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Freedom's Finest #3: Corrupt To No Good

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June 8th, 2015

The citizens of Freedom City tended to be a politically active sort, as keen to hold protests as rallies, to throw parades and circulate petitions. There was something about taking to the streets to make a spectacular demonstration that was simply baked into the city's core. Even so, there was only so much of the specific mechanics of actual government that the average citizen was honestly willing to wrap their head around so it would be understandable if the name Stewart Bench didn't ring any immediate bells. If he'd emerged with surprising speed as the front runner to be the new city councilman for one of the western wards in the next election, well, who had really heard of any of the candidates before the campaign signs started going up? If his poll numbers indicated a noticeably higher voter turnout rate than previous terms, well, it was just nice to see the youth of today exercising their democratic rights.

It had only taken Ellie Stein a little bit of digging to realize that those numbers simply didn't add up and while creative use of statistics might have been a way of life for politicians it was enough to convince her to investigate further. The more she looked into Bench, the less she like what she found. Eventually it was the blue and silver clad heroine Echo who peered down at his campaign offices, the lights still on at this late hour, ready for some more hands-on research...

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Echo sat on the rooftop overlooking Bench's campaign headquarters, legs draped over the edge of the building, chin propped up on one fist, wondering what the hell she was doing.

Punching things was fine. She could do that. Quite well, she liked to think. When she punched things, they had a tendency to damn well stay punched. But she wasn't sure that just hauling off to jack Bench in the face was going to solve this problem, no matter how therapeutic it might be. A subtler touch was required here.

Proving voter fraud? How was she even going to do that? That sort of thing was usually the bailiwick of a large team of very, very patient people who knew exactly what they were doing. She was a journalism student. Oh, she was patient enough, and she got good grades and all, but writing a paper was one thing. Exposing a corrupt candidate for city councilman was quite another kettle of chips, or however that saying went. Maybe he was the sportsmanlike type, and he had a folder on his desk labeled "Voter Fraud Details, Bwa Ha Ha."

Well, at any rate, she doubted she was going to get anywhere by marching in there and demanding to see proof of their foul deeds. She waited there, idly tapping away at a smartphone game and occasionally glancing down at the building, until she at last saw the lights go out and the last person leave, locking up behind them.

Right! Justified felony time! She sprang up from her sitting position, stowing her phone in one of the pouches on her belt, coiled her legs beneath her, and sprang straight up.

Gravity tugged sullenly at her. She firmly ignored it. Her leap took her sailing in an arc thirty feet in the air, clear across the street, until she reached the apex of her jump. For the briefest moment, she hung motionless, before grudgingly allowing gravity to take hold of her once more and suck her down to earth. She landed in a crouch on the roof of Bench's headquarters, the impact barely taking the wind out of her instead of breaking her legs.

With a cursory glance around to make sure no inconvenient witnesses were about, she jumped again, backflipping off the rooftop and landing gracefully on the sidewalk below. It hadn't all been entirely necessary, of course, but she never passed up a chance to fly through the air with the greatest of ease.

She cupped her hands around her eyes and peered into the shadowed interior of the building. Looks like no one's home. Perfect. The door certainly wouldn't prove much of an impediment to her, but she would prefer not to leave too many traces of her presence behind. Politely and without speaking, she made it known to the universe in general that she would very much appreciate being about five feet thataway.

Whumph.

There was no real sensation, other than a slight chill and whoosh of wind as her sudden relocation caused the air around her to rush away. One moment she was outside, the next she was inside, among the cubicles, potted desk plants, and mild undercurrent of scumbaggery. Echo pushed her fake white hair out of her eyes with her hand, took in her new surroundings, then made a beeline for the back offices. You never knew. Some guys like this, they actually thought they were untouchable. Which made them careless. Maybe there really would be a helpful little folder in there somewhere, left lying around. It certainly couldn't hurt to check.

