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Whatever else one might have said about the Apocalypse, it was thorough. I, with the aid of my three companions, had killed every single living thing on earth, right down to the bacteria, and we had done it with neither remorse nor hesitation. When you’re created for a single purpose, there’s not a lot of room for exploring your options, but what now that our purpose was no more? The earth was dead, and I know dead. What was left? Just me and my companions, now apart from the Consensus.
I wondered for a while if we were meant to destroy ourselves and thus complete the annihilation, but killing Death made about as much sense as throwing a lit match on a forest fire. As for the others . . . well, in truth they were just aspects of me, as I was an aspect of the Consensus. I knew that and I think the other Horsemen did too, but it wouldn’t be tactful to mention it.
After the Apocalypse the Horsemen rode off in separate directions. We met up now and then over the centuries, stayed together for awhile as the mood took us, broke apart again. The last time we were together we had a grand old time. War turned his back for a moment, and Pestilence tried to give him a cold. War chopped Pestilence’s head off and kicked it like a soccer ball. It was a good kick. Three hundred yards across the blighted landscape, easily. By the time Pestilence’s headless body managed, scrabbling across the dust and debris, to feel its way to where the head had rolled, we were pretty sure he wouldn’t try that again. A pity, really. I hadn’t laughed so hard since the Apocalypse.
After that we separated again, which was why I happened to be alone, riding along on a manifestation of a horse that I’d named Patience, brooding as is my habit, and almost didn’t notice when I came across the impossible.
A pine seedling.
When I said thorough, I meant thorough. There was nothing left living on earth, and that included the seeds, spores, sperm, eggs, what have you, of every living thing. Dead as dead can be, and no mistake. Yet here was this clearly impossible thing growing in the lee of a boulder in a cold northern latitude. The seedling was spindly, green, and definitely alive.
And as God at the moment wasn’t my witness, I had no idea what I should do.
* * *
“There’s the pine beetle and the tent caterpillar,” Pestilence said and then immediately corrected himself, looking defeated. “No, right. You killed them all. No pests, no fungus. . . . Sorry, but I’m out of ideas.”
I had summoned my fellow Horsemen to the spot where I found the impossible green thing, but as I feared, they weren’t much help. Everything Pestilence required to fulfill his function—insects, bacteria, viruses—was a living thing itself, only now there weren’t any living things. Except for this one impossible green seedling.
“It’s a tree. I’m the personification of strife and destruction,” said War. “I’m not a gardener.”
“I could starve it for water,” Famine said, but I shook my head.
“Feh. I could have Patience eat it, if that was all that was required. Of course we could destroy the tree, but you’re missing the point, all of you. This tree should not be here! Besides water, these things need microbes and earthworms to prepare the soil properly, to fix nitrogen and so forth. If you start from scratch, it would take several million years at a minimum to prep the earth for a pine tree, and we haven’t been here that long.”
“You sound like a biology teacher,” Pestilence said. “How do you know all this?”
I shrugged. “Who understands biological processes better than Death? The point is that this thing could not possibly exist. Collectively, we destroyed everything that would make it possible. The earth was burned clean, including all spores and seeds. Our job was finished, Horsemen.”
“Apparently not,” said War.
I put my hands on my bony hips. “Excuse me. There were no mistakes.” I knew that it was War’s nature to feed on strife, but I couldn’t resist being a little offended.
War was surprisingly conciliatory. “I’m not saying there was anything of the sort,” he said. “I’m saying that, when you eliminate the impossible, then what’s left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
Now we were all staring at him.
War frowned, then shrugged his massive shoulders. “What? There were some libraries left, until everything moldered away. So I read a few books. I was bored. The fact is that the pine seedling is here, therefore it is not impossible.”
Much as I hated to admit it, War had a point. “Fine, then. We’re looking right at the improbable. If anyone knows what the truth that goes with this ‘improbable’ is, I’d like to hear it.”
The other three just looked at each other, then back at me. Apparently this was all the counsel I was going to get.
