We were 5 friends: Denis, Oriol, Ainara, and me, Marina. We were on vacation in Valle de Tella in the Pyrenees of Aragon. We rented a house in the middle of nowhere for a few weeks in August. The reason was simple. Denis and Mikel were scuba divers (my Denis had more experience and was handsomer) and one time during San Fermines, someone told him a cave existed in the Valle de Tella filled with water which has never been explored.
Denis and Mikel loved the idea of visiting a place in Spain that is still virgin, and the rest of us were okay with it. On the internet, I discovered witches used to exist in Valle de Tella. Of course, they were just healers who lived in nature; but, I found it interesting at the very least. I am a translator and I always think it is a good idea to dive into new cultures. Ainara had already been to the Pyrenees of Aragon so she knew the area's beauty and how great it was for vacations. Oriol also loved the isolation as somewhere to completely disconnect.
Let's not kid ourselves, it was cheap. The idea of having a place to ourselves for a few weeks in the middle of nowhere didn't sound bad either. Mikel searched for the house, paid the deposit, and a few weeks later the 5 of us were there ready for anything.
When we arrived, we discovered why it was so cheap. There was a highway about 100 meters from the house and it disturbed the beautiful landscape a little too much. Honestly, it didn't bother the others too much. I was the only one who felt fooled and cheated. I shouldn't have let Mikel search for this place on his own. I should have searched the address online before he rented the house! But the days flew by...
Denis and I arrived from Barna with a van full of equipment rented from a scuba diving center in Tossa de Mar which Denis trusted. Of course, we stopped the van on the way to make love. Two weeks ago, Denis and I decided this would be our road trip ritual. Oriol, Mikel and Ainara arrived from Bilbo in a car filled with a ton of booze, weed, and food. We shared the cost.
The night of the reunion was great. Oriol doesn't say much, but when he does... He found a job he liked: washing windows! Who would have thought? The guy couldn''t last more than two weeks in any job, and was still lived with his parents. He was a crazy guy full of idealistic nonsense. He wanted to volunteer at the Red Cross, become a summer school teacher, participate in demonstrations for the CNT, and speak out about the exploitation of workers. I always thought he had a great heart, but a head with too many ideas.
As usual, Denis started talking about the independence process and how important it was for the Catalans to vote in November, even if the Spanish government didn't want to acknowledge the political survey. The way he talked about civil disobedience, the self-determination of the Catalan people, etc., had a certain charm to it. Denis was the only independentist in the group. However, Ainara saw everything as black and white. If something was illegal, it was illegal. She was always so rigid.
All her life, she knew the difference between right and wrong. That's how she was raised, and it worked. Her pragmatic way of seeing the world helped her climb the social ladder landing her a job in a Michelin restaurant in Donosti. When they offered her a position as restaurant manager, she left. We were perplexed when she told us the story. Was she unemployed? She explained:
Basically, she read an article about a restaurant in Pamplona that offered dishes for 1 Euro per plate and the idea of helping them was more attractive to her than a restaurant with a Michelin star. Two weeks ago, they offered her the job and she was supposed to start working after the vacation. We raised a toast to her. She didn't say anything before because she wanted to tell us in person. I admired her.
“In the end, all paths lead to Pamplona, eh? We found out about a flooded cave from a tourist in San Fermines and now Ainara is going to end up working in the same place. I'm happy for you!”, I said with enthusiasm.
“And I am even happier for you, Marina, because of the awesome sex you and Denis had on the way here!” said Mike as he looked closely at me and Denis, expecting a reaction.
We blushed and looked at each other in confirmation.
“I knew it, I knew it!” shouted Mikel.
“I caught you; I knew you two were up to something. You can't fool me. In the end Marina, you got him.”"
Who the hell does Mikel think he is? And what in the world did he mean by “in the end, you got him”? I didn't like that comment at all. Anyways, that was how Ainara, Oriol and big-mouthed Mikel found out Denis and I saw each other in secret for months. Two weeks ago, Denis asked me to make our relationship official. We didn't say anything either because we wanted to tell them in person. We were just about to, but Mikel completely ruined it.
Mikel had already been unemployed for 4 months, and had suffered the death of a relative not too long ago. I confess, I thought it was sweet when he said he was happy Denis and I were together. He said joy had been missing from his life. I didn't want to say anything and break the moment, but I thought he was wrong. That relative left him a house in Baracaldo as an inheritance. Let's face it, that inheritance is the reason Mikel can live such an easy and carefree life. Even so, the joyous reaction to my and Denis' relationship was sincere. At that point in the night, Mikel was also the most drunk out of all of us.
Ainara quickly changed the subject when Mikel crossed the line. She was really good at this sort of thing. She asked me about my cat. Finally, Nina was okay. Poor Nina was in heat and it was terrible. Denis convinced me to get her fixed. The recovery was difficult, but now she was fine. The rest of my life was fine and normal. I said working as a translator wasn't the best paid job in the world, but aside from that... no complaints. My life had always been normal. I never considered myself to be an interesting person. I never had clear goals, and was always full of mistakes. But Denis liked me for my delicacy and docility. He saw that as a positive quality. We were such a great couple.