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The door to the office bearing a sliding strip of metal with Bench's name etched onto it along with a little American flag motif was locked but no more immune to Echo's ability to sidestep linear physics than the entrance at the front of the building. Inside the walls were covered with framed newspaper articles detailing the candidate's charity work and public appearances while the bookshelves held an obligatory set of encyclopedias and a selection of other books that were clearly there more for appearances than anything else. Who honestly used a print encyclopedia anymore? The desk itself was conspicuously tidy apart from a framed photo of family and an autographed baseball perched atop a small stand. The power cord for a laptop was plugged into a nearby outlet and wrapped neatly, the computer itself nowhere to be seen. Echo got the impression that the room was much more for meetings and interviews than for getting any actual work done.

 

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Echo frowned. Even though she had no idea how to actually crack a computer, she had been hoping Bench's computer would be here - it seemed like the most obvious place to find incriminating data or correspondence. Well, whether there was anything usable on it or not, he obviously wasn't dumb enough to leave it here, so she was going to have to look elsewhere for what she needed.

She glanced around at the room. It would take a while to thoroughly search it, and that was assuming there even was anything here, which there likely wasn't. Bench didn't seem like the type to leave evidence lying around his own office. But, maybe his flunkies weren't so careful. Most of them probably wouldn't be privy to his fraud, but all it took was one who had a moment of carelessness. Just one mistake would give her something to work with, something to build on.

That meant searching the entire building. Which would take even longer. Or, rather, it would if she let it. But she didn't have time for time right now. She had things to do.

The clock on the wall stopped in mid-second, the tick drawn out into a constant, low sound that filled the silence.

It was so easy, really. Anybody could do it if they really tried. It was the same as when you were in the waiting room at the dentist, and the wait seemed to take hours, no matter how long you were actually there. Or how a rollercoaster ride seemed to be over the moment you got on. Most people thought that was just because your perception of time changed, which was of course ridiculous. Your perception of the thing didn't change the thing.

So, once you knew the trick of it, you could do it whenever you wanted. For example, when you needed to toss an entire building but didn't have several hours to spare, it was a real lifesaver.

She rubbed her hands together, cracked her knuckles, and, without further ado, set to work. She started by flipping through every book on his bookshelf. Cliched, perhaps, but some people really did favor the old "rock-hammer-in-the-hollowed-out-Bible" approach. Once she was finished with that, she scanned every inch of the room, even checking above the ceiling tiles. She left any locked drawers she found alone, at least for the time being. While she was certainly strong enough to force them open, she decided it wasn't a good idea to leave any mark of her presence unless she had to. If they returned and found signs of intrusion, they would check the security cameras, and then they would know a mask was sniffing around. Bench would be sure to do an instant duck-and-cover and would be extra careful to cover his tracks, which would be sure to make her job a lot harder.

Then it was time for the rest of the building. She searched high and low for anything that seemed in any way suspicious, out of place, or, best of all, anything that seemed like someone had taken steps to conceal it. A carelessly forgotten flash drive, a discarded memo, a nervous phone message. Hell, a number scratched on the inside of a men's room stall. She went through any unlocked file cabinets she found, as well as drawers, wastepaper baskets, and, for reasons she didn't quite understand, potted plants.

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Each of the desks in the main room of the offices had a desktop computer sitting atop it but Echo found that on the whole the operation seemed to be rather low tech. Sticky notes with innocuous memos and reminders seemed to be more favoured than a simple text or email and tasks for the day were scrawled on a large dry erase board on one wall. The bright coloured paper and markers certainly lent a certain folksy charm of implied bustling activity but the journalism student had to wonder if there was another reason they were reluctant to commit anything to electronic record.

Even the day planner where Bench's assistant kept track of his appointments was an actual leather bound book filled with neatly handwritten times and more than the occasional hasty scribble where something had been crossed out and rescheduled. There was an awful lot of rescheduling, Echo realized as she flipped through, which in and of itself wasn't too surprising. What was strange were the blocks of unused time that so much of that rescheduling seemed to be working to preserve. Every Monday night Bench was out the door of the office by no later than 6:00 PM and his schedule was similarly clear until at least noon on each following Tuesday. From the rest of the itinerary it didn't look like he took much time for himself, making the vacancies all the more strange.

