Jason found it surprisingly easy to tune out the sound of the helicopter’s rotors and focus on the voice of his new superior.
“Used to be, the city had a population of about a million and a half! Now, the official number’s less than a tenth of that!”
The noise cancelling headphones, as well as their built in microphones, were responsible. Nonetheless, both Operative Robert and their pilot had a tendency to yell while the vehicle was in flight.
“Problem is, we got a big underground population! Immigrants from the Battlegrounds, mostly, but a fair number of smugglers and the like!”
Jason was unsure whether the man was simply overcompensating or if it was some sort of leftover habit. Perhaps the previous generation of headphone had been less effective.
“What makes it worse, the city didn’t get any smaller when they left! Now everyone’s so spread out that providing all kinds of basic services is a nightmare! Police, firefighters, hell, even trash pickup’s not reliable!”
He considered the stated difficulty for a moment. “If civil operations are so inefficient, why not simply abandon the city? I cannot imagine what purpose maintaining it serves, at least not in such a cost prohibitive environment.”
Operative Robert did not reply immediately, though the pilot did make a noise of some sort. Jason did not understand its meaning.
“Never say something like that around a local!” the operative ordered. “They know the city’s got problems, but… well, at this point, everyone left is either desperate or determined as hell!”
Jason would be careful. His mother had often explained that the less logical a person’s motivations, the more tightly they would cling to them. Hector had agreed, though he had phrased it differently.
“Anyway, we’re over the downtown area now, so you can see the old interstate! It cuts off about a mile outside of town!”
Jason looked. At first, it seemed like a typical cityscape, a tangle of high rising buildings, freeways and a grid-work of interlocking streets. On closer examination…
It was a patchwork. Some of those buildings had a scattering of broken windows while their neighbors were intact. The streets were much the same, alternating between crowded by abandoned refuse and clean. No, not quite clean…
Even the best of them were not clean. Otherwise normal buildings had at least a thin veneer of dust. The relatively clear streets still had more than their normal share of litter. The overall effect was undeniable. The city was dying. Slowly, yes, but it was obvious.
Mindful of his orders, Jason chose not to voice that particular observation.
“I’ll take you on a more in depth tour later, show you the important areas and all that! For now, just try and get an idea of the general-”
“Sir,” the pilot interrupted, “the station just called. There’s a challenger in front of City Hall.”
“Huh.” Robert Grave’s voice had moderated, no longer shouting. “Bypassed the Circle and came to a center of government. Means he did some research but not a lot of it or he’d be at the station.”
The man was using his wrist communicator but not speaking into it.
“Hm. That could be good or bad.” He spoke slowly, his voice lowering further. “Initial description’s in, along with a tentative ID.” He turned to the pilot and spoke louder. “Okay Brian, you know the drill. Bring us in, keep low and don’t let him get a line of sight on approach.
Minutes later, the pilot had finished his approach. There was not room to land so they hovered approximately thirty feet above the ground. Hector attached a rope to something on the vehicle’s floor before exiting the helicopter. Both Jason and Robert simply jumped out.
Jason felt something break in each of his legs as he landed. He had several hundred lives in reserve so they healed immediately. Robert landed at roughly the same time with no visible sign of harm and Hector joined them moments later, the rope wrapped around his waist in a complicated arrangement.
Robert was already speaking into his communicator. “Operative Grave speaking, about to engage with subject tentatively identified as Reaper. Subject is following the standard protocol of a Battlegrounds challenge. The area’s already partially evacuated so I’m designating this a Class Two at worst, more likely Four.”
Jason was unable to hear the reply.
“Operatives Grim and Hive are accompanying me. They graduated less than a week ago and haven’t finished orientation here, so I’m holding them out of combat for now.”
Jason heard the reply this time. “Operative Grave to engage, Hive and Grim holding back, roger that. Your camera is active and Arizona’s intervention team has been notified. Proceed at will.” The voice seemed oddly familiar.
Grave looked up at the two of them. “You both get that?” Jason and Hector nodded. “Good, follow me and I’ll explain on the way.” He took off at a swift jog. Neither Jason nor Hector had any difficulty keeping up, though Jason did notice that Hector looked paler than normal.
“This is one of the more common issues we get on the border. The Battlegrounders, they don’t really get how the rest of the country works any more. They’re so used to their setup with the Lords that they assume its the same over here.” He came to a stop and gestured for them to do the same.
“They tend to assume that Citadel operatives run the city they’re in. That means that every now and then, we get a challenger, someone who thinks they’re strong enough to take over.” He approached the corner and peered around before continuing. “We play along, more or less, because it keeps collateral to a minimum. Stay here and don’t interfere unless I go down and it looks like he’s going to cut loose.”
He started to move but halted abruptly. “Oh, and no matter what, don’t touch my blood. Seriously, if any winds up on your arm, cut it off.” He waited for the two of them to acknowledge his statement before walking out. They stepped forward so that they could watch.
“What is wrong?” Jason asked Hector. The other young man did not answer verbally, simply grunted and cocked his head. “You are pale and have said nothing since we boarded the helicopter. It is unlike you.”
Jason saw Grave approach the challenger, a towering figure shrouded in a black robe and holding an enormous iron scythe. The stranger was nearly twice the height of a normal man and similarly wide. Its face and hands were concealed by a deep hood and gloves. The scythe stood straight, lightly gripped in its right hand.
Hector turned his face slightly to the side and down as he answered. “Motion sick. First time in a helicopter and…” he trailed off and did not continue.
The figure’s overall impression was conflicting. The size and manner of dress were clearly calculated to be intimidating but other aspects lent themselves poorly. The robe was tattered, especially around the edges of the sleeves and the bottom. The robe blew easily in the light wind, pressing up against the challenger’s body to reveal a narrow form, almost skeletal.
Jason found it too insubstantial to be worrisome. “I did not know you suffered from such an ailment.” He was unsure how he felt about this but knew the social conventions around his friend’s infirmity. “I am sorry for your discomfort.” He watched, still feeling that same sensation, as he looked for a sign from Hector to indicate that he had acted appropriately.
Even so, he was able to follow easily as Grave approached the figure and spoke briefly before running forward. He moved quickly but not at Strong type level speeds. The figure’s response was faster. It brought its scythe down at an angle, impacting Grave between his left shoulder and neck. It cut through with little resistance, exiting just above his right hip.
Operative Grave’s body kept its forward momentum even as it separated into two pieces, splashing blood and internal organs over the challenger’s feet.