Disclaimer: I don't own Stargate or Ender's Game.
It is a long flight from Earth to Eros, which means that Admiral Jack O'Neill of the IFF has plenty of time to consider and reconsider what he is about to do. The whole thing makes him uncomfortable—he's sensitive about children, always has been, and he's been much worse since Charlie died—but, no matter how he looks at it, he can't think of a better option.
The fact of the matter is, they owe everything to the kid. Ender Wiggin won them an impossible victory, and in return he received…nothing. Nothing but tarnished innocence, expertise in a now-obsolete field, and permanent exile from the planet on which he was born.
Demosthenes—and Jack is one of the very, very few who knows the famed scribe's true identity—has ensured that Ender may never return to Earth. Her actions might have seemed harsh—especially coming from Ender's beloved sister, Valentine—except that Jack is also informed enough to know that she did it all to protect Ender from Locke. Locke, also known as Peter Wiggin, the boy who is going to become Earth's next great tyrant.
Valentine wants to hop on a ship with Ender and set sail for a colony. With the relativistic effects of faster than light travel, fifty years would pass on Earth by the time the Wiggin children arrived. It would feel to them as if only a few weeks had passed.
The idea has merit. Valentine is not the only person who loves Ender—by all accounts, nearly everyone who meets the boy can't help but love him—but she is the only person, Jack thinks, whose love Ender can now bear to endure. And though time does not heal all wounds, it does give them a chance to scab over.
So, yes. The idea of shipping Ender off to become the governor of a colony has some merit. Jack plans to present Ender with another option.
He arrives at Eros almost a month and a half after Ender's great victory. He visited the asteroid once before, years ago, to lecture a group of promising command students on the hazards of military command and the many, many ways in which commanding a ship in space is nothing at all like playing a game at Battle School.
He hadn't been invited back after that lecture. Apparently, two promising Command School cadets had chosen to leave the program, traumatized by the gory pictures he'd shown and his detailed description of what it looked like when a man's body was exposed to the hard vacuum of space. Jack had argued that those kids shouldn't be commanding anyone if they couldn't stand a little gore or danger. He had been told to mind his own business.
Eros is just as he remembered: cramped and disorienting, a labyrinthine piece of rock built by the very aliens that Ender would one day exterminate while living here.
Jack is greeted by Colonel Graff upon disembarking. The corpulent colonel salutes Jack with a vaguely hostile look in his eye. The last time they'd met, they'd been equal in rank. Jack's moved up in the world since then. Beside Graff is an old man, tall and still lithe. It takes Jack a moment to recognize Mazer Rackham, the hero of the first Bugger War, a man who should be long dead.
Jack doesn't like Graff. He never has. He doesn't approve of the man's methods, his bearing, or the Battle School, which is Graff's sole raison d'etre (and which itself no longer has any reason to exist). Unfortunately, he can't deny that Graff was instrumental in the defeat of the Buggers, so he also feels some grudging respect toward the man.
"Admiral," Graff says. "I have to admit, I have no idea why you're here." He glances at Mazer Rackham. "I assume it has something to do with Ender."
Jack smiles, aware that his smile has a bit of an edge. "I'm afraid that's above your security clearance."
Graff takes a moment to absorb that little tidbit, his face going florid. "I have the highest clearance in the IFF."
"You have the second highest clearance," Jack corrects him, enjoying the sight of Hyrum Graff floundering. "Until now, you weren't even cleared to know that my clearance level existed. Congratulations. Now you're allowed to know just how little you actually know."
"I've been fighting for Ender for over eight years," Graff tells Jack, his voice low and intense. "You're a fool if you think I'll let something like my security clearance stop me from protecting him now."
While they have been talking, Mazer Rackham has circled them to stand at Jack's back. Jack is very aware of the old man's presence. Graff and Rackham have him surrounded, and though he's confident he could take either of them individually, he's leery of trying to take them both together. Rackham, in particular, could be quite the threat, even given his age.
Anyway, he doesn't want to fight them. Not now that he's seen that they are as protective of Ender Wiggin as a mother bear is of her cub. He has no doubt that they have used Ender as a tool for most of the boy's life, but he is relieved to know that they have no intention of simply discarding Ender now that he has succeeded in the task for which he was wrought.
"I'm not here to hurt Ender," Jack says. "I'm here to offer him the one thing he's been denied his entire life."
