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    Loves Error

    #005

    On the beds arranged in three rows were various people, from children younger than him to those on the verge of adulthood. The place wasn’t much different from the warehouse where Ha-gyeom had been isolated for the past few months. Although the facilities were better than the warehouse, the oppressive atmosphere was suffocating because they were all orphans.

    It felt like only bad dreams would come in this place.

    ‘…….’

    Baek Seung-woo, who was looking around the interior with him, tightened his arms around Ha-gyeom. Ha-gyeom instinctively knew that no matter how difficult the situation was, Baek Seung-woo wouldn’t easily abandon him.

    So, for the first time, he spoke up.

    ‘I don’t want to stay here….’

    Baek Seung-woo’s eyes widened momentarily before returning to normal. His intelligent eyes shone steadily.

    Seeing Ha-gyeom’s swollen face, Baek Seung-woo eventually left the shelter and moved to an unfamiliar place. He occasionally checked his surroundings, but his steps were confident.

    Before long, Ha-gyeom arrived at what appeared to be Baek Seung-woo’s room. It gave a very quiet first impression.

    ‘What do you think of this place?’

    It was just an ordinary room of about 50 square meters with a private shower, a bed, and a table, but for some reason, as soon as he looked around, Ha-gyeom felt his tension ease. He closed his mouth tightly again and barely managed to nod.

    As his eyelids grew heavy and he could no longer stay awake, Baek Seung-woo placed him on the bed, scratching his head in confusion.

    ‘It’s against the rules, but…’

    Ha-gyeom, young as he was, knew well enough what kind of situation he was in. The musty warehouse he had stayed in until just before he grasped Seung-woo’s hand was something he would never forget, even in death. The bed, which still lacked the warmth of human touch, was cold but felt like heaven compared to that place.

    No matter what anyone said, he didn’t want to leave here. Afraid that Baek Seung-woo might change his mind, he clutched the sheets and buried his head deep into the pillow.

    Baek Seung-woo patted Ha-gyeom’s back and said,

    ‘I don’t know either… Let’s sleep here tonight and think about tomorrow’s matters tomorrow. Somehow, it will work out.’

    ‘…….’

    ‘I’ll take responsibility, so don’t think about anything and just sleep.’

    The slow, reassuring pats on his back made him feel at ease. Once he let his guard down, he couldn’t hold out any longer. Ha-gyeom fell asleep quickly, unable to distinguish between reality and dreams.

    He was plagued by light sleep and nightmares. When he briefly opened his eyes, he secretly watched Baek Seung-woo, who looked dignified.

    That night, Baek Seung-woo didn’t sleep. He sat right next to him with his arms crossed, either observing his condition or simply watching over him with sympathetic eyes as he tossed and turned.

    Ha-gyeom couldn’t even remember the last time he closed his eyes without fear like this.

    The kindness was overwhelming, and he endured without asking for more warmth.

    * * *

    For the next five years, until he was about fourteen, Ha-gyeom lived in Baek Seung-woo’s room. Despite the exhausting daily routine of trauma therapy, check-ups, and training, and the evaluation results that considered his attachment to Baek Seung-woo as a form of regression, Ha-gyeom managed to endure as much as he could.

    Five years after Baek Seung-woo went missing.

    At sixteen, Ha-gyeom was no longer a child, but he shamelessly returned to Baek Seung-woo’s empty room, diluting his longing and stubbornly holding on.

    The furniture that Kim Hye-jung had instructed the workers to bring back found its original place. The bed, which had never left the room, remained as he had left it. Ha-gyeom burrowed into it as if he were being embraced by Baek Seung-woo.

    The mattress at the center was terrible, and with the world nearing its end, finding good sheets was like plucking stars from the sky. The texture felt rough and worn out.

    Even so, the only place that felt comfortable to Ha-gyeom was Baek Seung-woo’s room, specifically his bed.

    “How could I give up…”

    Ha-gyeom muttered as he turned his body, feeling as heavy as if soaked with water. Although he had wiped off the blood due to Kim Hye-jung’s insistence, his internally injured body hadn’t recovered at all.

    It didn’t matter that he needed to lie down for at least a few days; he had already managed to secure a week. Recklessly starting things without considering the consequences was something he had learned from Baek Seung-woo, so he didn’t solely blame himself.

    “……”

    Ha-gyeom blinked, staring at the anxiously flickering fluorescent light.

    There is no pain greater than the feeling of longing that constricts like a vice.

    ***

    Fourteen years ago, since the emergence of monsters from the “Gravity Hole” in the Indian Ocean, every country in the world fell into chaos. These monsters, neither animal nor alien in form, resembled deep-sea creatures in their blunt appearance and were unfamiliar entities that defied description.

    Emerging from a large, black hole, they first headed towards the nuclear power plants scattered around the world. They destroyed the plants and absorbed radiation as if consuming it, then moved on to nuclear arsenals, airbases, and military units.

    These monsters had a clear objective, though it wasn’t the complete destruction or end of the world. They stopped their attacks once the military facilities of the major powers were reduced to ashes.

