“You were in the army, weren’t you?” asked the elderly woman, whose name was Rosa.
“Yes, ma’am,” Pike smiled, over a cup of what he assumed was tea. He had never tasted it before, and it brought a feeling of momentary contentment. “That feels like so long ago. A different lifetime… almost like that was somebody else, and I just watched it all happen.”
“Then you’ve seen what the world’s like outside?”
“We are Outside,” he grinned, as he reached down to scratch the head of her little dog.
“You know what I mean. Beyond all this…” she trailed off, words failing as she gestured around. “This… squalor. Poverty, violence… people sometimes leave, to find where it all ends. But we never hear from them again. And boys… some of them join the army willingly, just to get away.”
Pike nodded, sadly, and sipped his tea. He closed his eyes and let its flavor roll around on his palate, absorbing the aroma.
“Mister Pike… do you have a first name?”
He chuckled. “Of course. I just haven’t heard or used it in so long… it’s Richard. You sort of lose your first name in the army. I was just called ‘Pike’ for years. It’s funny… ‘Richard’ doesn’t even feel like me anymore. Isn’t that odd?”
Rosa humored him with a smile, then returned to her point. “Richard… where does it all end?”
He sighed, staring into his teacup. “Ms. Rosa… as far as I’ve seen, it doesn’t end. This huge… crumbing… ruin… it just seems to go on forever. We drove, marched, sailed, flew; I don’t know how many missions. And none of it looks any different. Now and then you come across a real city; another set of barriers, with the tops of trees and buildings showing behind. And then, back to more of this.”
Looking pained, Rosa looked out her window. “Nothing grows anymore. Nothing grows.”
“Not that I’ve seen. I’m sorry. Maybe further inland, further away from the coast than I’ve been. I just don’t know.”
“And the people who go seeking it?” she mused. “And the boys who enlist? I suppose they just… die?”
Pike nodded. “I’ve seen so many bodies. And I’ve made so many myself. The enlistees… they’re either still in the army or they’re gone as well. No one ever leaves voluntarily because at least they’ll eat regularly between here and the grave.”
“But you came home.”
“I was kicked out,” he chuckled grimly. “Too mentally unstable for the army.”
“Now there is an interesting notion,” smiled Rosa over a sip of her tea. “Too mentally unstable to kill poor people in the service of the rich.”
“I was fine,” he shrugged. “Never gave a second thought to the life, or even the fighting. Then one day we were searching and clearing buildings in a neighborhood just like this. And I hear screaming. I run in, finger on the trigger, and there’s a half a dozen of my own platoon mates, with a little girl pinned to the floor. Couldn’t have been more than fourteen or fifteen.”
Rosa noticed that Pike’s hand was trembling, and she held it tightly. “You don’t have to tell me, son.”
Pike caught his breath. “Honestly, I don’t know much more. There was a ringing in my ears, and everything turned purple… and then it was over. The girl was curled up in the corner. Everyone else was dead… one guy had an ear missing; another’s eyes had been crushed in their sockets… one guy’s whole throat was gone… one more had his entire face caved in.”
He closed his eyes and went on. “And there’s me. Covered in blood, even blood in my mouth. I was missing a fingernail, and had flesh under all the rest. I felt sick… spent the whole rest of that day, and some of the next, just crying and throwing up. At my hearing, they said I still had a full magazine. Hadn’t fired one round.”
Rose brushed aside a tear. “You killed a half dozen armed men with your bare hands, to save a child.”
“Doesn’t seem real, does it? Not the kind of thing that ever really happens. But what else could have happened? I certainly didn’t have any better explanation. And so they kicked me to the streets, in the same rags I wore when I was first conscripted. They hadn’t even been washed in all that time. I still don’t understand why they didn’t just hang or shoot me.”
“They wanted to send a message,” Rosa said softly. “To you, and to anyone who met you. That this is what happens to heroes. They go back to scavenging, with the rest of us.”
Pike scoffed, and hung his head. “I wasn’t a hero that day. I was a monster. Maybe different from those other guys, but no better.”
Rosa smiled softly and poured him another cup. “I respectfully disagree,” she said. “A monster would have rationalized those actions, justified them. A monster would tell himself that he was a better man than those, worn the deed like a badge of honor. Guilt, Richard Pike, is the curse of the true human being.”
The tears flowed, but with a smile for company. “Thank you,” he sobbed.