"And what's that?" Graff demands, but most of the hostility has gone out of his voice, so maybe he can tell that Jack is, for once, sincere.
Jack looks Graff in the eye. "The freedom to decide his own destiny."
"Most would say that Ender has already fulfilled his destiny." That's from Rackham; it's the first thing he's said since Jack arrived.
"Ender has achieved great things already, but he's still a child. I'm not ready to close the book on his life quite yet. Are you?"
"Admiral," Graff says slowly, "what exactly do you have in mind for him?"
"It'll be his choice whether to accept the position I can offer him. If he takes it, his life may be in constant jeopardy, he may be forced to use the tactical skills he probably never wants to use again, and he will never see his friends or family—except for Valentine—again." Jack shrugs. "On the other hand, I can guarantee that he'll be safe from all the politicking on Earth, that he'll never have to see Peter again, and that he'll be exposed to wonders that he would never have imagined could be real. I'm afraid that's all I can tell you, Colonel."
"But it's his choice," Rackham says, and there's something like joy in his voice, joy mingled with desperate longing.
Was Rackham ever given a choice? Jack doubts it. Mazer fired one shot to win a war, and that one decisive victory decided his life forever. The world rarely gives its heroes the chance to choose their own path. Hell, Jack wanted to retire years ago, but now he knows that he will be a slave to the IFF—one of its favorite slaves, but a slave nonetheless—until his job kills him, which it surely will.
"It's his choice," Jack affirms.
Rackham and Graff exchange a long look. Finally, Graff sighs and inclines his head ever so slightly. "I'll take you to him."
Ender Wiggin is twelve years old, and he has committed genocide.
No. No. He'll go mad if he thinks that way. It wasn't his fault. The Buggers attacked Earth first. And he hadn't even known he was killing real Buggers, he'd thought it was a game, just a game, and it's not his fault that he doesn't know how to play a game without playing to win.
Ender Wiggin is a tool, and he has outlived his usefulness.
But Mazer has chided him for thinking such things. "You can't let them win, Ender," his old enemy—his best teacher—urged on one of those days when Ender could not bring himself to get out of bed.
"Who?" Ender said, his eyes closed, body limp and so vulnerable that Mazer could have wrapped his hand around Ender's throat and Ender would not have flinched.
"Them." Mazer waved his hand demonstratively. "All of them. The ones who will try to beat you down. This is just another battle, and you've never lost one of those. This is no time to start."
Ender wondered, then, how many times Mazer had had to give himself that very same pep talk.
Ender Wiggin is a leader, and all of his soldiers are some combination of dead, crazy, and gone, returned to Earth, where he will never see them again.
He mustn't think of them. He mustn't think of Alai, his closest friend, or Bean, the youngest, smallest, and strongest of them all. He mustn't think of Petra, whom he broke, or Dink, who was once Ender's leader but never his match. He mustn't think of how all of them ceased to be his friends when he turned them into weapons. He mustn't think of how they worship him, all of them, as if they haven't seen him at his very worst, as if he hasn't failed them all in one way or another.
Ender Wiggin is the greatest military mind of the decade, if not the century, and it his sociopathic brother who will bring peace to humanity.
It is a blessing, he supposes, that thoughts of Peter no longer fill him with fear or even dread. It is a curse that thoughts of Valentine no longer fill him with comfort. He loves her still—will always love her—but Graff and his machinations have torn her away from him in some indefinable way. But he knows that she, of all people, will never give up on him, and so he allows himself to hope that one day, just maybe, they can be brother and sister to each other again.
Ender Wiggin is a monster, and his greatest flaw is that he cannot help but love those whom he kills.
Ender Wiggin is so very small. Jack had thought that he was prepared for this, but seeing the boy now, with his unkempt hair, slouched shoulders, eyes ringed with dark circles, face unbearably thin, hands trembling like an old man's, it's all that he can do to keep from taking out his sidearm and shooting Graff in the head, or, worse, pulling Ender into a hug and promising him that everything will be okay. If Ender is ever okay again, that will be a miracle.
It takes him a moment to find his voice, and he is relieved when it comes out steady. "Mr. Wiggin," he says, "my name is Jack O'Neill."
Technically, Ender has been granted the rank of admiral, and should be addressed by his title even by a fellow admiral. Jack, who hates being addressed as "admiral," thinks he's doing the kid a favor by ignoring the promotion.
