Part 8-5: Changing the Future

[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

Somewhere in Florida

Kinsey and I stepped off the ramp of the tilt-rotor and stood aside as the mercenaries, the members of PASS, and their rescuees congregated in their various groups. There were a couple of buses waiting for the latter, but they were understandably reluctant to be parted from their recent saviours. The capes were mingling with the mercenaries, apparently catching up on old times, and I saw Joanne trade a high-five with Crag.

A fuel truck pulled up to the tilt-rotors and began the refuelling procedure under the harsh glare of portable floodlights. We'd almost run the tanks dry in a nap-of-the-earth dash over the last hundred miles or so, after Air National Guard jets had started sniffing around. They hadn't caught more than a whisper on radar, and none at all once we got down on the deck. It was good to see the low radar cross-section construction paying for itself.

Kinsey, observing the coordinated activity, turned to me. "Ma'am, would I be remiss in assuming that this airfield wouldn't appear on any official registry?"

"Why, Kinsey, I'm surprised at you," I replied, deadpan. "It's registered as a defunct installation, with several layers of obfuscation before anyone will get to the true owner."

"Ah, of course. I stand corrected." He raised his head as the leader of PASS started in our direction. "It seems Ms Sanderson would like a word with you."

She was moving a little stiffly as she came up to us, which didn't surprise me in the slightest. Near-impervious skin or otherwise, the sheer number of bullet impacts she'd absorbed had to have left her with significant bruising. "Hail the conquering heroes," I said lightly.

"We're hardly the heroes of the piece." Her voice was upbeat, but I could see the drag of fatigue in her step. She was feeling the post-adrenaline crash, and I couldn't really blame her. "It's you and the mercenaries that pulled our asses out of the fire."

"You did the real work," I reminded her. "You found the girls and got them clear. If these guys had gone in cold, against a prepared position, there would've been losses. Maybe serious ones. Your plan was a good one; you just failed to anticipate the bad guys having access to attack choppers."

She nodded. "It's not really something we had to worry about, here in the States. So, what happens now?"

"In general?" I smiled slightly. "You've sent a serious message to overseas interests that they aren't immune to being hit and raided if they mess with American citizens, just because they're outside our borders. This all turned out even better than it might have; sneaking away would've left them wondering exactly what happened, but coming in loud like we did and utterly wrecking the pursuit force will leave a lasting impression on everyone in that region."

"Huh." She looked thoughtful. "I didn't realise we'd do that much damage. I just wish I'd gotten my hands on Señor Asshole himself."

"No need," I assured her. "He won't be getting any more assistance from local law enforcement after losing that chopper. Also, you hurt him badly, just by taking the girls away from him. The fact that you got away clean lost him a ton of respect from his peers, but that's not the only backlash he'll be getting from this. See, he was leveraging access to the girls for unfair deals, and everyone resented him for it. Now, nobody's going to want to do business with him; or rather, they're all going to want some payback. The pound of flesh closest to his heart, and then some."

"Oh." She blinked. "I hadn't thought about it like that."

"Mmm-hmm." I grinned. "Add to that the fact that one of the buildings you torched held a major chunk of his current drug stockpile, and I figure his entire operation will be going into a tailspin fairly shortly. He'll crash and burn harder than the chopper did, in maybe six months to a year. Shortly after that, he'll be arrested on some bogus charge trumped up by one of his competitors, and then he'll be shot while 'attempting to escape' by one of the cops he's unable to bribe anymore." I didn't need to make the air quotes.

Joanne brightened right up at that. "Good," she said fiercely. "He deserves nothing less. The others will be pleased to hear that." Such was the faith she held in me, she didn't even question the prediction. "I just want to know one other thing."

I was pretty sure I already knew what that was. "Why was I there, when I could've stayed Stateside and given orders from afar?"

"A question I'm interested in getting an answer for as well, ma'am," Kinsey observed.

Joanne glanced at Kinsey then back at me, and nodded herself. "That's basically it, yeah. You didn't have to put yourself in danger along with the rest of us. That's twice you've personally gone into a hot zone to get us out. Why?"

I chewed the inside of my lip as I thought about my answer. It had originally been intended to be brief and facile, but the way she'd phrased it made me wonder about my own motivations. "Part of it's about having skin in the game. Someone giving orders from two thousand miles away can more easily write off the wounded or dead left behind. Even though the guys absolutely had it in hand, me being eyes-on would've given me a lot better chance to step in if shit went sideways. Also, the guys think Kinsey and I are observers from the big boss, so us just being there gave them a morale boost. And …" I paused, unsure how to explain it. "The last time I went into a hot zone in a rotorcraft, I nearly died. I suppose, deep down, I wanted to make sure I had the nerve to do it again. Turns out, I do."

"Damn." She shook her head. "I nearly forgot about that. I'm glad you were there for us, though. We'll be sure to do more deep-diving next time, make sure there aren't any other nasty surprises waiting for us."