* * *
Over the centuries, some people tended to confuse Death and Destiny, perhaps because, being the end of things, I always knew how the story turned out. Looking at this growing tree, I could read its destiny as if it were one of War’s long-gone books: it would grow, and then it would die. I could name the hour. But before that happened, it was going to live for a very long time, and it was going to self-pollinate with a little help from the wind, and it was going to make more trees just like it. Metabolism would reestablish itself in the world, DNA would propagate, cell growth, cell death, and I was going to have work to do again. And so were Famine and Pestilence and, yes, War. In time, the earth was going to renew itself, even after we had scoured it absolutely clean.
I’ve spent a lot of time at the tree now. The others have come by now and then, but no one has much to say, other than that the tree has grown, which is obvious. That’s how biology is preprogrammed: grow, peak, decline, die. It is totally remarkable in its sheer unremarkableness.
Eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, though highly improbable, is the answer.
Not my thought. Not my voice. Rather, a voice I had not heard in a very long time.
“You did it,” I said. “The Consensus.”
“But . . . why? I thought this was the end. You know, as in ‘The End.’ I thought that’s what ‘Apocalypse’ was!”
We’re going to try again. We are Alpha and Omega. We can do that.
“The Consensus made a mistake!?”
All Our creations contain a tiny spark of divinity. That’s what creation is, and divinity always has its own ends, so there was no mistake, or even right or wrong. Free Will allows only choices and consequences.
Yes. You are the consequences.
“You’re saying that heaven, hell, all that is not real?”
Of course it is real. Both are contained within Us, as are all the pieces of Our divinity. Save you four, and the Adversary . . . for now.
The reference to the Adversary caused a twinge within me that I didn’t quite understand, but then I couldn’t get my desiccated brain around what the Consensus was telling me anyway. It was too much. I already understood far more than I wanted to. “It’s going to happen again, isn’t it?”
“Then why should we wait here? Let us return to You, and you can create us again if need be.”
No explanation. Just “no.”
“Four sparks left on earth. Four little pieces. Famine, Pestilence, War, and Death . . . do you not feel our absence?”
Silence. The deep and heavy silence that went beyond a simple lack of answer was all that the Consensus gave me or, I could tell, was going to give me. I felt as if I were on the brink of an abyss, or possibly an understanding, if only I could work out which direction I should step.
“How many more times? Will the Source that knows all at least tell me that?”
You are Our faithful servant. If you really want to know, We will tell you.
“Please,” I said. “I have to know.”
Until We are satisfied.
* * *
I found the Horsemen sitting together. Someone, probably Famine, as he was the best scavenger, had managed to scrounge a few pieces of dead wood from somewhere and had a little campfire going, which the others were gathered around. Not for the warmth—we neither needed nor felt it—but perhaps for the novelty. Pestilence had long since learned to turn his bow into a musical instrument of sorts, and he plucked it now as I arrived.
“A ballad, I think,” he said. “I know a few.”
War frowned. “Before you begin, I must warn you that I am in a melancholy mood and would rather not be. Does your song end well?”
Pestilence sighed. “Of course it doesn’t end well. It’s a ballad.”
“The song will have to wait,” I said. “Horsemen, mount up.”
Famine frowned, though even as he did so, the other horses appeared, hearing my summons. I had Patience already.
“Why?” Famine asked. “What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to scour the earth clean again. Right now.”
“The tree?” asked Pestilence.
“Are you sure about this?” War asked, though he already had his sword out. “I honestly don’t know what I can do. It’s not an enemy. It’s a tree.”
“Me either,” said Famine. “Why didn’t you let Patience eat the tree when it was small enough?”
“Because then I didn’t know why the tree was here. Now I do. We’ll manage.”
“Are you sure?” War asked again. “It’s not time. It’s not ordained. You know this.”
“I also know how this tale will unfold if we do nothing. That’s our choice. I have made mine, and thus so have you. Take your reins.”
“I don’t feel well,” Pestilence said.
I think he felt as I did. The way, I think, the Adversary must have felt. Our kinship to him was a lot clearer to me now. “I know. Mount up.”
We mounted our horses. War’s blood-red stallion sensed our intention. He was already breathing fire.
I had my scythe; War, his sword; Pestilence, his bow with no arrows and a crown of gold upon his head. Famine held out his tarnished scales, and he grinned.
“So be it. Balance all and bollocks to the hindmost!”