As she let time resume its natural flow around her the ticking of the clock was joined by the unmistakeable rattle of a doorknob at the back of the office, on the opposite side of the building from where she'd 'ported in herself. Whoever was there found that entrance just as securely locked but a moment later something white-hot and crackling with an electric hum thrust through the edge of the door frame, slowly slicing though the deadbolt like a warm knife through butter.

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Crap! Echo hurriedly thrust the day planner back where she had found it and shot her gaze around the room, trying to make a decision. Obviously whoever was on the other side of that door wanted in - very badly - and she was guessing that whatever it was they were using to enter, it wasn't normal. So another meta was sniffing around. The question was, who and why? Could it be a goon Bench hired to watch over the place? Or had another hero picked up on what he was doing and wanted the same thing as her?

The smart thing to do was abort. She had a lead - tenuous though it may be - and it was best to avoid the possibility of a confrontation. This was a case that demanded a low profile, something that would be hard to maintain if she got into a fight with some guy who had...acetylene cutters for hands or something.

But on the other hand, if whoever it was worked for Bench, why would they be breaking in? And if it was another mask, then she just might have found herself an ally. Making up her mind, she looked up at the ceiling, then jumped.

The world swung dizzyingly as her personal gravity field shifted. She spun in midair, inverting herself, and her feet hit the ceiling with a soft thud. She took a moment to reorient herself in he now-upside-down office, then quietly moved to position herself so that she would be behind and above whoever entered the room. If it was a hero, there was at least a decent chance she would recognize them, and all would be well. If it was someone she didn't like the look of, no matter - she'd be out of there and across the city before they could say "sesquipedalian."

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The backdoor swung open as Echo's feet touched down - or rather 'up' - on the ceiling, the lock reduced to useless molten slag by the slicing blade. In the poor light the figure that strode inside was visible first as a silhouette, lithe and male, with a long coat flapping softly about his ankles and a high collar jutting up on either side of his face. The harsh light from the weapon he'd used to enter illuminated a costume in royal blue and black with touches of silver, providing just enough illumination to outline the tails of a bandana mask tied around his eyes. There was no mistaking the costume as belonging to a local hero who tended to make a splash any time the news cameras arrived in time to catch him in action: Jack of all Blades!

...except that Echo was pretty sure the swashbuckler's whole shtick was that his swords were made out of energy, not electricity wrapped around a weirdly elongated index finger that pulled itself back into more human proportions as the wig-wearing heroine watched silently from above. She was also pretty confident that his skin tone had never been quite so ruby red in any of the footage she'd seen.

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Echo felt momentarily elated at the appearance of the swashbuckling figure - Jack of all Blades would almost certainly have ideas on how to proceed, and she'd always wanted to meet him anyway - until she caught sight of his finger. And his skin. She considered herself fairly well-informed when it came to the hero community, and she'd never heard of him being...red.

Her excitement evaporating in an instant, she withdrew further into the shadows, apprehensive. Heroes underwent cosmetic changes now and then, it was true, but this was a doozy. Her mind raced as she considered the possibilities. Either this really was Jack of all Blades, which meant his appearance had been seriously altered without anyone hearing about it, or it was some kind of imposter. And apparently not a very good imposter, since he was bright red.

Why would somebody make themselves look like a superhero (albeit one fresh from an accident at the paint factory) just to break into a crooked politician's headquarters? It didn't make sense. Were they trying to frame Jack for something? Was this even about him, or was it really about Bench? Did he work for Bench, or against him?

Her instincts told her to get out of there. Her curiosity told her to stay and observe. The two of them vied for dominance, allowing impulse to sidle in and assume control while neither of them were looking.

Whumph. She appeared directly in front of the strange figure, still on the ceiling. "I think they're closed," she said. Her tone was cheerful, but she could feel her muscles were tense and ready. "We should probably come back in the morning, huh? Although they're going to be pretty pissed about what you did to their door."