I almost smiled. PASS was turning out to be quite the nasty surprise for the people they went up against. However, there was something else I had to address that wasn't going to be any kind of laughing matter. "That's a very good idea. But there's something else as well."

"Yeah?" she tilted her head queryingly.

"Medical issues," I said bluntly. "They're all going to need checking over. You know who to take them to about the pregnancies, to decide what they want to do about it. The funds for all that will be in the usual account, plus extra for counselling." I didn't say anything stupid like 'if they need it'. Of course they'd damn well need it.

"Gotcha." Joanne hadn't had to make that decision for herself in the aftermath of the Compound, but she'd been there for every one of her teammates when they had. And of course, she'd gone through the counselling for what had happened to her. I hoped that helping others the same way she'd been helped would be another step on her own healing journey. "Thanks. I appreciate it."

"All in a day's work." I glanced across the tarmac at the jet still waiting for us. "We've got to get back now. Say hi to the others for us." I paused. "And just in case it didn't come across before: damn good work. We're seriously proud of you all." I held out my hand.

She shook it, careful not to crush my fingers in her iron grip. "Thanks," she said again. "For everything. Both of you." Then she shook hands with Kinsey, who afforded her a measured nod of approval.

We headed across the tarmac to the jet. At our approach, the engines began to spool up. The steps were down, so we climbed on board and strapped ourselves into the seats we'd occupied on the way down. Moments later, the hatch swung up and locked into place.

I looked out the window as the jet taxied down the airstrip and began its take-off run. It was still dark out, but it would be broad daylight by the time we got back to Brockton Bay. I wasn't exactly looking forward to Andrea's displeasure at my sudden absence, but it was something I'd weather. And it was all for a good cause.

With the howl of the engines barely audible in the cabin, the jet reached lift-off speed and the nose tilted skyward. I breathed steadily, even as the acceleration pushed me back into the seat cushions. "They're really shaping up well, aren't they?" I asked. The question was only partly rhetorical; Kinsey had far more breadth of experience than I did, and if he had any concerns, I wanted to hear them.

"Yes, ma'am." Kinsey looked like a man with many questions, few of which he knew he'd get straight answers to at that moment. "And now I know where they got the training from. Also, where the gentleman with the rocky skin vanished to."

"Correct on both counts." I smiled, reclining my seat. "It was nice to see them again."

He followed my lead. "Have you put any thought into how you will deal with the redoubtable Ms Campbell, ma'am?"

I chuckled and closed my eyes. "I'm pretty sure I'll go straight to 'grovelling'."

"A wise course, ma'am."

"I thought so."

Brockton Bay, 10:05 AM, Saturday Morning

The sun was (as predicted) well up when Kinsey pulled the car up into its usual parking spot. I got out and stretched, trying to get the kinks out of my spine. Comfortable though the plane and the car might be, it was wearying to spend so much time sitting still.

"What are our plans for the rest of this vacation, ma'am?" asked Kinsey as he locked the car and came around to the footpath. "Will there be any more unannounced invasions of sovereign nations that I need to prepare for?"

I glanced sideways at him. To anyone else, his face would've been as deadpan as ever, but I could tell that he was joking. Mostly. "With luck, that was a one-off. It was good to have you along, though. If the op had gone pear-shaped, you're one of the very few people I know I can trust to have my back without second-guessing me."

"Lieutenant Piggot being one of the others, no doubt, ma'am?" Since Emily's transfer to the Chicago department of the PRT, Kinsey had associated with her from time to time during the normal course of their duties. As far as I understood things, they'd already formed a strong mutual respect following the incidents of the Compound, and the intervening time hadn't changed any of that.

We started up the stairs. "Yeah, she's one of them. Before you ask, she's not in the know about this sort of thing." I had no doubt she'd throw her hat in the ring if I asked her, though. Emily never left a fellow soldier in the lurch if she could possibly help it. One of her defining traits, it had saved my life once upon a time.

Gladys was the third person on my very short list. Although she wasn't career military by trade, she was still the best hand with a rifle I'd ever seen, and her long-range sniper kill on Heartbreaker had dealt with a great many potential problems, going forward. I was glad we'd patched up our differences over that particular incident; quite apart from being a great shot, she was also a good friend.

Of course, her current position as vice-principal of Winslow (to Carrie Blackwell's impotent fury) would limit her availability, but I wasn't expecting to need the services of a deniable sniper any time soon. Besides, while she probably could snipe Screamer from outside the latter's one-mile range, I had other plans in mind for that one.

My musings were cut off as the door opened in front of me, just before I would've put the key in the lock. Andrea stood there, silently fuming at me. I essayed a wave. "Hi, we're back?"

"Yes," she said freezingly. "You are. Get in here."

"Yes, ma'am." I wasn't being facetious; this was a point where she definitely outranked me. Kinsey and I entered the apartment, and she closed the door behind us.

