Strangers in a Strange Land
by Stephen Tsai and Brad Patten


Tween groaned as the cobwebs in his head drifted away. Gingerly, he opened his eyes, bracing himself for whatever new nightmare might show up. Surrounding him was a huge forest of trees. Tween blinked; the last time he saw trees this large was the time he took his family to California to see the redwoods. But these trees looked like oaks, pines and a wide variety of other faunas, many of which he couldn't even recognize.

Tween forced his eyes and ears closed; he had become so accustomed to not trusting his reality these last few days and weeks, he had a hard time accepting the forest to be real. But something about this place refused to go away as he forced his mindset to not accept it. He opened his eyes again; yup, still forest. He placed his hand against the trunk of a giant tree; it felt real enough. He relaxed a little; all the previous torments had been nightmarish twists of his memories and he didn't remember a place like this. Then again, his memories had been tampered with so much, he couldn't be certain of it.

But where exactly was he? The last thing he remembered was seeing Mindshadow track him down as he tried to escape from that geothermal shaft. He lashed out with his electricity and she had repelled it with ease. He vaguely remembered the cold; even through his nanites, it was as cold as he had ever felt before. Only his nanite shell had protected him from the ill effects; without that he was certain that he would have probably died of exposure in minutes. He paused and replayed the scene in his mind. Mindshadow had lashed out with her telekinetics, threatening to crush his body if she couldn't have his mind. Above her, he remembered the flash of the Aurora Australis lights; sunspot activity must have been an all time high that night. He was about to black out, but a surge of adrenaline refused to give in. He remembered shooting one last gasp of defiance at Mindshadow, not caring about the consequences; only that he didn't want to go back to that world of nightmares and terrors.

Something happened; an explosion or something. The air cracked with energies that surrounded both of them as the sky itself seemed to split open and then suck them into...what - a vortex of some kind? He felt the sensation of falling, then blackness. Then what? They sure as heck weren't in the Arctic anymore. It felt hot and humid and the air didn't taste the same. Then he looked up and confirmed his suspicions - two suns in the sky.

Well, it was time to get his bearings and find out where he was. He got up and looked around then froze at the sight on the ground. A small patch of snow was in the middle of the clearing with Mindshadow lying in the middle. He quickly ducked back around the tree as a surge of fear shot through his veins. The last thing he wanted was another round of nightmares. Weapon, he thought, he needed a weapon. He reached for one of the smaller tree limbs and broke off a heavy branch. Not an ideal weapon, but it would do for now. He tensed as he peeked around and looked at his quarry again. No movement at all.

Slowly, with as much stealth as he could muster, he approached her and looked her over. She looked unconscious, and her breathing was shallow. Her lips were beginning to turn blue; hypothermia probably. She apparently regulated her body temperature with molecular telekinetics. So when she went unconscious, the snow reasserted itself on her and was even now threatening to send her into shock. Even with the snow melting, survival was iffy at this point without intervention. And with one swing of his club, he could turn random chance into certainty. One swing and it would be all over.

Tween trembled as he held the club over his frozen opponent as darkness threatened to seep into his soul. If he simply let her die, no one would fault him for it. If he killed her outright, no one would question it. She was so powerful; too powerful. Her existence was a threat to all humanity. He had seen and felt her cruelty and selfishness first-hand. With the technology he had unwillingly provided her combining with her powers, she might soon have the entire world twirled around her little finger. One swing of the club could end all that. End it now, a large part of him thought. She deserves it, and no one has to know.

Wrong, he realized. He would know. And even after she was gone, he would have to live with his deed. And no matter how justified, no matter what the circumstances, cold-blooded murder just wasn't in his heart. Picking her up out of the snow, he set her down by the clearing as he prepared a fire pit with the wood scattered on the ground and ignited it with a short burst of bioelectricity. He then pulled off her cloak and laid it across her body. He thought briefly about tying her up, but then dismissed it. With her powers, when she awoke, nothing was going to be able to hold her. Better to play it straight and hope she still had an ounce of humanity left to appreciate the effort. The dark thoughts returned, along with the doubts about his course of action. Next thing you know, I'll be saving Attila the Hun, he thought. He headed up above the trees to get a lay of the land.

******

Mindshadow blinked her eyes as she awoke with a strange sensation of cold chills trembling down her body. Instinctively, her mind adjusted, altering the environment around her to restore her body back to normal temperatures. She could hear the crackle and snap of a campfire in front of her. Clearly someone had put her close to the fire, but there was no one around at the moment. Next, she looked around at the unfamiliar environment. She was in the middle of a dark forest. That didn't seem right; the last thing she remembered was fighting that troublesome Tween in the middle of the Antarctic plain. Well, first she had to get her bearings.

"Athena, answer me," she commanded. She waited, but there was no response. "Athena!"

