Linford brought me to a stop outside a small dark apartment building. There was nothing significant about it and looked the same as the surrounding buildings – dark, empty, dead and forgotten.
“Be watchful what you say, warrior,” Linford said. “Rhema is more than she look. She know if you lie.”
“I won’t lie.”
“Many say such things. Many pay the price.”
“There’s a price for lying too?”
“Lying can cost lives.”
“Okay. No lies.”
Linford knocked the door with a gentle rap. It opened quietly. Linford made a gesture and the two men stepped aside. The entrance was in a similarly squalid condition like the other apartment blocks Linford had led me through. Dirt and debris covered the floor and ears of wall paper flapped in the cold breeze.
On a wall someone had scrawled the words: Rhema Sees You. The guards closed and bolted the door. Linford led me up four flights of stairs. The top and bottom of each flight were guarded by masked people armed with long knives that glinted in the darkness. When we reached the top I saw burning candles on mounds of old candle wax.
The breeze on my face was warm and I detected an aroma of incense. The corridor was carpeted and clean. Pictures of trees and lakes were hung neatly on the walls. It actually looked like someone lived here rather than just survived. Linford knocked on a door at the end of the corridor. A pale-faced woman dressed in a thin red robe glanced from Linford to me then bowed and let us inside.
I didn’t know what to expect but a clean welcoming kitchen lit by electric lights surprised me. It looked better than my meagre apartment.
“Wait. I must speak to Rhema.” Linford gestured to the girl in the red robe. “Oshema, fetch a nourishing drink for our guest.”
Linford parted a thick beaded curtain and left me with Oshema.
“Don’t suppose you’ve got a Budweiser,” I joked.
“The Lady does not allow it,” Oshema said. “I may bring you a tonic if you are thirsty.”
“A tonic of what?”
“Herbs, spices and fruits. It can revive even the weariest of souls.”
“Sure. I’ll try some.”
I watched Oshema prepare the brew. She went about her work in silence. I wondered how one woman like Rhema could command such loyalty. Oshema had that aura of dedication I hadn’t seen since the war. Her red robes whispered as she opened cupboards and fetched out ingredients.
When she bent down I caught myself gazing at her cleavage as her robe billowed forward. Her milky white skin was stark against her robes.
I closed my eyes and looked away.
I felt guilty for invading the privacy of what I suppose was a holy woman. Those in Zone 2 knew Rhema had strange powers and that her followers were devout in whatever religion they followed.
With religion abolished generations had grown up without learning what I consider to be a fundamental part of life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a believer, after the shit I’ve seen who could blame me? I’ve always had a hard time accepting the concept of a god but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some important moral lessons to be learned from religion.
I would never mock anyone for worshipping their deity, but I do respect them for their devotion and loyalty.
Oshema placed a plastic tumbler on the kitchen counter. “You may find the first sip bitter at first but the warmth that follows is worth it.”
I swished the liquid around and inhaled the vapours. “Smells like Gin.”
Oshema smiled. “So I have heard.”
“You don’t know what Gin tastes like?”
“No. Alcohol is forbidden.”
“You’re missing out,” I replied.
I took a tentative sip. She wasn’t wrong. It was bitter and pungent. It reminded me of sweaty socks and old wet grass we kept in a compost pile at the bottom of our garden. As I swallowed more I felt warmth spread through my chest. It reminded of the heat wave my regiment suffered through in Pakistan many years ago. We were cut off from our supply line for several days and when we finally stumbled into a lush oasis in the mountains we couldn’t get enough of the cool spring water.
My throat was so dry I could feel that cold water all the way down into my stomach. Oshema’s brew had the same effect. I hadn’t realised how cold it was in the Wastelands until the warmth from the drink filled my body. I knocked it all back and returned the tumbler to Oshema.
“Tastes like sweaty socks.”
Oshema frowned. “So…not good?”
“Oh it’s good. Very good. If you’d have marketed that years ago you’d be a rich woman.”
“Money is of no use to me.” Oshema rinsed and dried the tumbler. “Is that what you desire?”
“No. Not really. But I wish I had more for MET instead of coming here.”
The beaded curtain behind me clinked. “What wrong with here?”
I turned to see Linford frowning at me. “It’s dangerous for one thing. And cold too,” I added. I glanced around the kitchen. “Obviously not right here but the Wastelands are no place to live.”
“You are right, warrior. It is cold.”
Linford and I stared at each other for a moment. I sensed sudden tension as if I had insulted the very people I sought to help me. Then Linford let out a deep rolling boom of laughter and slapped me on the shoulder.
“Come. Rhema is want to meet the warrior who saved her guardian.”
I smiled at Oshema and followed Linford through the beaded curtain. The room beyond caught me by surprise. I’d heard the rumours of Rhema from those in back street bars who spoke in whispers, where liquor can still be bought and fragments of the old world linger on.
The first thing that came to mind was Voodoo, the stereotypical sort portrayed in movies. Against the left hand wall was a small altar adorned with animal skulls, candles, flowers and small silver bowls. The room itself was quite plain, dark red walls with no pictures save for a large dream catcher on each. I saw no source for the heat yet I felt moisture on my brow the moment I stepped inside.
The ceiling was covered in strange symbols, both large and small. I recognised a few Aboriginal symbols from my hard days in Australia. It must have taken a long time to write them all out. A mound of colourful cushions was piled against the wall to my right.