"You're not bleeding or bandaged," she continued in that same tone of voice. "No sharp bits of metal that I don't know about? No hidden bullet wounds? Kinsey?"

"No, ma'am." He clearly had the same thought process that I did, about who was in charge right then. It wasn't either one of us. "We stayed out of the action. The mission was a resounding success. All assets secured and retrieved, only minor injuries, all easily treated." Trust him to keep track of details like that.

She seemed to lose a little of the tension out of her shoulders. "Well, good. I'm glad." Her gaze fixed on mine as some of the previous glare returned. "If they didn't need you, why did you have to go racing down there? Why couldn't you have stayed in Brockton Bay and handled things from here?"

"Technically I could have, yes," I admitted. "But I had several reasons for doing it this way. Soldiers react more positively and cut fewer corners when the higher-up who's sending them into harm's way is going into the hot zone along with them. Also, if the shit hit the fan and their leadership got wounded or killed, I could've taken over on the spot. And I wanted to evaluate their performance first-hand."

The look on her face suggested that while she wanted to be angry at me, my logic was defeating her gripes. "So they got Joanne and the others out of there, with the girls they were rescuing?"

"All fifty-three, yes," I confirmed. "Beamer blew her eyes out shooting down an attack chopper, but they'll regenerate in good time. Jazz was literally wading through concentrated autofire when we arrived, so she's going to bruised to hell and back for the next week or so. Nobody else got worse than scratches and bruises. The ones they rescued are essentially healthy, but they're going to need full medical workups for physical maltreatment, STIs, and things like that. There will be pregnancies. And of course, everyone's going to need counselling."

"I've already put money in their account for that," she assured me. "If it looks like running low, I'll top it up."

Kinsey was looking between us like a spectator at a tennis match. Andrea raised an eyebrow. "You've got something to say, Jim?"

"No, ma'am," he hastened to say. "I know when something is well above my pay grade, and this is one of those times."

She huffed and rolled her eyes. "Seriously, Jim? I'm not your commanding officer. I'm not a ma'am to you. I'm Andrea. You know, your boss's ditzy redheaded girlfriend?"

It was his turn to raise an eyebrow. "Even without the events of the last twenty-four hours, Andrea, our relationship is far more complicated than that."

"Only if you want to make it complicated." She wrinkled her nose. "You've both slept with me, but you've never slept with each other. See? Not complicated at all. Silly, but not complicated."

"It's absolutely complicated when you factor in that I'm Kinsey's commanding officer, and I'm not supposed to be sleeping with women at all," I noted. "Also with my subordinates, so the fact that I'm not sleeping with him is about the only non-problematic aspect of this whole thing. Legally speaking, he should be reporting me for that specific breach of regs."

"I have witnessed nothing of the sort, ma'am," Kinsey returned blandly. "Any rumours to the contrary are merely scurrilous gossip, easily discounted."

"Well, I'm definitely scurrilous, so you got that part right." Andrea smirked at the both of us, apparently in a better mood now.

"You know that's not how that word is used," I said carefully, then looked around. Alec wasn't in evidence, but he was still a young child so I figured he was asleep. However … "Where's Dragon?"

"Is if I say it is. She's with her dad for the weekend." Andrea tossed off the deceptive statement so smoothly that I wouldn't have twigged if I didn't already know what was going on. The ongoing arrangement was that Dragon spent most days with Andrea, learning how to be a person, then transmitted her personality back to Richter's lab of an evening so he could analyse and record her progress. According to Lisa, he was fascinated by the networked associations she was creating within her own mental matrix, which were informing his ongoing research into artificial intelligence.

It wasn't the weirdest relationship I'd ever encountered, but that was life on Earth Bet.

"I see." Unzipping my jacket, I took it off then removed the shoulder holster. I hadn't had to fire it, or even draw it, but such things were far better to have in time of no need than vice versa. "Did you stay up all night, waiting for us?"

"Went to bed, after I dropped Dragon off." She gave me the eagle eye. "What about you? You don't look as half-dead as you should, running in and out of war zones all night."

"The jet had really comfortable seating, and in this business you learn to sleep when you can." I stretched. "But I do need another shower, and maybe an hour to lie down and get my head back in the game."

"I believe I'll do the same, ma'am, once you've finished your shower." Kinsey had his own jacket and shoulder holster slung over his arm, and was reaching for mine. "In the meantime, I'll get these squared away."

"Somewhere high up, please." There was a note in Andrea's voice that I hadn't heard before: maternal concern. "Alec isn't really walking yet, but he still manages to get around like wildfire."

"High up and in securely locked cases," Kinsey assured her. "The Captain thought ahead."

I snorted as I handed over my paraphernalia. "I told Kinsey to make sure we were prepped for staying in an apartment with a potentially inquisitive child, and without even missing a beat he handed me the requisition forms for the gun cases, already filled out and waiting for my signature."

