer. Without doubt, “Ender’s Game” wasn’t just my first sale—it was the launching pad of my career.
The same story did it again in 1985, when I rewrote it at novel length—the book, now slightly revised, that you are holding in your hands. At that point I thought of Ender’s Game, the novel, existing only to set up the much more powerful (I thought) story of Speaker for the Dead. But when I finished the novel, I knew that the story had new strength. I had learned a great deal, about life and about writing, in the decade since I wrote the novelet, and it came together for the first time in this book. Again the audience was kind to me: the Nebula and Hugo awards, foreign translations, and strong, steady sales that, for the first time in my career, actually earned out my advance and allowed me to receive royalties.
But it wasn’t just a matter of having a quiet little cult novel that brought in a steady income. There was something more to the way that people responded to Ender’s Game.
For one thing, the people that hated it really hated it. The attacks on the novel—and on me—were astonishing. Some of it I expected—I have a master’s degree in literature, and in writing Ender’s Game I deliberately avoided all the little literary games and gimmicks that make “fine” writing so impenetrable to the general audience. All the layers of meaning are there to be decoded, if you like to play the game of literary criticism—but if you don’t care to play that game, that’s fine with me. I designed Ender’s Game to be as clear and accessible as any story of mine could possibly be. My goal was that the reader wouldn’t have to be trained in literature or even in science fiction to receive the tale in its simplest, purest form. And, since a great many writers and critics have based their entire careers on the premise that anything that the general public can understand without mediation is worthless drivel, it is not surprising that they found my little novel to be despicable. If everybody came to agree that stories should be told this clearly, the professors of literature would be out of a job, and the writers of obscure, encoded fiction would be, not honored, but pitied for their impenetrability.
For some people, however, the loathing for Ender’s Game transcended mere artistic argument. I recall a letter to the editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, in which a woman who worked as a guidance counselor for gifted children re ported that she had only picked up Ender’s Game to read it because her son had kept telling her it was a wonderful book. She read it and loathed it. Of course, I wondered what kind of guidance counselor would hold her son’s tastes up to public ridicule, but the criticism that left me most flabbergasted was her assertion that my depiction of gifted children was hopelessly unrealistic. They just don’t talk like that, she said. The don’t think like that.
And it wasn’t just her. There have been others with that criticism. Thus I began to realize that, as it is, Ender’s Game disturbs some people because it challenges their assumptions about reality. In fact, the novel’s very clarity may make it more challenging, simply because the story’s vision of the world is so relentlessly plain. It was important to her, and to others, to believe that children don’t actually think or speak the way the children in Ender’s Game think and speak.
Yet I knew—I knew—that this was one of the truest things about Ender’s Game. In fact, I realized in retrospect that this may indeed be part of the reason why it was so important to me, there on the lawn in front of the Salt Palace, to write a story in which gifted children are trained to fight in adult wars. Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along—the same person that I am today. I never felt that I spoke childishly. I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires. And in writing Ender’s Game, I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective—the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s.
The nasty side of myself wanted to answer that guidance counselor by saying, The only reason you don’t think gifted children talk this way is because they know better than to talk this way in front of you. But the truer answer is that Ender’s Game asserts the personhood of children, and those who are used to thinking of children in another way—especially those whose whole career is based on that—are going to find Ender’s Game a very unpleasant place to live.
Children are a perpetual, self-renewing underclass, helpless to escape from the decisions of adults until they become adults themselves. And Ender’s Game, seen in that context, might even be a sort of revolutionary tract.
Because the book does ring true with the children who read it. The highest praise I ever received for a book of mine was when the school librarian at Farrer Junior High in Provo, Utah, told me, “You know, Ender’s Game is our most-lost book.”