The night ended when the whiskey ran dry. After many Ibuprofen, several gallons of water and 10 hours of sleep; Denis, Mikel and Ainara started searching for the cave. Surprisingly, it didn't take long to find. It was exactly where the tourist told them it would be. The best part is that it wouldn't be hard to transport the scuba diving equipment there. Because Denis was so excited to explore the virgin site, we all pitched in to help.
The cave was not especially big. At a certain point, we started using the flashlight as we adventured on. For what you would expect from a cave, the ceiling was really high and the earth was flat and dry. Fifteen minutes later, we found the water. Denis and Mikel geared up for their dive.
Denis was certified to dive in caves. But on the other hand, Mikel was only Open Water certified and was really nervous as a result. Mikel had never dived in darkness or closed spaces. At first he wavered a little. But when he realized Denis wouldn't dive alone, he decided to go with him on the condition that they resurface if Mikel felt unsafe or nervous.
The two of them entered the water while Ainara, Oriol, and I waited on the shore to see their flashlights again. Usually, a recreational dive lasts 45 minutes to an hour. If you have Nitrox instead of regular air in your tank, you can last longer. The deeper you dive, the shorter you can stay under. When we saw the flashlights return after only 10 minutes, we thought something had gone terribly wrong.
“Calm down, calm down. Everything is fine. Basically, the cave is only 20 meters long,” said Denis, clearly disappointed.
"There isn't much to see, right?" I said.
“You're wrong!” said Mikel. “Remember everything you read about the witches in this area? I think we found a message written by one of them carved on a massive rock at the bottom of the water. It depicted something like magic mushrooms, a candle with an X through it, something like a cairn, and a skull. We filmed it with the Go Pro. Fuck, we actually spent more time taking pictures than we did exploring! I bet these supposed witches are relatives of the psychonauts we met in Espot!”
This is the message, more or less:
We all laughed. Oriol was referring to that time we went rafting in Llavorsi and by pure chance, we met some guys from Chile. After chatting for a while, we admitted we wanted to try magic mushrooms when we arrived to Koh Phangan in the Mellow Mountain bar.
They were surprised. The Chileans looked at each other and said, “Why do you think we are here together in the mountains? Do you think we're gay?” No, we came here to eat magic mushrooms and be connected to nature. There are only four of us, and we only took half of the doses. Your party is also four. Do you want the rest?”
That is how everyone tried mushrooms for the first time, except me. They said the experience was really intense. Before they took the mushrooms, they laughed about some of the nonsense spouted from the self-proclaimed psychonauts about the “divine” effects of the mushrooms. One hour after taking the mushrooms, the effect was over and no one was laughing.
Two days after Denis and Mikel's dive, everything went to shit. During lunch, Denis told us about his idea. He wanted to go back to the cave and do as the rock said by taking the mushrooms in the dark.
I was the first one to say I didn't want to take drugs, and even less so doing drugs in a cave in the dark because of a message which clearly says you will die at the end, even if it is just a superstition.
Ainara argued that she'd had enough of doing drugs one time in Llavorsi. She didn't want to endure such an intense experience again. Mikel literally couldn't afford the cost of the drugs, and gave some excuse. When you are poor, the worst thing is people realizing it. No one argued against his excuse out of respect because everyone knew what was going on. In the end, Oriol succumbed to peer pressure and said no as well.
In that moment Denis, who had always kept the group together, proposed nobody say anything about the existence of the cave or the message. According to him, the secret of that pact between us meant so much to our friendship.
“Secrets unite people! I want you all to be my accomplice and I want to be yours! We have to take this to our graves. It will be beautiful!” said Denis euphorically. I always loved when he was so sensitive.
All of us agreed because we thought it was sweet, but not Ainara. She wanted to tell society and the rest of the world as it is our historical duty. As always, peer pressure won. The rest of the vacation went as normal. On the third day, Denis received a WhatsApp message indicating there was a package he needed to pick up in Barna for a friend in the next 24 hours. He was in such a hurry, he didn't say anything else.
Early in the morning, Denis took the car to Barcelona and returned that night. He woke me up when he came in. Then, he got in bed with me. He said, “I love you”, and we fell asleep. He was so tired, he hadn't eaten dinner.
The next morning, I woke up alone. At first, I thought Denis was in the bathroom. But half an hour later with no sign of him, I became worried. I searched the entire house, but he wasn't there. My thoughts started to betray me. What if he left me? What if he is laughing at me? He never said I love you until last night.
Desperate with hysteria, I woke up my friends and they said not to worry. Mikel didn't even get out of bed. While half-asleep, he told me chill out. However, the van and the car were still in the driveway, and Denis was not answering his phone.
At 11am, Denis showed up. When we saw him Denis was walking along the bridge over the nearby highway, looking overwhelmed and perplexed. Mikel had just woken up and was the first of us to spot him. It really pissed me off that he was the first one to see him.
We all ran towards the bridge. Denis melted into an eternal hug with me. With eyes full of tears he said to everyone:
“I fooled you. I didn't have to pick up a package yesterday. I went to the grow shop to buy mushrooms. I fasted to intensify the mushroom effects. In the middle of the night, I went to the cave. Before you get angry or become disappointed in me, let me tell you something. The message is true.”
