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“Land ahoy!”

Up ahead was a glittering dome of tall skyscrapers. This was Vinlan Corp: the country of organised capitalists.

On-board The Challenger, there was last-minute mayhem as everyone scrambled to put their best foot forward in this next step of their tournament adventure. The crew shuffled about on the deck busily, shepherding guests back to their rooms. They seemed to be on the edge about something; there was this unmistakeable tension in the air. A ship full of international passengers was sure to raise hackles. In a world where differences have divided and conquered, diversity in skin colour, build, language were all causes of tension.

There would be as much trepidation as interest from each of the countries the ship was going to visit—if the fighters made it that far.

Dart purposefully strode around Moonbucks, looking for Felix.

“Aha there you are! We’re about to dock, let’s go get our stuff,” Dart said as he found Felix sitting by himself, muttering something about violence outside of the tournament. They were still tired from the recent events of Tehari panthers, scheming politicians and racial prejudice.

“Hey what happened to your face?” Dart squinted more closely at Felix’s face. Felix’s left cheek was blushing more than usual. It looked as if someone had slapped him swiftly. Just retribution for some unwanted advances once again.

Felix immediately put his hand up to his cheek. “It’s from the panther,” he said gruffly, his ego bruised from being turned down in his flirtatious attempts yet again.

“Looks like a handprint to me…” Dart teased.

“I said it was from the panther.”

***

Hundreds of passengers hung out of their cabin windows as the ship neared Vinlan Corp: the first stop of God’s Tournament. From Dart and Felix’s balcony, they could see that the welcome party of thousands had gathered at the sleek, modern port. Even though they seemed prim and proper, dressed in modern office wear, the locals were enthusiastic and cheering at the sight of The Challenger coming into view. Many held up banners featuring their favourite Vinlan Corp tournament fighter. God’s Tournament was an entertainment event not to be missed, and how could one not camp out to catch a glimpse of the famed fighters? They were like collectibles at this point: one-of-a-kind and limited edition.

But the mood at the port was weighty with a serious overtone. In front of the orderly but curious crowd that had come to celebrate the disembarking of The Challenger, were two rows of uniformed forces, dressed in combat gear and fully armed with helmets. The crowd knew not to overplay their hand into rowdiness.

Clang! The gangway connected. As if on cue, the military troops began moving swiftly onto the ship, spreading out to cover the entire ship. Another team sealed the gangway, preventing no one from moving onto land freely. The story that had been told to the locals and the passengers was that the cruise liner needed to be assessed as a security threat to the country. Mistrust between warring countries has been in play for years; God’s Tournament was a mere sideshow that did not put a halt to the insurgencies and plots that happened every day on enemy grounds. The Vinlan Corp leadership could not risk a Trojan horse.

Little did the people know, however, that there was a mission at hand. The troops reported only to Minister Mallika of Vinlan Corp.

***

Inside the captain’s boardroom, Minister Mallika’s commanding presence took over the controls of the ship. Flanked by her ministerial security detail and backed up by the military might of dozens of her best officers from the special forces, she ordered an announcement to be made over the intercom to all passengers.

“Good day to everyone on board The Challenger. The weather is a pleasant twenty degrees Celsius and we have arrived at our first destination, Vinlan Corp. On behalf of the country, I welcome all of you. To Vinlanders on board this ship, welcome home,” Minister Mallika said smoothly. “We apologise for the slight delay. As you know, this is routine for all visitors to our country. There appears to be several incidents on board this ship. As we conduct our further assessment and review, we seek your cooperation in treating this matter delicately and with utmost discretion. Please stay in your cabins until further notice.”

Minister Mallika pursed her lips. She had dropped the bomb and referred to the incidents on the ship in order to seek cooperation from the parties of interest. It was bad enough that at least dozens of passengers had encountered the Tehari panthers, almost the entire kitchen crew had been eliminated altogether, and there had been a rogue Minister left loose on board. It would be a public relations nightmare if she did not manage to clamp down on the situation at hand—and yet, that was enough to set the gossip mill whirring at full speed. There would be enough false stories that the truth would be obscured. She would neutralise this threat.

The elite sniffer squad reported back within the hour with gruesome discoveries.

“Team C has found the bodies of three panthers across two levels. Permission to cremate on-site in the mortuary, over.”

“Eight crew members found dead in staff quarters and the kitchen. All linked to panther escape; claw marks on bodies. Permission to cremate on-site in the mortuary. Over.”

