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Test Run

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There was nothing left alive within the ruins. The wind whistled through broken windows, over rubble and debris, toying with the rising flames and dark smoke. The wreckage of destroyed Heavy Armor suits threw sparks, and blood trickled through tears in their alloy. Soldiers lay where they had been hit by bullets, their eyes wide open.

The simulation ended with a soft, electronic chime. The holographic depiction of an urban battlefield collapsed in a shower of green particles to reveal a room that was completely covered in dark tiles. Only the Gladiator prototype, monitoring equipment, and test pilot were real.

Jin had slipped out of the observation room ahead of the scientists that would soon swarm all over the mech and the recorded data. Right now they didn't matter - the status of his partner did.

"Jo." No reaction. Jin punched the armor plate. "Jo!"

Jin jumped down from the scaffolding that allowed easy access to the cockpit and turned towards the computer system. He wasn't supposed to know the override code but he could deal with the fallout from having hacked it later.

The seals hissed open. Jo was sitting in the pilot seat, motionless, staring into nothing. His neural system was still linked with the Gladiator, the light of his body suit pulsing orange-red in warning. Blood ran from his nostrils and ears, soaked into his hair.

What really disturbed Jin was the fact that Jo was crying.

"Damn it! Hang in there, Jo!"

It was an awkward fit from the outside, but Jin managed to reach the emergency shut-down. The cockpit went dark and Jo gasped and shuddered, like a diver breaching the surface.

"Easy." Jin caught him by the shoulders. "I've got you."

"They... I-I heard... I-I saw..." Jo grabbed his wrists, hard enough to make Jin flinch. "Don't pilot one of these. I'll do it. Me is enough. Promise me, Jin!"

Jin could do nothing but stare. He had never seen Jo like this and there was no time to get to the bottom of what exactly had happened. He pulled himself free and Jo, pale and crying like a small child, let him.

"Jo, you know I can't go against orders."

All of this had transpired in less than a minute, but now the sounds of hurried footsteps came closer. This was Phantom's R&D division. Command would get the report within the hour. Concern for a partner was acceptable, if unusual. Jo's loss of control? That might be grounds for an investigation.

"Jin -"

"Everything will be fine. Trust me," Jin said and cupped Jo's bloodied face. Another surprise: Jo closed his eyes and leaned into the touch, allowing Jin to brush his tears away. "Now get a hold of yourself, they're here."

Jo nodded and took a deep, calming breath. His expressionless mask slipped into place, and the smeared blood would hide any other traces that might draw attention.

"Good. We'll talk later."