"Which is why you two would be perfect together," Andrea said blithely. "You're already more in tune than most married couples I know."

I met Kinsey's eyes for a brief moment, and he shook his head fractionally. He was correct, of course: there was no way I was going to win that argument, for all that we'd hashed out every possible variation of it long ago. Andrea just didn't consider my points logical or viable. 'Not allowed to' only existed in her world as a precursor to 'challenge accepted'.

"Whatever you say," I sighed. "I'm going for that shower. I'll be out in five, Kinsey."


Two Days Later

Hebert Household

"And you're sure this is going to happen?" George Hebert leaned forward over the kitchen table with an intent expression on his face.

I met his gaze without flinching. "As sure as I can be. I've done the analysis, and it's got a better than eighty percent chance of going down the way I said it would."

Danny, sitting in the living room with young Tyler in his arms, cleared his throat. "Dad, I'd listen to her. She's really, really good at that sort of thing."

"So I've been told." George frowned deeply. "It's just hard to believe that it could get so bad."

"The unions are starting to push harder," I reminded him. "You told me so yourself. Well, the shipping companies don't want to pay the extra wages, so they're pushing back. There are firebrands on both sides, and it's entirely too likely that it will escalate to a point where both sides lose. My money's on some idiot bringing guns along, and maybe a container ship being scuttled in a way that blocks the entire port from being used."

"That would be bad." His expression set hard, into forbidding lines. "A lot of people would go out of work."

"They would," I agreed. "The economy would nosedive, crime would go up, and the gangs would go from just getting by to flourishing. Supervillains would move into town. Upper-middle income areas such as where you live right now would become lower-middle. Schools and businesses that depend on these areas would either fold or cut too many corners just to stay afloat. The ferry would be mothballed by the city as an unneeded expense."

"And the Dockworkers' Association?" His question was almost a plea.

"It would probably hang on, but only as a shadow of what it's like right now."

He took a deep breath. "Can the PRT do anything? To stop this, I mean?"

"I'm sorry, but no." I gave him a sympathetic look. "What I'm telling you is based on research and analysis I did on my own dime, because I care about this city. We don't have an official presence here, except for one recruiting sergeant. Even if things do go down the gurgler, the earliest we're projected to establish a department here is 'ninety-nine, early two thousand. And that'll be far too late to pull things back into line."

"What if you told them?" His keen gaze bored into mine. "You're their golden child right now, aren't you?"

I chuckled. "More like enriched uranium. Valuable, but most Directors want to keep me at arms' length. However, even if I took it to my boss, he wouldn't be able to act on it, because the PRT's jurisdiction begins and ends with parahuman-related crime."

His jaw squared. "Then it's up to us to make sure it never gets that far."

"That's why I'm telling you." I tapped the Manila folder on the table between us. "These are the people on both sides who are most likely to go too far. I can't guarantee to be here when it happens, but I can get the information to the people who can do something about it. Starting with you."

Placing one large hand on the folder, he drew it over the table toward himself. "Thank you, Captain Snow. I appreciate it."

I chuckled lightly. "I have no idea what you're talking about. This is just a family visit, nothing more. The PRT isn't allowed to intervene, remember?"

From the grim smile on his face, he got my point. The information I was giving him was totally deniable, and I was washing my hands of whatever he did with it. "Understood. We'll deal with it."

I got up as he opened the folder and started perusing the information within. Kinsey was sitting in the living room with Danny; Anne-Rose had gone out shopping with Dorothy.

"The ferry?" asked Danny. "They'll stop that, too?"

"The Mayor's office will be looking at everything they can possibly cut costs on." I shrugged. "Plus, once crime starts to rise, they'll use the excuse that they don't want criminals riding the ferry to the Downtown area."

He squared his jaw in the same way his father had. "I'm not going to let that happen."

I nodded. "Didn't think so."

Friday, February 23, 1996
Brockton Bay

Aster Anders

Ruth stood looking up at the Medhall frontage through the oversized sunglasses she was using to conceal her mask. She'd been meaning to do this for some time, but between the needs of the service and the reluctance to interrupt matters until certain things happened, this was the first time when all the ducks had lined up in a reasonably steady row. Her actions here were almost certainly going to cause problems in Brockton Bay but as the saying went, a woman had to do what a woman had to do.

Also, Taylor almost certainly knew of her intentions in this situation and she hadn't said not to do it, so … full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes, I guess.

Drawing in a deep breath and resisting the temptation to check that her black wig was sitting correctly, she pushed open the heavy glass door with little effort and strode into the building. Deep within her, the wellspring of molten steel boiled and bubbled, ready to be unleashed at her whim. She'd never walked into the building back in the future, and the décor was entirely unlike what it would've been fifteen years hence, but it still felt oddly familiar.

"Can I help you, ma'am?" asked one of the two (white; no surprise there) security guards sitting at the front desk.

"Yes, you can." She smiled politely at him. "I need to speak to Richard Anders, please. It's very important."