"I followed the instructions in the message on the rock. Very, very slowly plains of white sand appeared in my sight. They felt more real than anything I have ever experienced. There was also a burning pot with a cairn balancing in the middle, just like in the message. I am positive I was not tripping. I have truly traveled somewhere else. There were stairs, there were flowers I had never seen before, and the sky curved on itself. I am overwhelmed; I don't know how to explain it. I don't wanna be dramatic, but I think we discovered the gateway to another world."
Ainara laughed, and asked Denis if that was a joke. But when she noticed Denis didn't change his expression, she started to process each and every word. The sound of cars passing along the highway below us somehow set an ominous tone for the conversation. Then, Ainara said:
“What about the skull in the last part of the message? You know that almost certainly means death or something similar, right?!”
When I realized that, I slapped Denis as hard as I could and said the ugliest things imaginable. I shouldn't have done that to him, and now I regret it.
“Well, I am still here, right? I guess the witchy-witch who wrote that message got something wrong.”
When we went back to the house, we had calmed down and Denis started talking again. He described an infinite plane, little hills with flowers, rocks literally hanging from the sky, one giant staircase that weaves into the ground. Not only that, but Denis had the skill to teleport in that world merely by thinking about somewhere he could see or has visited before, and then blinking. Ainara kept asking over and over again if this was a joke, Mikel and Oriol seemed interested, and I was disappointed. Denis could have died and then I would have been left alone in the world again.
When we were alone that night, Denis calmed me down. He apologized, but said it was something he had to do or he would not feel complete. With a smirk he said to me that I should recognize that I love his rebelliousness and disobedience although it makes me nervous, even if it's just a little bit. I started to smile and told him the next time he does something like that, I want to go with him. Denis said yes. And that is how we ended up making love. That night, both of us orgasmed at the same time.
The next morning, I hugged Denis and found him cold; dead.
I shouted. The rest woke up and came. Denis was dead. They called emergency services, and they confirmed the obvious. We were dumbfounded. Consumed by grief I started shouting, “The witch was right! The witch was right!”
Ainara, completely level-headed, said:
“I know we are in mourning, but listen to me. We can't tell anyone about the witch's message in the cave, nor about the psychedelics that Denis took. I am not thinking clearly, but if what Denis said is true and we tell everyone that it is possible to travel to this other place and then you die afterwards, a lot of people will die trying to recreate Denis' actions. My intuition tells me something like this would change the world forever, and I don't think anyone is ready for that knowledge.”
“It is not your choice”, said Oriol. It was the first time he had spoken since Denis passed away. Mikel followed:
“Exactly, it is not OUR decision. It is the truth, and we should tell it. My friend, OUR friend died because of this!”
That's when they started arguing. Then, I told everyone to stop talking. I reminded them that Denis wanted us to keep this a secret among ourselves, and we all agreed. Oriol said the situation has changed, and is out of our hands. However, I mustered the necessary strength and responded that if we tell the world not only will be create an incontrollable mess, but something much worse. We would be disrespecting Denis' memorial. I agreed with Ainara. The story had to remain with us.
Oriol was visibly angry. He said this was emotional blackmail. This was the first time in my life that I had ever seen Oriol. I think not having control of the situation pissed him off. Just before I began insulting Oriol, Mikel realized Denis' knees were swollen and blue, and the conversation took yet another turn.
Visibly nervous, Mikel told us Denis didn't die because of magic or some curse. He died because of decompression sickness. Someone asked what that means, and Mikel explained with a short temper, as usual.
“Decompression is a sickness scuba divers get when they have been underwater too long or too deep. If you remain underwater too long at certain depths, some nitrogen bubbles are formed in your bloodstream when you emerge. Then when the bubble gets to your joints, they swell up and turn blue. If the bubbles gets to the brain... cerebral death.”
However, Mikel thought this was impossible. He explained they were under for less than 20 minutes in a depth always above 10 meters. At that depth, they could have stayed underwater for 2 hours before reaching the decompression time limit. Mikel didn't understand why Denis suffered decompression and he didn't.
He was sure Denis died because of decompression, and everything he saw was a hallucination. A very vivid hallucination, but a hallucination nonetheless. We would have to wait for the autopsy to see if Mikel was right.
That's how we “decided” to keep the message in the cave a secret. When the ambulance came an hour later, the coroner pronounced Denis dead. Mikel said they found a cave where they scuba dived, and suspected he suffered from decompression. Mikel called the Red Cross clinic in Barcelona to talk with the doctor in charge of the hiperbaric chamber, used to treat decompression sickness. Mikel told her the information about the dive.
10m deep and 20 minutes immersion time. That time was a lot less than the 120 minutes necessary to suffer decompression at that depth, according to the recreational dive planner table. However and by surprise, the doctor said there have been decompression cases where the people were within the limits of the Padi table. There are certain risk factors associated with compression within the time limits. The doctor asked:
"Was he fat? Did he have hypertension? Was he old?"
"No, no, and no!" exclaimed Mikel.
"I am sorry for your friend, but it is possible. It has happened before. Your friend won in the lottery in a bad way."
"Screw you, ma'am", spat Mikel, and hung up.