    Fortunately or unfortunately, even in a world marked by radiation, various forms of pollution, food shortages, and trauma, the survivors managed to continue living. Despite most countries being able to maintain only 10% of their territory, cities were rebuilt, and national borders became blurred.

    Some claimed that Earth had turned into hell itself. Many indulged in endless religious speculations. There were numerous hypotheses that the monsters were actually extraterrestrial beings, that they had always been ruling over us, and that Earth had essentially become a colony.

    Had that been the case, perhaps there would have been less confusion. However, along with the monsters, a new presence emerged: the Espers and Guides, collectively known as ability users.

    The Espers all manifested their abilities within a year of the monster invasion. They weren’t limited by country, region, or race, so there was no clear evidence as to why they were chosen. While most of them were young, some Espers were in their 30s to 60s.

    Ninety percent of humanity disappeared. However, the true hell was not immediately after the monster invasion. What was more terrifying than the monsters was humanity, struggling to survive within their limited territories.

    The surviving political and economic power players were the first to step forward. Surprisingly, the ones who could lead the ability users and survivors amidst the collapsed system were those who already held power before the invasion.

    They gathered experts from various fields, such as medicine, technology, and science, to try and overcome the situation at the time. Additionally, they shared their resources to restore the chaotic world, making efforts at a national level.

    While some aimed to rebuild cities where people could live based on the realization of justice, the real problem arose when groups emerged aiming to seize power by monopolizing the ability users, apart from the state.

    It was essentially kidnapping. They forcibly detained the ability users in places worse than pigsties, experimented with their abilities, and demanded obedience.

    Most of the ability users, being young, did not know how to fully utilize their abilities or refuse obedience. Naturally, they chose to conform even under oppression. Eventually, even though they all obeyed, the families that were considered obstacles were mercilessly killed. It was a foreseeable tragedy, given that there were always those who wouldn’t hesitate to kill for profit, even before the chaos.

    About a year after the invasion, survivors began to form groups around power holders. Those who had ability users, survival resources, and leadership took the helm, clearly separating those who had from those who did not. While leaders ostensibly aimed to run the cities and rescue survivors, not all wielded their influence with good intentions.

    As time passed, the affluent enjoyed increasingly prosperous lives, while those who were not fell into more extreme situations.

    Underneath a plausible exterior, an unjust system akin to the revival of slavery was established. Exploitation, poverty, and violence thrived in the chaos and control. The stability that people hoped and longed for was enjoyed by less than half of the population.

    For those without, true fear wasn’t the monsters that destroyed civilization. It was the leaders who ruled over their lives within these non-walls, the administrators who obeyed them, and the safety of themselves and their families, exposed and unprotected in the lawless zones.

    “The areas currently continuing under the name of the Republic of Korea are from Zone 0 to Zone 29, encompassing the west coast and surrounding islands….”

    Ha-gyeom stared intently at the monitor, breathing in the air of the operations briefing room for the first time. Seok Ji-ho, sitting beside him, glanced at him.

    “In particular, Zone 0, with the highest crime rate and disorder, is under the intensive management of the central center. Although not officially recognized, serious crimes such as organ trafficking, human trafficking, murder, and rape are rampant in Zone 0, as you know, and many of the victims are ability users.”

    As the sound of people clearing their throats echoed, Ha-gyeom quietly bit his lip. Being a guide from Zone 0 himself, it was natural for everyone to watch his reaction.

    “Zone 0 has its own leader and a management center for ability users similar to ours, but it is fundamentally non-transparent….”

    “Everyone knows that. Why are you going on and on about it? Don’t waste our time.”

    Team leader Choi Young-woong’s briefing was abruptly cut off by Center Director Kim Hye-jung. Rising from the top seat, she placed both hands on the table.

    “It’s all just a façade. If management were proper, there wouldn’t be this outcry over serious crimes. Civilians aside, if anyone here doesn’t know the heinous acts they commit upon discovering ability users, raise your hand.”

    Again, eyes turned to Ha-gyeom. He felt uncomfortable for a moment but didn’t mind much. Many ability users in the center were in the same situation as him.

    “Monsters may be sparing us pathetic humans, but the surviving humans are desperate to torment each other….”

    Kim Hye-jung clicked her tongue with a cold gaze. Not just Zone 0, but all zones hadn’t found stability even fourteen years later. While there were differences in degree, nowhere could be said to be safe.

    “Although the former Republic of Korea no longer exists and we don’t have the authority to manage the entire globe…. Other places are more open, allowing us to intervene under the guise of neutral inter-zonal management. Some places can’t even handle major crimes or ability user management, so as the central center, it’s our duty to step in. The problem is….”

    Right on cue, Choi Young-woong pressed a button on the remote. The next moment, a picture of Zone 0 appeared on the screen, causing Ha-gyeom’s eyes to sink in silence.

    The island, surrounded by high walls like a medieval fortress, had transformed into an even more impregnable iron fortress over the thirteen years since its construction.

    Twelve years ago, Ha-gyeom was rescued from there, and five years ago, Baek Seung-woo went missing there.

    After crossing two tragedies, Ha-gyeom’s goal was clear.

    To find Baek Seung-woo, who was officially recorded as deceased a week ago.

    And to take revenge on those who had driven him and his family into hell.

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