“Level 4. Minister Glover has been found. He is no longer breathing. Death by gunshot. Weapon not found on scene. Team A will bring his body onto shore via Exit 78. Over.”

Meanwhile, the special operations team dubbed the “customer relations team” had completed their “interviews” with hundreds of passengers to verify their identities and assess their threat levels. These interrogations were light-touch, and completed in a matter of hours.

Soon, the hazy picture became clear to Minister Mallika. She was unfazed by the ramifications of what she learned from the death of the panthers, the slain Minister and the fighters involved in the incident. It was evident what needed to be done in the first instance: no one should speak about it. She pulled out a stack of papers from her briefcase, which she had prepared ahead of time.

“These non-disclosure papers will need to be distributed to all passengers and crew on this ship. Do it in the grand dining hall. I want all signatures on file before anyone is let off this ship,” she tossed the heavy wad to the captain of the ship. “And remember to emphasise, that no one should act in the contrary. We will know.” She narrowed her eyes as she delivered the threat. Just another day as the Head of Intelligence.

***

The grand dining hall was abuzz with loud whispers as different segments were cordoned off into the grand dining hall. The fighters were sectioned off in one area. Military personnel patrolled menacingly as they circled the arena like wolves to a hen’s pen.

Felix was utterly livid. His eyes were bugging out with incredulity as if he had just been requested to sell his first-born child.

“I will not sign this, you hear me?! Where the hell is your sense of justice?! I will not stand for this!” He waved the sheet of paper in the air as he screamed.

“Sign it, you impertinent brat. Or you’ll be thrown off the side of the ship,” the officer responded coolly.

Kitaro was his usual unfazed self. After glancing briefly at the conditions laid out on the sheet, he signed it with a flourish. It’s not like they had a choice either.

“Maybe you should take a look at the last line,” he told Felix, who was still gesturing at the officer angrily and refusing to sign the agreement.

Felix paused briefly as his eyes searched for the last condition on the non-disclosure agreement.

“For your compliance with the terms of our agreement, you will be compensated 1,000,000 fiat out of the goodwill of your host country,” he read aloud.

His face turned from red to purple as he took a deep breath and continued his tirade. “YOU THINK YOU CAN BUY ANYONE JUST BECAUSE YOU HAVE MONEY?! YOU WON’T GET AWAY WITH THIS!” Simultaneously screaming, he signed his name on the bottom of the page. He made sure to huff a tad bit more dramatically than before.

Dart was silent as he considered his options. To his right was an irate Felix trying to stand up for the rights of the fallen who had been senselessly, and needlessly massacred in a bizarre, botched attack on the train. To his left was Kitaro, who was comfortable with keeping his mouth shut and staying out of someone else’s business as he usually did anyway, and even getting paid for it.

Dart’s expression was unreadable as he looked down at the sheet of paper in his hands. It felt heavy, like it carried a weight of responsibility. His mind was churning with considerations. That’s it? If I sign this, then it didn’t happen? Everything disappears?

On the one hand, it was like an undo button. On the other hand, it was a hush-up of wrong-doing. But who was in the wrong? Would they ever find out whose doing this was, unleashing those panthers in the ship like that? What about the girl who died, justice for her may never surface… But this was not a fight that he had signed up for…

“Look, what other choice do you have? We’re foreigners in this country. They won’t let you walk free - not off this ship, not anywhere, if you do not accede to their terms. There is no room for negotiation. Look how we’re all held hostage right now as it is.” Kitaro was speaking a lot of sense.

“If this is how the country operates, what more are they capable of? Will you fight everyone just to prove that you are right?”

Frowning, Dart picked up his pen and scrawled his initials. He did what he had to do.

***

Gilgamesh, spotting Krystal, ran up to her. His demeanour was as if nothing had happened between them, that he had not abandoned her and Dart in the meat room to fend for themselves with three rabid Tehari panthers.

“Hey, you survived,” he said jokingly, punching her on the shoulder lightly.

Krystal pushed him away roughly.

Gilgamesh looked a little sheepish. “I had to make the best possible choice given the circumstances. Surely, you understand. No hard feelings, right? I’m glad you’re alive.”

Ming coughed to interrupt. “You better leave before I break your face.”

“Told you he was trash,” Ming said as he took his sister by the hand to steer her away.

 

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About the author

PlayingGamesOfDespair

Bio: YA fantasy book series created by Kabir Singh & Judy Goh
Sypnosis: Tournament of the century, ordained by God. Who will prevail?

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