The Foxfire Document

by Dennis Humphrey

 

TAB A, APPENDIX 1, ANNEX B (INTELLIGENCE) TO OPORD 18-01 [OPERATION FOXFIRE]

 

Description: The following text is a transcript of “The Foxfire Document,” from which the current operation takes its name.  Analysis of the document and its possible links to the ongoing epidemic, as well as the epidemic’s potential development into a global pandemic, follow the transcript itself. This transcript was collected from a post on the website The Watcher’s Thread, a conspiracy blog that was taken down by a massive DNS attack moments after this text was retrieved. The origin of the DNS attack, and the whereabouts of the blogger/editor of The Watcher’s Thread, Asher Chase, remain unknown, as does the location of the original of “The Foxfire Document.” It is also unknown whether those responsible for the DNS attack know that this transcript was successfully extracted by coalition forces before the attack. Efforts to contain the spread of the document online, in order to prevent public panic, have proven as difficult as containing the spread of the actual contagion. Should the epidemic grow to global pandemic scale, we must anticipate that intermittent connectivity in world wide networks will complicate efforts to trace the ongoing proliferation of the document in localized nets, despite transfer of coalition networks to satellite-based platforms to avoid terrestrial power grid and network unreliability. However, if containment of the contagion fails, containment of the document may be a moot point.

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**Editor’s Note: I transcribed this text as accurately as I could from digital photographs of the pages, not from the original, which for reasons you shall see soon enough, I declined to handle or even to go near. Some of the original text is missing, where pages in the original were stuck together or where other deterioration of the manuscript made text illegible. The places where pages were stuck are indicated by an editor’s note, and places where a word or words on a viewable page were illegible are marked by ellipses in square brackets […]  

~ Asher Chase, Editor, The Watcher’s Thread

* * *

            My name is Newman Adams. I pieced this manuscript together from my own notes and from the journal I found in the cave. I apologize for the deteriorated condition of these pages, and for the luminescent dust that no doubt covers them. You shall see soon enough the import of these things, and I trust you will understand once you see what I have to reveal. These are the last words to go into this narrative, but to make it less confusing, I had to rearrange […] cannot put a date on this entry, as I no longer know what day, month, or even year it is. This introduction and my notes on the final page in this reconstructed document will be my last tasks before I seal these words in a canteen and set it adrift in the underground river in the hopes it may someday be found. If anyone is reading this, then at least this one hope of mine has been fulfilled. I’ll start with the first entry I wrote, soon after I fell into this place.

 

            272017SMAR03 20:17(CST) 27 MAR 03: I considered using military date-time group format for this log, but in case a civilian finds it, I will use more universally recognizable ways to denote time and date. I’m putting this down while I still can remember details. My mind is foggy, […] can’t trust anything to memory […] feels like my head is, I don’t know, overfull. Crowded. Maybe I did sustain a head injury after all, or maybe it’s just […] this hole. I’ve been trapped here for hours, but maybe I should start from the beginning.

            I was hiking yesterday, alone again, on an unofficial side trail off the Sacre Coeur Wilderness Area, deep in the Trinity Mountains of Western Arkansas, near the Oklahoma border. These old mountains represent a once much larger expanse of the world’s former surface, piled up tight now in ribbon candy folds of the earth’s crust when the South American plate punched the Gulf Coast of North America in the chin hundreds of thousands of millennia ago. I know this for the same reason—well, the main reason— I was hiking the trail […] student of this region that is like no other […] devoted years of my life to a course of study no university could provide: a mix of geography, geology, anthropology, folklore, and more. Within 70 miles of this spot lie the best quartz deposits in the world, hot springs with reputed healing powers, a diamond mine, […], and extensive cave networks. There are even legends about buried Confederate gold, hidden as rogue rebels fled into the Indian Territories to escape capture after the Civil War.  My girl, no she never was my girl, not really—God, why can’t I recall her name?—she would have laughed at these notions, called them silly dreams. Anyway, despite all these notable features of these mountains, I never would have conceived, much less believed what I found.

            It started with my strange conversation with Lester Coolidge, that old timer I found rocking on the sagging, warped front porch of the only remaining cabin in Scratch Hollow. The decrepit cabin’s structure did not look too far behind the other collapsed and decaying buildings of the nearly extinct 19th Century settlement, currently in the last stages of falling in on itself. The cabin had obviously never seen the likes of electricity or indoor plumbing. Old Lester himself was like a museum artifact, an old-west tintype photograph come to life. He even looked somehow faded, and he stared at me in that same stern, harsh way many subjects seemed to glare at the camera in those old frontier days. […] certainly intense and very explicit when I had asked him about this particular part of these mountains. It didn’t seem I was paying that close an attention to him at the time, distracted as I was by the cloud of mosquitoes he seemed not to notice at all […] judging from the image I cannot now banish from my mind, I must have seen more than I thought. I can still see his craggy face, rough as the mountains themselves, wrinkled with age and marred by some skin condition I could not quite place—waxy, scaly, weepy, and pale, lending a faint grey-green pallor to his skin tone […] wonder if some underlying liver condition or malaria were to blame, despite government claims it no longer exists in the US. The aforementioned plague of mosquitoes solidified that idea in my mind, though I wonder now if I only wish it were something as mundane as malaria.  For all the tens of thousands of people malaria kills each year, at least it has a name.

            “Well, Mr. Coolidge,” I said, cutting to the chase, “I was actually more interested in getting off the beaten path. I was on the ridge north east of the […] in the river, and I got a good look at some interesting rock formations off to the […] few miles, the next ridge over across the river, like a bunch of rock columns sticking right out of the top of the ridge.”

            As I spoke, the old man tensed, and his waxy complexion looked even more ashen. After a moment, he looked dead at me with the one rheumy, jaundiced eye that still worked, jabbing the stem of his corncob pipe in my direction. “If you don’t listen to another thing I say, young feller, you mark my words on this here.  Do not, under any circumstances, stray from the marked trail up by them rock columns up past […] If you hadn’t already told me you done seen ‘em up there, I wouldn’t tell you a damn thing about ‘em at all. Don’t go messing up there.”

            “Why?” I swatted vainly at the cloud of mosquitoes.

            He fixed me with that rheumy eye and worked his gums on the stem of the pipe—he had no teeth to do it. He stared at me that way long enough that a bead of sweat had time to trickle its slow way from his forehead, down to the tip of his lumpy grey-green nose. After hanging there a moment, the drop fell to the dank dirt. I thought for a second he might spit on the ground at my feet for questioning his original advice. At length he said, “You ever had you a real first rate nightmare, young feller?”

            “Well sure,” I said. “I guess I’ve had my share of scary dreams.”

            “Ever not wake up from one?” He nodded curtly to punctuate his sentence, dislodging another drop of sweat. He returned at that point to his rocking chair to signify that was all he had to say on that matter, and the subject was closed to further discussion.

            Well, I imagine you can just guess what I did after taking my awkward leave of the old man. The sun was already low in the sky as I trekked further […] of the last Forest Service road than any officially-marked trails go, into the vast wilds of the steepest parts of these old mountains. The trail I followed was older than the Forest Service, far older. An untrained eye might have judged it to be a game trail, and so it was since the deer of those woods almost certainly used it to walk up and down the ridge. However, the old marker trees I followed suggested more than deer once used the trail in some all but forgotten past. Ancient trees that had been bent over in telling ways when they were saplings still point the way for those who know what to look for.

            After following the marker trees for over […] hours through difficult terrain, I entered an area featuring jutting columns of rock along the ridge top, the ones I had seen from a distance before. A near-by marker tree indicated the trail angled downslope a bit to skirt the rocky outcrop. I was just about to follow the indicated route when something near the rock columns caught my eye: a soft green glow, almost invisible against the bright red light of the setting sun. I rubbed my eyes, but the hint of green light remained. It drifted, as if on a breeze, though there was none, drifted toward a gap between two rock columns, and it disappeared between them. When I investigated the place where it had gone out of sight, I noticed something else: a petroglyph, just beside the gap between two of the rock columns. I stopped, and I rubbed at the lichen encrusting the rock. The image was clearer after the scrubbing, but not much, being worn almost completely away by time. Closer inspection of the stone column on the other side of the gap revealed an identical petroglyph, also nearly completely obscured by lichen and the erosion of ages. The design, as much as I could make it out, was an upside down stick figure man. Above each carving of the upside down man was what looked like a horizontal oval with a circle inside like […] or primitive eye glyph, I suspected. I was pretty sure I knew what that would mean, and it sure makes sense now. The place, whatever lay beyond the gap in the rocks, seemed to have been taboo to whomever carved that glyph. The gap did not go far between the rocks before it turned, blocking further view of where it might lead. As I peered into the gap, however, I thought I could just discern the faint green glow again, just around the bend in the gap. I thought I must be tired, but it did arouse my interest even more.

