Music blasted and lights flashed below as Amanda prowled above.

There was a blackout floor on the top level of the club Crystal Dragon. It consisted of a wrap-around balcony that looked down the three stories of dance floors, bars, and lounges. Most of it was transparent flooring in the center space, but at the top were a series of gantries and bridges for the pulsing lights and lasers to hang off. They also provided a stunning view for couples or groups—for those bothering to watch, at least.

Amanda ignored the sightseers and lovers around her, focusing on the crowds below. She honestly hated these places. Too much noise. Seizer inducing lights. The constantly shifting sea of bodies pressing against her. At least on the blackout floor she had space to move around. A comm pellet in each ear also helped cancel out the pounding techno music.

"I've got nothing on the first floor," Koji radioed.

Amanda glanced toward the elevator. The only other access point to this floor was the fire-escape stairs. "No one new up here either. He's gotta be somewhere between us."

"I'm moving up to the second floor bar."

"Roger." Amanda hesitated as two giggling girls rushed past her. Then she crossed the gantry back to the wrap-around balcony. Leaning out over the railing, she looked at the writhing mass of dancers on the transparent floor below her.

Fortunately for her, the Crystal Dragon sat in the heart of New Shanghai. Nearly everyone below her was of Han ethnicity. And the target was a middle aged male of Mediterranean descent. He was a sore thumb waiting to stand out. Amanda wasn't really sure why he chose this particular locale. The profile they had on this guy didn't paint him as the type to hit up a club like this. But Koji's contacts in the city were specific—this was the place to find him tonight.

Amanda walked the perimeter of the balcony one more time. She kept her eyes to the recesses of the floor below, eying people standing back from the flashing lights. There were a few dark and pale faces here that didn't match the overwhelming Chinese presence. But they were all younger; maybe even underage. Amanda wondered how strictly enforced those laws were in this district.

"Got him," said Koji. "Second floor bar, east wall. He's alone."

"There are quieter places to get a drink," said Amanda.

"But not nearly as many girls in skimpy dresses."

Amanda took the elevator down to the second floor. She spotted Koji standing by the south wall stairwell, dressed in relaxed slacks and a polo that wasn't quite casual enough for this crowd. Amanda had forgone the low cut skirt that seemed to be the norm here, instead opting for faux-leather leggings and a dark top with matching jacket. It was the usual getup a lot of the European immigrants in the city seemed to favor. As far as anyone was concerned that was exactly what Amanda was, never mind the American accent.

The east wall of the club on this floor hosted a full length bar. It sat recessed from the rainbow splash of lights spilling through the transparent dance floor above. It was fairly crowded, but Amanda spotted the target sitting with empty seats on either side of him halfway toward the south wall. Probably keeping open a quick escape to the stairwell where Koji stood.

Amanda clicked her tongue, bringing up the target's profile on her smart-shades. Major Erick Lieberenz, 31st Infantry Division of Bastion Armed Forces, Commanding Officer. The picture showed a stern middle-aged male with shaved head and no facial hair. The man sitting at the bar had a few sprouts along the crown of his head, but hadn't managed to grow much since deserting. He also had the beginnings of some scruff along his chin. None of it hid the ninety-six percent match accuracy on Amanda's smart-shades.

This was their guy. One of only ten confirmed deserters from the Bastion Empire. A lot of Intelligence Agencies would have a field day if they knew he was in this club. That gave Amanda a small window of opportunity. As much as she'd love to bag the guy, it was outside her operation parameters to do so. The only reason she was here was because he knew something that made him useful to her office.

Amanda shared a look with Koji. He nodded once. She walked up to the empty seat right of Lieberenz, rotating to face him. He ignored her, focusing on the glass in his hand. It looked untouched.

"Erick Lieberenz," she began, "my name is Amanda Carver. I'm not here to interrupt your night; just ask a couple of questions and be on my way."

He glanced at her sideways; looking irritated rather than surprised she knew his name. If he was afraid or unsettled he did a good job hiding it. Amanda wondered if he was going to pull the 'you've got the wrong guy' routine. But he didn't say anything, eyes wandering back to his drink.

Lieberenz had deserted one of the most secure armed forces in the Verges. He had to know recruiters would come looking for him from the other Represented Governments. Or was that not his angle? Maybe he'd hoped to disappear; the idea of defecting too revolting to someone as proud as an officer of Bastion.

"I know Bastion has dealings with a third party organization you disapprove of," Amanda continued. "That's the reason you left. I wanted to ask you what you know about this group."

That got a raised eyebrow out of him. Lieberenz turned his head fully to look at her. His eyes wandered up and down her once, as if finally taking notice of her. When he spoke, the response was perfect English with only a trace of accent. "What do you know about third parties?"

