"Jesus," Keith said softly. "What are you doing here? This is like ground zero for deer."
The deer took three or four steps toward him, the syncopated patter of its hooves playing counterpoint to the pounding of Keith's heart. He stood up and waved his arms. "Go on. Get out of here!"
The deer tilted its head the other way.
"Look, I'm trying to save your ass," Keith said. "There's jerkoffs with guns all through the woods around here, and every one of them is looking for you."
That might change when they discovered what Keith had done to their vehicles, but he doubted if lack of transportation would keep a hunter from shooting a trophy buck.
Or a goddamned hippie tree-hugger. He had tucked his shoulder-length hair into a stocking cap so it wouldn't get into his eyes when he bent over to knife a tire, and he had foregone his usual jeans and tie-dye in favor of camouflage pants and a dark green jacket, but that wouldn't help him if he were caught in the parking lot with a knife in his hand. His Volkswagen Beetle wore the camo that time and traffic had given it: rust, dents patched with reddish-brown body putty, and gray mud from the two miles of dirt road between the highway and the lake, but that wouldn't help either. He might as well have been wearing neon and driving a cop car. Out here among the rednecks, a person like him stood out like a snowball in a coal mine.
It was a risk he was willing to take. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife had stubbornly refused to close this section of the Willamette National Forest to hunting despite the steady decline in the deer population over the last five years. They said hunting was still a necessary management tool for culling the herd, even in times of "temporary decline in numbers." That was pure bullshit, a sop to the gun nuts in the rural congressional districts, but after a decade spent fighting the federal government over land use issues, Keith was used to that kind of thing. If they wouldn't protect the wildlife, then it was up to people like him to do what they could on their own.
But a guy could only do so much. The deer needed at least a little survival instinct.
"Shoo!" he said, waving his arms at the buck. "Run away!"
The deer whistled again. It wasn't just the single-pitched exhalation that deer make when they're alarmed; this was a complex blend of tones like a bird song.
"Whoa," Keith said. "I didn't know you guys could do that."
The sharp crack of a rifle shot echoed off the ridge to the east. Keith flinched and nearly dropped his knife before he realized that the shot had been too far away to be someone shooting at him.
But if they weren't shooting at him, then they were shooting at a deer. "Shit!" he hissed, whirling around and jabbing the blade into the side of the Winnebago. It only went in an inch or so, not nearly enough to quench his anger, so he scratched the word "asshole!" in ragged letters in the off-white painted tin. There was another shot. That would be the coup de grace. He turned toward the deer in the parking lot and hissed, "Scat! Go! Hide!" He rushed it, brandishing the knife.
It stood its ground for a second. Not until he scooped up a fistful of gravel from the parking lot and flung it at the animal's auburn flank did it turn and prance away on its thin, graceful legs. It whistled again, and its antlers wiggled as if they were loose. No, Keith decided as he watched it move away, they didn't look loose. They looked jointed, like the legs of an insect.
"Holy shit," he whispered. This was some kind of serious mutant. He started after it, calling out, "Hey, wait a minute!" but it easily outdistanced him and disappeared into the forest.
He looked back at the dozen pickups, SUVs, and campers in the parking lot, all hunkered low on flat tires. He would love to go after the strange deer, but he couldn't afford to be caught here.
He walked back to his Volkswagen, started it up, and put it in gear. He thought he heard more shots over the noise of the engine, but he couldn't tell for sure. It didn't matter; he'd done all he could. He drove back to the highway, bouncing over the rutted road in first and second gear the whole way. When he reached the pavement he turned downhill, toward Oakridge and beyond it, Eugene. His heart rate slowed down now that he was on the highway, but he couldn't hide his manic grin. Score one for animal rights.
But his mind kept returning to the deer he'd seen. He didn't know every species of animal in the woods, but he knew there'd never been anything like that here before. Or anywhere else.
The hunter's name was Jimmy, and that was the kind of pickup he drove, a diesel club cab with a full-bed camper on back and a trailer for his all-terrain vehicle behind. He had parked it sideways in the gravel parking lot so he'd be able to spot deer at the edge of the woods from his bed in the morning. It took up about five spaces that way, but that was okay with him. The fewer people could park there, the less competition he'd have.