            I have never been a particularly superstitious man, a fact that often unnerved the superstitious interpreters we worked with out of FOB Salerno, […] supposedly vetted locals who steadfastly refused to go near the watchtowers beside the old cemetery or near certain caves in the rugged terrain around Tora Bora—which translates from the Pashto language as “black cave.” Part of me still wonders if those translators were gaslighting us to erode unit morale with feigned jumpiness and with hints and stories of whispered voices in the dark, Russian or Farsi or even extinct forms of Dardú or completely unknown languages in those desolate, rocky places. Some of our guys got nervous as cats, but I never felt the first twinge of spookiness. I still think that fact bothered those so-called interpreters, made them treat me with suspicion, whether because they knew I was onto their tricks or because they genuinely wondered how I could walk in supposedly cursed places with perfect ease, I guess I will never know.

            Anyway, there on that unnamed ridge in the Trinity Mountains of Western Arkansas, I was reading an engraved message from someone so far back in time that the rock carvings were barely visible now. My curiosity was insatiable. I was not completely insensitive to the fact that this message was also a dire warning. In fact, it aroused a nagging foreboding in me that seemed to creep from a place so far back into primal instinct that I could not even begin to wonder what about it made me uneasy, like something half remembered from a dream that seems important but defies attempts to recall, even vaguely, why. Still, I asked myself, what could possibly have frightened those ancient people that could still be a danger to me now? Despite hereditary feelings of foreboding, my curiosity and reason won out. I stepped into the gap and proceeded onward.

            Daylight was beginning to fail, so I hurried along the narrow path, twisting right, left, and back to the right. I emerged into an open area, roughly oval, about forty, maybe fifty yards straight across and half again as wide, surrounded by jutting rocks on all sides. The narrow gap where I stood seemed to be the only path into the area. At the far side of this open area stood a single tree, an ancient-looking cedar. Its gnarled trunk bulged like the torso of a tortured soul in places under its shaggy bark. Other places on the twisted bole were denuded of bark to expose smoother, pale pinkish, weathered wood beneath. Its roots reached down around the fractured boulder beneath it like elongated fingers clutching the rock in a claw-like fist. The ground of the entire open area was covered in a confusion of vines of a species I could not at first identify, but that […] not expect to find it naturally occurring in such abundance in such a high, rocky place. But then the glossy, dark green leaves, in clusters of threes, and the waxy white berries gave it away. It was poison ivy. It must have been transplanted there by someone. There was no other explanation, and it must have cost that someone considerable misery to cultivate it there.

            That was not even the most interesting thing about the clearing either.  Just past the center of the clearing in the gathering dusk I saw what I first took to be a swarm of lighting bugs, but as I looked closer, it was not a collection of tiny blinking lights on a swarm of insects. It was a single, pulsating glow, clearer now than the faint glow I’d seen before. Though I had not ever seen it before with my own eyes, […] must be what the folk tales called “foxfire.” I edged toward it, my instincts screaming at my foolish reason, flooding my body with adrenalin and the desire to flee, but my curiosity urged me forward as my rational mind insisted this was, after all, a natural phenomenon, nothing more. Uneven footing on the springy mat of vines complicated my progress as I tried to avoid touching it with my bare skin, and as I moved forward, the glow seemed to move ahead of me, directly toward the tree. It paused its retreat at the base of the tree, and I know it sounds ridiculous, but it was like it was waiting for me […] seemed almost close enough to reach out and determine if it had tangible substance, I felt the vines beneath me give way, and I felt a momentary sense of weightlessness as I plunged downward.

            How far I fell, I could not immediately determine. Though it seemed I fell a long way, I know in such instances our sense of time can be wildly inaccurate. My next sensation was of impact, though to my relief, I seemed to have fallen on something soft and spongy, as though someone had placed a stack of mattresses there for the very purpose of cushioning my fall. A cloud of what I assumed to be dust billowed up from beneath me as I landed. I choked and sputtered for a moment as I took a deep breath after having the wind knocked out of me. There was an odd peppery, earthy smell. I don’t know how much of the dust I sucked in initially, but it must have been a snoot full.  The peppery aspect triggered a sneezing fit that took a while to run its course. In the windup for each sneeze, I inhaled even more of the stuff […] like I was in the CS gas chamber at boot camp. By the time I got my sneezing and breathing somewhat under control, I felt winded and light-headed, like I had hyperventilated. As I lay on my back looking up, wondering how badly hurt I was, I saw the hole through which I fell, […] deep blue patch of twilight sky beyond my reach. Then, to my astonishment, the vines closed slowly over that gap, and the patch of sky was gone. My rational mind, which I must admit was a bit at sea, fought once more to suppress a panicked notion that the vines had done this with volition, as if they possessed the ability and will to move and the malice to seal me into the abyss into which I had fallen. A fleeting image of the Afghan interpreters snickered in my mind […] stained, crooked teeth bared, as though even the memory of them might find satisfaction that my cocky refusal to give in to superstition had finally caught up with me. I shook my head to cast the image out, and I told myself that the springy vines, pushed aside by my weight, were just rebounding back to their previous position. That was all. Still, the slinking suspicion that some malevolence was working against me was hard to shake—is still hard to shake—as I must admit it continues to nag at me now.

            I stared up at the place where the hole had closed […] struggled to convince myself it was all perfectly explainable, I gradually became aware that despite the fact that I was underground, I was not entirely in the dark. A pale green glow bathed the interior of what appeared to be a cave. This new realization did nothing to aid my attempts to dispel my unease, but I again reminded myself there was certainly a scientific explanation.  I was still lying on my back, taking it slow to try to determine if I were injured before moving too much. I could see around me though what appeared to be a great growth of some kind of bio-luminous fungus covering the walls and floor of the cave, which accounted for the softness of the landing and the green glow. An overall background glow radiated from the whole mass of the fungus, but there were brighter points here and there as well. As part of my survival training, I had what I thought was a thorough understanding of fungi. In survival situations, they can be a live-saving food source or a quick death depending on one’s knowledge of them. I was aware that there were species that exhibit bioluminescence, had seen them before, in fact, in caves and wildernesses in […] but I had not known they were indigenous to these particular mountains. I was just about to investigate the fungus further, when I saw something move […]

            […] tried to sit up, and it was then the thing came at me. It was as though a misshapen clump of the fungus on the cave floor had sprung to life and charged at me. It approached me from my left in a crouch, on two bent, lumpy hind legs. Its forelimbs ended in two bulky paws that reached for me. It seemed clear that the thing was intent on using those paws to grab me. Instinctively, my army hand-to-hand combat training kicked in […] rolled to my left toward the thing and grabbed it first. When I had a firm grip on the creature’s forelimb, I rolled right again to try to pull the creature off balance. As I rolled right, I put my left foot in its midsection to push it up off the ground and continue rolling it to the right. As it flipped over in mid air, I let it go and it landed square on its back. I continued my roll up onto my right knee, and as luck would have it, my hand came down on a jagged, fist-sized rock I suppose was dislodged when I fell into the hole. I heaved the rock at the thing before it could right itself. It struck the beast with a soft thud, accompanied by a muffled crunch, like the breaking of a dry stick wrapped in a blanket […] gave a low yelp and a whimper, as it struggled to get up. The thing turned to see if I were going to continue my attack, but my first long look at the thing stopped me, though the dust stirred by my fall into the cave had yet to completely dissipate and partially blocked my view. The creature crouched on its hind legs, one forelimb on the ground, the other cradled against its upper torso where the rock had struck it. Its entire body seemed to be covered in the same spongy fungus that covered the interior of the cave, or maybe it was made of the stuff. It looked at me with wide milky eyes, wheezing as it breathed, a dribble of something frothy and dark at the corner of its mouth. It turned and loped away, using a combination of its hind legs and one of its forelimbs, as some primates do. It disappeared into a side tunnel, out of the green glow of the fungus.

            I retrieved the rock I had thrown, in case I might need it again, and I considered pursuing the thing, but on second thought, I feared it might lead me into some trap if I chased headlong after it. I began to get myself settled down so I could think. I seemed uninjured, aside from some likely bruising, from either the fall or the combat with the fungus creature…

 

            [Here two pages of the original manuscript were stuck together. The bearer of the original document remains unwilling to risk parting them until obtaining expert advice~ Asher Chase]

 

…with me is a small backpack with limited supplies, as I had been traveling light on a small side trip from my camp near Shade Lake. It was just supposed to be a short day hike. Here’s a complete inventory of what I have with me, besides the clothes on my back:

1 small flashlight, with no spare batteries

1 qt. bottle of water

5 energy bars, 2.5 oz. each (250 calories each)

1 lightweight sleeping bag

1 pocket knife, with locking blade and boot clip

1 key ring with six keys and a bottle opener attached

1 wristwatch, with calendar

1 set of dog tags

1 wallet, practically empty

1 cell phone, already dead

            My most urgent needs are water and food if I spend very long in here. I think it unlikely anyone will come looking for me since no one but a crazy old hillbilly who is the last remaining resident of a long forgotten ghost town could possibly even guess where I am, and even he specifically told me to stay away from here. I will have to find a way out myself. That may take time, and that means I will need to find more water and food. Soon.