Mindshadow then closed her eyes and extended her mental senses, searching for clues. There was something odd about the molecular configuration of the forest around her, but she dismissed it for now. What struck her as unusual was the total absence of mental voices. Not a single human or near-human mind as far as she could discern. Not since she was a little girl had it felt so quiet in her head. It was eerie, scary, and peaceful, all at the same time. But that still didn't give her answers.

Wait...there...a single mind, twenty miles away and closing fast. It only took a second to identify it; so he could fly after all. He must have brought her here, trying to capture her for some reason. Well, she'd see about that.

******

Tween flew low over the treetops as he raced back to his campsite. His mind was filled with concerns and doubts. Although the possibility that this world was more elaborate mind games, there was a definite sense of reality here that wasn't present before. But that didn't make things any easier; if anything, it made it more complicated. The only other alternative was that they were truly on an alien world that was devoid of any form of sentient life that he had been able to scout while it was daylight. Above him, the night sky was filled with unfamiliar star patterns. That meant they were truly far away; way beyond where he could find Earth, even if they were still in the same space-time continuum.

Suddenly, he felt himself snagged by branches and vines, stopping him in mid-flight. He abruptly turned around, searching for his attacker, and saw what appeared to be the trees themselves coming to life. Some kind of sentient plant life? But why was it attacking him? He twisted around and fired a bolt of bioelectricity to free himself. If this was some kind of weird native plant creature, he didn't want to hurt it anymore than necessary if he could avoid it.

But just as the first bolt cut the tree limb loose, he was suddenly inundated with an entire horde of limbs, all of them seizing and dragging him down. Below, the sounds of wildlife came to life and just like that, Tween realized he was in for a serious fight. He blasted them one by one, but for every one he hit, ten more took their place. It was as if the entire forest had come to life and had suddenly declared war on him. But why? And why now and not earlier?

The trees and other plant life weren't going to give him a chance to puzzle it out however. Like an angry mob of hornets, they swarmed and attacked. The tree trunks now began to form grotesque faces of hunger as the very leaves themselves flung themselves at Tween's face, blinding him from getting any more clear shots. Vines wrapped around his arms and legs, pinning him to the ground as smaller plants forced themselves against his nanite shell trying to enter his body.

One last gasp, Tween thought. Maybe this was all an illusion of his mind. He mustered his will as best he could, marshalling everything he knew about how mental illusions worked, but all in vain. Even though his head felt as clear as ever, no matter how hard he told himself it wasn't real, the trees continued their assault. The last of his strength gone, he shuddered and clenched in anticipation, thinking belatedly that in the annals of stupid deaths, being killed by a horde of alien trees had to rank way up on that dubious scale.

"Stop."

Tween blinked at the unmistakable mental command and groaned with a mixture of relief and dread. Now it all made sense. His suspicions were verified as Mindshadow materialized hovering above his helpless form.

"Hrumph," Mindshadow sneered with contempt. "And you call yourself a super-genius."

"You...don't want to do this...!" Tween gasped as the trees literally began to rip into his nanite shell and threatened to violate his body.

"I knew if I convinced you that it was some kind of tree monsters you wouldn't go full force until it was too late," Mindshadow smiled with triumph. She then gestured and the trees around the forest all fell submissively into line. "It was simplicity to turn these simple trees into actual creatures that would obey my whims."

"A puppet master to the end, huh," Tween managed to reply between gasps. "You poor deluded girl. You have no idea just how lost you are."

"Ah, but I won't be for long, once I get our exact location out of your own mind."

"Good luck. Because I have no idea."

"Fool...you can't lie to me!"

"I wouldn't dream of it," Tween said as he could feel the trees slacken their grip ever so slightly. "After all, it'd be kind of a waste to ruin our trust after I saved your life."

"Impossible!"

"Oh really? Like you said, you're a telepath! Check for yourself!"

Mindshadow hesitated, as she couldn't believe what her powers were telling her. "It's a trick! Why would you save me?"

"Because killing you wouldn't make things right. I wanted to, but in the end I have to live with myself," Tween said with a shrug, "It's not like I expect you to understand," Tween replied.

"You arrogant...!"

"You're calling me arrogant?" Tween exclaimed with disbelief. "Now that's rich!"

"And if you think your morals and beliefs are going to have the slightest bearing on what I'm going to do to you..."

"Probably not," Tween replied. "But your lack of values doesn't change my ethical beliefs. The whole point of having a moral center is to provide a guidance of right and wrong. Killing you, tempting though it was, would have meant abandoning everything I believe in, and you're not worth that. Because of what you did to me, I would have been justified by most people. Even you were shocked that I wouldn't kill you, given an opportunity that you couldn't stop. For all your abilities and powers, you could have died today. I don't expect any gratitude from you. You need to decide who would miss you if you died?"

Tween watched as Mindshadow stewed with anger and disbelief. Probably the only time she's ever been lectured like this, he realized. That he was still alive and not being eaten alive by trees meant that his words must have touched a nerve somewhere. And hopefully something more.