Ender doesn't reply, just looks up at him—a long way up; Jack towers over him—with a dead gaze.
Jack has always been good with children. However, Ender, despite his age, is no longer a child. It would be a mistake to treat him as anything other than a tired war veteran suffering from PTSD.
"Can I come in?" Jack says.
It takes a long time before Ender backs away from the door, leaving it open in what Jack assumes is an invitation, or at least the closest thing he's going to get.
Ender's room is…depressing. And that's coming from someone who spent the better part of eight years working out of an underground bunker. The walls are bare rock, the bed a lumpy cot. There are no decorations. No books, no games.
It would take Jack about a day to go stark raving mad in a room like this. He imagines that it would take someone like Ender, who is much, much smarter than Jack, about an hour.
"They offered me anything I wanted," Ender says, apparently reading Jack's mind. The boy speaks quietly, with the calm certainty of someone who never has to raise his voice to be heard. "Books, paintings, even some of the games I used to like at Battle School."
"Why'd you turn them down?"
Ender sits on the bed. His feet dangle above the floor. The sight of him makes Jack's heart ache.
"None of it seemed important," Ender says.
Jack wanders around the room and finally ends up slouching against the wall, not caring as the rough stone digs into his fatigues. "Well, I like what you've done with the place," he quips. "Though I'd have gone for the azure color scheme, I think."
Ender stares at him as if he's lost his mind.
"I was kidding," Jack says. Then, when Ender still doesn't seem to understand: "It was a joke."
"I used to hear jokes at Battle School sometimes. I never told them. Command School doesn't believe in jokes. Or maybe it's all one big joke. I'm not sure."
Jack shudders. He's never been good with words, and he has a feeling that he's botching this entire meeting. This would be so much easier if Ender were older, or if Jack were a little more confident that coming here and making this offer was the right thing to do.
"I've just thought of a joke," Ender says when the silence stretches on too long. He doesn't look like someone who's thought of something funny. He looks like someone just shot his dog. "Want to hear it?"
"So this admiral travels all the way to a desolate asteroid to see a boy. And the admiral says…"
Jack's no genius, as Carter or Daniel can attest, but he's smart enough to recognize that cue. "I'm here to make you an offer."
Ender's lips curve in a terrible smile. "Now, that is funny. Acting as if I have any say in what to do with my life."
There's scorn in his voice. Jack's losing him.
"So this admiral travels to an asteroid to see a boy," Jack says quickly. "And the admiral says, 'Would you like to go on an adventure that involves constant danger, endless wonder, and almost certain death?'"
O'Neill is not like any admiral Ender has met before. For one thing, though his hair is gray and there's stiffness in his stride that hints at a bad knee, he looks as though he's been in the field recently. It's in the wariness in his air—Ender isn't fooled for a minute by the man's lazy posture—and the way his hand hangs near the butt of his gun. For another, he does not look at Ender greedily, as most Fleet officers have done, both before and after Ender killed the Buggers.
It is that lack of avarice that intrigues Ender enough that he does not tune out O'Neill's offer the way he has all of the other admirals'. (They're never really offers, though; there's always the unspoken reminder that Ender is still officially Fleet property and it's within someone's power—not some admiral's, but someone's—to assign Ender to command an army to take over the world. Not that Ender would obey, but he is never allowed to forget that his life is not his own.)
O'Neill, however, seems to be going out of his way not to threaten Ender. So Ender listens, and he learns about a device called the Stargate.
The story O'Neill tells is preposterous. The Stargate was found on an archaeological dig in Egypt. A secret government program called the SGC—Stargate Command—has been operating out from under Cheyenne Mountain for seven years, sending teams to hundreds of planets in the Milky Way Galaxy.
At first, Ender thinks it's a joke. But then he realizes that O'Neill's expression, which had striven unsuccessfully for levity before, is totally serious, and there is an undercurrent of exhaustion and pride in his voice that Ender does not think the man could fake.
His mind begins to calculate. Though he was eventually pulled from all non-military classes in Battle School and hasn't taken a science class since he was eight years old, he has a better than basic understanding of physics. He did a lot of reading, back when he first learned about the ansible, trying to understand how instantaneous communication across the stars was possible. That same reading grounds him now, though O'Neill's refusal to use any technical terms ("The Stargate establishes this whooshy connection to a Stargate on another planet if you dial the right address") makes it trickier.
