Sunday, June 16, 2013

E.H.U.D.: Chapter 16

Chapter 16

Multicolored charts and graphs flowed across the computer screen, showing bars of this and that, endless streams of Gs, Cs, As and Ts; Xs, Ys.  As chart followed chart, Edgar grew bored.  He had spent the last two days caught up in the panic of his new medical condition, and was taking this lull to free his mind and just think for a moment.
Two days ago “free his mind” was nothing more than metaphor, but now it was a reality.  He could feel a connection to his body slipping away, alien thought processes flitting in, touching him like errant signals caught by an antenna.  To one side Amanda, concerned, suspicious.  To the other, his staff doctor, Frease, reserved, confused.
These feelings, these other senses, had come with his awakening Friday morning, laying on the atrium floor, looking up at the faces of his staff.  Their eyes were wide, lost.  They were concerned, but Edgar knew that it was concern for their own jobs, not his life. 
Then Amanda had loomed over him, concern for Ethan flowing down and around him.  The strength of her emotion struck Edgar like a charge of electricity, stimulating his own memories of his son.  There were... not as many as he would have liked. 
In the midst of the memories, the realization hit him that he was experiencing other people's thoughts and emotions.  He gasped and sat up, felt something dry and flaky falling from him.
Half-formed memories of the previous night flowed in, whispers from the dead, Bob touching him, pain—
Something connected in his mind, and Edgar rushed ahead towards a looming realization: he had become a Defender.  He didn't know how, but he was now hearing those around him though they did not speak, seeing through eyes not his own.
A man with glasses, someone Edgar thought he recognized as Isaac's staff doctor, leaned towards him.  He said words, but Edgar heard only thoughts.  This is wrong, it can't happen, not to him...
To me...  What can't happen?  What did happen?  What would happen if people found out?  Corruption charges: he saw the power of the gods, coveted it, took it for himself.  Invalidation of yesterday's address: he knew more about the EHUDs than he was letting on, was abusing it to his advantage.
He climbed to his feet; it was easier than he remembered, took less effort.  The same effort was applied, however, and he found himself off-balance, stumbling.
“No one...”  The words burned as they rasped out.  “No one speaks of this.  No one tells anyone...”
He was so hungry... “I need food..”
“And what does that mean?”
Amanda leaned against him, pushing his desiccated frame to one side by her now superior bulk.
“Well...” Frease flicked through a couple of pages worth of charts on his tablet.  “Okay, you see this sequence here?”  He pointed to a written string of acids.  “This is from yesterday's samples.  This,” he pointed to another, “was from his checkup last year.”
Edgar looked between the two.  He couldn't pull any meaning from the jumble of Cs and Gs, but he could pull meaning directly from the doctor.  He sensed Amanda's comprehension, but decided to say it aloud anyway.  “You're saying my DNA is different.”
“Exactly.”  The doctor lowered the computer.  “I hate to tell you this, Mrs. Latterndale, but medically, this isn't the man you married.  Close, a brother, say, but definitely distinct.”
He wasn't the man she had married...  It was hard not to laugh at that; he hadn't been that man for years.  This was a deeper level, though, and he found himself wondering how it would affect him.  How much of him was genetic, how much nature over nurture?  Could a change in genetics cause a change in spirit?
He had been disappointed in the state of his spirit for too long—he regretted all the extra time he had put in to work, the secrets he had kept from his family—
No, that wasn't him; that was Amanda leaking in.  She was disappointed in him.  It didn't bother him; he found that he didn't care.  He wanted her to be safe, to be relatively happy, but he didn't care what she felt about him now. 
And neither did she.  The more he pushed, the more he tried to tune in to her thoughts, the more he found that the disappointment she felt for him wasn't her own, but was harbored on behalf of Ethan.  In her mind, Ethan was disappointed in his absentee father.
Edgar knew it wasn't true—he had felt the boy's overt concern for him when he had been woken and told that his father had had an accident Thursday night.  Knew that Ethan's first instinct had been to run out and prove himself to be every bit as heroic as Edgar had been, facing down Lemlin virtually unarmed.
