[WARNING: This book contains extremely violent content, adult language, and scenes that might make some people uncomfortable. Read at your own discretion.]
[I wrote this several years ago as a ghostwriter for a project that never came to fruition. This unpublished horror novel is still a rough draft, and I welcome all feedback. I realize there are some similarities between this story and the plot of Squid Game, but all work here is original. If you enjoy this book, please follow the blog to read more chapters (all of which will be published throughout today). This work is completely free to read, and this is the first time it’s been made available to the public. If you would like to support me, please like and share my work, and send feedback. You can message me here or on Twitter @JDtheWriter1.]
“Keep moving,” one of the soldiers said.
We followed the boss through the doors and over to the edge of the pool. The boss climbed down a ladder and hopped down the last few feet to the bottom. There was only one other ladder, and it was at the opposite side of the pool. Just behind it, there was a dark blanket hanging from the wall, and I thought I could see light trying to shine through it.
“Ten feet deep,” the boss said. “So don’t slip.”
I let go of Nick, and he fell to the ground like a rag doll, despite Victoria’s efforts to hold him. He groaned, and looked around the room with hollow eyes.
“Bryan, what are you doing?” Cynthia asked.
“Are you going to carry him down the ladder?” I asked. “Because I’m not.”
Cynthia dropped to her knees, next to Nick. “You need to wake up, honey.”
“Someone else needs to come down this ladder,” the boss said, “before I get upset.”
Victoria looked at me, and then walked over to the ladder. “Don’t take long,” she said before climbing down.
Cynthia was coddling Nick, almost like she was worried about hurting his feelings if she told him the truth. I pushed her out of the way and got in Nick’s face. “Get the fuck up, NOW!” I shouted.
“I can’t,” he said.
“Then you’re going to die.”
“I don’t want to.”
“If you don’t want to die you have to get the fuck up!”
“No, not that,” Nick said. “I don’t… I don’t want to stand up.”
Cynthia was staring at us, wringing her hands and gritting her teeth. “Do something, Bryan,” she said. “Help him.”
“What the hell can I do?” I asked, throwing my hands up. “He doesn’t care anymore. He’s going to die. We can’t keep pulling him along with us.”
“Are you two stupid?” one of the soldiers asked. His voice wasn’t angry. In a way, he seemed to be pleading with us to look after ourselves, instead of Nick, who was obviously a lost cause at this point. “Someone else needs to get down the ladder, or the boss is going to get pissed.”
Cynthia looked at me again, begging me with her eyes. Please, they seemed to say, do whatever you can to help him.
I took a deep breath and dragged Nick’s limp body to the edge of the pool. I sat down next to him, held on to his arms, and kicked the rest of his body until he was hanging over the ladder.
“Grab on or fall,” I said, forcing his hands around the cold, steel bars. “This is the last time I’m going to help you.”
I released Nick’s hands, expecting him to fall. Instead, his hands tightened around the bars, and he slowly made his way down to the bottom of the pool. At the bottom, he slipped and fell, but it wasn’t as bad as a fall from the top would have been.
He got back up, which was a good sign, but I had a feeling that his luck was about to run out.
“You can go next,” I said to Cynthia.
She climbed down, and I followed her. At the bottom, there were four pairs of metal shoes. At least, that’s what they seemed to be. They were bigger than shoes, and more closely resembled what I thought a pair of bulky robotic legs might look like. There were openings, probably where human legs could be inserted.”
Oh fuck, I hope not, I thought.
“Out of the way,” one of the soldiers said as he made his way down the ladder. He kicked at my head. I moved out of the way as him and three other soldiers climbed down the ladder and stood next to the metal shoes.
“These robotic boots are old prototypes, given to us by the military,” the boss said. “They’ve been slightly altered for our needs. Each boot weighs approximately thirty-five pounds, for a total combined weight of seventy pounds. We will strap you in, lock the boots into place, and you will have no way to remove them. The only way to get rid of them is to walk all the way to the other side of the pool,” he pointed, “and climb up that ladder.”
“What’s the catch?” I asked.
The boss smiled. “We’ve asked for some help from the local fire department to provide a large quantity of continuously flowing water. As you’re probably aware, the fire department is another socialist program funded by our government, just like the educational system that provided our current arena. Since Trials is owned by the government, we already have close ties with the fire chief and his crew.”
“I guess they were eager to pitch in,” Cynthia said.
