Elin The Shield
She prayed to every god she had never believed in. She prayed for forgiveness, for her failure to live long enough to finish the job. She prayed, not for herself, never for herself.
She awoke in the Valhalla of her ancestors, the paradise of warriors. Wouldn’t her sister be amazed they had both been wrong; for she had been an atheist, a warrior who believed only in those she loved, and her sister, the nurse, had believed in a god whose only name was his title and a heaven for those of peace; a place where those with the blood of others on their hands, like she, could never be welcome.
But even her, in Valhalla, there were tortures for those who had failed. And she had failed, leaving her cherished one unprotected. And what a strange punishment it was, to park a truck on her chest and leave it in reverse. If the beeping was to last forever in exchange for the safety of the beloved child, it was a price she would gladly pay. Her vision cleared a bit more and she saw her punishment was far worse than any terror dreamed up by any religion attempting to squeeze another dollar from a believer for she had not died at all and, even worse…
“Hi sis. Welcome back.”
Elin groaned to hide her smile.
“And it’s so good to see you too.”
“Here, you can only have an ice chip. Can’t have you choking and risk having all the staples, stitches, baling wire, super glue, and bubble gum we patched you up with coming apart. Better?”
“Oh, do you mean Megan?”
Her dirty looks had never worked on her older sister before, but that didn’t mean she was going to stop trying.
Anne laughed. “Ooo… burr.” Then she looked to the other side of the bed. “She’s right there. Poor thing is exhausted.”
Elin managed to turn her head and cut her eyes just enough to see a mop of dishwater blond hair. She eased back onto her pillow and sighed. “Thank god for that.”
“So, you were praying. The medics said you were when they got to you. I thought they must be hearing things. So, tell me, sis, to which god were you praying.”
“Wasn’t me. But if I had become suddenly superstitious, I would probably send something out into the universe, in the hope that is beyond hope, that there was someone out there with ears to hear and the power to make a difference. That is, if I had suddenly become superstitious, which I wasn’t.”
“Must have been one of the dead guys then.”
Elin’s face lit up. “A miracle?”
Anne took in a deep breath and let it out slowly before she was able to smile again. “I haven’t stopped believing in miracles from the day Mother said I was going to get a little sister.” She touched Elin’s cheek with the back of her hand. “And here I got another one. That’s two for you, I fear your quota has been used up. We didn’t think you were going to make it.”
Elin shrugged and winced.
“I'm glad that hurt. You shouldn't take this lightly. I wasn’t sure I would make it myself if I lost you. I think that young woman right there,” she looked to where Megan had her head down, sleeping on the bed, “gave me as much strength to get through this as she did you.”
Elin looked the question rather than asking it, even though she had the feeling she knew something of the answer already.
Anne pursed her lips. “It was almost like she was in charge already. She hasn’t been promoted yet, has she?
“No. Still Third White Baton. I’m afraid, however, I’ve been seeing a streak of her father’s assertiveness in her.”
Anne rolled her eyes. “Min Gud. I think I got a dose of it myself. After she sent Andrew off to see to Cynthia and Angela, like people didn’t know what they were doing around here, and it hadn’t already been taken care of. Then she tears off for the OR without me like she owns the place.”
“Oh no, she doesn’t. Not yet. Her father is still CEO last I heard.”
“Anyway, I got us both scrubbed up and in the right togs, and in she went. Said, ‘a chair please,’ like it was supposed to happen magically at her word but at least she said please.
“I’m getting there. Geez. So, I pull over this stool and there she sits the whole time. A few fingers tucked under your hand, fighting to stay awake. Whenever her head would droop a little, it would snap back up and she would scan the monitor to make sure you were still with us. Then she would whisper something in your ear. I think she was making it clear to you that you did not have permission to die.”
“I suspect you’re right.”
“Same thing when we brought you here. Wouldn’t leave, said she wanted regular updates on the other two. Once she was sure all three of you were too stubborn to die, she went out like a light and there she is. Nothing left, I suppose. She gave everything she’s got. Kept us all going in a way.” Elin stretched out her hand. “Careful,” said Anne, “Just a few hours ago we were taking a walk through your chest.” Elin stroked Megan’s head. “Min lille kjӕre.”
“Not so little anymore, sister,” said Anne, “and I think she may have proven it in a way that may enrage her father.”
“Johnathon Parker Knowles the Third, angry? Since when?”
“Not overtly, no, never, but angry just the same. He sent word that he expected her in his office, but she sent word that she wanted to stay with you until you were out of surgery. Then, when he sent word after you were in here, she said she was going to wait until you woke up. She told me she wanted to be the first thing you saw when you opened your eyes. Guess I spoiled that for her.”
“She won’t mind, but we’d better wake her.”
Anne walked to the other side of the bed and squeezed Megan’s shoulder. Megan's head snapped up with a jolt, her eyes dim and confused when she looked up at the nurse.
“Someone would like to chat with you.’
Megan’s head spun and, when her dark brown eyes locked onto Elin’s pale blues ones, she burst into a smile. “Hey,” her voice croaked.
“You can have more than ice chips,” Anne said as she handed her a glass. Megan drank while looking at Elin over the rim.
“Hey yourself, young lady. What have you been up to?”
