VANGUARD
Author:CJ Markusfeld

Determined not to cry, Sophie turned her attention back to the workup. She flipped to the next page, noting a mention of her own name. She showed up in any decent profile of Michael Nariovsky-Trent.

She appeared under “Closest Known Associates/Friends” along with Carter DeVries. No one else; Michael had always been solitary. Sophie spotted Mirielle Desmarais’ name under “Sexual/Romantic Relations.” Other names appeared there as well, relationships Michael had had over the years. But a brief entry at the bottom of the category startled her.

“Sophie Ann Swenda: Likely ongoing romantic relations since 2002, exact nature of relationship never confirmed.”

“‘Ongoing romantic relations’?” she murmured. “Someone should tell Michael that.” But she couldn’t tell him because he was missing. Missing and almost certainly presumed dead by the world’s bureaucratic machinery. And the fear rose in her all over again.

Terror had been her companion since Michael had left for his besieged homeland of Orlisia in the summer. Panic had arrived in September when he’d vanished after a Soviet incursion into the region where he’d been. Two months, three days and….she checked her watch…nineteen hours ago.







Four months earlier





Sophie met Michael on the steps of his parents’ house in midtown Manhattan. He smiled broadly at her approach, his dimples popping out.

Michael had returned from his mission to Uganda with Médecins Sans Frontières several weeks earlier. Sophie was running Refugee Crisis International headquarters while her colleagues worked in Sichuan province in China following the massive earthquake that had struck in May. It was the first time they’d been in New York at the same time for an extended period of time since she’d moved there four years previously.

Not that they’d had a moment to themselves since the Soviet Republic had invaded Orlisia a few weeks prior. Certainly there hadn’t been the time or inclination for romance. Michael seemed happier, more relaxed, as Sophie greeted him. Maybe tonight.

“Walk with me.” He took her hand and led her to a nearby park to sit in the summer twilight. Michael pulled Sophie close to him, and for the first time, she felt how his long, lean body trembled with suppressed emotion.

Her happiness drained away, and she searched his face. Then she knew what he’d brought her there to say.

“No.”

“I have to go, mana mila.” His cold hands took hers. “It is my home. I must do something.”

“Please, no,” she said, terror seeping into her body. “Your home is here, in New York. With your parents. With me, Mikael.” Agony filled his face at her words. She switched to Orlisian, talking faster. “The border is closed. You’ll never get in. No one can get in now, certainly not a US citizen of Orlisian birth. They’ll shoot you.”

Michael crushed Sophie against him, and her voice became muffled against his shoulder. “Please don’t go. I can’t bear to lose you again. I’ve lost you too many times.”

“You have never lost me,” he whispered. “You have always had me. Always. But I must go. I cannot live with myself if I do not.”

“Then take me with you. I’m just as skilled as you in a crisis, probably more so. I could save lives. We’d be together.”

He pulled away from her, the fierce look on his face stopping her words. “Absolutely not. You will not come to Orlisia. You will not follow me into the warzone. I forbid it. Obey me on this, Sophie.”

For a moment, she was reminded of the Michael she’d both loved and hated as a teenager, the young man who had relied too often on his presumed male authority. But where his words would have enraged her eleven years ago, she understood them now for what they were – a comfort zone where he retreated when frightened.

“You cannot forbid me to do as I wish. You should know this by now.” She smoothed the angry line of his brow with trembling fingers. “But I won’t force my company on you either.”

As quickly as it appeared, his temper vanished, and he lunged forward to catch her mouth with his. He hadn’t kissed her like that in years, not since Carter’s wedding. His lips elicited an immediate response from her, even as her world was collapsing.

“Your company would not be unpleasant,” he said at last, his voice husky. “Far from it. But this is something I must do alone. Above all else, I will not jeopardize your life.” He cupped her face tenderly in his hands. “I have to do this, mana mila. Please tell me you understand. Please give me your permission to go.”

And because she loved him and understood him better than anyone else in her existence, she let him go.

He left for Europe two days later, refusing to tell Sophie his destination or what he intended to do. She knew he’d cross into Soviet territory and go straight to the resistance. He wouldn’t even let her come to say goodbye. That evening in the park was the last time she saw him.

The texts came every day for the next two months. September 10’s message was innocuous. More snow last night. Traveling soon. I miss you so very much.

The next day, for the first time, no message. She called Michael’s father that evening. He hadn’t heard from him either. The next day, still nothing. Then a bit of news crossed the wire. The Soviet Republic claimed to have broken up a pocket of resistance in southern Orlisia.

And Sophie’s eyes turned to the hell they called Parnaas.







Her train got into Penn Station just before 6 p.m. Ignoring her promise to Hallie to go home, she took the subway down to the RCI office in the Financial District. She navigated the city with ease. Despite being born and raised on the West Coast, she’d fallen hopelessly in love with New York City since moving here.