"For now," Tween continued, "I think you might want to let me live a little while longer while we figure out where we are. I can tell you right now that it's no where near Earth."

Mindshadow thought things over as she hovered in the air for several seconds, then gestured. Around him, all the trees released Tween and pulled back to their original locations in the forest. "And where exactly are we, and what did you do to send us here?"

"You're blaming me? Sorry Mindshadow, but I couldn't send us here, even if I tried. If I'm reading the star patterns correctly, we're not even in the same local galactic group, let alone in the same solar system. Back when we were fighting in the snow, you appeared out of thin air, right next to me. I doubt you were using your hypnotic invisibility, or else you wouldn't have bothered to materialize like that. Just exactly how did you teleport in like that?"

Mindshadow turned her head and pouted before responding. "One of the many fruits I picked from your brain. I took your dimensional transport technology and improved it."

"Improved how?" Tween asked with suspicion and more than a little scientific curiosity.

"They've been miniaturized and implanted in my boots. Each unit has a linked AI to improve the precision and targeting."

"Both boots? Isn't that redundant?"

"Not at all. Athena designed the transport devices to work in synchronized harmony or something like that."

"Synchronistic constructive wave harmonics?" Tween asked with a little concern.

"Something like that," Mindshadow waved dismissively.

"Do you even know what that means?"

"I ordered Athena to design me the most powerful transport devices possible, based on the technology I took from you and others. I don't concern myself with the petty details."

"Well, Athena came through for you in a big way and that's why we're screwed. A single dimensional transport wave can already warp someone anywhere on Earth. Synchronizing two of them in parallel and the two waves create a positive constructive wave interference, which increases their range by several orders of magnitude. We could be on the far side of the galaxy." Tween watched as Mindshadow glared at him, and forced himself to relax in her presence even though his mind screamed 'run'. Her green eyes bored into him, but she wasn't reading him as far as he could tell.

"Well, then use your transport and take us back!" Mindshadow demanded.

Tween forced himself to relax even more, and sat down against the tree, "And why would I do that? Assuming I have any idea where here is?"

Mindshadow floated silently above the forest floor, glaring at Tween. The impertinence, the audacity, how dare he speak to her in that manner. She would teach Tween a lesson that she would be obeyed. She started to form a web of telekinetic force to crush the life out of him.

"If you kill me," Tween gasped as he was being squeezed, "you'll be stuck here for a very long time, perhaps the rest of your life."

"I'm going to live forever Carl," Mindshadow boasted. "But you're right. I have a much better way."

The telekinetic force stopped then vanished altogether. Then Tween felt dizzy as his vision swam and the world started to fade into induced hallucinations. "This won't help you either. I have no idea where we are or how we can get back."

Mindshadow sighed as she withdrew contact from Tween's mind. Much though she loathed to admit it, he did have a point. Although she could theoretically pull the necessarily information out of Tween's mind, without his willing help to analyze and interpret it, it would take her years to actually apply any of it. "Very well," she said. "But one way or another, you are going to help me return to Earth. You can start by explaining what you meant by synchronistic harmonics."

"For starters, controlling axis coordinates isn't a trivial process either, even for a single transporter. Just how exactly were you planning on controlling your destination using dual transports with that kind of margin of error?"

"My boots have a subordinate AI chip implanted to handle the transport coordinates and targeting coordination. My telepathy can control the AI devices directly. But..."

"But you're not getting any response from the AI, right?" Tween didn't need Mindshadow to complete the picture. "The AI chip must have been wiped by the electrical surge from our battle. The devices themselves might be damaged as well. But even if they aren't, manually plotting coordinates back to Earth using a transport scale that spanned galaxies would be like trying to thread a needle from a thousand miles away."

"Then fix them," Mindshadow said. "It's your fault they don't work now, being defiant and not obeying."

Tween watched as she had telekinetically removed two small cylindrical objects from her pristine boots, and floated them in front of his face. He shifted his vision back and forth from her to the two objects. Deciding that it would be best to humor her, for now. "I seem to recall that they were in a suit design, but even if I had tools, and a computer it would take me a day or so to assess the damage. As it is, I don't have either," Tween said eyeing the two small metal cylinders.

"Don't concern yourself with equipment. I can make anything you need by pulling it right out of your mind. I have complete control over matter and energy."

"I seem to recall you using that ability on some men at Purgatory Prime, who were only doing what they were paid to do, to support their families."

"They were in my way," Mindshadow replied coldly.

"Which brings the question why should I help you?" Tween stood up and moved as close to Mindshadow as her shields would allow. "You have no compassion, no remorse, you just take, take, take. I bet you're going tell me your parents abused you and made you like this," he said with a hint of anger and fury in his voice.

"You don't have the slightest idea what you're talking about," Mindshadow said. "I never knew my parents, so you can give up your pathetic attempt to psychoanalyze me."

