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    #027

    At the center, guides have their energy extracted once a week, about one-third of their total, to maintain the purification system. This process doesn’t affect the guide’s condition or their missions, and many guides take pride in this duty rather than feeling resentful.

    In a world contaminated by radiation, the purification system was the only way to sustain life for the group. This is also why guides are referred to as “resources.”

    Ha-gyeom, having actively participated in this essential work, understood its importance.

    As they passed by the cylindrical columns, they came to a space filled with rows of metal beds. The number of guides waiting in line to get on the beds had increased three or four times, making Ha-gyeom realize that there were probably at least five other spaces similar to the one he was staying in.

    “You. You’re an S-class, right?”

    “So what…?”

    At that moment, the mercenary leading the group singled out Ha-gyeom and pulled him aside. He climbed the stairs attached to the wall and headed to the second floor. Inside a small room with five beds, Dr. Cha was waiting.

    “Guide Shin Ha-gyeom! Come this way!”

    Dr. Cha had reserved a special spot for Ha-gyeom, inviting him with a face lit up with anticipation. Ha-gyeom, feeling uneasy about his cheerful demeanor, reluctantly sat on the bed.

    “You’ve had your energy extracted before, right? The method is the same. Since you’re an S-class guide, the amount extracted will be more than for other guides, but….”

    Dr. Cha, noticing the mercenary’s impatience, quickly attached various sensors to Ha-gyeom’s temples, chest, wrists, and the tops of his feet.

    In Ha-gyeom’s experience, the energy extraction process wasn’t particularly special. It took about 30 minutes, and by the time he woke up from a light nap, the extraction was over.

    At the center, the guide’s schedule was prioritized, and extractions were done during free periods with no training. Here, it seemed they extracted the guide’s energy every morning at the same time. It felt like a military routine, and seeing the guides gathered en masse wasn’t pleasant.

    Dr. Cha, checking the monitor, sidled up to Ha-gyeom and whispered.

    “If it’s too hard, I can give you a painkiller or a sedative. That’s within my authority, so don’t worry….”

    “Why would I need that?”

    Before Dr. Cha could answer, the mercenary barked at them.

    “Hey. Stop chatting and get on with it. This is already going to take long enough.”

    Clearing his throat, Dr. Cha awkwardly stepped back. He then gathered some items and attached them to the four corners of the bed.

    Leather belts?

    The moment Ha-gyeom realized this, leather belts were fastened around his wrists and ankles.

    “What are you doing?”

    “If you thrash around, the sensors might come off or the equipment could get damaged….”

    Dr. Cha answered kindly. …This doesn’t look good. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what Dr. Cha was planning.

    “Wait, you’re not….”

    “You’ve never experienced an energy drain before, have you? When all the energy in your body is extracted, you’ll finally feel it. It’s not entirely a bad experience….”

    Ha-gyeom immediately tried to tear off the belts. The mercenary approached and pointed a gun at his head.

    “Do you want to do this consciously or unconscious?”

    “I’d rather be unconscious…!”

    As Ha-gyeom struggled, the leather belts clanked continuously. Watching the mercenary’s finger twitch on the trigger, Dr. Cha pressed a button on the monitor to prevent further escalation.

    “I’ll do it…!”

    Beep-!

    The alarm sounded, signaling the start, and Ha-gyeom’s whole body tensed. Within seconds, he felt his energy drain out rapidly, like a receding tide. At this rate, it wouldn’t be long before he suffered internal injuries.

    “…Ugh!”

    The pain was a bonus. He realized belatedly how blessed he had been to have his energy extracted with delicate care before. The term “energy spring” he had heard of implied extracting energy down to the last drop.

    Energy, like refined blood in the veins, must circulate throughout the body to prevent damage. Imagining his body without energy was horrifying.

    “Ah, fuck….”

    Within less than a minute, a crushing pain engulfed him. Ha-gyeom began to swallow his groans, unable to even voice them. The leather belts seemed pointless as he couldn’t move due to the sheer agony.

    Dr. Cha’s sympathetic gaze was no comfort.

    ‘Is this what they meant by revenge?’

    The pain far surpassed any water torture. To think he had to endure this every morning? Did all those guides live through this torture?

