But Carlotta didn't care much about the planet. Planets were of no use to them because Father couldn't stand even half a gee, let alone 1.2. The fact that the alien ship was approaching it suggested that the atmosphere was attractive to whatever species the ship belonged to. But what mattered to Herodotus was the existence of the alien ship.
The human race had encountered only one alien species, ever, and had fought a war of extinction with them. According to a story told by the writer of The Hive Queen under the pseudonym "Speaker for the Dead," the Formics had not meant to wipe out the human race at all. But Carlotta wasn't buying it -- it was easy to impute benign motives to an alien species that no longer existed.
The trouble was, it was too late to avoid meeting the species. No matter what the Herodotus did, it would be detected -- and its plasma path could be followed back till it disappeared. And since their flight had been straight as an arrow since they reached near-lightspeed, all the aliens would have to do to find the human home world was keep on going straight along the path marked by the Herodotus's plasma emission trail even after the trail itself petered out.
It would be far more useful to slow down and stop, not turn, so that they could discover as much as possible about this alien ship and its inhabitants. Using the ansible, they could report every speck of information they found -- right up to the moment when the aliens destroyed them. The human race would then have time to make whatever preparations might be possible to meet these aliens when they followed the Herodotus's trail back to Earth.
And it would give Sergeant something useful to occupy his time instead of plotting ways to kill Father -- or whoever his enemy might be today.
Carlotta sent a signal to Ender and Sergeant. Come with me to talk to the Giant. Something important has come up. Then she copied the pertinent charts and reports to Father's holotop.
"Of course we're going to stop and try to communicate with them," said Cincinnatus. "We have no other choice. We can't leave a potential threat behind us without investigating it."
The others nodded. A group this bright didn't need discussion when the options were obvious.
"There's no reason for Ender to stop working on the genetics problem," said the Giant. "We're pursuing an interesting path that involves bacterial latency. Carlotta can manage deceleration, approach, and communications."
Cincinnatus felt his normal despair. As usual, no one could think of anything for him to do.
Carlotta, bless her little heart, took pity on him. He hated that. He didn't need to have his shame put into words. "What about Sergeant?"
The Giant looked at her as if she were an idiot. "He's going to arm the Herodotus so we're ready to turn this alien ship into dust if the need arises."
Just like that. For the first time in his life, Cincinnatus mattered. The Giant had a use for him.
Ender was skeptical, of course. "We don't want to go in guns blazing."
The Giant sighed, and now Ender got the are-you-really-this-dim look. "Andrew, sometimes I think you forget that each of you is exactly as intelligent as the others. Cincinnatus isn't going to use any weapons against an enemy whose capabilities we don't yet know. And even when we know them, he won't initiate hostilities. We don't need a war. We need an assessment. But if they want a fight, we have to be so ready that only a vastly superior technology could possibly kill or capture us."
Cincinnatus didn't have to say a thing. He had a job. An important one. And more to the point, he had the Giant's trust.
Enough trust that over the next few weeks, the Giant studied all of Cincinnatus's proposals and, with a few pointers and suggestions, approved them. Carlotta helped him put a small-scale M.D. field on the front of the Puppy, to act as a shield and, potentially, a weapon. Cincinnatus put in the hours of delicate work to weaponize the small atmospheric probes, designing them to cause several different levels of damage. It was vital to have an arsenal that could respond at the appropriate level. Total destruction was the least desirable option. How many alien races were they likely to meet on this voyage? It would be very nice to have something left to study, even if they had to kill everybody. Turning the aliens and their ship into a cloud of undifferentiated atoms was only the very last resort.
To Cincinnatus, it was as clear an assignment as he could imagine. You are the soldier, the Giant was saying to him. You will follow my path to war. I have set down my military life; I give it to you.
All his life Cincinnatus had relentlessly studied war, everything about war, from weaponry to tactics, from strategy to logistics. Every period, every battle, every general good or bad. He saw everything through the lens of war. He made himself ready.
And what did he get for it? The nickname "Sergeant," as if he were a mere noncom, never to be a commander.
The bitterness quickly faded, however, and now he had to face the realization that all he felt, day after day, was a growing dread. No, not dread anymore. Raw fear, that's what he felt. All his military study and planning had been theoretical or historical. This was real.
He began to have nightmares. Vids of the Formics replayed in his mind, always tearing apart Ender or Carlotta or the Giant, as they screamed, "Sergeant! Help me! Save me, Sergeant!" And in the nightmare, he stood there with powerful weapons in his hands and he could not aim them, could not fire, could only stand and watch his family die.
The three of them bunked together in the upper lab, but when the nightmares began, Cincinnatus began sleeping in the Puppy, or in some other place in the ship, wherever he could curl up and catch a few hours of sleep before the dreams began.
So it was that when they began to get visuals from the tiny drones they sent on ahead of the Herodotus, Cincinnatus was already so terrified he could hardly breathe. He could not believe the others didn't notice. But they didn't. They kept deferring to him as they discussed possible strategies. And when the visuals began coming back and the sheer size of the monster starship became clear to them, they ope
nly showed their fear -- nervous laughter, lame jokes, outright declarations of awe and dread. But Cincinnatus showed them nothing, and they continued to rely on him.
The odd thing was that even though he was absolutely consumed with his own fear, the analytical part of Cincinnatus's brain didn't freeze up at all.
"I see no sign that the bogey has spotted our drones," Cincinnatus said. "In fact, I see no sign that they're doing any kind of recon on the planet, even though they're in geosynchronous orbit around it."
"Maybe they have instruments that don't have to penetrate the atmosphere," said Carlotta. "We do, after all."
"We can determine the oxygen content and so we know that it's a plant-dominated world," said Cincinnatus. "But if we were going to settle there, we'd be sending drones to pick up samples of the biota to determine the chemistry of life to see if it's compatible with us."