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    “What are you doing? Hurry up!”

    I wasn’t sure when I had stopped on the stairs, but Baek Ae-young’s shout kicked me into gear. It was as if I was a horse whipped into a sprint, almost tripping over myself. So this is how Park Moohyun’s quiz time ends. I should consider adding a prize for the next one.

    Holding a flashlight, Baek Ae-young was waiting for us at the top of the steep stairs. Step by step, with a mix of patience and annoyance, I finally reached a spot where I could see her face. She was standing still on the stairs, not moving any further up. Next to her, Yoo Geum-yi was also standing, leaning on her knees. The two of us, now joined, were panting for breath as we looked at the two people standing on the stairs.

    “Are you taking a break?”

    “This is the end.”

    I looked around after hearing Baek Ae-young’s response. Beyond her back, there were only a few more dark steps; the staircase ended. No more stairs. No more stairs! Yay! I silently cheered, raising an arm to the sky, forgetting all about the strain and naturally smiling.

    Yoo Geum-yi literally lay down on the floor, gasping for air and quietly cheering in excitement. Seo Jihyuk also sat down on the floor, chuckling. Shin Haeryang took the flashlight from Baek Ae-young and started to touch the wall. For a few seconds, we were all tremendously happy. When Yoo Geum-yi told us that there were approximately 4,320 steps, I even thought I could skip exercise for the rest of the week.

    The problem arose when Shin Haeryang wasn’t just touching the wall but started knocking and rubbing it as if trying to clean it with his hands and body. All eyes were on him as he moved around in the dark with his flashlight.

    “What’s wrong?”

    Yoo Geum-yi asked, as if fearful. Shin Haeryang looked at us and spoke.

    “There is no door to get out of the stairwell.”

    A cold shiver ran down my spine. While I was touching the back of my neck and head in disbelief, a horrified Seo Jihyuk asked, “Please, Team Leader… don’t tell us we have to go back down. Going down is harder and more challenging than climbing up.”

    The desperate tone pierced my ears. In the midst of all the uneasiness, Shin Haeryang looked at the wall and then at us, saying,

    “Stay here.”

    Then, holding his flashlight, he began to descend the stairs alone. Perhaps we looked like corpses sprawled on the ground. Yoo Geum-yi lay down on the ground like a stone statue, not moving an inch. Seo Jihyuk also lay down, making indistinct grumbling sounds; it was unclear whether he was asleep or dead. Baek Ae-young was stretching her arms and legs, making sounds as if her joints were under serious strain.

    As Shin Haeryang had said, no one moved. So I stood up. I mean, we couldn’t just let him wander around in the darkness alone, right? As Shin Haeryang moved away from the group, immediate darkness engulfed us. Relying on the blue light hanging from my neck, I kept muttering to myself, “It’s not scary, it’s not scary.” Getting up from the floor made my legs wobble. Even a newborn fawn would walk better than this. I might be fine today, but I bet I won’t be able to walk tomorrow. With these thoughts, I followed Shin Haeryang down the stairs.

    He looked back at me coming down from above, but didn’t really try to stop me. Shin Haeryang took one more step down the staircase and stared at the surrounding walls for a long time through a flashlight. He also knocked and scratched the walls before proceeding down the stairs again. He repeated the same actions at the next landing. Every time he descended and shone the flashlight on the wall, I felt engulfed in despair, realizing I had to go through this ordeal yet again.

    Do I have to walk 4,000 steps back to the third underwater base? After coming up all this way? A feeling of wanting to cry surged up. It seemed that the physical exhaustion had also mentally drained me. A storm of pain was wreaking havoc in my mind, destroying my well-established confidence.

    Shin Haeryang stopped at the landing and knocked on the wall with the back of his hand. A ‘thud-thud-thud’ sound echoed. The wall was full of mold. Well, that makes sense as this place is humid, damp, and crawling with bugs. Reaching into the bag he was carrying on his back, he took out a screwdriver. It seemed to have been taken from Baek Ae-young’s bag at the third underwater base. Then, with all his might, Shin Haeryang jabbed the screwdriver into the wall.

    I expected it to bounce back, but the tip of the screwdriver went right in. Pulling it out and throwing it on the floor, I asked,

    “Is it hollow?”

    “Yes.”

    My heart felt like it was pounding in my ears. Something surged up in my chest. Light streamed in through the small hole that the screwdriver had made. My eyes moistened as soon as I saw that tiny light. Even though he wasn’t nearby, it felt like I could hear Seo Jihyuk cursing at Shin Haeryang. Damn this team leader.

    “Could you explain that a bit more?”

    “They’ve double-layered it with drywall. Because of the moisture, mold has formed, and as you can see, if a screwdriver can penetrate it, we can tear it down and move on.”

    It sounded like he was saying this is a false wall connected to the stairs, and at that moment, my legs gave way, and I slumped down onto the steps. I don’t have to go back to the third underwater base. I don’t have to descend those damn 4,000 steps again. I can get out of here. Tears welled up in my eyes.

