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    It was only after Seo Jihyuk placed one foot on the stairs that he realized that he really had to walk here. Seo Jihyuk let out a ridiculous laugh and sighed.

    Sigh… If… I had known this was going to happen, I would’ve lost some weight. Please, take care of me.”

    “Yes. Please do the same to me too.”

    Shin Haeryang did not respond. He just yielded the innermost part of the stairs to me and stood at the farthest end. It seemed like a gesture of goodwill, as one needed to move less if they were on the inside. Shin Haeryang and I grasped Seo Jihyuk’s back and arm, exerting strength. And so, we started climbing the stairs.

    The stairs were sturdier than expected. The problem was that they hadn’t been maintained, so the dust had accumulated to the size of our pinky fingers, and they were slippery. Baek Ae-young, being the first one to take the lead, swept aside garbage and other obstructions, tossing them carelessly down the stairs.

    Seo Jihyuk, Shin Haeryang, and I formed a team and were ascending the stairs. As I walked on the inner side of the stairs, I noted there were pros and cons. The upside was that I had to move less than if I was on the outside. The downside, however, was the lack of a handrail by my side, which made it difficult to tell if I was stepping onto a stair or into thin air.

    Shin Haeryang on the outer side had to move the most among us, which was a disadvantage. The upside for him was that he could lean on the wall with his hand or shoulder. But that wall was caked with dust and crawling with weird-looking bugs. With these trivial pros and cons in mind, my eyes focused on the movement of the lights.

    Three men climbing the stairs together is not the most advisable method, simply because each of us had a different climbing speed. At first, we nearly fell a few times immediately after starting. Our speed was either similar to a turtle’s or it seemed like we were competing in a three-legged race.

    Shin Haeryang quickly set a rhythm. Count to three and step on three. One, two, three! One, two, three! One, two, three! We continued like this until we could finally synchronize our steps after crossing the 100th stair.

    Following Baek Ae-young’s source of light, Yoo Geum-yi quickly climbed up. Occasionally, Baek Ae-young would shine her light on a cat following us. But mostly, her light fell on the broken concrete stairs and the exposed iron bars. Once we passed, she would illuminate the path ahead once again.

    With each step, Yoo Geum-yi, who was ahead of us, would count the number of stairs. She also scratched some kind of mark on the wall. When Baek Ae-young asked, Yoo Geum-yi said she was counting the stairs and floors. She considered 24 stairs to be one floor.

    Walking in the dark reminded me of Yoo Geum-yi counting the floors in the elevator. That lady sure does love her numbers. If I had been counting, I would’ve lost count around 50. I would’ve gotten confused after 47, wondering if I’d counted 48 or not, and probably would’ve skipped a whole set of ten.

    We kept moving without rest. I wasn’t tired yet. Seo Jihyuk started sharing scary stories to entertain the two women guiding us. However, when Yoo Geum-yi told a tale about a ghost crawling on the stairs, Seo Jihyuk couldn’t retort. He was silenced by her story about a ghost chasing people down the stairs and consuming the first person it caught. I snickered while climbing the stairs.

    How far had we climbed? My legs started to feel heavy, and the arm and shoulder of Seo Jihyuk that I was supporting began to weigh heavily. I could only hear Yoo Geum-yi’s voice counting. We were way past 200 steps now.

    “How many floors have we passed?”

    The counting stopped, and a response came from the dark.

    “Just past the 8th floor.”

    And then she started counting again, because Baek Ae-young didn’t stop moving. If 180 floors were the end, how much had we climbed? About 4%? Suppressing my immediate desire to lie down, I continued to move, one step at a time.

    During this ludicrous three-man race, we realized that if even one person failed to move on time, we couldn’t ascend the stairs. It was maddening. Not only my breathing, but I could also hear others’ breathing now. We were starting to tire. Soon, all three of us were panting like dogs who had run a long distance. Shin Haeryang gasped for breath and spoke.

    “If we’ve already passed 430 steps, let’s rest.”

    Upon hearing this, Seo Jihyuk quickly shouted at Yu Geum-yi.

    “How far have we come?”

    Yu Geum-yi stopped, panting heavily. After swallowing her saliva, she answered.

    “402 steps!”

    Shit. By the looks of it, neither Shin Haeryang nor Seo Jihyuk had any intention of resting at the moment. They managed to move their static legs, and made an effort to empty their minds without thinking about anything. Thinking of anything else only makes it more difficult when you’re tired. They had only one thought: to keep moving their legs.

    Move the legs! One step! Another step! And another! No, hell. Stop thinking about the crazy shark living in the icy water. Focus on the legs! Only the legs! I am a leg-moving robot. Just move the legs. One step. Another step. One step. Forget about the face of the person who got shot in the chest and died! One step! Another step. Move the legs. Stop thinking! Again! One step with the legs! One step! One step!

