There was a shining scalpel in his hand. "You're sure you want to do this?" he asked. He looked askance at the man in the Armani business suit. "It's an old and proud tradition. My family have been haruspices since the days of Trajan. We gave Nostradamus the keys to the hearts of rodents, and showed Newton the words written in the arcs of falling fruit..."
He cut into the breast of the dead bird.
"Gibbon wrote about us. He called us licentious barbarians. Licentious? We were the power behind the throne. We held Rome together, made it the world's first super power. The emperor couldn't put on a sandal without asking us to tell him the will of the gods."
The patter faltered as his blade unfolded the bird's entrails onto an old BART ticket. Silver metal turned through the gleaming organs, sorting fact from fiction, past from future. There was something here, something new, something unexpected.
Ashen faced, he turned and looked at his customer, trying to see the face behind the raybans. The words in the sparrow's entrails were clear. This was the man who had put him here, the man who had stolen his magic and his life.
"You... It was you..."
Roll the clock back to ten years earlier, and ride the stream of traffic down 101 and 280. See the expensive suburbs? That's where we're going. We're looking for a white house on a hill, a house that doesn't look like anything else around.
The sun reflected brightly on a Palo Alto swimming pool, flickering light onto an array of hummingbird feeders. Thirty six of them, placed at different points in the garden. It's all expensive glass from trendy craft shops in Capitola. The fences rise high above the hedges, festooned with CCD arrays and Hall Effect sensors. It's a garden with more sensor technology than the NASA wind tunnels down the road, a garden that the guys at Xerox PARC would have loved to explore.
Take away the tramp's beard, the layer of grime. Give him the Armani suit, the dark glasses. Give him a hundred million dollars and an office on Sand Hill Road. Make him the man the sharp suited VCs meet for breakfast, pitching business plans and dot com dreams. See him walking down the path to the garden, carrying a pitcher of sugar syrup? It's time for him to feed his little helpers.
Back in the house, air-conditioning hums as it chills a cluster of computers. Cables from the garden run down into the machines, feeding them with information. Everything that flies through the garden airspace is tracked. This is Palo Alto's own NORAD, but for hummingbirds, not missiles. Flightpaths and identities are mapped, and custom software turns the beats of the tiny wings into predictions. This is the world of the modern haruspex, enhancing the sooths with technology.
Our future tramp is a rich man. He's using his skills to build the greatest technology boom the world has seen. This is where the dot com boom is being carefully managed. The beat of one hummingbird's wing could be a couple of points up for Netscape's stock, the curve of a flight a decision to invest in a struggling biotech company with an impressive patent portfolio.
But today is the day it will all end. His little hyperactive avian helpers will be dead, and his future will become a blur. The boom he'd been so carefully managing will suddenly lose the feedback circuit that kept it under control. The boom will become a bubble, and he will lose everything.
Someone has spiked the sugar water with amphetamines.
A hummingbird on speed is a dangerous thing. Nectar makes them aggressive territorial creatures that fight for the control of a garden, much like the battles of capital in the stock market. Speed turns them into little flying missiles, and skirmishes of wings become sharp beaks piecing hearts and eyes. Blood and feathers fly, and hummingbirds fall.
The battle is soon over, and the bodies of the birds float gently in the cold water of the swimming pool.
In the office, things are just as heated. Stock dealing software has made trade after automated trade. Long term investments have been hedged and shorted, while in and out deals are now part of long term trust funds managed by slow trustees somewhere in the British Virgin Islands. His world is upside down, and there is no future in the future.
Fast forward again. Back to the streets of San Francisco, and the angry fog and the words written in the heart of a dead sparrow.
[Update - minor edits made on 04/01/2006]