His expression never changed. "Do you have an appointment, Miss …?"

"Anders. Aster Anders. I believe he'll see me." With all the confidence she was able to muster, she stood foursquare before the desk, clasping her hands behind her back.

His eyebrows hitched up a notch, and he picked up a phone. "This is Peter, on the front desk. There's a lady here who wants to speak to Mr Anders. No, the Mr Anders. She says her surname is Anders, too."

There was a pause. Ruth didn't take her eyes off the man. She felt vaguely bad for putting him in this situation, but she was fairly certain he at least subscribed to some of the beliefs of the Empire Eighty-Eight.

"Aster, she says. Aster Anders." He scrutinised her features. "No, she hasn't said. But she kinda looks like she could be related to him. Maybe?"

Ruth didn't let the smile she felt cross her features. Taylor had told her at one point that she did take after her father to a certain extent, mainly in the hair and the chin. It seemed the Anders jaw was a thing. Though Theo hadn't inherited it, which made her wonder briefly if that was why their father had been so hard on him.

The guard put his hand over the mouthpiece. "What's your business with Mr Anders?"

Putting the old bastard and his gang out of business permanently. Of course, she couldn't say that, not out loud. "Catching up on old times. He is my cousin, after all." Given her age, she couldn't realistically pull off being his daughter, but a slightly more distant relationship was perfectly possible.

The guard relayed that information, then listened some more. When he focused on her again, his expression was harder. "Ma'am, I'm informed that Mr Anders has no cousin called Aster. I'm going to need you to leave the building, or we will be calling the police."

It was time to play some of the cards she'd been holding closer to her chest. "Sure, I'll leave. But before I do, please pass on a message to Max Anders that I know all about his father. Exactly as I've said it, please." She favoured him with a brilliant smile.

He gave her a dubious look, but she hadn't been argumentative, so he repeated her words into the phone. There was a long pause, and he sat up straighter in his chair. Aster breathed deeply; she wasn't as comfortable with physical conflict as Taylor was, but she'd been in a few scuffles while helping Contessa out. These had mainly ended with her spraying molten steel and plasma over whatever the problem was, thereafter rendering it no longer a problem.

A conflict was brewing here, but she didn't want it to spread too far, or for innocents to get hurt. So she was going to have to play this one out carefully.

The guard, Peter, stood up from the desk and picked up a metal-detector wand, leaving his colleague at the desk. "Step on through the archway, ma'am. Mr Anders is on the way down."

"Thank you." Her heart was pounding, but she forced herself to speak normally and repress her powers as much as possible. Carefully, she stepped through the archway; the detector lights shimmied, but no specific alarm went off.

The guard eyed the archway dubiously. "Hmm. Arms out to the side, please." When she complied, he ran the wand over her arms and torso, then down her legs. It buzzed, but only intermittently. "Do you have any metal on you, ma'am? Watch, jewellery?"

"No." She pushed back the sleeve on her jacket, at the same time shoving her costume sleeve out of the way before he could get a good look at it. "I set those damn things off all the time. My doctor says I have too much iron in my blood. Here, check my arm, you'll see what I mean."

When he ran the device over her forearm, she let molten steel surge through, but stopped it before it would reach her hand. She knew right now that an IR scan would show her arm lighting up like a flare, but fortunately they were only checking for metal.

The wand buzzed, causing the guard to frown as he stared at her bare arm. "That's ridiculous," he muttered. "Shouldn't work like that." He ran the wand over her proffered arm again, getting the same result.

"Told you. It's a family thing, apparently." She raised her eyebrows. "Richard's got the same thing, and I'm pretty sure Max does too."

"I've never heard that about them before." But the guard was wavering, not helped by the way she was casually dropping the names of the boss and his son.

She leaned into his indecision. "How would you know? Have you ever actually checked them through, or do they get to skip that bit?"

This was a gamble on her part, but a calculated one all the same. While she'd been born long after her grandfather died and had no personal knowledge of him, someone who called himself Allfather had to have a certain amount of ego. It also helped that he'd named his gang an Empire. Richard Anders was a man with ambition. Someone like that would be unlikely to lower himself to the status of a common worker by going through regular security screening like everyone else.

"Fine," he said sharply, and pointed at a chair across from the security station. "Sit there and wait for Mr Anders."

"Thank you." Pulling her sleeve down, she did as she was told. She had what she wanted: a personal audience with the leader of the Empire Eighty-Eight.

Only a minute or so later, the elevator dinged and two men entered the lobby. Ruth knew who they were immediately; there was no mistaking them. Leading the way was a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark blond hair and a neatly trimmed beard. Ruth fancied there might be a little gray mixed in with the blond, but it would take very close inspection to find it. Hi, Grandpa. I really wish you'd been a nicer person.