It was enough to slow Edgar, to give pause to his never-ending urge to do his job.  Personal responsibility always came first, yes, but to whom was that responsibility due: his son, or his country?
Sitting in the kitchen, gorging himself on whatever was at hand, he had dropped everything and walked, trance-like, up to his son's room. 
Responsibilities were shifting.
That changed when Ethan saw the skeletal man in his doorway.  Images dredged up from old nightmares crawled into the room and stood alongside Edgar—his body, cold and lifeless, crumpled on the White House floor, Lemlin standing over him, triumphant.  Edgar, riding in an open-roofed car, his head jerking back and to the left even as a stream of gore spewed from his forehead.  Edgar, dying a thousand ways, each leading to the corpse now standing in the doorway, looking down at Ethan.
He returned to the kitchen.
As he sat alone, eating anything he could lay his hands on, he reflected on what had happened, tried to separate what he had seen from what he wished he hadn't.  In the end, the only conclusion he could be sure of was that the General must have made himself into a Defender at some point, and then had turned him.  Why?  He replayed what he could remember of his conversation with Bob, the day, six months ago, that he became tangled up in this. 
Mistlethwakey must have already been one of them, had realized that the best way to use his powers was to manipulate high-level politicians.  Then why give Edgar this gift—this curse—if all it meant was that Edgar had a better chance of escaping from the General's thumb? 
Well, for one, Edgar now had a vested interest in making sure that Bob's designs for the EHUDs came to pass.  For two, Bob now had blackmail material should Edgar deviate from the course.
Either way, only one conclusion could be drawn.  He downed a cup of orange juice and stared at the kitchen wall.  “I can't trust Bob anymore.”
“And what's that supposed to mean?”  
Amanda was gripping Edgar's left hand now, twisting the deformed, drooping ring hanging from his shriveled finger.
Doctor Frease shrugged.  “I don't know; not for certain.  His genetic makeup is different, that's all.  It might be some sort of error, but the physical changes suggest otherwise.”
Amanda nodded.  “Do you have any theories on what happened?”
Frease made brief eye contact with Edgar.  “Most likely a viral infection.  I don't want to speculate beyond that.”  
A flush of nervousness, brought on by the lie.  Strange that someone who knew so many secrets felt guilty by telling what was, at worst, a half-truth.
“Why don't you tell me what's going on, Mr. Latterndale?”
Syrup dribbled down into Edgar's beard as he chocked down another chunk of waffle.  He wiped at the syrup, licked it off his fingers, and looked back at the doctor who had interrupted his solitude.
“Ged de fugg oudda of hewe.”
The doctor pulled out a chair next to Edgar and sat down at the breakfast bar.  He gestured to the chef, then to the formless mass of flour and syrup on Edgar's plate.  “One for me.”
“I said—”
“Doesn't matter what you said.  Being president does not mean you rule the world; it means you're subject to the will of the people.  You're obviously not well, so as one of the people it's my duty to make sure you get well.”
Edgar grunted and took another bite.
“We haven't been formally introduced.  I'm doctor Todd Frease.”
Edgar tried to focus, to put as much of his energy as he could into forcing the doctor away.
Frease's eyes widened for a moment, then collapsed into a glare.  “That's one of the things that's wrong with you.  I'll have to make sure you get over that.”
The world stopped, and Edgar's mind flashed up to Ethan, safe in his parent's bed, then back, across time and space to the White House, September 12th.
When he returned to himself, Edgar found his hand inching towards a butter knife laying on the counter.
Frease noticed, and scooted back a few inches.  “You have nothing to worry about from me, sir.  After all, I was your cousin's trusted doctor for many years.” 
Edgar blinked, not taking his eyes from the doctor.  He called to the chef, “I think I need to be alone for a medical consultation, if you don't mind.”
“Sir.”  The chef flipped out the half-liquid remains of his current waffle, flicked off the iron, and left.
“What do you want, doctor?”
