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He knew that he was going to die.

Jeff Holman lay back on the couch, every nerve in him screaming with tension. He bit his lip to remain silent as the black woman sealed the cuffs that restrained his wrists and ankles, then fitted the gleaming silvered helmet onto his head.

He tried to pray, tried to remember the prayer for martyrs. But he couldn't. Somewhere in the crazy turmoil racing through him, he wondered if being killed by scientists counted as martyrdom. A martyr to secular humanists? He had never heard of that before.

The couch felt warm and soft, almost alive, as it molded itself to the contours of his body. The helmet, though, was cold, hard. It buzzed faintly with an electrical hum that Jeff could hear inside his head. The woman adjusted it carefully. Jeff looked into her face. It was utterly serious, grim.

With the weight of the helmet, Jeff could barely turn his head. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dr. Carbo standing in the control room on the other side of the heavy plastiglass window.

Why me? Jeff asked himself for the hundredth time. The scientists had needed a student volunteer and their computer had picked Jeff.

He wanted to leap out of the couch and run away, or at least say something to them to show that he was not afraid. But his mouth was dry, his throat raw with fear. Scientific experiment, they had said. Absolutely necessary for the project. For the good of the Village. But Jeff knew better. The rumor among the students was that two of the scientists had already died in this laboratory, and a third was hopelessly insane. That was why they wanted a student "volunteer."

Finally everything was ready. The black woman moved away, out of his field of vision. Jeff heard the heavy padded door to the control room close softly and he realized that she had left him in this death chamber alone.

"All right, Jeff," Dr. Carbo's voice sounded louder inside the helmet than the soft-spoken Italian usually did. The faint trace of his accent came through. "Please try to relax; your blood pressure and other indicators are rather high."

Relax, sure, Jeff thought. Try praying. Try meditating. Nothing. His mind was a terrified blank.

"If there is any trouble," Carbo went on, "I will stop the test at once."

Sure, right away. As soon as I'm dead.

"Are you comfortable, Jeff?"

He started to answer, gagged slightly, then coughed to clear his throat. "Yes," he finally replied, weakly.

"Just close your eyes," Carbo said. "Pretend that you're going to sleep."

Jeff squeezed his eyes shut, knowing that they would never open again. He waited for . . . what? He didn't know what to expect. Pain? The warm glow of drugs? The oblivion that Nirvan promises but never delivers?

He saw little glimmers of light, patterns that drifted across his closed eyelids. The electrical hum of the helmet seemed to shift subtly, changing gradually until it sounded almost like the wind moaning across the desert scrubland of home. The patterns of light and darkness began to dance, vibrate. Starbursts flashed out painfully. His body tensed, jerked against the restraining cuffs, spasmed. Then he felt a cool tingling along his entire body, like a soft breeze.

It was a breeze.

He could feel it rippling the fur along his body. He could hear it as it sighed through the forest.

He opened his eyes.

He was sitting on his haunches at the top of a hill, sniffing the breeze for danger and food. Hunger was a deep dull ache within his massive body. But something more than hunger troubled him. Something was wrong, different. He growled, a thunderous rumble that came from deep inside his cavernous chest. Down at the foot of the hill, a malicious-looking snaky thing with feathers looked up sharply, hissed once, then flapped awkwardly into the air and flew into the trees. When a wolfcat growls, all other creatures flee.

He's made contact! Jeff heard somewhere in his brain.

But it was a strange, alien voice from far away. It had nothing to do with him. He barely understood the words.

He rose from his sitting position, up onto all six legs, his claws digging into the grassy soil. Down at the bottom of the hill, where the forest began, in there among the trees, there was food. This hilltop was a good place, his special place, where he slept and brought his kills to eat. No other beast came to the hilltop when he was on it. And when he left, only the scavengers dared trespass—the lizard-hawks with their ugly crooked beaks and the small, scampering, yellow-eyed jackals whose teeth could crack bones.

He trotted majestically down the hillside, three tons of wolfcat, tall at the shoulder as a young tree, lean with muscle and hunger, moving as swiftly and silently as a gray cloud—a gray cloud armed with dagger-long teeth and claws like scimitars.

He's definitely in contact.

Can he assume control?

Wait . . . give him time. Don't push too hard.

The forest was a darker green than the hillside's open grass. Overhead, up among the swaying, sighing branches, clouds scudded by on the wind, dark against the brightness of the sky. The forest was almost as dark as night, but the whispering breeze brought a symphony of odors from the deep delicious woods: flowers and grasses and mosses and—most important of all—the scents of animals, of food, of the swift-footed antelope that fought with antlers and sharp hooves, the tasty little tree climbers, the shaggy, bristling diggers that stayed in their holes during the daylight hours.

It was early morning and the distant sun was only a bright patch in the sky, low on the horizon, sending long shadows out ahead of him. He saw his own shadow, the hulking immense shadow of a young male wolfcat loping across the meadow grass. Later in the day, he knew, Altair would be too bright to look at directly.

Altair. The word seemed to belong in his mind, yet it felt odd, alien.

Into the forest he stalked, silent as a serpent, claws retracted now and every sense alert for food or danger. The older wolfcats—the fully-grown males who had many females and cubs—could laze during the day and let their females do the hunting for them. They defended their cubs and their hunting territory, and did little more. Young wolfcats had to hunt alone until they were strong enough to challenge an adult for one of his younger females.

He glided through the underbrush silently, his immense bulk slipping through the trees like a wraith. The stream is where the prey will be. He was downwind of the stream; already he could smell the antelope drinking there, but they could not catch his scent as he approached. Good. His empty stomach drove him forward.

You're not going to let him stay and . . .

I hadn't intended to, but he seems so well-linked with the beast, I'd hate to pull him back now.

But . . .

It's okay. If he's going to work with the animal he's got to allow it to eat.

Strange sounds, he thought. Buzzings, like insects flitting near. But these buzzings were inside his head.

With a shake of his massive mane, he advanced carefully, slowly now, through the underbrush that carpeted the forest floor. He could hear the gurgling of the stream, not far away. He flattened out in the brush, belly to the ground, and inched forward. Then froze. Six of the antlered grass-eaters were standing at the stream's edge, their sharp hooves in the cold racing water. Some of them would bend down to drink while their fellows stayed erect and alert, probing the forest nervously with large wary eyes and erect twitching ears.

Suppressing a growl, he bunched his muscles and got ready to spring. When the nearest one puts down its head to drink . . .

He leaped out of the brush, a gray streak of death aimed at the nearest antelope. His shattering roar froze them all for a split-second, but then they bolted off in all directions, bounding and springing through the underbrush. His intended prey jumped too, but straight ahead, into the middle of the stream. The water was shallow but swift, the footing uneven and slippery. The antelope stumbled. That was all the advantage that a wolfcat needed.

He touched the ground once with his six clawed paws, then leaped again and landed on the antelope's back. A slap of a forepaw broke the creature's neck while his mid-and hindpaws grasped the animal's meaty body firmly. They fell together with a splash.

He scrambled up and dragged his prey to the stream bank, using both forepaws and walking on his hind-and midlegs. The smell of blood, of meat, was overpowering. Raising his great black-muzzled face to the sky, he bellowed out a roar of triumph that shook the ground.

Stop it! Stop it! Get him back!

Yes, of course, you're right. No need to let him take part in the feasting. Terminate.

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