Walking at his shoulder and a little behind was a more familiar face, though it was odd to see Max Anders as a teenager. His stride lacked the confidence he would take on in later years, and he had yet to reach his adult bulk, but Ruth would've known her biological father anywhere. (Her real father would always be Phil Goldstein, but that was neither here nor there.)

"Ah," she said. "It's good to see you, Richard. And this must be Max." Rising from the chair, she stepped forward and held out her hand out in greeting.

Richard Anders was a sharp operator. "Aster. Huh. I never thought I'd run into someone from your branch of the family." Taking her hand, he shook it firmly.

What, the Seattle Goldsteins? Ruth suppressed the random thought and kept the smile on her face, even as Anders maintained the grip on her hand until he could take hold of her elbow. "Oh, you know how it goes," she said lightly. "I was in town, and I thought I'd drop in and introduce myself."

Max was switched-on even at nineteen, because he stepped in without needing his father's prompting, flanking her on the other side. If she'd had the intention of doing anything other than going with them, she would've had to pull some violence out of the hat. As it was, she did nothing of the sort.

"Well, that's just fine," Anders declared heartily. "Come on through and we'll compare notes."

They hustled her into the elevator and Anders stabbed a button with his forefinger, then jabbed the 'door close' button. The elevator began to move—downward, not upward.

"Huh," she said. "Concealed base under the building? I hadn't actually anticipated that. It must come in handy."

"Shut up!" snapped Max, but Richard shook his head.

"Let her talk," he advised. "She'll be telling us everything she knows anyway, including who sent her."

Ruth smiled coldly. "Yes. Yes, I will." Anders' head would probably explode if she told him everything about her, including the fact that his granddaughter was a practicing Jew, but she had enough ammunition even without that.

The elevator stopped and the two men hustled her out into an echoing room, composed mainly of raw concrete. She got the impression that construction was still ongoing. That was fine. She was where she wanted to be.

"That's far enough." She flexed her power and broke Anders' grip on her elbow. It didn't even require much strength to throw off Max's hold on her forearm. She got the impression that they simply hadn't expected her to resist effectively. "Time for some home truths."

"Truths? What truths?" Anders was watching her warily, apparently aware of the change in her body language. Max hadn't picked up on that yet, but he was young. There was still time for him to learn. "You're going to be telling us where you learned about—"

"Oh, put a sock in it." Her tone was deliberately abrupt. Control freaks hated being cut off, which was why she did it. "My name really is Aster Anders. Richard, I'm your granddaughter from the future, and I'm here to shut down the Empire Eighty-Eight before it can do any more damage than it's already done."

"Future?" Max glanced at Anders. "Dad, do you even believe this?"

Richard's lips thinned. "If you're telling the truth, my only male offspring is Max. His wife is pregnant right now. I could order her to have the baby aborted—"

He couldn't see it, but she rolled her eyes anyway. "Wouldn't do a damn thing. Time travel creates an overlay. Rewrites reality. I'm here to stay. Besides, she's having a boy. I don't come along for another fifteen years or so, after Heith gets killed and Max remarries. If any of that even happens in this timeline."

"So if I'm to believe this …" Richard paused for a moment. "You've come back from what, fifty years in the future? To tell me to stop now?"

No, I went back fifty years into the past. Idiot. "That's what I'm here for. Except that I'm not here to tell you to stop. I'm here to stop you. One way or the other." She flexed her power, letting the liquid metal fill the spaces within her without quite oozing through the skin. Her movements became a little more ponderous, and her eyesight changed, becoming shades of heat. "You can give yourselves up to the cops … or we can do this the other way."

"Dad, we can't just—" began Max.

"Shut up!" Anders glared at Ruth, his fists flexing. "And if I decline your generous offer? Are you going to simply attack us unprovoked?"

Ruth snorted, recalling the faded photos of the Goldsteins and their relatives who had perished in the Holocaust. "You're a Nazi. That should be provocation enough. But I don't have to. I know your secret identities. If I drop the heroes enough clues, they should be able to figure it out for themselves." She gestured at the unfinished base around them. "I'm sure they'd be extremely interested in this place. I doubt it's on any plans held by the city."

Anders folded his arms. "I see. Well, I have or two more questions. Are all people in the future idiots, or is the suicidal bravery confined to you? Or did you somehow think that the claim of being my grandchild would somehow move me to take your side in all this?"

"None of the above." Ruth flexed her fingers, the heated metal lurking just beneath the surface. "I came here mainly to appeal to Max. He never does buy into the Nazi bullshit that you're feeding him, not like his sister does. He dies a hero in the future, did you know? So does my mother." She looked at the boy who would have potentially been her father. "It's not too late."

Max acquired a sudden hunted expression, then flinched away as his father stared at him. "What?"

"Tell me it's not true, boy. Tell me she's lying through her teeth." Richard Anders' tone promised no mercy.

"Of course she's lying!" Max's voice was desperate. "I'd never betray you like that! She's just trying to divide us!"

For a long moment, Anders stared at him. "… very well. But we will be having a talk, later."

