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    #017

    4. Matching Rate: 99 Percent

    Beep- beep-.

    The familiar mechanical sound of vital signs filled the room. Slowly opening his eyes, Ha-gyeom’s gaze met the gray, dim ceiling above him.

    Beep- beep- beep-.

    As his heartbeat quickened, he could sense someone approaching. Ha-gyeom quickly rolled his eyes around.

    “You’re awake?”

    The cheerful voice came from an eccentric figure standing beside his bed. The man wore thick, magnifying glasses and a lab coat, indicating he was likely a researcher or a doctor.

    Everything around him was unfamiliar, but Ha-gyeom instinctively realized that he had successfully infiltrated Zone 0. Or rather, since he hadn’t walked in by himself, it was more accurate to say he had been “kidnapped” successfully.

    Had his team managed to escape safely?

    Was the kidnapped child safe?

    He had no way of knowing. But at least he wasn’t waking up in a torture chamber, which was a small relief. He parted his lips to speak.

    “How long…?”

    “Ten…”

    “Ten days…?”

    “It’s been seventeen hours since you came in here, so not even a full day yet.”

    It was disappointing to hear it had only been that short. That wasn’t nearly enough time for his spine to heal, let alone for any minor scrapes to start mending.

    He had hoped to regain some strength before waking up. However, the pain throughout his body made it clear that not much time had passed.

    “We’re still analyzing the information, so don’t move. And just to ease your mind, you don’t have any broken bones.”

    Clearly, identifying who he was would be their top priority. Ha-gyeom glared warily at the man who was smiling slyly. He had no choice but to remain silent, as he was hooked up to numerous tubes and had sustained injuries.

    While the man had his nose buried in the monitor, reviewing data, Ha-gyeom began to take in his surroundings with a slightly clearer vision.

    …Even if he wasn’t a corpse, laying him on a steel bed without sheets was harsh.

    Looking down, he saw he was only wearing thin pants, with thick bandages wrapped around his waist. He must have been cut by something sharp while being dragged into the gate. The cuffs on his right wrist drove home the reality that he was indeed a captive.

    The pungent smell of alcohol and the cool temperature assaulted his senses. Beds were tightly packed in rows of three and seven. The walls were a dreary gray, their material indiscernible. Along the edges of the room were a sink, a medicine refrigerator, and various medical devices haphazardly arranged.

    …It looked just like a morgue or an autopsy room.

    The ominous atmosphere was starkly different from the center, making Ha-gyeom’s skin crawl. He instinctively pricked up his ears and caught the sound of men talking just outside the single door. They were likely mercenaries or guards. Fortunately, it seemed that this infirmary-looking room only housed the eccentric man and Ha-gyeom himself.

    As he blinked his large eyes, observing his surroundings, the eccentric man’s monitor beeped. The data analysis seemed to be complete.

    “F*ck!”

    The man swore in amazement, despite presumably knowing from the start that Ha-gyeom was an S-class guide. Then, suddenly, he started frantically pressing a red button similar to those found on arcade machines.

    Beep-! Beeeep-!

    Hurried footsteps approached, and the door burst open. In an instant, the room brightened, and what had been a solid wall turned transparent. This newfound visibility revealed that the facility was much larger than Ha-gyeom had imagined.

    …Moreover, it was unexpectedly high-tech.

    This kind of room seemed to be just one of many. Although the landscape was markedly different from when he had left, Ha-gyeom remained impassive. He was curious why the eccentric man had called for the others.

    “Matching rate: 99 percent!”

    The eccentric man shouted. Three armed men rushed in, tilting their heads in confusion.

    ‘That’s impossible.’

    Ha-gyeom also tilted his head. The highest matching rate he had ever experienced was around 50 percent withSeok Ji-ho. Consequently, he had believed that an esper with a higher matching rate simply did not exist in this world.

    “It’s a whopping 99 percent! Why are you standing there? Move him quickly!”

    “Damn it. If it’s 99 percent, who the hell is he matched with? We need to know that before deciding whether to move him or leave him to die!”

    The eccentric man adjusted his glasses.

    “Building 1! Top floor! Room 1!”

    At that moment, the men seemed to realize something and began to move busily.

    “Don’t you know there’s an urgent case there?!”

    ‘An urgent esper?’

    The men exchanged glances and nodded. Despite not being fully recovered, was he really expected to perform a guiding session immediately?

    But more importantly… a 99 percent matching rate?

    Even among the capable individuals within the center, no one had such a high matching rate. A rate below 50 percent was considered a curse, 70 percent was decent, and anything above 80 percent was regarded as a blessing. But 99 percent?

