“Up and at em’ gents! A machine only runs if all its parts are well oiled,” a voice rings down the hallway, pulling me from my slumber. It is a commanding voice, but even our sleep-fogged minds can detect the lightness that underlays all of Jonah’s orders. There is something in his voice, something powerful that commands our respect, yet still relates to our troubles. Maybe that’s why so many are drawn to him and his cause, myself included. Maybe that’s why so many stay.
“Yes, sir,” I mumble groggily, a chorus of similarly tired responses echo my own. Throwing the blanket from my legs, a wave of icy wind hit me. Goosebumps speckle my bare arms and legs as I rush from the bunk to my locker along the far wall. Luckily, my bunk is on the bottom so my freezing sprint is quicker than others’. Although, my bunkmates aren’t madly dashing to warm clothes like I am, given that they slept in more than just their boxers.
My clothing, or lack of it, was caused by my own private war waged on my friend Troi, who bet me I couldn’t survive the whole month of October sleeping in next to nothing, with only my blanket to safeguard me from the cold Detroit nights. Never one to shrink from a challenge, I accepted. Our wager: loser took the winner’s kitchen shifts for a month. Now here I was, roughly a week and a half in, and seriously regretting all my life choices. Not that I’d ever let Troi know that.
“Wow, it sure is chilly this morning, isn’t it Gray? Or, I assume it must be,” Troi drawls. Turning towards the sound of the words, I see the instigator of my suffering himself. Troi is all jokes and messy blonde hair, broad shoulders and broader grins. He wears bright red plaid sweatpants, that I know our captain would hate, and a dark gray hoodie with the name of our high school across the chest in light blue lettering. Troi has known me my whole life and so when I shoot him a glare that would make most people cold in their graves he just laughs it off.
Fully dressed, we follow the stream of people headed for the mess hall, and soon my hands are warmed by the steaming bowl of oatmeal I am handed. Troi scoops a spoonful out of the bowl of an unsuspecting girl before plopping himself onto the bench next to her.
“Who the he-,” she stopped abruptly after catching sight of Troi’s impish face. “Troi Jefferson, I should’ve guessed,” the girl, Addley, huffed but offered no retaliation. Though I notice her arm now rests on the table in between them. Taking a seat on the opposite bench, I’m soon joined by another woman, her dark hair falling on either side of her face as she slides in beside me.
“Graeson, get your mutt under control,” the new arrival says teasingly.
“Lovely morning to you as well, Captain,” Troi shoots back, earning himself a pair of rolled eyes.
“Jonah has us on a supply run into the main city today. You get ten minutes to eat and another fifteen to pack your gear before meeting in the garage at 0630 sharp.”
Layke is our squadron captain. Together the four of us make up the Ninth Squadron of the Northeast Rebel Battalion, an insurgent army based in Detroit led by Jonah Wittiker. Though he is our general Jonah declines to use the title, insisting his followers call him by his name instead. The uprising against the corrupt government of Upper America - what used to be the northeast United States - is in its fifth year. I have been a soldier in Jonah’s army for three of them.
Troi and I simultaneously begin eating faster as the girls keep the conversation going. When he thinks no one is looking, Troi scoops some of his own rations into Addley’s bowl to make up for what he stole. I smile to myself but don’t say anything.
It was love at first sight for Troi when she was transferred to our squadron ten months ago. With her kind-hearted disposition and sun-kissed hair that fell to her shoulders in gentle waves, I could see why, but she reminds me too much of my younger sister for me to offer Troi any competition. Addley is the youngest of us four, at only nineteen. Troi and I come next, at twenty-one, and Layke is a year older than we are. Every one of us enlisted in Jonah’s army straight out of high school.
When our bowls are drained to their last dregs and dumped in wash buckets, the clock counts down to our mission. Layke heads over to a cluster of other officers, Addley disappears down the East hall to the women’s barracks, and Troi and I retrace our steps back to the men’s.
In the bathroom, as Troi brushes his teeth beside me, I examine the person staring back at me from the mirror. Dark curls are swept across his brow, eyes that look hazel in the right lighting blink back at me. I brush a hand along the side of my jaw and he does the same, a critical frown forming on both of our faces.
“Stubble doesn’t look good on me like it does on you,” I complain.
“That’s because you aren’t a real man yet.” Troi spits into the sink. “You’re too baby faced.”
That makes me scoff. “I’m really not.”
It’s true, my face has narrowed dramatically over the past few months, losing its boyish roundness in favor of a harder jawline. Sometimes, I fear that isn’t the only part of me that has hardened.
“Well, congratulations on finishing puberty,” Troi says mockingly. “Now come on, we’re running behind.”
The storage wing sits to the north of the common areas and is comprised of eight rooms. Seven of them contain mixtures of weapons, provisions, gear, and other supplies, while the last one is kept under lock to which Jonah has the only key. Only he and his top commanders are allowed inside. Clothing, hygiene supplies, and other personal items are kept in individual lockers inside each bunk room.
We’ve been in one of the weapons vaults about two minutes when Addley enters carrying her pack. I nod a hello and the three of us gather our supplies wordlessly. My mind runs through my mental list, making sure I have everything I need. A gun in each of my leg holsters, another in my belt, and a knife tucked in the sheathe sewn on my left sleeve. Troi’s knife fits on his right arm since he’s left-handed.
Since it’s only a supply mission, we’re packed much lighter than those heading out to combat. They carry larger, automatic weapons that dwarf our small handguns. Our body armor is lighter too, meant for faster movement, though theirs offer more protection. Inside our packs are a few extra clips of ammunition, standard-issue first aid kits, lock picks, and backup communication devices in case the ones strapped to our wrists fail. The packs are large and roomy with plenty of extra space for the supplies we are expected to find.