Denis' family was devastated. A lot of people came to the funeral. None of them knew Denis and I were together. I couldn't help feeling ignored, even though it wasn't their fault. However, it was my fault that Denis died. I should have noticed that Denis woke up and went to the cave. I should have suspected Denis went to Barcelona to get mushrooms. I could have done it better. It was then that I went into a deep depression which lasted for months. I felt alone and guilty. Mikel, Oriol and Ainara only visited me a couple of times at the beginning, and even if they keep up via the WhatsApp group they created, I slowly felt like they were forgetting about me. I felt they ignored me. They didn't tell me the important things.
Under normal circumstances, I would never have wanted to find out about Mikel's scuba diving shop in Baracaldo. But I was so depressed, I didn't even have the strength to be angry about that.
In a month, we received the autopsy results which confirmed the cause of death was decompression. Life went on. As time passed, the secret of the witch was less and less relevant to me. The only thing I could feel was I would never be able to climb out of the hole Denis had put me in. Months passed until one day, Mikel rang my doorbell and everything changed again. This was the conversation:
"How are you feeling, Marina?"
"You can tell, right?"
"I am not going to lie to you. You look... sad. But I understand perfectly."
“Well, maybe the doctor was right about Denis winning the lottery with the decompression. I try to think positively. He died doing what he enjoyed most. This comforts me. A little part of me, but it is comforting.”
Mikel explained that after Denis' funeral he continued to believe it was impossible for Denis to die because of decompression after the dive. Although, it was true he died because of decompression; there was no doubt about that. With time, Mikel thought about a possible answer to the riddle: Denis died because of the decompression, but not the compression from the immersion, but the decompression because of the higher atmospheric pressure in the other world. According to Mikel, Denis was in that place for about 5 hours. Under the effects of psychedelics, you lose all perception of time; and 5 hours are a lot of hours. If the pressure was really higher in that place, it is normal he got such severe decompression sickness.
I was speechless. When Oriol realized that, he continued talking. I had never seen him talk for so long. He was changed.
“That's not all, Marina. Mikel came to see me and told me about his theory. Unfortunately, there was only one way to see if it was true. We thought about something crazy. We reproduced the same steps as Denis to reach that place, but we traveled there with scuba diving computers and sweets. I don't know if Denis ever told you, but eating sweets eliminates the effects of psychedelics within a matter of minutes.”
“Look Marina, I confess that I didn't have the balls to do this alone. That is why I brought Oriol into this. But guess what happened. This was four months ago, and we are still here...”
"So... You went there and then came back?!?!?"
"Yes, the first time was very brief."
"The first time?!?!?!?!?"
“Let them talk”, said Ainara. Quickly, Oriol followed. They didn't even give me time to process the information. He looked so engaged.
“Yes, the first time. This is not even the half of it. Indeed when you eat the mushrooms in total darkness, you arrive on that plane. What's even worse was that we could see and even touch each other. This place is real. We are sure it doesn't exist in the same way that earth exists, but it exists; it is not a hallucination.”
“When we arrived to that plane, we immediately checked our scuba diving computers. Bingo! According to the computer, we were 17m below sea level. Obviously, we were not under the sea. Basically the atmospheric pressure in that place is higher than earth's atmospheric pressure, and the equivalent is 17m. I don't want to worry you about technical stuff about Padi and scuba diving, but I just want to tell you that breathing regular air under that pressure you could be under for around 50 minutes.”
“To be honest, we didn't want to risk it and 5 minutes after we appeared in that place, we consumed the sweets so we could come back as quickly as possible. The effect of the sweets took 20 minutes to kick in. But when it happened, it happened exactly as we thought it would happen. We came back to the cave without pain in our joints, without vomiting, and without headaches.”
“Honestly, we were not at all relaxed. In the first week, we became hypocondriacs. The decompression effects are so subtle they can be mistaken for dizziness or minor headaches. However, two weeks went by and we were still living. We found a way to travel to that place and then come back without dying.”
“That's when we made a decision. The world needs to know about the existence of this place, but before they do, we need to investigate every possibility to avoid any conflicts when we make it public.”
Oriol only left me about half a second to talk, and I jumped in to express my doubts. I asked him what he meant by “avoid any conflicts” and he continued:
“Marina, that place is not at all what it seems. It is not only an infinity of white sandy plains. It has buildings. A waterfall turning into lava. And not only that. There is so much more. We have seen humans wander who are incredibly translucent. Their skin looks like when you shine a flashlight into an ear where you can see all the veins. They don't have a single hair. They can't see us. They can't listen to us. We do not exist to them. Not only that. Other entities exist, too. They are invisible, and the only reason you can see them is because of the cloak they wear. The wanderers run away from the cloaks, and if they catch a wanderer, he dies.”
“Look, I don't want to overwhelm you with information,” continued Mikel. “For now, we at least know the place has a function. At the moment, we think the place is related to hell. That is our theory. Right now we call it Infernium. That's why we don't want to people to know more until we dive deeper.”
“What if the existence of hell gets scientifically certified?” followed Mikel. “How would society react? I am not talking about the Christian version of hell, but a place where a place where humans are made to wander and suffer for a reason. That's what we believe this place is, and that's why we don't want to explain anything to society yet, not until we investigate more, Marina. Denis didn't die for nothing.”
The mention of Denis struck my heart and made me burst into tears. I started to hyperventilate. Those who were my three friends at that moment took me to out of the cafe in Barcelona to get me some air.