You dial an address on a DHD, he comes to understand, and the Stargate then creates a stable, one-way wormhole with another Stargate somewhere in the galaxy. And, somehow, there are humans living on many of these other planets.
O'Neill tells Ender about the Goa'uld.
"We've been fighting our own secret war for the past decade," he says.
Ender doesn't understand how O'Neill's people could possibly have concealed such a war for so long.
"The Buggers made my job easier, in a way," O'Neill explains, leaning against the wall, his hands in his pockets. "Everyone's been so worried about whether the Buggers were going to come back that they haven't been keeping a close eye on our own backyard. I've fought space battles above Earth, Ender, and no one saw."
O'Neill has switched to calling Ender by his first name. In most adults, Ender would think that that was a manipulation tactic. O'Neill, he thinks, is not that sly. Oh, he doesn't doubt that O'Neill is cunning, and he suspects that O'Neill has a habit of fooling his enemies into underestimating him, but Ender doesn't sense any guile from him now, and Ender is a very good judge of character.
"What do you want from me?" Ender says.
O'Neill pushes off the wall and begins to pace. This is a man who does not like to stand still.
"I'm sending an expedition to the Pegasus Galaxy. We've found a gate address to what we hope is Atlantis, a city built by the Ancients. We're not sure what we'll find there. Technology beyond our wildest dreams? Maybe just the record of some history that can tell us who we are. Maybe nothing. I don't know. What I do know is that we only have enough power to send one large group through, and there's a good chance that Atlantis doesn't have the power to gate back—so it's probably a one-way trip. The expedition will be almost completely cut off from Earth. Even if we launched our fastest ship today, it wouldn't reach Atlantis for fifty years—and I have no intention of sending any ships to Pegasus any time soon."
Ender understands, now, why O'Neill is here. What he is going to offer. He is surprised by the part of himself that fills with excitement at the idea.
"How is this any different from Valentine's plan for us to fly to a colony? I exile myself to another galaxy either way."
"It takes about three seconds, using the Stargate, to get from here to there," O'Neill points out. "Which means that if you decide that you decide you want to talk to your parents or any of your friends from Battle School, you can. If you go to the colony, they'll be old or dead by the time you arrive. And, Ender—you know that all of the worlds we will colonize belonged to the Buggers. The last thing you need is to have what you did—what we forced you to do—thrust into your face every day. Just being on this rock is bad enough."
"You said the expedition will be almost completely cut off from Earth," Ender says. "You're sending an ansible along, aren't you?"
O'Neill's lips quirk in a half smile. "You know my favorite thing about any communication device, even one as advanced as an ansible? You can turn it off if you don't like what you're hearing."
In other words: You'll be a galaxy away. If Earth tries to order you to do something you don't want to do, there's nothing they can do to make you comply.
Ender kicks his heel against a leg of his cot. "You don't plan for me to lead the expedition."
O'Neill raises an eyebrow. "No. Is that a problem?"
Ender…almost feels like smiling. "No."
"Don't get me wrong—you're a natural born leader, Ender, and I'd be very surprised if you ended up fading into obscurity as an unimportant member of the expedition. If that's what you choose, good for you—but I think you'll get bored after a few months of doing nothing. You're smart enough that you can do whatever you want: work with the scientists and the military, learn languages, learn diplomacy, whatever sounds best to you."
"You really don't expect anything from me?" It's too good to be true. How can Ender place himself in the hands of this man, who arrives unannounced and offers him the only thing he truly wants—to go somewhere where he can be just Ender.
"Listen, Ender—I'm going to send the expedition regardless of whether you go. They're fully equipped with people I trust. Elizabeth Weir is going to lead them. Colonel Sumner is in charge of the IFF contingent. Dr. McKay is heading up the science department. The only thing that'll change if you decide to come is that they'll leave a month earlier than planned."
It's not hard to figure out why. "Because of Peter?"
O'Neill nods. "It's a matter of weeks, not months, before your brother seizes power. Once he does that, he'll learn about the Stargate and he'll be in a position to stop you from going. That's why I can't give you much time to decide. If you're going to go, you and I will leave here today."
It's just like when Graff came to take Ender away from his family. Except that Ender is not an innocent child this time. Eros is not his home. And Admiral O'Neill is a kinder man than Colonel Graff.