    “Please stay here. I’ll go get the others.”

    I bowed my head and nodded. As Shin Haeryang passed me and started climbing the stairs, I yelled at his back, “Will you come if I call?!”

    Even so, Shin Haeryang continued to climb the stairs. It wasn’t until the sound of footsteps ceased that I, in my stupor, realized Shin Haeryang had gone up because of Seo Jihyuk. I was out of it. Then I began to hear the sound of people descending the stairs. I didn’t have an ounce of strength left to go back up. I crawled to where Shin Haeryang had been standing earlier and began to sweep the floor. My hand caught a flathead screwdriver.

    Thinking I should chip away at the drywall before anyone comes, I tapped it with the tip of the screwdriver. The material was no joke in terms of durability. How did Shin Haeryang manage to jab this in with just a screwdriver? Was drywall normally this hard? I couldn’t tell if it was that my hands were weak or that the part I touched was unexpectedly strong.

    Sitting down, gripping the screwdriver with both hands, I took several whacks at the wall when I heard footsteps behind me. Then a hand patted me lightly on the shoulder and extended beside me. Due to the necklace, the palm of the hand looked bluish. When I handed the screwdriver to the expert, a large hand grabbed it and started pounding toward the light. In just four attempts, a palm-sized hole appeared in the wall. Shin Haeryang smashed the wall with the screwdriver, his fist, and his forearm. It was almost like a human drilling machine. Eventually, Shin Haeryang even kicked the wall, making a hole.

    Though the air was thick with dust, I saw a tremendous light coming in from the outside. Having walked in darkness, it was hard to open my eyes, unaccustomed to the light. Once a hole big enough for one person to pass through was created, Baek Ae-young softly whistled and went out through the wall like a cat. Then she knocked on the wall three times in our direction. The sound of Yu Geum-yi’s laughter reached my ears from behind.

    The place we’ve come out is one of the false walls within the deep-sea aquarium of the 2nd underwater base,” Shin Haeryang explained.

    Located at -200m, the deep-sea aquarium is set to open next year for the general public visiting the underwater base. For now, it’s just been pre-constructed, with only a few species of fish introduced. People come and go for tasks like feeding the fish, cleaning the tanks, and planting aquatic plants, but fortunately, there was no sign of anyone.

    We went to the nearest restroom from our location, as Baek Ae-young suggested. Shin Haeryang seemed to have already mapped out the shortest route to the first underwater base in his head, regardless of restrooms or detours, as if he were a robot. However, people couldn’t move like robots.

    Especially Yoo Geum-yi said she would die right here if she had to walk any further, and her team leader, who could only refrain from cursing, was in a similar condition as me. Seo Jihyuk was lying down, groaning. Baek Ae-young addressed our team leader, who was glaring at the people lying on the floor and complaining, “You can’t assume everyone else has as much stamina as you, team leader.”

    Seo Jihyuk looked at our team leader with eyes like those of a cow about to be slaughtered, and Yoo Geum-yi started to glare at Shin Haeryang as well. Shin Haeryang sighed and said, “Let’s take a break for a moment.” Baek Ae-young suggested we wash our faces with water while resting in the restroom. “That alone will make us feel much better,” she said.

    We split into men and women and agreed to meet back in 10 minutes. Seo Jihyuk was the first to dart into a restroom stall on one leg. My reflection in the mirror was pathetic. My hair was matted with sweat, and my whole body looked like it was covered in a layer of dirt. My face and palms were also discolored, as if something had smeared them.

    I considered actually soaking and washing the hoodie I was wearing, but instead of making a laundry spectacle in the bathroom, I chose to compromise with my own hygiene standards. I went into a corner stall, took off all my clothes, and held my breath. Then, I rigorously shook out my hoodie and sweatpants. If I could have opened a window, I would have shaken them out there. All I saw outside the window was still just water. Come on, air circulation system, hang in there.

    By the time I felt I’d shaken out enough dust, I put my clothes back on. At the sink, I washed my sweat-drenched hair with water and soap and splashed water on my face. I couldn’t stand feeling grimy any longer. I dried my wet hair with a suspicious towel from the cleaning supplies box (which was cleaner than my clothes) and rinsed out my foul-smelling mouth with water. Just doing that made me feel much better.

    I also thoroughly washed the necklace and wiped it with a towel before returning it to its owner. Shin Haeryang remained standing as if he were guarding the door. He washed his hands and rinsed his mouth after using the bathroom but otherwise seemed alert for anyone approaching.

    Seo Jihyuk washed his hands as he came out of the bathroom stall, saying it felt like he was reborn. He was standing on one leg while washing his hands at the sink, making me feel uneasy watching him, but Seo Jihyuk looked thoughtless. Then he leaned against the wall, stood on one foot, and stared discontentedly at his shot left leg.

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