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8

Days turned into weeks in the school, cut off from the world outside. Jason almost became proud of his ability to deal with death. He recognized all the animals and plants in the nursery room and had been promoted to a trainer where the beasts made sluggish charges at him. His gun picked off the attackers with dull regularity. The constant, daily classes were beginning to bore him as well.

Though the gravity still dragged at him, his muscles were making great efforts to adjust. After the daily classes, he no longer collapsed immediately into bed. Only the nightmares became worse. He had Iinally mentioned them to Brucco, who mixed up a sleeping potion that took away most of their effect. The dreams were still there, but Jason was only vaguely aware of them upon awakening.

By the time Jason had mastered all the gadgetry that kept the Pyrrans alive, he had graduated to a most realistic trainer that was only a hairsbreadth away from the real thing. The difference was just in quality. The insect poisons caused swelling and pain instead of instant death. Animals could cause bruises and tear flesh, but stopped short of ripping off limbs. You couldn't get killed in this trainer, but could certainly come very dose to it.

Jason wandered through this large and rambling jungle with the rest of the five-year-olds. There was something a bit humorous, yet sad, about their unchildlike grimness. Though they still might laugh in their quarters, they realized there was no laughing outside. To them survival was linked up with social acceptance and desirability. In this way Pyrrus was a simple black-and-white society. To prove your value to yourself and your world, you only had to stay alive. This had great importance in racial survival, but had very stultifying effects on individual personality. Children were turned into like-faced killers, always on the alert to deal out death.

Some of the children graduated into the outside world and others took their places. Jason watched this process for awhile before he real-

ized that all of those from the original group he had entered with were gone. That same day he looked up the chief of the adaptation center.

"Brucco," Jason asked, "how long do you plan to keep me in this kindergarten shooting gallery?"

"You're not being 'kept' here," Brucco told him in his usual irritated tone. "You will be here until you qualify for the outside."

"Which I have a funny feeling will be never. I can now field strip and reassemble every one of your blasted gadgets in the dark. I am a dead shot with this cannon. At this present moment, if I bad to, I could write a book on the Complete Flora and Fauna of Pyrrus, and How to Kill It. Perhaps I don't do as well as my six-year-old companions. But I have a hunch I do about as good a job now as I ever will. Is that true?"

Brucco squirmed with the effort to be evasive, yet didn't succeed. "I think, that is, you know you weren't born here, and. . ."

"Come, come," Jason said with glee. "A straight-faced old Pyrran like you shouldn't try to lie to one of the weaker races that specialize in that sort of thing. It goes without saying that I'll always be sluggish with this gravity, as well as having other inborn handicaps. I admit that. We're not talking about that now. The question is, Will I improve with more training, or have I reached a peak of my own developinent now?"

Brucco sweated. 'With the passage of time there will be improvement, of course. . . ."

"Sly devil!" Jason waggled a finger at him. "Yes or no, now. Will I improve now by more training now?"

"No," Brucco said and still looked troubled. Jason sized him up like a poker hand. —

"Now let's think about that. I won't improve, yet I'm still stuck here. That's no accident. So you must have been ordered to keep me here. And from what I have seen of this planet, admittedly very little, I would say that Kerk ordered you to keep me here. Is that right?"

"He was only doing it for your own sake," Brucco explained. "Trying to keep you alive." —

"The truth is out," Jason said. "So let us now forget about it. I didn't come here to shoot robots with your offspring. So please show me the street door. Or is there a graduating ceremony first? Speeches, handing out school pins, sabers overhead. . . ."

"Nothing like that," Brucco snapped. "I don't see how a grown man like you can talk such nonsense all the time. There is none of that, of course. Only some final work in the partial survival chamber. That is a compound that connects with the outside-really is a part of the out-

side-except the most violent life forms are excluded. And even some of those manage to find their way in once in awhile."

"When do I go?" Jason shot the question.

"Tomorrow morning. Get a good night's sleep first. You'll need it."

There was one bit of ceremony attendant with the graduation. When Jason came into his office in the morning, Brucco slid a heavy gunclip across the table.

"These are live bullets," he said. "I'm sure you'll be needing them. After this your gun will always be loaded."

They came up to a heavy airlock, the only locked door Jason had seen in the center. While Rrucco unlocked it and threw the bolts, a sober-faced eight-year-old with a bandaged leg limped up.

"This is Grif," Bnicco said. "He will stay with you, wherever you go, from now on."

"My personal bodyguard?" Jason asked, looking down at the stocky child who barely reached his waist.

"You might call him that." Brucco swung the door open. "Grif tangled with a sawbird, so he won't be able to do any real work for awhile. You yourself admitted that you will never be able to equal a Pyrran, so you should be glad of a little protection."

"Always a kind word, that's you, Brucco," Jason said. He bent over and shook hands with the boy. Even the eight-year-olds had a bonecrushing grip.

The two of them entered the lock and Brucco swung the inner door shut behind them. As soon as it was sealed, the outer door opened automatically. It was only partly open when GriPs gun blasted twice. Then they stepped out onto the surface of Pyrrus, over the smoking body of one of its animals. Very symbolic, Jason thought. He was also bothered by the realization that not only hadn't he thought to look for something coming in, but he couldn't even identify the beast from its charred remains. He glanced around carefully, hoping he —would be able to fire first next time.

This was an unfulfilled hope. The few beasts that came their way were always seen first by the boy. After an hour of this, Jason was so irritated that he blasted an evil-looking thorn plant out of existence. He hoped that Grif wouldn't look too closely at it. Of course the boy did.

"That plant wasn't close. It is stupid to waste good ammunition on a plant," Grif said.

There was no real trouble during the day. Jason ended by being bored, though soaked by the frequent rainstorms. If Grif was capable of carrying on a conversation, he didn't show it. All Jason's gambits

failed. The following day went the same way. On the third day, Brucco appeared and looked Jason carefully up and down.

"I don't like to say it, but I suppose you are as ready to leave now as you ever will be. Change the virus filter noseplugs every day. Always check boots for tears and metal-cloth suiting for rips. Me&kit supplies renewed once a week."

"And wipe my nose and wear my galoshes. Anything else?" Jason asked.

Brucco started to say something, then changed his mind. "Nothing that you shouldn't know well by now. Keep alert. And. . . good luck."

He followed up the words with a crushing handshake that was totally unexpected. As soon as the numbness left Jason's hand, he and Grif went out through the large entrance lock.



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