Barely able to breathe, I jerked awake, eyes darting about as I quickly sat up in my bed. The sound of the emperor's voice still rung in my ears, it was followed by the cracks from gauss rifles starting to empty their magazines. The room was spinning from the dream, but the darkness remained untouched while the silence was broken only by my gasps for air. I crawled out of bed, figuring that after a dream like that, I wouldn't be able to get more sleep. Instead, I stumbled through the darkness, not waiting for my eyes to adjust, towards the bathroom.
I felt my fingers struggling with finding the light switch when I reached for it. The rough surface of the concrete the walls consisted of scraped against the tips as they slid across the small space I assumed the switch was located somewhere inside, only to discover that it was located a little higher up. The lights soon flickered on, and my eyes stung as they tried adjusting to the sudden change of brightness. I placed myself in front of the mirror, hands resting on either side of it, staring into a pair of blue eyes. They were my own. They were tired, and in desperate need of a full night's worth of sleep. It wasn't something they would be getting any time soon though, for when the emperor and his men came knocking on our door with their fancy gauss technology, I was one of the first people the guards would awake. Why? Well, during my time in the rebellion I had managed to narrow it down to two options: One, my APU was light and swift, and with my long-range capabilities, I would be one of the first of the reinforcements to arrive, and most likely one of the first to claim a kill. Or two, they just wanted me dead. I sighed heavily, running a hand through my now messy, black hair. I was a mess. No, worse. I was a sleep deprived mess.
Back in my room, I replayed the dream in my mind as I got dressed. I was no rebel leader, I was just a rebel. That was it. The real rebel leader, Jason Lockwell, was executed about a month ago, and I had been accused for the exact same crimes in my dream. I had witnessed his death from afar, through the scope of my rifle, so I would know. But Jason wasn't the person dying in my dream. I was. I sighed heavily, and tried calming myself, breathing slowly, repeating 'It was just a dream' over and over in my mind while opening the door to my room, starting to walk down the plain iron hallway of the abandoned mining facility the rebellion had holed up in for quite some time now due to being hunted down on the surface.
Underground was the only place left for the rebel forces to hide. On the surface, we were hunted down like vermin, and recently, the fight had been taken underground as well. Our defences were strong, but still we lost section after section. They would soon deliver the killing blow, once they had amassed enough forces. Luckily for us, that was a slow process, slowed down even further by our raids, hit-and-run attacks, and assassinations. I myself had been a part of them all, taking down convoys, assassinating officials. My APU had been custom built for the latter, with a skeleton and armour made from a lighter alloy, extra suspension at the feet in order to make less sound when moving about, some nifty blades integrated into the wrists for when I got up close and personal, and a cloaking device. I had no idea of what made my APU suddenly vanish at the push of a button, but hey, as long as it did what it was supposed to do, I wouldn't complain.
Further down the hall, a door opened and closed, and a woman stepped out, stretching. "Hey, T." I said, fighting the urge to yawn. "Hello, yourself." She replied with a smile. "Nightmare, huh? Could hear you tossing and turning from all over here, ya know." 'T', real name 'Theresa', and I went way back, even before the rebellion. She was a nice and cheery gal, with her blond, waist-long hair and wonderful green eyes. We had first started talking after I returned from my first mission, because she wanted to know how my APU handled, if there were any problems. After all, she was the one who'd customized it with all its fancy gear. And after that, we just began talking, and friendship soon blossomed.
"Is it somethin' you want to talk about? I heard it helps. Wouldn't want you gettin' yourself dead because of it, now would we?" Giving her a small, yet reassuring smile, I shook my head. "Nah, I'm good. I just got shot, that's all." A grin appeared on her face, fighting the 'I'm-here-if-you-want-to-talk-about-it' look she had had only seconds earlier for control, and I could sense a witty remark stir in the depth of her mind, but it never surfaced. She knew it bugged me, that it held most of my focus, and above all, she knew better than to make fun of it.
"Should I have pulled the trigger back then?" I suddenly found myself asking, and her smile turned back into the more assuring than the one she had had moments before. "You had your orders, mate. I know I'm just a mechanic here, but I'm pretty sure that when said orders come from the top of the food chain, you're supposed to bow your head and follow them." She gave me a pat on the back, and we started walking. Where, I did not know. "Besides, what were you going to do, hmh? Well, yeah, you could have made that fucker's head go 'boom' literally, because I know what my babies are good for - but that would have been goin' against your orders. The guy wouldn't have wanted that. Add to that, the fact that you were, like, totally outnumbered. They are the ones with unlimited supply of gauss technology, while we have to salvage what we can, or even build 'em from ground up something that isn't easy, mind you. Pushing aside what little gauss weaponry we have, we're stuck with fuckin' AP rounds for crying out loud! And even those we have to make from scratch sometimes! Curse my need for fixin' things!"
