It was still spring, but it was warm enough to get people to go to the beach or the pool, which is why the city’s water park was full of people that day, with half of them swimming in the water and the other half walking between the passages of the park.
Niko was among the walking visitors, still undecided where to spend his time. Some of his friends wanted to try water slides, others wanted to jump straight into a pool and relax, while others just wanted to explore the park and see if there was anything interesting besides the slides.
Niko was among those in favor of exploration; the park was new and it would have been a shame to spend all the time in a single pool, so the teens decided to take a full tour of the entire environment before deciding where to spend the rest of their time.
In the park they found bars, fish-based restaurants, water rides of various types and kinds, and there was even an area dedicated to aquariums.
After exploring all those sections it was time to try out some of the attractions, starting with the rides. These were mainly water slides, some spiraling others cascading, all very large and colorful, and all very long.
The teens started with a water slide that they had to ride on a sort of small canoe; that was one of the few rides you could ride with clothes on. When it came time to undress, however, the guys found themselves a bit undecided.
The air was still a little chilly, which prompted the park to heat all of their pools to make them inviting; this meant that the water was warm, and that once inside it nobody would want to go out to try the other slides, especially because the idea of going around the park wearing only a bathing suit didn’t convince anyone.
Each slide led directly into a swimming pool, from which you then had to exit to access the others, so the guys talked about it and in the end they decided that they would only try one of the many slides, the biggest and longest one.
It was a gigantic spiral waterfall slide that started from the top of one of the tallest structures in the park and ended straight into the largest pool, the one with more people and services.
To enter the slide it was necessary to take an elevator, stand in a long line and then take off the clothes in a special changing room and put on the swimsuit; the removed clothes, together with other objects such as telephones and keys, were brought back to the ground floor and then returned to their respective owners once they wanted to leave the pool.
Niko and his friends, although a little scared by the length and height of the slide, didn’t hesitate to try it.
They queued up, put on their bathing suits, and one by one they threw themselves into what looked like a large plastic funnel; the first thing Niko heard were the somewhat excited and somewhat frightened screams of his friends, followed immediately by his own; under him he felt the hot water rushing by, water that was quickly pushing him towards an ever steeper and more winding descents.
A series of emotions invaded him: a sense of freedom, vertigo, confusion, and even a little fear… the slide was in fact very long, the descent seemed almost infinite, and immediately the colors became dark and gloomy; as he sank deeper he could hear the screams of his friends getting further and further away, as if those in front of him were going faster but those behind him were going slower.
At one point the only screams he heard were his own. In that seemingly endless slide he was left completely alone and isolated.
When his body finally sank into the pool water he was almost relieved that the experience was over.
Once in the pool the boys spent most of their day there; there were deckchairs, a bar, a restaurant, showers, and plenty of space; the pool was also connected to other small pools and minor slides, all spaces that could only be reached by those who were already in there.
It was a particularly carefree day for those teens, spent between the warm waters of that pool and the pampering of the service staff who handed them food and drink even when they were inside the pool.
Before getting dressed and going home, they decided to take a last dip together on the giant slide though, to relive that exciting sensation one last time.
This time, however, things went differently.
Just like the first time the guys threw themselves into the slide one after the other, and also this time their screams started to get further and further away while the descent became faster and faster … at a certain point however, Niko lost his breath; he screamed for so long that he was out of air, yet he was still sliding.
With a smile still on his face, albeit a little nervous, Niko patiently waited for the impact with the pool water …, yet it didn’t happen; the chute kept going down more than he remembered.
Maybe the first time it seemed shorter due to emotion or adrenaline, so Niko waited while in the distance he was hearing familiar noises: water, chatter, laughter and happy screams… the lower he went, the more distant and distorted those noises became though, until only the screams remained… distant screams and no longer so happy. Screams of fear and panic, but so distant and muffled that it was impossible to be sure that the noises were real and not distortions due to the speed with which the boy was sliding.
