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The Swarm: The Second Formic War

Orson Scott Card

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  Copyright Page

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  To Lynn Hendee,

  who has the mind of Ender,

  the mettle of Mazer,

  and the heart of Valentine

  I divide officers into four classes—the clever, the lazy, the stupid, and the industrious. The man who is clever and lazy is fit for the very highest commands. He has the temperament and the requisite nerves to deal with all situations. Those who are clever and industrious are fitted for the high staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are stupid and lazy. But whoever is stupid and industrious must be removed immediately.

  —General Baron Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord,

  German Chief of Army Command (1930–33)



  The First Formic War was a close-fought thing. The Formic invaders had the capacity to destroy all life that was based on our particular array of amino acids, which, being indigestible to them, was not worth preserving. The Hive Queen did not view her actions as an attack, but rather as a leisurely beginning to the formification of Earth.

  We eked out our victory against an enemy whose commander—whose mind—was millions of kilometers away. Later we would learn that the Hive Queen commanded her workers through philotic connections that seemed not to attenuate or slow down with distance; signals from the human brain take longer to reach our fingers than it took the Hive Queen to receive sensory information from her workers, learn that the pesky native life-form was resisting the advance ship’s ministrations, and repurpose those workers as soldiers.

  Then the humans blew out the interior of the advance ship and killed every last one of her workers. Not only would she arrive at this new planet without the native biota already having been replaced by compatible life-forms, but she would also be forced to approach it with an effective military strategy. She immediately conferred with her sisters on all the other populated planets, showing them how the humans had behaved, the structure of their bodies, the weapons they had used.

  Colonization of new worlds always brought challenges that required improvisation, but now for the first time a Formic colony was encountering friction that was intelligent, organized, and effective. However, if there was one thing the Hive Queens were experts at, it was war.

  She had come in search of a place to spawn another iteration of the Formic civilization, a peaceful, domestic mission, or so she supposed. Now, she and her sisters could reach back into their not-so-very-ancient memory of brutal wars between Hive Queens, which had spawned a sophisticated military technology.

  With the approval of her sisters, she dismantled almost the entire apparatus of colonization and converted the materials of the vast mothership into the requisite number of invasion craft. She had intended to wield only her delicate, sacred ovipositor, but finding the way blocked, she drew her sword.

  —Demosthenes, A History of the Formic Wars, Vol. 3

  Mazer Rackham drifted away from the space station, sealed inside a capsule no bigger than a coffin, his weapons and gear pressed tight against him. The capsule tumbled end over end, spinning in three dimensions through zero gravity. Mazer’s equilibrium was gone in an instant. Up and down no longer had meaning. All he could do now was close his eyes, concentrate, and try to find the pattern in his rotations.

  The speed and spin of the capsule changed with every test flight, and so Mazer never knew how fast or in what manner the capsule was going to rotate until the sling mechanism inside the space station’s launch bay had tossed him out into the blackness of space.

  This spin wasn’t bad, he realized. He had done plenty of test flights far worse than this one, with the rotations so fast and uneven that it was all he could do to keep from vomiting. This, by comparison, was a Sunday stroll. A lazy spin, at a negligible speed. Like a discarded piece of space debris casually drifting through the Black—which of course was the intent.

  The capsule was a tactical trick. A work of camouflage made to resemble a twisted hunk of ship debris, charred and jagged at the edges as if it had been torn from a ship in a violent explosion. A whole team of artists from the International Fleet had worked on its design for weeks, meticulously painting and bending every square inch of the metal exterior until it looked like space junk. Barely worth anyone’s notice except as a possible collision threat. The Formics would see it, dismiss it as harmless, and the marine concealed inside could float right up to the Formic ship and cut his way inside.

  A nice idea. But Mazer had his doubts. Doubts he had expressed in every test-flight report. Whether anyone actually read the reports and paid him any attention he couldn’t tell.

  He cleared his mind and focused on the task at hand: finding the pattern in the capsule’s spin.

  Mazer let his body go limp, feeling the centripetal forces pulling at him from multiple directions.

  The spin was a sequence repeating itself again and again. An object in motion remained in motion. If Mazer could identify that sequence, if he could anticipate how the capsule would spin next, he could prepare himself properly to exit the capsule when he reached his target.

  Our brains weren’t programmed for this, he thought. A lifetime of living in a gravitational environment has trained us to process trajectories completely differently.

  He wondered if he would ever get used to zero G. Even after years of training in space he still felt like an awkward novice, not because his movements were clumsy but because he was nowhere near as agile out here as he had once been on Earth.

  If I had started out here as a child, he thought, or if I had begun training as a tween, this would all be second nature by now.