I pointed Patience toward the renewal of the earth and bright green growing things. To hell or heaven with all that, I didn’t much care which. Toward the game whose rules we didn’t make but were about to try to change. The choice was now behind us, consequences ahead, and the spark of divinity within us. I raised my scythe in the face of the future and set my spurs to the flanks of Patience one more time.
The ravaged earth rumbled once more with the thunder of our hoofbeats.
What are you doing?!
I thought this would get Their attention. I grinned, for in truth I could do little else. “What we were put here to do.”
This action is not of the Consensus. You know Our will.
“Do I? My brothers and I were created to be outside the Consensus. Wasn’t that the point?”
“From fulfilling our mission? No.”
There’s a word I’m betting the Consensus hasn’t heard lately. Not since . . . well, the less said about that the better. Even so, the subject of the Adversary had been on my mind lately, especially after the Consensus mentioned the obvious fact that He was outside the Consensus now as well. The memory of Him made me think that, perhaps, I was on to something.
“Who are you talking to?” asked Pestilence.
“No one,” I said. “Get ready.”
The tree was visible ahead. As was the habit of young living things it had grown, now topping at least ten feet. Even so, the trunk was not very thick. One good blow from the scythe would do the trick, and I never missed. I drew back the scythe as Patience charged the tree. The blow never landed.
I suspected as much.
* * *
You will stop this nonsense at once!
Silence. While I was waiting for the answer I wasn’t sure would come, I took the time to get a better look at my surroundings, and I had to admit the Consensus had outdone itself. Somewhere within the infinite that was the Consensus, they had created a pocket universe, and so far as I could tell, it was all for me. I stood on a marble island that floated in black space. There were cities, roads, mountains, and trees all made from time-worn bones.
Or we will leave you here forever, alone.
In truth I rather liked the change, but the Consensus knew that.
“Is that supposed to be a threat?” I asked. “I mean, seriously? If you leave me here, of course I’ll stop the ‘nonsense,’ as You call it. The tree is out of my reach. So why are we even discussing this?”
Silence. I sighed. There was nothing like an inconvenient fact to disturb any consensus, even this one.
“Shall I say it, then? The Consensus can’t leave me here, at least not forever. Not if They truly want to try subcreation again. Immortality is for the spirit, not the body, and the Consensus chose to make Death corporeal. So to be blunt—you need me.”
You forget your place! Remember the fate of the Adversary.
I just kept grinning, though there was no humor in it. “Not likely. I was there. Not as I am now, no. Just one more spark of the divine. Like Him, and even then the troubles made no sense if you think about it, which none of us did, caught up in the moment as we were. Yet no part of the Consensus can oppose the Consensus. That’s what the word ‘consensus’ means. So how could there be an Adversary at all?”
More silence. I was starting to enjoy myself. “Obviously, you made Him to play the role He played. Just as you made me and my three brothers, who were all aspects of me. But why make us flesh, incarnate? You didn’t need any of us, not then. The forces that we represent arose naturally in the world, because they were all embodied in the Consensus, and thus in all the divine sparks that once stood as living beings on the earth. Just as the Adversary. I’m right, aren’t I?”
More silence. Then, You’ll be lonely here. You must have company.
In an instant my brothers were made flesh again. For a moment all they could do was stand mute, staring at each other, at themselves, their hands, fingers, elbows. Almost as one they reached up and touched their own faces, then their brothers’. I just sighed.
“Sorry, my brothers. I didn’t ask for this. You were part of the Consensus again. Do you remember?”
After a short hesitation War nodded, then Pestilence and Famine followed suit. “Please. . . .” Famine said, but I knew he was not talking to me. “Take us back.”
I didn’t know if the others heard the Consensus or not, but it wasn’t important now. I did hear, and though I was no longer part of the Consensus nor had been in some time, I still remembered what it was like. And I knew what the Consensus felt when my three brothers were separated from them again.
“We thought we were created to do a job, but it turns out that was just an excuse. The Consensus doesn’t want you back,” I said. “Any more than it wants me or the Adversary.”
War frowned. “But . . . why? Are we not of the Consensus?”
“Of course we are. That’s precisely the problem.”
Famine and Pestilence just stared at me, but there was a glimmer of understanding in War’s eyes. That didn’t surprise me. I would never call him wise, but he was always clever in his way.