And then there are the letters. This one, for instance, which I received in March of 1991:
Dear Mr. Card, I am writing to you on behalf of myself and my twelve friends and fellow students who joined me at a two-week residential program for gifted and talented students at Purdue University this summer. We attended the class, “Philosophy and Science Fiction,” instructed by Peter Robinson, and we range in age from thirteen through fifteen. We are all in about the same position; we are very intellectually oriented and have found few people at home who share this trait. Hence. most of us are lonely, and have been since kindergarten. When teachers continually compliment you, your chances of “fitting in” are about nil. All our lives we’ve unconsciously been living by the philosophy “The only way to gain respect is doing so well you can’t be ignored.” And, for me and Mike, at least. “beating the system” at school is how we’ve chosen to do this. Both Mike and I plan to be in calculus our second year of high school, schedules permitting. (Both of us are interested in science/math related careers.) Not to get me wrong; we’re all bright and at the top of our class. However, in choosing these paths, most of us have wound up satisfied in ourselves, but very lonely. This is why Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead really hit home for us. These books were our “texts” for the class. We would read one hundred to two hundred pages per night and then discuss them (and other short stories and essays) during the day. At Purdue, it wasn’t a “classroom” discussion, however. It was a group of friends talking about how their feelings and philosophies corresponded to—or differed—from the books. You couldn’t imagine the impact your books had on us; we are the Enders of today. Almost everything written in Ender’s Game and Speaker applied to each one of us on a very, very personal level. No, the situation isn’t as drastic today, but all the feelings are there. Both your books, along with the excellent work of Peter Robinson, unified us into a tight web of people.
Ingrid’s letter goes on, talking of the Phoenix Rising, the magazine that these students publish together in order to maintain their sense of community. (In response I have given them this introduction to publish in their magazine before its appearance in book form.)
Of course, I’m always glad when people like a story of mine; but something much more important is gong on here. These readers found that Ender’s Game was not merely a “mythic” story, dealing with general truths, but something much more personal. To them, Ender’s Game was an epic tale, a story that expressed who they are as a community, a story that distinguished them from the other people around them. They didn’t love Ender, or pity Ender (a frequent adult response); they were Ender, all of them. Ender’s experience was not foreign or strange to them; in their minds, Ender’s life echoed their own lives. The truth of the story was not truth in general, but their truth.
Stories can be read so differently—even clear stories, even stories that deliberately avoid surface ambiguities. For instance, here’s another letter, likewise one that I received in mid-March of 1991. It was written on 16 February and postmarked the 18th. Those dates are important.
Mr. Card, I’m an army aviator waiting out a sandstorm in Saudi Arabia. I’ve always wanted to write you and since my future is in doubt—I know when the ground war will begin—I decided today would be the day I’d write. I read Ender’s Game during flight school four years ago. I’m a warrant officer, and our school, at least the first six weeks, is very different from the commissioned officers. I was eighteen years old when I arrived at Ft. Rucker to start flight training, and the first six weeks almost beat me. Ender gave me courage then and many times after that. I’ve experienced the tiredness Ender felt, the kind that goes deep to your soul. It would be interesting to know what caused you to feel the same way. No one could describe it unless they experienced it, but I understand how personal that can be. There is one other novel that describes that frame of soul and mind that I cherish as much as Ender’s Game. It’s called Armour and its author is John Steakley. Ender and Felix (the protagonist of Armour) are always close by in my mind. Sadly, there is no sequel to Armour as there is to Ender’s Game. We are the bastards of military aviation. Our helicopters may be the best in the world, but the equipment we wear and the systems in our helicopter, such as the navigation instruments, are at least twenty years behind the Navy and Air Force. I am very happy with the Air Force’s ability to bomb with precision, but if they miss, the bombs still land on the enemy’s territory. If we screw up, the guys we haul to the battle, the “grunts,” die. We don’t even have the armour plate for our chests—“chicken plate”—that the helicopter pilots did in Vietnam. Last year in El Salvador, army aviators flew a couple of civilian VIPs and twenty reporters over guerrilla-controlled territory and there were no flares in their launchers to counteract the heat-seeking missiles we know the rebels had. One of our pilots