On the table in front of a seated man there was a lean bottle of wine, a lump of bread and a white wedge of mountain cheese.
The man sipped from his glass and watched yellow bars of sunlight retreat from view. He thought about many things, but kept coming back to the permanence of the place. How many lazy eyes over the centuries had contemplated these same shadows, constantly changing but stretching familiarly across the same lines and angles.
He picked up a piece of bread and dropped it into his mouth. And as he chew he noticed a brown pantomime horse picking its way toward him through the disorder of metal tables and chairs.
It was a standard two-man rig, uniformly brown, with the tail and mane made of coarse yarn. The horse stepped nimbly, but cautiously, closer.
Soon, it stopped, nearly on top of the man at the table. He looked up and could see into the eyes behind the mask. The eyes in the horse stared back.
He said nothing, not exactly eager to engage with what he assumed was a busker but not exactly dreading it either.
The horse did nothing.
And the little noises piercing the quiet of the square, insulated as it was from nearby busy thoroughfares, became a little more noticeable. He could hear the faint laughtrack of passing tourists, the buzz of the traffic — and the breathing of the person inside the horse.
“Yes?” he said, involuntarily.
He shifted in his seat, which he began to notice was a bit uncomfortable. He reached for the cheese and sliced off a small piece.
“What’s the trick?” he said, chewing. “I saw this once, I think in Herald Square.”
He paused. “I’m pretty sure.”
He was lying.
“They never expect money for it,” he said, trying to sound sure of himself.
He reached for his glass, took an awkward sip and made an abrupt motion to the waiter across the plaza. Then he stood, his chair jerking and briefly shrieking as it grated along the stone pavers.
But as reached into his pocket for his wallet, the horse finally made a move. It clopped noisily in a half-circle and gestured with its head in the direction it had come from.
He had pulled a 20-euro note from his wallet, but had stopped thinking about his bill. He looked at the horse, at the eyes inside the horse.
He dropped the money on the table and made a move as if to step around the back of the horse. But the horse moved carefully, politely, to block him, turning again and gesturing in the same direction.
“The Algorithm doesn’t see the outliers. O.K.?” came an attempt at an explanation in a dark room. Hanging on the wall behind three people huddld under a lamp was a pantomime horse costume.
“A pantomime horse doesn’t register,” the voice continued. “They see the sameness, the ordinariness of the mass of people. The Algorithm absorbs this, condenses and distills, and out comes pure data. Data that is perfect. Completely errorless in its broad sketches.
“It’s not that it predicts the future. It creates the possibilities that make up the future, which even a fool can see is the same thing.”
“Your trip to the square felt spontaneous, I am sure. But it would have been easy to win a bet on where you would go on an afternoon like this. And what you would order. And the chance that you would do it again grows greater with each sip. The Algorithm works on you with the same inexorable force as that bottle of wine.”
Other than the three people, and the costume, the room was bare.
“Think of those popular science shows that try to explain the multiverse. What you see on the television is an array of vibrating dots. The lives of trillions of beings jiggling like a salesman’s neck tie.
“No. See? No. How can you get to the heart of it with that? You have to come back around. Start over.”
The man talking put his hands down, flat on his knees. Then brought one up to his nose. He arched his back and pointed his face up in the air.
“Think of a dog’s nose,” he said. “Empty spaces next to fitted, sensitive membranes, each of which is wrapping around the folds of the membrane next to it. The anatomy of it is a marvel, really. But take it a step further. Imagine an endless cavern of tiny niches, wending passages and yawning spaces. In some, channels connect. In others, they are merely close. In still others, one space is like a remote outpost, a firewatcher in the Yukon or something. Nothing but void. And all of it, the spaces, the connections, led around by a thinking, but unknowning, whole.”
The man paused.
“The dog, you see?”
He paused again.
“Second flit by here,” he said, pointing to one side of his nose. “But a few feet away,” he added, pointing to the other side, “in a flex of a muscle, a torrent of years passes.
“Some universes track the same times, same realities. Others have stopped altogether. It’s all there. On an ever-jerking, snuffling snout, thrusting into still richer worlds.”
One of the other men made a motion as if to interrupt, but the first man waved him off.
“It’s not a prediction. It’s an echo. All that needs to be done is to give you the meagre means. To ensure you’ll be here. Then the future unfolds a bit more. Like a road map. Stomach pills, larger pants, mere waypoints.
“It’s the inherent fragility of the movement that is the appeal, like those poor bastards in Ireland. An uprising in every generation, reliably and mercilessly repressed.
“No reasonable person could have hoped to succeed in their shoes, but it’s that flawed method, fragile as it is, that is the only source of success. To resist in any other way would require mind-boggling computing power, bottomless resources. These guys pick up a few funny hats, a few yards of felt, and they’ve got a movement.”