  He envied the free-miner recruits for this very reason. Most of them were born in space on asteroid-mining vessels throughout the Kuiper or Asteroid belts. Zero G was their home. Flight came easily. Spinning, launching, mapping a trajectory. They didn’t have to think about it; they just moved.

  Of course the bureaucracy at the IF kept free miners from reaching any legitimate position of influence within the Fleet. Those positions were held by experienced soldiers from Earth, the career officers who had clawed their way to the top and weren’t about to let blue-collar rock diggers give them any orders. That left free miners with the remedial jobs within the Fleet: mechanics, load operators, shipbuilders, cooks. Critical entities, to be sure. But why not train them for combat? They had more experience with the environment. Teaching them to handle a weapon seemed easier than teaching Earth-grown soldiers to think in zero G.

  Or why not pair free miners with soldiers? Mazer had made the suggestion to a dozen different com
manders. Have the free miner teach the marine how to fly and have the marine teach the free miner the essentials of combat. Unify the cultures. Share information and expertise. Break down the barriers and integrate the personnel to produce soldiers more capable in every way.

  Oh, how Mazer’s commanding officers had laughed at that. Silly, silly Mazer. Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand your place? There are soldiers and there are worker bees, and the uneducated rock diggers will always be the bees.

  Free miners saved us, Mazer had countered. If not for their help we would’ve lost the war.

  But he had quickly learned that saying so only invited isolation and dismissal. Do your job, Mazer, they said. Either you’re one of us or you’re one of them. If you’re one of us, you won’t keep trying to drag outsiders into IF command.

  Nobody seemed to care that Mazer had actually fought the Formic invaders, on Earth and in space. All that mattered was his official record—in which his elite training was pretty much trumped by charges of insubordination. The elite training was from New Zealand, after all—not one of the great powers, so treating him well wouldn’t give the bureaucrat any career advantage.

  And there was no point in explaining that his “insubordination” consisted of him fighting the Formics in China when every other nation was obeying China’s demand that they stay out. That insubordination had led to the nuclear destruction of one of the Formics’ earthside bases and then later to the gutting of the Formic mothership. But none of that was in his file.

  No, not a mothership, Mazer reminded himself. A scout ship. We thought we were facing an invasion army, but the Formics that landed on Earth were merely the advance party, the terraformers, the workers sent ahead to prepare Earth soil for Formic vegetation. Farmers, basically. And the gases they had sprayed across southeast China that had killed forty million people were not military weapons, but terraforming tools. Weed killer. They were simply clearing the land and running off the rodents so that new occupants could move in.

  Mazer had helped put an end to it, but since the operation had been deemed classified, his file made no mention of his involvement. And his commanding officers went by what was in his file.

  It didn’t help that the International Fleet was hopelessly broken. Infighting, bureaucracy, dogmatic command, rivalries, conflicting agendas, careerists. In the three years since joining up, Mazer had seen it all.

  He had known this would happen. You couldn’t combine the militaries of the world into a single army and suddenly expect everyone to play nice. Rivalries would persist. Cultures would clash. Centuries of mistrust between enemies would linger. Plus there was the added challenge of coming to a unified consensus on discipline, structure, hierarchy, process—the most basic models of operation. And since no two militaries were alike, and since everyone dismissed every other nation’s military philosophies as misguided, watching the IF try to function as a single organization was like tossing a slab of meat to wolves.

  Still, Mazer had remained patient. No, optimistic, believing that the threat to the human race would eventually take precedence over all other considerations. Yet now, stationed at an IF outpost at L4—gravitationally balanced between Earth and Luna—Mazer’s hope in the IF was fading.

  He didn’t let them stop him, however. He had his missions and he would fulfill them. The International Fleet might rot from the inside out, but Mazer would do his duty as best as he knew how.

  After several minutes of concentration, he finally found the pattern in the capsule’s spin.

  Mazer blinked a command to initiate the gyroscope to see if he was right. A holographic model of the capsule appeared on his heads-up display—HUD—inside his helmet. He had been correct. There was the pattern of his spin. A constant through space, giving order to a seemingly random tumble.

  He blinked a second command and the holo disappeared, replaced with an image of his target: an old derelict supply ship directly ahead of him. The ship had been pulled from a scrapyard somewhere and painted and modified to resemble a miniaturized version of the Formic scout ship.

  A familiar voice sounded over the radio. “Four hundred meters to target.”

  It was Rimas, one of the three marines in Mazer’s breach team. They were each inside their own capsule tumbling through space behind Mazer, heading toward the same derelict ship.

  The tactic had worked once in the last war, but the capsules in that instance had approached their target from multiple angles. The IF wouldn’t always have that luxury in combat, so the IF had devised these smaller capsules with advanced avionics. Could a team of four marines approach a target from the same direction and carry out a complex, coordinated strike without colliding with one another or raising alarms?