Once he'd set up camp, he'd offloaded his 4-wheeler and driven into the woods, steering one-handed while he drank his first beer of the day. He was savoring the idea of a whole week away from his wife and kids, anticipating a good roaring drunk every night, and telling himself that this would be the year he bagged himself a trophy buck.
When the five-point blacktail strolled out in front of him, he figured he was the luckiest guy on the mountain. He didn't even have to get off his ATV. He just stopped, unslung his .270 off his back, and took aim, bracing his left elbow on the gas tank. One quick shot through the heart and the deer dropped like a sack of rocks.
He felt a moment's disappointment at the realization that the hunt was over so soon, but he wasn't about to complain. He'd gone three years without even seeing a deer. The damn Californicators who came up to hunt in the Cascades were picking the forest clean.
But not quite. He'd finally got his buck, and a damned fine one, too. He slid off his ATV and walked over to it. The deer was still quivering. Probably just nerves, he figured, but when he knelt down beside its head to get a closer look at its rack, he got a nasty surprise. The deer whistled like a half a dozen tea kettles all boiling at once, jerked its head back, and rammed its antlers into his crotch and stomach.
"Son of a bitch!" he yelled, leaping back and firing a round directly into the side of its head. Blood and bone exploded out the backside, but he didn't care. Screw the trophy; that hurt.
Then he felt the trickle of warmth on the inside of his right leg and knew he was in trouble. He looked down, hoping for the first time in his life that he'd just pissed his pants, but the deep red blood gushing out through the hole in the faded blue denim told him the deer had hit a major artery.
Wincing at the pain, he immediately clapped his left hand over the hole and pushed, but he knew it was a futile gesture. He'd heard stories about guys who'd stabbed themselves in the femoral artery while they were gutting an animal, and they'd bled to death within minutes.
He looked over at his ATV. There was no way he could drive it back to camp. With his legs spread apart to straddle the gas tank, he'd never be able to stop the bleeding. Not that he was doing such a great job as it was. Hot red blood oozed around his fingers, dripping down his pantleg in a steady stream. He spent a half a minute trying to pinch the artery closed above the wound, but it was too deep under the muscle.
There was only one thing to do. He held his rifle into the air and fired three quick shots, then reloaded and fired three more. If anyone was nearby, they would know someone was in trouble.
He fumbled in his pocket with blood-slick fingers for more bullets, refilled the magazine, then lay back against the now-still deer and gripped his leg as tight as he could. Damn, that hurt.
He looked over at the antlers that had gored him, and was surprised to see them curling up like fingers. The joints were maybe three inches apart, except near the tips, which were only an inch or so long and forked. They clacked open and closed like crabs' claws.
He had to be hallucinating. Deer antlers didn't do that. He fired three more shots, then reloaded again. A few minutes later he fired three more. His vision started to swirl, and he heard a rushing sound in his ears like wind in the trees, so he squeezed off his last two rounds while he could still do it, then he laid his head against the deer's soft hide and waited for the pain to stop.
Keith read about the dead hunter in the Register-Guard the next morning. It made the front page, and there was another front-page story in the City/Region section about the strange mutant deer that they'd found next to the body. The Fish and Wildlife people said they'd never seen anything like it.
There wasn't a single mention of the green guerrilla action in the parking lot, but that was all right by Keith. He hadn't done it for the notoriety. As long as word spread among the hunters that they were liable to lose tires around Gold Lake, that was all he cared about.
But the new deer; that was something. The wildlife biologist said it was a sport, a one-of-a-kind mutation that was unlikely to show up again, but Keith knew better than that. He had seen one just like it in the parking lot at the same time the redneck was getting himself killed a mile up the trail.
He wasn't sure what to think about that. If the ecosystem had gotten so screwed up that deer were mutating, then things were much worse than he had thought. On the other hand, if this was a viable new species, it could be an incredible boon for the environmental movement. The Endangered Species Act didn't say anything about treating new species any different from old ones; once the word got out, there would have to be a study to find out what this one's habitat was and how it could be protected. That meant an immediate moritorium on logging, and it might even mean a ban on motorized vehicles in the area.