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The masked figure reared back in surprise as Echo landed, gracefully putting several feet between them in a single bound. As he moved his hands shifted shape again, the fingers of the left extending into long, wicked talons while the right completely reformed itself into the barrel of a shotgun that merged weirdly into his long coat around the elbow. When he got a better look at the young woman he straightened and his hands quickly melted back to normal. "Oy gevalt bro-sis, you nearly gave this one a heart attack," he sighed, his voice tinged with a heavy German accent as he placed a hand on his chest in an exaggerated show of surprise. He turned the movement into a deep bow, rising with a lopsided that smile that would have been pretty charming if his features hadn't continued to shift from moment to moment, eye colour, cheekbones and nose refusing to pick a style and stick with it. "Howdy. This one is Jac-ack-ack-ack--" With a shudder he seemed to get himself under control and continued without acknowledging the lapse. "But you can call this one Jack, bubbala. Unless you're planning to get between this one and that varmint Bench, then wir müssen kämpfen, comprende?"

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The clock ticked several times as Echo stood there, silent and still, her mind racing rapidly. Now that the moment of impulsiveness had passed, reason was returning and her memory was starting to work. Red. Shapeshifting. Some kind of energy projection. She racked her brains, mentally poring down a mental list. The only one she could think of who fit all those criteria was...

Uh-oh.

Well, that's weird.

She wrestled her face into a broad smile behind her mask. "Hello...Jack!" Don't piss him off, don't piss him off. "I've always wanted to meet you, Jack. Because you are Jack." Could I take him? "I, uh, wasn't expecting to run into you here, Jack." I could totally take him. "What brings you here? You're after Bench too?" Was that Yiddish? Why the hell is he speaking Yiddish?

She eyed him, wary of any sudden movement on his part that might end in her becoming a light shower of reddish moisture. "You...uh...don't look so good. You...doing okay there? You..." she gestured vaguely, "got something on your face. Also," she added, unable to resist, "you're upside down."

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"Is this one? Reckon it must surely be so! Wie peinlich!" Crouching slightly the bright red skinned figure suddenly blurred into a royal blue streak as a surge of superhuman speed took him across the office floor, straight up the back wall and over the ceiling to stand face to face with Echo. It took the journalism student a moment to realize that the shapeshifter's feet weren't actually stuck to the ceiling; rather he seemed to simply be floating upside down, floating under his own power. "Bench is a fershtinkiner, bro-sis! This one will bring him and his posse to justice!"

While the strange figure posed righteously to underscore his assertion, the back door swung open again as another man burst in, looking slightly winded and extremely annoyed. He wore the same costume as the shapeshifter but the rapier of solid flame in his right hand and the lack of pointed ears certainly matched what Echo had been expecting of Jack of all Blades more closely. "There you are!" he exclaimed with a scowl. "What the hell are you doing in here?"

"Howdy, other Jack!" the shapeshifter greeted genially, waving to the newcomer. "This one is having a team-up!"

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Echo looked back and forth from Jack to...other Jack and got a feeling like she had walked in at the end of a play and had some serious catching up to do. Well, at least the real Jack isn't dead or something. It was important to be able to look on the bright side of things. "You guys go to the same tailor or something?" she asked drily. "Because I just love your outfits. Did they have a sale at the mall on The Modern Swashbuckler's Ensemble? You decide to dress alike?"

She peered at the strange, floating Meta-Grue (and she was pretty sure that was who it was - albeit a few crossed wires upstairs, perhaps). "Although..." Whumph. She stood on the wall beside Jack - the presumably real Jack. "Your ears aren't quite right. They should be pointier, like this guy's. And your face just stays the same all the time. Boring." Whumph. She was back on the ceiling with the Grue-Jack. "He's got the right idea. Shifting features, pointy ears, not afraid to go upside down when he needs to...the very image of a hero." Whumph. "Seriously, though," she whispered in Jack's rounded ear, "what the hell is going on here? He thinks he's you. Kinda."

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"Well, this one isn't going to change," the red version of Jack insisted, still hovering upside down in the air, at the same time the one who'd just entered in through the rear door answered, "Yeah, we get a bulk discount, it's swell."