            The height of the ceiling of the glowing cave chamber is hard to estimate, but looks to be at least thirty feet above me, far too high for me to hope to reach the hole I’d fallen through, unless I can find some means in the cave somewhere, like a rope or enough rock to pile up to reach the ceiling. If it had not been for the soft mat of fungus, my story would likely have ended at the bottom of my fall. After a closer look at the spot just under the hole I can see I landed on a large, round outgrowth from the general mat of fungus, which is now quite smashed from my impact on it. Despite its current condition, the outgrowth resembles a puffball fungus, affectionately known in these parts as “the Devil’s snuff box.” It is a type of fungus that expels and distributes a cloud of spores when the “puffball” is kicked or stepped on, only until now the largest specimen I had ever seen before was maybe six inches in diameter and this one is more like six feet. It must have been the source of the dust cloud when I landed, and that wasn’t dust, but spores. My throat still burns a little from the initial contact, and I wonder how much of the spore cloud I have inhaled. At any rate, there is little I can do about it just now  […]

 

            […] continue to assess my surroundings as well as I can. It does make me wonder. Is it just coincidence that this puffball formed right under the hole in the cave ceiling and nowhere else in this chamber? Had other creatures besides me fallen into this hole, and the opportunistic fungus had its spore-spreading feature positioned to take advantage of such falls? I can scarcely believe much more strategy than that, such as whether there was some reason the fungus might want—if it could have the capacity or the reason to want—such a hapless creature to survive the fall as well. I can’t help thinking about a paper I wrote once in school, about a wild theory put forward by some fungus scientist, (mycologist?). He called it the “stoner monkey” theory or some such thing. I can’t quite recall. Like I said, my mind is a little fuzzy right now. Anyway, he theorized that the rapid evolution of the human brain from homo erectus to homo sapiens was due to some psychedelic mushrooms they ate that reorganized their brains the way fungal colonies will organize themselves to adapt most efficiently to a particular environment. I got an F on that paper from a professor with not much nice to say […] “pseudoscientist,” spouting some unprofessional rantings about “half-baked wives’ tales” from someone who had “clearly sampled too many psychedelic ‘shrooms himself.” I don’t know whether that mushroom scientist had fungus on the brain or not, but I really didn’t see why I had to get an F (an F!) because of it. I put a lot into that paper. Scientists can be so pissy when people disagree with them. My protest to the administration was likewise met with such disdain that I was asked not to come back. Ever. But I digress. I need to get back to practical matters, not theoretical musings.

            This chamber where I fell in is about seventy feet across at its widest point, and about a hundred feet long, and somewhat pear-shaped. In the middle of the wide end of the pear shape, there is a heightened mound, about six feet high and ten feet across. I cannot tell whether it is a thicker growth of the fungus or if the fungus has simply grown over something that rises above the cavern floor. I can also see that the brighter points of the glowing are produced by mushroom-like caps that rise from the mat of fungus on short stalks, around four to six inches in length. These mushrooms glow brighter than the rest of the fungus, possibly because they are denser, firmer, likely to give them the rigidity required to rise above the mat. These caps, I surmise, might be related to the species’ means of reproduction, for scattering spores, as the puffbox growth almost certainly was, and I wonder whether they might be edible, as many mushrooms are. I also wonder how I might test such a hypothesis, but I guess that is something I can worry about…

 

            [Here two more pages were stuck~ Asher Chase]

 

            …explored, I’ve kept a close eye on the tunnel where the fungus creature disappeared. I have seen several other tunnels that lead off into the dark, and several niches that go a short distance past the edge of the glowing carpet of fungus and stop. It was in one of these niches that I found the old ruck sack.

            It looks like army issue, but from a decade or two back. There is an embroidered name tape sewn on the flap. EVANS in block letters, faded. I’ve looked inside the pack and found nothing but […] rags, assorted animal bones, and a leather bound notebook. I opened it to find it was a journal. In fact, it is the same journal whose remaining useable pages I am writing upon now. Some of the pages are stuck together, owing, I presume, to the prolific fungus in the cave, and its accompanying dampness. I think some stuck pages could be teased apart with some delicate effort. Others are so firmly stuck that I doubt they could be separated without obliterating whatever writing is on them. The green light of the fungus is just bright enough I can make out the writing. My sole means of artificial light is a small flashlight that operates off of AA batteries. It got wet yesterday before I fell into the cave, and I do not entirely trust it to last long under constant use. In fact, I have been so long in this environment that the flashlight is too bright anyway, as it pains my eyes. Whether this is due to my eyes adjusting to the dim light of the cave or due to irritation from the spores that have gotten in my eyes, I cannot tell. Maybe it is both. At any rate, as I just now turned on the flashlight, I noticed something else. As the garish light shot out in a bright but constricted beam, it cast the shadow of the book in my hands upon the cave wall. This made me realize something I had not noticed before. In the diffuse, pale green light that came from the fungus all around, there were no shadows—could be no shadows—as there was no place not illuminated by the same glow no matter where I stood in this chamber. It made me distrust the flashlight yet again. No only could I not depend on the batteries to last; I could not see more than one side of anything it “illuminated,” the rest being obscured in shadow. I shined the light on my hand and looked at the shadow it cast on the far wall of the cave. The shadow hand was distorted, dark. I turned off the flashlight and tossed it aside. I doubt I will ever take it up again. I cannot trust it.

            After the experimentation with the flashlight, I was obliged to wait some minutes before my eyes adjusted enough to return to my perusal of the journal in the green glow of the fungus. When I could see well enough again, I flipped through pages describing hikes […] trails throughout the southeast. I looked closer when I got to the entries for the Trinity Mountains. They were dated in June, but with no year, and since it is now March, I know it has been at least nine months since the entries were written, though I suspect from the condition of the book and the ruck sack, that it has probably been years. One entry in particular caught my attention. Some parts are illegible, marked in my transcription by ellipses in brackets as my English teacher once taught me to do:

 

20 JUN: After trying for two days to find the ruins of the ghost town Scratch Hollow (or “Holler,” as they pronounce it around here […] did finally find the old cemetery […] grave of the former settlement’s founder […] Jasper Coolidge […] newest grave I could find in the old cemetery […] dated 1915. Near as I could tell, there hadn’t been a living soul […] in decades, save the one old man […] claimed to be descended from […] don’t know how the old man has subsisted out here […] told me to stay away from a rocky part of the ridge above the Sacre Coeur River, some miles up from the sandy ford, said […] Of course you know I took it as a challenge…

 

            Reading Evans’ account, I felt—I feel—a twinge of something like déjà vu. It sounds like the same old man I spoke to, giving an almost identical warning, and having the same result on the listener. The image of that drop of sweat creeping down Lester’s misshapen, discolored nose intruded on my mind again, and suddenly as I write this, I just thought of something I don’t know why I hadn’t thought before. It’s March now. The temperature when I was talking to Old Man Coolidge couldn’t have been much above sixty degrees, tops. Why on earth was the old man sweating? I don’t quite know what to think about that. Anyway, whoever this Evans fellow is, I feel a sudden kinship, and I wonder where he is, how long ago he was here. I wonder if he fell prey to the fungus creature as I nearly did, as I may yet do. I know the thing is still in here with me, and now that I think of it, I wonder if there might even be more than one of them. From somewhere in the cave, I can hear the liquid echo of water dripping into water. Maybe at least that might mean access to a water source while I search for a way out. My main worry with such exploration is that I might, once away from the glow of the fungus, lose my way in the caves in the dark or step into an unseen chasm, but […] something I will have to figure out if I am ever to get out of this fix. I have had to take frequent rest breaks during my exploration in the cave. I’m not sure if it is due to low oxygen content in the air, a possibility in this confined space, some contagion from this damnable fungus, or just the prolonged, intense stress of the situation. During breaks, I find my itching eyes gravitating toward the hole in the ceiling. It is maddening to see the way out and not be able to reach it. I have got to get out of this place. As I rest, I’m going to search the journal for more information before trying any exploration. Maybe Evans already wrote down in this journal some of the answers I need.