“I was on the Defender's medical staff, in the early days of the program.  I know the symptoms, and I have to say, you've got the disease.  A far more rapid strain than I've ever seen, but I know I'm not wrong.”
“That doesn't tell me what you want.”
The doctor nodded, scratched his chin.  “What I want depends on what you want.  Everything you said yesterday, about solidarity with the Defenders, writing wrongs, all that bullshit?  If you really meant that, I want to help you.  I can coach you a little on seeming normal, on keeping this secret.” 
Edgar looked into the doctor's eyes, saw courage, fear, resolve, regret.  There was a period of about six months reflected in the man's eyes, six months of nursing unwilling patients through painful transformations, through cancers that swept through their bodies again and again.  And through it all, he couldn't help them.  He saw them suffer, made them suffer, and now he was looking to atone.
Edgar nodded.  “I don't know what happened; I didn't choose this.  But now I'm one of them, aren't I?  I've got more of an interest than ever to help them.”
Frease returned the nod.  “Your secret's safe from me.  As long as you keep their best interests in mind.”
Edgar extended his sticky, syrupy hand to shake, but paused as the doctor's comment hit home.  Of course he would keep the Defender's best interests in mind.  But they weren't the only group he should be thinking of.  “I want my family kept out of this, as much as possible.  You're the doctor; you come up with the story that will keep my wife happy.”
“Why not?”
Frease leaned back in his chair and began to play with his tablet.  “Because I'm still waiting on a definite answer from the CDC.  Pointless speculation at this point might lock us into certain assumptions, which might not be helpful when we find out just what's going on.”
Edgar cleared his throat.  “Any news on when that'll be, by the way?”
Frease didn't look at him.  “At least a few more days.”
“I just don't want to risk infecting anyone...”
Happy surprise tinged with suspicion radiated from Amanda; she wasn't used to such selfless action from her husband.
“Whatever it is, we've all been exposed by now, so really, there's nothing more to consider from that end.”
“Good, then let me finish eating.”
Frease wiped off his hand, stood, and left the kitchen.
Edgar finished, pushed his plate away and went upstairs to shower.  Every staff member he passed along the way tried to push back against the wall, to avoid the hairy man in the bathrobe who threatened the well-being of their day.  Once in the Presidential suite's bathroom, he took in the man hanging in the mirror: he looked deranged, ready to pounce and kill someone with his bare hands... not that he appeared to have the strength.
He was in the shower, trimming his beard, when a storm front of nervous indecision billowed into the room, followed by Amanda.  She leaned against the door, her slow breathes sending swirls of cool air through the steam.
He turned down the water pressure so he could hear her better.
“What's going on?”
How much did she know?  He tried—clumsily—to push into her mind and see, but all he was able to find was vague foreboding.  “I'm sick.”
“I got that.  What's really going on?”
“I'm sick.”
“There is no way that was natural.  I—I have suspicions, but—I want answers, Ed.  You can't keep me in the dark forever.”
He turned the water all the way off and stepped out of the shower.  “Maybe it's better in the dark.”
Amanda crossed her arms and stood motionless as Edgar wrapped himself in a new bathrobe.  She nodded.  “Maybe.  But I'm not in the dark anymore; no one is.  The problem is, though, is that I'm still treated as if I am in the dark, and so no one will tell me what dangers are at the end of the light.”
“You're taking the metaphor too far.”
She slammed her hand against the door and lunged forward.  “I'm trying to protect my family!  You're not making it any easier!   Two days ago we had a full-scale riot a few miles from our house, then your cousin gets killed!  Now this—” she gestured at Edgar, swimming in the folds of the robe, “And you expect me to go along, business as normal?  No.  No more.  Either you start telling me things, letting me know that my son is safe, or we're gone.  Do you hear me?  Do you really understand?  I'm tired of sitting under a table while you put your life in danger to save the goddamn country.”  The steam around her was swirling faster now.
