Deathworld

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Chapter 7

In the morning Jason awoke with a bad headache and the feeling he had never been to sleep. As he took some of the carefully portioned stimulants that Brucco had given him, he wondered again about the combination of factors that filled his sleep with such horror.

"Eat quickly," Brucco told him when they met in the dining room. "I can no longer spare you time for individual instruction. You will join the regular classes and take the prescribed courses. Only come to me if there is some special problem that the instructors or trainers can't handle."

The classes—as Jason should have expected—were composed of stern-faced little children. With their compact bodies and no-nonsense mannerisms they were recognizably Pyrran. But they were still children enough to consider it very funny to have an adult in their classes. Jammed behind one of the tiny desks, the red-faced Jason did not think it was much of a joke.

All resemblance to a normal school ended with the physical form of the classroom. For one thing, every child—no matter how small—packed a gun. And the courses were all involved with survival. The only possible grade in a curriculum like this was one hundred per cent and students stayed with a lesson until they mastered it perfectly. No courses were offered in the normal scholastic subjects. Presumably these were studied after the child graduated survival school and could face the world alone. Which was a logical and cold-hearted way of looking at things. In fact, logical and cold-hearted could describe any Pyrran activity.

Most of the morning was spent on the operation of one of the medikits that strapped around the waist. This was a poison analyzer that was pressed over a puncture wound. If any toxins were present, the antidote was automatically injected on the site. Simple in operation but incredibly complex in construction. Since all Pyrrans serviced their own equipment—you could then only blame yourself if it failed—they had to learn the construction and repair of all the devices. Jason did much better than the child students, though the effort exhausted him.

In the afternoon he had his first experience with a training machine. His instructor was a twelve-year-old boy, whose cold voice didn't conceal his contempt for the soft off-worlder.

"All the training machines are physical duplicates of the real surface of the planet, corrected constantly as the life forms change. The only difference between them is the varying degree of deadliness. This first machine you will use is of course the one infants are put into—"

"You're too kind," Jason murmured. "Your flattery overwhelms me." The instructor continued, taking no notice of the interruption.

"… Infants are put into as soon as they can crawl. It is real in substance, though completely deactivated."

 

Training machine was the wrong word, Jason realized as they entered through the thick door. This was a chunk of the outside world duplicated in an immense chamber. It took very little suspension of reality for him to forget the painted ceiling and artificial sun high above and imagine himself outdoors at last. The scene seemed peaceful enough. Though clouds banking on the horizon threatened a violent Pyrran storm.

"You must wander around and examine things," the instructor told Jason. "Whenever you touch something with your hand, you will be told about it. Like this—"

The boy bent over and pushed his finger against a blade of the soft grass that covered the ground. Immediately a voice barked from hidden speakers.

"Poison grass. Boots to be worn at all times."

Jason kneeled and examined the grass. The blade was tipped with a hard, shiny hook. He realized with a start that every single blade of grass was the same. The soft green lawn was a carpet of death. As he straightened up he glimpsed something under a broad-leafed plant. A crouching, scale-covered animal, whose tapered head terminated in a long spike.

"What's that in the bottom of my garden?" he asked. "You certainly give the babies pleasant playmates." Jason turned and realized he was talking to the air, the instructor was gone. He shrugged and petted the scaly monstrosity.

"Horndevil," the impersonal voice said from midair. "Clothing and shoes no protection. Kill it."

A sharp crack shattered the silence as Jason's gun went off. The horndevil fell on its side, keyed to react to the blank charge.

"Well … I am learning," Jason said, and the thought pleased him. The words kill it had been used by Brucco while teaching him to use the gun. Their stimulus had reached an unconscious level. He was aware of wanting to shoot only after he had heard the shot. His respect for Pyrran training techniques went up.

Jason spent a thoroughly unpleasant afternoon wandering in the child's garden of horror. Death was everywhere. While all the time the disembodied voice gave him stern advice in simple language. So he could do unto, rather than being done in. He had never realized that violent death could come in so many repulsive forms. Everything here was deadly to man—from the smallest insect to the largest plant.

Such singleness of purpose seemed completely unnatural. Why was this planet so alien to human life? He made a mental note to ask Brucco. Meanwhile he tried to find one life form that wasn't out for his blood. He didn't succeed. After a long search he found the only thing that when touched didn't elicit deadly advice. This was a chunk of rock that projected from a meadow of poison grass. Jason sat on it with a friendly feeling and pulled his feet up. An oasis of peace. Some minutes passed while he rested his gravity-weary body.

"ROTFUNGUS—DO NOT TOUCH!"

The voice blasted at twice its normal volume and Jason leaped as if he had been shot. The gun was in his hand, nosing about for a target. Only when he bent over and looked closely at the rock where he had been sitting, did he understand. There were flaky gray patches that hadn't been there when he sat down.

"Oh you tricky devils!" he shouted at the machine. "How many kids have you frightened off that rock after they thought they had found a little peace!" He resented the snide bit of conditioning, but respected it at the same time. Pyrrans learned very early in life that there was no safety on this planet—except that which they provided for themselves.

While he was learning about Pyrrus he was gaining new insight into the Pyrrans as well.

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