VANGUARD
Author:CJ Markusfeld

VANGUARD By CJ Markusfeld



To my own class, UWP93A.

Although you’ll try, you won’t find yourselves in these pages. What you’ll find instead is the joy of what we once were, and the truth of all we’ve become.




Prologue





The dark-haired man lay on the frozen ground, surrounded by a dozen others. He was wrapped in a thin, filthy quilt, and he was dying.

His lungs burned as he drowned slowly from the inside out. Thirty-six hours ago, he’d been able to walk down the row of shelters to collect his meager rations. Now his emaciated body shook from the fever brought on by the pneumonia sweeping the camp. He wouldn’t last another twenty-four hours.

He ought to know. He was a doctor.

He was also, he realized dimly, a failure. He’d failed to save the men assigned to his resistance cell. Failed to save his beloved homeland from being overrun by the Soviet Republic. And worst of all, completely failed the woman he loved.

He’d never see Sophie again, never be able to tell her how much he loved her. She’d search for him, would continue to search long after his body was flung into the burial trench outside the camp. Sophie would never give up; she never did.

The man drifted in and out of consciousness as his body’s systems faltered. His youth, resilience, and ferocious will had kept him alive beyond what most men could endure. But now his reserves had run out.

Her face appeared in his mind. Even in his fever dream, he appreciated her grave beauty – red hair framing a serious face, freckles across her nose. Her grey eyes, filled with tears as they’d been when he’d last seen her, when she’d granted him leave to go on this futile mission.

Mana mila, do not mourn for me, my dearest love. Promise me you will have a happy life. I will always watch over you.

In his mind, the dream-Sophie looked furious. The vision swam thickly before his eyes as the woman he adored railed at him.

Mikael, don’t you dare! Don’t even think about dying! You must hang on, beloved, for just a little while longer. You must.

Michael Nariovsky-Trent was more than four thousand miles from home, dying in an overcrowded shelter in a refugee camp in northern Europe. His body sank deeper into unconsciousness, the tips of his fingers turning blue as they starved for oxygen.





Chapter 1


November 13, 2013


It had been two months, three days, and fifteen hours since Sophie Swenda had heard from him.

The conference room door opened, and Hallie Gibbs, the head of Red Cross International Services, entered. She crossed the room to shake Sophie’s hand. “I wasn’t expecting you. What brings you to Washington?”

“I was in town meeting with Interpol,” said Sophie, forcing herself to smile. “Thanks for seeing me on short notice.”

“Interpol? What for?”

“A private matter,” she hedged. “Thought I’d stop by to see what the news is out of northern Europe.”

Hallie sat down. “We’re still waiting. Have you heard from the Soviet embassy?”

“Not yet,” Sophie said, “but we will soon. They’ve had the latest draft of our proposal for forty-eight hours.” She spoke with confidence. As the co-founder of Refugee Crisis International, one of the country’s most respected refugee aid agencies, she had more than enough experience to know the dance steps of razor-edged negotiations between international aid agencies and unwilling governments.

Lying awake at night not knowing if Michael was alive was the part she couldn’t bear.

“One, maybe two more drafts. Then we’ll get permission for the aid coalition to enter the Parnaas refugee camp.”

Hallie nodded. “The Soviets are running out of time. Whatever their intent, they want the Orlisian refugees alive, not frozen to death.”

Sophie did her best not to flinch. “Your European counterparts haven’t had any luck convincing them to allow messages in and out of the camp?” The Red Cross specialized, among other things, in facilitating the flow of messages between refugees and family members in times of disaster.

“Not so far,” Hallie said. “They’ve got Parnaas buttoned up so tightly that no one can get near it. We’ve only seen satellite images at this point.” The women spent the next twenty minutes discussing tactics until Sophie drained her coffee and stood.

“Flying back to New York tonight, Sophie?”

“Train.” She gathered her notes. “It’s faster than the plane. Traffic from LaGuardia to our office is murder.”

“I’ve told Will to move you guys down here to DC,” Hallie said. “Your Manhattan office rent must be astronomical.”

“Refugee Crisis International office space is donated. Besides, New York City is my home…as much as I’ll ever have one.” They walked to the door, but Hallie put her hand on Sophie’s arm before they entered the hallway. Her voice was gentle, eyes full of compassion.

“Child, you need to slow down. You’re working too hard.” Sophie started to protest, but Hallie shook her head. “Don’t tell me you’re fine. You look like you haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks. I doubt you’re eating properly, if at all. You might be a rising star in this field, but you still need to take care of yourself.”

“You sound like Will,” said Sophie with a scowl.

“Good. You could do worse than listening to him. Believe me, I know what’s at stake here. But you’ve got to maintain some distance.”

“There are upwards of seventy thousand people in that camp.” Sophie did her best to keep the terror out of her voice. “The Soviet Republic isn’t keeping them there for a sleepover. They’re going to do something to them, and we’ve got to get them out.”