Edgar put down the towel he had been drying himself with and looked—really looked—at his wife.  He saw past the beauty-queen smile, the chemically-enhanced eye-lashes, the dermatologist's dream skin.  He saw with more than just his eyes, felt the energy boiling  just beneath the surface.  And he knew that nothing he said would comfort her.  He had missed his chance, long ago, and it was too late; she didn't need him anymore.
“I honestly don't know what's going to happen.  But I can promise you this: you're safe here.  Ethan's safe here.  This is just about the safest place on earth right now.”
“What about last night?”
“I'm sick; that's all.”
“What about Defenders?”
“I'm going to take care of that right now.”
She left, and soon after so did Edgar.  He dressed, finding all his clothes too large, and went barefoot into the hall.
He just avoided colliding with Ashby outside the door.  “Good; I was about to come find you.”
“Yes, sir.  Doctor Frease is looking for you, sir.  He wants to do some tests.”
“Good.”  He followed her out onto the steps leading down into the atrium.  “I need to make some calls; matters of state.”
She produced a large mobile and passed it back to him.  “Its secure.”
She left as they neared the small clinic in the lower level of the compound.  Edgar continued on and found Frease inside. 
“You're looking better,” the doctor said.
“You said you could teach me to be normal.  Let's begin.”
“Not yet.  Right now I want to do a check-up, take some blood samples.  I want to make sure this is—”
“Shh.”  Edgar held up a hand.  “We were stupid earlier, in the kitchen.  The walls have ears.”
Frease looked around, then fixed Edgar with a skeptical stare.
Edgar raised the mobile and shook it.  “Can I make some phone calls while you're sucking me dry?”
“You're the president.”   
Edgar hopped up on an examination table, slid a little on the wax-paper covering, and placed a call to Senator Terstein.  “Hey, Mitch.  What?  Of course I'd call!  I'm your boss now, remember?  I assume you saw my speech?  Good; I'm looking to end this as quick as possible; I'll be drafting something to put what I said into effect on our end.  You still got Ahmad on your team?  Good.  Okay; I'm currently down with something.  I'm with a doctor right now.  No, he's staff.  Listen, when I'm back up, I want to meet with you and Ahmad, and anyone else who'd be good for this.  I know; this is a big concession.  Probably illegal, too.  But it'll be worth it if we can punch it through.  Yes.  I'll get more to you later.  Goodbye.”
He disconnected and looked over at Frease, who was swabbing the inside of Edgar's elbow in preparation for a large needle.  “Q-bomb, buddy.” 
Frease raised a questioning eyebrow, and Edgar shook his head.
A needle jabbed into Edgar's arm.
Edgar ignored the pain, still aglow from the call he had just made.  Things were in motion, the path to resolution and peace was now begun.  And for the first time in over half a year, he didn't feel like he was betraying anyone.
“Even without the concern of infection, it's probably for the best if we all stay put for at least a week.”
The glow of freeing the Defenders faded over the course of the weekend: Edgar had been in and out of the clinic all day Friday and most of this morning; Amanda had skulked about, watching him with silent trepidation; Ethan...
Ethan had come to him in his office and stared at him from the door.  “Hey, dad...”
Edgar looked up from the law book he was poring through.  “What's up?”
“Just... just wondering if you were okay.”
“Yeah, I'm fine, why?”
Ethan couldn't seem to make eye contact with him.  “You just look different... and mom said to be careful around you.”
Edgar blinked; this wasn't right.  Amanda was turning their son against him.  Wasn't she?  No... that wasn't his thought, his fear.  It was Ethan, feeling torn.
“I'm fine buddy.  I'm just...  Just making the country safe for you, all right?”
Ethan nodded.
“Everyone should be safe.”  Frease turned away from the First Couple and tossed his tablet onto a counter.  “I still want to screen everyone, though.”
He turned back and gestured to Amanda.  “I'd like to draw some blood now, if you have the time.”
The bodies in the room shifted around.  Edgar stood and stretched, Amanda leaned against the examination table, and Frease prepped a needle.