They took me to la Ciutadella park, where Mikel, Oriol and Ainara kept explaining everything they've done behind my back for the last 4 months. They kept going on about things in that place they call Infernium, but it was hard for me to pay attention. Finally, I made an effort to focus again.
“...however, there is a staircase which many wanderers try to climb. Some of them make it and never return. I am getting ahead of myself.”\
“Slow down. You're scaring her!” shouted Ainara. Fed up, I contested:
“No Ainara, I'm not scared, only a little. I am much worse. I am disappointed. Why haven't any of you said anything about the existence of this place until now? What gives you the right to hide this secret from me?”
Mikel, visibly about to explode, finally did. He told me the reason they didn't say anything to me was because they knew I would react this way and that I always take things personally.
I felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach. I was tempted to leave again, but I knew I would never find peace if I didn't know more. In the background, I heard Ainara chastising Mikel and Oriol was pacing in circles, visibly nervous. Everything was blurry because of the intensity of the moment.
Maybe they were right. Maybe I do always take things personally. Maybe I do see the world in black and white. However, this was the moment to prove to them they were wrong. It was the moment to prove to myself who the true Marina is.
“It's true, you are right”, I said, much to everyone's surprise. “If I had participated in this process, I would have become a hysterical burden. I get it, and even more so after the death of Denis. In spite of everything, you have to understand my disappointment. In a way, it would have been comforting to know about all of this before. Knowing Denis died because of something and not because of a lottery.”
“Look Marina, we apologize”, solemnly expressed Oriol. “Honestly, it was very hard to make the decision of whether to tell you or not. At the beginning, we thought it was better to leave you out of the loop because everything that's happened to you already is more than enough. But now, I'm sure we should have done the opposite.”
Suddenly, everything made sense. That's why I felt they abandoned me. They felt guilty about keeping the secret of their investigation while asking how I was doing because they knew how I would react. As time passed, they felt more and more guilty, and thus less and less willing to talk to me. I was realizing that every story has multiple sides to it and not everything is a conspiracy against me. Simply, there are misunderstandings.
“If we are honest from the beginning, we can avoid drama”, I answered. “It's better just to start over. I hold no grudges. But please, just give me 5 minutes alone. I need to process everything.”
Five minutes later, I walked back towards my friends who looked at me with curiosity and worry. Maybe they were expecting more drama, or maybe they were hoping I had changed for real. I was willing to prove to them that I had changed. I decided that from now on, I will be more calm. I continued:
“Why is Ainara here? Weren't the two of you investigating on your own? When did she get involved?”
“They came to see me when they needed order and structure to start seriously diving into Infernium and not acting like children playing in a park.”
“We have already visited Infernium seven times. Every time we visited, we discovered something new and overwhelming which made us ask more questions, and we got fewer answers. Moreover, my money was starting to run out because we were using it to rent scuba diving equipment and a van to get to the cave every weekend. We called the only person I know who is capable of creating order out of chaos.”
“In other words, me”, said Ainara with pride despite the gravity of the situation, interrupting Oriol.
“As you can imagine, I didn't believe anything about what they were saying about Infernium. I lasted less than you during the first conversation, Marina. Indignantly, I left. However two days later, I had an epiphany. I wanted to check if what they were saying was true before I left my job and started helping them, which was essentially what they were asking of me.”
“I asked Mikel to sell his flat. If what he said was true, I had an idea to organize the investigation and still keep it a secret. To my surprise only 5 days later, he already had a buyer who put down a deposit. Mikel offered the flat for a really low price so it sold very quickly.”
“That's how my life changed. I left my job in Pamplona, and I got to work. I told them about the plan: use Mikel's money to set up a dive shop that would serve as a front for all the equipment we were going to use to investigate Infernium. In the first meeting, I already proposed several locations. At this time, they didn't want me to keep going. They did not understand why I wanted to start the business before I visited Infernium. The reality is that I did not intend to go to Infernium without understanding how to properly scuba dive. I preferred not to depend on them. I knew what I needed to learn. I wanted to set up the dive shop and get certified as soon as possible, not only as Open Water but as Advanced and with the specialty of Nitrox.”
I didn't know what the hell Nitrox was. The name sounded dangerous, so I asked.
“Yes, Nitrox. It is a type of air that has more oxygen than normal, (and therefore less nitrogen) which allows you to spend longer underwater because it takes longer for the nitrogen bubbles to form”, said Ainara. Followed Mikel:
“We don't want to bore you with the trivial things. To get to the point, two weeks later we already had everything set up (the dive center, some employees, the scuba diving bottles, the air and Nitrox compressors, the scuba diving jackets, etc.) and Ainara went to Infernium for the first time.”
“I doubted them so many times before, that I felt guilty the first time I went to Infernium because I felt as if I had betrayed my friends. They showed me everything they could in 20 minutes: the cloaked invisible entities, the translucent wanderer trying to escape, the door systems, etc. It is one thing to hear about this place, but completely another to see it firsthand. I ate the churros with chocolate which I previously prepared and in 10 minutes, I was back in the cave. In the real world, you know?”
I saw Ainara was very excited as she spoke. I could tell she was very passionate and eager about the whole investigation.