and a crew member were killed last year on a training flight because they flew the sling load they were carrying into the ~ at 70 miles an hour. It could have been prevented if our night vision goggles had a heads-up display like the Air Force has had for forty years. I’m sure you beard about Colonel Pickett being shot down in a Huey in El Salvador just a few months ago. That type of aircraft is at least thirty years. old and there are no survivability measures installed. He was a good man, I knew him. The reason I told you about these things is because I wanted to paint a picture for you. I love my job but we aren’t like the “zoomies” that everyone makes movies about. We do our job with less technology, less political support, less recognition, and more risk than the rest, while the threat to us continues to modernize at an unbelievable rate. I’m not asking for sympathy but I was wondering if you and Mr. Steakley could write a novel about helicopters and the men that fly them for the Army twenty years in the future. There are many of us that read science fiction and after I read Ender’s Game and Armour three times each I started letting my comrades read them. My wife cried when she read Ender’s Game. There is a following here for a book like the one I requested. We have no speaker for us, the ones that will soon die, or the ones that survive…
As with those gifted young students who read this book as “their” story, this soldier—who, like most but not all of the Army aviators in the Gulf War survived—did not read Ender’s Game as a “work of literature.” He read it as epic, as a story that helped define his community. It was not his only epic, of course—Armour, John Steakley’s fine novel, was an equal candidate to be part of his self-story. What matters most, though, was his clear sense that, no matter how much these stories spoke to him, they were still not exactly his community’s epic. He still felt the need for a “speaker for the dead” and for the living. He still felt a hunger, especially at a time when death might well be near, to have his own story, his friends’ stories, told.,
Why else do we read fiction, anyway? Not to be impressed by somebody’s dazzling language—or at least I hope that’s not our reason. I think that most of us, anyway, read these stories that we know are not “true” because we’re hungry for another kind of truth: The mythic truth about human nature in general, the particular truth about those life-communities that define our own identity, and the most specific truth of all: our own self-story. Fiction, because it is not about somebody who actually lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about ourself.
Ender’s Game is a story about gifted children. It is also a story about soldiers. Captain John F. Schmitt, the author of the Marine Corp’s Warfighting, the most brilliant concise book of military strategy ever written by an American (and a proponent of the kind of thinking that was at the heart of the allied victory in the Gulf War), found Ender’s Game to be a useful enough story about the nature of leadership to use it in courses he taught at the Marine University at Quantico. Watauga College, the interdisciplinary studies program at Appalachian State University—as unmilitary a community as you could ever hope to find!—uses Ender’s Game for completely different purposes—to talk about problem-solving and the self-creation of the individual. A graduate student in Toronto explored the political ideas in Ender’s Game. A writer and critic at Pepperdine has seen Ender’s Game as, in some ways, religious fiction.
All these uses are valid; all these readings of the book are “correct.” For all these readers have placed themselves inside this story, not as spectators, but as participants, and so have looked at the world of Ender’s Game, not with my eyes only, but also with their own.
This is the essence of the transaction between storyteller and audience. The “true” story is not the one that exists in my mind; it is certainly not the written words on the bound paper that you hold in your hands. The story in my mind is nothing but a hope; the text of the story is the tool I created in order to try to make that hope a reality. The story itself, the true story, is the one that the audience members create in their minds, guided and shaped by my text, but then transformed, elucidated, expanded, edited, and clarified by their own experience, their own desires, their own hopes and fears.
The story of Ender’s Game is not this book though it has that title emblazoned on it. The story is one that you and I will construct together in your memory. If the story means anything to you at all, then when you. remember it afterward, think of it, not as something I created, but rather as something that we made together.
Orson Scott Card Greensboro, North Carolina March 1991.
“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”
“That’s what you said about the brother.”
“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”
“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”
“Not if the other person is his enemy.”
“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”
“If we have to.”
“I thought you said you liked this kid.”