After a while even the screams disappeared. He was alone again, in a dark, narrow, plastic tube; the only thing he heard was the water rushing under him.
His smile was gone, his heart was pounding, and his stomach was tightening; the boy’s mind was trying to figure out what was going on, because by now he had been descending at such speed and for so long that theoretically he must have already passed ground level long ago.
His main fear was that he was about to suffer a sudden stop, an accident… but even that didn’t happen.
<<G … guys?>> he yelled after a while <<Are you still there? Guys!>>
But no one answered as he continued to descend.
When Niko finally hit the water he was practically sleeping; he stayed on that slide for so long that he almost fell asleep, lulled by the descent which was becoming as smooth as it was comfortable, so Niko’s eyes were closed when he reached his destination, but the sudden braking forced him to open them instantly.
He was in what looked like a swimming pool, and the water was shallow and warm, filled with apparently useless life preservers.
Pulling himself up and looking around the first thing he noticed were the colors: they were strange, as the light was orange but everything else (from the walls to the floor to the bottom of the pool) seemed to be made of a white material.
The second thing he noticed was the temperature: the air was very cold, almost freezing; the water, on the other hand (up to his belly) was pleasantly warm, so pleasant that it encouraged Niko to stay in it, although his swimsuit was annoyingly and strangely icy.
The third thing he noticed was the place: it was shaped like a large tunnel but looked like a swimming pool, and its length could not be estimated as it curved.
Finally he concentrated on the chute from which he had arrived: a large and long tube that continued obliquely for a few meters until it rose and disappeared in an opening in the ceiling; Niko stood looking at it for a while, wondering to himself how long it was supposed to be and how long he stayed inside that thing.
Besides him there were other people in that place, and in seeing them Niko felt reassured for a moment because he thought he had ended up in a sort of underground park, so he turned towards the tube waiting for his friends: two of them had jumped before him, but the others had jumped after, so theoretically they still had to arrive.
Niko waited for a while swimming in the warm waters of the pool trying to relax, but he was visibly nervous; the friends who had jumped in after him weren’t showing up, and those who had jumped in before him weren’t among the people present.
On top of that the people in there looked pretty… tired; many of them were sitting with their backs attached to the walls of the pool and their heads between their legs, others instead sat on the edge of the pool with their feet immersed in the water and their heads bowed; others were simply lying on the floor in a supine position.
None of them were in the water swimming or having fun, none of them spoke, and there was a deathly silence in that place occasionally broken by the sound of the water.
The more Niko looked around the more restless, impatient and nervous he became: he wanted to go back to the surface, get dressed and get out of the park… but to do that he first had to find his friends and a way out.
“Right, the exit!” the boy thought at that moment “Where are the stairs? Perhaps the others have already left” and with those thoughts in mind Niko moved away from the tube, swimming along that small artificial river looking for stairs or an elevator.
Niko followed the water to the curve of the tunnel, but once there he found nothing, just more water to swim in; going forward the number of people drastically decreased, and at one point the boy realized he was swimming completely alone. There was no one around him anymore.
Odd as it might seem, since he had been just moving forward, Niko felt lost…there was no sign of stairs or elevators there, and that tunnel was huge, devoid of sound or signal of any kind.
The boy, seized by a strong sense of fear and concern, decided to turn around to go back and ask people for some direction. He thus resumed swimming in the opposite direction, and the further he went the more force he put into his movements… he didn’t want to stay in that place a second longer than necessary.
He swam for five minutes.
And finally, exhausted and sweating from fatigue, Niko stopped to catch his breath.
“What the fuck is going on?” he thought as he looked around; the curve he had previously rounded seemed infinite, and now there was nothing around him, even the life preservers had disappeared.
<<HEY!>> he yelled at one point, looking up at the ceiling hoping to see a security camera <<IS SOMEONE IN HERE?>> he kept yelling <<HEY! I NEED HELP!>>
No one answered, and his voice was lost in the depths of the tunnel.
At that point Niko decided to get out of the water despite the cold of both the air and the floor, and he started running in the direction where the slide that had brought him there should have been.