“We are separate from the Consensus,” War said, “So they can pretend we are not of it.”
I turned my voice back to the black void above us. “How many eons has the Adversary burned in hell so you can pretend He isn’t as much a part of You as we are? So that there is something external to blame when it all goes sour? Is that the Consensus?” I turned back to my brothers. “Is that what you believed thirty seconds ago?”
Even Pestilence and Famine understood this time. “Yes,” they all said.
We will take you in and spit you out again.
Finally. “Try it.”
One by one my brothers blinked out again. I just waited. And waited. “Well?”
We’ve changed Our mind.
“You haven’t changed Your mind. You can’t take me back because right now I don’t want to go back, and you still don’t really want me. That being the case, I don’t belong to You. You will not take me back in and spit me out again all fresh and new and ignorant, eager to do Your bidding. You will not simply repeat old mistakes. You will deal with me as I am. How does it feel, by the way? With Pestilence and Famine and War back where they belong?”
Part of us. . . .
“That’s right. No wonder your creations all fail. They are as incomplete as you are. We need a new Consensus.”
You are incomplete, too.
“Yes,” I said, because it was so.
Come home. We will bear it.
“Mighty noble of you, but sorry—it’s not that easy. We must be complete before any new action begins. A true Consensus.”
We are the true Consensus!
“Not without me, You’re not. And not without Him. You know who I mean.”
Pure astonishment swept over me like an ocean wave. You’re not serious!
“I Am. The Adversary too. All or nothing.”
More of that heavy silence. Then, We can’t.
I shrugged. “All sparks of the divine, remember? Your choice.”
I was without Patience, unfortunately, but there was a palace made of bones within easy walking distance. I decided to go exploring my new home and start there and I set out walking, but the Consensus still hovered, somewhere on the edge of my personal hell.
We are better off without you.
“Tell yourself that if it helps, but go away and leave me be. If I’ve got an eternity to get through, I’d like to get started.”
It hurts. The collective voice of the Consensus was barely a whisper.
When We are complete. The Adversary, the Horsemen. . . . To know the true nature of all that We are. It hurts!
As much as I missed being of the Consensus, there were some advantages to being outside of it. Perspective, for one.
“Of course it hurts. It’s supposed to,” I said, not looking back.
Why? The question was a wail of anguish.
“Pain teaches. Pain tells a person that something is wrong. You didn’t address the problems, You just avoided the lesson. You put the Adversary and the Horsemen outside Yourself and then confused your blissful ignorance with actual bliss.” Angry as I was, I managed to reflect a bit on what I was saying even as I said it, and then I had a new understanding. “What parts did you use for the creation, by the way? Mostly other bits of the Consensus that you thought maybe didn’t belong? Like my brothers and me?”
There was a long pause, followed by silence.
I nodded. “So the earth got the parts you didn’t want, and it all went to hell in a handbasket? Big surprise. You say my brothers and I are the consequences of Free Will and that’s true, but whose consequences? I say Mankind didn’t fail—You did.”
Next time. . . .
“Oh, spare me. Grow your trees, reseed the earth with armadillos as the dominant species for all I care. Just don’t come asking me to bail you out when it all goes wrong again. As of now, I’m retired.”
“All or nothing. That’s the deal.”
A moment before, I had been walking. Now I was mounted on Patience once more as one by one the other Horsemen appeared riding beside me. I sighed. Not that I’d expected it to be that easy. We were stubborn. I remembered. But I knew They were going to think about it. They really couldn’t help themselves.
“I feel like a bloody yo-yo,” said War.
“Do you think we’ll ever get to go home?” Famine asked.
“I’m not sure I want to,” Pestilence said. “I never felt welcome there, and at least this place is new.”
“We will go home and be welcome, too,” I said. “When the We that is no longer Us wises up and becomes Us again. Until then, think of this as a holiday.”
“So what do you want to do?” Pestilence asked, and plucked his bow. The twang echoed for miles. “Perhaps a ballad?”
I grinned. “Maybe later. Right now I think it’s time we got in touch with our divinity, and a little less in touch with our natural inclinations. If you Gentlemen are willing, I have a group project in mind.”
War raised a bushy eyebrow. “Oh? What is it?”
“We’re going to plant a tree.”
© Richard Parks