"If you're not sending me along as someone important—if you know Peter's going to find out about everything—why would you send me at all? Peter will ruin your career. He's a sadist, you know."
O'Neill snorts. "Well, first, Peter might be pissed, but there's not much he can actually do to me. I've been trying to retire for a while now, but I'm irreplaceable, apparently, and I'll be even more irreplaceable to a new administration. Something to do with the fact that the Asgard—our closest alien allies—like me a lot. Second…" O'Neill hesitates. "I've gone over your file. I've watched the footage from that last battle. I've seen what the Fleet has done to you. You don't remind me at all of my son Charlie. You don't know how to joke or how to just be a kid. And that's a terrible thing. You deserve better." He combs his hand through his hair, uncomfortable with having to explain himself. "Third, and most importantly, you're a genius with a demonstrated ability to make just about anyone trust you. Someone with gifts like yours might prove invaluable in another galaxy."
Ender appreciates O'Neill's frankness, his admission that, while he is doing this in part to help Ender, he is mostly doing it because it will help the expedition.
One thing O'Neill said sticks out. Ender has never spoken with any of his IFF masters about their own children. He'd almost come to believe that none of them were allowed to reproduce, but here is O'Neill, outright comparing Ender to his own son and finding Ender in some way wanting.
"Would you send Charlie to Atlantis if he were in my position?" Ender asks.
O'Neill closes his eyes for a moment, as if the thought hurts him. "Never." His eyes open and lock with Ender's. "I pulled every string I had to to ensure that Charlie was never given a monitor. They thought he might be a candidate for Battle School, given my success in the field, but I refused. If the Fleet had tried to take my son from me, I would have done my damnedest to bring the whole system crashing down. I made that very clear to them. And if Charlie were in your position now, I would find a way to kill anyone who tried to exile him from his home planet."
There's no apology in his voice, no regret for what he did—using, perhaps abusing, his position to protect his own son. There's sadness, though—that he couldn't do the same for Ender and all of the other children at Battle School. This is a man who would never, never condone the use of children as soldiers.
Ender, who has never been able to trust an adult, not even his own parents, thinks with tentative wonder that it's possible he could learn to trust O'Neill.
"Your son must love you very much, Admiral," Ender says, his voice rough with envy and longing. To have a father like O'Neill, who would take on all the powers of the world to protect his son…Ender, whose intelligence cannot be accurately measured by any human means, finds himself unable to imagine what it would be like to be cherished as this man would cherish him, if he were O'Neill's son.
O'Neill looks away. "Charlie accidentally shot himself with my gun nine years ago."
It is that—that honest sharing of pain—which finally convinces Ender that there is no hidden trap waiting to spring on him if he agrees. O'Neill talks to him like an equal. Like a friend. It's been a long time since Ender had a friend who was not also his subordinate to command.
Ender hops off of his cot. He looks around the barren room he has lived in since coming to Command School and thinks that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that he wants to take from this place. He would strip and go naked if he didn't think that would cause a commotion he doesn't feel like dealing with.
"Can Valentine come too?" he says, feeling eager for the first time in weeks, already certain of the answer. O'Neill did his homework. He must know that Ender and Valentine are a package deal.
O'Neill's eyebrows go up. Apparently he expected to have to do more convincing. "Yeah. Valentine can go too."
Ender does not ask whether those he knew from Battle School, his toon leaders and friends—Alai, Bean, Petra, Dink, Shen, Crazy Tom, and the others—can come as well. He knows that if he ever called they would all come running, abandoning their families, their lives, the peace which they can still find on Earth even if he can't. And so he will never call them.
"I'm ready to go with you, Admiral," Ender decides, almost sagging as an invisible pressure seems to lift from his shoulders.
"It's a long trip back to Earth," O'Neill says with an easy grin. "Call me Jack."
Jack sits at his desk and very seriously considers whether that karate chop Bra'tac taught him a few years ago would be enough to break the desk in two. Nah. It would probably just break his hand, and it would suck to do paperwork with a broken hand even more than it sucks to do paperwork with two working hands.
Sergeant Walter Harriman, his aide, pokes his head in the door. Before he can speak, Jack points an accusatory finger at him and laments, "Walter, why did I ever agree to become The Man?"
Walter, demonstrating his usual impeccable professionalism, only rolls his eyes a little. "I think the parking space had something to do with it, sir. And also getting to rename Friday 'Pie-Day'."