The boss nodded. “And all they asked for in return was a couple grand each and to have their identities kept secret. We completely understood the need to conceal their identities, of course.” The boss rubbed his masked chin. “Could you imagine what life would be like for me and the soldiers if our identities were ever revealed?” He shivered and spoke into his phone. “We’re ready.”
Several people in yellow raincoats appeared near the sides of the pool, looking like bright pillars. They were carrying fire hoses. I wondered if the hoses were connected to the water reservoirs found in firetrucks, and if so, how many fire trucks were parked outside the building. By the number of hoses being pointed into the pool, most likely coming in through various windows, curling past doorways, and sliding down hallways, I would guess that there were plenty of firetrucks at the disposal of Trials of Redemption. Perhaps they had even opened up a fire hydrant for the occasion.
No better use for taxpayer money, I thought. Fuck the nearby houses that might catch on fire because this torture shit is much more important.
“Put the boots on them,” the boss said.
The soldiers approached us, and started putting the boots on our legs.
“Raise your leg,” the soldier assigned to me said.
I raised my leg, and stepped into the boot as he tilted it in my direction. It was uncomfortable, and I felt the heavy weight around my leg without even trying to walk around in it. When the boot was on, the soldier pulled a leather strap that tightened around my foot. He wrapped a chain around it and locked it into place with a padlock.
“Lift the other one,” he said, and we repeated the process with my other leg.
The soldier pulled the chains, testing the security of the locks. Satisfied with the results, he gave a thumbs-up to the boss. The boss nodded, and waited for the remaining soldiers to report the security of the other locks.
When all four soldiers had their thumbs up, the boss looked up to the firemen and said, “fill it up.” He looked at us and said, “I’ll see you on the other side, if you can make it.”
The firemen turned on their water and started to fill the swimming pool. The water pressure was strong, but the pool was big. It would take several minutes, at least, before the water became an issue.
The boss climbed up the ladder and the soldiers climbed up after him. When the soldiers reached the top, they pulled out their rifles and aimed them at the top of the ladder.
“I guess this side is off limits,” Victoria said. “We better get moving.”
I lifted my leg and felt the heavy weight of the boot. It was uncomfortable, but not impossible to lift. I was confident that I could reach the other side if I took my time. I continued to move, trying to remain focused, and trying not to let fear take over.
Fear would cause me to panic. Panic would cause me to die.
“Is everyone else okay?” I asked.
Nobody answered, but I heard at least one other person lifting their heavy boots from somewhere behind me. I stopped long enough to look over my shoulder. Victoria was close behind me, but Cynthia was still at the starting point, struggling to help Nick.
“Cynthia, leave him alone,” I yelled. “Get your ass in gear!”
“He’s not strong enough to lift the boots,” she yelled back.
“Fuck,” I muttered, mostly to myself. I kept walking.
The water was about a foot deep now, causing the heavy boots to create a splash every time they came down. I looked to the other end of the pool. It wouldn’t be that hard to reach the ladder as long as nothing went wrong.
I looked over my shoulder. Victoria was struggling to keep up. She was about ten feet behind me. If any of us failed to complete this challenge, we’d become human statues, stuck just below the surface of the water.
“Try to keep up,” I said.
“Yeah, no shit,” she replied.
Further back, Cynthia had made a little progress with Nick. He was moving slowly, and occasionally Cynthia had to help him by reaching down and lifting his boots with her arms. At the pace they were going, they’d never make it.
With the water standing at about two feet, moving forward was becoming more of a chore. Victoria had started copying Cynthia by using her arms to help lift her legs. Victoria had an obvious advantage over Cynthia though, because she was lifting her own legs, instead of Nick’s.
I tried using my arms to help lift my legs, just like they were doing. Even though I could still lift my legs using their own strength, I decided to walk with the help of my arms for a while. Later on, the water would be too high to bend over far enough to lift my legs with my arms, so if I wanted to conserve energy, now was the time.
“Copycat,” Victoria shouted at me.
“You should talk,” I said.
“I’m not going to be able to keep up.”
I stopped, and turned my body as much as I could so I could check on Victoria’s progress. She was falling farther behind. She was probably about fifteen feet behind me now.
Cynthia and Nick were about ten feet behind Victoria. I wouldn’t be able to communicate with either of them over the sound of the high-pressured water from the hoses beating down on us from overhead. If I put any more distance between me and Victoria, I wouldn’t be able to talk to her, either.
“Fuck,” I said beneath my breath, and then called out to Victoria, “just keep walking. I’ll come back for you.”
“Okay,” she said, pushing one of her legs forward.