"Why are you afraid? Are you afraid that I might be right? I am sorry you never had anyone who could teach you right from wrong. Maybe you would be a different person if you had someone that you cared about and that cared about you."

Tween stared at Mindshadow, her face revealed that she was irritated, perhaps even furious. Not that he cared; after all she had done not only to him, but others as well. "You don't care about consequences, you feel you're above everyone else. You think just because you can do things to people, you're somehow better?"

"Throughout history, the strong have ruled over the weak. What I do is no different."

"Maybe in medieval times, sure. But we're supposed to be better than that. The growth of civilization is built entirely on the free will of men who had the wisdom and foresight to give their fellow man the freedom to build and grow a better society. Regardless of the circumstances of your upbringing, you're now a young adult, not a little kid. You have the choice to make something better of yourself, than just indulging in your every whim."

"Are you done crying about your morals or do you want me to fetch you a towel?"

"Fine," Tween replied and crossed his arms. "You don't believe anything I say, that's your choice. Just like it's my choice to help or not to help you get back to Earth. You can shape matter all you want. Without my help, none of that is going to get you home."

"You can't get home without my help either," Mindshadow replied defiantly.

"Probably not," Tween admitted. "But then, according to you, I don't have a family to go home to anyway." Tween turned around and looked at the pristine wilderness and the fields that were just past the edge of the forest. "I might get used to this place. And it'd certainly be better for society to leave you here. Even if I have to be stuck here with you, it'd be a service to humanity to take you away for a while."

There was a long moment of awkward silence as the two of them both pondered their situation. "She has brown hair," Mindshadow finally whispered.

"What was that?"

"Becky has brown hair. She plays clarinet in the school band and has a crush on the first-chair trumpet player. Andrew plays on the high school soccer team, but he doesn't like the coach for assigning him to left defenseman. He wants to play the forward position."

Tween blinked and listened for a moment. Of course it could have been a trick, but something about Mindshadow's mannerisms didn't support that. "What about...?"

"Tammy works at the local Cable Television Company as customer support. She gets good rates on cable, but she thinks the recent business upheavals might affect her job and she's worried on how the two of you are going to afford college for Becky and Andrew. Oh, and by the way," Mindshadow smiled, "Mr. Rogers thinks Tammy's 'hot' and has been trying to get her to..."

"That's enough," Tween interrupted tersely. He sighed and thought it over as the memories began to trickle back. They could have been manufactured, but the level of detail, believability, and minutia was just too close to ignore. He had met Mr. Rogers, head of the Cable Company's customer support division, back at an office party not long ago. Tween hadn't thought much of it at the time, but looking back, Rogers was paying an awful lot of attention to Tammy at the time.

Tween glared at Mindshadow; here she was taunting him about his family, and alluding to the fact he had manipulated or perhaps killed them. A seething rage began to fill him, "It wasn't enough that you had to torture me, but you had to mess with my family! I regret not killing you earlier, a lapse in judgement on my part!" Tween's hands clutched and released several times and he forced himself to turn away from her and walked off into the darkening woods. Night was coming and Tween had had enough of her, he would find his own way home.

Mindshadow stared at his back as he walked away. Carl was being stubborn, as well as drawing conclusions. Yes, she had mentally probed Tammy and her children so she could use that information to torture Carl more effectively. She did place mental suggestions into their minds so she could go back later and make them do all kinds of nasty things, for her amusement. But she never got around to doing it; her business in New York had taken longer than she had planned and Project Olympus and the Black Priest took precedent over minor amusements like Carl's family. Of course, Carl didn't need to know all that, so she simply smiled. "I never messed with your family Carl. I suppose you will just have to take my word for it, since we are stuck here," she said with amusement.

"Don't lie to me!" Tween shouted as he lashed out with a powerful bioelectric blast, which dissipated harmlessly off Mindshadow's force wall. "I know what kind of monster you are! You wouldn't have been able to restrain yourself!"

Mindshadow looked down on Tween as he vented; his frustrations, anger and rage visible to her mind as bright hot flashes from his head. If desire alone was enough for a battle, she would surely stand defeated. Fortunately, his power was no where near strong enough to make his wishes reality. "Oh, I suppose I might have made a few ...changes..." she taunted as Tween continued his futile bombardment. "But you'll never know unless you return to Earth, now won't you?"

"You cruel selfish bitch!" Tween anguished as he tried to uproot a nearby tree and swing it against Mindshadow's shield, only to have it shatter into fragments. "Wasn't it enough for you to torture me and put me through living hell? Did you have to involve them too? What the hell did they ever do to you?"