“If the buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”
“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”
The monitor lady smiled very nicely and tousled his hair and said, “Andrew, I suppose by now you’re just absolutely sick of having that horrid monitor. Well, I have good news for you. That monitor is going to come out today. We’re going to just take it right out, and it won’t hurt a bit.”
Ender nodded. It was a lie, of course, that it wouldn’t hurt a bit. But since adults always said it when it was going to hurt, he could count on that statement as an accurate prediction of the future. Sometimes lies were more dependable than the truth.
“So if you’ll just come over here, Andrew, just sit right up here on the examining table. The doctor will be in to see you in a moment.”
The monitor gone. Ender tried to imagine the little device missing from the back of his neck. I’ll roll over on my back in bed and it won’t be pressing there. I won’t feel it tingling and taking up the heat when I shower.
And Peter won’t hate me anymore. I’ll come home and show him that the monitor’s gone, and he’ll see that I didn’t make it, either. That I’ll just be a normal kid now, like him. That won’t be so bad then. He’ll forgive me that I had my monitor a whole year longer than he had his. We’ll be—not friends, probably. No, Peter was too dangerous. Peter got so angry. Brothers, though. Not enemies, not friends, but brothers—able to live in the same house. He won’t hate me, he’ll just leave me alone. And when he wants to play buggers and astronauts, maybe I won’t have to play, maybe I can just go read a book.
But Ender knew, even as he thought it, that Peter wouldn’t leave him alone. There was something in Peter’s eyes, when he was in his mad mood, and whenever Ender saw that look, that glint, he knew that the one thing Peter would not do was leave him alone. I’m practicing piano, Ender. Come turn the pages for me. Oh, is the monitor boy too busy to help his brother? Is he too smart? Got to go kill some buggers, astronaut? No, no, I don’t want your help. I can do it on my own, you little bastard, you little Third.
“This won’t take long, Andrew,” said the doctor.
“It’s designed to be removed. Without infection, without damage. But there’ll be some tickling, and some people say they have a feeling of something missing. You’ll keep looking around for something. Something you were looking for, but you can’t find it, and you can’t remember what it was. So I’ll tell you. It’s the monitor you’re looking for, and it isn’t there. In a few days that feeling will pass.”
The doctor was twisting something at the back of Ender’s head. Suddenly a pain stabbed through him like a needle from his neck to his groin. Ender felt his back spasm, and his body arched violently backward; hi head struck the bed. He could feel his legs thrashing, and his hands were clenching each other, wringing each other so tightly that they ached.
“Deedee!” shouted the doctor. “I need you!” The nurse ran in, gasped. “Got to relax these muscles. Get it to me, now! What are you waiting for!”
Something changed hands; Ender could not see. He lurched to one side and fell off the examining table. “Catch him!” cried the nurse.
“Just hold him steady.”
“You hold him, doctor, he’s too strong for me.”
“Not the whole thing! You’ll stop his heart.”
Ender felt a needle enter his back just above the neck of his shirt. It burned, but wherever in him the fire spread, his muscles gradually unclenched. Now he could cry for the fear and pain of it.
“Are you all right, Andrew?” the nurse asked.
Andrew could not remember how to speak. They lifted him onto the table. They checked his pulse, did other things; he did not understand it all.
The doctor was trembling; his voice shook as he spoke. “They leave these things in the kids for three years, what do they expect? We could have switched him off, do you realize that? We could have unplugged his brain for all time.”
“When does the drug wear off?” asked the nurse.
“Keep him here for at least an hour. Watch him. If he doesn’t start talking in fifteen minutes, call me. Could have unplugged him forever. I don’t have the brains of a bugger.”
He got back to Miss Pumphrey’s class only fifteen minutes before the closing bell. He was still a little unsteady on his feet.
“Are you all right, Andrew?” asked Miss Pumphrey.
“Were you ill?”
He shook his head.
“You don’t look well.”
“You’d better sit down, Andrew.”