By running he was able to cover a greater distance in less time, yet the curve of the tunnel continued to feel infinite.
The situation was surreal. Niko was so nervous and worried that he didn’t know if that was the time to scream, cry or keep running, and just when he was about to start losing hope… something changed.
The colors, from orange, were slowly turning greenish, and going forward Niko found an alternative route on the wall of the gallery.
Following the road, Niko found himself in a particular room.
Its entrance was characterized by the presence of three colored slides that were to be used to descend into an immense space mainly occupied by life preservers and water.
The water level was very low however, it reached the ankles, and from the top of the entrance Niko realized that apart from the life preservers there wasn’t much else in there; but there were people, many people… but that wasn’t enough to calm him down, because even there, there was no sign of a way out and back to the park.
He could have asked for directions though, and so Niko threw himself down a slide and entered the large room hoping to be able to talk to someone who knew how to get out; even there the water was warm, and there too the air smelled of bleach.
There were many people present, but they were scattered over such a large territory that the boy still felt as if he were in a desolate place.
The other people walked around the room in more or less large groups who, however, kept their distance from each other, and observing them Niko soon realized that they weren’t “normal” people: unlike him, none of them were in bathing suits, they were fully dressed and the only thing missing were shoes that were often tied to the waistband of their trousers; almost all of them had backpacks on their shoulders, and all of them moved suspiciously and warily, speaking in low voices and trying to keep their distance from the other groups.
Most of those who noticed the boy ignored him, but some gave him weird looks; they looked at him with an expression that was difficult to decipher but decidedly interested, and because of this Niko decided to stay away from those groups: he was the only half-naked person there, and however absurd the situation might be, the boy had instinctively understood that asking them information on how to get out of that place would not lead to anything good.
He had to find the way out on his own and he had to do it without creating too many problems.
The room, enormous in its size, had several entrances identical to those taken by him, but there were no visible exits: no elevators and no stairs.
On the walls of the room it was possible to find the opening of other water slides however, each of them numbered by a plaque.
“A13”, “B56”, “C78” … the meaning of those numbers was completely foreign to the boy, but above the numbers it was possible to find writings made with felt-tip pens, although not very legible: “free food”, “ too much water”, “don’t go”, “not safe”, “too many balls” …
Walking close to the walls, Niko also happened to observe a group of people jumping all together into one of the slides, connected to each other by a rope. This suggested to him that those slides lead everyone to different pools, even if he wasn’t too convinced about that.
After several minutes of bewildered walking, the boy stopped and looked around once again: that room was too large, wider than the entire perimeter of the water park, and he still hadn’t found a method to get back up. Niko’s brain was starting to formulate hypotheses and absurd thoughts about that situation, and walking back his attention was taken by the opening of a slide with a plaque on which “exit” was written.
Niko stopped to look at what was basically a colored hole in a wall, reflecting on that plaque.
Was that really the exit he was looking for? The answer was quite obvious…it couldn’t be an exit, all slides lead down after all, not up. But that plaque was the only indication he had received up to that moment, and for a while Niko pondered the possibility of jumping into the slide.
Maybe it really was the exit after all.
A female voice distracted Niko from his thoughts, forcing him to turn abruptly. Behind him appeared a girl with bright red hair wearing a simple summer suit; she, too, had her shoes tied to her belt, and had a rucksack slung over her shoulders.
<<Hi! Are you sure you want to leave the level like this?>> she asked in a friendly but also a bit hurried and nervous tone <<Don’t you want some clothes?>>
Niko was confused by that sudden interaction, by now he was convinced that he wouldn’t talk to anyone and being approached by her had left him a bit stunned, but he quickly recovered from the surprise and slowly shook his head.
<<I-I don’t need it … thanks anyway.>>
The girl hesitated for a moment <<But aren’t you cold?>> she then asked.