Amanda hardened her gaze. "The Trust."

Lieberenz looked away, his face twisting with a grimace. This time he did take a pull on his drink. Before he had been annoyed. Now he was genuinely uncomfortable.

"Yes, you know them," Amanda pressed. "And I would very much like to know what you know. I'm no happier about them than you are."

Lieberenz scoffed in disgust. He pushed his drink back and for a moment Amanda thought he would walk away. But he hesitated, his eyes staring at the neon lights lining the back wall of the bar. "What could you do?" he finally said.

Amanda leaned closer, putting on her best spook face. It worked wonders when she needed to drive home a point. "All sorts of things. But not until you tell me what you know about them."

Lieberenz shifted his jaw, thinking. Amanda felt she was close to a breakthrough. Then her smart-shades picked up scattering from an infrared targeting laser. Lieberenz clearly had similar gear of his own, because he immediately shoved himself backward, going flat against the floor. A split-second later, the sniper's shot shattered his glass and punched through the bar top.

Amanda spun around, sidearm drawn from her jacket and aiming across the dance floor. The intended shot was a low-caliber round; no one had heard it over the music. And there was no sight of the shooter in the eatery opposite of the room. Someone did point and scream when they saw Amanda's gun drawn. That ended all pretenses and the crowd bolted for the nearest exits.

Lieberenz was back on his feet with surprising speed, moving with the surge of bodies. The sniper abandoned any sense of concealment and took several wild shots at Lieberenz. Bodies started dropping, blood pooling on the dance floor. Amanda didn't move, watching the muzzle flashes coming from a dark corner in the eatery across the room.

She took three successive shots. The sniper stopped firing.

Amanda looked to the stairwell. Lieberenz shoved past two women and disappeared below her line of sight. Koji was gone, presumably already on the first floor to intercept him. Amanda debated waiting for the crowd to thin, but decided it was better to move with it than be left holding a gun when the cops showed up. She tucked her sidearm back in her jacket and eased herself in with the other fleeing bodies.

The ground floor was a tangled mess. There was no sign of Lieberenz or Koji. People screamed out and many cried in hysteria. Amanda ran a hand through her hair, going for the disheveled look, and let out a scream of her own. By the time she was to the front doors, the cops had already started forcing their way in. Everyone parted around them, but continued to push for the streets. No one stopped Amanda.

She scanned around frantically, hoping she looked scared instead of searching for a target. She stayed with a group in the crowd that headed down a perpendicular street. That was when Koji chimed in on her comm piece.

"Meet me on Jiangyin Street."

The comm went silent and Amanda dodged down a side alley. It took her ten minutes to divert westward onto the busy market street. This time of night there was still fairly thick foot traffic. A few of the curious had started migrating eastward where the club patrons had fled the Crystal Dragon. Otherwise it was calm, with no sign of the cops.

Koji waited for her by a street vendor selling noodles. He linked arms with her as she walked by, leaning close to talk softly. "I slapped a tracker on him as he came down the stairs. He's a half a kilometer ahead of us on this street."

A link appeared on Amanda's smart-shades with the signal. She clicked her tongue and a map-overlay appeared in the air ahead of her. Lieberenz's signal designated itself as an orange reticle with a distance counter beside it. He'd slowed down to match the pace of activity on Jiangyin Street. They could keep up with him at this rate.

"I'm going north one block," said Amanda. "You go south. That'll give us two approach angles."

"Roger." Koji unhooked his arm and turned left at the first intersection. Amanda stayed westbound for one more block before heading north.

Lieberenz walked for another kilometer before going vertical. When Amanda caught up at his position, she realized he was in an older pre-war apartment building. It had a dirty brick façade, no more than five stories tall. Metal pipes ran from the roof to the street, probably for rainwater. It looked like a good place for a new arrival to get cheap rent. But it could also be a safe house or a friend watching out for Lieberenz.

Amanda reclined against the brick wall and fished out her phone. She called up whatever Intel the Eldritch had on their local servers while Koji came up from the south side.

When he was twenty meters out, he turned and headed in through the lobby. "I'll scout the front door. Think you can keep up?"

Amanda pocketed her phone. "I'll race you to the top." With her left hand she grabbed one of the drain pipes; with her right she found purchase between the old bricks. The pipe held and there were other hand holds along the face. She wished she had her gear with her, but gear did not a Ranger make.

The climbing conditions were good and Amanda was in shape. It took her a little under a minute to make it to the fourth floor balcony outside. Amanda swung her legs over the railing, landing in a crouch beneath what she guessed was a kitchen window. A single light was on inside and Lieberenz's designator placed him in this exact apartment. She hesitated, listening for other voices.