 

            23:16(CST) 27 MAR 03. I searched in vain for an entry in the journal that would give the year, but going backward through the entries, I did note in the February entries that it was a leap year when Evans had last written in it, because there is an entry for 29 FEB. It is now 2003, one year shy of a leap year, which means the last entry is at least three years old, or seven, or eleven, or fifteen. I have no way of telling, but the ruck sack does look like one I was issued when I first enlisted in the late 1980s, so I guess the entry can’t go much farther back in time. I did find some other entries that shed light on my situation. Such as this one:

 

21 JUN: Well, first day of summer, and it’s a memorable one. As anyone who knows me could have guessed, I did exactly what the old man said not to do […] rocky part of the trail he had described, I found something […] images carved in the stones were pretty standard stuff: an upside down man likely stood for a dead […] oval with a circle inside could be an eye, which could be an evil eye or a watchful one, a curse or a ward […] took a page from the back of the journal to take a rubbing…

 

            I flipped to the back and found […] tucked in the back cover, the folded pages Evans had ripped out to make the rubbings. They are the same as the petroglyphs I saw—upside down stick-figure man, and a crude eye glyph, a horizontal oval with a circle in the middle. I had not thought to do such a thing when I found those petroglyphs. It makes me wonder about Evans. Maybe a military background and an eye for detail like that enabled Evans to find a way out. If so, perhaps a clue lies somewhere in the stuck pages of the journal. During my first look through the journal, I already glanced through all the pages that are not stuck, so I began trying to separate some of the pages that were stuck together. After one attempt to just pull them open like yanking off a bandage, I discovered that would only obliterate the contents of both pages. I hope I have not lost anything useful. I thought maybe if I probed between the pages with something thin, I could ease them apart by degrees. I took out my pocket knife and succeeded in getting some of them apart without rendering the pages unreadable. However, some are so uniformly stuck that it would take some serious expertise to get them to part. Luckily, one of the pages where I succeeded turns out to be a hand-drawn map, which I am looking at now as I write. In the center is a shape I recognize as a reasonable rendering of this cave chamber with the glowing fungus, where I fell in. Seeing that, I know immediately what I have—a map of the entire cave complex. I can see passages to other chambers, including one with undulating lines that I hope indicate the location of water. There is also another location […] somehow important to Evans, though I am at a loss to decipher his symbology. I’ve decided to explore the caves, using the map to avoid getting lost, checking first on the water source, and next exploring the other location of apparent significance…

 

                        [Here two more pages were stuck~Asher Chase]

 

            …am still leery of venturing far down the dark side passages away from the glowing fungus without a reliable light source, but I need to get to water and to find a way out. I’m going to go into the main fungus chamber and make a closer observation of the fungus. One of the animal bones I found in the ruck sack looks like a rib bone from what I guess to be a deer or possibly a black bear, based on its size. It is slender and long enough to act as a passable tool for probing the fungus. I am feeling exceedingly sleepy, and although I’ve had an exhausting day, it’s rather early for me to feel this tired. It’s not even quite midnight. I need to stay active to remain alert in case the creature returns. Time to dig in the fungus.  I want to go home.

 

            02:14(CST) 28 MAR 03: I have made some interesting discoveries in the fungus. Digging in it intensified the earthy, peppery smell that has been faintly present ever since I fell in. The fungal growth consists of a spongy layer at least a foot thick over most of the chamber. I also discovered that this is true of the mound in the wide end of the chamber, so it isn’t a thicker growth of fungus there. There is something under the fungus. I dug the rib bone into the matted layer, and whatever was underneath seemed solid, but not quite as solid as rock. I reamed out a hole large enough for my hand to reach in.The glowing green fungus burned a little on my skin as I reached into it, but I probed further and felt something underneath that seemed squared. I used both hands to pull back the fungus mat, and I could see enough to tell what it was. It was a wooden box. There must be a whole stack of them under the fungus, but I think not nearly enough to stack up to reach the hole I fell in. The top of the box was loose, as though already pried open by someone, maybe Evans, so I reached inside to feel something cool to the touch and hard. My hand closed around something about the size of a candy bar, but much heavier. I pulled it out where I could see it. It was a rectangular metallic bar, a heavy one, stamped with the initials C.S.A. In the green light, I can’t be certain of the color, but it sure looks like gold. I have to laugh. A fortune in gold, but what use is it to me now? At least one. It has considerable heft to it, and it fits nicely in my hand. It will make a better weapon than the rock I’ve been carrying around in case that creature or more like it were to show up. The bar also fits in my pocket, so I can carry it and leave my hands free. Anyway, after a little more digging, I discovered that the bar was only one of the forms of the apparent gold in the boxes. There are also some smaller rectangular ingots, about as long as my thumb, and there are coins as well bearing the stamp of…

 

                        [Here two more pages were stuck~Asher Chase]

 

…another development that has me a bit worried. When I took a break from digging to wipe my brow, I noticed that the burning sensation I felt earlier while digging in the fungus had become a persistent itchiness, which is still itching now. It seems some part of the glowing fungus has stained my hands with spores or sap or something. I’ve tried to rub it off, but the faintly glowing residue seems to have soaked into the skin. I took out my water bottle to see if I could wash it off, careful to use as little of my limited water supply as I could to test whether I could rinse the stuff away, but it had no apparent effect. I still have to locate the water source on Evans’ map. Another thing I noticed while digging is that chunks of the fungus that have been dislodged from the mat continue to glow, and the mushroom-like caps do as well, only brighter, glowing about as bright as an army issue chem stick. I’m going to take a couple of those mushrooms and head toward the side passage the map says leads to the water. I have the gold bar in my pocket in case I need it to defend myself. Here I go.

 

            04:12(CST) 28MAR03: The map has proven accurate at least as far as the water is concerned. I brought the journal along on this exploration in case I needed to record important details of my findings. The water is two hundred or so meters down […] sloping passage from the fungus chamber, and not all of it is easy going. In some places, I was obliged to crawl, and there were numerous side passages in which I may have become hopelessly lost without the map. Someone, I can only assume Evans, also has placed a line of stones along the route to the water, likely to ease navigation without needing the map to avoid wrong turns. Some of the side passages are nothing short of death traps, with fissures that drop away into the dark. I dropped a stone the size of my fist down one of these […] sound of it crashing below in the dark […] much farther than I think I could survive if I fell into it.

            The size of the water chamber is hard to estimate since the ceiling drops low over the water about ten yards from where the water laps at the narrow ledge just at the end of the passage that leads to that chamber. The water also seems to be moving slowly from left to right as I stand on the narrow ledge. Where the water flows out of the chamber to the right, the ceiling drops right down to the water’s surface, so the only way to follow its course would be to swim underwater, a risky proposition without knowing when the next air pocket might be. The water is clear enough that I can see small white things darting about in it, likely albino cave fish or crustaceans. Perhaps those could be a food source if I can devise a way to catch them. At least my water shortage is over. In this greater volume of water, I tried once more to wash away the itching, glowing fungus residue […] refused to come off, even when I scrubbed with a handful of sand from the edge of the water. The glowing substance seems not on the surface of the skin, but saturated into it. The cool water does feel soothing on it, though. Of course I drank my fill, as all my activities left me parched, and I had until now faced the prospect of having to ration what little water I had. I am also eating one of the energy bars, as fatigue has begun to set in. It is late. I have been awake for nearly 24 hours now, with little rest. I would find a spot to lie down, but I don’t want to let my guard down with that creature still in here somewhere. I know I will have to rest eventually. Maybe if I go to the other place marked on Evans’ map, I will find more answers. First, I will sit for just a few moments. God, I am tired.

 

            18:45(CST) 28 MAR 03: I can hardly believe the events of the last several hours, day, whatever, which is saying something given what I have already seen since falling into this cave. If my wrist watch did not have a calendar, I would not have any idea what day it is by now. As I write this, I will endeavor to withhold the most incredible parts of what I have to tell until I have provided the details needed to convince anyone reading this that such things are even possible. To that end, I will try tell it as though I do not already know the outcome. The other place marked on the map did indeed answer some questions, some of which I would never have known to ask.

            After writing the last entry, I did rest a moment, and I should have known better. Though I had every intention of remaining awake, and though I did not realize it at the time, my heavy eyelids drooped closed for what I would swear was just a moment  […] thought I heard music […] song without words but made of voices, countless voices. They seemed to be trying to tell me something, something of great importance […] couldn’t quite trace the reason why I knew this, but the somehow obvious fact I stood on the verge of a great revelation was an irresistible fascination. Like a fatigued driver, nodding and driving, who gets home without remembering the drive, I opened my eyes to find that although I did not remember falling asleep, I had sleepwalked all the way back to the glowing fungus chamber, a journey not without some treacherous spots that could be hazardous even with my full concentration focused on them. It is a wonder I did not blunder down some side passage to God knows where and fall to my death.

