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    #014

    Seok Ji-ho, looking at Han Youngjae carrying Yoon So-jin on his back, commented. Jang Gi-jun, seeing Yang Ga-eun holding onto Lee Do-seon’s nape, only pretended to support him.

    It seemed there was no other way to keep the espers within the wave than clinging on awkwardly.

    “Sigh…”

    Normally, Ha-gyeom would have resisted, but with the mission at hand, he couldn’t afford to. If he had to cling on, he’d rather piggyback. Before Seok Ji-ho could even get ready, Ha-gyeom jumped onto his back.

    “Don’t fall behind and keep up.”

    Being carried by an esper who jumped several meters at a time felt like being on a roller coaster, making his vision spin. Seok Ji-ho, evading the surveillance with animalistic instincts, took a deep breath and glanced back.

    Ha-gyeom was breaking out in a cold sweat, feeling an unexpected bout of nausea. Seok Ji-ho, who was about to tease him, stopped when Ha-gyeom asked a question.

    “How many?”

    “…There are four armed personnel on the dock. Two espers and two guides. There are also three civilians who seem to be workers.”

    “Weapons?”

    “All four have rifles.”

    In less than ten minutes, they arrived near the gate. The dock extended in a T-shape from the Zone 0 gate.

    As soon as they spotted those waiting at the end of the dock, Ha-gyeom’s expression turned dark.

    Fortunately or unfortunately, there were no familiar faces.

    “Why don’t the civilians have purification waves?”

    Seok Ji-ho’s innocent question made Yang Ga-eun and Lee Do-seon scoff in turn.

    “Because they’re expendable. What were you doing during the meetings? Do you think they’d waste precious purification waves, like those used by guides, on civilians?”

    “That’s pretty inhumane…”

    “Zone 0 is beyond anything you can imagine, so stop questioning everything and just accept it. Overthinking will only hinder the mission.”

    Yang Ga-eun retorted sharply. If someone was already contaminated, a late purification wave wouldn’t do any good.

    “Yoon So-jin and I will approach first. Then Yang Ga-eun’s team, followed by the chick team at the end. Okay?”

    Han Youngjae pointed at the containers stacked like Tetris blocks. They looked abandoned, so hiding there wouldn’t be difficult to avoid surveillance.

    Han Youngjae moved forward with Yoon So-jin, taking a position in the shadowy gap between the containers. He effortlessly held a bazooka that was almost half the size of his upper body.

    Yang Ga-eun’s team passed them and took a position farther away.

    Soon, the radio crackled to life.

    – Shin Ha-gyeom, Seok Ji-ho, circle around below. When the cargo ship docks, get as close as possible and observe. Wait for further orders.

    It was too late to resist, as this had already been decided in the mission briefing. Ha-gyeom, with an irritated Seok Ji-ho, waded into the water. If they reached the end of the T-shape, they could hide on the opposite side of the wall.

    The ice-cold water didn’t bother Ha-gyeom. As he moved forward with the water up to his thighs, Seok Ji-ho suddenly grabbed his waist.

    “You always choose the hard way over the easy one, don’t you?”

    Thanks to this, it took less than ten seconds to reach the end of the dock.

    “If you understand, let go.”

    Ha-gyeom immediately pushed Seok Ji-ho away and closed his eyes. To properly disguise and purify, he needed to strengthen his wave, even with his poor control abilities. While Ha-gyeom focused on controlling his energy, Seok Ji-ho positioned himself under a tangled rebar structure.

    Before long, the cargo ship glided closer. Apart from the sound of waves being pushed aside, there was no noise as the ship docked, and not a single light was visible. The espers and workers who had been standing at a distance walked up to the unfolded gangway from the ship.

    It was time to hold their breath.

    Ha-gyeom pressed close to Seok Ji-ho, observing the situation. To avoid detection by the highly perceptive espers, it was wise to remain completely still.

    Clunk, clunk…

    At the signal from a long-haired esper who appeared to be the leader, the cargo began to be unloaded. Due to the scarcity of wood, most of the crates encasing the cargo were made of junk or worthless waste materials. Whatever was inside them would go through a purification system once it passed through Zone 0’s gate.

    The purification systems, like the one in the center and around the world, extracted energy from guides. Since the energy of espers never depleted, it served as a kind of resource.

    The seemingly mundane flow of cargo was initially boring to watch.

    However, the espers, who had been watching the cargo with disinterest like Ha-gyeom, suddenly began to move busily.

    “……!”

    That was when the real light appeared. A guide, accompanied by an esper, walked out with a particular cargo.

    A circular wave spread around the cargo. Any cargo requiring protection before passing through the purification system had to be ‘alive.’

    Including the espers from the ship, the enemy count was six.

