VANGUARD
Author:CJ Markusfeld

“Hey, boss,” Sophie said to the man hunched over the boardroom table in their so-called Situation Room. A world map took up one wall, multicolored pins and flags marking current hotspots. Another wall was dedicated to the situation in Orlisia. A computer in the corner streamed twenty-four-hour news.

Will Temple straightened and winced, rubbing his back. “Don’t call me boss.” His tone was grumpy, but his blue eyes sparkled with affection as he greeted her. Nearly ten years her senior, Will had been her mentor throughout her astronomical career, the stabilizing force behind her genius. RCI was their aid agency, formed out of their common philosophy and desire to change the way aid was administered around the world.

“Anything new?”

Will picked up a sheaf of photos. “Latest satellite images of Parnaas.”

Sophie took the magnifying loupe he handed her. She leaned over the black and white photo, staring at disaster.

“They’ve expanded again,” she said. “Here and here.”

“Yes,” he said. “I can’t figure out why they’re not splitting into more than one camp. The number of people must be overwhelming any attempt at order.”

She peered into the loupe again, examining the new fringes of the amorphous shape. It was one of the largest refugee camps ever seen in the developed world and growing rapidly out of control.

It was Parnaas, a seething mass of humanity fleeing the violence of the Soviet-Orlisian war.

Somewhere in the middle of that is Michael.

It had only been five months since the Soviet Republic had invaded Orlisia for the second time in the little country’s short history, bombing ceaselessly for days. The airports, railways, roads, harbors – all leveled. The survivors had made their way to the southern border where soldiers had stopped them outside the town of Parnaas. They’d been ordered to camp in a nearby field, given food and temporary shelter. When their ranks had swelled to the tens of thousands, the tanks had come and the fences had gone up.

But Parnaas was no ordinary refugee camp.

A spicy aroma drifted into the room. Sophie’s stomach growled, reminding her of the late hour. “Did you order food?” she asked. Will pointed to the doorway.

Sophie turned, her face breaking into a grin as a lithe figure in a bright red winter coat sailed in the doorway. “Why, Dr. Shah! I didn’t know you delivered.”

“I’m an obstetrician, so of course I deliver. It’s the only way I can get a meal with my husband and best friend these days.” Anjali Shah set down two paper bags of fragrant Chinese takeout on a desk. “Hi, husband.” She gave Will a quick hug and a smile. “Hi, best friend,” she said, blowing Sophie a kiss. “I’m starving. Let’s eat.”

“Any updates from the coalition?” Anjali asked. As RCI’s medical director, Anjali – together with Will and Sophie – formed the executive committee of their aid agency.

“It’s going well.” Sophie piled noodles onto her plate. “We’ve got agreement on our overall strategy, and now we’re documenting the entry plan. Next step is negotiating who’s on the strike team. And, of course, convincing the Soviet government to let us into Parnaas.”

Once it became clear that the Soviets’ intent was to hold as many Orlisians as possible within the borders of Parnaas, every humanitarian agency in the world demanded entry. The Soviet Republic refused, fueling speculation that Parnaas was a modern-day concentration camp. But while it wasn’t a death camp, it became equally apparent as the weeks rolled by that Parnaas was not a traditional refugee camp. The Soviets wanted the refugees alive, isolated from the outside world, and fully under their control.

The huge number of displaced people inside the camp had finally worn the invading nation down. An overture came from the Soviet Republic via diplomatic channels, suggesting that an non-governmental organization (NGO) presence might be tolerated temporarily to keep the refugees alive through the approaching winter. Sophie leaped.

Her proposal was simple: Given the scope of the Orlisian crisis, all NGOs should work together as a coalition. She’d brought together all the major agencies in America via web conference to sell them on her idea.

Within forty-eight hours, every agency in the meeting agreed to the coalition approach, and several smaller ones caught wind and wanted in. They called themselves the Refugee Crisis Coalition. Sixteen development agencies – many with profoundly different mandates – held together by ideals, duct tape, and sheer determination.

It was a groundbreaking, history-making agreement, if it could hold. Sophie got a story with her picture on page three of the New York Times. Six months ago, she would have been ecstatic. Now, she couldn’t care less. All she wanted was to get into Orlisia. In and out again, with Michael Nariovsky-Trent safely beside her.

She should never have let him go in the first place.

Several times since he’d left in late July, Sophie had nearly set out on her own. She’d spent many nights in the Situation Room, drinking coffee, paging through topographical maps, satellite images, and reports, trying to figure out how to get over the border and find him. It was profoundly uncharacteristic of her to contemplate such a plan. She was a strong woman, fearless in many regards. But never reckless.

The futility of it had stopped her. Locating him was a million-to-one shot; convincing him to leave Orlisia seemed even less likely. Not even Sophie’s unannounced arrival in a warzone would be enough for him to abandon his beloved homeland. She knew him too well.

But then he’d vanished – sometime on or around September 10 – and everything had changed. As the days had passed with no contact, she’d become willing to do anything, take any risk, to get into Orlisia with the right resources at her fingertips.

She was just twenty-eight years old and had already achieved so much. In the last ten years, Sophie Swenda had revolutionized the way refugee camps were managed. Jointly created an infant NGO with Will. Created order out of chaos under desperate circumstances time and again. She’d even delivered a baby in a camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo.