Medusa’s come a long way. I gave her a couple of daily quizzes on Venus and some of the events on this world, even if she didn’t realize it. We had a lot of time to talk. We talked over dinner, while walking, and while watching Qiang play with some friends she made. They’re having a hell of a time on the obstacle course.
I paused for a bit, just looking at Medusa. Then I put my head on her shoulder. “Hey. I wish I’d spent more of this time learning about you. I’m just… planning shit. I get caught up in things, and it feels like I’ve nothing but exposite all over your pretty little face.”
Medusa nuzzled her cheek against the top of my head. “Oh no, I love hearing how obsessed you are with Venus. It never gets old.”
I shut up and watched Qiang hang by her legs from the monkey bars, swinging back and forth. It felt nice like that. You know how hard it is for things to feel nice that don’t involve hurting someone?
It was Medusa that broke the silence between us. Plenty of non-silence with kids around, what with their bodies’ natural cocaine production keeping them active and loud. Medusa said, “It’s good that we can find peace like this.” She must have felt my body tense a little at that. “You don’t like peace?”
“It’s always only temporary,” I said.
She patted me on the cheek. “Just shut up and enjoy it.”
“Noooo,” I whined. “I can’t enjoy things. I’m too much of a bitch.”
“A little bitch or a big bitch?” Medusa asked, forcing a grin out of me.
I sighed in contentment. “The kind of bitch who hates someone for giving me hope.”
“Here we go again,” she said. “You’re sitting here with me. We’re fine. This is peace. You can have peace with me. You have to have some hope from that.”
“I guess,” I said.
“When I first came to the Master Academy, I saw people with powers and costumes. It was amazing. I thought there was no way I could measure up. I found out that they weren’t better just because they had power and saved people. A lot are messed up. I know some shitbag heroes because that’s who they are and I know some who make bad choices. Like dating a supervillain.” She took my hand.
I squeezed it back. Her skin still feels so soft, despite the layers of bulletproof nanoweave added inside her skin. More than that, I could feel the engagement ring. I had to make the whole lie look good, and I guess Medusa approves. “Then you became a villain yourself in the coup. Now, someone gets to say superheroes make a mistake if they date you. Even if you wanted to change, you couldn’t. Too much punishment over any past mistake. Can’t even get away from it by going to a whole new world.”
“You did,” was her laconic answer to our little conversation.
From there, things got significantly lighter. Turns out they have The Orville over there, too. Or she’s caught up on our version of it. It made good filler, if nothing worth going into depth about here. Nor was our night out worth going into all the detail. Especially when those details involve me looking up at the stars and trying to compare Medusa to a distant ball of flaming gas and sound smooth while doing so. My understanding of English doesn’t extend to the notion of poetry. Then again, I consistently mess up haiku, so I’m incapable of being poetic in multiple cultures.
And there was talking, about movies, podcasts, books. She heard someone claim there’s a universe where time moves backwards. I suggested we invade it to get Game Of Thrones spoilers. We could make a fortune off them, but more importantly, we’d get to see the Cleganes go at it. Despite all the early difficulty, it was easy to talk to her. And I like her.
The next day, though. Ugh.
I was having a spar with Medusa. I didn’t even plan one, but she insisted. Me, I thought we were ready. I just had to figure out where they all were. The nanites showed nobody in the housing I’d so generously dumped them in. I was frowning to myself and calling up the spies I had on them when I walked into the gym area and took a kick to the face from Medusa.
“Fucking hell,” I said, holding up a pair of hands to my face.
“Oh, I thought you’d block it!” Medusa said, grimacing.
I waved her off and tried to keep the blood from dripping too much. “It’s fine. Just let me get under the shower and get some of this loose blood out. I’ll be fine after that.”
So while I shoved my head under some water to get the nanites to close off a wound, I finally got through to the spies in a conference call. “Where the hell are the superheroes?”
“They are still present at the villa,” Intelligence Chief Pagan answered.
“Why can’t I feel any nanites in any of them?” I asked.
“That is revealing,” said another voice. “There was a temporary power outage the other night.”
“EMP,” Pagan commented.
