The Blue Ridge Foothold
 
John looked up into the night sky and smiled. He was midway through his annual camping trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the fall air was crisp, he was miles away from any other human beings; it really couldn't get any better than this. A belching growl snapped him out of his reverie. "Damn, spoke too soon." He didn't know what made a noise like that. It wasn't human and no animal he'd ever heard in his fifteen years of hiking the trails of North Carolina sounded anything like that. His right hand went to the shoulder rig hanging from his camp chair. He drew the fifty caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, its familiar weight comforting him. He stood slowly and moved away from the source of the noise. Just outside of the campfire's circle of light he saw a pair of yellow eyes a good five feet in the air. He pointed the pistol, aiming between and just below those eyes. "If this is a joke you've picked the wrong motherfucker to play with." He didn't think it was a joke. He'd hunted for years and felt like he could tell a fake call from a real animal sound. Just because he didn't know what it was didn't mean he wasn't sure it was real. The growl came again and those eyes receded. The thought of firing on an unknown target that wasn't threatening his life didn't occur to him. He didn't care what your average libtard thought. He wasn't a nut. He'd done his time in the Army and you didn't fire your weapon unless you were in imminent peril. Just because those eyes - horrible inhuman eyes - had disappeared and their owner wasn't threatening him didn't mean he'd put the gun away. He lowered the gun and stepped backwards towards his tent. After quick glances over his shoulders to make sure there were no more waiting eyes behind him, he stepped into the dome tent that was his home on the week long retreat. It held his cooler, a cot that kept him warm and off of the ground, and his backpack. He squatted beside the cot and put the revolver on it. From the pack he pulled a black box the size of his son's lunchbox. The hard sided case held a set of night vision goggles. They'd been expensive as hell, but he liked to hunt at night and they were worth every penny. He removed the goggles and powered them on. Satisfied they were in working order, he slid them onto his head, though not over his eyes. Not yet. The other thing that awaited him in his tent was the Winchester Model 70 Extreme Weather SS. Not as sexy as his AR15, the long rifle was dependable, accurate, and far more powerful. He’d had it for two years and the only modification he’d made was to add an ammunition carrier to the stock and a tactical light under the barrel. The whole thing was blacker than the ace of spades. Whatever it was out there, if it meant him harm, it would have to deal with a fully armed and operational warrior. He slung the rifle over one shoulder and took the revolver up again. He'd use it, if necessary, but with only six shots it would serve as back up. He duck walked up to the tent's door flap and looked outside. There didn't appear to be anyone or anything waiting for him. He led with the revolver and stood up once he was outside. To his left a branch broke somewhere out in the night. He swung in that direction and came close to shooting. "Calm down, soldier." Once he was sure nothing was coming, he walked to the chair, leaned the rifle against it, and retrieved his shoulder rig. If anyone was going to jump him, now would be the time. He put the rig on as quickly as possible and slid the revolver into it. No one challenged him. He picked up the Winchester and held it at port arms. He flipped on the tactical flashlight and used it to sweep the woods around his campsite. When he got to the section behind his tent he thought he saw someone. There was definitely movement, but it could have been almost anything. He walked in that direction. Once he was behind the tent and out of the campfire's circle of warmth he slid the night vision goggles down and turned off the flashlight. The scene became clear in an instant. Everything showed in shades of green, but he could see far better. Peripheral vision was a bit of a problem, but it was wider than the field of vision offered by the flashlight. The woods in this part of the Parkway were thick, but not so thick that he couldn't see for several yards in any direction. He'd walked more than fifty miles around the area over the last couple of days and knew them well enough. His slid his feet, making sure he didn't trip over a fallen branch or step into a hole. It meant that he was making more noise than he'd like to, but he wasn't going far. Whoever it was that was fucking with him probably had night vision too and would likely hear him no matter how stealthy he thought he was. He traveled for a hundred yards in this fashion, eventually reaching the base of the tree where he'd set up one of his four deer stands. He shouldered the rifle, again acutely aware of how vulnerable that made him. As a fresh night breeze sprang