"I hate paperwork," Jack says.
"I know, sir, but you have to do it."
"I want to be in the field," Jack says.
"There's always Thor's offer to transport your consciousness into a younger cloned version of your body if you get that desperate to return to the field, sir."
Jack grimaces. "Become my own mini-me? I don't think so." He sighs and props his chin on his hand. "Maybe I could get Thor to make a clone of me to do all my paperwork."
Walter goes a little bug eyed, probably at the thought of two Jack O'Neills running around causing havoc. "Sir, you've got a call."
Frowning, Jack glances at the red phone on his desk.
"It's the ansible, sir."
Jack is out of his office and down the hall before Walter finishes the "er" in "sir." It takes barely two minutes for him to reach the soundproofed room containing the ansible. He practically tosses the two airmen inside out the door, then closes and locks it behind him.
"This is O'Neill," he says.
"Admiral? This is Valentine Wiggin. Hold on a second and I'll let Dr. Weir know you're here."
Valentine sounds harried and fatigued, but he can't detect any grief in her voice, which must mean that Ender is still alive. Jack sags with relief. He's had too much time to second guess himself since the Atlantis expedition left almost thirty hours ago. What if he'd done the wrong thing, convincing Ender to go to Atlantis? What if Ender died because of him? He would never be able to forgive himself.
"Admiral!" Weir is breathless, as if she sprinted to get to the ansible.
"Elizabeth. Sit rep!"
"Colonel Sumner is dead, but the city is secure. Major Sheppard has taken over as military commander." There's a pause, as if she is trying to decide the best way to deliver the rest of the bad news. Jack's heart sinks. Weir is the most skilled diplomat he has ever met, aside from Peter and Valentine Wiggin. If she finds it difficult to say something, it must be really bad. "We've made some friends, Jack, but we've made a lot more enemies. They're called the Wraith…"
She proceeds to tell him about the Wraith, some sort of alien vampires that eat by sucking the life out of people; about the puddlejumpers, ships that Major Sheppard has figured out how to fly—Jack got to fly one once, and envies Sheppard the ability to do so daily; about a woman named Teyla Emmagen, whose people were culled by the Wraith on the same day that they met the Atlantis expedition; about how Valentine has already proven herself a skilled mediator between the military and the scientists and how Weir is planning to make the girl her assistant; and, finally, about Atlantis itself, which was slumbering under the sea until their arrival necessitated that it rise to the surface, and which she believes will turn out to be everything they hoped and more.
Jack drinks in the news, his mind cataloguing this new threat, relieved by Weir's cautious optimism, trying to decide whether Sheppard is going to shine or fail as military commander. The whole time she is talking, he is waiting for her to say the one name he most wants to hear. Instead she falls silent.
"Tell me about Ender Wiggin," he orders when it becomes clear that she is not going to continue.
She doesn't reply right away. It isn't until he opens his mouth to repeat the command that she says, reluctantly, "Ender was on Athos when it was culled. He was among those rescued, but not before a Wraith partially fed on him."
Jack frowns. "What does that mean? He's old now?"
"We know so little about the physiology of the Wraith that it's difficult to know what the long-term effects will be," Weir says. "Ender has not aged in any conventional sense—he is the same height, for one thing—but he has a number of wrinkles and has become somewhat…frail. Dr. Beckett hopes that in time he will recover his strength."
"Are you telling me that Ender is a cripple?" Jack demands, clutching the sides of the ansible.
"No," she says sharply. "I'm telling you that he was injured but that we are hopeful that he will eventually regain the ability to do everything that he used to do." Her voice softens. "He's in good spirits, Jack, and he's already thinking ahead. I almost wonder whether you should have made him leader of the expedition. He wants to capture a Wraith—he insists that if we learn how they think we'll be better equipped to defend ourselves, and I think he's decided that getting to know the Wraith is his job." There's another pause. "He asked me to pass a message on to you."
"He said that you gave him the freedom to choose his destiny," Weir says, "and that he doesn't regret a single decision he's made since he met you. He said to tell you, it wasn't a joke after all. I'm not sure what that means."
Jack understands. He understands that, despite what has happened to his body, Ender is content. Ender is glad that he went to Atlantis. He's going to help protect people, good people. And he is grateful to Jack for sending him there.
Knowing all that, Jack is content, too.