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    “No, sir!”

    Seok Ji-ho shouted boldly, causing Ha-gyeom to close his mouth in embarrassment. Soon, Jang Gi-jun came running and stood next to Lee Do-seon.

    With a disapproving look, Lee Do-seon scanned the trainees before crossing his arms and speaking.

    “Jang Gi-jun and I are one team, Seok Ji-ho and Shin Ha-gyeom are another. Don’t argue about energy efficiency; just do your best to watch each other’s backs. This is a real mission, so there will be many variables. Don’t do anything embarrassing that you’ll regret later. Keep that in mind.”

    Everyone nodded solemnly at Lee Do-seon’s words.

    “I’m telling you, most things can be resolved without you stepping in, so don’t try to be a hero. That’s how you can help. It’s more important to understand how things work on your first mission and get a feel for it. Got it?”

    Ha-gyeom, Ji-ho, and Gi-jun nodded again. Lee Do-seon, looking unconvinced, handed out earpieces.

    “Let’s go.”

    Lee Do-seon turned and forcefully opened the back door. An unseasonal chill rushed in, accompanied by the salty smell of the sea.

    8 PM.

    At near high tide, a boat was docked at the center’s back gate. As they approached the boat, Yang Ga-eun, Han Young-jae, and Guide Yoon So-jin came into view.

    It was a small-scale operation with four espers and three guides.

    “Hey, late again?”

    “You’re the one who said to measure everything by kindergarten standards, Yang Ga-eun.”

    Lee Do-seon responded in a weary tone to Ga-eun’s provocation. While the two bickered, Ha-gyeom turned to look back. The lights in the center, reliant on its own power plant, were faintly scattered. Though the building had a rugged rectangular shape, the upper levels were mostly glass to observe monsters appearing in the sky.

    Having lived here for twelve years, this place was practically home to Ha-gyeom. It felt strange to be leaving the center for the first time.

    “We received information that the transfer schedule was moved up, but the mission remains the same. We need to quietly and quickly extract the innocent target. That’s our objective.”

    As Yang Ga-eun explained, Han Young-jae started the boat. Following Ga-eun, everyone boarded the twelve-seater boat and looked out at the pitch-black sea. The air was cold enough that their breaths turned to mist.

    Lee Do-seon, who boarded last, generated a purification wave. Since the seawater was also contaminated, he would have to continuously use his energy until they reached Zone 0. However, maintaining such a wave was easy for a veteran like Do-seon.

    The blue glow of the wave soon turned transparent, hiding its presence.

    “We’re dealing with humans, not monsters. Unlike monsters that charge head-on, humans use their brains, so stay alert at all times.”

    Monsters that relied on sheer numbers could be dealt with using force, but when facing humans, especially those with abilities far beyond ordinary civilians, things could get complicated.

    “They won’t want to make a big scene either, so they’ll likely move with a minimal team. Think of it as a secret theft, done under the owner’s nose, because they hate unnecessary noise and showing off their abilities.”

    “It’s not wrong. Instead of stealing objects, we’re stealing people.”

    Han Youngjae added dryly to Yang Ga-eun’s comment. Everyone, including Ha-gyeom, nodded in agreement.

    “If we do well on this mission, we’ll be one step closer to taking on key assignments. So, those who are motivated will approach it aggressively.”

    Yang Ga-eun shot a glance at Ha-gyeom. A brief silence followed. Rubbing his cold ears, Ha-gyeom stared fiercely into the darkness over the sea.

    “Let’s go.”

    Yang Ga-eun checked the time and spoke to Han Young-jae. The boat, which had been vibrating loudly, soon surged forward, cutting through the waves.

    “It’s 50 km to the destination. We’ll turn off the motor and enter at the 5 km mark. Guides, don’t forget to create waves to defend against potential monster attacks.”

    Lee Do-seon would protect Yang Ga-eun and Jang Gi-jun, Yoon So-jin would cover Han Young-jae, and Ha-gyeom would shield Seok Ji-ho from contamination.

    “Especially you, trainee Shin Ha-gyeom, focus only on your partner. Protecting each other means protecting everyone.”

