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    #006


    “Because of the secrecy surrounding Zone 0, all official requests for cooperation have been rejected. Operations in Zone 0 usually proceed in secrecy, resulting in limited success. No matter how shady the leaders are, the central center is not a government, so we have no choice but to maintain an outward appearance of neutrality.”

    “It’s been a long time since I heard the word ‘government.'”

    Yang Ga-eun, who had been sitting with her arms crossed, added a comment. Kim Hye-jung nodded with a cold laugh.

    “We live in a world where the concept of government is meaningless. This is an era where monsters that once only appeared in games now swim through the skies. Regardless, our center is not a dictatorship. It was established to maintain at least a minimum level of order, so we have no choice but to deal with it, no matter how unpleasant it is.”

    As she spoke the word “government,” Kim Hye-jung couldn’t hide the distant look in her eyes. Before the invasion, she had been a passionate member of the National Assembly, and everyone knew this fact. Even in a world where the existence of the government was meaningless, her background had clearly played a significant role in her becoming the head of the central center.

    “You can’t blame people for trying to find their own way to survive. Even before the chaos, illegal activities, dishonesty, and immorality existed everywhere. The problem is that innocent people get hurt or sacrificed because of the profits someone else takes…”

    It was inevitable that evil and poverty would thrive in hastily designed cities. Some places still hadn’t achieved a proper city structure.

    Compared to that, Zone 0 was the most prosperous of the thirty islands and coastal areas. It didn’t take long for the group within Zone 0 to become the most influential force, possibly because their leader was a well-known corporate chairman in the business world.

    They built their own kingdom within the island, which was about 50 square kilometers. Even amid the chaos following the invasion, Zone 0 secretly acquired the most ability users. They committed heinous acts in the process, but by then, there was no longer a government to judge them.

    Utopia.

    The external image Zone 0 projected was the opposite of reality. Very few people enjoyed a utopian life; most lived lives akin to slavery to enable the few to enjoy theirs. Many were bought, sold, or discarded like objects. The remaining Zones 1-29 were also in a parasitic relationship with Zone 0, making everyone both perpetrators and victims.

    Ha-gyeom felt a hot flush on the back of his neck as Kim Hye-jung spoke of Zone 0 as if it were just another administrative district. He glared at her with burning eyes, but she continued to look around at everyone with a calm expression.

    “In four days, a child from Zone 13 will be sent to Zone 0. It’s said that a son of a key figure in Zone 0 is ill. Although it hasn’t been confirmed yet, there is information suggesting that the purpose is organ harvesting. Since the agent in Zone 13 is a civilian and fears exposure, they requested our help to handle this matter.”

    Everyone, including the Espers, Guides, and civilians, clicked their tongues in disapproval.

    “Rescuing civilians who are victims of crime or ability users who are unfairly treated is one of our most important missions. Other zones are reluctant to take the lead due to conflicting interests, so as a neutral entity with the necessary abilities and systems, it’s our duty to step up. Since the center was established, we have never put rescue missions on the back burner, as you all know.”

    Ha-gyeom felt an uncomfortable tightness in his throat and fidgeted with the collar of his training uniform.

    “There are only three trainees here who have completed both combat and guiding training…”

    Ha-gyeom, Seok Ji-ho, and another Esper, Jang Gi-jun, all raised their hands simultaneously. Jang Gi-jun, who had joined the center at fifteen, didn’t have many friends due to his naturally gloomy demeanor.

    Kim Hye-jung looked at the three trainees with a lukewarm gaze.

    “I’m not sure if they’ll perform their duties properly, but it’s time, so we’ll include the three trainees in this operation.”

    The veteran ability users sitting across from the trainees were all taken aback, recoiling at the thought of having to babysit trainees during a mission.

    In contrast, Ha-gyeom and the other trainees’ eyes sparkled with anticipation. Even the typically reserved Jang Gi-jun had a smile playing on his lips.

    “If there’s only one victim, being too flashy isn’t ideal.”

    Yang Ga-eun’s comment made Kim Hye-jung nod in agreement.

    “Shin Ha-gyeom will be the guide, and Seok Ji-ho and Jang Gi-jun will be the Espers. Each of you pick two more people from your side to prepare.”

    “Lee Do-seon and I are definitely going.”

    Lee Do-seon, sitting at the end of the table, flinched as if struck by lightning from a clear sky. Yang Ga-eun, with a sly smile, added nonchalantly.

    “It’s only proper for kindergarten teachers to lead the little chicks.”

    Laughter erupted. Unlike the visibly startled Lee Do-seon, no one objected to Yang Ga-eun’s statement.

    “I’ll keep an eye on Shin Ha-gyeom as his guide. Yang Ga-eun, are you confident taking those fledgling Espers into the field?”

    Although his attitude was rude, it was clear that both Lee Do-seon and Yang Ga-eun were just teasing each other without any real malice.

    “Crushing the spirits of trainees is my specialty.”

    Yang Ga-eun’s confident voice resonated, fitting her reputation as one of the center’s most powerful and experienced members. She gave Lee Do-seon a sly look, narrowing her eyes.