The former grinned and tucked into a somersault, dropping to the floor in a three point landing while the latter grimaced and rubbed his temples in aggravation. Echo's gravity defying antics didn't seem to be helping his headache, either. "Dios, save me from white haired girls," he muttered before giving the young woman a more scrutinizing look. "Who are you supposed to be again? Besides the upside down fashion police, 'cause I've got a buddy who sticks to ceilings and wears lime green if you want to go bother him instead. I'm kinda in the middle of a thing, here." He looked around the room as he worked his way down his list of immediate priorities. "Here being... what, a campaign office? You running for office now, you two pound bag of crazy?" he accused his doppelganger.

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Echo looked at the doppelganger thoughtfully. "Actually," she said, "as far as I can tell, he's here for the same reason I am." With a few taps on her phone, she brought up a picture of Bench and held it up for Jack to see. "Stewart Bench. Running for city council. We've been after him for a while. I mean, look at that. That tie with that jacket? The upside-down fashion police want him. Bad." She paused, then added as if as an afterthought, "There's also some stuff about voter fraud."

She sprang down nimbly from the wall to the floor. "I'm Echo, and before you ask, yes, that is totally my real name. I was just here poking around in a perfectly legal fashion when this guy slashed through the door and started demonstrating his language skills all over the place."

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Jack like to think he was pretty quick on the uptake but after spending the better part of the day chasing his pointy-eared doppelganger around the city finding the bizarre copy breaking into the offices of a dirty politician alongside a chatty young heroine took him a moment to process. He looked between them with an expression that suggested he was willing the absurdity of the situation to take on physical form so that he could stab it before cracking his neck to one side with an audible pop. "Alright, sure. Fine. It's not like I'm a sleep-deprived old man who doesn't need this-- Fine. Fine!" Throwing his hands up in the air in exasperation he brought one down to point at the Meta-Jack. "How do you know about this Bench guy?"

"Bench is no good, two bit, horse thief of a varmint!" his imperfect reflect explained animatedly, pivoting from his head to join Echo in righting himself until his feet were again on solid ground. "Ooh, that gonif! The angeber! That one is a real--"

"I get the picture, already," the more convincing Jack interrupted, with a thoughtful frown. "My swordy sense tells me something hinky is going on above and beyond stuffing the ballot box and it sounds like I'm coming in late. What've you found out so far, Escher Girl?"

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"Politics utterly fascinate me," Echo lied, "which was how, once I turned over a few rocks, I found out that Bench's voting numbers don't quite add up. Once I knew that, I figured it was my civic duty to come on down here and make his life as interesting as possible." With a glance at Jack and Grue-Jack (Grack?), she decided that Bench's life was about to get very interesting indeed.

"Unfortunately," she continued, whumping in mid-sentence over to the desk where she had stashed the day planner, "Benchie Boy seems to run a pretty tight ship. I was kinda hoping to find a written confession on his desk, or at least a secret torture chamber behind the bookshelf, but he's a canny one all right. This," she pulled out the day planner, "is the most suspicious thing I've found so far. And I've been over every inch of this place."

Whumph. She appeared once more on the ceiling above Jack. If she was Escher Girl now, she was determined to own it. She dropped the book down into his hand. "Catch. So, see anything...curious? Hint, look at his Mondays."

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Jack flipped through the dayplanner, stubbornly refusing to comment any further on Echo's teleporting and unique relationship with the concept of up and down. It took him a few passes to figure out what the reality manipulator was eluding to and even once he'd found the conspicuous gaps he didn't seem entirely convinced. "So he doesn't like working late on Mondays? Him and obese orange tabbies. Not sure that's enough to-- woah!"

With reflexes that proved the next best thing to Echo's teleporting, Jack launched himself into the air to land in a crouch atop a desk, narrowly pulling the book out of the path of his doppelganger's energized 'sword-finger'. "More than enough!" the shapeshifter crowed as he straightened from his lunge, seeming more enthusiastic than aggressive as he gestured animatedly with his crackling weapon. "Bench is planning! Planung! Plot-ot-ot-ot--" Once again he had to shake himself to get over the unnerving record-skipping tic and move on. As he did, the pupils disappeared momentarily from behind his bandana mask, his eyes left a uniform, milky off-white. It was hard to tell if they were reflecting the light from his sword or luminous themselves. "This one's sword-sense is tingling! This one will lead the way! Interceptors, go!" Bounding forward he crashed through the front pane window with mass and momentum far outstripping what a human his size should have possessed, using another burst of super-speed to run up the walls of the adjacent building and start leaping merrily along the rooftops.