Mindshadow crossed her legs nonchalantly as Tween resumed his energy bombardment. Pathetic little creature, she thought. So much intellectual power and so little mental stability; no wonder it was so easy for her to pry his mind apart psychologically. Still, she needed that intellect to help her out of her current dilemma, so it was time to put a stop to this nonsense. She casually gestured with one finger and Tween abruptly collapsed to the ground clutching his head in agony. "Don't expect me to fall for the same little trick you pulled back on Earth. My telekinetics can do far more than just crush your bones into powder. I can control your blood flow, manipulate your endocrine system, stimulate nerve and brain cells you don't even know you have. I can rearrange the molecules in your body any way I see fit with a whim." She then slowly twirled her finger in a circular motion as Tween's paralyzed body levitated off the ground and did the same. "You can't defeat me and you can't get home without my powers. So, whether or not you believe that I didn't toy with your family's lives, you'll never know unless you help get us home."

Tween gasped from the beating Mindshadow had given him; she was toying with him. He had tossed everything he could at her; it was too bad he didn't have a kitchen sink, as he would have even tried that. Unfortunately, her powers were just too strong; every one of his attacks had been neutralized with ease. He laid beaten as his insides churned in agony from the violation he had just endured, which was probably just a taste of what she was truly capable of. From his perspective, she was floating upside-down looking down at him. The sky was fading into darkness and the stars began to become visible.

"Alright, I do have a reason to get back home too. But before we start, there are a few conditions I want to go over. You need me more than I need you. First off you will show me some respect." Tween watched as the emotions flashed across Mindshadow's face. "You don't have to like it, but you will be civil, and no more mind games. If I even think you're playing games with me, I will stop what I am doing and you can figure this out on your own."

"Are you finished?" she said, glaring at Tween.

"Hardly Mindshadow, I'm just getting started. But for starters, if you're so keen on helping, how about a laptop and some tools and perhaps a workbench?"

******

Tween examined the readout that showed the basic schematic of the devices in front of him. He then tapped some keystrokes to change to another screen, doing his best to put his uneasiness aside. He was in a small but well-equipped lab that had been created literally out of thin air in a clearing just outside the forest. The whole creation process had only taken seconds and clearly didn't cost Mindshadow the slightest bit of effort. As Tween watched her building it, he couldn't help but think about all the humanitarian possibilities that could have been. If only the wielder was so inclined. He had removed his nano-coating once the building was built.

"How thin is this coating anyway?" Tween asked. He looked the devices again and still couldn't find any kind of seam or opening.

"It's a single-atom width adamantine polymer. It was assembled with the replicators back at my base and it's virtually indestructible."

"Well, that's nice," Tween replied with a deadpan expression. "Now how do we open it?"

Mindshadow's eyes focused ever so slightly as Tween watched the coating flow open like liquid. "How far do you need this opened?"

"That's enough, thanks." Tween gave the structures a detailed look and he couldn't help but be fascinated with the miniaturization being used. It was far beyond any technology he had ever saw; where did she get such ultra-tech, he wondered uncomfortably. Fortunately, the basic principles were still applicable. "Yeah, the AI crystal lattices are toast. It looks like everything else is intact."

"So all you need is a new AI crystal?"

"There's a little more than just that. The new AI is going to need programming with wormhole and transdimensional spatial theory so it will be able to do the navigation. It looks like I may have to do all the calculations myself, but to do that I need to make an interface that can fit inside the assembly."

"Do what you need to do." Mindshadow turned away and focused her attentions to the outside world around the small house she had built. Although she was interested in the bounty of high technology, she never had the aptitude or interest in the specifics. Her mental eavesdropping of Carl's mind indicated that his answers were truthful to the best of his ability, so there was no point in pushing the man any further.

Behind her, Tween keyed in some calculations based on a written diagram of the original ring of snow that marked their entry point. On the screen, the monitor displayed the initial computations that denoted space-time coordinates. However, Tween only paid partial attention to it; his concentration seemed somewhere else. Finally, he broke his silence. "Why do you do it?"

"Oh please," Mindshadow replied disdainfully, "are we going to go through this again?"

"You never answered my question the first time. The algorithm takes some time to run, so it won't hurt you to answer it. Or are you afraid of the question?"

Mindshadow snorted with derision and waved her hand dismissively. "Fine, ask your questions."

"What makes you think that your way is any better? Metas are starting to become second class citizens, loathed by the populace. Autocrat thought the same way you do - that the weak were just pawns to use as he wished, and that he was above the law. Look what happened to him when he tried to challenge the world."

"Just because he fell doesn't mean the same fate's going to happen to me."

"Speaking of such, where were you when all that was going on? Sitting safely by the sidelines? Not that you would tell me."

"On the contrary, I was very involved. As a matter of fact, I was the architect of the Elite's downfall."

"Bullshit," Tween snorted with disbelief. "Autocrat and his minions only fell because of the courage of countless heroes, and not all of them were wearing fancy costumes either. He fell because the world stood up to tyranny and the repressive regime he represented." Tween was about to continue, but trailed off as he noted Mindshadow's unexpected knowing smile.