"I'm on his floor," said Koji. "There's a lot of noise from the other apartments. Give me a second to get to his door."

"I'm already outside his window," Amanda whispered. "Sounds like he's alone inside." She reached up, testing the balcony door. "And he left his door unlocked."

"Amanda, wait for—"

The door slid cleanly on its tracks. Amanda was up and inside with her sidearm in a single fluid motion. A small kitchenette opened up in front of her, part of the living room. The front door was directly ahead; a hallway to the bedroom on her left. Lieberenz walked into the room from the hall, freezing at the sight of Amanda.

She heard Koji kick unsuccessfully from the other side of the front door.

Lieberenz turned, bolting back down the hall. Amanda sprinted after him, chambering a stun round. He jinked left into the bedroom. Amanda turned into a slide that carried her into the wall at the end of the hall, her sidearm turned to face through the doorway. Lieberenz was in mid spin with a weapon in hand when Amanda squeezed off her stun round.

Lieberenz took it square in the chest, convulsing as electricity zapped all of his muscles. To his good fortune, he fell backwards onto his bed, the handgun slipping from his grasp. Amanda chambered a second round, moving in cautiously and kicking the handgun out of reach. When Lieberenz didn't get up, she took a breath. No stun-resistant augmentations in this deserter, thankfully. He'd be down for the next hour.

Amanda gathered the handgun and then walked back to the front door. Koji waited outside with folded arms and a scowl. "I told you to wait."

Amanda ushered him and locked it behind them. He knew full well he couldn't have kicked it down or picked the lock—he didn't have the tools to do either. Lieberenz picked his hideout well. Not bothering to lock the damn balcony was the only reason they were in. Usually human error was the key inside a lot of places Amanda needed to be.

Koji checked the bedroom once before marching back out into the living room. "How do you want to play this when he wakes up?"

"Simple interrogation. Nothing fancy—I'll handle it."

"Fine by me. I'm tearing this place apart in the meantime."

Koji went to work ripping open the mattress and prodding other potential hiding places. Either Lieberenz traveled light or he had a second hideout. Aside from basic living necessities, Lieberenz didn't have anything else in the apartment. Nothing electronic, either. No phones, no comms. About the only thing of note was the handgun.

Amanda set up a chair in the bedroom closet and emptied it out. After Koji was satisfied there wasn't anything concealed in there, she zip-tied Lieberenz to the chair. She hoped to make this short. If he wanted to defect, even better. But she figured his only interest was getting them out of his hair. And all she really needed was his Intel on the Trust.

"I'm having my team watch him after tonight," said Koji. "I want to know what exactly he's doing here in Raven."

"Probably trying to disappear," said Amanda. "But I agree we should watch him. I imagine there's a lot to gain learning about him."

Koji looked at her, frowning. "This one-track mission of yours is damn inconvenient."

"Nothing about the Trust is convenient."

"I just wish for once we could focus on state security."

Amanda bit her tongue. She wanted to tell him that as long as this organization existed state security was always in jeopardy. That their state security was a joke compared to what the Trust had pulled off already. That Koji was missing the point if he was getting tired of this shadow war. But Amanda knew she couldn't just tell him this—it would turn into a shouting match, and besides, Lieberenz was waking.

"If it helps, this wasn't my idea," said Koji. "I wanted to try knocking first."

"You're right," Lieberenz grunted. "It doesn't help." He looked long and hard up Amanda's barrel. "So is this the part where you finish what you started back at the club?"

"That wasn't us," said Amanda. "I'm far more interested in keeping you alive. Right now, that makes us your best friends."

Lieberenz huffed, glancing around. His range of vision was limited with as far back as he was in the closet. He was a fish in a barrel with no one coming to help. Amanda gave him a moment to appreciate his situation. Maybe that would loosen his tongue.

"So," she began, "a quick refresher: I'm after the Trust, you know things, I'd like to know those things. Capisce?"

"And why would I want to talk to an agent of Houston?"

Damn, that hadn't taken long. Or maybe he was simply fishing for tells. Something to give him an idea of who was holding him. Amanda had no intention of obliging him at this stage and kept her expression impassive.

"States, factions, and all other alliances are irrelevant in this conversation," said Amanda. "My only concern is the Trust. I don't need to remind you how dangerous they are. And if nothing else, what do you have to lose setting me in their direction?"

Lieberenz glanced away, thinking. Amanda could see the wheels in his head turning. He was an ex-Major in Bastion's Army. He probably had strict orders and training on how to interact with officers from Houston. Not to mention years of ingrained hostility. Whether or not he knew her nation of origin, if he assumed she was Houston then he would treat her as such and refuse to cooperate. And Amanda wasn't in the mood to try out torture. It wasn't efficient.