            Apparently, I left the water chamber for the other place marked on the map, just as I planned to do after my brief rest. I just didn’t wake up to do it. I had to cross back through the fungus chamber to get there. I awoke standing in the glowing chamber directly before the entrance to the exact same passage where I had seen the fungus creature retreat after I fought it. I don’t know why I didn’t realize before when reading the map […] tunnel to the second location on the map was indeed the same one the creature used to flee. The dream of the voiceless music still lingered in my mind […] seductive pull of it still palpable but growing fainter as if it were disappearing into the dark of the passage before me, leaving me behind because I had been too slow to follow. I strained to hear the music with my waking ears, but heard only the damnable ringing in my ears that I’ve suffered since Tora Bora. For some reason, fatigue and lack of sleep always makes it worse, and as I stood there trying to listen for what I was somehow sure was an answer to my dire situation, the incessant droning of the ringing was maddening. After I don’t know how many minutes of listening and pounding the sides of my head with my fists in frustration, I resolved to press on.

            As I proceeded, I took the gold bar out of my pocket so I would be ready if attacked again. The passage was as narrow and difficult as the one to the water, and I could see that someone, likely Evans, had left a trail of marker stones on this path as well. As I approached the marked spot on the map, I began to worry that the glow of the mushroom cap I carried would be seen coming by anything that might be waiting for me. I hid the glowing fungus under my jacket, allowing only a thin beam to light the ground at my feet. After a few more yards, however, I noted that in the darker passageway, I could now detect a glow coming from up ahead. I began to tread more stealthily, and I stopped just before going around what I estimated from the map was the last bend in the passage before I would reach the marked spot. I listened, and I could just make out the rhythmic sound of what I took to be ragged, raspy breathing. As I stood there listening, I also noticed a significant warming of the atmosphere of the cave. The ragged breathing seemed to be regular and slow, and I wondered if the creature, whatever it was, were resting or sleeping, if such a creature slept at all. There was a gurgle just discernible in the breathing, but I had no idea whether that was normal for the thing or if it was injured from our fight. The sound rose and fell, rose and fell, thick, wet. I began to feel slightly nauseated and light headed. At length, fearing this feeling would only intensify the longer I waited, I decided I had to move forward. It was well after midnight on an exhausting day, and in the damp, peppery warmth of that part of the cave, I was getting drowsy again, dizzy even. If I fell asleep or passed out with the creature just around the bend in the passage, it might well be the last thing I ever did.

            I eased up the curving passage until I could just see around the bend, exposing only enough of myself to see […] small chamber, about twenty feet wide […] overgrown with the glowing fungus. In the center of the chamber was a pool of steaming water, a hot spring, about six feet in diameter. On the far side of the pool was a raised sort of platform of fungus, as if perhaps it had been piled there to a greater thickness, and atop this platform lay the creature. I shuddered involuntarily as my eyes fell on it, and I felt a cold, electric pulse across my skin as every hair stood on end.

            The creature was nearly completely camouflaged against the background of the fungus bed on which it lay since the creature’s color and texture were an exact match for the fungus of the cave, right down to the bioluminescent glow. It was lying flat on its back, its head tilted back a bit, drawing its labored breaths through its mouth, which was hanging open, slack, giving the impression it was in considerable pain. In the fleeting, frantic moments when I had seen the creature before in the haze of the spore cloud, it had been hunched over. Crouching in its combat stance and then in its wounded flight from the main chamber into the dark, it had seemed bent and somewhat simian. Now, with it lying flat on its back […] noted the length and proportions of its torso and limbs, all stretched out. I cannot adequately express the revulsion I felt looking at it as it lay there. At first, I could not place just why I felt repulsed, but then I realized it was because the proportions of its body were closer to human than to any other life form I could compare it to.

            Vomit surged to the back of my throat, but not wanting to draw the thing’s attention, I suppressed it and choked it back down with considerable effort, the acid and bile still lingering at the back of my throat along with the burning of the peppery air. I grasped the gold bar tight, steadying myself against the cave wall with the other hand as I watched for many minutes to see if the beast were truly unconscious and not just faking it to draw me in. I watched the rise and fall of its chest as it breathed in a slow steady rhythm, interrupted occasionally by sharply drawn gasps that suggested again that the thing was in great pain and that perhaps I had wounded it much more seriously than I had thought. As I waited I began to hear sounds emanating from the thing as it suffered. At first these seemed like whimpers any injured animal might make, but at length the halting, convulsing cadence of the sounds began to resemble something else, like sobbing. I tried to push that notion from my head […] grew angry, though I could not reason why […] getting harder for me to think clearly. I felt cold sweat on my brow. It was then that I not so much decided but felt compelled to move forward. Amid mixed emotions and thoughts coursing through my foggy mind, the dominant impression was the conviction that this thing, whatever it was, was an abomination, and it would have to be destroyed. Even the kindest inclinations mixed among my chaotic thoughts concluded that I should, at the very least, put this miserable thing out of its misery.

            I crept around the steaming hot spring, the gold bar held high to deliver a fatal blow at a moment’s notice. As I reached the side of the spring where it lay, but still several feet away, to my horror, like some surreal slow motion creeping dread from a fevered nightmare, its misshapen head turned slowly, slowly toward me. Another flash of cold pulsed across my skin, and I stopped where I was, even holding my breath. I could see now more clearly the eyes I had seen in only the briefest flash during our first encounter. They were not milky. They were blue. Expressive. Intelligent. And they were weeping.

            I stammered, aloud, though barely audible, “W-w-what?”

            Then its mouth began to move, the lumpy lips coming together and parting as it expelled air between them, in a “P-P-P-P” sound. I thought perhaps it was panting, as a wounded animal sometimes will pant in its pain. Then, finally, something else came out, in a faint, hoarse whisper, “P-p-p-please…”

            I stumbled back a step, nearly dropping the gold bar, and almost stepping back into the hot spring. I shook my head—angry, terrified, confused, frantic. “No, no, no, no, no…”

            It began to move its right arm, and I gripped the bar tight again holding it high, but the creature’s movement was again slow, almost feeble, as it began to fumble at the base of its neck with its fungus-matted paw. It dug into the fungal layer there, and I remember wondering—aloud or in my mind I’m not sure—My God, is it ripping out its own throat? It began to pull something out of the hole it dug in itself: a chain of tiny, tarnished metallic beads. When it was pulled free from the fungus I recognized it by sight and by the characteristic jangling sound of what dangled from the chain. It was a pair of military dog tags.

            “No,” I spat. Never, not even in that hell hole […] Tora Bora grappling with the “trusted” man I had just seen bayonet my team leader, never had I wanted more to crush the life out of anything as much as I wanted to smash in the head of this affront to nature, this misshapen thing that lay before me. “Those belong to Evans.” I hissed, pointing at the dog tags. “You must have killed him and took them.”

            The creature shook its head feebly, and began digging at the fungus on its right paw with its left paw. It cleared away about a half inch layer to reveal pink skin underneath mottled with the green glow, like the itching spots on my own hands. I could also see four fingers and an opposable thumb. I edged in closer, whether to see better or to smash the thing’s head in with the bar I could not truly have told at the time. Then I saw something glint on the third finger of the right hand. It was a ring, the block letters USMA clearly engraved on the side of it. I had seen enough of them in the army to know what it was. It was a West Point class ring. By the size and shape and style of it, I could tell something else, and I noticed for the first time the smallness and slenderness of the fingers and the contours of the body beneath its layers of fungus, contours I suppose I had dismissed as random, meaningless lumps in the fungus. It was not a man’s class ring. It was a woman’s.

            “Oh my God,” I whispered. This time I did drop the gold bar as I turned away and sank to my knees beside the bed of fungus. The wave of nausea I had suppressed earlier returned in force, and I heaved onto the cave floor. Not having eaten much in the last day, it was mostly dry heaves and bile. When I finished I looked up. It—she—was  watching me, an uncertain plaintiveness in her eyes. She was again holding the dog tags toward me. I crawled forward, still on my knees, to cradle the metal tags in my hand and view the stamped-in letters on them. I read them aloud.

EVANS,

ELEANOR V.

            She put her pink and green mottled hand on mine, and her mouth moved. “E-El-Ellie.”

            I instinctively pulled away from her hand, but I had to ask, “Ellie?”