He started toward his seat, but stopped. Now what was I looking for? I can’t think what I was looking for.
“Your seat is over there,” said Miss Pumphrey.
He sat down, but it was something else he needed, something he had lost. I’ll find it later.
“Your monitor,” whispered the girl behind him.
“His monitor,” she whispered to the others.
Andrew reached up and felt his neck. There was a bandaid. It was gone. He was just like everybody else now.
“Washed out, Andy?” asked a boy who sat across the aisle and behind him. Couldn’t think of his name. Peter. No, that was someone else.
“Quiet, Mr. Stilson,” said Miss Pumphrey. Stilson smirked.
Miss Pumphrey talked about multiplication. Ender doodled on his desk, drawing contour maps of mountainous islands and then telling his desk to display them in three dimensions from every angle. The teacher would know, of course, that he wasn’t paying attention, but she wouldn’t bother him. He always knew the answer, even when she thought he wasn’t paying attention.
In the corner of his desk a word appeared and began marching around the perimeter of the desk. It was upside down and backward at first, but Ender knew what it said long before it reached the bottom of the desk and turned right side up.
Ender smiled. He was the one who had figured out how to send messages and make them march—even as his secret enemy called him names, the method of delivery praised him. It was not his fault he was a Third. It was the government’s idea, they were the ones who authorized it—how else could a Third like Ender have got into school? And now the monitor was gone. The experiment entitled Andrew Wiggin hadn’t worked out after all. If they could, he was sure they would like to rescind the waivers that had allowed him to be born at all. Didn’t work, so erase the experiment.
The bell rang. Everyone signed off their desks or hurriedly typed in reminders to themselves. Some were dumping lessons or data into their computers at home. A few gathered at the printers while something they wanted to show was printed out. Ender spread his hands over the child-size keyboard near the edge of the desk and wondered what it would feel like to have hands as large as a grown-up’s. They must feel so big and awkward, thick stubby fingers and beefy palms. Of course, they had bigger keyboards—but how could their thick fingers draw a fine line, the way Ender could, a thin line so precise that he could make it spiral seventy-nine times from the center to the edge of the desk without the lines ever touching or overlapping. It gave him something to do while the teacher droned on about arithmetic. Arithmetic! Valentine had taught him arithmetic when he was three.
“Are you all right, Andrew?”
“You’ll miss the bus.”
Ender nodded and got up. The other kids were gone. They would be waiting, though, the bad ones. His monitor wasn’t perched on his neck, hearing what heard and seeing what he saw. They could say what they liked. They might even hit him now—no one could see anymore, and so no one would come to Ender’s rescue. There were advantages to the monitor, and he would miss them.
It was Stilson, of course. He wasn’t bigger than most other kids, but he was bigger than Ender. And he had some others with him. He always did.
Don’t answer. Nothing to say.
“Hey, Third, we’re talkin to you, Third, hey bugger-lover, we’re talkin to you.”
Can’t think of anything to answer. Anything I say will make it worse. So will saying nothing.
“Hey, Third, hey, turd, you flunked out, huh? Thought you were better than us, but you lost your little birdie, Thirdie, got a bandaid on your neck.”
“Are you going to let me through?” Ender asked.
“Are we going to let him through? Should we let him through?” They all laughed. “Sure we’ll let you through. First we’ll let your arm through, then your butt through, then maybe a piece of your knee.”
The others chimed in now. “Lost your birdie, Thirdie. Lost your birdie, Thirdie.”
Stilson began pushing him with one hand, someone behind him then pushed him toward Stilson.
“See-saw, marjorie daw,” somebody said.
This would not have a happy ending. So Ender decided that he’d rather not be the unhappiest at the end. The next time Stilson’s arm came out to push him, Ender grabbed at it. He missed.
“Oh, gonna fight me, huh? Gonna fight me, Thirdie?”
The people behind Ender grabbed at him, to hold him.