"And who do you think gave those heroes the knowledge and information needed to invade the Celestial Keep? Or ensured that certain individuals would lose their battles against inferior opponents?"

"You're bluffing," Tween replied, but with conviction draining from his voice. "You're trying to take credit for victories other heroes earned. And they could have figured out the Keep's security with their own ingenuity."

"Oh really? How about Abattoir's presence - do you think the heroes would have knowingly brought him on their teams?" Mindshadow answered the rhetorical question with a shake of her head. "I sent him there, but first I placed a hypnotic suggestion into his animalistic mind, compelling him to see Autocrat as his nemesis." She smiled; no harm in exaggerating her role a little. After all, Harbinger wasn't here to dispute it.

"But the heroes..." Tween replied as the ramifications of the information he was getting began to really sink in. "I read the post-invasion reports..."

"Then do you remember any information about a certain prisoner being held within the Keep? A prisoner, who's presence ensured the cooperation of the individual responsible for Avatar's enslavement?" Mindshadow paused as Tween's face blanched as he recalled the details he had read in tapped government reports. "Young Nancy Moore...unremarkable in all other aspects save one; that she happens to be the little sister to Jonathan Moore."

"Harbinger..." Tween struggled for other explanations for what had happened, but alternatives were beginning to grow thin. "But he turned himself into the authorities during the fight, not you."

"I did try to make him an offer," Mindshadow shrugged. "As a direct teammate, his power would have certainly been useful to have. As it is, I had to make...other arrangements."

"He's dead?"

"Hardly," Mindshadow waved dismissively. "That'd be a terrible waste of talent. He still works under my control, but through more indirect means." She paused again and turned to face Tween. "Any more questions about my involvement in world affairs?"

Tween thought the matter through carefully; the conversation hadn't gone as he had planned. But still, his primary concerns were still valid. "OK fine, maybe you did do all that. You're claiming that you're so powerful that you can manipulate the entire world and right here and now, I don't have the resources to disprove that. But if you really are that powerful, then I ask again. Why? You steal resources from society even though you clearly don't need money or anything else. You torture innocent people, who haven't done a thing to you. You take pleasure in watching other people's pain, even though you can't possibly be gaining anything meaningful from it. You're not proving anything when you use your powers to beat up total strangers."

"And what would you have me do? My powers place me so far beyond what normal people are capable of experiencing that it'd be impossible for me to relate to people as equals."

Tween thought about her answer, "I see, and that makes them and me worthless in your eyes? Why can't you at least see that they're every bit as capable of life as you are? They have dreams, hopes, needs, just as you do! They feel pain, love and hate, just as you do! Maybe you haven't found anyone you love or who's ever loved you in return, but the need is there, all the same! It must be!"

Mindshadow shook her head, closed her eyes and smiled. "For someone who's more than twice my age, you are so naive. You really think people are motivated by ideals, dreams or love? Well, I have news for you. Just about everyone out there is motivated by nothing more than greed, selfishness and self-centeredness. Love, friendships, ideals are all just tools people use to persuade other people into getting what they want."

"I refuse to believe that! You think you can assuage your own conscience by dragging everyone else down to your level? The greed and selfishness you're talking about is just your own!"

"Deny it if you want; I've seen it myself. I'm constantly in other people's deepest, innermost thoughts and minds. I know all the dark little secrets people keep from each other and even themselves. So don't try selling me any idealistic nonsense about what motivates people."

Tween's face twisted with doubt and confusion before looking back at Mindshadow with resolve. "No, I don't accept that. Yes, everyone has their darker sides, but I refuse to believe that's all there is in people. As for what you see, well, did it ever occur to you that you're just reading what you impose on people's wills, instead of what was there originally? You've spent your entire life refining your powers to the point where influencing and controlling people's minds is second nature to you. Maybe your lack of faith in people was originally prompted by your harsh upbringing and then you started sending out those negative feelings to everyone around you."

Mindshadow thought it over and casually brushed her hair back. "An interesting hypothesis, but I don't buy it. My control over my powers is absolute. I can sense a man's wet dreams from over twenty miles away. I certainly don't have any difficulty sensing what's in my own mind."

Tween was about to reply when the computer beeped behind him. He started to say something, but then turned away to look at the display. Pointless, he thought - it was like talking to a Barbie doll. She just refused to see things any other way. Such a waste of potential.

"Well?" Mindshadow asked.

Tween glanced at the computer; the algorithm was still running and would be for some time. "It's too bad," Tween muttered.

Mindshadow glanced around the room she had created. A wineglass with a red wine inside appeared in her hand. "What's too bad Carl?"

Tween glanced at Mindshadow hovering in mid air. "You want the good news or the bad?"

"Give me the good news first," Mindshadow commanded.

