Madame Sosotris, whose cold seemed omnipresent, sneezed into her soup. Splashes of Cream of Asparagus spattered the tablecloth and her dress, neither of which appeared to bother her. A drip appeared at the end of her reddened nose, and a few seconds fell into her soup. If she noticed at all, she pretended not to. Her (somewhat unwilling) dinner companion coughed into his napkin and contemplated rushing to the toilets to throw up. Eventually, after a prolonged coughing fit that finally had Madame Sosotris looking at him with an appraising eye, he decided not to.
"Did something go down the wrong way?" Her voice was like nails on a chalkboard, and he reflexively bit his spoon. His teeth tingled.
"Thank-you for your concern, Madame, but it is a lingering memory of mustard gas," he said, dipping his spoon into his soup and stirring it slowly counter-clockwise. He found that he'd rather lost his appetite. Madame Sosotris slurped hers with enthusiasm, the addition of bodily fluids apparently adding to its appeal for her. "When do we get to the bit where you reveal my future?" he asked, considering the salt and pepper pots on the table in case one of them might make the soup more appetising.
His name was Major John Cadwaller and he'd been a Major for seven days so far. Much of his promotion amounted to an increase in paperwork and less time to stay fit, or even oversee the troops staying fit, and he was wondering if the promotion was really worth it. Then his new commanding officer had called him into his office, made him wait in a grim little antechamber with a frozen corpse for thirty minutes, and then given him this task.
Get to Sosotris, his CO had said, barely looking up from the newspaper he thought a report was hiding, and find out what she sees in the future for us. Don't give me any back-talk about utilising proper info, this is proper info. You'll see it for yourself when you meet her. Oh, and try not to breathe too much near her. She's always ill.
"You're a fast one, aren't you?" Madame Sosotris laid her spoon down in her soup with a splash and grinned, showing too few teeth and too many gaps. One or two of the gaps looked a little odd, as though the teeth that had once been there hadn't been quite right somehow. Major Cadwaller tried not to stare, and so stirred his soup instead. "We can do it right now, Major, since we've ordered. The food's not important for the reading, just for the reader." She cackled, and he frowned at his soup. He hadn't known that people could actually cackle. She sounded like an overexcited chicken.
"Don't you need equipment?" He looked up now, gesturing with his hand and spoon and accidentally showering a nearby diner and his table with Cream of Asparagus soup. When the diner turned to see who was throwing food at him, the Major tilted his head slightly, indicating Madame Sosotris as the culprit, and didn't feel even a single pang of guilt.
"The future's all around us," said Madame Sosotris. She laid both her palms flat on the table. "Most of the trick is recognising where its concentrated and then reading it from there. That's most accurate. Otherwise, even a weatherman could give you a decent guess, unless you're asking about the weather of course." She cackled again, possibly an indication that she thought she'd made a joke. The Major thought that perhaps she'd laid an egg and, again, didn't feel guilty about such an uncharitable thought.
She closed her eyes, and her knuckles went white. The Major frowned a little harder; he'd expected a bit more a show from the old fraud. He waited, but she didn't speak, and didn't move. Just as he was wondering if she'd fallen asleep her soup trembled, and he looked at that for a moment. It trembled again.
"Is she going to throw more soup?" asked the diner he'd sprayed with Cream of Aspargus. Major Cadwaller shrugged, still watching the soup. Suddenly a bubble formed and burst at the surface witha loud pop. Several seconds later there was another, and then another. Within a minute her soup appeared to be boiling in the dish, and the other diner had turned round fully to face them both, watching the soup as avidly as the Major. With the two men obviously watching something, a waiter at the wait-station was dispatched by the Mâitre d' to find out what the problem was.
"I see a field of grey," said Madame Sostris, her normally glutinous tones suddenly clear and sharp as the peal of a bell at midnight. "I see four thousand men and women marching out, all dressed alike and carrying cold steel. I see a man dressed in curtains standing watching them, and as they pass they all turn to the left and salute. He salutes them back and a path is chosen. The future diverges, but the men and women all survive."
Her eyes flicked open, her hands contracted into claws, and her soup stopped boiling.
"Well, I say all survive," she said, conversationally. "Two of the men get into a fight in a pub in Portsmouth and die a few hours later on the train-tracks, and one of the women dies from complications arising from appendicitis. It will be all very sad."
Major Cadwaller picked his spoon back up and stirred his soup. He was pretty sure he knew the events that Madame Sosotris was referring to, and it sounded like the future was going to be very positive.