    “You should be careful, Teacher Lee Do-seon. What if he starts coughing up blood and collapses again? How will you handle that?”

    “Here we go again…”

    Even Kim Hye-jung allowed the tense atmosphere to loosen. Seok Ji-ho laughed heartily, oblivious to the remarks, while Jang Gi-jun remained inscrutable as ever.

    Regardless of his name being tossed around by the seniors, Ha-gyeom quietly clenched his fists. He rubbed the sweat off his palms onto his thighs.

    “Alright, that’s enough. We’ll now meet with the team leaders to plan the operation. Trainees, be ready to come to the briefing room when called. Study the terrain and understand the operation thoroughly to minimize any potential hindrance.”

    Kim Hye-jung cast a doubtful glance at Seok Ji-ho and Jang Gi-jun. Amidst the dispersing crowd, her gaze finally landed on Ha-gyeom.

    Accidentally locking eyes with her, Ha-gyeom felt a chill run down his spine at her cold stare.

    “…Shin Ha-gyeom, follow me to my office.”

    “Why just me…!”

    The prospect of another argument about the room issue was frustrating. As Ha-gyeom displayed his displeasure, Kim Hye-jung responded with a menacing glare.

    * * *

    Ha-gyeom’s real room was on the fifth floor of Building B, at the very end of the hallway. Since he mostly neglected it, his steps felt as heavy as ever heading there.

    When he opened the door, the stale air made his lungs feel tight. He pressed the switch for the fluorescent light, but only the clicking noise was heard, and the room remained dark.

    “It’s broken again…”

    Muttering to himself, Ha-gyeom lit a candle that had melted significantly. The electrical systems were unstable everywhere in the world now. The center, which generated and consumed its own electricity, was no exception.

    Soon, a yellow light filled the narrow room. Ha-gyeom’s gaze wandered to the cluttered wall. The photographs and extensive notes covering it were the result of his painstaking research over a long time.

    Among the photos were publicly known images of Zone 0, as well as those he had secretly obtained. What had once occupied only one wall now spread across three, due to the disappearance of Baek Seung-woo.

    Ha-gyeom constantly revisited his memories and research findings. Thanks to that, he could vividly picture the scene, as if he were right in the middle of it, just by closing his eyes.

    Unlike where the leaders lived, the area where Ha-gyeom stayed was always dark and musty. Now, twelve years later, Zone 0 had grown much larger, yet some parts remained unchanged as if time had stopped.

    Ha-gyeom often imagined Baek Seung-woo walking into the pitch-dark alleys, a labyrinthine and suffocating place where once you entered, you might never find your way back. Since no one had seen him in his final moments, he had no choice but to imagine it this way.

    With a creak, Ha-gyeom dragged a chair over and sat down, picking up a framed photo from the desk. In the old, rectangular frame was a picture of Ha-gyeom, awkwardly grimacing, and Baek Seung-woo smiling.

    It was a photo taken when Ha-gyeom turned fourteen.

    Suddenly, Ha-gyeom voiced a question that was harder to ask than anything else.

    “…Hyung, you’re alive, right?”

    He swallowed dryly and breathed slowly. At that moment, the flickering candle seemed to waver perilously. Although nothing had happened, an uneasy feeling tightened in his chest.

    Ha-gyeom opened a drawer and took out Baek Seung-woo’s last note, which he had kept hidden deep inside. He had found it on the bedside table when he awoke to the news that Baek Seung-woo hadn’t returned.

    I’ll celebrate properly when I get back. Happy birthday, Shin Ha-gyeom.

    The note, neatly written with a rough drawing of a cake, hadn’t faded even after five years. Ha-gyeom carefully ran his fingers over it.

    In the end, Baek Seung-woo hadn’t kept his promise.

    No matter what the truth was, Ha-gyeom didn’t want to surrender. As he steeled himself and stared at Baek Seung-woo’s face in the photo, his doubts, as always, slowly faded. Someone that strong wouldn’t have died so easily. For five years, he held onto that belief.

    “I can go there now. I don’t know if it’s luck or not….”

    Ha-gyeom no longer had to wait helplessly while training. Having his first mission in Zone 0 felt like fate. It was the place that left him with unhealable scars and where Baek Seung-woo had disappeared.

    Finding any trace or clue about Baek Seung-woo during the mission would be the best outcome. If this was his only chance to get closer to someone whose presence had faded…

    “I think I can do it. I’m not a scared kid anymore…. I’ve trained for this day with all I’ve got.”

    Despite Ha-gyeom’s eyes shimmering with curiosity, Baek Seung-woo’s image in the photo remained still, forever frozen in time.

    Ha-gyeom caressed his own flushed earlobes, looking at Baek Seung-woo’s kind eyes and broad smile.

    “So, you don’t need to answer. Even if you’re dead, I won’t believe it, and no matter what anyone says, I’ll do what I want.”

    Suddenly, the fluorescent light flicked on with a click.

    Ha-gyeom, oblivious to the room’s sudden brightness, added,

    “…This time, it’s my turn to save you, Hyung.”

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