            She nodded, smiled, and seemed to relax, or maybe she just surrendered then to her exhaustion. My own exhaustion was considerable, especially given my previous level of adrenaline now followed by the relaxing hormones that come after a fight-or-flight response when the body needs to slow itself back down. The steamy air around the hot spring was infused with the same peppery, earthy fragrance that permeated the main chamber where I fell in, but somehow amplified, possibly by the heat and humidity of the hot spring. Add to that the wild swing in mood. I had been terrified, furious. Now all I could think about is what I had done in injuring another person, a woman, and about what I had been about to do. A vision of the gold bar cleaving her skull flashed involuntarily in my mind, and I was almost sick again.

            “Ellie, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I didn’t know.”

            She smiled, and took my hand with her right hand, the one she had scraped free of fungus. I had the same impulse as before to pull away, but something stopped me, and I did not. Her hand was soft, and she gripped mine most warmly.

            “Wh-who..?” She said in a barely audible whisper.

            “I’m Newman’” I said, hauling out my own dog tags from inside my shirt. “Newman Adams.”

            She smiled and gripped my hand even tighter. I wondered how long it had been since she last held another person’s hand, seen another person’s face. She was looking at me as though I were […] I tried to smile, and I was annoyed with myself for not doing a very good job of it. To whomever is reading this—if anyone ever reads this—try to understand; by this time I could accept this was somehow someone named Ellie Evans, but she still looked like an alien creature made of fungus, but with human eyes, a human hand, and a human ability to whisper words. “Ellie,” I asked, “Are you hurt bad?”

            She nodded and indicated with her left hand the side where I had hit her with the rock. I had not noticed before, but the fungus of the bed on which she lay appeared to have grown up over to cover and fuse itself with the fungus on her side in that spot.

            I looked back at her eyes. “Is that…” I paused, trying to frame the notion in my own mind, foggy as it was. “Is that healing you?”

            She nodded.

            I blinked, slowly, deliberately, my eyelids seeming to grate across my eyes. It had been so long since I had last slept a full night. “Will you be okay?” I asked her at length.

            She nodded and smiled a little. Her mouth moved again. “I-I-I’ve…h-had…w-w-worse,” she whispered.

            I did smile at that. Then I thought for a moment. “You were just worried about whether I was going to come…” I paused as I thought about what I was about to say, “…finish the job.”

            She looked down and nodded.

            “Why did you attack me when I fell in the cave?” I asked.

            She frowned. “N-not attack. S-s-so h-h-happy to…” she paused to fight for breath, “s-s-see anyone.” Then after a moment she looked back at me. “S-s-sorry.”

            I smiled again and shrugged. The situation was surreal, like something that would make sense only in the bizarre logic of a dream, but my natural inclination was to try to defuse the tension with humor. “Well, people usually aren’t that glad to see me.”

            She even managed a little laugh at that, wincing a little from the pain in her side.

            “Can I do anything to help?” I asked.

            “W-w-water?” She said.

            “Oh, yeah, sure. I’ve got some right here.” I said, pulling my water bottle from my coat pocket. I let go of her hand to open the bottle, and I held it to her mouth. I felt a momentary revulsion watching her fungus-covered lips touch the mouth of the bottle I drink from, but I kept it to myself. She lifted her head as best she could and drank. When she sputtered a little, I pulled the bottle back. I waited while she swallowed what she had in her mouth. “More?” I asked.

            She shook her head and said, “C-c-cup.” Then she looked up and behind her at a small niche in the cave wall near her bed […] hadn’t noticed it before, but there was indeed a small tin camping cup there.

            “Oh, you want to drink from the cup?”

            She looked over toward the spring. “H-hot…w-w-water.”

            “Okay, sure.” I said rising and getting the cup. Also in the niche I noticed a few other articles: a compass, a small mirror, a toothbrush, and a tortoiseshell comb. Tangled in the comb were just enough long strands of hair to tell what color they were—a red-gold, like clover honey. As I was on a mission at the time to retrieve the cup, I didn’t’ really dwell much on it, but I had a momentary feeling of familiarity regarding the comb and the hair. I took the cup and dipped some water from the spring, which was a bit hotter than I anticipated, but not so much as to scald. I took it back to Ellie. “Here you go.”

            She took the cup in her right hand, and with the other hand picked bits of the fungus off her own arms and torso and […] dropped the bits of fungus into the hot water. She stirred the hot water in the cup with her finger, slowly, deliberately. I watched with a nameless fascination as her finger swirled around and around the cup as the fungus from her own […] and steaming water combined by degrees into greenish, glowing tea.Then she drank the fungus tea down and handed the cup back to me, her eyelids looking heavy. “Th-thank…y-y-you.”

            I smiled and stood to return the cup to its shelf. I had a bit of a head rush, feeling even more dizzy for a moment. I dismissed it as due to my lack of sleep. After depositing the cup in the niche, I sat back down on the cave floor beside the bed of fungus, and feeling an impulse I can’t quite explain, I took her hand again, though it had repulsed me just a few minutes before. She squeezed my hand in response, and as I watched, she fell asleep. I stayed beside the bed, holding her hand, leaning against the soft pile of fungus. There was a mild burning sensation where our palms touched, but I was too tired to worry about it. In the warm, damp, peppery, earthy air next to the hot spring, My head drooped to rest on the soft fungus, and I was soon asleep as well.

            I awoke still leaning against the side of the fungus bed, still holding her hand. I wish I could say it was restful, but the sleep seemed only to fatigue me further. I awoke feeling like I had just run a marathon. Maybe it was the steamy heat. Maybe it was a side effect of the fungus. Maybe the dream was to blame. I often recall dreams only vaguely, as misty impressions and snippets of random images. This dream I doubt I will ever forget. I dreamed I was floating weightless in the dark, with no light, not even a sensation of gravity. Then, in a violent fraction of a second, I was slammed, my back pinned against a hard surface. Was it a wall or a floor or even a ceiling? I couldn’t tell because I had no sensation of up or down. As though the shock had turned it on, there was suddenly a dull green light around me, but only close in. Outside the small dim green glow, blackest darkness stretched away, who knows how far? Next a horde of tiny creatures, like ants or mites, swarmed over me, biting, stinging. I tried to move to brush them away, but I remained pinned, unable to move even a finger. The millions of tiny bites coalesced into an intense itch, a burning itch. I strained every muscle to try to break free from whatever force held me immobile, but I made no progress. I could not even scream. There were so many of them crawling over me and biting that I was completely covered. Then a new realization washed over me. They weren’t just biting me. They were eating me, consuming me, burrowing deep in my skins as they fed, pouring in through my eyes, ears, nose, mouth, even […] smothering me and devouring me. No air. No me.

            As my eyes opened, I screamed out loud and gasped for breath as though coming up from a long time under water. Ellie was stroking my hair with her other hand, from which she had also stripped the fungus off sometime while I slept. When she saw I was awake, she stopped what she was doing, as though wondering if she should have sought permission to do such a thing, or perhaps she thought she had injured me because I had cried out. The transition from the terrifying dream to the reality around me was complicated by the bizarre nature of that reality. I wasn’t in my room at home. I wasn’t even in my tent by the lake. I was still in a fungus-filled cave, next to a fungus-covered woman, in a dim-green-glowing, peppery-smelling sauna. One thing did remain from the dream—the itching. When I had recovered enough, I gave her a sleepy smile to tell her it was okay, scratching absently at the itch. I was still feeling groggy, as though still half in a dream.

            She still seemed to feel a need to explain her fascination with my hair. “So long since…seen hair.”

            It made sense. Likely the fungus had made her lose every strand of hair she had. I remembered the tortoiseshell comb she still kept and the few strands of auburn hair still tangled in its teeth. Something still nagged at me about the glimpse of that comb I had gotten while retrieving the cup. Slowly I recalled the shape of it […] just like the one that girlfriend of mine in […] once had—no not girlfriend. I never attained the right to call her that. I can still see it on her dresser, a shaft of sunlight through the blinds illuminating the translucent tortoiseshell and the red-gold hair tangled in it, the same color as the hair in Ellie’s comb, the exact same color, and I was just starting to wonder how I could even see the reddish color in the green […] out of nowhere I also recalled, in a flashback I wished I could take back, that young kid at […] got ringworm on his scalp. We couldn’t evac him right away without compromising the mission, so there wasn’t much we could do to stop the spread. In the affected areas, his hair fell out in oozy clumps from the weepy, crusty skin. A shudder of revulsion shook me, and I shook my head to dislodge the image from my mind. Wanting to change the subject I asked, “Feeling better?”

            She nodded. She smiled as she touched her side where the injury was, as if to show it was well on its way to being healed.

            “Wow, that stuff works fast, doesn’t it.?”

            She nodded and smiled again. “Yes.” Her breathing was more regular now, so she didn’t seem to struggle for breath, but she still spoke in broken language. “You…were…dreaming?” I noticed, now that her words were more than a whisper that there was an odd buzz at the back of her voice. I thought maybe it was just my own ears ringing.