    Six against seven might seem like a favorable fight. However, this was Zone 0’s dock. Reinforcements could arrive at any time, and weapons designed to combat monsters would leave them at a disadvantage.

    – “We see it on the thermal imaging… Seok Ji-ho, Shin Ha-gyeom, can you confirm the target with your eyes?”

    Yang Ga-eun’s radio message came through. Ha-gyeom and Seok Ji-ho immediately peeked over the concrete.

    As they nervously waited, the long-haired esper approached the cargo and opened the cover. From their angle, they couldn’t see anything. Ha-gyeom looked towards Yang Ga-eun’s position and shook his head.

    – “It’s definitely the target. Appears to be a child around 120 cm tall, body temperature is 35 degrees. Considering hypothermia, that’s a reasonable temperature. No need to wait any longer.”

    Han Youngjae’s voice came through, and Yang Ga-eun hesitated for a moment before the radio crackled with static and she spoke again.

    – “Let’s finish this before they enter the gate. If we want to win, take out the guides first.”

    Everyone knew Han Youngjae’s bazooka would be the signal. With a sharp sound, Han Youngjae swiftly climbed on top of the container and aimed the bazooka.

    Boom-!

    The explosion shattered the stillness, signaling the start of the operation.

    A loud, unusual sound of a burst echoed. Unfortunately, no espers were taken down with the first shot. The long-haired esper dodged with remarkable agility.

    “Expand the wave! Give us freedom to move!”

    Lee Do-seon and Yoon So-jin quickly expanded their waves.

    Amidst the chaos, Ha-gyeom and Seok Ji-ho approached the cargo ship. Even as they climbed onto the deck, the enemies’ attention remained fixed on Yang Ga-eun, Han Youngjae, and Jang Gi-jun, who moved dynamically.

    Ha-gyeom crouched and extended his wave towards the cargo hiding the target.

    Simultaneously, Seok Ji-ho drew a long sword from his belt and slashed at the esper’s neck. Although the opponent dodged swiftly, the bullet that followed didn’t miss entirely.

    “Argh…!”

    “Damn.”

    The bullet only grazed the shoulder of the esper, who was resilient enough to avoid a fatal injury. Seok Ji-ho shouted.

    “Ha-gyeom! Just shoot!”

    Pain started to creep in as Ha-gyeom forced control over his wave. Despite this, he didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger of the rifle in his hand. Even without being an esper, he knew how to hit vital points with bullets.

    He aimed at the esper and fired until the magazine was empty. Half the shots missed, and the rest merely grazed the skin.

    There was no way a guide could win against an esper with gunfire alone. Frustrated, Seok Ji-ho shouted while reloading his own weapon.

    “I’ll hold them off. Focus on the target!”

    Ha-gyeom nodded without a word. His attention turned to the guide who had been standing quietly.

    Suddenly, the guide’s gun was aimed at the target.

    ‘No way. Is he planning to eliminate the target now?’

    There was no time to waste.

    Ha-gyeom instinctively threw himself forward.

    With a crash, he landed between the cargo and the guide. The guide was momentarily stunned by Ha-gyeom’s reckless move. Seizing the moment, Ha-gyeom kicked at the guide’s rifle.

    Thud!

    He knocked the rifle to the ground, but the gunfire sprayed wildly, almost hitting the target.

    – Damn it! Ha-gyeom, I told you to be precise, not reckless!

    Han Youngjae’s voice came through the radio, loud enough to split ears. Regardless, the guide was disarmed, and no one was hurt.

    Surviving was all that mattered.

    With the guide disarmed and Seok Ji-ho engaging the other espers, Ha-gyeom quickly turned his attention back to the target. He moved cautiously towards the cargo, ensuring there were no immediate threats. The long-haired esper, now engaged in a fierce battle with Seok Ji-ho, was temporarily out of the way.

    “Hurry up, we don’t have much time!”

    Seok Ji-ho called out, barely managing to fend off another attack.

    Ha-gyeom reached the cargo and carefully opened it. Inside, he found a young child, exactly as described—around 120 cm tall and visibly frightened but unharmed.

    “It’s okay. We’re here to help.”

    Ha-gyeom whispered reassuringly.

    He quickly assessed the child for any injuries before securing them in his arms. With a nod to Seok Ji-ho, who was still holding the enemies at bay, Ha-gyeom signaled that he had the target.

    “We’re pulling out! Fall back to the rendezvous point!”

    Yang Ga-eun’s voice commanded through the radio.

    Seok Ji-ho threw a smoke grenade to cover their retreat. Ha-gyeom, with the child securely in his arms, moved swiftly towards the extraction point, followed closely by Seok Ji-ho.

    As they regrouped, the team ensured everyone was accounted for and began their retreat, leaving the chaotic dock behind. The mission had its hiccups, but they had the target, and everyone was alive.

    For now, that was victory enough.


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