“So they fried the nanites within themselves,” I said.
“That explains the excessive purchases of prepackaged foods and water,” said the other voice on the line.
“Venus is there, right? We have a count on every single one of them?” I asked.
“It is a large group and they stay spread out,” said the other voice.
“Empress, give me five minutes and I will confirm for you their locations,” Pagan said
“Thank you, Pagan. I’ll be expecting it.” I hung up, my nose good as new, and dried off my hair. I could use the time waiting on them to hit my girlfriend. It’d be fun!
I walked out there, giddy at the thought. Not about the hitting, not entirely. Just about the thought of Medusa as my girlfriend. She was even supposed to marry me.
“You want a free hit?” she offered as I stepped out.
I raised my hands. “Now, now, I don’t know why we might have to res-” I hit her in the ear.
She stumbled back, holding her ear. “Ah! Crap, that hurts! Ow.” She took a minute to recover from my vicious ear bashing, then got into a defensive stance.
It was close, but I ended up tossing her on her back, smiling down at her with sweat already building up. I straddled her and pinned her arms down, upper arms ready to smack her. She winked up at me. I looked down at her then, wondering at the plan I had to force this wonderful woman to try and be Venus. I shook my head, stood, and helped her up.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I sighed. “Just thinking how much I’d miss you if we do this. Getting second thoughts.”
“We should really sit down and talk,” she said.
I got a call earlier than expected, though. “Hold up on that. I gotta take this. Important call.” It was a direct call from my Intel guys in Empyreal City. I told them to get me on the line if they saw anyone entering or exiting the portal. I sat on the mat to take the call. They’ve sent me updates about the pace of the lab cleanup over there, and what they saw of Taskforce Manticore’s activity on this side of the portal. Some of their actions showed up in the news as the otherworldly law enforcement acted as vigilantes. Villains who tried to probe the portal grounds were particularly prone to getting an crossbow bolt in a sensitive body part.
“Empress, heroes from the Master Academy have arrived with a prisoner. They are handing over one of their own. Venus.”
I don’t know about y’all, but those words caused a series of strange reactions. Anger, for example. Rage. I detected a hint of fury as well. Cold blood and ears with a heartbeat. “What kind of manpower do you have available?” I asked.
“Eight agents with small arms and bulletproof vests. We are not an assault team. The Manticores outnumber us, and there are five hero besides.”
I closed my eyes to get a better feel for things. Satellite imaging confirmed that some sort of meeting was taking place, but I couldn’t get a good look at the person they were carrying in some sort of secured sleeping bag. I had a Dudebot in the city. I sent a notice to the Intel guys that they were going to come up at least one person short in their survey of the heroes. And I was going to want answers.
A kick leveled me just as I attempted to activate the Dudebot, coincidentally reminding me that there was someone present who had a lot to answer for. I blinked and looked up, checking to see if I needed to roll. Who I thought had been Medusa stood there, fingers pressed to her neck. “I’ll be fine.” She met my eyes as I stood, continuing. “Just go.”
“How long?” I asked.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” she said.
Too late? I laughed in spite of everything. “The first thing you did when I walked in was hit me.”
“I’ve been waiting to get back at you for that tattoo you gave me,” she said.
“How long?” I repeated the question. “You were the one I had enhanced, but…?” I left it hanging in the air, looking her over. She had no active nanites in her system as well. It’d… how… she’s played me magnificently. This beautiful hero I’d spent so much time with and grown comfortable with, and the whole time it was just a game.
“We captured my doppelganger when she went to get a costume,” she said. “I’m-” she stepped toward me, hands up, but stopped when I moved back away from her. “I’m sorry.”
I scrambled everyone: Security officers, Intel agents, the Riccan military. I did it while looking into her eyes. “Nothing personal, eh? Gecko’s obsessed. Gecko’s creepy. Just use it. Makes sense. Good job, Venus. Fantastic job tricking me.” I gave her a thumbs-up.
“You were going to replace me and dump me in another universe,” she said.