In a moment they were done, and Amanda led Edgar out into the hall.  He followed her up the grand staircase, then pulled up short as she stopped on the upper landing.
“Whoa, warning next time, please.”
“I asked you what you were planning on doing about the Defenders...”
Edgar blinked and ran through his memory.  He seemed to recall something to that effect, days before.  “I'm taking care of them.”
Amanda turned; her eyes were puffy, she looked on the verge of tears.  “So what was that, back with the doctor?  Why are you doing this, Ed?  Why are you bothering to keep it a secret?”
“I don't—“
“Just stop!”  She took a deep breath, ground her teeth.  “I've suspected for months now.  You knew about the program, you knew all the dark secrets.  And I've known since Friday.”  Her voice fell to a hoarse whisper.  “I'm not blind, Edgar!  I'm not a fucking idiot, I can figure out what's going on!  I don't know why you did it, or how, or—I don't care!  Just talk to me, tell me what's going on, don't keep me in the dark!  Have you ever thought that maybe I could help you?”
Edgar heard her words, but all he saw where bodies flying through the air, tables disintegrating, little booths with white covered forms issuing from them.  And then he saw other forms, also white, floating through the light in the void beside him.  “It's better in the dark, Mandy.”
She slowly shook her head.  “I've been out of the dark longer than you may think.”
Edgar opened his mouth to respond, but the rapid clicking of shoes on steel echoed through the atrium and drowned out anything he may have said.  
Ashby appeared at the top of the staircase, her face drained of color.  “Mr. President.  We're evacuating you.  Now.”
“Marine One is touching down on the roof as we speak.”
Amanda lunged forward.  “Where's Ethan?”
Ashby didn't look up from her tablet.  “He's been secured and is waiting upstairs; we'll rendezvous with him on the way up.”
Edgar grabbed Amanda's shoulder and tried to force calmness into her.  She slumped, so he focused his attention onto Ashby.  “What the hell is going on?”
“Maria Ruiz has escaped with help from her guard; we have reason to believe the guard may have given up the location of this facility.”
“How could she know that?”
Ashby shrugged.  “How could she smuggle the nation's most dangerous criminal out of the fucking Pentagon?”  She turned and marched away from the atrium, into the building proper, confident the others would follow.
Edgar expected a burst of panic from Amanda, but instead he felt cold resolve. 
Ashby led them to a secondary stairwell hidden in a concrete chimney running up through the compound.  She ushered them in, then pressed a finger to her ear and ordered, “Activate the scramblers.”
“No!”  Edgar lunged forward and grabbed her hand.  “No scramblers!”
She looked at him, concerned that this was somehow a result of his medical crisis.  “Sir?”
Amanda was looking at Ashby, a sense of piteous contempt exuding from her.
Edgar cleared his throat and released Ashby.  “Um... if she's near, sending up scramblers might alert her.”
“Reading our minds might alert her.”
He was about to respond when the shocking buzz of the scramblers burst through the walls.  Before, they had been annoying, at worst nauseating, but now the scramblers ripped through him, roiling through his intestines and up past his esophagus, taking his mind and tearing it away from the new world he had discovered.
“Turn... off... the fucking... scramblers...” he forced past chattering teeth.
Ashby furrowed her brow, made connections best not made, and returned her hand to her ear.  “Cancel that.”
A moment later, the scramblers ceased, and Edgar slumped back against the safety rail.  “Thank you.”
Ashby nodded, not taking her eyes off him, then gestured up the stairs.  “Your son's waiting.”
When they were about half way up the staircase, Amanda sidled up next to her husband and whispered, “No one's going to be in the dark now.”
They pushed through the door at the top of the stairs, found themselves in a walkway inside an exterior walls, and met up with Ethan, his nanny, and two armored guards.  Ethan broke free of his escort, hugged his mother, and extended a hand to his father.  “What's going on?”
Edgar took the proffered hand and led the family after Ashby.  “Um... you know that lady on AmeriNews, Maria?”
“She... she wants to talk with me.”
Amanda swallowed, her throat convulsing.  “It'll be alright, sweetie.”