Ender did not feel like laughing, but he laughed. “You mean it takes this many of you to fight one Third?”
“We’re people, not Thirds, turd face. You’re about as strong as a fart!”
But they let go of him. And as soon as they did, Ender kicked out high and hard, catching Stilson square in the breastbone. He dropped. It took Ender by surprise he hadn’t thought to put Stilson on the ground with one kick. It didn’t occur to him that Stilson didn’t take a fight like this seriously, that he wasn’t prepared for a truly desperate blow.
For a moment, the others backed away and Stilson lay motionless. They were all wondering if he was dead. Ender, however, was trying to figure out a way to forestall vengeance. To keep them from taking him in a pack tomorrow. I have to win this now, and for all time, or I’ll fight it every day and it will get worse and worse. Ender knew the unspoken rules of manly warfare, even though he was only six. It was forbidden to strike the opponent who lay helpless on the ground; only an animal would do that.
So Ender walked to Stilson’s supine body and kicked him again, viciously, in the ribs. Stilson groaned and rolled away from him. Ender walked around him and kicked him again, in the crotch. Stilson could not make a sound; he only doubled up and tears streamed out of his eyes.
Then Ender looked at the others coldly. “You might be having some idea of ganging up on me. You could probably beat me up pretty bad. But just remember what I do to people who try to hurt me. From then on you’d be wondering when I’d get you, and how bad it would be.” He kicked Stilson in the face. Blood from his nose spattered the ground nearby. “It wouldn’t be this bad,” Ender said. “It would be worse.”
He turned and walked away. Nobody followed him, He turned a corner into the corridor leading to the bus stop. He could hear the boys behind him saying, “Geez. Look at him. He’s wasted.” Ender leaned his head against the wall of the corridor and cried until the bus came. I am just like Peter. Take my monitor away, and I am just like Peter.
“All right, it’s off. How’s he doing?”
“You live inside somebody’s body for a few years, you get used to it. I look at his face now, I can’t tell what’s going on. I’m not used to seeing his facial expressions. I’m used to feeling them.”
“Come on, we’re not talking about psychoanalysis here. We’re soldiers, not witch doctors. You just saw him beat the guts out of the leader of a gang.”
“He was thorough. He didn’t just beat him, he beat him deep. Like Mazer Rackham at the—”
“Spare me. So in the judgment of the committee, he passes.
“Mostly. Let’s see what he does with his brother, now that the monitor’s off.”
“His brother. Aren’t you afraid of what his brother will do to him?”
“You were the one who told me that this wasn’t a no-risk business.”
“I went back through some of the tapes. I can’t help it. I like the kid. I think were going to screw him up.”
“Of course we are. It’s our job. We’re the wicked witch. We promise gingerbread, but we eat the little bastards alive.”
“I’m sorry, Ender,” Valentine whispered. She was looking at the bandaid on his neck.
Ender touched the wall and the door closed behind him. “I don’t care. I’m glad it’s gone.”
“What’s gone?” Peter walked into the parlor, chewing on a mouthful of bread and peanut butter.
Ender did not see Peter as the beautiful ten-year-old boy that grown-ups saw, with dark, thick, tousled hair and a face that could have belonged to Alexander the Great. Ender looked at Peter only to detect anger or boredom, the dangerous moods that almost always led to pain. Now as Peter’s eyes discovered the bandaid on his neck, the telltale flicker of anger appeared.
Valentine saw it too. “Now he’s like us,” she said, trying to soothe him before he had time to strike.
But Peter would not be soothed. “Like us? He keeps the little sucker till he’s six years old. When did you lose yours? You were three. I lost mine before I was five. He almost made it, little bastard, little bugger.”
This is all right, Ender thought. Talk and talk, Peter. Talk is fine.
“Well, now your guardian angels aren’t watching over you,” Peter said. “Now they aren’t checking to see if you feel pain, listening to hear what I’m saying, seeing what I’m doing to you. How about that? How about it?”