Rhema was sat on a low armchair. It’s hard to describe Rhema in quick and easy terms. She looked similar to a small Buddha statue I kept near our front door. It was a gift from my brother who told me to rub its belly every time I left the house to be blessed with a good day.
Rhema slouched in her armchair. It didn’t look like she was capable of sitting upright. An arrangement of robes and wraps flowed over her large body, except her dark bulbous stomach that glistened in the candle light. Her long hair was braided with an assortment of beads and trinkets and her neck seemed none existent. Several chins lay on top of one another until the lowest one sat on her large chest.
The most startling thing about Rhema was her eyes, or eye. Her left eye was totally white. No pupil or iris. It looked false, but as she looked me up and down I saw it move in its socket. I obviously tried to look elsewhere but Rhema smiled at me.
“You think true, chile,” she said. It had been a long time since I heard a beautiful Jamaican accent. “My eye sees you well. Come. Sit.”
I lowered myself onto the cushions. Linford gave Rhema a short bow and left us alone.
“You be a warrior.”
“Was. A soldier during the war.”
“Now you survive wit jus' your memories for company.”
She pronounced it ‘comp arnee.’
“If you mean my family, yes. They were killed in Green Park.”
Rhema leaned forward. Her chins slid down her chest. “You suffer. How long you be slippin'?”
“A while. It gets worse every day.”
“Do you see them?”
“Not yet.” I remembered Linford’s warning about lying. “At least I don’t think so. Maybe in a bar last week I think I saw someone…but it could have been a shadow or a reflection.”
“Subtle they come. Make you question you eyes.”
“I don’t want to slip. I’d rather die than lose myself to my own memories.”
“An' so you come to me. Tell me chile, how you think I can help?”
I had worried about this kind of question. I didn’t want to insult her by saying I knew she could help me, it felt too much like a quick and easy paid transaction. But I also couldn’t say I didn’t know, because that implied I was just curious and possibly wasting her time, or even worse, that I was a spy. The government have made it very clear that anyone following or practising religion would be branded outlaws, punishable by death.
“The world has shunned religion in favour of Zoneism,” I said. “I don’t think this has helped anyone but the rich. Maybe it still has a part to play.”
Rhema laughed. It was a deep throaty sound with genuine humour. “You say mebbe, chile. Is good to have doubts. Doubts make us question what be wrong.”
“I admit I’m not a religious man, but I have nowhere else to turn.”
“Like so many. Answer me this, chile, if you memories were purged what would you do?”
“Leave and never come back.” I said this without hesitation.
“Why you no leave anyway?”
“Because my memories haunt me, no matter where I am. Without them I am free. I would leave the misery of the city and experience the world for the first time. I have no family to care for. No friends to share my life with. My memories are killing me.”
Rhema stared at me for a long moment. Her white eyeball twitched back and forth.
“The Cleansing is no like MET. Is painful an leave scar that last a life time.”
“I don’t care. It’s a price I’m willing to pay to stop myself from slipping.”
“How many did you kill?”
Her question caught me off guard. “Too many.”
“Why you kill them?”
“To stop the plague.”
“That no reason,” said Rhema with a frown. “Warrior take orders, kill infected to stop plague. But why?”
“To protect my family,” I said.
Rhema smiled. “But why not take family to safe place?”
“I couldn’t leave. Many did for that very reason.”
“But not you, chile, why?”
“I wouldn’t abandon my friends. They needed my support and protection. If I knew they would be safe I could have left. But to live with the thought that my inaction could be the cause of their death… No. Even with my family slaughtered by the Peacekeeper’s I would never abandon my duty to protect.”
“You believe in loyalty an honour?”
“Truth? Love? Friendship?”
“Yes. All of those. Without a doubt.”
When Rhema nodded the trinkets in her hair clinked together. “I will cleanse you, chile. You have heart of a warrior an' the soul of a true friend.”
Relief and sorrow washed over me. “What is your price? I have little funds but it’s yours if you want it.”
Rhema laughed. “I seek no money.”
I frowned. “Then why do it? Why put yourself in such danger?”
“Because I give hope to those slippin' into darkness. There was a time, much long ago, where people cared for others. Not give their service for coins or exuberant trinkets. They help folk because them can. Nature make them how them are. Nature cannot be stopped. It is a thing of balance. One good deed mean a bad deed happen. But where many bad deed go without good people to give balance back, nature take over to wipe away the darkness.
“You’re talking about the plague.”
Rhema grinned at me. “For a warrior you got rare sense of insight.”
“The plague was nature getting pissed off?” I asked.
“Nature is both cruel and kind,” Rhema said. “You can’t have one without the other.”
I wasn’t sure if I believed Rhema’s easy theory. “So who are the bad guys?”
“Everyone of us be bad. The world be filled wit greed an' violence an' selfishness.”
I thought about this for a moment. I supposed there could be some sense in her theory. Mankind has always fiddled and messed with things, from genetic engineering to the first atomic bomb. We had raped the planet in every conceivable way but it couldn’t last forever, sooner or later something had to give and it seemed that mankind had finally crossed the line where nature was waiting to correct the imbalance.
I had spent years spilling the blood of the infected right across the planet but I refused to believe every life I took was that of a greedy selfish deviant who took and never gave. I questioned Rhema’s belief that mankind was inherently bad but I agreed with her reasoning about nature seeking to even the balance of things.
“Will the world ever recover?”
“It recover good, in time,” Rhema said. “But nature need help.”
“From people like you?”
Rhema smiled. “An' you, warrior.”