    With every step I took, I harbored more resentment for the cult religion. Before I knew it, my back was drenched in sweat, and I wanted to throw away everything and lie down on the stairs. Just think about the legs! Only the legs! Only think about moving one step at a time.

    I wiped my runny nose with the back of my hand, then swept the sweat off my forehead with my palm. My legs felt like logs.

    “Let’s rest when we reach here!”

    Baek Ae-young was saying this from the landing while kicking away the garbage and dust on the floor. Just go that far. You only have to go that far. Seo Jihyuk, Shin Haeryang, and I almost tripped twice because of tangled steps, but we finally made it to the landing. We, who had been clumped together like a lump, sprawled out and lay down on the floor in our preferred postures.

    We didn’t care about the dust or garbage on the floor. We just wanted to lie down. After panting for a few minutes, we could finally catch our breath. There was a breeze on the stairs. Every time it brushed past my hair, I felt a strange relief, even while thinking that the wind must be full of dust and mold.

    I had rolled up my long sleeves and constantly lifted and lowered my clothes to cool off the sweat. I heard a zipper opening and turned my head to see Shin Haeryang lying down, exposing the back part of his suit, which looked like a wetsuit, to the air.

    “Aren’t wetsuits supposed to be zipperless?”

    “This isn’t a wetsuit.”

    And then he said nothing. There was no more explanation. Even Seo Jihyuk was quiet. Occasionally, I heard some noises like someone gasping, but everyone was peacefully lying in the darkness. I could see Yu Geum-yi lying near Baek Ae-young’s feet.

    Baek Ae-young was the only one sitting in the middle of the stairs, taking a rest. The flashlight in her hand was casting a slanting light on the people resting on the landing. I thought to myself, “I’ve done well to bring that flashlight,” and casually said,

    “I should have brought a flashlight from the convenience store. What a pity.”

    Lying flat on the floor, Shin Haeryang turned his head and said, “People with good observational skills… can guess our status… or our destination… from the packaging torn at the convenience store or the missing items.”

    Whoa, that’s a… surprising answer I didn’t expect. But will the cult followers wandering in the third underwater base, or the people who came up from the fourth underwater base, carefully check what we did at the convenience store while they are too busy escaping? Don’t they also have to run quickly to survive? I don’t know.

    I was so weak, I crawled towards the snake bag Yoo Geum-yi had left on the floor. From the side, I heard Seo Jihyuk gasping at my state. Taking out a water bottle to moisten my parched mouth, requests for water echoed from all around.

    In turn, the water bottle was hurled out of the stairwell by the hands of Baek Ae-young. Only after a few seconds did the sound of it hitting the ground reach us. It took forever to ascend but only mere seconds to descend.

    Resting with my legs stretched out, a cat brushed past my ankles. I nearly screamed in surprise. While I was startled, the cat quickly distanced itself from me, before climbing onto the back of Shin Haeryang who was lying on the floor. Should I get rid of it? I wondered, but as Shin Haeryang began to rise, the cat automatically jumped down.

    Shin Haeryang announced, ‘Let’s go’. Already five minutes had passed. It was only then I realized that Shin Haeryang was timing us. Everyone seemed to be counting something. Perhaps I should start counting too. After enduring what felt like an eternity in five minutes, we rose from our resting places, each emitting a groan.

    The light from Baek Ae-young’s torch unwaveringly led the way. How could she be so energetic? How could she climb the stairs so proficiently? The torturous stair count from Yoo Geum-yi started once again. Seo Jihyuk, Shin Haeryang, and I became a single entity, like mismatched robots that had combined. As we attempted to ascend the stairs, our steps got tangled again. We had to count, one-two-three! as we ascended.

    Panting, Seo Jihyuk said: “Huh… If we had a Medik, these stairs would be a piece of cake.”

    A Medik is a transport robot equipped with AI, used in medical scenes. It usually moves on four legs, but if more are needed, it can deploy four additional legs and move like a spider. In any situation, it efficiently carries out its role for rescuing lives, even if it has to cling to the ceiling when it’s hard to move on the ground. It’s a robot designed to prioritize rescue in places difficult for humans to reach. For example, it’s deployed in burning buildings or collapsing construction sites and is commonly used in hospitals.

    According to Seo Jihyuk, it seemed there were also Mediks in the hospital on the artificial island. If they could use a Medik, Seo Jihyuk would be transported by it at a faster speed than the leading Baek Ae-young. Since it could carry over 250kg, Yoo Geum-yi, and Baek Ae-young could also hitch a ride. But I’m not the type of person to live on suppositions like Seo Jihyuk, so I just shook my head.

    “Let’s just make do with two human Mediks.”

    “Ah… What. I’m not complaining. It’s just that it’s gonna be hard on the two of you.”

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