“She's the one who killed Uncle Isaac, isn't she?”
Edgar glanced at Amanda, who raised her eyebrows and shrugged.  “Yes.  Yes she is.”
Ethan didn't say anything, but Edgar could feel him steeling himself for what was to come.
Ashby led them up a second hidden staircase, and then they were out in the chill night air, walking across the compound's roof towards a large, green and white  helicopter that was just settling down.
Edgar let go of Ethan's hand and pushed him towards the helo as Ashby stopped and circled around to the rear of the group.  She put her hand to her ear again, then froze mid-movement. 
Edgar turned back to look at her, found her standing perfectly still.  He gulped in a lungful of air to shout a warning, but found himself unable to empty his lungs.  A moment later his chest tightened and he fell to his knees as pain wrenched through him.  He tried to scream, but the pain was too intense.  He knew enough about basic first-aid to recognize this as a heart attack.  The world began to turn red and hazy around the edges as the air he had sucked in moments before began to turn toxic inside him.
Somewhere out in the ever receding world was a presence peering into his mind, cool and disinterested.  It didn't want to cause him pain, but it had to kill him, and it had to look natural.  The presence calmed him, reassured him that his family would be safe, his country would go on without him, all would be well...
Edgar heard the words, felt the meaning, began to slip into them, to fall away from his body and let the world go... 
Red turned to black...
And everything was still...
A violent force shook him and the world burst into crystal clarity.  He was still on the roof, still dying as cellular waste built up in his lungs.  Two more minds had joined him, though, two more presences to shore him up, remind him why he was there.
The first was small, frightened, but unwilling to let go of him, urging him to stay and fight, to acknowledge it and protect it.  The second was a roiling inferno of righteous indignation, focusing on and surrounding the smaller mind, refusing to allow Edgar to leave, imploring—no, commanding—him that he could not leave until the small mind was safe, until his duty was done and the world was put right.
He latched onto these minds, these primordial beings that he didn't have the strength to identify, honed in on them, curled them down and into himself, pulled their energies down into his chest until it was so full that it burst against the cold mind that wanted him dead.  He yelled, releasing the dead air in him, pushing out his mind in every direction as a concussive wave, feeling the glass walls of the house, the windscreen of the helicopter, everything bursting and falling away.  And then there he was, seeing Amanda and Ethan, the guards, the helicopter pilots, all the world frozen before him.
“Edgar!  Do something!  You can't let him see you die!”
As quickly as he had come back to his body, he left it, jumping out into the world, hunting for that—there.
His body burst forward, over Ethan's shoulder, and at the guard standing nearest to him.  He and the guard tumbled backwards, bounding on the concrete, the armor coming off none the worse for wear, but Edgar's back ripping open under his now tattered shirt. 
They rolled, grey colossus embracing frail human, to the edge of the roof and then tumbled down into the once enclosed promenade.  They landed, EHUD down, then Edgar was thrown into the air, coming down hard  in an evergreen a few yards away.
He fought to loose from the clawing branches even as his opponent rose from the shattered glass and leapt at him.  He finally pitched himself forward and fell from the tree an instant before Ruiz's meteoric impact broke the tree off near the ground and sent it sliding away.
Edgar lay crumpled on the ground, gasping, bleeding.  Somewhere above he felt his family, reeling and disoriented from his initial burst, their ears and noses bleeding.
He tried to stand, found his legs provisionally accepting of the task, and hastily strategized.  There was little hope in defeating Ruiz through single combat—she had an advanced combat suit, years of training.  He was injured and only had a few months of basic training from his time in the military.  She was well-versed in every form of psycho-kinetic combat He had some theory gleaned from progress reports and two days of fumbling experimentation.  There was no way he could hope to survive this.
A shadow passed over him and he dodged just in time to be swept up in a wave of sod spreading out from Ruiz's latest impact site.
