Although it sounds like the first chapter to a larger work (or, you know, that's what I'm told it sounds like) this is actually a stand-alone piece. Hope you enjoy it.
They had introduced themselves as Regis and Philbin. Leonard hadn't dared laugh. They wore identical dung-brown Armani with orange pulp ties, clothes as expensive as they were grotesque. Everything about them implied mirrored sunglasses and a three letter acronym.
Leonard sipped nervously at his water, wincing. His face contorted as the liquid splashed against too-sensitive teeth. His shirt was wet with an evening of spilled drinks and sweat – he ignored it. He pushed food half-heartedly about his plate, waiting.
"Again," Philbin said, without taking his eyes off the laptop.
Leonard sighed, reached out and tapped the enter key. At his touch, windows cascaded across the monitor. Regis smiled and glanced at his Rolex. Philbin frowned.
"Explain," he said, when the last window appeared.
"But I've already-"
Leonard dragged a paper napkin over his forehead, dropping the sodden mass into his plate where it slowly sank into his spaghetti. He explained. Again.
"The program is a tarot reader. Using a special seventy-eight card deck, it's supposed to foretell an aspect of the future. There are five suits; cups, swords, wands, pentacles-"
"Hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs," Regis interrupted, displaying double rows of bright white teeth.
"Yes, those are the modern day equivalents. Look, what's the point in me telling you this if you already-"
"Just get on with it," Philbin growled.
Leonard grimaced and got on with it.
"Five suits. The four I mentioned, plus trump, the major arcana. Each of the suits deals with a separate aspect of life; emotional, material, whatever you want. Each card has a different meaning depending on where on the table it's placed, and whether it's right side up or not.
"In this instance, there are a bit under four-point-seven times ten to the nineteenth power different arrangements possible."
No reaction. Leonard put his head in his hands, oblivious to the lakes of perspiration it revealed along his underarms. "Ordinarily, it displays a single configuration of ten cards. I Frankensteined it to predict what its next prediction looks like, and to loop. I don't know why. I was bored, I guess. I didn't think it would work."
Three heads swiveled to the monitor and looked at the final blinking window.
Regis broke the silence. "So we're back where we started. If it predicts its next arrangement, why does it stop on this one?"
"I don't know!"
"You have to have some ideas," Regis said, teeth gleaming in the restaurant's gloom, making it clear that yes, indeed, he must. Leonard shivered under Philbin's reptilian stare.
"This is what I know. The operation isn't pre-programmed. Run it twice, even starting with identical card layouts, and you get completely different steps, up until the very last prediction. That one," he said, jabbing his finger at the monitor and the image it displayed.
"I've changed the motherboard, the RAM, the operating system. I've dicked around with the coin-flip variables the program uses. I tried it in Australia, in Ghana, in China. I've brought it to church and had the priest do it." His voice lurched to a halt. He continued in a hoarse whisper.
"It doesn't matter what arrangement it starts on, in less than five hundred moves it becomes this one. This program is buying five hundred lottery tickets, and winning every time, with the odds at forty-seven billion billion to one against."
Philbin's frown threatened to overwhelm the rest of his face. "Are you-"
"You can run it backwards too, you know," Leonard continued, lost in the aching absurdity of his position. "It would make sense that, since all roads lead to Rome, starting off inside it would solve our problem."
Regis smiled mechanically.
"Here. Look." Leonard leaned over the table, fingers treading a well rehearsed path. "Watch," he shouted, wiping a strand of spit across the back of his forearm. He hit Enter.
"Nothing happened," Philbin said.
Leonard nodded, falling limp into his seat. "As it turns out, even the road leaving Rome leads to Rome. The pattern is the final destination of every tarot arrangement possible, including itself."
"So what does it predict?" Philbin's voice grated in the stillness.
The air was damp and heavy in Leonard's lungs, exhausting. "There's no way to know. Every card has illimited shades of meaning and parallel implication. It's an ending, in whatever place it occupies. After it happens, there aren't any more predictions. In fact, there will have been no predictions. Past, present, future; gone.