up and cut through his clothes, he realized that he was sweating like a motherfucker. Worst case scenario he'd spend the night in the stand. Once he pulled up the ladder he'd be safe. This tree didn't have any branches for the first twenty feet. He'd needed to use climbing spikes to get up to the lowest set of sturdy branches able to hold his stand. He grabbed the rungs and began to climb. He'd made it ten feet off of the forest floor when he heard the belching growl again from the direction of camp. That didn't bother him as much as the answering one behind him. He felt the ladder below him sway like someone had tugged hard on it. He knew better than to look down. Whoever it was could have already taken him if they had a weapon. He made it to the stand, thirty feet up, in less time than it usually took him. Once he was safely on its platform he looked down. There was nothing to see but the ground below. He hauled the ladder up and secured it. Adrenaline had his heart hammering and his breath coming in short gasps. He hated being afraid. Could be though that he had good reason in this case. He took the rifle from his back and laid it beside him. Only once he was sure that it was safe did he look around. The goggles from this height let him see as far back as his camp and beyond. Just as in daylight the trees blocked his vision, but it would be hard for anything to sneak up on him here. He focused on the campsite, what he could see of it. The leaves in many of these trees had fallen leaving his view less obscured. When he saw the first creature walking its perimeter he gasped. The thing was truly massive. It didn't look like a bear. It moved more like a gorilla, long arms nearly dragging the ground. It was covered in dark fur. He couldn't make out the color in the green hue of the goggles but he'd bet it was black or dark brown. When he'd been back near his fire any light colored fur would have reflected its light. Its head was ape like, the prominent jaw and practically noseless face reminded him of the gorillas in the Ape Planet movies. This thing had a pronounced forehead unlike anything he’d seen at the zoo. He was no expert, but he didn't know of any large primate that lived in the United States. He'd heard talk of Sasquatch being just that, but this looked nothing like the drawings or grainy camera footage he'd seen. He grabbed his rifle and looked through the scope. It was a bit of a clumsy arrangement. He had a night vision scope on order. He wished he'd had it now. Pressing the monocular lens of the NVG he wore did let him sight in on the ape. It wouldn't be clear enough for a good shot, but he wasn't ready to shoot. Not yet. Whatever these things were, they weren't a threat to him now. He tracked it for a few minutes. It walked the complete circuit of his camp ground five times, looking both towards and away from the fire. Was it looking for him? In his fascination, he'd nearly forgot the creature he heard at the base of the tree. He put the rifle across his lap and looked down. When he saw the face looking up at him he nearly screamed. Unlike the apes he'd seen, the face of this thing held a malevolent intelligence. The only thing that kept him from firing was the fact that it was over thirty feet away from him, still on the forest floor. "What do you want?" His words came out in a growling whisper. He tried to remember how well gorillas could climb trees. He double checked that he had a round chambered in the rifle and the safety was off. Good fit or no, he wouldn't need the scope to put a round through the thing's head at this range. He put the rifle to his shoulder, his finger outside of the trigger guard. He wouldn't shoot. Not yet. Then a thought occurred to him. There were two of these things. Would a gunshot bring more? It would bring this thing's friend, that was for sure. He had thirty rounds for the rifle magazine and six in his pistol. He could take out these two and a dozen more with rounds left over. There couldn't possibly be that many in these woods or they would have been spotted. He looked down at the ground again. The animal down there was gone. In the time he'd taken to look away it had moved like a ghost. He moved carefully in his perch, trying to get a good look around the base of the tree. He couldn't see it anywhere, but there were enough blind spots that he couldn't be sure. As far as he knew it was climbing up the face of the tree opposite him. "Now you're just being paranoid. The sun will be up soon enough. You've got nothing to fear from these things. Even if it gets up here you can take it out." He didn't know that he could. This platform wasn't made for moving around. It was barely large enough for him to curl up and lie down on. If the thing was fast at all it could be inside the effective range of his rifle before he could blink. At that thought he grabbed the safety strap and clipped it to his belt. If he did fall it should keep him from hitting the ground. Any other time and it would have been the first thing he did up here. This situation had