Think.  What would Bob do?  No!  Don't think about Bob.  Bob got you into this.  Bob suggested you participate in treason, Bob tried to talk you into playing along with his Messiah complex, Bob wasn't content to let you stay as a petty, corrupt politician, and stroked your ego until you were ready to believe you could actually rule the world.  And you, not Bob, listened.  You pushed yourself to the forefront of this war, dragging your family with you in your own personal quest for glory.
He didn't know when it had started—somewhere in the early stages of his tirade against Mistlethwakey—but at some point Edgar had lunged forward again, a bundle of raw meat wrapped in the bloody remains of a golf shirt, and had plowed into the immovable mass of the EHUD, had forced his rage and self-pity and hubris into an impenetrable mass of his own, letting it move his body in a strange dance.  He dodged a swing powerful enough to take his head off, ducked under the arm, jabbed the heel of his hand into the frill surrounding Ruiz's neck, felt the internal structure buckle beneath his blow.
His left knee came up, landing between the plates of armor on the right thigh.  Shockwaves rolled out, trying to spread the force of the impact, but the knee sank deeper, pushing a layer of gel out through the skin of the suit, sending the force of patella into femur, cracking both bones.
Ruiz let out a psychic scream of pain, dropping Edgar back to the ground.  He scrambled to his feet, only to fall again as his leg buckled at the knee.  A quick burst of willpower, and the bones snapped back into place, jabbing into surrounding muscle and staying leg shaped through nothing more than hope and wishful thinking. 
He rolled, pushed forward with his right leg, and sent himself hurtling at the damaged leg before him.  He collided with the rough armor, felt his face pull away from his skull, but also the pillar of leg bending backwards, pulling in on itself.  Ruiz was down now, and Edgar sat astride her chest, bludgeoning her head again and again with his fists, his anger, his shame at failing as a father.  With each blow the gel protecting Ruiz's head sloshed around in new paths, meeting with and deflecting from previous waves of energy, splashing around until the only outlet for the kinetic bombardment was Ruiz herself.
Her mind was now a continuous fount of terror; this wasn't supposed to happen.  An easy hit, that was all this was, a step towards getting on with a normal life.  She was in charge, she was the one who was supposed to bring down the corruption with the purging fire of the Q-bomb.  Now—now she was going to die.  Her mind dropped in volume as she realized that this would be the end of her life.  With a last desperate plea, she ran to the mirror, saw the elegant news anchor, begged her to come out and save her from this fate.
A stream of gel jetted from between two plates and the helmet split into two pieces, loosely connected by strands of wet fabric.  The familiar face of Maria Ruiz looked out through the gore, her face marred by welts and contusions, her honey-colored skin darkened by blood.
“Edgar... Please... it's me...”
Faded images... interviews for shows, off-camera camaraderie, a shared history going back years, trickled from her mind into his.  It faded, shrunk to just a few recent images  as it struck his mind, found nearly all the memories missing.
“Oh...  That was all Bob...”
Edgar yelled, brought his arm down again—and it was over.
He slumped onto the felled giant, and started to cry.  Exhaustion, confusion, unspent rage forced its way out, and left him with no anchor in the waking world...

A jarring pain in his leg brought Edgar screaming back to consciousness.  He was back inside the clinic, overhead lights burning into his eyes.
“Hold tight, mister president.”  Frease was somewhere nearby, though the blurred, mushy sound of his voice made it impossible to pinpoint. 
There was another jerk on Edgar's leg, and he felt the bones pulling apart, and then sliding back together.
“Okay!  POTUS stabilized, he's ready to fly!”
Two EHUDs lumbered into the room.  They stood, one on each end of Edgar, and lifted the stretcher he lay on.  Moments later, they were on the roof.
Marine One sat off to one side, its rotors dead, all the windows gone, blown inwards.  Another chopper was next to it, rotors in full swing, ready to fly.  They didn't sound right, though.  They were muffled, far-away sounding.  Edgar reached up and felt a rivulet of brittle crust trailing from his ear.