It took him half an hour to get through to the Sierra Club's local office, but when he did, the woman on the phone was overjoyed at the news. Her name was Pamela, and she turned out to be the chapter's vice-president. Any excuse for a logging ban was fine with her. Within an hour the two of them were on the road back to Gold Lake, cameras and recording gear piled into the back of her Datsun pickup.
When they got to the turnoff, they found a police barricade across the road. The cop refused to let them by, even when Pamela threatened to bring the wrath of the entire Sierra Club down on his department. Keith kept his mouth shut, nervously worrying that some little detail would give him away as the parking lot saboteur, but when Pamela started to get out of the car he reached across in front of her and held the door closed, saying, "Wait a minute. All we want to do is look for more mutated deer. If there's a bazillion cops and reporters and stuff at Gold Lake, there won't be any deer there anyway. They'll all be hiding out a ridge or two away."
The cop nodded eagerly. "He's right about that. There's Fish and Wildlife guys all over the mountain back there, and they haven't seen a squirrel, much less a deer." He leaned a little closer so he could talk straight to Keith and said, "If I was you, I'd try the Pengra Pass trail just on the other side of the highway. That's all wilderness area over there. No vehicles, and a lot fewer people. If I was a deer, that's where I'd be today."
"In your professional opinion," Pamela said sarcastically.
He lost his smile. "Lady, it may be hard for you to believe, but I'd be plumb happy if you found a new species of deer up here. That'd close down hunting for at least a couple of years, and the fewer idiots we get up here with guns, the easier that makes my job."
"Oh," she said. "All right, then, we'll try Pengra Pass." She put the pickup into reverse and jockeyed it around, then drove across the road to the trailhead. "It's funny," she said to Keith as they strapped on the cameras and tape recorders, "You get so used to guys in uniform being such total jerks, it's always a surprise when they turn out to be human."
"Kind of spoils a good stereotype, doesn't it?" He checked to make sure he'd put his water bottle and picnic lunch in his day pack, slung that over his shoulders, and started up the trail.
Pamela was short and wiry, but she was a good hiker. They put a couple miles behind them in the first hour, crossing the Union Pacific railroad tracks and heading deep into the wilderness area. Of course this was an Oregon wilderness area, reserved for non-commercial use after the old growth forest had been logged, but the replanted Douglas Fir was at least thirty feet tall already and there were even a few volunteer pines on the south-facing slopes. Rhododendron and blackberry choked the understory, but as long as Keith and Pamela stayed to the trail, it was easy going.
They followed the Pacific Crest trail over the pass, then stopped for lunch in a little clearing with a good view of the valley to the south. Pamela was a food bar and bottled juice person, Keith noted as he unpacked his orange, apple, and ziplock bag full of homemade gorp.
"Are those M&Ms?" she asked when he offered her some.
"Yep. M&Ms, cashews, and raisins. Best trail mix you can get."
"M&Ms?" she asked again, and she pulled her hand away from the bag as if they were some kind of controlled substance.
"Suit yourself," he said, taking another handful.
The air whispered softly through the treetops while they ate. Keith was self-consciously aware of the crunching sound the nuts made, and the apple after that. Pamela ate one granola bar and had a sip of juice, then scanned the forest with binoculars while she waited for him to finish.
He was just nibbling the last of his apple when he heard a multi-tone whistle from the trees off to their right. "That's it," he whispered. "That's the sound they make."
"You sure it's not a bird?"
"I'm sure." He whistled a few random notes in response, then remembered the recorder slung around his chest and turned it on.
The whistle sounded closer, and a minute later a deer stepped out into the clearing. Pamela snapped a picture of it with her still camera, then turned on her video camera and filmed it as it walked slowly toward them.
"Hey, you want an apple core?" Keith said, holding it out toward the deer.
"Don't feed wild animals!" Pamela hissed at him.