    Ha-gyeom ground his teeth. Was it not too cruel for his destined partner to be in Zone 0, of all places?

    “He doesn’t look in great shape.”

    If the bloodstains from his internal injuries were still visible, it must have been a gruesome sight. Ha-gyeom scowled deeply at the eccentric man, who was causing a commotion. The men kept chattering incessantly.

    “What if he goes berserk and tries to kill him?”

    “How can a guide kill an esper?”

    “He’s in a rampage… and…”

    At that moment, a burly man with a rifle stepped into Ha-gyeom’s line of sight. The look in his eyes, as he stared down at Ha-gyeom, was different from that of the other men.

    “Are you certain about the matching rate?”

    “Of course I am. How could a machine lie?”

    Though he was neither an esper nor a guide, the man exuded a powerful aura. His appearance and physique clearly marked him as a well-trained mercenary, comparable to any ability user.

    “A 99 percent matching rate… What on earth is happening here?”

    The eccentric man muttered with a face full of emotion. Unlike the others who took his words lightly, the burly man’s brow was deeply furrowed.

    “What are you standing around for? Move him quickly.”

    At his command, the men sprang into action. Considering he had disrupted their operation, it was fortunate he hadn’t been tortured. But to be expected to perform guiding in this state was absurd to Ha-gyeom.

    The injury to his waist was one thing, but the real problem was his internal injuries. And guiding with a complete stranger… This would be a first.

    ‘Once you enter Zone 0, you’ll know what you need to do.’

    Kim Hye-jeong’s irresponsible words suddenly came to mind. She wasn’t a prophet, but he should have guessed that a guide’s task would only involve guiding.

    “Can he even stand properly like this?”

    “He looks pretty enough… He should do well.”

    The men moving the bed casually threw out jeers. While the center had numerous guidelines considering the sensitivity of guiding, expecting such standards in the notorious Zone 0 was unrealistic.

    “…You expect me to guide in this state?”

    One of the men pointed his gun at Ha-gyeom’s handcuffs.

    “After the mess you made outside, you’ve got some nerve. If you weren’t a guide, you’d already be monster food.”

    By ‘outside,’ did he mean the docks? Ha-gyeom’s eyebrows twitched; the man’s words weren’t entirely wrong.

    “No matter what, how am I supposed to guide in this condition…!”

    He shouted with all his might, but only a weak, raspy voice came out, as if scratching his vocal cords. The men sneered in turn and picked up the pace.

    “Ugh… take it easy…!”

    As he was dragged along, the bed bumped into various objects, causing his head to throb.

    “He’s an S-class guide. Handle him with care.”

    The eccentric man, who had hurried along to the elevator, finally spoke with a serious tone. The men exchanged glances, and even the burly man who had been standing by looked at Ha-gyeom with curiosity.

    “The guiding effect will be significant. Tae-seong, this will be good for you.”

    The eccentric man patted the burly man on the shoulder. Finally, some emotion showed on Tae-seong’s face. Was that his name? The shadow that passed over his expression suggested he had been suffering for quite some time.

    Soon, the elevator stopped. Even in his state, Ha-gyeom busily turned his head to grasp the layout. The interior structure didn’t match any of the information he had previously gathered.

    The more unknown the area, the more thoroughly he needed to familiarize himself with it. Since the eccentric man’s room was on the 5th floor, a research lab or infirmary, and this place was eight floors above, they were on the 13th floor. After exiting the elevator and passing through two corridors, they arrived at Building 1….

    The rampaging esper was said to be at the top of Building 1. Since they hadn’t ascended further, it seemed the 13th floor was the top.

    “Stop.”

    The eccentric man, the other men, and Tae-seong all halted at the end of the corridor. Tae-seong pointed to the opposite side, and the men stood guard.

    Ha-gyeom tried to calm his racing heart. He had trained extensively to set aside personal emotions before guiding. If he couldn’t avoid it, he had no choice but to endure it.

    Being too compliant would arouse suspicion, and excessive resistance would only cause trouble. Ha-gyeom masked his emotions with a seemingly innocent expression.

    “If I guide in this state and my wounds open up…!”

    “Then we’ll stitch you back up. Be grateful we’re even willing to do that. Do you really think whining will work?”

    Tae-seong stepped forward, his tone menacing. His face showed no signs of yielding, which, in a way, was a relief.

    After a few seconds of glaring at him, Ha-gyeom finally feigned compliance and extended his cuffed wrist.

    “…Unlock these. I’ll walk in myself.”

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