Medusa hit the mat with a grunt that betrayed the pain I’d inflicted on her. Worthless, at least as is. Pathetic, even. I didn’t say as much. Instead, I stared down at her and rocked back and forth on my bare feet, swinging my arms. I didn’t feel the need to put my feelings on her performance into words.
She stood back up, hand on her lower back. She nodded. “You cheated.”
I cocked my head to the side. “How so?”
“You hit me with a coffee mug,” she said, pointing down to shattered pieces on the mat.
I looked down, then back up at her. “Yeah, guess that makes sense.”
“That’s how you’re going to play it?” she asked, walking over to the side of the mat. Those tight workout clothes looked good on her, but I couldn’t see her as Venus anymore. The hair’s a little different, she has a little more fat on her, and there are some sexy scars on that skin. But she fights nothing like Venus and she’s not keeping up with me. It’s a little odd. Like someone’s pretending to be someone I know well and I’m getting hit with the uncanny valley just watching her do things like chug a bit of water.
She turned and spat it in my face while I thinking. Better. I wiped the water away in time to catch a foot to the rear of my left knee that sent me down. She grabbed my head and yanked my head back into something that clocked me pretty hard. She tried to do it again, but I grabbed her hand and lurched forward, throwing her overhead and slamming her to the mat in front of me. I rolled and grabbed her leg. She kicked me in the face, but that didn’t matter so much when I threw her by her leg at the padded wall. She crumpled in a groaning mess at the base of the wall and didn’t rush to come at me anymore.
“It’ll be fine in a bit. Let that water work on you. How about we call this one for now?” I asked.
She nodded and took her time. I helped her up and over to her water bottle. Good, fresh Riccan water. She doesn’t know that means my little robotic friends are helping her out. So I sat with her, glancing around.
The Directorate had various extra rooms added to their building that hadn’t quite been filled in. There are some things you can put in with a purpose-built gym that helps, but I figured this would be good for personal sparring and anything like that. I have plenty to teach Qiang still, and it can’t hurt for her to take lessons from instructors in there. I’m not an expert in everything. I’ll even set her up with marksmanship training eventually.
“There’s a shower attached to this if you’d prefer, otherwise I thought we might get something to eat,” I offered.
“I saw it when I came in, thanks,” she said with that petty, condescending tone. She scoffed when I joined her but did nothing to stop me getting a shower beyond asking, “I’m surprised you need a shower after not breaking a sweat.”
“I’m learning about you. I have plans for you,” I told her.
She shook her head. “I don’t want to be a part of whatever you’re planning. I got things I would rather do instead.”
I considered that as I washed my hair. I like having my whims followed, my actions feared, my capacity for violence respected. I hold no authority over Medusa in her eyes by simple virtue of her still not entirely understanding who she’s dealing with and not liking it. I suppose it’s not surprising. Kidnapping someone and forcing them to do my bidding is a concept that goes over badly with most people.
“What do you want?” I asked. I shivered at the way this almost-Venus looked me over, but this didn’t turn into the hottest new video on PornHub.
She crossed her arms. “I want to stay out of jail and live free. I want cash, fast cars, and men. I don’t want to be a pawn in what you’re planning. You didn’t break me out to be your sparring partner.”
I gave her a thin smile. “True. We’ll discuss it more over lunch. I’m interested in learning more about your situation and filling you in on my hopes and dreams.”
“I don’t listen to anyone’s dreams unless I’m fucking them,” she said. She grinned, then shrugged her head. “I am hungry. Anyone here do good General Tso’s chicken?”
We ate at a nicer, two-story restaurant that uses the second floor as a VIP section, with balconies for more intimacy in dining. It used to be a favorite of the Riccan military and was slowly becoming one again as more ships were being commissioned or recommissioned. Some of those who went pirate after the fall of Ricca had felt a sudden upsurge in loyalty for various reasons. Other ships had been scuttled by captains who suffered from an excess of loyalty toward their old Emperor. The Deep Ones had done a magnificent job helping raise those. So we had passed a collection of petty officers on our way to the second story, each pettier than the last. I could have taken the private VIP entrance, but I like to be seen out and about on the island. It helps remind people that things have changed.
Medusa found something she figured she could eat while I enjoyed some duck with some delicious chiles. My tolerance for peppers had increased rapidly being in a place where they were a more widespread part of the cuisine. It was hard to spot someone eating from the street right outside the restaurant, but I still got a view that let me glimpse kids running around a small courtyard a street over, playing soccer.
“This world is so weird. I’ve read the news and so much of this place is in chaos and civil war, like a dark version of my world” she said, interrupting the sounds of our eating. “On my world, Ricca is a terrible place. They help villains out, but you wouldn’t want to visit. Rumor is they kidnap supers and sell them as slaves to petty dictators. My friend, Moonraker, says they sell women to North Korea for their eugenics program. The Kims want superpowered kids.” She shuddered.
