Photo by Ricardo Soria on Unsplash

I am a messenger between two kings. The first king, mine, has prepared a treaty for the second. An invitation to peace. An attempt to restore the civility and order of society before the blast.

I have my doubts it will work. Don’t get me wrong. I did like things better the way they were before, but I find the whole exercise so futile. Sooner or later, humanity returns to its destructive habits. Unity now will do nothing more than re-converge us towards the same conditions that led to disaster in the first place. Why else post-blast, if not because he is flawed and selfish, does even our king hoard our resources and watch others with suspicion? Why do we insist on tribalism?

Still, I serve my king because I’m a part of that tribalism too. I don’t know what else to do. I don’t want my skull bashed in.

So across this decaying landscape I go on my bicycle, cylindrical canister strapped to my back. The streets are quiet. There are not many foragers out today, but high up I can see people huddled in the gutted out carapaces of old apartment blocks, lighting fires with hacked up support beams and siphoned petrol. A few have worked out how to recharge car batteries, rig up old hi-fis and washing machines, but that’s as far as it goes for electricity. The power lines have been down for years, and without them everything else is useless.

I hope that anyone watching does not look at me too closely. That they mistake my scroll case for a scabbard and let me pass.

It seems appropriate that paper is what the treaty is made of now. It’s not fancy paper. I mean, by today’s standards, yes it is. A smooth, thin, crisp stretch of brown kraft paper, cut to size from a roll plundered from the art supply cupboard of an abandoned school. But back in the day paper used for official purposes was even more special. It implied a worth correlated with its thickness. A notebook, some A4, the back of an old till receipt — something like that might do for everyday things like school notes or a shopping list. But something like a deed or a diploma… Now there was some beautiful paper, textured and creamy-looking, so thick that it twanged if you shook it. Even in the age of computers we were still inscribing important things onto paper as if we could never quite trust a machine to keep our documents in an indelible form.

Turns out we were right. All the computers are gone now. A couple of electromagnetic pulse bombs, and everything we’ve built falls to ruin. We’re not civilized enough to retain the physical and social structures we once had. Everyone is smashing windows and faces now. Nobody was killed in the blast, but everyone is dying all the same.

Tearing myself away from such cheerful thoughts, I reach the border between my king’s territory and the next. It’s nothing more than a line of charred tires, the corpse of an old dog, and a few sticks tied with scraps of red cloth, but everyone knows what it means. I get off my bike and maneuver it across the line of detritus, checking carefully to my left and right for ambushes. As soon as I’m clear, I push off. I pedal quickly and don’t look back.

The gates to the king’s compound itself are even more threatening, but also funny, in a way. It’s like when designing his post-apocalyptic palace the rival king could not help borrowing from his personal bank of Hollywood memories. Everything is covered in spikes and threatening slogans. The spikes are tipped with red, but the hue is too vivid to be that of real dried blood. Someone must have taken a trip to the hardware store and picked up a couple cans of paint. I stop smiling when I spot two human bodies further along, impaled on the spikes.

I’m trembling by the time I get to the entry gate, preventing myself from fleeing only by remembering a popular old maxim: “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

The guard there is slouched at a table, feet propped up on the chair opposite, and drinking from a tin of mushroom soup. A small fire nearby feeds on his garbage and keeps him warm. He sees me, gets up, and struts with the sort of lazy, confident swagger that can only come from reckless profiteering. He pulls a hunting knife from his waistband, twirls it in a lazy circle, tucks it back, and comes over.

“What do you want?”

It takes every last drop of my courage to stay standing tall, to subdue my visible signs of terror, get the canister off my back, and present him with the scroll. I hope he will mistake my silence for authority, for simply not feeling the need to speak.

He tugs it open, ripping one edge slightly, and reads. His laugh is loud and messy, like he’s at the movies and his mouth is still full of popcorn.

“And what if I don’t deliver this treaty?”

“It’s important. It’s a message from my king to yours. Official.”

“Well, consider your message officially rejected.”

I can see it in his eyes. He loves this new world. That jagged can of soup is worth more to him than a welcoming bowl of it in the old world, as long as he can have it and others can’t. He’s in no hurry to change things, and in no danger for not delivering my king’s message. He scrunches the scroll into a ball, savoring every last crinkle and crackle the paper makes as it collapses. The highlights in his eyes grow and dance just for a moment as he throws the treaty into his fire.

There are no phone calls I can make, nowhere to send an email. The scroll is gone. And there’s nothing I can do about it.

C. J. Lawrence has lived in South Africa, England and Japan, and now Australia. She has written dozens of short stories, plus a novel which she is slowly coaxing to life. When not staring at spreadsheets all day, she can be found daydreaming about birds, snacks, escaping into the wilderness, or how to trick her boyfriend into making her tea. You can find her here.