"I don't have a--" the real Jack began before his sentence dissolved into a series of creative curses. "Alright, I know this looks bad," he admitted to Echo as he ran out of the office after his double, firing the cable of his grappling line and launching into the air.

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Echo blinked, suddenly alone in the office. With a sigh, she glanced from the melted scar in the back door to the shattered windowpane. Yeah, they're probably going to notice that. Oh well. Subtlety was overrated anyway. Breaking stuff was more fun.

At any rate, the good news was that Grack seemed to have some idea of what to do next. Her best plan had been to sit on her heels for a until next Monday, and try to follow Bench when he left the office to do whatever-it-was. And she hated waiting. So, when given the choice of sitting around for a week, or following after Jack of all Blade and the Meta-Grue (with a few screws loosened), it was a no-brainer.

She hopped nimbly through the broken window to the sidewalk outside, then paused to bend time around herself. The reality warper stretched, cracked her neck, and took off, running with superhuman speed straight up the side of the building after the Jacks. Keeping up shouldn't be much of a problem, at least.

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The authentic Jack of all Blades didn't seem particularly surprised that Echo had decided to follow after him, simply grunting a vague acknowledgement and adjusting his swinging trajectory to make it easier for her to stay within earshot as the sped across the city. He wouldn't have left the mystery to be solved by someone else either, had he been in her shoes. He glanced at the young woman's feet, trying to get a read on her particular powerset and deciding it wasn't a priority. Instead he called out loudly enough to be heard over the rush of wind.

"Alright, so listen, short version," the swordsman began, choosing his words carefully as he somersaulted through the empty air between two buildings. "A while back there was this whole thing where a... a guy I was supposed to be able to trust lost it. It wasn't... Well, it was a whole thing. Anyway." Between all the movement and the bandana mask covering the top third of his face it was tough to read Jack's expression but it was clear that this wasn't something he wanted to be discussing at all let alone with a stranger. This tense frustration over the situation was starting to make more sense. "Among other stuff he combined the powers of a bunch of our friends into an army of Grue clones. I think Grue are maybe already clones? Not really the right guy to be explaining the 'how' part of it. We stopped him and we thought we rounded up all the Metaceptors, but..." He cast a significant look toward the back of the bounding figure they were racing after.

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A wisecrack sprung to Echo's lips, but she bit it back, sensing that this was a touchy subject, and making jokes about it might not be the most diplomatic move right now. She was quiet for a moment as she ran across the side of a building at super-speed, easily keeping pace with the swinging Jack, then she said, "Well, at least he doesn't seem dangerous. I mean, he isn't razing orphanages or anything, right? He's actually trying to help, in his own...unique way." And he hadn't smeared her like a grease stain across the floor when they ran into each other, which was always the first step towards true friendship. She was no longer quite sure exactly how powerful he was, but she was quite sure she didn't want to find out the hard way.

"At any rate, having a crazy clone of yourself is certainly something I can relate to," she said mysteriously. And so far, yours is way less psycho than mine. "So, uh, you got a plan about what to do with him after we sort this out? Just let him do his thing, or is there a way to fix him, or..."

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"...ask me again once we get this other thing sorted out," Jack grumbled after a moment of silence, just barely loud enough to be heard over the rush of wind and the light, evening traffic below them. At the pace the Metaceptor was setting they didn't have much breath left for philosophical discussion anyway as the taller building began to this out and Jack had to rely more on dramatic parkour leaps and tumbles than on his grappling line. Making good time, it wasn't long before they came to the bank of the Wading River, Lantern Hill to their right and the Wharton State Forest looming upstream.

