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Gua Two returned at 10 the next morning, accompanied by two government officials.

Shi Jin, watching from the bridge, saw one of the men wore a military uniform with insignia indicating high rank, and the other a suit, but looked to be important too.
A bit apprehensive, he turned to Gua Nine: “Who are they?”

Gua Nine continued typing on the laptop and didn’t even lift his head.
“The short, stout, and balding one is the conference chairman, Zhang Zhuoyan, director of a certain government bureau.
Everyone is familiar with him, he comes every year.
The other is the Navy rear admiral, Liu Zhenjun, here to maintain order.
He’s a tough guy, not to be messed with.
His role is to keep the underworld leaders in check, the same as Jun-shao, but he’s attending the meeting for the first time—he used to belong to the Army.”

As he listened, Shi Jin checked Lian Jun’s progress bar again.
Thankfully, it was still 600 and didn’t rise, so he relaxed a little.

About an hour later, Gua Nine and Shi Jin’s phones vibrated at the same time.
It was a message from Gua One: [Pack up and get ready to move to the government ship.]

Gua Nine immediately closed the laptop and said, “Let’s go.”

Shi Jin let out a confirming hum and followed him out.

Things got busy for a while.
When it grew close to lunchtime, Lian Jun took Gua One, Two, Three, and Nine, as well as Shi Jin, and left for their new accommodations.
Gua Five, who came back shortly after Gua Two, stayed on Annihilation’s ship to hold down the fort.

After they boarded, Lian Jun and Gua One went to find the person in charge straight away while Shi Jin and the rest headed to their assigned quarters.

While they unpacked, Shi Jin learned from Gua Two that aside for Lian Jun, none of the underworld organizations’ leaders would stay on the government ship overnight.
They all boarded just before the day’s meeting, returning to their vessels immediately after, and repeated this every day until the end of the conference.
It was plain they had a deep distrust of the government and each other and kept up their vigilance.

Shi Jin could understand their wariness but had doubts about something else: “Then aren’t they suspicious of Jun-shao, since he’s the only one who stays here?”

“As if not staying here would make them feel less suspicious,” Gua Two said with a sneer.
“Jun-shao cooperates with the government because they pushed him into this position when they forced him to reach out to the authorities, to ‘facilitate the dialogue between the two sides.’ What do you think their intentions were? At the time, relations between the government and the underworld were tense.
They wanted Annihilation to test the waters for them, treating us as cannon fodder.
It’s only because of Jun-shao that we survived and can lead our current comfortable life.
Serves them right—they wanted to take advantage of Jun-shao, but in the end, it’s because they created such a situation we could make the connection with the government.

Shi Jin asked, surprised, “So the other organizations know we cooperate with the authorities?”

“Of course they know, it isn’t hard to guess.” Lips curling in a scornful smile, Gua Two continued, “What they don’t know is Jun-shao has reached an agreement with the government, to get rid of the underworld and end this situation once and for all.
The fools drool for the benefits Annihilation gets, not realizing the trap is closing upon them.
Soon, none of them will be able to get away.”

Shi Jin blinked, understanding dawning upon him.

Though everyone was aware Annihilation had some sort of understanding with the officials, they didn’t know its crucial point—they only thought Annihilation was exchanging favors for profits.
They had no idea Lian Jun agreed to help eliminate the underworld organizations.

If so, Annihilation should still be safe, since apparently, no one discovered its “betrayal” yet.

“But, though they are fools, there always seems to be someone even more foolish who falls for their sweet talk.” Gua Two abruptly paused, then laid a hand on Shi Jin’s shoulder: “You have to be careful—during the conference, you will probably receive a lot of ‘carrots.’”

Shi Jin was a bit confused.
“What do you mean?”

Gua Two put a cigarette in his mouth and bit down on it.
“Every year, the other organizations will reach out to the people accompanying Jun-shao and try to draw them over to their side—some are subtle, some upfront.
You are the only new face this year, so you’ll definitely become their main target.
Do you remember Gua Four?”