As they neared the helo Edgar made out a cluster of other EHUDs surrounding what appeared to be prisoners near the an open bay door.  The EHUDs parted and he glimpsed Amanda and Ethan, looking tired and disheveled.  Water glistened on the sides of their faces where blood had been washed away.
There was a feeling of weightlessness while Edgar's escorts jumped aboard the helicopter, then lowered him to the deck.  They turned away and huddled together.  Edgar pressed outward from himself, fighting past a wave of nausea and exhaustion, and felt them discussing where exactly they would strap him in.  He pressed farther and felt a disturbance just outside the helicopter, centering around his family.
He jerked sideways, giving himself enough momentum to roll off the stretcher and to the door.  His escorts noticed and turned to help him, but found themselves disinterested in the little man on the floor and returned to their conversation.
“Mandy, what's going on?”
Amanda looked down on him, her eyes empty.  “I'm not going, Ed.”
One of the soldiers protecting her stepped forward.  “We need to leave, sir.”
“I'm not going,” she repeated.  “Neither is Ethan.”
Ethan, standing beside her, whimpered.
“Sir, we can't put this off.  Permission to sedate FLOTUS for ease of conveyance?”  After saying this the soldier turned away with a sudden fit of racking coughs.
“Mandy, what are you doing?”
“What are you doing, Ed?  You...  you just turned into a monster back there and killed someone.  I mean, you saved us, but...”  Her unspoken words, this is all your fault, stood out plainly.  “I can't go with you; as long as you're tied up in this, you're not safe to be around.  I should have seen that years ago.”
An image flashed through her mind: Lemlin, lording over the East Room, Edgar standing tall before him.  This time, though, it was not seen from beneath the apparent safety of a table, but from eye-level, moving closer.  This time, Amanda was not a passive player, waiting for her husband to do his job. 
“What does Ethan want?”  He looked at his son, who took a step away from his mother and awkwardly hugged Edgar's head.
“I love you dad.  I don't want to leave, but—I—”  He let go of his father and hugged himself, convulsing in fits of nervous shivers.  “Why was she trying to kill you dad?  You had nothing to do with the EHUDs!”
“I'll... I'll tell you when I can figure that out.”  He looked back up Amanda.  “I'm not the man you married.”
“I don't think you ever were.”
He nodded, then slumped onto the deck and let his escorts roll him back onto the stretcher. 
Responsibility still nagged at him, though.  Even if she didn't want him, Amanda was still his wife, his family.  He couldn't just leave her alone.  He tried to think of where she'd be safest, where she could go that the Defenders couldn't reach her.  And then the answer came to him, shining like a beacon.  There was no safer place than the lair of the beast itself, the creature that was unconcerned when Lemlin walked in, who had coolly calculated lines of succession even as the corpses of the dead cabinet members were still warm and wet.  Everything in him railed against this conclusion, but in the end, he realized that it was the only way he would ever have peace of mind.
“Can I give you one last bit of advice?” he called over the noise of the engine.  From the corner of his eye he saw her nod.  “Bob has some real-estate in Philadelphia.  You really want to know everything, want to help me?  Bob can tell you anything you want to know, and nothing on earth is going survive getting on his bad side.  You go to him, you'll be safe from anything.  Call him; he'll get you settled.”  He saw her nod again.
He looked at the soldier he had sent away coughing.  “Make sure they get to General Mistlethwakey, okay?  They're not going wherever I'm going.”
“That's an order.”  He wasn't sure if he could give orders of this type, but he wasn't in the mood to be rational right now.
Just as the EHUDs were closing in to take his family away he called out one last time to Ethan.  “Hey, Ethan!”
Ethan looked back at his father.
Edgar wracked his mind for something to say, a lasting bit of wisdom or encouragement he could leave to his son in case they never met again.  Nothing came up.  “Listen to your mom, okay?”
Ethan's eyes remained locked onto his as Frease hopped aboard, the doors were shut, and the helicopter lifted into the sky.
Not for the first time, Edgar realized that it was too late for him to do anything different.  “Todd?”
Frease loomed into view.  “Yes?”
“Get me some food...”

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