Suddenly Peter smiled and clapped his hands together in a mockery of good cheer. “Let’s play buggers and astronauts,” he said.
“Where’s Mom?” asked Valentine.
“Out,” said Peter. “I’m in charge.”
“I think I’ll call Daddy.”
“Call away,” said Peter. “You know he’s never in.”
“I’ll play,” Ender said.
“You be the bugger,” said Peter.
“Let him be the astronaut for once,” Valentine said.
“Keep your fat face out of it, fart mouth,” said Peter. “Come on upstairs and choose your weapons.”
It would not be a good game, Ender knew it was not a question of winning. When kids played in the corridors, whole troops of them, the buggers never won, and sometimes the games got mean. But here in their flat, the game would start mean, and the bugger couldn’t just go empty and quit the way buggers did in the real wars. The bugger was in it until the astronaut decided it was over.
Peter opened his bottom drawer and took out the bugger mask. Mother had got upset at him when Peter bought it, but Dad pointed out that the war wouldn’t go away just because you hid bugger masks and wouldn’t let your kids play with make-believe laser guns. The better to play the war games, and have a better chance of surviving when the buggers came again.
If I survive the games, thought Ender. He put on the mask. It closed him in like a hand pressed tight against his face. But this isn’t how it feels to he a bugger, thought Ender. They don’t wear this face like a mask, it is their face. On their home worlds, do the buggers put on human masks, and play? And what do they call its? Slimies, because we’re so soft and oily compared to them?
“Watch out, Slimy,” Ender said.
He could barely see Peter through the eyeholes. Peter smiled at him. “Slimy, huh? Well, bugger-wugger, let’s see how you break that face of yours.”
Ender couldn’t see it coming, except a slight shift of Peter’s weight; the mask cut out his peripheral vision. Suddenly there was the pain and pressure of a blow to the side of his head; he lost balance, fell that way.
“Don’t see too well, do you, bugger?” said Peter.
Ender began to take off the mask. Peter put his toe against Ender’s groin. “Don’t take off the mask,” Peter said.
Ender pulled the mask down into place, took his hands away.
Peter pressed with his foot. Pain shot through Ender; he doubled up.
“Lie flat, bugger. We’re gonna vivisect you, bugger. At long last we’ve got one of you alive, and we’re going to see how you work.”
“Peter, stop it,” Ender said.
“Peter, stop it. Very good. So you buggers can guess our names. You can make yourselves sound like pathetic, cute little children so we’ll love you and be nice to you. But it doesn’t work. I can see you for what you really are. They meant you to be human, little Third, but you’re really a bugger, and now it shows.”
He lifted his foot, took a step, and then knelt on Ender, his knee pressing into Ender’s belly just below the breastbone. He put more and more of his weight on Ender. It became hard to breathe.
“I could kill you like this,” Peter whispered. “Just press and press until you’re dead. And I could say that I didn’t know it would hurt you, that we were just playing, and they’d believe me, and everything would be fine. And you’d be dead. Everything would be fine.”
Ender could not speak; the breath was being forced from his lungs. Peter might mean it. Probably didn’t mean it, but then he might.
“I do mean it,” Peter said. “Whatever you think. I mean it. They only authorized you because I was so promising. But I didn’t pan out. You did better. They think you’re better. But I don’t want a better little brother, Ender. I don’t want a Third.”
“I’ll tell,” Valentine said.
“No one would believe you.”
“They’d believe me.”
“Then you’re dead, too, sweet little sister.”
“Oh, yes,” said Valentine. “They’ll believe that. ‘I didn’t know it would kill Andrew. And when he was dead, I didn’t know it would kill Valentine too.’”
The pressure let up a little.
“So. Not today. But someday you two won’t be together. And there’ll be an accident.”
“You’re all talk,” Valentine said. “You don’t mean any of it.”