Tween grimaced at the tone, but set it aside for the moment. "The good news is the calculations of the reading I took earlier of the dissipated wormhole place us in our own universe. About ten billion parsecs from earth. I have a return plot that will get us very close. I'll fine tune it for New York, unless you have any objections."

"And the bad?"

"The bad news is that we have two problems. The first problem the devices were originally keyed to your energy signature, but they can't handle a spike of that magnitude, assuming you could generate a spike without killing yourself. However, the second problem is that the wormhole passed through the core of a galaxy, and will require a superior interface."

"There's no limit to the amount of power I can generate, if I can tap into outside sources of mental or molecular power. Seeing as the only other intellect here is going to be needed to do the steering, I'll have to make due with the ambient energy around this forest."

"Right," Tween nodded uncomfortably. Is that what people's minds are to you, he wondered. Just sources of energy to feed on? He then turned the computer around and showed her two schematics. "First, I need this augmented cyber interface, but unfortunately I can't do it. You however can, it needs to be build directly parallel with my existing nerve pathways. Once that's done I can work on a way to amplify your bio energy for the jump."

Tween wasn't sure if Mindshadow understood half of what the cyber interface was or would do, it would give him the ability to interface with the devices as AI would as well as allow him to control the direction and energy that was being expended. It actually was a simple device, but it also would allow him to control any electronic system that he could touch.

Interesting concept, Mindshadow thought as she sifted through Carl's thoughts. Throughout her earlier plots and schemes, non-AI-based machines had always proven an annoyance to her. Unlike humans and true AIs, she couldn't bend machines to her will and always had to resort to using less subtle methods. But perhaps such limitation would soon be no more.

Tween wasn't prepared for the beginnings of the dice as it formed inside his body, He couldn't even scream from the pain as silicon, metal and other micro devices were created directly inside his body. From the look on Mindshadow's face, he could tell she was enjoying something, whether it was his pain or the chance to get home, he wasn't sure. It seemed like hours but he had only blacked out for a minute. Tween could feel the nanotech reacting to the new pathways. Tween tested out the connection to the wormhole device, and found it was functioning as it was supposed to.

Mindshadow looked at the workbench and concentrated. In front of her, the air began to shift, distort and form into a solid object that quickly refined itself from a shapeless blob into a highly detailed electronic headband. "I'm creating the device exactly as you're thinking of it. But according to your calculations, the effective area is only going to be about a meter in diameter."

"This is an improvised design. Dimensional fields tend to be stronger when they're really close, and we really don't have the resources to do a refined design."

Mindshadow looked at Tween with some apprehension. "Well, that means we'll have to be..."

Tween returned the suspicious look, then returned to the computer console to double-check the new device and run a final system check. "Your telepathy will give you plenty of warning if I had any ulterior motives and distance isn't any defense against your powers. Besides, if either one of us chokes or tries any funny business, we'll be lost in space indefinitely. Think of it as mutually-assured destruction."

"Very well," Mindshadow allowed. "Whenever you're ready."

"We're ready now." Tween handed over the headband to Mindshadow. While his augmentation was minimal, the headband was akin to taking a .22 from a child and giving them a fully automatic fifty-caliber machine gun. Not only would it amplify her existing powers but it would make in nearly impossible for her to be detected unless at close range. The device would absorb her extra bio energy and hold it for use. "The initial energy requirement is 1.275 tetra-psijoules of power and you'll have to maintain that for at least two minutes. Can you generate that much?"

Mindshadow closed her eyes, levitated to a lotus position and concentrated. All around her, the trees, ground and very air began to shudder. Tween watched with some trepidation as he felt Mindshadow's energies began to climb even higher than their already-prodigious levels. "I can, but I have to tap into the surrounding area and assimilate the energy from around me into my mind. Reaching that level of power will take me...two minutes."

Tween coated into his nanite-enhanced form. "Well, in those two minutes, I have one final thing to say. I would like you to think about the events that have happened the past few days. I've seen what kind of person you are, but more importantly, I've seen just what kind of potential good you could accomplish if you would only set your mind to it.

"I...can't change what I've already done," Mindshadow said as her brow began to furrow with intense concentration.

"But you can change what's to come. Yes, you've had a harsh upbringing and when you've got all that power, sometimes it's easier to justify all the nastiness of the world around you and take care of number one. But there is a difference between doing evil and being evil. When you figure out which one you are, then you may understand what I've been trying to tell you. Perhaps as an experiment, you could try being normal for a short period of time. Try seeing how people react to who you are without you using your powers on them."

"Society...will kill me...the first chance they get..."

"How can you be sure if you won't even give them the chance? It may be a tough adjustment, but no one's got a stronger will than you do. You can make that jump if you would only give it a try."

Tween tensed as the energies around Mindshadow surged with intensity. He knew she could spare no more effort with conversation, so he grabbed the control pad and began to enter the first coordinates for their multi-jump trip home. He had said his piece. Now all he could do is hope.

