Chapter 10: Breaking Point
Reach, May 11, 2551
He lay limply on the ground, eyes barely cracked open. His face was a mess of blood and growing bruises. Both his eyes were black, and the marks on his throat suggested that someone had tried to strangle him.
Stun rounds don’t do that to a guy. But they do render you defenseless against any attack from an unsportsmanlike assailant. When Cody saw us, he attempted to sit up, only to fall back with a gasp of pain. I eased Cody up, and he sat with his back against a tree, his eyes drifting closed from exhaustion. Kim knelt next to me, her face concerned and angry all at once.
“Who did this to you, Cody?” she asked, her voice gentle. But beneath the surface, I detected a sea of roiling emotion. Fury, mostly.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. They came up from behind.”
“I’m pretty sure we can all agree it was Mark,” Rod said, knee bouncing up and down uncontrollably. He was on the verge of shouting. “It was that goddamn son of a bitch!”
“We can’t make any assumptions,” Ed muttered, still examining Cody’s bloodied face. His nose was bent at an angle it was not intended to be at.
“Assumption my ass!” Rod spat through clenched teeth. “That psycho has had it out for us, and when he saw Cody alone he took his chance!”
I held out a hand to calm him down. “Listen, Rod, the reality is that we don’t know who it was. What we need to do now is get Cody to the infirmary and -”
“He’s stopped breathing.” Ed’s voice was quivering. “He stopped breathing!”
Kim started to pick him up. “We have to go now!”
I watched as Biff, Ed, and Kim carried our unconscious leader out of the forest, Rod and I trailing behind them uselessly. I kept my eyes trained on Cody while Rod held his rifle in clenched hands, sweeping the barrel back and forth against the surrounding forest.
My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I couldn’t decide why: fury or fear?
* * *
Commander Moore looked over all of us, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a line in front of her desk. All of us except Cody, who was in the infirmary. We stood straight, but not at attention; we were all a bit too on edge for that.
“None of you know who did this?” she asked.
“No ma’am,” we all muttered in unison.
She took a deep sigh and rubbed her forehead, looking almost as stressed as the rest of us. Part of me felt sorry for her; this year must have been tough just because of Mark. But then the darker, less forgiving side of me currently dominating most of my thoughts drowned out the tiny voice of sympathy. This was a military academy. She should be used to dealing with this.
Commander Moore asked us another question. “Do you know of anyone who might’ve done this?”
Rod and I made brief eye contact. He licked his lips.
“I think,” he started, voice breaking at the end. He cleared his throat to continue. “I think it might have been Mark Tybalt.”
Moore opened her mouth to speak, then seemed to change her mind as she closed it. “Anyone else?”
Rod laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Excuse me, cadet?” Moore stiffened at Rod’s outburst and stared him down until he shifted his feet nervously, boldness fading away.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. It just hardly seems like anyone else would have done it.” Rod looked up at her for confirmation.
“I understand your concerns, Rodriguez,” Moore assented, “but there’s nothing I can do until he - or whoever did it - comes forward himself. As we speak I have officers questioning each member of Magnus Squad.”
She looked over all of our faces once more, immediately sensing that we were unsatisfied, and added, “I want whoever did this to be held accountable just as much as you do.”
I bit my lip, holding in a retort. There was nothing I could say right now that would have helped Chris. There was nothing any of us could do. Even if we found out who sent him to the infirmary on a stretcher, it wasn’t going to improve his condition.
“That’s all. You’re dismissed.”
We filed out of the commander’s office, heading towards the infirmary to check on Cody. Rod kept shaking his head and muttering about Mark.
When we arrived, he was still unconscious and breathing shallowly while Tara rubbed some gross-looking paste on one of the cuts on his arm. She looked up as we entered, eyes narrowed threateningly. An amusing sight on such a gentle old lady.
“You know the rules, kids. Two at a time, and if you harm my patient, I will not hesitate to give you a good smack.” Rod sniggered and Tara fixed him with a surprisingly hard stare. She pointed one paste-smeared finger at him, and said, “Don’t test me, boy. Two at a time. The rest of you, out.”
“He’s unconscious,” I pointed out cautiously. “If we’re quiet, can we all stay?” She fixed her gray eyes on me and I froze.
“Fine,” she relented. “But I expect good behavior.”
“Yes, ma’am!” we chorused.
“Shh!” Then she bustled away, into her office.
Kim grinned as we took seats around Cody’s cot. “I love her.”
“She’s pretty great,” Ed agreed. “I spent some volunteer hours here during free time, and there’s nobody who cares about us more than her.”
Rod wasn’t paying attention. “I hate this!” he growled, hitting one fist against the wall. “So, what, Mark’s allowed to beat us up and we can’t even fight back? That isn’t right.”
Ed nodded agreement. “And what if it happens on the battlefield, assuming we survive the academy?” he said. “He could get a lot of people killed.”
“He’s not a futuristic thinker. He doesn’t understand the widespread effect of his actions,” Kim said quietly. “That’s his problem, besides his violent and mildly psychopathic tendencies.”
“Too many big words there,” Rod said.
Kim rolled her eyes. “He’s an ass who can’t see the big picture.”
“So what do you suggest we do?” asked a slow, deep voice. Biff had been staring at Cody with something akin to remorse, but at that moment, he looked to me. Slowly, the rest of the squad turned their eyes on me, like maybe I had the answer.