            I described my dream to her, much as I wrote it down in the journal above. She nodded, and now it was she who seemed to want to change the subject.

             “I thought…” she said finally, trailing off. She appeared to be searching for words. “I thought…I dreamed you.”

            “Well,” I began, “you must not be very good at it if I was the best you could do.”

            She laughed a little, but then a seriousness returned. “So long…alone,” she whispered.

            “How long?” I asked, still fumbling at the itch with fingers that seemed fat and numb.

            “What…year?” She asked.

            “Now?” I replied, wondering briefly what it would be like to lose track of not just days, but years. “It’s 2003.”

            She looked away for a moment as the shock of that news hit her. “Eleven years.”

            I tried to imagine eleven years in solitary confinement. No, not just that. Even prisoners in solitary confinement see their guards, know that there are people outside who know where they are. “Oh, Ellie, I am sorry.”

            She looked back at me, and the look in her eyes spoke more than her own sorrow. “Me…too,” she said, as though consoling me and not herself.

            Then I understood what she meant. Eleven years, and she had never found a way out. And then I saw what else she meant too. The weight of it seemed beyond even trying to bear as it broke over me. I touched the fungus coating her arms above where she had stripped it off her hands. “This is going to happen to me too, isn’t it?”

            She nodded. I nodded too, not knowing what else to add as I considered the prospect of the fungus slowly taking me. Soon she was asleep again. I touched my own hair, thinking of Ellie’s comb.…

 

            [Here another two pages were stuck together~ Asher Chase]

 

            …guess the healing process is taking a lot out of her. I have used much of the time she has slept to record these things in this journal, but now my head seems a bit cloudy, stuffed full of cotton. I feel—I don’t know—like there’s something that I’m supposed to do or that I forgot to do… I can’t quite place it, but it’s starting to nag at me, like the start of a craving except I can’t remember what it is that I’m hungry for. Right now, I think I need to stop thinking about it and stretch my legs. I think I will go down and refill my water bottle with cool water from the stream. I can see if the cool water will ease this damnable itch. Perhaps that’s what I was thinking I forgot. Ellie has a large canteen, one of those big round ones like in cowboy movies. I will fill it too. Maybe I can clear my head in the process.

 

            23:29 (CDT) 01 APR 03: It’s been several days since my last entry. Halfway back from my trip to the stream, the passage started to feel like it was absolutely freezing. Away from the hot spring, the cave is never really warm, but it isn’t very cold either. Kind of a constant mid-50s, I’d estimate. I began to feel increasingly light headed and then downright dizzy, and then I felt that the whole cave was spinning like a carnival ride […] stumbling […] everything went black.

            The very next thing I knew, as if no time had passed at all, I was back in the hot spring chamber, lying on the bed of fungus where Ellie had been before. I felt so weak I could hardly lift my head. I was still light headed, perhaps a bit delirious, and my vision was somewhat, I don’t know, off, though I couldn’t figure out just what was off about it, like it was […] I looked around as best I could while moving my head as little as possible. Everything looked brighter, even the passage that led away from the chamber into the dark. I could see down it all the way to where the passage turned, as clear as I could see in the fungus-lit chamber. Then, as I was about to start thinking about how that were possible, I saw Ellie, kneeling beside the hot spring with her back to me.

            “Ellie?” I croaked, my voice sounding cracked, and I thought I heard now in my own hoarse voice the same buzz at the back of it as I had heard in Ellie’s before.

            She heard me and rose, turning as she came back to the edge of the bed. I gasped sharply. Her face. She had stripped off the fungus on her face and neck, much as she had cleared it off her hands before. The same glowing green mottled her complexion, just as it had on her hands and mine, but otherwise the skin appeared smooth and soft and normal.

            “Ellie…”

            She sat on the edge of the fungus bed where I lay, and my staring must have made her self-conscious because she turned her face down and to her left. Still, she glanced sidelong at me, smiling a little on one side tentatively, dimpling her smooth cheek on that side of her face.

            “Ellie,” I said again, reaching up to put my hand on her chin to turn her face back toward me. I kept my fingers there a moment, touching her soft , smooth cheek, admiring the brighter green speckles. “Do you have…are those—freckles?”

            She nodded, her blue eyes still seeming uncertain, searching […]

            “I like freckles.” I said dreamily. I felt, I don’t know, almost drunk, as I reminisced over misty images of the freckles on the first girl I ever had a crush on, and now that I think about it more, the dimples, weren’t they just like the girl on that one TV show—God what was that actress’ name? I had pinned up pictures of her I had torn out of my sister’s glossy teen magazines when I was just a kid. Geez, my sis got mad about that. Why can’t I remember her name?

            Anyway, Ellie’s smile spread a little more as I commented on her freckles, and she brought up her hands, which I could now see held the tin cup.

            “Tea,” she whispered, offering the cup to me.

            I took the cup and held it under my nose. The steam had a slightly sharp tang, but not unpleasant. “Is this…?”

            She nodded, indicating the fungus on her arm […] her body.

            “Will it make me better?” I asked, gazing into this warm cup of […] in my hands.

            She nodded […] smiled […] those lovely […] lovely […] dimples.

            I took a tentative sip. It tasted like a miso soup, but somehow […] warmth burned a little on the way down, like a sip of brandy. “What happened?” I asked her.

            “I woke up…you…gone. I looked…brought you…back.”

            “But what..?”

            “Fever.” She whispered, stroking my hair. “It will…pass.”

            I understood. “From the fungus entering my system.”

            She nodded.

            “I’m scared, Ellie.” I whispered.

            She pouted a little, out of empathy, I thought […] her lips, which had repulsed me when crusted with misshapen lumps of fungus, now had a plump fullness, a graceful curve that was familiar though I couldn’t say just why, though it felt like I knew just a few moments ago. Then it just didn’t matter anymore. The craving I had felt before returned, but I knew this time what it was I wanted. I put my hand up to her cheek again, and she tilted her head into the caress. My hand moved to the back of her neck, and I pulled her toward me. She seemed unsure at first, but only for a moment. Then she leaned in, and pressed her soft lips against mine. I felt the burning again, a tingling where our lips touched […] her mouth, her breath, intoxicated me like a spiced mulled wine […] faded again into unconsciousness.

            In that dark, I dreamed again. Out of the darkness a green glow hovered, formless, like the foxfire that had led me from the trail to the cave. I got the distinct impression it wanted to communicate something to me—something important. It did not speak, not in words, but I understood it wanted to show me something. Then it was as though it had pushed something into […] was like a memory, but not the past […] played like a movie scene where I was inside the scene. I saw an image of red and orange fire in the sky, all over the mountainsides […] rolling plains, everywhere, fire. I could feel the heat of it. And then, all was charred, everything covered in drifts of ash that fell from a thick, gray sky, blotting out the sun. Green leafy things that needed sunlight across the surface of the earth withered. Died. All leaves, all blades of grass, all needles on conifers, all gone. All creatures up there that relied on photosynthesis to feed their food chain up above, all died as well, the last of them digging vainly in scalding ash for one more mouthful to eat, scorched, choking, starving. Ash clogged the gills of fish in the surface waters, waters grown thick and gray. Gray death washed over the air, land, and sea. Then the scene changed again, and we were underground. The green glow of the bioluminescent fungus lit a scene of thriving fungi in vast caverns. Then I saw Ellie and me, our skin clothed in the life-giving fungus, and then throughout the cavern, there were more beings just like us, hundreds, thousands, alive and thriving when all the world above was dead or dying.

            When I awoke, Ellie was bathing in the hot spring, humming a song I couldn’t place. It lilted in the heady, steamy, spicy air. I hummed in harmony, able to follow the tune though I could not name it […] weaving my hum with hers into one song that seemed in harmony with something outside our […] She turned to me and smiled. Still humming, and I with her, she rose from the spring, slick and clean of the fungus from head to toe, steam rising in twisting wisps from her smooth, naked body, which I can only describe as proportioned in all the ways I find most attractive—legs, hips, waist, breasts, shoulders, neck, and that lovely freckled, dimpled face—all were just as I’d have requested if she were created to order, just for me. It was as though a statue of Aphrodite, carved in polished pink and green marble, had come to life to saunter toward me—toward me—an unclean mortal. As she walked, the light and dark dappling of her skin seemed to shift like the patterns of moonlight and shadow do on a forest floor under a full moon, with the lightest breeze stirring the leaves—except of course, that instead of silvery moonlight, the shifting light that moved upon her smooth, soft skin was green.