<<Ehm … a bit but I have my clothes upstairs.>>
<<Yes. At the park. I left all my things there, but now I’m going to get them.>>
The girl frowned <<Park …?>> she looked genuinely confused <<Upstairs there is a …? Park…?>>
<<Yes. The water park.>> Niko answered, more confused than her.
<<But there is no park in this level.>> she said scratching her head <<And if you left them in another area I think your clothes are gone by now. You’d better get some more.>>
<<W … what are you talking about?>>
Both seemed rather confused by the other’s words, so an awkward silence fell which lasted until a sudden flash of understanding passed through the girl’s gaze; her eyes widened and she brought a hand to her mouth <<Oh God …>> she said in a low voice, changing her expression and starting to observe Niko with extreme concern.
<<What?>> he immediately reacted <<What … what’s going on?>> but the girl didn’t answer that question immediately, which caused all the nervousness that Niko had accumulated up to that moment to explode <<WHAT? WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING?>> the boy yelled angrily, even if in reality he was just scared.
<<H-hey, don’t yell!>> she immediately said with equal fear, acting as if speaking out loud was some sort of crime.
<<Why not?>> continued Niko in a harsh but more restrained tone <<I’ve been stuck here for… HOURS! What the fuck is this? Where the fuck is the exit?>> Niko, completely impatient, pointed to the slide behind him without even waiting for the girl’s answer <Is this one?>>
<<But you don’t want to go there.>> she added quickly.
<<Why? Is it the exit or not?>>
<<Well… um… it’s a bit complicated.>>
<<Yes, um …>> she took a quick look over her shoulder, where there was a boy dangerously close to them who was observing the scene; he seemed ready to intervene <<Listen… I know what’s going through your head, but it’s not what you think.>> she continued, looking back at Niko <<That’s not the way out. Or at least not the type of exit you are looking for.>>
<<What do you mean?>> Niko keeps asking, with exasperation <<I’m looking for a way to go back up, I have to go back to the park, my friends are waiting for me!>>
<<I-I get it, but that slide takes you down, not up.>>
<<And how do I go up then? Is there an elevator? Some stairs?>>
The girl hesitated for a moment before answering <<No.>> she finally replied.
<<L-listen, isn’t it better if we talk about it calmly? Come, I’ll take you to a friend who can->>
<<Calmly? Are you crazy?>> Niko blurted out at that point <<I’m tired! I am hungry! I ran for I don’t know how long and->>
<<All right, I understand!>> she interrupted him <<But it’s useless for you to get upset, unfortunately there’s nothing you can do about it.>>
<<I’m not upset. I’m just tired.>> the boy retorted <<I want to get out of here.>>
<<Okay… but you can’t do it like this. First you have to get dressed. And eat, since you’re hungry.>>
<<My clothes are up there.>> Niko insisted.
<<Okay, but now…now you’re here. And you have to get dressed or you’ll get sick. The air is very cold down here.>>
<<I’ll get dressed as soon as I get back to the park.>>
<<N … no.>>
Niko hesitated a moment before answering <<No?>> he then said, with growing fear in his chest, fear that he was turning into anger <<What does “no” mean?>>
<<It means that… it’s better if you get dressed right away. I don’t know when you’ll be back at the park and you might get sick sooner.>>
<<But the park is in that way, isn’t it?>> Niko pointed again to the slide behind him.
<<I-I… I don’t know.>>
<<But that’s the way out, right? It’s the exit!>>
<<Uhm, well … yes, but maybe … maybe it does not lead to the park.>>
<<I-I don’t know, maybe… maybe somewhere else, I don’t know.>>
<<What do you mean you don’t know?>> Niko exclaimed at that point, with even more frustration than before <<What place is this? How the hell do you not know where the exit is?>>
<<I-if you don’t calm down I won’t be able to explain it to you.>>
<<Why? Is it that hard to explain?>>
<<Yes?>> Niko said clenching his fists <<Just tell me where the fuck the exit is, that’s all. It can’t be so difficult!>>
<<Listen, do you have a phone? It will be faster.>>
<<Me?>> the girl hesitated a moment before answering <<No.>> she finally said.