“Nothing we can do, is there?” I said self-consciously. “If we act against him, we’ll get caught and expelled.” Ed, Rod, and Biff nodded and muttered their agreement, but Kim snorted a little, leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms.
“You all are such boys,” she said, staring past me at the far wall.
I frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Her eyes refocused. “Oh, nothing offensive,” she added hurriedly. “It’s just that it’s always the easy answer for you guys. I hate the game as much as any guy, but I know how to play it like any girl.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Rod asked, completely bemused.
Kim laughed a little. “Sorry. I was saying that what we could do is ask around. Find witnesses if there were any.”
I frowned again. “Didn’t sound like you were saying that.”
She sighed, clearly uncomfortable. “Well, if we wanted to play really dirty, we could spread rumors about Magnus Squad and turn the other squads against them. Or we could blame Mark for something he didn’t do to get him expelled for what he did do. I don’t recommend it. It’s not honorable.” She reached back to pull her hair into a ponytail.
“He’s not honorable, either,” Rod pointed out, his voice hard.
“No, but we’re not him, are we?” Kim said, tying off her hair and turning her eyes on him. He squirmed under her questioning gaze. “Let’s not lower ourselves to his level.”
There was a brief pause while we all thought about that.
“She’s right,” Biff said. “That’s not what we stand for.”
“Yeah,” I added eloquently.
“I don’t like it, but I’m with you, bro,” Rod agreed grumpily. Kim looked at him again. “And sis, sorry.”
“We can still ask around, though,” I said. “Everyone likes Cody. Someone might have seen what happened.”
“And didn’t try to stop it?” Rod challenged.
I shrugged. “Worth a try, right?”
He sighed. “Sadly, it’s our best shot.”
* * *
Jericho was a little kid. I couldn’t believe he’d made it so far in the academy. He was small and thin, with a mop of blond hair, pale blue eyes, and skin so light it was almost translucent.
“Nobody really notices me,” he commented as we moved through the line during dinner. “So I see a lot. But I didn’t see that. Sorry, man.”
“It’s all right,” I said, trying to hide my disappointment.
Jericho looked up me, lips pursed. “I heard something else that you might want to know, though.”
I almost dropped my tray.
He frowned. “No, that’s the problem. It was Erik.” I didn’t recognize the name. “Erik?” Jericho repeated, watching my face for any sign of recognition. “No? He’s the only small guy on Magnus Squad. They give him a hard time. Guy could be a great Marine, but not with that kind of team around him. My guess is that they forced him. He was terrified of them.”
Another person being pushed around just because they were smaller. I’m so sick of that.
Something caught my eye and I left the line, muttering my thanks to Jericho. Cody was staggering into the mess hall, supported by Biff.
“Hey, man,” I said, coming up beside him. “How’re you doing?”
“Not great,” he forced out from between clenched teeth. “But if I miss another class, I’m going to fail Ethics.”
“Hey!” Kim ran up. “Good to see you up and about, Cod-”
“Oh, hel-lo there,” comes a familiar drawl. My jaw clenches and I look away from Cody to see Mark, planted firmly in front of us. For the first time, I see Biff visibly tense, clearly furious, but Kim lays a gentle hand on his arm and he relaxes with effort. “Good to see you around, Cody,” he says, his words dripping with sarcasm and false sympathy. “It broke my heart to see you so pathetically weak.”
“Shut up, Mark,” Kim said with deliberate calm, though her fists were clenched tightly.
“Can I not share my condolences?” he asked, stepping closer to Cody. I shifted to place myself a bit in front of him. Movement to my right made me notice that Kim had done the same, so we created a human shield between Mark and Cody.
“Guys,” Cody said softly, almost embarrassed. “It’s okay.”
Kim and I exchanged a glance, but stepped aside.
Quick as lightning, Mark grabbed Cody’s arm, right on a dark bruise. Cody hissed in a breath and Kim and I lunged for Mark, but our leader barked out a quick, “Stop!”
Mark’s grip tightened and he leaned close to whisper in Cody’s ear, “That’s what you get, you son of a bitch.” Then he released him and sauntered away.
We watched him go, then turned back to Cody as he sighed and opened his mouth.
“I want to thank you guys for looking our for me,” he started, looking each of us in the eyes as he spoke. “I really, really appreciate it.”
Rod cleared his throat. “Just helping out our leader.” Cody nodded, clearly thinking about what to say next. Instead, he simply forced a smile and made a hasty farewell, saying he was going to go back to his barracks to rest.
“I think I could use some rest too,” Ed said, with Biff nodding assent. They made their way out, with Rod following close behind.
Kim was still watching Cody walk away. “You know that his pride is what’s hurting more, right?”
I nodded. “I know.” It felt uncomfortable to talk about my leader, no, my friend, like this. Cody had a lot of promise as a squad leader, but also a few flaws. His decision making was excellent when assisted by Kim, but he had the issue of self-consciousness. Which was understandable. He’s supposed to be the fearless leader, the untouchable commander. leading his troops into battle with unflinching resolve. Getting sent to the infirmary in the state he was in didn’t exactly help boost his confidence.
That’s what it came down to; the confidence.I stood there, thinking about what was going through Cody's head, barely noticing when Kim left my side. I only made my way to the barracks when the lights began to shut off in the mess hall.