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Shi Jin nodded.
“I do, why?”

“At the last year’s conference, he was successfully wooed by a medium-sized organization and betrayed Jun-shao.” Gua Two’s voice became heavy as he said this, and sank almost to a whisper.
“He was too ambitious; capable, but unscrupulous.
That’s why Jun-shao had reservations about him and never trusted him.
And Gua Four never really settled in—he started scheming the moment he found out Annihilation was transforming.
It was the sixth time Jun-shao was betrayed by someone at his side.
Year after year, this happens every time, like a fixed scenario.
This conference is cursed.”

Seeing him get more and more upset, Shi Jin raised a hand to pull the cigarette out his mouth, giving him candy in return.
He said, “Some people simply are like that.
You can’t let them get to you.”

“I know, it’s not that.” Gua Two exhaled, then obediently took the candy, unpacked it, and put it in his mouth.
His tone slowly returned to normal.
“I’m just scared, scared that maybe the days of living in the darkness have gone on for too long, and the companions fighting by my side will change their minds.
You’re a newcomer, perhaps you don’t understand.
The easiness of making money by dirty means, the power to decide others’ life or death at will—it’s addictive.
Keep living like that long enough, and some people won’t be able to give it up.
They won’t want to leave the darkness anymore.”

Shi Jin had no answer to that.
The human heart was indeed unpredictable.
When he was a police officer, many times, he saw someone rescued from bad circumstances willingly abandon a new life and return to their old one.
It made people both angry and helpless.

“Anyway, you need to be careful.
If someone approaches you, report it to Jun-shao immediately so we can take precautions.” Gua Two put a hand on Shi Jin’s shoulder again, a rare serious expression on his face: “Shi Jin, Jun-shao trusts you very much, please don’t let him down.
If even your heart sways, I fear he won’t be able to carry on.” He clenched the candy wrapper in his hand then turned and walked away.

Shi Jin realized that helping him unpack was just the pretext, the real reason he came over was to say this.
He glanced at Lian Jun’s progress bar and let out a sigh.
Gua Two was worrying too much.
If he betrayed Lian Jun, forget Lian Jun’s reaction—the first one who wouldn’t let him off was the system in his head.
It’d cry so much his mind would collapse.

By lunchtime, Lian Jun and Gua One still weren’t back; they should’ve been invited to have a meal with the officials.

Shi Jin followed Gua Two and the others to the ship restaurant.
After sitting down, he felt a little uneasy, so he took out the satellite phone that was specially reconfigured after they set off and sent Lian Jun a text message, telling him not to drink.

Lian Jun replied quickly, with only one word: [Mhm.]

Reassured, Shi Jin put away the phone and picked up his chopsticks.

The people sitting at the same table saw his actions.
They exchanged tacit glances and said nothing, beginning to eat.

Lian Jun didn’t come back until about 4 p.m.
and called for a meeting the moment he returned.
He briefly described the general outline of the conference, told everyone not to run around, then waved his hand to let them disperse.

According to Lian Jun, the conference schedule was the same as the previous years, and it would last three days.
The first day was to examine the activities of all underworld organizations in the past year.
The second day was to analyze and discuss the current situation of illegal organizations in China.
The high point was the third day—the government would update the list of legal criminal organizations; some would be added, some removed.
At the same time, the officials would collect propositions for new additions from the leaders of current legal organizations.
The government would conduct a year-long investigation and audit of the candidates, the results of which would be announced during the next year’s conference.
Only then would the new legal organizations be officially listed.

There was always a large number of propositions submitted—this was the main reason the underworld bosses who usually hated to appear in public were willing to attend the conference.
It was an opportunity to legally increase their strength, and no one wanted to miss it.

Later, Gua One explained to Shi Jin, the newcomer, exactly how it worked.

