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    #039

    Since he was dealing with a civilian, he could handle them without a weapon, so Ha-gyeom approached the figure without hesitation. He shook the man lying on the makeshift bed to wake him. The man, barely lifting his face from the blanket, frowned as soon as he saw Ha-gyeom’s delicate features.

    “…Who are you?”

    There was a foul smell, black spots all over his face, and wounds eating away at his neck and scalp.

    Instinctively, Ha-gyeom put some distance between himself and the man. The man was clearly already exposed to radiation. Judging by the collapse of his immune system, he was likely a laborer working outside the purification system.

    The man, indifferent to the appearance of a stranger, buried his head back into the blanket. His groans of pain continued. Though he wasn’t at immediate risk of dying, he probably only had a few weeks left.

    More importantly…

    Ha-gyeom looked at the boy beyond the cloth. Even if the boy was moving in and out of the purification system, living with someone already exposed to radiation wasn’t sensible in any way. It made no sense for a child, barely able to take care of himself, to also care for this man.

    Ha-gyeom left the man and approached the boy.

    “Who is he? Your father?”

    The boy nodded, his face dark. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. Sighing softly, Ha-gyeom handed him the pill. He also fetched water from a nearby faucet, but the boy, only staring blankly, seemed to have no experience taking pills.

    “Just put it in your mouth and swallow it. Your head feels heavy, but your body is cold, right? It’s because of the fever. You’ll feel better if you take this.”

    It took several tries and some choking before the boy managed to swallow the single pill. Ha-gyeom threw the damp blanket back onto the makeshift bed and spoke to the boy.

    “If you cover yourself with a blanket when you’re cold, the fever won’t go down. Just try to bear it for 30 minutes. It’ll get better gradually.”

    He gently stroked the boy, who nodded with a skeptical expression. As darkness began to fall outside, Ha-gyeom found it hard to leave after seeing the boy’s situation up close.

    When it was completely dark inside, Ha-gyeom turned on the single bulb in the house, illuminating the surroundings.

    Then, there were sounds of someone approaching from outside.

    Ha-gyeom quickly laid the exhausted boy on the bed and hid behind the cloth. The only entrance was where he had come in, so it was only a matter of time before he was found. Still, he decided to hide and see who it was. To his surprise, it wasn’t a mercenary.

    “Myeong, are you sick? Did you get hurt?”

    Ha-gyeom’s eyes narrowed. The woman, wearing a man’s jumper over her slip, was someone he had seen before. She was one of the prostitutes he had seen at the playground. Specifically, one of the two who had been trembling.

    Despite feeling ashamed due to Park Ha and Yeo Jin-joo’s behavior, he was relieved it wasn’t a mercenary. Ha-gyeom cautiously lifted the cloth and approached the woman. Upon recognizing him, the woman’s face turned pale.

    “Is this child’s name Myeong?”

    Just asking made the woman sit down and tremble uncontrollably. Ha-gyeom, taken aback, wasn’t sure whether to comfort the boy, who was also startled, or explain to the woman first.

    Looking back and forth between the two, Ha-gyeom crouched down and spoke to the woman.

    “I’m not one of the ability users here. If anything, I’m more like a hostage, so there’s no need to be afraid.”

    Cursing the ability users who committed such atrocities, Ha-gyeom couldn’t help but feel disgusted. Instead of protecting the civilians being trafficked, they were leading the trade.

    Though this world was already in a dire state, it was still appalling. Ha-gyeom managed to calm the woman and sit her next to Myeong. The woman’s eyes, strikingly similar to Myeong’s, were still filled with suspicion.

    “I’m just a guide, not an esper. And Myeong… he comes to work at the place where I stay. I came to treat his injury and bring him home. I don’t have any bad intentions, so there’s no need to glare at me like that.”

    Forcing a smile, Ha-gyeom tried to alleviate the tension. Myeong reached out a small hand to calm the woman, and fortunately, the atmosphere didn’t worsen.

    “Are you Myeong’s sister?”

    “…Yes.”