 

            16;45 (CST) 31 OCT 2003: In these months, Ellie and I—we— have grown closer in ways that would not have been possible or even conceivable if our former selves had met above ground. You, who have known only the horrifying loneliness of your separate ego, cannot—we are well aware—imagine what we mean, but you will feel it soon enough. We are one, and one with the life-giving Voice that speaks out of the dark without speaking. Ellie and I—we— speak to each other now in a modulating hum. I think now, what seemed like Ellie whispering and buzzing to me before was always this, but I had not the ear to hear. The ringing in my ears is now in tune with the hum—oh how did it find me before I ever found this place? Why didn’t I know it for what it was? The maddening tones that plagued me all those years were the song of all life all along.

            Ellie has grown large with our children, her belly swelling far beyond the size of any pregnant woman ever seen in the world above. Ellie says children, not child, and they are in the millions. She says they all hum along when we two hum together now, entwining our former separate selves ever more deeply, down to the most fundamental building blocks of our being. Lately, I can hear it too, a chorus of tiny voices, like a hive of honeybees, but all in tune. The Voice that spoke to me out of the dark without speaking still speaks, even when I am awake now. The Voice has guided Ellie and me. We have sprinkled its life-giving fungus into the underground stream, sending the spores outward into the vast underground places of the earth. When Ellie reaches full term, there will be a few more things left to do, such as […] the time grows nearer.

            Final Entry: I do not know the day or time. I cast my wristwatch into the underground stream some time ago, time that I cannot now measure, nor would I wish to do so. The watch is water resistant. For all I know it still functions beneath the blind pink eyes of the white cave fish in the stream, but such concerns have no more meaning for me now than for those blind fish.  I cast away the watch just after Ellie gave birth to our countless children. As she neared term, the skin about her abdomen, which had grown many times its former girth, had grown dry, brittle, until finally it began to crack open. Both Ellie and the Voice bade me carry her to the stream, and there on the edge of that underground river the cloud of spores burst forth, each spore one of our children, glowing together like a brilliant nebula in the dark. The cloud spread out, some spores settling on the water to drift to other destinies. Other tendrils snaked through these caverns, settling back on me, on all the surfaces around me. When it was over, what remained of Ellie’s body was a husk, but she still smiled at me. She must have known this would be the day, for she had cleared her face again, so I could see her freckles. I wish I had cleared mine for her, but she did not seem to mind it. Her hum asked me to carry her back to the hot spring, to our bed, where I held her as she melded with the bed of fungus, a part of it now.

            I felt a pang, a loneliness I had not felt since before she had risen naked from the hot spring those many months ago. But then, the Voice called out to me. Everywhere that the spores of our children had fallen on me, I could feel the tingling I felt with Ellie, and I knew she was still with me. I could feel myself, my whole being begin to hum with thousands of tiny voices, and I knew, though such a thing would never have been possible before my merging with Ellie, that soon my belly would grow as hers had grown, and so, in due time, it has come to pass. The drying out of the thin skin over the humming multitude inside me is nearly complete. Cracks begin to form. I hear all of my children, but I hear Ellie’s humming voice among them as well, and I know my voice will live on millions of times over in that chorus for all time. This manuscript, when I finish this last entry, I will place into Ellie’s large, round canteen. The Voice has told me, and I believe Her, that if I put some weight in the canteen along with the manuscript, it will float, not on the top of the water, but below the surface yet above the riverbed. This will help it travel without catching on the roof or floor of the caves through which the water flows. She says (for the voiceless Voice is a She, I am quite sure of it), She says it will reach the place where this underground river gushes from the side of a shady mountain into the surface rivers.

            I had an idea too. For the weight in the canteen, the ballast to achieve the neutral buoyancy She described, I could not use water, or it would ruin this manuscript. No, instead, I would use some of the gold coins, for what else are they good for now? I think the Voice is pleased. She knows others will come now, from far and wide, and take the gold that ironically came from the work of an enslaved people, and carry it forth to liberate doomed humanity from its fatal future in the Apocalypse to come. It is all very natural, you see. Like honeybees, these treasure seekers will come for the gold, and leave with our spores on them to pollinate the world with our young, not intentionally, but incidental to their self interest, and in doing so, they will unwittingly ensure the survival of our kind. To that end, I also put some of my fungus in the canteen, including some of the first wisps of the spore cloud that leaks now through the cracks in my brittle belly skin. I must finish this message now and complete my tasks before the birth. Look at your hands, you who read this now. Do not despair. Find your way to the underground. You will know where, now that She is in you. Look for the foxfire. Its light will guide you, and you will be among the fortunate ones with us when all the surface burns.                   

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Analysis: The Foxfire Document was visible online on The Watcher’s Thread blog for 8 weeks prior to extraction. Even after the blog was taken down, the document and commentary related to it proliferated and continues to proliferate online through a wide variety of conspiracy theory and dark web sites. This, coupled with the difficulty of maintaining a seamless perimeter in such a rugged and remote location may account for our difficulty isolating the site of the anomaly from intrusion even after martial law was declared in response to the burgeoning epidemic. The number of individuals seeking the cave site to retrieve the “Confederate gold” prior to our detection of the threat and our isolation of the site is unknown, but it is assumed to be at least in the dozens or more, possibly much more, from far distributed home locations, some in other countries, other continents, to which the fortune hunters likely returned after possible contact with the contagion. In the restricted zone set up around the Trinity Mountains site, a cave matching the description in “The Foxfire Document” has been found and remains under investigation. Thus far, many of the details from the document, including the presence of petroglyphs, bioluminescent fungus, an underground stream, and a hot spring, match descriptions in document. Investigators also found the remains of numerous wooden boxes or crates, some marked with the initials CSA, though authentication of these artifacts is still pending, and no gold was found on the site. Some camping gear, including a 1980s to 90s vintage army ruck sack was also found, but no living creatures, other than the bioluminescent fungus itself and a few blind cave fish. This fact has led researchers to question whether the most shocking parts of “The Foxfire Document“ were merely part of a hoax designed to make the story go viral online. This suspicion is borne up by the inaccuracy of the description of Scratch Hollow in the document.

            The ruins of a late 19th, early 20th century settlement were indeed found, along with the mentioned graveyard. However, no sign of any standing structure remains. Only a few crumbling foundations for former dwellings are still there, covered in layers of leaves and undergrowth that are estimated to be decades old. On the headstones in the cemetery, researchers did indeed find a stone with the name Jasper Coolidge, and they also found the latest legible date on any headstone there was 1915, as purportedly described by Evans in her original journal. Using imaging technology likely not available to the persons named in the document, the faint trace of a name almost completely eroded away was found on that same grave marker: Lester Coolidge.

            The alleged writer of the document remains a mystery, and no record of a 1980s or 90s missing person case involving anyone named Eleanor V. Evans, West Point graduate or otherwise, has been found to date. There is ongoing debate among investigators whether the entire document is a fabrication deliberately aligned with just enough facts from the cave to foster a conspiracy theory, whether it is the product of a deluded or mentally impaired individual, or as unlikely as it seems, whether there is actual merit to the most sensational details in the document. Those most vocally in support of the third possibility cite the similarity of symptoms described in “The Foxfire Document” to the symptoms of the current fungal epidemic as being too precise to be coincidental, and that foreknowledge of the symptoms would have to have preceded the onset of the epidemic in order for the document to have pre-existed it at all.

            Extensive analysis of the underground stream in the cave and its interaction with the aquifer indicate that besides numerous local residential water wells, the Sacre Coeur River itself and a natural spring that serves as the source for several nationally-distributed brands of bottled water may have been compromised by fungal spores from the cave, though it is not known if sufficient concentration of the contamination occurred to pass on the contagion to consumers. The wells, the river, and the spring have since been quarantined, and bottled water from the contaminated spring has been recalled. Test results are pending. However, since the duration of the period of potential contamination is unknown, we cannot currently calculate or even accurately estimate the full extent of exposure to the fungal spores, nor can we assume the exposure is contained. If these spores are indeed the source of the epidemic, we have no way of knowing at this time how far they have spread.

            In the early stages of the investigation at the site, many researchers began to believe with an almost fanatical certainty, as incredible as it sounds, that there was a conscious will, a method, an intelligent design behind the spread of the fungal infestation. The official stance on these illogical protests is that they should be dismissed as paranoia incited by the bizarre details of the situation on scene and exacerbated by viral conspiracy theories. In addition, during initial occupation of the site, coalition personnel complained of visual disturbances and persistent tinnitus that may have influenced initial analysis, but these symptoms gradually subsided and onsite personnel now insist everything is normal. In fact, as of this date, numerous analysts working at the site have begun to question rather dismissively whether this cave is even in any way related to the ongoing fungal epidemic at all, reassuring this headquarters that there is nothing to fear there, and there is growing agreement among onsite analysts that it would be for the best to let the phenomenon at this location run its natural course unimpeded.

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