    “He’s got a lot of energy!”

    Dr. Cha exclaimed while biting his nails and monitoring the screen. To express such admiration in front of someone experiencing hell was beyond insensitive. Indeed, he had zero social skills.

    “Fuck… this hurts…!”

    Ha-gyeom swore through gritted teeth. His heart felt like it was about to explode, and his veins throbbed as if they would burst through his skin.

    As he repeatedly banged his head and back against the metal bed, he clenched his fists so tightly his nails dug into his palms.

    “Great quality and quantity.”

    Dr. Cha hummed in delight, but Ha-gyeom felt utterly drained.

    Soon, it felt like all his blood had been drained. His vision blurred, his mind clouded, and his ears rang. Despite the increasing faintness, the physical pain did not diminish.

    “Does… medicine… really… help…?”

    “For a short while….”

    What a joke. As his consciousness faded, Ha-gyeom regretted not being able to punch Dr. Cha.

    * * *

    Guides scheduled for guiding do not undergo energy extraction.

    Ha-gyeom learned this rule after two days of illness.

    He spent two days in bed, unable to eat or sleep, feeling the energy spring slowly rekindle. The amount of energy he could sense was exceptionally low.

    Two days ago, Dr. Cha had drained all the existing energy, so it was no surprise. With more energy comes greater loss, so Ha-gyeom suffered more severe internal injuries than other guides.

    He discovered many things while lying under the blanket.

    Most of the guides in this room were A to C-class and went to the purification system room every morning for energy extraction. Although they seemed to spend half a day in bed afterward, they resumed normal activities, indicating they didn’t experience as harsh extraction as Ha-gyeom did.

    Higher-ranked guides recover faster, and Ha-gyeom had a high-matching Esper. Knowing that such a large amount of energy was rare, Dr. Cha might have overdone it, but if this level of extraction continued, Ha-gyeom doubted he could endure it.

    “Rolling around with Baek Sa will make you recover completely, so why all the fuss?”

    The dyed-hair Esper who often taunted him was named Seo Jae-yul. Espers like him had very low matching rates with the guides in this room. This might explain why there were no significant incidents despite being crammed together.

    Most had individual partners, like at the center, but guiding took place in separate rooms. It didn’t seem like anyone among the ability users in this room had private rooms for guiding, unlike Baek Sa.

    So which ability users enjoyed private rooms?

    S-class Espers and guides were nowhere to be seen. If only S-classes received such treatment, Ha-gyeom had to conclude that his placement was entirely wrong.

    ‘Even if I’m a hostage, extracting energy like that and treating an S-class guide so poorly….’

    Unintentionally, he ended up eagerly awaiting Friday night. Contact with an Esper was essential for energy recovery.

    As soon as the time came, Ha-gyeom swiftly got out of bed. Under the mercenary’s watchful eye, he washed up and changed into fresh clothes, feeling the scrutinizing gazes of the other ability users.

    With his wounds nearly reopened during energy extraction, he changed into new clothes and headed to Baek Sa’s room, feeling utterly dreadful. His condition was already terrible, and the silent scorn from the others didn’t help.

    Yet, even in this dreadful situation, being able to stay near him provided a strange comfort. Though thinking about the tasks ahead made his vision blur, seeing Baek Sa was better than not seeing him at all.

    Despite his poor condition, Ha-gyeom memorized the route to Baek Sa’s room, taking note of his surroundings. He climbed three floors, crossed a passage between buildings, and took an elevator.

    He remembered it was the 9th floor, at the end of the long corridor. Recalling his first stay, Ha-gyeom found himself walking alongside the mercenary.

    Knock, knock.

    “I’ve brought him.”

    He heard familiar footsteps from inside. Baek Sa appeared in comfortable clothes and immediately looked into Ha-gyeom’s eyes.

    “You look awful.”

    The mercenary clicked his tongue and added.

    “Still, you must guide. Dr. Cha insisted on full recovery….”

    It was clear that the mutually beneficial relationship wasn’t to his liking. Ha-gyeom, watching Baek Sa’s hesitation, slipped under his arm and entered the room.

    But as soon as he stepped in, his heart raced, and he froze.

    ‘Did he just shower?’

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