“And do you know why you don’t mean it?” Valentine asked. “Because you want to be in government someday. You want to be elected. And they won’t elect you if your opponents can dig up the fact that your brother and sister both died in suspicious accidents when they were little. Especially because of the letter I’ve put in my secret file, which will be opened in the event of my death.”
“Don’t give me that kind of crap,” Peter said.
“It says, I didn’t die a natural death. Peter killed me, and if he hasn’t already killed Andrew, he will soon. Not enough to convict you, but enough to keep you from ever getting elected.”
“You’re his monitor now,” said Peter. “You better watch him, day and night. You better be there.”
“Ender and I aren’t stupid. We scored as well as you did on everything. Better on some things. We’re all such wonderfully bright children. You’re not the smartest, Peter, just the biggest.”
“Oh, I know. But there’ll come a day when you aren’t there with him, when you forget. And suddenly you’ll remember, and you’ll rush to him, and there he’ll be perfectly all right. And the next time you won’t worry so much, and you won’t come so fast. And every time, he’ll be all right. And you’ll think that I forgot. Even though you’ll remember that I said this, you’ll think that I forgot. And years will pass. And then there’ll be a terrible accident, and I’ll find his body, and I’ll cry and cry over him, and you’ll remember this conversation, Vally, but you’ll be ashamed of yourself for remembering, because you’ll know that I changed, that it really was an accident, that it’s cruel of you even to remember what I said in a childhood quarrel. Except that it’ll be true. I’m gonna save this up, and he’s gonna die, and you won’t do a thing, not a thing. But you go on believing that I’m just the biggest.”
“The biggest asshole,” Valentine said.
Peter leaped to his feet and started for her. She shied away. Ender pried off his mask. Peter flopped back on his bed and started to laugh. Loud, but with real mirth, tears coming to his eyes. “Oh, you guys are just super, just the biggest suckers on the planet earth.”
“Now he’s going to tell us it was all a joke,” Valentine said.
“Not a joke, a game. I can make you guys believe anything. I can make you dance around like puppets.” In a phony monster voice he said, “I’m going to kill you and chop you into little pieces and put you into the garbage hole.” He laughed again. “Biggest suckers in the solar system.”
Ender stood there watching him laugh and thought of Stilson, thought of how it felt to crunch into his body. This is who needed it. This is who should have got it.
As if she could read his mind, Valentine whispered, “No, Ender.”
Peter suddenly rolled to the side, flipped off the bed, and got in position for a fight. “Oh, yes, Ender,” he said. “Any time, Ender.”
Ender lifted his right leg and took off the shoe. He held it up. “See there, on the toe? That’s blood, Peter.”
“Ooh. Ooh, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die. Ender killed a capper-tiller and now he’s gonna kill me.”
There was no getting to him. Peter was a murderer at heart, and nobody knew it but Valentine and Ender.
Mother came home and commiserated with Ender about the monitor. Father came home and kept saying it was such a wonderful surprise, they had such fantastic children that the government told them to have three and now the government didn’t want to take any of them after all, so here they were with three, they still had a Third… until Ender wanted to scream at him, I know I’m a Third, I know it, if you want I’ll go away so you don’t have to be embarrassed in front of everybody, I’m sorry I lost the monitor and now you have three kids and no obvious explanation, so inconvenient for you, I’m sorry sorry sorry.
He lay in bed staring upward into the darkness… On the bunk above him, he could hear Peter turning and tossing restlessly. Then Peter slid off the bunk and walked out of the room. Ender heard the hushing sound of the toilet clearing; then Peter stood silhouetted in the doorway.
He thinks I’m asleep. He’s going to kill me.
Peter walked to the bed, and sure enough, he did not lift himself up to his bed. Instead he came and stood by Ender’s head.
But he did not reach for a pillow to smother Ender. He did not have a weapon.
He whispered, “Ender, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I know how it feels. I’m sorry, I’m your brother. I love you.”
A long time later, Peter’s even breathing said that he was asleep. Ender peeled the bandaid from his neck. And for the second time that day he cried.