It turned out not all legal criminal organizations were eligible to propose a candidate, only the ones listed for more than three years.
However, the organizations listed for more than five years had a full recommendation quota, whereas the ones listed for more than three years but less than five had just half.
If they wanted to make a recommendation, they needed to cooperate with another organization with the same qualifications.

Organizations listed for less than three years had no quota, they were only allowed to listen to the results.

Shi Jin couldn’t help asking, “Well, we’ve been listed for several years.
Do we have a whole recommendation quota?”

Gua One replied, “We’ve been listed for the longest, of course, we have the quota, but Jun-shao never uses it.
Other organizations crave the quotas so they can gain more allies, or promote the smaller organizations they support and increase their strength.
Annihilation needs neither, so Jun-shao hands in a blank paper every year.”

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This answer was full of confidence and pride.
Shi Jin thought it was pleasant to hear, and nodded to show that he understood and that Gua One could continue his tutoring.

But Gua One only said, “There’s nothing else I need to specifically explain to you, you can look up the rest by yourself.
Shi Jin, don’t fail Jun-shao’s trust.” He put the file he held on the table and stood up.

This was the second time today Shi Jin heard the “don’t let Jun-shao down” speech.
He raised his head to watch Gua One leave, then picked up the file and leafed through it, somewhat frustrated.
Did he really look like such a weak-willed person? And so much that both Gua One and Gua Two, the most steadfast and cautious ones, felt they needed to tell him that?

The conference would begin the day after next.
According to previous years, most of the other leaders would arrive in the afternoon or evening of the following day, and approach the government ship just before the start of the first meeting.

Unexpectedly, late in the day, a completely black and obviously modified civilian ship appeared on the nearby sea and came straight their way.

Shi Jin was massaging Lian Jun’s legs.
Once Xiao Si informed him of this new arrival, he looked out of the cabin window, but only saw an indistinct shape with lights scattered here and there moving towards them.
It startled him—he almost thought it was a ghost ship.

Lian Jun, noticing that his movements paused, sat up and followed his gaze.
“It’s Phantom,” he said.
“They love black.
Their ship looks like that every year.”

Shi Jin had seen that name in the pile of information Gua One gave him.

Similar to Annihilation, Phantom was also a legal criminal organization that had been listed for many years, and a few years ago, they almost became powerful enough to stand on the same level.
Unfortunately, misfortune struck them—Phantom lost its leader just as it managed to build up enough momentum.
Due to the inexperienced new leader repeatedly making wrong decisions, their strength gradually withered.
Now, they were at the bottom of the top echelon of legal underworld organizations in China.

“Phantom’s new leader is smart.” Abruptly, Lian Jun said something completely different from what was in the file.
He pulled Shi Jin’s hand, took a towel, and carefully wiped it clean of the massage oil as he explained, “If Phantom continued to develop, it would’ve likely ended up like Black Rose.
Phantom’s leader chose to cripple his strength and retreat overseas, which was a wise, far-sighted decision.”

Shi Jin looked away from the window and back at Lian Jun.
Unconsciously, his eyes focused on the other man’s eyelashes, long and thick, and more beautiful than they had any right to be.

“In recent years, many of the large underworld organizations in China declined and vanished, and the names listed in the top echelon change faster and faster.
Though on the surface, Phantom seems to be getting weaker, it firmly stays in the top echelon.
The bottom position makes it unlikely to become the government’s target, and at the same time, allows Phantom not to lose its top qualifications and keep enough power to be a force to be reckoned with.
Very clever, and also very prudent.”

Lian Jun meticulously wiped the teenager’s fingers clean one by one, then raised his head and said, “Phantom came earlier than expected—they must have decided to change their strategy.
You should observe them.
If you can guess what they’re going to do, I’ll promise to fulfill a request.”

Shi Jin wasn’t prepared for him to suddenly look up and into his eyes.
He was dazed for a moment, then returned to himself and nodded.
“All right, then I’ll try to guess… Wait a moment, you’ll promise to do anything?”