    “I gave him antibiotics to prevent infection. The fever should go down soon, so there’s no need to worry too much.”

    “If Myeong got hurt, why did you come all the way here? You’re not from here, and you’re a guide on top of that.”

    Her reasoning was similar to Dr. Cha’s. It did seem like meddling, Ha-gyeom admitted. Though he was concerned about Myeong, he didn’t come here solely for the boy’s sake.

    He wanted to see if anything had changed since his abduction, to understand the current treatment of civilians here. Though he expected it to be as bad as ever, Ha-gyeom scratched the back of his head and said what he should have told Dr. Cha.

    “It’s common sense for an adult to take care of an injured child. I can’t speak for other ability users, but I couldn’t just ignore it. It wasn’t a minor scrape; it was a wound that needed stitches….”

    The woman scoffed. Still looking anxious, she bit her nails and glanced towards the back, just as Myeong had.

    “The person back there….”

    “There’s no way to save him.”

    The woman’s abrupt and definitive statement sent a chill down Ha-gyeom’s spine. Though not incorrect, her swift detachment was unsettling.

    “There are more than twenty people like my father in this area alone.”

    There must be at least a few hundred shanties like this one. As the woman said, many family members had likely suffered radiation exposure. A guide’s wave could not purify lives already contaminated by radiation.

    “From mild skin diseases to various cancers. Some people suffer so much that it’s painful to even watch. Without proper treatment or diagnosis, they can only wait for death.”

    The woman patted Myeong’s back to soothe him to sleep. It was just as well that he didn’t hear this conversation. Myeong soon closed his eyes. His fever seemed to be subsiding.

    Ha-gyeom then looked at the utterly exhausted woman. The issue of exposure to a contaminated world was a result of the invasion, but what she faced was a long-standing issue of human exploitation.

    Especially in times like these, where people had to survive on limited resources, there was always something that had to be offered to those in power to secure basic necessities. Various forms of labor: the boy served, the laborers worked outside the purification system, and the women were used as toys.

    The system operated the same everywhere. Providers obtained what they wanted from those they provided for.

    There were places that maintained a semblance of decency like before the invasion, but not District 0. Survivors like Ha-gyeom were living proof of this. The information gathered at the Center alone was overwhelming.

    While lost in thought, Ha-gyeom noticed the woman adjusting her disheveled clothes. Realizing his rudeness, he averted his gaze and spoke.

    “When you work, do you get proper compensation?”

    His voice had an unintended edge. The woman hesitated for a long time before speaking.

    “I don’t know what you mean by proper, but…. At least we don’t starve if we work.”

    Given the times, ability users also received poor rations, but it couldn’t compare to the civilians here. Myeong and the woman were both gaunt. The man called their father was probably just big-boned but undoubtedly emaciated.

    “If we can’t work even for a day, we don’t get rations the next day. We only get one meal a day, and without that, we can’t work….”

    Knowing that even self-pity was a luxury, Ha-gyeom nodded with a blank expression.

    Perhaps the woman noticed his attentive silence, as she began to gauge him with her eyes. When he simply met her gaze without saying anything, she couldn’t take her eyes off him for a long time. The trembling had subsided, and she had calmed down significantly.

    “The guides here aren’t like you.”

    “What are the guides here like?”

    Had she realized that he was just a rookie who had barely graduated from trainee status? Either way, it wasn’t good for him to appear weak. At the very least, he needed to project enough trustworthiness that the truth wouldn’t work against him.

    “They’re rough and do whatever they want.”

    She responded with eyes that seemed all too familiar with the situation. While he had heard such things before, he didn’t bother to refute her. Just looking at the playground made it clear how the guides here behaved.

    It was now pitch black outside. Despite the darkness urging him to hurry back, Ha-gyeom felt he could more clearly find his reason for returning to District 0 in this place, where time seemed to have stopped.

    The time he had spent here was a distant past, yet the pain from then remained vivid even now. Ha-gyeom couldn’t turn a blind eye to the shadow cast over Myeong’s family.

    “There must be a manager who acts like a pimp. Can you tell me who it is?”

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