"It doesn't seem very wild," Keith said. The deer was being cautious, but it advanced steadily toward them, one step at a time, until it stood just a few feet away. Its eyes were wide and brown, its hair was reddish ochre, and its tail flicked at flies just like a normal deer's, but its antlers were in constant motion and it kept whistling with a melodic voice unlike any wild animal they had ever heard.
The video camera whirred as Pamela zoomed in. "Holy shit," she whispered, "that's not just a mutation. This is a totally different kind of animal."
That would certainly explain a few things, but Keith still wasn't convinced. "If it's a different kind of animal, why does it look so much like a deer?" he asked.
"Why do crocodiles look like alligators?" she replied. "Parallel evolution. Certain shapes fit certain biological niches."
"But where'd it come from?" he asked. "And how did it get here?"
"I don't know. Maybe it hitched a ride on a UFO or something."
"UFO?" Keith hadn't been thinking in those terms, but now that she had broached the subject, he had to admit it made about as much sense as anything else.
He looked at its antlers. When it stretched them out, they extended well past its nose, clearly capable of grasping things and holding them in front of its eyes and mouth. In fact, they looked like they would be just as good as hands at manipulating things. "Maybe it's the pilot of a UFO," he said. "Hey, do you understand English?"
It whistled a two-tone rising note.
"Parlez-vous Francais? Habla Espanol? Sprechen sie Deutsch?"
It made the same song again.
"Negative on the Western languages," Pamela said. "Vi gavaretye pa-Rooskie?" It didn't respond, and she laughed nervously. "Well, that's a relief."
The deer whistled again, then lowered its head and started eating one of the Oregon grape bushes near their feet. Pamela filmed it, and Keith tried again to talk to it, but it had apparently lost interest in them. After a few minutes it moved away, casually munching grass and bushes until they got up to follow it, whereupon it flicked its tail at them and darted away into the forest.
"That was too strange," Pamela said, lowering her camera.
"Look at that bush," Keith said. The Oregon grape had been chewed right down to the ground, branches and all.
Their film made the evening news that night, and Keith was busy for a few days giving interviews, but his time in the spotlight diminished a bit when the Fish and Wildlife department announced their findings.
Earth had been invaded.
There was no question that the deer were alien. The first autopsy confirmed it beyond a doubt. The similarities to normal deer persisted in organs like lungs and kidneys, but the heart and digestive system didn't look like anything Earthly, and it had extra organs that the biologists couldn't identify. They couldn't have all been spontaneous mutations, and besides, the antlers were fully innervated and supplied with musculature and a blood supply to match--the result of millennia of evolution, not a random sport.
Its brain wasn't divided into hemispheres like a mammal's, either, but its complexity rivaled the human brain, and observations in the wild left little doubt that the new deer were intelligent. Theirs seemed a different sort of intelligence than human. They communicated among themselves, and they showed a certain degree of curiosity about people, but they didn't seem interested in learning to talk with researchers, and despite their articulated antlers, they displayed no technical skills whatsoever. They used their grasping ability to hold branches while they stripped them of leaves, and occasionally one of the creatures would scratch another one's side, but that was about the extent of it.
Theories about their origin abounded. They had slipped through from an alternate dimension, or they were alien livestock that got away during an emergency UFO landing, or they were colonists who had paid for passage to Earth. Among people who believed the latter, arguments raged about whether they were willing immigrants, transported criminals, or stranded explorers, but there wasn't enough evidence to answer that question. Researchers watched them in action, but aside from their vocal communication with one another, they behaved more like deer than like anything else. That seemed to surprise all the scientists, but Keith saw no reason why intelligent creatures had to live in cities and drive cars. If these guys had evolved in the woods on their homeworld, why wouldn't they want to live there on Earth?
"They're like starlings," he told a reporter a few months later. "They aren't native here, but when they were introduced into a new environment, they thrived."
"How so?" the reporter asked. She had displayed a fair knowledge of ecology before the interview started; this was obviously a leading question, giving Keith the opportunity to elaborate.
"They're taking over the ecological niche that used to belong to deer," he said. "The deer population has been dropping for the last five years or so, probably from competition for food. And these new guys probably don't have the same natural enemies as deer. Cougars might get one now and then, but I'd be surprised if they came down with any of the normal deer diseases, and that's what really keeps a population in check."