him all messed up in the head. A loud snap jerked him out of the spiral of doubt and fear. The breaking branch was opposite him, not below him. He scanned the trees nearby and spotted movement. He shouldered his rifle and waited. If he saw the thing again he'd put a few holes in it. He never heard the creature that caught him from behind. One second he was taking aim and the next he was headed ass over teakettle towards the ground. When the safety line went taught and jerked him to a halt his rifle kept going. He swung back and forth for a second or two trying to get his bearings. His goggles were still firmly in place thanks to the chin strap. The angle was awkward, but he looked up and could see one of the ape things doing something to the line. "Son of a bitch. Leave that alone." His right hand went to the shoulder rig and he drew his pistol. No way would he hit anything hanging upside down and backwards, but the pistol was a scary bastard. He took a double handed grip and squeezed off a shot. The boom was deafening and a lick of flame shot out of the barrel. Without hearing protection his ears would be ringing for hours. He was pleased to see that the ape had moved. He thought he could hear it making some kind of noise, but he didn't know how much was the ape and how much was the shot’s effect on him. He tucked the pistol back in its holster and reached up. It took a couple of tries, resulting a swinging motion he didn't want to think about too much. His stomach was already rebelling and then there was the mental picture of the line beginning to part under the strain. Finally, he grabbed the rope and hauled himself up to a sitting position. The one up top was nowhere to be seen. It could be hunkered down out of site on the platform or it could have jumped to the next tree. He looked around and didn't see any of the apes in other trees or on the ground. The fifty caliber round had scared them off. That had to be it. He began climbing the short length and had his hands on the edge of the platform in just under thirty seconds. His breathing came in short harsh gasps from the exertion and he'd pulled a few muscles thanks to the sudden stop followed by the climb, but that was better than laying on the ground with his head split open. He hung there for just a couple of breaths waiting to see if he'd feel any motion. As he did, he examined the rope through his goggles. There didn't seem to be any cuts. He was grateful for that. With no one to challenge his hanging body, he pulled himself up and shimmied onto the platform. The ape was gone, or at least not on the stand with him. There was no blood, so he hadn't hit it. Hell, with this pistol at that range he could have blown the thing's head clean off. In that case there definitely would have been blood. He drew the pistol and scanned the area once again. Nothing. "Fuck it. I'm going downstairs." He turned to grab the ladder and it was gone. The creature must have unhooked it from its D-rings. "Fuck me." There was no getting down to ground level now. In daylight he might have a shot at making it down the trunk a few feet, but then it was nothing but trunk for the next twenty. There would be no handholds. A fall from that height was survivable, but he'd break at least one of his legs. Then he'd have to crawl to his tent and splint up the broken bones. After that it was only an eight mile hike up and down hills to get to his truck. "I am well and truly fucked." Then a thought chilled him to his soul. The things were smart enough to ambush him. That wasn't too odd. But they were also smart enough to remove his one avenue of escape. And they'd already proven they could leap from tree to tree with ease. He lay the side of the still warm barrel against his temple. "Jesus, Jesus. Think, John. You can get out of this." There was really nothing to do but wait. He hated it, but as a hunter patience was something he had to learn. He just didn't like it when the shoe was on the other foot. He didn't have the means to set any kind of trap. Anything he did lead to him being a dead man. Then inspiration struck. He could be a dead man. These things were curious. They didn't want him dead or else he would be by now. He had little doubt that he was still being watched. These things could see in the dark. The trick was to get one of them to get close again. Then he could take it prisoner. There was an awful lot of risk and assumption. He didn't have many other options though. He could wait it out and see if they'd just leave him, but then he'd have no proof that these things existed. He wanted that. Needed it really. He took the safety harness and turned it into a makeshift lasso by passing a loop through the karabiner. He left one end attached to a support strut. This thing would hold three hundred pounds easily. He put the loop to one side and sat down. The next part would suck more than a little. If they were curious meat eaters the scent of blood would probably draw one. Judging by their sharp teeth he didn’t think they were vegans. He reached to his