Megan put the glass on the table beside the bed. “Not much. Pretending to guard the guardians. I missed my rack time so I’m afraid Torch is going to say I have to run laps and do pushups for the next decade or so, but then I figured I could get away with it because you guys are getting too old and banged up to catch me anymore.”
“Oh, just give us a day or two. You will pay dearly for such disrespect. You are not a corporate baton yet.”
Megan stroked Elin’s arm and a tear ran down her cheek. “I look forward to every miserable minute. Thanks for sticking around.”
“I was only faking it. I needed to get a break from watching over you all the time. I figured it was your turn. Anne tells me you may have irritated your father a bit.” Megan shrugged. “You better go kajӕreste. Don’t miss your chance to bring a little sanity into this world. It's what you've always wanted.”
Megan rose and kissed Elin on the forehead. “You sure?”
“We can't turn back now. The price to get you this far has been too dear.”
Megan gave Elin another kiss to the forehead before leaving and, after she was gone, Elin stared down where she was stroking the bedsheet. “I thought I was in Valhalla for a minute or two. Hallucinations, ya know?”
Anne watched Elin intently. “Undoubtedly. I always knew there was something off about you.”
Elin sighed and looked up at the blank TV screen. “I wasn’t praying for me,” she said in a rush, “if I was praying at all.”
“That’s understandable. With that man as a father, she needs all the help she can get.”
“No, that’s not it. I’m not worried about Megan’s battles with her father. I prayed because I was afraid I had failed to protect her.”
“You? Fail? Wow, that must have been a strange feeling for you.”
“So am I.”
“And, I prayed that she be given the chance to rule in her father’s place, and I prayed that she wouldn’t.” She studied the TV for a moment more before she stopped stroking the bed sheet and looked at her sister. “Do you remember how you felt when I was first accepted into the Jegertroppen?"
“Of course. Having you excepted into the first all-female special forces in the world made us proud of you. But our parents and I were terrified too. They for you and me for the Jeggertroppen. We felt you were too reckless at times."
"The military, and especially the Jeggertoppen, taught me the difference between aggressively taking the initiative and recklessness, the discipline was good for me. Do you also remember the December I missed jul? I said I couldn’t get leave."
“Well, the Norwegian government was negotiating with The Company for security services and wanted to know more about Protective Force's inner workings. I was asked to join a Protective Force unit in Afghanistan. The Company had just signed the states and provinces within the last year and CanAmerica’s old military commitments around the globe had been too long out of hand. JPK had recruited from every military force in the world. People from everywhere were signing up. Most of us, like me, because of a mix of a craving for action, a desire to make a difference and a need to check out whether the new model of one global military being run like a business and curing the external and internal ills of client nations was really effective. They got the best people, made sure they were the best trained and had the best equipment and support. The best of us got the scales patch which told everyone we were dedicated to justice for all. Ruthlessly so. The very best of the very best.”
“I remember how you were different after that. More disciplined, more focused but also like you were always looking over your shoulder at something.”
“You’ve seen something of intensity in your ER rotations and the like but…”
“I know. It’s nothing like combat. I won’t pretend to understand what you and others like you have gone through. I’ve seen the effects up close and don’t want to know any more than that.”
“We jammed the MAX facilities with the fanatics so they could never screw with anyone else's mind. And we jammed the Behavioral Purity Centers with people who had a chance to change. Afghanistan was pacified and has since gone on to have a prosperous economy and a contented populace and we were able to report that The Company was the most ruthlessly efficient fighting force we had ever seen and that their diversity made all the difference. Any religion, any group of any kind could be part of something that was carving out safety for all; one country, one contract at a time. I bought into the idea totally. We absorbed those who wanted a good living for themselves and their families. A Muslim white baton third class from a peasant village in Afghanistan earned the same income and chance for promotion as a white baton third class Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or whatever from anywhere else. It was becoming known everywhere that you were truly equal to anyone else of your ability and would be treated as such. We have a lot of Protective Force of Afghan descent now including some of Diamond Baton rank.
“In that mix of idealism and horror I killed my first enemy. There were others. It got easier but never easy. I thought, eighteen years ago, that by becoming the nanny and bodyguard of a certain little baby, I might get a break, might get the time I needed to examine myself, see if I was still human. Then I held that little baby in my arms and something clicked. I knew then that nothing would ever come between me and protecting that little girl. I took lives again, Anne, and I did so brutally. No one will ever hurt Megan while I draw a breath.”
“And yet, I grieve for the lives I took here yesterday as I grieve for the piece of my humanity it cost me to do it. And I grieve for the five brothers and sisters that we lost. But Megan….”
“Megan didn’t even mention their names.”
“She's moved on already, still focused on the power she craves more than anything. Yes, I prayed because I knew I was going to die and leave her unprotected. But, sister, I have been trying to pray for some time, trying to believe in something above all this.
"When she first told me she wanted to take over for her father one day, she said she wanted to bring more more humanity into The Company. Real humanity, not just what the advertising department was peddling. A less hard-hearted business model and, yes, even at nine she talked about business models and international finance and the like.
"But, Anne, that idealism is losing in a war against her lust for power so I, the atheist, even I have been so desperate that I pray to a god or gods both named and unnamed because I believe the wrong Megan may be winning.”