“If you’re right,” Lian Jun emphasized.

Shi Jin instantly perked up.
“Is there a time limit?”

Lian Jun squeezed his hand and replied, “You need to tell me your guess before the third day of the conference.
Otherwise our bet is canceled.”

“Rest assured that I’ll hand in my answer in time,” Shi Jin promised hurriedly.
He decided to win the bet, then ask Lian Jun to go for a proper check-up.
Uncle Long said it was a long time since Lian Jun had one.

Since he had such an important thing riding on winning the bet, Shi Jin at once turned all his attention to watching the black ship.
However, Phantom refused to cooperate with his observation—once they came a little closer, they stopped and turned off all the lights.
It seemed they didn’t mean to actively seek contact with the officials.

“Don’t tell me it’s too late and they’re going to rest?” Shi Jin muttered, glancing at the hour.
Since it wasn’t early, he asked Xiao Si to keep an eye on Phantom’s movements and climbed into bed.

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He woke at dawn and immediately dashed to the window.
However, there wasn’t anything to see—the Phantom’s ship remained motionless and without any signs of life, resembling a jet-black tessera inlaid in the dark mosaic of the seascape.

“Have they come to the government ship?”

Xiao Si replied,

Shi Jin was more and more confused.
He took one more look at the black ship, and said doubtfully, “It couldn’t be that they came early just to wait for the other big shots because they want to move together?”

As if to confirm his conjecture, the next day Phantom still didn’t move.
The other organizations began to arrive, though, and sent people to contact the officials either individually or with allies.

At dinnertime, several organizations comparable to Annihilation appeared and anchored their ships close to the government ship, encircling it and effectively creating an inner ring.

When these big organizations arrived, Lian Jun’s progress bar rose to 800.
While Shi Jin had been prepared for that, it still ticked him off.
He inwardly noted their names and the positions of their ships.

Gua Two counted the ships.
“I guess everyone except Nine Eagles is here,” he said to Gua One who stood nearby observing the situation outside.

Gua One nodded.
“They like theatrical entrances, they should show up last, as usual.”

Gua Two’s lips curled in a vicious grin.
“If they wait till the first meeting is about to begin like they did last year, they’re going to get a nasty surprise.
This year the government sent Liu Zhenjun, and he’s no pushover.”

“They’re just a bunch of clowns, there’s no need to care about them,” Gua One replied, his expression indicating he didn’t think much of Nine Eagles.

Shi Jin heard their conversation and recalled the information about Nine Eagles.
It wasn’t quite what he expected.

According to the information from Gua One, Nine Eagles was the fastest-developing top echelon organization, and the one most likely to take the top position from Annihilation.
And yet, everyone in Annihilation seemed to completely disregard them.

Gua Three noticed his confusion and explained, “Nine Eagles could develop to this degree only because Jun-shao allowed it—he needs such an organization to divert attention from us.”

Since it was like that, Shi Jin understood the others’ attitude.
Still, one couldn’t be too careful—he shouldn’t overlook Nine Eagles either.

After only one day, the empty sea was densely packed with ships of all sizes and types.
They slowly adjusted their positions, the familiar organizations gathering together, enemies tacitly moving further from each other; at the same time, the ones that wanted to get closer relations with the authorities approached the inner ring, and the ones that wished not to attract their attention quietly fell back.
The only ones that didn’t move much were the several ships in the inner ring.
They belonged to the large organizations that came every year, and no one dared covet their positions.

Shi Jin mostly paid attention to their own and the Phantom’s ships.
The results of his observation were two discoveries, one expected, one surprising.
Annihilation’s ship, though belonging to the inner ring, was obviously ostracized by the other inner-ring vessels.
There was a large void around it, and even the outer ring ships didn’t dare come too close behind.
And Phantom, one of the first organizations to arrive, slowly withdrew from the inner ring to the outer.

“What the heck is Phantom doing?” Shi Jin was completely lost.
He began to worry he might not win the bet.

Xiao Si couldn’t make sense of it either and kept silent.

The strange night passed peacefully.
The next morning, Shi Jin, who woke early in order not to miss “the clowns’ theatrical entrance,” left his cabin and witnessed an almost magical scene.

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All the vessels around the government ship suddenly began to reduce the distance between their neighbors, throw ropes and extend gangplanks, joining one ship with another until the passages connected all of them like a gigantic spider web.

The government ship was at its center, and the ships in the inner ring naturally became nodes linking other vessels with it.

That wasn’t the end of surprises.
Shi Jin saw that Phantom’s ship, still in the outer ring when he went to sleep yesterday, had, at some time during the night, moved next to Annihilation.
It even extended a gangplank on its own initiative, which was quite polite.

Lian Jun also noticed this scene.
His fingers tapped on the wheelchair armrest, then he took out his satellite phone and called Gua Five, allowing him to accept Phantom’s approach.

“Jun-shao?” Shi Jin asked, confused.

“Think for yourself.” Lian Jun gave him an inscrutable look.
“I won’t give you hints.”

Shi Jin remembered their bet and silently returned his glance.
He didn’t ask further, but obediently began to puzzle over what was going on.

The meeting was to begin at 10 a.m.
After nine, the leaders of the large organizations began to gather their people and arrive on the government ship.
Shi Jin and Gua Nine escorted Lian Jun to the official in charge then quietly retreated to a less conspicuous position on the deck and watched the excitement.

“Huh, Nine Eagles still hasn’t arrived.
I guess they are going to get a cold welcome when they finally do,” Gua Nine said in a mocking tone, crossing his arms on his chest.

Shi Jin listened to him, but his attention was on Phantom.
It wasn’t until half-past nine that there was any movement.
He hurriedly asked Xiao Si for a vision enhancement buff and stared at it intently.

On the deck that had been devoid of life until now, six figures appeared one after another.
In front was a lean man about thirty years old, wearing simple black sportswear.
It was probably Phantom’s leader.

Half a step behind him walked a man in a suit.
He was tall, with broad shoulders, narrow hips, long legs, and carried a briefcase.
Shi Jin couldn’t see his face clearly because he talked with the Phantom’s leader and his head was turned.

They were followed by several people looking like bodyguards, poker-faced, and moving in an easy, controlled way.

Shi Jin gave them a brief measuring glance, and couldn’t help but look at the man in a suit again.
Many of the bosses wore suits, but his attention was inexplicably drawn to this man, and he felt he looked a little familiar.

Since Phantom’s ship returned to the inner ring, it didn’t take them long to arrive.

Perhaps the man in a suit felt Shi Jin’s gaze.
When he walked halfway up the last gangplank, he abruptly paused his conversation with Phantom’s boss and turned his way, accurately finding Shi Jin’s eyes.

Xiao Si shrieked,

Shi Jin was no less shocked.
Stunned, he watched Fei Yujing’s finally visible face and cold eyes, thoughts flashing through his mind like colors in a kaleidoscope: his suddenly rising progress bar, Shi Weichong’s words, the information found by Lian Jun, then again the progress bar.
For some reason, his head grew hotter and hotter, and without thinking, he raised an arm and showed Fei Yujing the middle finger.

—What the hell did the original ‘Shi Jin’ do to you, you asshole? Your killing intent soared as soon as you saw me? Fuck you!

Fei Yujing seemed just as surprised as Shi Jin.
His eyebrows wrinkled slightly.
He was about to take a closer look at his appearance when he saw him flip him off.
His eyes narrowing, he scrutinized the young man’s features, and his face turned unreadable.

Xiao Si’s voice trembled:

Shi Jin’s expression stiffened.
It couldn’t be the finger’s fault, could it? Should I take it back? But I don’t feel like taking it back.
Awkward, he froze with his hand raised.

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