zipper pull and flicked out the little knife blade hidden there. It wasn't sufficient to do much more than open a box, but the edge was sharp. He lay it against his palm and brought it down quickly. At first it didn't hurt. Then the stinging warmth radiated out. He gritted his teeth and squeezed, letting blood pool on the stand next to him. "You can't keep me here. I'll just kill myself." He shouted into the darkness. There was no way of knowing if they would understand English. At this point he wasn't ready to rule that out. If nothing else, the shout may serve to draw their attention. He lay on his left side, letting his right arm drape over the safety line lasso. Time began to slow to a trickle. He listened to the evening bird sounds. An owl hooted in the distance. He might have even drifted off. The loud thump behind him got his full attention. It was followed by a shuffling sound and a low rumble. The metal platform creaked a little under the weight. This one may have been a little bigger. The stand would have no trouble holding five or six hundred pounds, but the metal still popped as it approached. The snuffling reminded him of his old dog Maggie. The boxer snorted and grunted with the best of them. The thing behind him was no friendly old dog though. It was close enough for him to smell its awful breath and feel the heat on his cheek. Once he was sure of where it was, he whipped his whole body towards it, bringing him to his back. The loop of safety line was wide, since he didn't know exactly where it was. He lucked out, the line settling around the creature's broad shoulders. It took a couple of steps back at the sudden movement. This tightened the loop even more. John circled his arm and threw another loop around the creature. It started to struggle against the rope. There was still some slack in it and the thing was incredibly strong. His right hand went to the pistol and as he drew it, he brought the barrel across the monster's face. Blood flew from its heavy lips and it squealed in a way that rose the short hairs on the back of John's neck. He thumbed the hammer back and put the muzzle of the fifty caliber against the ape's forehead. With as much menace as he could summon, he growled, "I swear to God I will blow your head off." He didn't think for a second that it could understand him, but with dogs it was all about intonation. Hopefully it was the same with apes. "Relax, man. We are not here to kill you." The words that came from the things mouth were understandable, if a bit garbled due to the shape of its mouth and the teeth. John wanted to take a step back, but there wasn't room. His stomach lurched and a buzzing filled his ears. "You. You can talk?" The thing's near smile was horrid. If it was a smile. "Of course we can. Your language isn't as ancient as ours. It was easy enough to learn." John didn't lower the gun. You expect me to believe you? Your friend was going to drop me to the ground." He wasn't sure if this was the thing that was messing with his lifeline or not. It chuckled, more of a barking noise. "That was me. And I wasn't trying to drop you. I was trying to pull you up. If I wanted you dead you would be already. We could have waited until you were asleep." The barrel of his gun lowered. He'd still be able to blow the thing's leg off. "What do you want, then?" "We want to finally make contact with your species. It is becoming harder and harder to avoid it. We do not think you are ready, but we would rather control the how and where." "You chose me?" He didn't know whether or not to be honored. It shook its head. "You personally? No. There's nothing special about you. We decided that the next person who came into these woods alone would be chosen. We need your body alive for the procedure." It took a step forward. John didn't like the sound of that. He raised his gun again. "Procedure?" The thing grunted. It may have been a sigh. "If it will make your death less stressful, know that it will be painless and you will be serving the greater..." The gun went off and the ape's head disappeared in a pink mist. "Fuck that. Was that fucking painless? I hope not." They were talking about using him like some sort of puppet. He had a little regret at killing the thing before he knew more about its plan. He still had no way to get to the ground and this thing had friends. He needed to survive so he could tell people about what was coming. And he would need to have proof. It was at times like these - were there any times like these? - that he wished he'd carried one of those damn smart phones. He could have taken a video. The sound of movement in the trees came from behind him. He turned, putting his back to the trunk. Four more shots. He had four more shots. Then he might have to take the long fall. He could survive it. He'd have to. Somehow during all of this, his night vision goggles had stayed securely on his head and powered up. He didn't see any of the ape creatures in the trees, but they were fast and apparently great climbers. "Human." The voice came from somewhere