"Do you think they'll expand all across America the way starlings have?" asked the reporter.
Keith shrugged. "Who knows? Deer are one of the few large-animal species that seem to thrive alongside humanity. If these guys really fill the same niche, then they might, too."
The reporter leaned forward. "Just how far do you mean that? If they fill the same niche, should people be allowed to hunt them like deer?"
"People shouldn't be allowed to hunt deer," Keith replied. "It's a barbaric custom, a holdover from an age that no longer exists."
He got hate mail for that, and even a death threat scribbled in red felt pen on the back of a gun catalog. He thought about reporting it to the FBI, but after his heartbeat returned to normal he realized he was more amused than afraid, so he framed it and put it on his wall.
He dropped out of the news before long anyway. The whole subject did. For an alien invasion, this one was pretty tame, and apart from the occasional scientific update, there was little to report.
Keith kept up on the subject as best he could. His off-the-cuff remark about cougars proved wrong: not even the biggest cats could take down an alien. The adults were too watchful for a cougar to get the drop on them, and too good with their horns for one to win a straightforward fight. Fawns were more vulnerable, but the parents would band together and charge anything that looked threatening, chasing it not just away from their offspring, but completely out of their territory.
And that territory expanded relentlessly. Biologists discovered that the alien deer bore two fawns a year, which reached maturity in time to bear fawns of their own by the following spring. Without natural enemies, they spread all the way up and down the Cascades from California well into Canada with no sign of slowing down. They ate practically anything, and as their numbers grew they ate practically everything. Woods that had once been choked with blackberry were now clear from the ground to the forest canopy.
At first, Keith was cautiously optimistic. Blackberry was an interloper itself, after all, brought westward by settlers who didn't know or didn't care what it would do to the local ecology when it got loose from their gardens. But the aliens also ate the rhododendrons, Oregon grape, currants, lupine, and every tender shoot of new growth they could reach on the aspens. By the third summer after their discovery, a hiker could see off the trail a hundred yards without spotting anything green on the ground, and the real deer were starving to death.
Forest Service biologists tried to talk to the aliens. Fish and Wildlife ecologists tried to talk to them. Astronomers from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence tried to talk to them, but nobody had any luck. The aliens weren't interested in talking back, at least not to humans, and without any referents to go on, nobody could crack their language simply from recordings.
Keith could have told them they were wasting their time. He'd had plenty of experience trying to talk to people with different ideas of how the forest ought to be used, and the first thing he'd learned about them was that nobody listened to words. Only actions spoke. And if somebody didn't act soon, the Willamette National Forest was going to look like the Sahara.
The Winnebago still had a rusty message scratched into its side: Asshole! Keith winced when he pulled his Volkswagen up next to it, but he parked the car anyway and got out. That was a long time ago. In many ways it was a lifetime ago.
The owner of the Winnebago stepped out, rifle in hand. He was a tall, overweight man with a John Deere cap on his head and a one-piece orange coverall everywhere else, and he sized up Keith through narrow little pig-like eyes. Keith had foregone the tie-dye this time, but he still wore his hair in a ponytail, and beneath his orange plastic vest his jacket was one of those yuppie gray polarfleece things. He didn't say a word, just tilted the driver's seat forward and reached into the back for the 30.06 he'd bought from his death-threat catalog.
He straightened back up, rifle in hand. "Need somebody to watch your back?" he asked.
The hunter thought about it for a moment, then nodded. "Might not be a bad idea. I hear these alien bastards can gang up on a guy."
"So I've heard."
The hunter smiled, revealing tobacco-stained teeth, then leaned sideways and spit on the gravel. "All right, then. Let's go get us some Venuson." He lifted his rifle in the air like a marine crossing a river.
Keith's heart was pounding a mile a minute. The gun felt more alien to him than the creatures overrunning the woods around him, but he held it over his head just like his newfound hunting buddy, and he managed to smile as he said, "Fuckin' A, Bubba. Earth first!"
Story Copyright © 2007 by Jerry Oltion. All rights reserved.