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    #040

    The woman let out a hollow laugh and then smiled, her dry hand pushing Ha-gyeom’s shoulder away.

    “What makes you think I’d tell you that? You can just listen and leave, but if we step out of line, we die. We’ve managed to survive… it would be too unfair to die now for nothing, don’t you think?”

    Her words hit the mark, and Ha-gyeom’s eyes turned cold. She wasn’t wrong. But how could he convey his goodwill to someone he had met only a few minutes ago?

    Moreover, Ha-gyeom, still a rookie, didn’t have the ability to solve this family’s problems. His main task was to “survive,” and it was fortunate if he could manage that. Endangering innocent people in an attempt to gather information was one of the things he absolutely must not do.

    Feeling a chill down his spine, Ha-gyeom glanced outside. There was still no sign of anyone, but it wasn’t a good idea to stay any longer.

    “If you need anything….”

    The woman shook her head almost immediately, as if she had been waiting for him to finish speaking.

    “There’s nothing you can give us, so it would be best if you left before you get caught.”

    Her tone held no expectations. Her eyes, which should have been the eyes of someone around his age, were already heavy with a dull gray hue. It was a weight too heavy to be dismissed as simple skepticism.

    Ha-gyeom stood up quietly and took one last look at Myeong. His breathing was light and calm. If more medicine was needed, he could just pester Dr. Cha for it. The boy would recover, but his father wouldn’t, and that thought weighed heavily on Ha-gyeom’s mind.

    As he hesitated, the woman’s fierce gaze met his. Ha-gyeom spoke softly.

    “Not all guides are rough and reckless.”

    “…….”

    “…I just wanted to say that. You never know what might happen.”

    7. The Dark Side of the Moon III

    Skipping a week of guiding had noticeably reduced his energy efficiency. This resulted in Dr. Cha, who was monitoring him, frowning deeply. His face was filled with disappointment.

    “This… shouldn’t have dropped this much….”

    Given the exceptional compatibility with Baek Sa, it seemed the decline was also drastic. Although he didn’t feel particularly unwell, he did occasionally experience a heavy head or an overall sense of discomfort. It was hard to check the state of his energy by creating small waves alone.

    “How much has it dropped?”

    “49 percent.”

    Since the figures weren’t significantly different from his time at the Center, Ha-gyeom didn’t take it too pessimistically. Unlike him, however, Dr. Cha’s frantic hair-pulling was somewhat amusing.

    “I didn’t expect it to drop this much…. It’s depressing.”

    Although his appearance and personality could only be described as unappealing, Dr. Cha was the only one here who would listen to him. While extracting energy, he seemed like a complete lunatic, but otherwise, he was just an eccentric researcher who liked to get overly absorbed in his work.

    “I wish you wouldn’t get so emotionally involved in my affairs.”

    Ha-gyeom’s curt remark made Dr. Cha rub his eyes after removing his glasses and look back at the figures.

    “It’s hard to go on a mission without guiding.”

    It dawned on Ha-gyeom that his first mission here was imminent. Was it called “collection”? He hadn’t heard the detailed mission plan at the playground, so he asked Dr. Cha.

    “Is ‘collection’ what I think it is?”

    “Collection is exactly what it sounds like.”

    The Center had a similar operation with the same connotations. It involved retrieving abandoned weapons, vehicles, food, and so on. Even if they were contaminated with radiation, they could be used after going through the purification system.

    Although there were technicians among the survivors, it was difficult to mass-produce the necessary equipment and supplies with limited raw materials. Therefore, every district continued operations to explore abandoned areas and acquire what they needed. As long as guides accompanied them to protect from radiation and espers handled any approaching monsters, it wasn’t a particularly difficult task.

    However, there were occasional accidents when there were too many monsters or the guide was inexperienced. Ha-gyeom had learned through guide training that some ability users had lost their lives in the early days of the Center.

    He recalled the firearms packed in Baek Sa’s room and those lying around the playground. District 0 was clearly dedicated to collection. The Center only allowed one weapon per person, yet they had an abundance of them here.

    “What specific items are we collecting? Weapons? Vehicles?”

    Dr. Cha tilted his head.

    “That’s for lower-level ability users. An S-class like you….”

    Now it was Ha-gyeom’s turn to look puzzled. Dr. Cha yawned and added,

    “Collection isn’t about gathering items.”

    “Then what is it?”

    “We’re going to capture reported ability users. We just conveniently call it collection.”

    Capture ability users? Hearing Dr. Cha talk about hunting ability users made Ha-gyeom laugh bitterly.

    “What authority… no, what right do we have?”

    “You might not know this, having been coddled at the Center, but there are still many unmanaged ability users in this world. Some mutants barely surviving outside the districts, some who have turned rogue, and some with exceptionally desirable abilities. If we capture them and rehabilitate them, they become our valuable resources. It’s a more important mission than it seems. Didn’t you know?”

    While he could agree with rescuing ability users in danger, he couldn’t condone a mission that justified kidnapping. It was only natural. Ha-gyeom himself was one of the ability users kidnapped by District 0 right after the monster invasion.

    Despite the many atrocities District 0 had committed in the past, he didn’t expect someone like Dr. Cha to talk about it so piously. Such acts were not righteous. No one had the right to forcibly take ability users.

    “Are you saying I have to participate in a mission to kidnap ability users?”

    “Yeah. You’re now an official guide here.”

    Leaving aside the secret mission with Kim Hye-jeong, Ha-gyeom was, on the surface, a guide forcibly taken from the Center by District 0. His compliance was only to fulfill his mission, not because he agreed with District 0’s policies.

    “Bullshit.”

    The curse slipped out. Ha-gyeom wanted to punch Dr. Cha, who spoke of him as District 0’s property.

    “That’s not the point. You can’t go on a mission with an efficiency of 49 percent. How can an S-class guide be this poor? We need to call Baek Sa….”

    Sensing the tense atmosphere, Dr. Cha quickly changed the subject. He happened to mention something useful.

    “Forget about me. What about Baek Sa? How is he?”

    It was just the two of them, so Ha-gyeom asked despite the sensitivity of the topic. Dr. Cha rubbed his forehead.

    “Terrible! Baek Sa strictly forbade any observation, so I don’t know what happened….”

    “Isn’t the idea of observing guiding itself abnormal?”

    “The guide looked pretty pale, so it didn’t seem to go well! It’s really troubling!”

    Dr. Cha ignored Ha-gyeom’s words and continued his rant.

    That made Ha-gyeom curious. What was Baek Sa like as an esper? An S-class esper performing at their best was unbeatable.

    He had seen the prowess of Yang Ga-eun and Han Young-jae up close but had never been on a mission with Baek Seung-woo. Though he had heard of Baek Seung-woo’s formidable strength and noble intentions, he hadn’t experienced it firsthand.

    Moreover, it was now Baek Sa, not Baek Seung-woo. After spending five years with lost memories, the kindness within him might have vanished…. The more he thought about it, the more he felt that Baek Sa was no different from any other esper. Naturally, he couldn’t call him Baek Seung-woo anymore.

    “Why not just become his dedicated guide?”

    Dr. Cha shook Ha-gyeom’s shoulder, who was lost in thought.

    “Given that the guiding with the new guide failed, it seems like Baek Sa has taken a liking to you. Didn’t he let you stay in bed until morning? I doubt Baek Sa is that generous with anyone else.”

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