“I confess that the next two weeks was the most passionate time of my life. I convinced Mikel and Oriol to develop a system to get to Infernium without raising suspicion before investigating further. First and most importantly: logistics.”
“The first thing I organized was transportation and which days we went to Infernium. The dive center was in Bilbao, 3 hours away by van from the interior of Valle de Tella. Let's be honest, driving a van dedicated to scuba diving to the cave in the middle of nowhere every two to three days would not be helpful. Sooner or later, someone else will go to dive there. Or even worse, someone will suspect we are doing something we aren't supposed to.”
“The van would only go to the cave once a month packed with scuba diving tanks full of Nitrox, which we would leave in key places in Infernium to continue exploring. In a central area of Infernium, we created a changing station to gear up. When we were fully equipped, we grabbed the tanks full of Nitrox which we had previously left in the changing station. When the dive time was about to end, we brought Nitrox tanks from another area of Infernium to the changing station ready to be used on the next expedition.”
“We stored the empty Nitrox tanks in a different part of Infernium. When we accumulated 15 tanks, which is how many will fit in the van, we transported them back to the real world to fill them again using the Nitrox compressor. As you can imagine, there are power outlets in Infernium. At the beginning, we tried using a solar panel attached to the compressor and left those in Infernium. Mysteriously, the sun in Infernium didn't provide any power supply. Thinking hard about it, filling the scuba tanks with air from Infernium wouldn't be a good idea without knowing the air composition.”
“At first, we stored the scuba tanks in the changing station area, but quickly we realized it was better to keep them near the key spots Mikel had been creating to explore and map Infernium. I will explain to you in a second.”
“The thing is, we only used the van once a month. For the other times, we would each drive one of our cars with all of us inside to not raise suspicions.”
“Oh, I almost forgot. It wasn't difficult to get the magic mushrooms necessary for visiting Infernium without being suspicious. We bought a kit for growing our own mushrooms and that's it. The products of the kit lasted us a long time, so we were inconspicuous.”
“Once the logistics were in place, I organized the investigation of Infernium. Everytime we visited, it became more and more clear it was best to split up so we could study all of Infernium. Also, we decided to keep everything inside of Infernium to make sure our work stays hidden until we make it public. This was my plan:”
“Maps and navigation, translucent wanderers, elements of orange light, 'enemies' of the wanderers and another one that I will tell you about later.”
“I assigned an area of study according to each of our strengths. It was clear that Mikel should be in charge of making the maps to organize Infernium. It was the easiest job of all, although tedious. It was simply a matter of slowly discovering areas and making sketches to record the navigability of Infernium. We left the diving tanks full of Nitrox ready for the next day in the places where Mikel was creating the maps. If for some reason we have to urgently go somewhere to investigate, we would use the bottles in each of these zones and it is easier for us to organize ourselves.”
“I decided to put Oriol in charge of investigating the wanderers and the enemies. The reason was very special. Oriol was the most 'philosophical' of all of us and I knew he would love for his work to be discovering the 'human' part of Infernium.”
“For me, I decided to investigate the elements of orange light. They seem to be the most rational and logical part of Infernium.”
“That's how we spent two months. Two short months, Marina. We have discovered a lot, but have found few answers.”
“I discovered the elements of orange light are linked to each other. They are part of a grand design the wanderers need to use in order to keep going forward. The wanderers can harvest the orange light using their fingers. We still don't know the whole point of this system.”
“There is a staircase where all the wanderers go. The more harvesting fingers they have, the higher they can go up the stairs. The thing is, we just pass through the elements of orange light. At a certain point high up on the staircase, the physical stairs vanish and are replaced by stairs made of the same orange light. That is why we can't see what's at the top. Oh and by the way if we fall or die by any means in Infernium, we get teleported to the place we were before falling. We can't die in Infernium.”
“The is something important at the top of the staircase, Marina. Most of the wanderers that reach the top come back again and again. But some of the wanderers never return. We believe there is a salvation or something similar to the wanderers. Imagine the staircase is literally the 'stairway to heaven'.”
“The second discovery worth telling you about is the one Mikel made. Okay Marina, Infernium is made up of layers of landscapes and structures linked between them. If we imagine Infernium like a skyscraper and and you reach the top floor, you can continue going up and reach floor zero. Likewise if you reach floor zero and keep going down, you reach the top. We call it the 'Vertical Loop'. Structures hanging from the sky. Catacombs leading you to new horizons. Waterfalls turning into rivers of lava. Skies twisting in on themselves.”
“The place seems real, but some physical laws sustaining it are not. For example, we can't take pictures. They come out blank every time. However, we still have a lot to discover. Tell her, Mikel.”
“While exploring what we call the catacombs, I discovered a really hidden staircase. It is not the same staircase we are always talking about. It is another staircase which goes to the end of the abyss. It seems as though it is linked to the other staircase, but this one goes down instead of up. I feel we are close to discovering something important, if we keep investigating that area.”