I laughed. “I was doing it to finally be rid of you. You think I like you living in my head rent-free?” I pointed to said noggin with a finger gun. Instead I had to watch as Medusa was carried through the portal. What made it worse was knowing I didn’t actually care about her. “You were the turning point again. I didn’t get along with Medusa until you took her place. I actually thought you cared.”
Curiously, she wasn’t in a stance. She stood there wide open. I snarled and launched myself at her, throwing a punch. She redirected it to the side with strength I gave her and shifted her body to avoid a follow-up from my lower left. I aimed my left knee at her belly. She locked her leg with mine and shifted around to stand next to me, then elbowed me in the stomach. I hopped to keep standing and grab onto her. My upper left grabbed her hair. She growled and stomped her and my legs down to the mat and ducked, pushing her back against me. She lifted me up on her shoulders. I tried to roll off when she threw herself back in my direction but I landed on my side with all of her weight on top of me.
We separated and I spun as I came up, throwing a kick at her head. Instead of waiting to get my feet under me, I used my four arms to push off and throw myself at her. I straddled her again and punched her in the face. The second punch sounded like it broke her nose. Still, she slid her legs up between my pairs of arms. She grabbed my upper arms and pulled them across one at a time, using the momentum from pulling my left across to the right side of my body to roll me over and come up on top. I tried to kick up with my legs to catch her neck but she leaned in close. I winced preemptively for the headbutt, but she stopped short. “Does this mean you’re calling off the wedding?”
“What?” I asked. As fight stopping moments go, it’s better than “Martha!” I growled up at her. “You were throwing our sparring sessions, too.”
She smiled at me. I gritted my teeth and told her, “I’m going to kill your friends.”
Her smile turned into a grimace of effort as she held me down. “I know you’re hurting right now. I’m sorry. I had to stop you. We were supposed to meet up and fight our way out together. Now they’re screaming in my ear wondering where I am. If I let you go to tell them I’m not coming, will you be cool?”
“I think we’ve established I can’t trust you,” I told her.
“Fine,” Venus said. She let go of my arms got up off me. She held her arms up, backing away. I took to my feet again and got into a stance. She pressed a finger to her neck. “Go, team. Leave me.”
I checked to see what the score was. There were heroes all over the place. This wasn’t an organized retreat. They were spread out. I saw one group near the power plant. Another had gotten close to the Institute of Science. But, wait a minute… I switched between cameras in both places. Heroes were in two places at once. As I watched, I saw a power-suited Riccan soldier grab one of them, Ball Boy. He slid a sword into the kid under his ribs. Instead of blood, playing cards fell out.
I pulled back to the room where Venus finished telling them, “No. I made a deal. I surrender and you go free.”
She looked to me. “Why?” I asked.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. Venus held her free hand out to me.
“How do you know I won’t destroy their plane out of here?” I asked.
“They aren’t taking a plane,” Venus said. “You already lost. I’m trusting that you don’t want revenge, but you have me if you do. I hurt you. I lied to you. I messed with feelings you try to hide and I truly am sorry. I owe you this.”
It’s so easy to believe her.
I reached out and… took her hand. In my head, I passed along new order: disengage. See to the wounded and any destruction caused by the conflict. Begin the disaster relief protocols. Also, Pagan’s number one priority was to debrief the people I had on the heroes and find out what went wrong. I don’t wanna have to put spies on the spies I have on my spies, but I’ll do it.
Venus squeezed my hand, which made me wonder how much she was playing me again. My thumb wandered over her hand as I tried to figure her out and came across a metal band on her ring finger. I turned her hand around. She still wore the showy, shiny engagement ring I’d first presented to Medusa.
“You’ll be held in our highest-security prison,” I told her, keeping my face calm because I was a mess of emotions at this time. I hated her. I had some very un-hate-like feelings toward her. She hurt me and deceived me in a huge way. She gave me hope. She’d defeated me, twice. If I wanted to, I could kill everyone she cares about. “I’ll make sure you’re comfortable.”
I looked back down at her hand again before adding, “We’re going to have to talk about a lot of confusing shit, aren’t we?”
“Yeah,” she told me. “But today, nobody dies. I’m ending this the way that’s best for everyone and relying on your mercy.”
Ever the hero.