Theresa glanced my way, noticing how I wasn't paying much attention to her rambling. "Come on, mate. You've been shot at dozens of times before, so why let some imaginary bullet suddenly scare you? Where's my cold blooded killer?" She came to a halt as she spoke, saying that last sentence as if she was talking to a baby, turning me around to face her before placing her hands on my shoulders. Her smile faded, a more serious look replacing it. "Look, it was a dream; a product of your imagination and subconscious self. In other words: nothin' to worry about. What you should worry about, on the other hand, is the modifications I've made to your APU." The thought seemed to amuse her, it always did, but I always knew that my APU was in good hands, so that was the last thing I worried about. "You see, after you returned from your last shenanigan-filled mission I ran some diagnostics on your APU, and as it turned out, my poor baby could use a little maintenance. So.. if you would just follow me and not yell at me, that'd be great." She motioned for me to take the lead, giving me a polite bow as I walked by her, joking, of course.
'So what have you done to it this time?' I wanted to ask, but she beat me to it as we entered the massive hangar where mine, as well as many other APUs were located. "Oh, not much. Mostly small things like making a few tweaks to various systems and giving the whole thing a bit of polishin'." I looked over at her, kind of in disbelief, "Polish? Really?" She nodded her head proudly, smiling like never before, "The polish doesn't really need testin', but I need you to check if it still handles like before. Just to make sure that I haven't tweaked a bit too much."
The APUs towered above us as we walked down towards one of the ends of the underground hangar, the one on the opposite side of the main entrance, which led into the main tunnel. Although different from one another, the APUs all shared some common traits such as the emblem of the rebellion; a white dove holding an equally white rose in its beak. It was two symbols in one, really. The dove represented freedom and hope, while the rose symbolized a new beginning. The white emblems stood out against the grey armour they had been painted onto. The appearance of the emblems varied though. Some had various scratched, others had dents, and in some cases, the entire emblem was missing, along with the arm it had been painted onto; one of many brutal reminders of the dangers that awaited us out in the field.
On our little walk down the rows of APUs, towards my own, a couple of mechanics about to end their nightshift came walking our way. We all stopped for a chat and exchanged a few words, talking about how I had had a nightmare, and how the nightshift had passed by relatively painlessly, having had no troubles fixing the wreck they had been assigned to. When they told us to go back to bed, 'T' assured them we just had a few tests to complete before 'hittin' the sack' again. "Alright, then. You two have fun and take it easy, ok? Especially you." The mechanic who had been leading most of the conversation said, and nodded towards me, and I tilted my head to the side, almost jokingly, "You have a big mission coming up, I've heard. Better relax and conserve your energy while you still can." He then turned to who I assumed was his friend, and said, "Alright, we should get back and report our progress. Good luck with them tests, alright?" They both looked at us and smiled before continuing to walk.
"Mission, huh? The boss sure has taken a likin' to you lately, sendin' you on one suicide mission after another. I wonder what it'll be this time.. Sabotage, or assassination." Theresa mused once we had started walking, now closing in on my 'weapon', her 'baby'. "You just make sure coming back in one piece, you hear? And I mean literally, one piece. I don't want to have to patch up my baby once more, you hear?" I reassured her that with any luck, she wouldn't have to. Deciding to do a little boasting, I added with an exaggerated, proud voice, "You know, since I'm such a brilliant pilot and all. They won't even know what hit them." I heard a small giggle beside me, which soon turned into a laughing fit. The latter was true at least; it's hard to notice something approaching you at a speed of Mach 5.
I placed myself beneath the cockpit, using my right hand to open a small box, revealing an even smaller handle. I pulled it out a little bit, twisted it, and let go, watching as it went back into place before the front of the APU fizzled to life, and slowly split into two parts, one sliding out towards the right side, while the other slid to the left, thus revealing the seat from which the entire thing was controlled from. It was all illuminated with a soft, blue light - we had to distinguish ourselves from the Steel Talons as well as the rest of the military, after all. "Home sweet home." I chuckled upon climbing into the pilot's seat, buckling up. My hand found searched a small panel beside my seat, and pushed one of the buttons, closing the front again. Now there was only me, the blue light, and the APU. A small wave of safety and security hit me as I leaned back in my seat, hitting yet another button on the panel. The metal beast gave a small sigh before starting to power up. Buttons and other panels lit up, and soon the various systems were good to go as well. I placed my hands in two metal gloves which would allow me control of the hands, as well as the arms, with confidence, and willed the machine to take a step forward. That was all it took to move it: a few signals from my brain. Through the brightly highlighted glass, I could see Theresa retreat to a safe distance, laptop in hand. By now, I figured she had already accessed the APU's systems, monitoring my every move, as well as my body and mind, to some degree.