“Listen”, said Oriol. “We are always talking about the wanderers, but in reality, there is never more than one wanderer at a time in Infernium. Let me explain. These beings die over and over again in Infernium. When they die, they come back to the cairns after a couple of minutes. After dying many times, the wanderers don't come back again. When this happens, another wanderer takes their place and everything resets. We know the wanderers are different because their bodies are different. They perform different gestures with their hand which allows them to dash, to interact with some elements in the world, or to illuminate areas of Infernium. Sometimes the wanderers are women, and sometimes they are men. Once, we even saw a child. They can't see us. I think this place is a slaughterhouse, a place of punishment for the wanderers. Sometimes I think someone put these people here to entertain themselves with the wanderers' suffering. It is confusing.”
“But why are you telling me all of this now? Why didn't you say anything before? What made you change your mind?” I asked, completely lost. Oriol continued, but this time in a solemn tone. He was not excited anymore.”
“One week ago, we decided to take a break to do something extremely necessary. We built a memorial to honor Denis inside Infernium. Each one of us wrote something. We wouldn't be where we are without him. But it is missing you. We want you to write something. Remember what Denis said: we don't have to talk about the witch's message, and therefore Infernium, to anyone. That should be the secret which united us. Well, you are the only one left. The memorial needs your message.”
I was speechless. A few seconds later, I realized it was better for me to leave the subject of Denis behind. Mikel told me that I owed Denis. Ainara said she thought I wouldn't remain calm until I visited his memorial. She told me to consider this the goodbye that I never had. Oriol tried to say something, but I cut him off by stating the obvious: peer pressure always wins. We all smiled. I asked what I needed to do. Mikel spoke:
“We will guide you through every moment. Bring whatever you want, and we will go to Denis' memorial. We will give you some privacy and whenever you are finished, eat the sweets and then we will come back to the cave.”
Something didn't feel right, so I said:
"I don't understand. Didn't we have to go with scuba diving equipment? Don't I need to learn how to scuba dive?"
Mikel was about to say something, but Ainara intervened:
“It is necessary. I insist that you come to the dive center some days to learn how the air works, the Nitrox, the decompression, etc., for your safety. It isn't going to happen, but you need to know how to stay calm if something happens for your own safety. I insist.”
That's how I went from being deeply depressed to being deeply involved in something that was overwhelming for all of us. That same day, we were already back to Bilbao by car and I had a PADI book explaining scuba diving basics in my hands. Everything happened really quickly and everyone was really understanding and kind to me. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was part of the group.
And just like that, there I was. In the cave, in the dark, with the three of them, with the mushrooms consumed, and a bag full of things to leave at Denis' memorial. Little by little, the world I had heard so much about started to appear before my eyes. In the blink of an eye, I was on that sandy white plain. There was scuba equipment ready for the four of us. Usually, they keep the equipment in another area but because I haven't seen it, I couldn't blink there yet. Everything was really easy and laid out for me.
They showed me how to “blink”. I learned suprisingly fast. I just had to close my eyes and think of a place I had already visited. Sometimes I blinked subconsciously while thinking of other places inside Infernium, and I teleported there without wanting to. It was tremendously easy to come back to the place where I was. They told me to get used to it because it kept happening to them as well. Step-by-step, they continued to guide me.
First, they guided me to a hill on the plain which had some descending stairs. After that, we went through an very vertical castle. Outside, first it was raining and then it was sunny. I was fascinated.
In the lower part of the castle, I saw a wanderer for the first time. I also saw some banners hanging with some strange, ancient looking text on them. I have never seen any language like this before. Everything was bathed in a beautiful light. The place was tranquil, but I felt uncomfortable at the same time. It was eerie.
Finally, we made it to the exit at the bottom of the castle. We appeared on a cliffside with an endless chasm below. That's when I saw the fabled staircase for the first time. We kept going; sometimes walking, sometimes blinking. After going through some ruins with the staircase on our right, I blinked again while thinking of the cliffs on the other side, and I finally saw it for the first time. Denis' memorial was right in front of me.
It was on the border of a cliff near a cherry tree. Everything in Infernium was calm, but this place had a special kind of peacefulness to it. It reminded me so much of Denis. I recognized the senyera from the protest. Oriol probably left it there. Mikel's football. Denis' favorite beer. By process of elimination, Ainara must have left it. And dedications. My three friends left me alone, they were a few meters behind me. I left my things. I was in silence for 5 minutes. I have never felt so at peace in my entire life. After awhile, Oriol, Ainara and Mikel appeared. We ate the sweets and we went out of Infernium. I already knew that wouldn't be the last time.
My first time in Infernium was exactly as I expected: overwhelming. And yes, my friends were right. Leaving all that on Denis' memorial lifted the weight off my shoulders. Mikel asked if I was okay. I was. I was just a little bit cold and dizzy, but they warned me about that.
The journey back to Bilbao was somber. Nobody said much. The three of them looked as though they were waiting for something. I didn't disappoint them. I began to show interest in their work in Infernium. Then, they started talking passionately. There was something I don't remember them telling me about, and I bring it up. All over Infernium, I saw banners with text on them in a language I didn't recognize. I've never seen those letters before.
They told me they haven't even attempted to translate the banners yet. They felt they wouldn't be successful. Ainara told me that in the past they thought about reaching out to me for help with interpreting the text. At the end day, I am a translator and they were sure I could somehow help. Of course, they didn't say anything out of respect for everything I was going through after the whole Denis situation.
Oriol told me those texts were the weakest point in their investigation. They asked me if I knew someone I trusted who would keep the secret and be involved in the investigation. To be honest, I didn't give it much thought. I instantly volunteered for the job. I was euphoric.