<<Yes you do.>> was Niko’s suspicious reply <<Everyone has a telephone.>>
<<Do you have a telephone?>> the girl retorted.
<<Then why should I have it?>>
At that point Niko got completely impatient <<I don’t have it because I’m in a bathing suit!>> he exclaimed <<But you are completely dressed!>>
<<So what? I don’t have a phone, sorry. But I have a friend who>>
<<Okay, that’s enough.>> Niko turned towards the slide <<I’m leaving. By.>>
<<N-no, wait!>> the girl at that point pulled her cell phone out of her back pocket <<Here! The phone!>>
Niko first looked at her and then at his cell phone, but in doing so his gaze also fell on the boy who was previously watching them from a distance, and who was now moving rapidly towards them.
He felt threatened and endangered. Everything that was happening made no sense to him, and something was telling him that using that phone would just be another waste of time.
He didn’t trust that girl at all.
<<Fuck you.>> was therefore his answer, followed by a jump made inside the slide.
<<No! Wait!>> the girl followed him, but in trying to stop him she fell in there too <<HO … HOLD ME!>> she yelled as she fell, stretching her arms towards the boy <<TAKE MY HAND!> >
Niko raised his head in his direction <<Just leave me alone!>> he protested, even though talking seemed useless to him since the noise of the descent made it very difficult to understand what was being said <<I’m going down anyway!>>
<<No, you don’t understand! If you don’t hold my hand you won’t see me again!>>
<<Just hold it!>>
The boy hesitated for a moment.
The fall into the chute was stormy, confusing and noisy, being able to see the girl’s hands above him was becoming more and more difficult, and as they went down Niko had the feeling that she was actually moving away from him … as if she was sliding more slowly , for some strange reason.
At that moment the memory of the people who jumped into a slide tied to each other with a rope resurfaced in his mind, as well as the memory of the screams of his friends, who also got further away from him the more he was sliding down.
“If you don’t hold my hand you will never see me again” she said, and with those words buzzing in his head Niko raised his arms towards the girl <<Hand!>> he yelled.
<<I-I don’t see you!>> was the answer, already further away than before.
Niko tried to break the fall but couldn’t <<I’m here!>> he yelled again, stretching as much as possible <<Come on!>>
<<No, I don’t see you!>> the girl said again; her voice was far away… maybe too far away.
<<I’M HERE!>> Niko repeated as he tried with his last strength to slow down the descent.
There was a moment of silence, but then Niko’s fingers touched something.
<<Here you are!>> exclaimed the girl <<Hold on!>>
Their fingers managed to bring them a little closer, which then led them to join hands and finally to squeeze through their wrists.
<< Hold on! Sometimes the fall is really long!>>
<<W … what?>>
<<Just hold on! Squeeze as long as possible!>>
As usual Niko didn’t understand what was happening but he didn’t want to be alone again and so he continued to squeeze until that descent turned into a real fall.
Niko opened his eyes just as he spat out the water stuck in his throat, and the first thing he saw were the relieved faces of Beth and Jordan.
<<We thought we lost you.>> Beth said <<It would have been pretty embarrassing to let you die on your first day. Luckily Jordan dragged you out.>>
Niko was confused, a little sore and dazed, but he remembered well what had happened: he was swimming inside a tube, but then he couldn’t hold his breath anymore and gave up.
He didn’t think he was going to make it out alive, so he glanced at the boy and thanked him.
<<We had to give you a mouth-to-mouth operation.>> Beth added.
<<Wait … which of the two?>> Niko asked at that point.
<<I’m not telling you!>> the girl started giggling.
<<What-? Hey! It’s not fair!>>
<<You’ll never know.>> Jordan added at that point, also with a smile.
<<Anyway …>> Beth pulled herself up, looking around and getting serious again for a moment <<we have to go back to the safe zone.>>
Hearing those words, even Niko became serious again <<Safe zone?>>
For a moment Niko hoped that the tube would take him out of the park’s basement, perhaps into a river or a sewer, but looking around he immediately realized that he was still inside that strange place.