    Ha-gyeom looked at Seok Ji-ho with a scowl. Ji-ho seemed like a big idiot to trust with such an important mission.

    Ignoring Ji-ho’s exaggerated shoulder shrug, Ha-gyeom forced himself to focus on Yang Ga-eun’s bright eyes. She didn’t skip over disciplining the espers.

    “Above all, the child’s safety is the priority, so any unavoidable battles…”

    She made eye contact with Han Young-jae, Jang Gi-jun, and Seok Ji-ho one by one.

    “I trust you’ll handle it well?”

    * * *

    It was a quiet night, even the waves were calm. When the boat’s motor was cut off, the sea was as still as a lake.

    Yang Ga-eun, who had been monitoring the radar to anticipate any monster appearances until they reached their destination, looked up.

    “There are no monsters detected in the vicinity. It’s high tide, so we can approach quietly. As long as we’re within the wave, we won’t show up on their radar, so relax.”

    Even the moon was covered by clouds, providing minimal light. This was beneficial for their mission, but it also made the imposing silhouette of Zone 0, which was still awake, all the more stark.

    Ha-gyeom, who had maintained his composure until now, rubbed his chest with a troubled expression. Seeing this scenery again for the first time in twelve years since he left was overwhelming. The exterior of Zone 0, surrounded by smooth, circular concrete walls, was still massive and solid, hiding the claustrophobic alleys inside.

    The outlines of the buildings, resembling tall structures, were impressive. The scene clearly showcased how much resources they had. The power plant on the opposite side was much larger than the center’s, with black smoke billowing from its chimneys, seemingly reaching for the sky.

    “Are you okay?”

    Seok Ji-ho asked as he noticed Ha-gyeom frowning at the sight of the prosperity. Ha-gyeom nodded stiffly, biting his lower lip.

    Trying to act calm, his heart was pounding fiercely. As they got closer to Zone 0, Ha-gyeom could instinctively feel that Baek Seungwoo was inside.

    Even if it was just a wild belief, he was ready to do anything for him.

    “…It’s coming.”

    At that moment, Han Young-jae was the first to spot something and spoke up. Shortly after, while holding their breath and waiting, a cargo ship appeared from the diagonal distance.

    Since the airfield was destroyed and not restored, the sky was only a passage for monsters. The only way to travel between islands was by sea. Whether it was resources or people, boats were essential in this world.

    “It’s a Handymax vessel, and there are no armed personnel visible on the deck.”

    Yang Ga-eun observed the ship, following it closely. Espers could see the detailed shapes of the cargo ship with their naked eyes, but guides could only barely make out the silhouettes. Hence, guides like Lee Do-seon, Yoon So-jin, and Ha-gyeom all raised their binoculars to check the front.

    “We should proceed according to plan.”

    Yoon So-jin, who had been silent, addressed Yang Ga-eun. Yang Ga-eun nodded in agreement.

    “Assess the personnel deployed on the dock as we approach. The situation inside the ship might differ from our intel, so be ready to adapt accordingly.”

    To approach the dock, they had to avoid the periodic lights and cameras scanning the sea. Even though everyone knew the positions of the surveillance networks, they couldn’t let their guard down.

    The boat soon reached a secluded exterior wall about 800 meters from the dock. The massive grate leading to the sewage treatment plant looked like the mouth of a monster.

    For a moment, a chilling sensation swept across Ha-gyeom’s neck. However, getting overwhelmed by past memories or fear at this point would be foolish. Ha-gyeom forced himself to clear his mind completely.

    “Yoon So-jin, stick with Han Young-jae. Shin Ha-gyeom, stay with Seok Ji-ho.”

    At that moment, Lee Do-seon gave the command. Yoon So-jin and Ha-gyeom layered their waves over Lee Do-seon’s and split up as soon as they set foot on the island.

    The waves weren’t high, but the path was tough since it wasn’t meant for people. Climbing the exterior wall and reaching the dock was challenging. Ha-gyeom, loading his rifle, looked up at Seok Ji-ho, who was holding onto his arm.

    “Hey. Just hang on.”

    “What?”

    “Cling to me.”

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