The Metaceptor came to a halt there, hovering a few inches above the ground and looking about, facial features still shifting disconcertingly around his small frown. When Jack started to ask if he still knew where they were going, the confused clone silenced him with a waving hand. "Quiet, other Jack! Can't you hear them?"

Frowning himself now, the swordsman cocked his head to one side. "Hear what?"

The doppelganger tapped the side of his own head insistently. "In here!" While the pair began to argue, Echo recognized one of the sedans she'd seen leaving Bench's campaign office parked along the edge of a small drop before the river along with an expensive looking luxury van.

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Echo looked from one to the other for a moment before raising a polite finger. "Uh, boys," she interjected, "I hate to interrupt, but my keen detective's intuition tells me that that car over there was at Bench's office. Now, if you just came all the way here for an argument and a nice little dip in the river, then by all means proceed, but I'm in the mood to see what the hell his people are doing on the bank of the Wading River at this time of day." Dumping bodies? she wondered semi-hopefully. It wasn't that she wanted there to be bodies, but it would certainly make things simpler. She was unsure exactly how many bodies a politician could legally dispose of in this state, but she was pretty sure it was less than one. "You want we should all have check it out? I'm sure it'll be the highlight of their day. Or I suppose I could just freeze time - oh, by the way, I can freeze time - and go have a little look-see myself if you want to keep bickering. I won't stop you."

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"This one likes her!" the Metaceptor declared cheerfully to his template, setting down on the ground and starting off in the direction Echo had indicated.

"You're part Lynn, you probably like everybody."

"Was?"

"Never mind." The drop the vehicles were parked beside dropped down four or five feet to the river, the rushing water reflecting moonlight this far away from regular streetlamps or other lights of the city. The bank was too stoney to hold footprints well but the path tapered off into nothing in one direction and widened into useability as it wound toward the forest making their next move immediately evident. "Well, down we go, I guess," Jack mused, hopping over the edge and landing nimbly with only the faintest sound of loose pebbles shifting under his boots.

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Echo looked at the forest with a touch of nervousness - she was a city mouse, and was never fully at her ease unless everything around her was bathed in reassuringly yellow shades of artificial light. Oh well, facing one's fears is the mark of a true hero, she thought as she jumped down and followed after the Jacks. "If you see a gingerbread house, let me know, 'cause I'm starving," she said. "Also, if you have any breadcrumbs, use 'em now."

If nothing else, curiosity kept her going - what in the various Earths were Bench's flunkies (or possibly Bench himself!) doing in the middle of the forest? Birdwatching? Although, come to think of it, the forest was actually a fairly good place to conduct illicit business, she mused. Trees were, by all accounts, pretty damn hard to bug. But that was the kind of precaution one would only take if they were concerned that someone was actively investigating them. Or if they were just seriously paranoid. The first one was possible, she supposed, but the second one seemed more likely. Or, for all she knew, they were out to check on their secret milkshake-powered superbase from which they were going to take over all of the world's daytime television. There was always a certain point when speculation stopped being worthwhile and you just had to go find out for yourself.

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Jack seemed to have concerns of his own as they ventured further down the river bank, keeping a close eye on his cloned doppelganger. "Not getting a vibe from any big energy sources," he told Echo in a hushed tone, tapping a pair of fingers to the side of his head. "Magic, either. Not much I can't pick up on one way or another." It was said more matter-of-factly than his grandstanding reputation might have led the reality manipulating heroine to expect. He didn't know what sort of trail the Metaceptor was following and that was clearly starting to worry him. He looked away from their guide long enough to study Echo's masked face in the moonlight. "...listen, Escher, you're not gonna want to hear this but if things get hairy, I need you to go for backup, alright? No disrespect but this obviously isn't quite what you thought you were getting into, yeah? This is at least partly my mess to clean up but going in blind like this isn't my smartest move to date."

Before she could respond they came to a bend in the river where the path in front of them widened considerably around the mouth of a sizable cave. Even the Metaceptor seemed noticeably subdued at the prospect of heading into the inky darkness beyond, both of his hands bursting into bright orange flames that he held aloft as makeshift lanterns.

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