The air still smelled of bleach, the floor was freezing as usual, the walls and the aesthetic of the place were still the same…but the room he ended up in was different. It was something strange, something in a way familiar but at the same time really alienating … it seemed to be inside a swimming pool, a narrow labyrinthine swimming pool.
<<Where are we?>> asked Niko.
<<I don’t know, but the rule is always the same.>> replied Jordan <<We have to follow the life preservers. And if there aren’t, we have to follow the flow of the water. If we arrive in a place where there are neither life preservers nor water … we are in trouble.>>
<<Balls.>> was Beth’s answer, looking back at Niko.
She smiled <<Don’t worry, we won’t see them. If we’re lucky.>>
<<Come on let’s go. We haven’t prepared ourselves for this trip, we need to fine a way to the safe zone as soon as possible.>> continued Jordan as he approached the water, ready to jump into it.
<<Trip?>> Niko exclaims <<What… what are you guys talking about? Where is the exit?>>
<<Here somewhere, but we don’t know where and we don’t really care right now.>> replied the boy <<We have to explore the floor to find it. But there is a problem, some slides are very long and full of water, the chances of drowning are high. Therefore we must go back to->>
<<W-wait!>> Niko interrupted him at that point <<What does “explore” mean? I have to go back upstairs to my friends RIGHT NOW! I’ve been here for hours! They probably already called the police!>>
Hearing those words Jordan turns in his direction with an indecipherable expression, while Beth takes a long sigh.
<<Right… uhm… about that…>> Beht started talking, but was immediately interrupted by her friend.
<<You’re not from another level!>> Jordan exclaimed.
<<Another “level”? W-what-? I came from the park!>> Niko answered.
<<The water park!>>
Jordan glanced at Beth, who nodded meaningfully.
<<Yeah.>> she said <<It comes from … outside.>>
<<Oh fuck …>> was Jordan’s comment <<that’s why he has a swimming suit.>>
<<Guys …>> Niko slowly stood up, his heart starting to beat dangerously fast <<What are you talking about?>>
<<Uhm … we could explain it to you.>> Beth told him <<But you have to promise us not to scream or do weird things.>>
Those words sent a shiver through Niko’s entire body, which was slowly turning pale; an icy feeling of fear had just arisen in his chest and was preventing him from speaking or thinking clearly.
<<Yeah, but we can’t do it here though.>> Jordan intervened, noticing that Niko wasn’t answering <<We have to talk while we move or he will find us too easily.>>
Niko moves his gaze towards Jordan <<Who will find us?>>
<<Let’s just go.>>
<<Who will find us?>> Niko insists <<What’s going on here? What place is this?>>
<<I CAN’T STAY CHILL!>> Niko blurts out at that point <<W-we’re inside a fucking … a fucking … pool that … that … I … I don’t know! How can I stay calm? How can you stay calm? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?>>
<<I know, I got you. I too had your same reaction when I arrived here the first time.>> continued Beth <<This is not really a nice place, but … sooner or later you get used to it.>>
<<Sooner or …? WHAT? I don’t want to get used to it! I want to go home!>>
Beth turned to the water behind her, full of life preservers <<Okay. No problem. But if you want to go home you will have to help us find the exit.>>
<<You… don’t know where the exit is?>>
<<Nobody knows, and whoever finds it just goes away.>> Jordan said <<Anyway, we have to move. We’ll explain everything to you moving forward. We can’t stay here, it’s a dead end.>>
<<Oh, right! Let’s get moving.>>Beth at that point glanced at Niko, who was still visibly shaken <<We’ll explain everything, I promise. While we swim though. Okay?>>
Niko didn’t answer right away, he was trying to hide his fear and hold back both anger and tears, but in the end he nodded.
<<Okay.>> he said.
<<Perfect. Let’s go then. We have to be fast.>>
The story isn’t over, it continues, but it hasn’t been translated yet.
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