“No Kims here anymore,” I waved a hand off into the air regardless of if I was facing the Korean peninsula. “The previous Emperor got a bit greedy. No eugenics program here and I’m not a fan of slavery.”
“You have something you want me to do for you, though,” She said, maneuvering a piece of chicken into her mouth with chopsticks as she finished speaking.
I nodded. “I want you to take Venus’s place. That’s this Earth’s version of you.”
Medusa swallowed her chicken and spoke. “You should have done it when we were over there. Toss her in my cell.”
“Didn’t fit with what I wanted to do,” I said. I paused for a sip of my drink. “Didn’t know if you were willing. Didn’t know if you were able. You aren’t.”
“I don’t want to do it anyway,” she said. We spent a minute not talking as we continued eating until she broke the silence again. “What do you mean I’m not able?”
I smiled over at her. “The thing that set Venus apart at first was her ability to match me. We’ve traded wins and losses. We’ve pushed each other. You just aren’t there.”
“I’m surprised she didn’t kill you,” Medusa said.
“Ha!” I said. “I very nearly drove her to it, but the heroes kept to the code that time.”
“Code?” Medusa asked.
“Not officially, as far as I know. Just my phrasing this time for them not killing villains. There’s the occasional slip-up or accident. If Venus wanted me dead, I’d be dead. Other way around, too.”
“The heroes don’t kill people here?” Medusa asked. “Fucking score!” she pumped her arm.
“Yeah, most supers don’t try to kill each other here. The exceptions tend to be a pretty big deal. Like me. World’s best assassin, and I can kill with a smile.” I smiled at her for emphasis. She laughed at that.
After she calmed down and had some more to drink, she shook her head. “My luck. So, this world’s Medusa, was she raised by that god awful Master Academy, too?”
“She still works for them. You were at one of their campuses.” Off in my head, I received a new update from the U.S. Branch of the Intelligence Service informing me they had released some Treasury agents from our service in exchange for plates, ink, and access to material. I’m surprised they hadn’t been using our nanites for counterfeiting, but I guess we stretched how much we used the things enough as-is. Still, now we have a press of our own that can print off reams of one of the most widely-circulated currencies on Earth. It’ll help street-level operations quite a bit.
Medusa’s laughter was winding down as I finished everything. She wiped the tears from her eyes with her napkin and explained. “Of all the differences where everything seems to be flipped around completely, Oligarch’s still a good guy trying to get everyone to play nice. And he succeeded with a bunch of heroes who don’t kill.”
I shook my head and explained. “It’s a general thing not to kill. Heroes don’t do it, villains don’t do it because that risks the heroes doing it. And Oligarch’s a supervillain. Or he was. He’s dead now. Over here, the Master Academy’s run by a guy called Mender.”
Medusa beamed with pride as she told me, “On my Earth, Oligarch tried to take in troubled, superpowered youths to help us become the masters of our own destinies. Victor Mender knew an opportunity when he saw it. He crippled Oligarch and took control with a loyal coterie of students. Master Academy became about teaching us to be the masters over the limitations of humanity…” She looked down at her own hand. “I was an orphan Oligarch showed mercy to and I killed his best student in the coup. The world knew us as a private school for orphans and troubled teens. The underworld knew us as their training academy, until someone helped Oligarch escape his room. The government unleashed Taskforce Manticore and scattered us.”
I pondered her story. “You know anyone who uses guns to shoot crossbow bolts?”
She turned toward me. “You have your own version of Taskforce Manticore?”
I shook my head. “Nope. I ran across some of them looking for you and the others.” She sat up, but I gestured for her to stay seated. “Don’t worry. They were off in Empyreal City, by the portal. They’re the only reason I knew you existed to look into freeing you. And they’re why I think you and I can work together. Because they’re looking for a bunch of y’all, including you. And my nemesis is a person who looks like you.”
At least she has Venus’s intellect. Her eyes lit up with understanding. “Yeah. You deliver her to them and get them off my back. I love it. Why didn’t you do it already?”
“Master Academy would rescue her, even if they had to go through the portal and kick a lot of ass. I need them fooled, too.”
“They care that much?” she asked, incredulous.
“Yep… Venus would do it for them. So we need to replace her, too. But if you don’t like the idea of your double being hauled off in your place while you gloat and take over her identity, I guess that’s up to you. You’re not nearly as good a fighter as her anyway…” That’s called bait, dear readers.
And she took it. “I’ll do it, but now that she knows you have me, do you think she’ll come after me herself? A smart hero would try to avoid the mix-up.”
“True, but there are ways to make a smart hero act significantly less smart. Lets get your hair dyed and I’ll show you how.”
The pictures hit the newspapers a couple days later. Myself and Medusa, now without highlights in her hair, photographed together doing a things like dancing, cuddling, and laughing. The front page shot was me on one knee in front of her with a box in one hand. Headline: “Venus says yes!”