The APU took one heavy step forwards, and the whole cockpit shook as its foot connected with the floor again. Another step soon followed, another thud echoing in the underground hangar. "Everythin' as it should be in there?" Theresa's voice sounded over the COM. "Does she still handle like before? Anything that needs further fixing?" I nodded my head not that she would notice before moving the APUs arms around a little bit as I continued to approach her, giving the air in front of me a couple of small punches. I then resumed my position in front of her, replying with, "It's just like it should be, T. Love the polish, too." The woman replied with a smile and a thumbs up before proceeding with brushing a few strands of hair behind her ear. "Now go predator mode and let me see if the cloaking survived through the tweaks."
Again, all I needed to do was to think of going invisible, to activate the cloaking mechanism, and it would happen. And again, I had no idea of how it worked, but, however, I assumed it worked very much like when I willed the APUs legs to move; with my brain sending signals to the APU and what not. Without even breaking a sweat, the steel beast disappeared with a soft humming sound, and I felt goose bumps forming on my skin as a result. "I swear, that never gets old." I exclaimed, on the verge of jumping with joy in my little seat.
"I can only imagine." Theresa rolled her eyes, returning her focus to the screen of her laptop. "You should have approximately ten minutes worth of cloaking before it will run out and have to recharge. Please do keep in mind that recharging now will take about.. seven minutes. It is what could be expected though." Her eyes met mine through the glass shielding the cockpit from the outside world, "A larger cloak capacity equals a longer recharge time. Again, do keep this in mind, will ya?"
I let out a small chuckle, and waved her off, resulting in the APU mimicking my motions. "Yeah, yeah." I said, confident in my skills and experience, but mostly just kidding with her. Having to worry about the limitations of both my abilities, and those of my APU, was something I wasn't fond of. "Is there anything else you'd like me to test while I'm in this thing?" I then asked, deactivating the cloaking mechanism, reappearing in front of Theresa just as quickly as I had disappeared. "Um, yeah." She appeared to be typing something on her laptop while she spoke. "But I don't think now is the time to test it. I would like for you to feel how my tweaks will affect you in combat situations, with rifles and the likes. However, it's, like, four in the mornin'. Get some rest instead, and we'll continue in the afternoon."
"You're probably right." I nodded my head, and sighed, starting to back away from her, returning to my APU's own little private parking space. All that now could be heard were the muffled thumps from beneath the APU, and the soft, hissing sound of hydraulic fluid fizzling through various pipes inside the APU's light, armoured shell. I found it hypnotic, to be honest. It was a soothing sound to my ears. Soothing, and safe, providing a feeling of control and superiority. But perhaps it was too soothing at this time, taking my lack of sleep into account. The twenty-or-so metres back to the spot seemed to take so much more time to cover now, than before. But was it really like that, or was my mind simply getting back at me for not sleeping like I should? Hell if I knew..
Willing the machine's legs to slow down to a halt, I took a deep breath. No, something was clearly wrong. But what? Was I passing out? No, I wasn't that low on energy, I could be passing out. I didn't feel lightheaded, nor were there pretty colours all around me. There was only.. what I decided at the time being to call 'slowness', and now there was also 'blurriness'. A voice could be heard in the distance, and I immediately turned towards its source. Even this happened so, so slowly. 'T'? No.. Even through all the muffled sounds from the machinery surrounding me, I could still say with a certain degree of certainty that the voice didn't come from any female. It was male.
There were only me and Theresa in the hangar, no one else. Instincts kicked in, and before my APU could finish its rotation, the blades integrated into its wrists were already ejected, standing out a bit over a metre from the hand itself. My eyes widened, first in surprise, as my friend was no longer present in the hangar, then in fear, as the person who stood there was someone else, someone I'd even fought alongside of in the past.
Blood covered the floor around him, and the disgusting stench of blood and death filled the APU. My head felt like it was splitting in two as a headache started ravaging its contents. Standing there, drenched in red, was none other than my old friend, the real rebel leader, Jason Lockwell. Our eyes met, just for a split second; his eyes blank, yet pained, my eyes wide, filled to the brim with terror. And just like that, after a burst of what seemed like white light, he disappeared along with my headache. Where he stood, I could see Theresa looking back at me with terrified eyes, once my vision cleared. I could do nothing but stand there and stare, weapons drawn.