nearby, but he couldn't get a bead on the exact location. "We can kill you from a distance. We have no desire to, but we will if pressed. It will hurt more and we will just have to take someone else. Your son perhaps?" How the fuck did they know about his family? Some kind of mind reading shit? "I'll kill you all before I let that happen." He took a closer look at the headless body. The ape was wearing some kind of belt. It blended in with the dark fur, but it was clearly high tech, made of some kind of synthetic material with buttons and switches. He reached down and undid the belt. Maybe it would do something to help his situation. He holstered his pistol and quickly put on the belt. A movement in the trees had him quick draw and fire. It missed the thing, but not by much. He felt a slight vibration and then a tingle around his waist. Was the belt going to kill him? He put his hand to the switch and suddenly he knew it was just the belt acclimating itself to his body. He also knew that this thing served as a communications and anti-gravity device. The apes could come near to flying with it. The communication was via some kind of telepathy, which was also how he knew its functions. "Time for me to move." He muttered to himself. He touched one of the buttons and jumped just a bit. It definitely took longer for him to touch down than it should. The thing worked. He took a three step start and jumped. His running start and inexperience carried him farther than he thought possible. He smacked into a few branches, but managed to grab a tree limb as he passed and pulled himself to its trunk. A series of flashing lights marked the tree where he had been. With his night vision he would see a half dozen holes in it. "You can't run from us, human. We can run you down easily." "A lot of talk." He worked his way down the tree's trunk, aided by the belt's anti-gravity. He loved it, but for all he knew they could shut it off at a moment's notice. When he touched down, he took the belt off and worked his way back into the undergrowth. His campsite and truck were both a good hike away. The ape creatures might be able to tell where he was through a combination of technology and natural senses. He wasn’t used to being the prey, but at least he had his wits, a knowledge of the area, and his pistol. Hopefully the combination of those three things gave him some kind of edge. Once he had gotten well off of any game trail, he stopped and listened. A hooting in the near distance couldn't be coming from anything other than those creatures. He pulled his pistol and made sure that it was ready to fire. He only had three shots and would need to make them count. The oppressive darkness felt like it was pressing him down into the dirt. He didn't want to sit still for too long. Slowly, he began scuttling backwards on his stomach. It meant he didn't move as quickly as he'd like, but he wasn't likely to attract any attention. He kept his pistol and eyes trained on what he could see of the woods. Movement high up and in front of him got his attention. Something big just moved from tree to tree up above him. He rolled to his back and pointed the pistol towards any potential targets. The view was broken up by the brush and leaves. He wouldn't shoot until he had a real target. You didn't pray and spray with this kind of gun. Patience was rewarded when an ape creature leaned out a little too far from his perch. He squeezed the trigger and after the muzzle flash cleared his vision he saw that he'd hit something. Its belt was likely keeping up in the air even after it was dead or injured. Probably the latter since it didn't make sense to save a dead pilot. He didn't wait around, rolling to his stomach and moving quickly to his right. There would be a fresh lot of apes in his current spot in no time. They might not be able to track him easily without his own belt, but they'd find him if he gave them so much as an inch. Once he'd gone sideways a few yards, he turned and began crawling straight. He didn't hear any challenges behind him, A whisper of movement ahead of him stopped him in his tracks. He flattened and swept the area with the barrel of his pistol. Two shots left. That would need to last him. It took an immense effort of will not to let of those rounds in rapid succession. A hand came from his left and lay across his own hands. The sheer size of it, let alone the speed and quiet with which its owner moved shocked him. A voice, in its own way not that different from that of his enemies, came from beside him. "I'm your friend. Don't do anything stupid." He glanced to his left. He'd seen creatures like this on television and in magazines since he was a boy. He'd always wanted to meet the Sasquatch, but always imagined that it would be in his crosshairs. He tried to speak but had no voice. "I know," the creature whispered. "You don't have anything to be scared of from me. I just want to live in peace, but these things won't let me. Won't let you either. Now that they've set their sights on Earth we both have a problem." He