"You realize they will kill you." Lieberenz looked up at her again. "They mow over everyone that stands against them. No one escapes their reach."

"And yet you're here," said Koji.

Lieberenz shot him a nasty look. "A dead man walking will still walk as far as he can for as long as he can. I know who that was back at the club. I only need know whether or not you're one of their tools sent to finish me."

Amanda was beginning to see what it took to get a man like Lieberenz to desert. "We're not here to kill you. If you want, you can come with us. Dead man or not, you could certainly use the help. But regardless of whether you'll take that help or not, we need to know what you know."

Lieberenz thought again for a moment. Then, "It doesn't matter anyway. Bastion doesn't know what they are; has them hired as corporate contractors for mining operations. They're carrying out the exact same operation in all of the Verges. In the Caucasus Region. I don't know how far they've gotten outside of Bastion, but in Castor they're busy outside Grozny. If you want to find them…they will surely be waiting for you there."

Amanda turned to Koji and nodded. Koji exhaled, stepping into the closet to snip loose the zip-ties. Lieberenz pulled his hands back in front of him, massaging his wrists. Amanda kept her sidearm aimed squarely at him until Koji was a safe distance back.

"The offer stands," she said. "Come with us; we'll offer you asylum."

Lieberenz barked a short laugh. "I don't think so. I gave you what you wanted. Get out."

Amanda backed out of the room. She didn't lower her gun until they were back in the living room. On a whim, she set his handgun on the table. Koji looked from the gun to her, shooting an unspoken question. Amanda shrugged and the two stepped out into the hall.

"If he's as right as he is paranoid, he'll need it," she said once the door was closed.

"Not if my men and women can prevent it," said Koji.

A polite sentiment. But Amanda seriously doubted Koji's little task force could stop the full weight of the Trust. They wouldn't invade Raven with tanks or armies to take out Lieberenz—but they'd get him all the same.

"Your people are good," said Amanda. "I certainly hope they succeed."

Outside they went separate directions. Amanda retreated to a Houston sponsored safe house in the northwest part of the city. When she wasn't in her city apartment, this made for a quiet place to get away from the noise of pretending to be a local. She'd lived here the first six months of nationalizing to Raven. It was as much a home as anywhere else in the city these days. None of the other officers based in New Shanghai were in tonight, so she had the run of the thirtieth floor office space to herself.

Koji was already waiting on the intranet, a connection open to this office near the coast. His official job designation put him under Raven's Federal Intelligence Division policing the New Shanghai metro and rural zone. What that really meant was he was a special agent liaison with foreign Intelligence agencies operating in Raven. As a member of the Represented Governments, Raven and Houston were allied Verges. Both of their governments set them loose and let them work out the specifics.

Koji's face appeared on the screen as Amanda accepted the connection. The intranet was the most secure way for them to interface without either of them risk being seen stepping into the other's headquarters.

"That didn't take long," said Amanda.

"Shorter walk," said Koji. "He was right: there's a corporate entity calling itself Jingzhen Limited mining in the Caucasus on Raven. They have work permits and everything."

That could be a lucky guess on Lieberenz's part. "Most of Raven's version of the Caucasus is uninhabitable right now. The only people up there would be radiation clean up and resource allocation teams. Isn't Jingzhen who you'd expect to find?"

"I don't think so, Amanda. And my superiors have Intelligence reports out of Castor to corroborate Lieberenz. There's a company set up in the shelled out ruins of Grozny. They have an exclusive deal with the faction that controls the region. And that's about all we know. No one else goes in or out."

Amanda bit her lip. It sounded good. She always took Intel from skittish informants with a grain of salt. They would say whatever they thought they could get away with. And Lieberenz was only an informant in the loosest of terms. But with Koji's Intel…

"I'm headed to Castor," she said. "I have to verify this for myself."

Koji stared flatly at her. "You believe him."

"I'll coordinate with Houston's assets in Castor. We'll cautiously investigate the matter and go from there."

"Amanda, don't lie to me or yourself. The Trust is there and they'll be waiting for someone like you to come poking around."

Good, she didn't say. Because if they are there, I'm going to make sure they weren't waiting in vain.


A/N: Last year I made another solid attempt to write a novel for Amanda Carver, one of my favorite characters. This was to be the opening sequence for it, and I did actually complete two more chapters. But once again something broke down in the writing for me (or possibly several somethings) and I had to drop the project. In the end, I was really pleased with how this scene came out and I didn't want it to get lost in the cobwebs just because a full novel didn't come from it. So…here you go.