Officially part of the investigation, they updated me. The idea was to gather enough proof of what Infernium is. As suspected, the key was in the texts and the behavior of the wanderers. Once all the evidence was gathered, make it public. Whatever Infernium was, they imagined once people found out about the existence of a place like this it would be a mess. Ainara was the most afraid. She thought bringing this to light would cause a massive wave of suicides.
Mikel slipped in the idea of exposing Infernium to society soon and Oriol wanted it to be done now. According to him, it was not right for them to keep a secret of such social transformation even if it was to make a favor to society. It was clear everyone was doing their best in the investigation, but we were amateurs. We needed scientists and professional investigators, and they didn't want to recognize this or risk involving someone else.
They came to a point where the whole investigation depended on the texts, and therefore me. I felt important and responsible. I was motivated and full of energy. Finally, I could leave my footprint on the world.
After three weeks of work, I have not decoded a single word of text and the tension was building. Oriol and Mikel told us the bad news. They tried to go to Infernium in two different caves away from the Valle de Tella. In both caves, it worked. They followed the exact same process. Total darkness while eating mushrooms with sweets prepared to come back. Everyone became nervous.
How long will it take someone to discover this place by pure chance? The next thing they were going to try was other types of psychedelic drugs to reach Infernium: truffles, LSD, roots...
Then the unavoidable happened. Ainara, Oriol and Mikel started arguing. Both of them wanted to tell the world now. Ainara kept resisting it. Like in any heated argument, it became personal. I was only listening, but then they started talking about me too. Based on what I heard, they were not happy with my lack of progress. Hey I am a translator, not someone who decrypts ancient, undiscovered languages.
It was something Ainara said that made me think. She said the last thing I needed was to work under pressure and that they already know how much effort it took to get me to work with them. She also said they needed to give me more space and time. After the discussion, the work followed but we were not the same. You could cut the tension with a knife.
At first, I didn't find the commentary very important but over the weeks, something kept bugging me. “How much effort it took to get me to work with them.” “How much effort it took to get me to work with them.” It didn't fit. I was the one who offered to work with them. Then, everything clicked in my head.
I have been manipulated.
I have never felt so betrayed. It made sense. They wanted me to make the translations in Infernium because they knew I would keep the secret for Denis. They manipulated me emotionally so I felt like it was my idea to work with them, and not the other way around. That's why the three of them appeared at my house with no notice.
That's why they didn't tell me about the texts until I saw them. They built Denis' memorial not because of him, but as an excuse to lure me into Infernium. That's why they were so quiet in the car. They were waiting for me to show interest in the texts. Ainara, Oriol and Mikel definitely betrayed me.
If they had just asked for help, I would've said yes. That was what was bothering me the most. But now, the damage had been done. I was scared. I couldn't just leave the investigation. They would suspect me. What would they do to me if I left? They were schizophrenic, obsessed, and I am trapped in their manipulations.
How did we make it this far? How did the friendship between the five us become so broken? Why were they so evil? I miss you Denis. But no. I am not going to pity myself. If I have learned anything in this process, I need to firmly make decisions on my own, and not let myself be manipulated. Also, I need to remain faithful to Denis. This was not a dead end. This was an opportunity to make things right again. I traveled alone to Infernium and I made the preparations.
The next time the four of us went to Infernium, everything went as usual. Each one of us geared up with the equipment previously set aside and we started working in our areas. Once the scuba diving computers notified us of the decompression time limit, we gathered in the changing station. We took off our gear, prepared the equipment for the next excursion, and they ate their sweets. Them. Not me. They didn't even notice.
Neither did they notice the gas in their scuba tanks was normal air instead of Nitrox. I changed it when I went to Infernium alone. They didn't know it, but it would be the last time they would ever see Infernium. Slowly they disappeared, leaving me all alone.
Why did I do it? For Denis and for the people. This place is dangerous. I didn't say anything, but I did translate the texts. They are nothing but old, common folk Spanish with different letters. What I read wasn't funny at all, but now I have the advantage of knowing what I have to do when I come back.
I remember what Denis told us. Infernium was meant to be a secret between the five of us. In this way, I am making sure they will keep the secret and won't do anything crazy. It won't be good for society to know about this place. I prefer everything remains the same. The world has enough problems already. The past few hours seem to have lasted forever. Meanwhile, that's why I decided to write my story; blinking and wandering from place to place.
There is no going back. I am nervous. That is why I am writing everything down; I just have to get it all out. NO. I don't want to fool myself anymore. I know I will suffer decompression when I get back to the cave. I also write everything down to cheer myself up when I come back as a wanderer, but I remain calm. I know I will come back because I read it.
Deservedly, I know I will have to die three times to get out of here. Four, if my own suicide counts. But I also know I will reach the top of the stairs and the white fountain too. This place must exist, but no one should be aware of it.
Everything is so quiet up here. Now I just have to relax and wait. When I go back, I will climb the orange steps and no matter what it takes, I will reach the white fountain. Denis must be there waiting for me. I am going to be punished, but I have hope and faith in myself. It was worth it just for that. I know I will see you again, Denis.
I know that this is not goodbye. I am ready for the next adventure by your side.