  “Three hundred meters,” said Rimas. “Get ready, my fellow guinea pigs. Prepare for exit and launch.”

  Shambhani spoke next. He was the youngest of the bunch. A Pakistani from Karachi. “We’re not guinea pigs, Rimas. We’re lab rats. Running through mazes. Pushing buttons. Getting shocks. But no prize at the end.”

  Kaufman, the fourth member of the team and a former commando in GSG9, the special ops unit of the German Federal Police, laughed over the radio. “We can’t be lab rats, Shambhani. No rat would be stupid enough to crawl inside these cans.”

  Mazer smiled. Lab rats. It was a fair comparison. As marines in the International Fleet’s Weapons and Materials Research Division—WAMRED—it was Mazer and his team’s responsibility to test the latest experimental tech being considered for combat. Everything from biometric-enabled socks to shielded landing crafts. Some of it worked. Some of it didn’t. Some of it was so stupid in its design that it was more likely to get a marine killed than save him from the enemy. The stupid designs were easy to dismiss, but tech like the capsules was harder to evaluate. Could they work? Yes. Would they work? Probably not. And it was in this gray area of ambiguity where the bureaucrats and defense contractors did their worst, with everyone fighting to protect their own proposed tech and projects. It meant a lot of bad tech was getting the rubber stamp of approval, and there was little Mazer could do about it.

  “Two hundred meters,” said Rimas. “Here we go, Captain. The radio is yours.”

  “All right, gentlemen,” said Mazer. “Now that we’re all dizzy and discombobulated, let’s get to work. Know your rotation. Exit smart. If you miss the target, you’ll drift off into oblivion and be no help to any of us. We land, we set the charges, and we clear the area. Rimas you have point.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  They had practiced the maneuver dozens of times, but they knew better than to treat this as routine. They would go in as if their lives depended on it because one day that might be the case. Precise movements, complete coordination. Anything less was failure.

  A chime sounded in Mazer’s earpiece. A proximity warning. “Approaching the drop,” he said. “Here we go.”

  When his capsule got to its nearest approach to the ship’s surface, Mazer opened the door, pulled himself out of the cockpit, and fired propulsion from the back of his spacesuit, pushing himself, untethered, toward the target ship.

  The maneuver would be impossible if he didn’t first understand how the capsule was spinning. And even then it was incredibly difficult to pull off, not only because of the capsule’s rotations but also because the capsule was approaching the target not on a direct course, but at a diagonal vector that merely passed by the ship at a safe but short distance. A collision course would alert the Formics’ collision-avoidance system; they would fire on the capsule to protect their hull. But a nonthreatening flyby would likely go ignored. The trick was getting close enough to make the leap and yet staying far enough away so as not to draw attention. All without altering the original course of the capsule—for any sudden shift in trajectory might raise Formic alarms.

  Mazer tapped his propulsion twice more, then brought up his feet and landed on the hull. The soles of his boots were made of Nan-Ooze, a thick gel composed of thousands of
nanobots that attached to every scratch or irregularity on the surface of the ship. Mazer ordered the Nan-Ooze to go rigid, and it solidified inside the scratches, locking his feet in place and anchoring him to the ship.

  He drew his slaser—short for self-aiming laser—and advanced toward the breach site, walking as quickly as his goo boots allowed. He scanned right and left along the surface of the ship, keeping an eye out for any computer-generated Formics that might appear on his HUD.

  Ahead of him, Rimas landed on the breach site, a large circle on the side of the ship. Rimas then knelt in the center of the circle and anchored the guidebox to the hull. The guidebox emitted four low-powered lasers, pointing north, south, east, and west, indicating where along the edge of the circle Mazer and his team should place the four cubes of the breach weapon.

  Gungsu Industries, the Korean contractors who had built the weapon, called it a gravity disruptor—GD. It used four tidal forces to tear an opening in the ship large enough for the marines to crawl through. It did so with four separate cubes placed on the surface of the ship in a square pattern. The four corners of the square created four overlapping triangles that could tear apart any surface. Yet to work, the cubes had to be placed exactly right, meaning far enough apart that the curvature of the hull would put the surface in the straight lines between them. Placed wrong, the cubes could create shrapnel clouds or fail to tear a large enough hole.

  Rimas left the guidebox in place and went to one of the four points where a cube should be set. He pulled his cube from his pouch, twisted it to activate it, and set it Nan-Ooze side down. “Rimas here. The baby is delivered.”

  “Roger that,” said Mazer. “We’re right behind you.”

  Mazer and the others reached the circle as Rimas stood up and drew his slaser, covering them.

  Mazer moved to his assigned position and removed his own cube from his pouch. He twisted the mechanism to activate it, noting once again that the action felt far too cumbersome with his bulky gloved fingers.