looked from the Sasquatch back over his shoulder. "You're like them." The creature snorted softly. "They're cousins. My people came here a hundred years ago to get away from them. My father knew it wouldn't last." Sasquatch stood and gestured for him to do the same. For a moment he considered shooting, but decided against it. This thing had gotten the drop on him. If it wanted him dead he'd be dead already. "John." "You can call me Patterson." They nodded to one another. "What do we do now?" Patterson rummaged around in its fur and came out with a small egg shaped device. "We kill them." John smiled. He liked the way Patterson thought. "Lead the way." "I think you'll need to do that." "They'll take me out." "They'll try to. Make yourself a target. I'll get them before they get you. Trust me. Or don't. If I'm telling the truth you'll live." He didn't want to run. He squared his shoulders and walked forward into the darkness. He hadn't gone three feet before her heard a quiet humming from over his shoulder. One of the ape creatures fell from the sky and crashed to the wooded floor. A series of hums, one of them raising the short hairs at the back of his neck, sounded out. More crashes came from further afield. He scanned as quickly as he could, looking for any available targets. There were none. "You did good." Patterson spoke quietly from over his shoulder. "I think I got them all. We'll go back to your camp and talk." The unusual pair made their way back. All the way John couldn't help but think Patterson had just saved his hide. The flying apes hadn't been that far from his trail. Was it possible that this whole thing was a trick? He tightened his grip on his pistol. The aliens had made a mess of his camp. "Damn it." "My cousins never were very neat and they're always thorough." The fire still gave off plenty of light. He turned and got his first good look at Patterson. Where the apes had been light colored this creature was the brown of oak bark. He was two feet taller even while hunched over. His arms were a good deal longer and the feet were every bit as big as he'd heard. "I. I just can't." "We've done a good job hiding. Some people see us, but your people are good at shaming them." He walked into the circle of light and sat down cross legged. "Sit down. We have to talk." John did most of the listening, hearing about how long these creatures had been visiting Earth and about how a small percentage of them decided to make this place a home once the rest of their race declared this planet off limits temporarily. Patterson's ancestors made a good life here and spread out all over the globe. "Now I guess your planet is enough of a threat or a resource for them to come back and take over." "Do we stand a chance?" He felt like a traitor for asking the question. But he'd seen the level of tech on display. If there were enough of these creatures and they all had those weapons humanity didn't. Patterson shrugged narrow shoulders. "You're good at violence. We're good at sneaking. Those that you saw tonight don't have the warrior's spirit that humans do, but they do have tools you don't. Maybe if we work together we all stand a better chance of living to see next year." Earlier he was going to be made into a tool to act as some sort of ambassador or Trojan horse for this thing's ancestors. No, not thing. Ugly as he was, Patterson was a person even if he wasn't human. Now there was a chance he'd have to do it for them. "I've got some friends who would be willing to talk to you. None of them are high up in the government, but it's a start." Patterson looked up. "Those you saw tonight may already have infiltrated your government. They aren't to be trusted." He nodded. "I'll arrange for some of my people to meet with some of yours. We meet back here in a week?" John's gaze went up too. "You're not afraid that they'll come back before then?" "Oh they will. This is just one force of many." Patterson looked back down. "We can fight them if you know what to look for. They don't have the numbers for an all out invasion. They can take over a human mind, like they were going to do with you. Get enough of the right people enslaved and they don't need an army. A few days won't make a big difference to their plans." He held out a massive hand. "Do we have a deal?" John thought. He didn't know how he'd be able to convince his friends that this was happening. The only thing he could leverage was their natural fear of just the scenario Patterson described. He'd have to be fuzzy on the details. If it would save the planet he'd do it. He clasped Patterson's hand. It swallowed his own. "Deal." Patterson stood. "You better get on out of here. My people will make sure you get back to your truck safe. See you in a week." John watched as the Sasquatch moved out of the light and back into the woods. He wasted no time breaking camp, putting out the fire, and heading back to his truck. The whole time his brain raced with how to lay out the scenario to his friends.
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