I had to make a wide circle to turn around. I couldn’t just spin around like I could have if I’d been wearing sneakers. I would have fallen on my ass if I’d tried that while wearing the boots, possibly even twisting an ankle in the process.
I pushed my way back to Victoria, losing much of the ground I’d gained. I hooked her arm in mine, and used my small height advantage to give her some additional leverage while she walked.
“Thanks for coming back for me,” she said.
“I couldn’t just leave you here.”
“Why not? You were going to leave Nick.”
“Nick sabotaged himself.”
I heard a loud splash and turned to see Cynthia and Nick struggling to stand up in the water. It was almost four feet deep, and if they didn’t stand up soon they would drown. I didn’t have enough time to go back and save them, so that was out of the question.
Me and Victoria kept moving. We were too far away from the ladder and needed to make more progress.
Suddenly, Cynthia splashed through the surface of the water and gasped for breath. “He’s trying to pull me down!”
“What?” Victoria asked.
“He’s drowning. He wants me to save him, but I can’t.”
Nick’s hand reached out of the water and grabbed a fist full of Cynthia’s jumpsuit.
“Kill him,” I said.
“You have to kill him before he kills you.”
“Come on, Victoria,” I said, turning to leave, “we don’t have time for this.”
Victoria didn’t argue. We both pushed forward. Cynthia had made her choice, and now she had to live – or die – by the consequences.
“Help me!” Cynthia screamed.
“We can’t get to you,” Victoria said. “You’re going to have to do it.”
“Hold him under,” Victoria suggested. “Crush him with your boots!”
We kept moving, but I looked over my shoulder long enough to see Cynthia force her weight down on Nick’s thrashing body. She lifted one of her legs and brought it down on top of him. She screamed, grunted and stomped, and screamed again as the surface of the water briefly turned red before the fresh water from the hoses helped it dissipate.
Nick’s hands floated to the surface as Cynthia trudged on.
Cynthia was crying.
“You did what you had to do,” I yelled.
“Keep moving!” Victoria yelled.
“I’m trying,” Cynthia said. She was so far away that we barely heard her.
“She’s not going to make it,” I said.
“She can still do it,” Victoria said.
I refused to argue about it any longer. Either Cynthia performed a miracle, or she died, but we wouldn’t be able to help her. She had to do it on her own.
The water was all the way up to my chest, now. It was up to Victoria’s chin. Cynthia was a couple inches shorter than Victoria, so the water must have been up to her mouth, but I didn’t slow down to check.
The ladder was only about five feet away from me and Victoria’s reach. We continued to help each other. I lifted her as much as I could, pushing her forward while she lifted her heavy boots another couple of steps. Then she did the same for me.
Cynthia was all alone, without any help. Her gurgled screams were distant, but not so distant that we were spared their hellish implications.
“She’s panicking,” I said.
Victoria gurgled too, causing me to look at her in alarm. Her eyes were big, and the water was already up to her mouth. Soon, she wouldn’t be able to breathe.
“Listen,” I said, “we’ve only got a few more feet to go.”
“Don’t panic, or I won’t be able to help you. If you stay calm I’ll do everything I can to keep us both alive. Breathe through your nose until you can’t anymore. Breathe deeply right before the water covers your nose, and then hold your breath and keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’re almost there. We’re almost – “
The water was above my mouth – above Victoria’s nose.
I pushed her forward one last time, and she leaned out as far as she could to grab onto the ladder.
She missed, and fell forward to the bottom of the pool.
I reached for my boots, and used them as an anchor to pull myself deeper into the water. I grabbed Victoria’s jumpsuit, and pulled it roughly, tearing it at the back. I tried again, this time gathering more material in my hands for extra support.
Victoria’s boots straightened, making it possible for her to stand up again. She grabbed the ladder and started to climb while I did everything in my power to boost her to the top.
While I was submerged in the water – now well over my head – I looked back and saw Cynthia’s limp body with her arms floating by her sides. She had died while crying, and her face had stuck in that final expression of horror.
Nick was too far back for me to notice any details. He was just a dark blur in the distance.
When Victoria’s boots cleared the first few rungs of the ladder, I grabbed on and pulled my body up using only my arms. My legs were too tired to be of any use. I reached the surface of the water and gasped for air. It filled my lungs until I thought they might explode.
My boots slipped at the exact moment when I exhaled. I hit my face on the ladder and fell back into the water.
I landed flat against the bottom of the pool. When I tried to get up, I couldn’t. The boots were too cumbersome and heavy.
I was out of oxygen.
I was going to die.
I was fucked.
CHAPTER 21 – CHAPTER 23