The elevator door dinged, and a woman emerged. Aster had never met her, but her features were vaguely familiar, even seeing her via shadings of heat. She looked to be in her early twenties, and exuded an air of menace. "Got your call. Who's this?"

"You are never going to believe this," Anders said heavily. "She calls herself Aster Anders, and claims to be Max's daughter from the future. Wants us to shut the Empire Eighty-Eight down, or she'll do it for us."

"Really." The woman came to a stop in front of Ruth, hands on her hips. "You know who I am, honey?"

"Heidi Ferguson, born Heidi Anders," Ruth said promptly. "Otherwise known as Iron Rain. My aunt, once upon a time. You died before I was born." She glanced at Richard Anders, then back to Heidi. "Your dad is grooming you to take over the Empire Eighty-Eight for when he dies or steps down. Max is due to take over Medhall. How am I doing so far?"

Heidi's eyes narrowed, then her hand lashed out in a slap that would've rocked Ruth's head sideways if she hadn't already been flexing her powers. Her sunglasses were knocked off, clattering to the ground. The wig was askew after the blow, so she discarded that as well.

"Son of a bitch!" Heidi shook her hand vigorously. "What the fuck … oh, shit. Dad, you didn't say she had powers!"

Aster, aware that her mask was now visible, smiled coldly. "I'm third generation, you moron. I've had powers almost from birth." She cracked her knuckles, her powers giving it a sharp, metallic sound. "One more time: are you going to give yourselves up to the authorities, or do I get to do this the fun way?"

Richard Anders replied the way she'd been half-expecting since she stepped into the underground base. No words were spoken, but a heavy-bladed short-spear emerged from a hole in space, aimed directly at her throat. She caught it with one hand, held it still in the air, and directed the heat from her hand through it. Within seconds, the blade around her hand was glowing red, even as other metal items pattered off her back and fell to the floor.

Iron Rain was the next to aggress on her; a series of needle-pointed spikes appeared in the air above her and fell toward her apparently unprotected head and shoulders. The way they dug into her skin was a little painful, but they didn't get any farther than that, falling off and clattering to the ground. As the blade in her right hand began to melt from the heat she was applying to it, she held out her left hand, palm out. "Hey, Iron Rain! Think quick!"


Max Anders was no stranger to super-powered combat, but there was little enough of it in Brockton Bay. His main sparring partner was Heidi, and she kicked his ass nine times out of ten. The combat started before he was properly ready for it, though he'd seen these moves before. Between them, Heidi and his dad tended to clean the clocks of everyone who faced them, and Max was rarely needed.

This time … was different.

He wasn't sure where she'd got the name Aster from. It wasn't a name he'd ever thought he might give to his daughter. That was if she really was his daughter from another timeline, and not just pulling a massive con on them all.

But all the mental meandering went out the window when she caught the spear Allfather sent at her from the front, ignored the multiple knives clattering off her back, and weathered the literal iron rain delivered by his sister. And then the spear began to melt in her fucking hand.

They'd never been up against a foe who could melt metal before. Max was starting to get a really bad feeling about this, which only intensified when 'Aster' held out her hand toward Heidi. That was so obviously a threat that Heidi was already moving when the jet of molten steel shot out toward her. She yelped, undignified, and retreated a whole lot faster.

Max's brain finally caught up with the action, and he threw up a rough square box of metal around the intruder, growing a two-inch-thick wall directly out of the concrete floor, all the way to the ceiling, then bracing it on all sides. Panting from the stress, he looked at his father and sister for guidance on what to do next.

"What the hell do you think you're doing, boy?" demanded his father.

"Yeah!" His sister clenched her fists. "Now we can't get at her!"

It wasn't like you were 'getting at her' before, he wanted to say, but wisely kept that bit silent. "But … she fires molten metal! How are we supposed to fight that?"

Iron Rain shook her head. "Don't ask stupid questions. Just stay back. We'll handle this."

Allfather pointed at the elevator. "Go on up to the first floor. Tell security there's a problem and they have to evacuate the building. We can't risk anyone witnessing this fight before we put this pretender down for good."

"But … I can stay. I can help!" He knew he was the younger child, but he wished just for once they'd treat him with the respect he deserved. And he'd seen the woman's eyes just before he trapped her; glowing with their own inner light, they gave him reason to believe she was anything but a pretender.

"No, you'll just be in the way!" Iron Rain echoed her father's gesture. "Get out of here, squirt!"

"Go!" bellowed Allfather, even as the metal box began to glow faintly red. "For once in your life, do as you're told!"

God damn it. It's like I'm a kid all over again. This is because of what she said, I'd put money on it.

But he didn't have a choice. Retreating into the elevator, he hit the button for the first floor, then checked himself over for any telltale signs of battle. Nothing; he hadn't been touched.

When the elevator doors opened, he hustled to the front desk. Peter, the senior guard, glanced around. "Yes, sir?" he asked.

