The obligatory obscure reference: the bible says that the end of the world will be brought about by the arrival of The four horsemen; Pesitilence, Famine, War and Death. What if they've been here all along?
He balanced his spoon on its neck on the rim of his coffee cup. The bowl on the inside and the handle outside, the bottom of the spoon distorting the reflection of his face looking down at it. It stood there, precariously balanced, oscillating; threatening to fall over, first into the cup and then outside it. He stared at it for a few minutes following the oscillation of the bowl, blinking only ever so often, waiting for it to settle. He picked up the container of sugar and started to pour on the now stable see saw. The steady stream of sugar bounced off the bowl of the spoon into his coffee cup, like stars being sucked into a black hole. He tilted the container further and watched as the crystals of sugar were corrupted from their snowy white to a dark brown before they sank into oblivion.
"Contemplating the end of days?" said a soft voice behind him.
He looked up, his eyes reflecting the lights in the ceiling, small points resisting the darkness of his irises. His pupils, distinct points in the black of space, set in a white as pure as the first snow of winter, were wider than they should be.
"As I am prone to do every time we meet," he said, scratching his beard with dirty fingernails. The lice irritated his skin all too often. "How be you, Pestilence?"
Pestilence unbuttoned his jacket and sat down next to him. "Death," he said, "you look terrible. You really should take better care of yourself. And stop with the heroin, I can give you something that's actually legal."
"You might say that I look like death", Death replied, a hint of a smile on his face.
They sat at the table in silence, Death staring into his coffee cup and Pestilence glancing at Death every few seconds.
"It weighs on you, doesn't it? Knowing that everything will end with you, that you will be last of us to go", Pestilence was staring openly at his friend's pale face.
"The weight on my soul does not come from the knowledge that I will be alone, it comes from not knowing when we will be called into service. The weight seems heaviest when the four us meet", said Death in an even monotone, not looking up from his cup.
"I can prescribe anti-depressants that will help! And why do you insist on us meeting every century?! It isn't like being reminded of what we are is easy on any of us!", Pestilence whispered hoarsely.
As if summoned, the door to the restaurant opened to admit two men. The first, a short, portly monk dressed in coarse robes, a wooden cross hanging around his neck and a rosary wrapped around his right wrist, entered with a smile on his lips, the lines on his face making it seem like his flesh was used to smiling. The other, a thin wiry man dressed in flannel shirt and jeans had his hand, heavily callused from hard labour, on the monks shoulder. He was laughing as he entered. Seeing their friends, War and Famine made their way to the table that Death and Pestilence had occupied.
They sat down at the table. Pestilence smiled at them in return. Death barely looked up from his coffee cup.
"Pleasantries can come later. Important things first, what are we eating? I've been up since the crack of dawn and I'm famished. Chores on the farm don't get crossed off the list without some help," said Famine jovially.
"Aye, in the name of the lord, food and mead must be had! Sustenance!" War exclaimed, scratching the bald spot on the back of his head.
"Indulgence is not becoming of your faith, War", said Death somberly.
"Tut tut, Death. You should know by now ……", War began.
"'A soldier eats and drinks when he can'", said Pestilence and Famine in chorus, with grins on their face.
War harrumphed and rattled off dishes in his loud baritone voice to the server across the hall who hustled to bring them food.
"How are you, Pestilence?", Famine asked his friend, "It's been a busy century, hasn't it? I've come across some of your handiwork. The eradication of smallpox. That was you, wasn't it?"
Pestilence nodded. "It took some doing, finding the right things to whisper and the right ears to whisper in. The Americans and Russians were easy, the Czechs took a little longer. It wouldn't have been possible without the groundwork that War laid down. If it wasn't for his work setting up the UN, the WHO would never have come about."
War looked up from his plate speaking around a mouthful of meat. "It hasn't been fun. I don't know why they're so bent on fighting. First that German kook with his megalomaniacal delusions of grandeur and then the other megalomaniacal kooks on both sides of that war", he stopped speaking. His voice dropping down to a whisper. "I had to make it stop. I had no other choice! It could have gone on for years! I had to give them a way to end that war. I didn't think they'd use it though. I thought the threat of it would be enough. I've been trying to make up for it ever since."
His fork fell to the plate, his rosary taking its place in his hand. Famine reached out to comfort his friend but stopped just short when Death spoke, staring into nothing.
"Try as we might, we cannot escape our purpose. We are the harbingers of Armageddon. It will end with us. Humanity has it's champions, some of whom we've helped. Like you did, Pestilence, helping Rontgen with X-Rays. Or you, Famine, with Borlaug and his discovery of short stalk wheat. What was it that they called him, 'The Man who saved a Billion lives'? Or you, War, seeking to inspire peace by whispering in the ears of men against violence, towards peaceful methods of resistance. Gandhi, King, who else was there? I'm sure there were more. You've been fighting what you are longer than any of us have. Each of us have given up and perhaps taken up the struggle again but you've been steadfast in yours. Even the ones that you favoured with you wisdom were killed by their own kind, were they not? It is in the nature of humanity of consume itself. It struggles against its nature, as we do against our own."
Death looked at each of them in turn. "Pestilence asked me why I insist on meeting every century. We know that we will be the end. We know that we will lock the door of the universe behind us and disappear into oblivion. I know that I will be the last of us to be called upon. I don't know which one of us it will start with. But I do know that it will be my responsibility to carry each of you beyond the veil when your task is done. It will pain me immensely to commit you to the unknown, my brothers, but that is my task, my destiny. I only hope that there is time yet. Which is why we need to meet every century as we have done for millennia, I need to know if it's time for us to ride into oblivion."
Norman Borlag: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_borlag
Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. need no references