******

Twilight in Central Park was a mixture of liveliness and peace as the streetlights began to flicker on one-by-one. Joggers, families and other visitors passed through the park's concourses and river walks. Amid the evening activities, a sudden and loud crack interrupted the night air.

"What the-?"

"Look out!"

One of the police officers in the area froze for a second before reaching for his walkie-talkie. "Dispatch, this is Unit One-Five-Two in the park, reporting some kind of attack!" It was probably some meta-human attack, he thought. This was New York City, after all.

Tween was the first to emerge from the opening vortex. He gasped and collapsed onto the grass as the effort from the navigation took its toll. He then shook his head and looked around and smiled, despite the last few days of enslavement, torture and distant travels. He had his doubts, but after all his trials and tribulations, he was finally home. And this time, he was certain; not even Mindshadow could fake the smell of good old-fashioned New York smog.

Behind him, Mindshadow came out next, winded from the effort. She took a moment to reorient herself as the multitude of minds chattering in her head resumed. On the one hand, annoying after the mental peace of the past few days, but reassuring and comforting at the same time.

"Freeze, you two!" the police officer ordered as he drew his weapon. He didn't recognize either one, but it paid to be cautious all the same.

Mindshadow sneered with contempt. Despite the enormous energy she had expended, it still didn't take even a shred of effort to enslave these weak-willed fools. With a mere flicker of her eyes, psychic energy blanketed the area, suppressing the memories and wills of everyone around the park. With a mental command, all here in the park would neither notice nor remember their arrival. All but one.

"You just couldn't wait, could you?" Tween sighed tiredly. "Did nothing we go through together mean anything to you? Is this really all you're going to be?" There was a long pause as Tween looked sadly at Mindshadow.

"I'm sorry Carl, but I can't. I can't change my past, and society will never accept me for what I've done. People would demand that I be punished for the crimes I've already committed and that's not a price I'm willing to pay."

Tween felt the frustration and impotence of the last few days surge to the surface for the last time. "Fine. Like I said before, we all have to live with the choices that we make. But if you don't owe anything to society, then you owe something to me."

Mindshadow regarded him with a mixture of curiosity and a returning sense of arrogance. For only a little more effort, she could simply enslave him once again. Her hypnotic commands were still implanted deep within Carl's mind; one telepathic word from her would render him helpless to make any silly demands like that. Only one word...but...that'd prove everything he said about her, wouldn't it. Did she even care? She never had before; people's opinions were simple to change. But that didn't change the way she felt herself, did it? "Very well. Name your price."

"My family. Undo whatever you did to them. Stay out of our lives."

Mindshadow paused and nodded. "Very well. But I require the same courtesy from you. Even now, your little pet is still out there trying to dig through my properties. As a magnanimous gesture, I'll overlook what he's stolen up to now. But if I catch him on my property after tonight, I will take him down."

Tween hesitated. If he agreed to that, he would essentially be locking himself out of any organized heroic action to take Mindshadow down one day down the line, when such an armada was formed. But against that, he had to weigh the safety of his family and himself. He wanted to do the right thing, but he wasn't out to be a superhero like the Protectorate or people like that. It wasn't his job and like Mindshadow said, that was a price he wasn't prepared to pay.

"Fine." Tween turned around and walked off, but stopped. "One day, if you continue the road you're on, you are going to have to contend with a world united against you. And on that day, regardless of the outcome, I hope that somewhere in your conscience, you remember that that confrontation was made by the choices you make today forward."

He turned around and wasn't surprised to see her gone. Maybe she was still there; willing him and everyone else not to see her. Or maybe she had Athena summon a dimensional portal to return her to her base. In the end, it really didn't matter.

"One last thing Carl," a powerful mental voice echoed, causing Tween to snap to attention. "I wasn't lying when I said I never actually altered or interfered with your family's minds. Despite that and despite everything we did together on that planet, not even you believe that to be true. You ask that I give society a chance to express its will freely, and yet, even you won't believe me when I do. If I am trapped on a collision course with a destiny of an entire world against me then you should at least acknowledge that society itself won't let me off that course. But as a bonus, I'll let you in on a little secret - don't worry about Mr. Rogers. He's been...taken care of. Until we meet again, Carl dear..."

Tween shuddered, both at the so-called 'bonus' and at Mindshadow's final message. Was it true? Did his own understandable suspicions about Mindshadow's intentions undermine the very message he was trying to send? Tween knew there was no real answers. Maybe she was right in one respect; maybe people were trapped by the choices that they make. Pre-destiny or free-will? It was a question that had puzzled philosophers for millenniums.

Tween closed his eyes and shook his head. It was more than he wanted to puzzle, at least for now. She would make her choices and now it was time to make his own. He walked to the nearest pay phone and dialed. Three rings later and the last of his nightmares disappeared with the sounds of nine words. "Hello, this Tammy Terrance, how can I help you?"
 

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