Not 'yes, Mr Anders?', because Mr Anders is my dad. Dammit. But that was the least of his problems.

"We need to evacuate the building," he said, trying to keep his voice calm and level. "It's an emergency."

Peter stared at him for a moment. "Evacuate the … whole … building, sir? What's the emergency? Why weren't we informed?"

Max gritted his teeth. "I'm informing you now. Evacuate the building right now. That's an order." Was that a tremor he'd felt through the soles of his shoes? He thought he saw ripples in Peter's coffee cup.

"Does Mr Anders know about this?" asked the other guard; Max didn't know his name. "Is this some kind of drill?"

God fucking damn it. I can't do anything right. Max took two steps away from the desk, flipped the handle out from the fire alarm on the wall, and yanked hard on it. Sirens blared and red lights flashed over the doors. "Now evacuate the god damn building!" he bellowed.

The two guards glanced at each other, then Peter shrugged. "Looks like we're evacuating the building," he decided, pitching his voice to be heard over the sirens. "But you're wearing this, not us."

"Do I look like I give a fuck?" Max pointed at the phones, which were now ringing. "Do your damn jobs! Get everyone out of here!"

It was more than just sirens, he realised as he stomped away toward the elevators again. There was a voice repeating the word 'Emergency', then directing people to leave the building in a 'safe and orderly' fashion. Yeah, right. If he knew people, 'safe and orderly' would last all of ten seconds.

There was a deeper rumble through the floor as he neared the elevators. It seemed like the woman calling herself Aster Anders was still up and fighting, which was a worry. His father and sister were good at what they did, and if they couldn't double-team a single opponent into defeat in just a few minutes—

Another rumble, accompanied by a scorched section of carpet, gave him just enough warning before the floor erupted, blasting hot masonry in all directions. He yelped, instinctively growing a metal shield out of the wall to take the impacts. Somewhere, something was on fire; he could smell the smoke from where he was. Who is this person? How is she doing this?

Whatever had burst through the floor had also wrecked the elevator; the doors were half open, and the cable hung limply in the shaft within. More smoke billowed upward out of the hole that had been blasted in the floor. Suddenly, the sprinklers kicked into action, drenching him within seconds.

I have to find them. I have to help. No longer caring if anyone saw him—between the smoke and the sprinklers, the security cameras would be picking up minimal imagery right now—he pulled back his sleeve so he could get access to his watch and grow the armour that he'd spent so much time figuring out. In time, he knew he'd be faster at it, but right now he just wanted to make sure the joints worked right. Heidi had laughed herself sick and called him 'Derpio' after his first few attempts left him barely able to shuffle along.

There was more rumbling, then the floor shook badly enough that he fell over. Bits of ceiling panel crashed to the floor all around him, spraying water everywhere. As he pulled himself to his feet, using the wall for assistance, he saw a figure climbing the pile of rubble partly blocking the hole in the floor. Flames flickered farther back, outlining the person like an escapee from Hell.

Aster Anders climbed the last few yards, carrying something in her hands that he couldn't quite make out. Despite the water spraying down over them both, she was dry, all the water hissing off her in billowing clouds of steam. Her eyes were still red-lit from within, giving her a supremely dangerous appearance. She tossed the two objects to the floor at his feet; they rolled to a stop, and he recognised them with a lurch of his stomach as his father's and sister's heads. The neck-stumps, as far as he could tell, had been seared off rather than sliced with a blade.

"You—" he began, before she lunged forward, grabbing the front of his shirt and lifting him off his feet, up against the wall.

"You will not speak." Her voice, almost metallic in nature, was clearly audible over the sounds of crackling flame, the sirens, and the hiss of the sprinklers. "You will listen. Allfather and Iron Rain are dead. So is the Empire Eighty-Eight. You will be a good man, and a good father to your son. Or I'll be back. Is that understood?"

He didn't even try to kid himself that she wouldn't do it because she was theoretically his daughter. She'd killed his father and sister already, and he could feel the heat radiating from her skin, even through the soaked cloth. With an effort, he nodded.

She held him there for another moment, then let him down onto his feet. The moment she released him, he collapsed to all fours. Vaguely, he was aware of her turning and walking away, but he was too busy retching up his last meal.

There was no future for the Empire Eighty-Eight anymore, that was a given. Medhall itself might not survive, if the investigations turned up Allfather's true identity. Max Anders would have to survive and go forward on his own merits.

It was just lucky that his identity as Kaiser hadn't really hit the public eye yet, mainly because Allfather and Iron Rain had overshadowed him so completely. So he could claim to have known nothing about it.

Climbing to his feet, he staggered toward the main entrance, barely noticing when one of the security guards grabbed his arm and hustled him onward.

If I go villain again after this, she'll come back and kill me. But what else is there for me to do?

Could I be a hero?

He had no idea. But there was only one way to find out.

End of Part 8-5