"The alien had a ray gun. So what? One ray gun, doesn't matter. But it's not just one, is it? Because if one ray gun is built, that proves its possible. Ray gun research is a thing. Militaries get interested. There's a ray gun gap. There may be one ray gun now, but not for long."
Cathan stopped his monologue long enough to sip his coffee, the pale cream-colored china cup clicking gently against his teeth. Bespoke said nothing, but looked idly around the little cafe on the Rue Charade to make sure they weren't attracting too much attention.
The Rue Charade was the only street in the city with a French designation, and it had attracted, in a quiet and disorganized way, a group of like-minded individuals. Shops had opened with French names. A series of buildings had been rebuilt, promenade style, with wrought-iron railings and balconies. Little cafes with fold-away tables and chairs guarded the entrances at either end of the three-block strip. Even the local church, a quaint Catholic relic from the previous century, which guarded a little graveyard older still, sang masses in French.
It attracted that kind of artsy crowd, the ones which either didn't have much money or had enough to be gloriously weird without trying to cram a McDonalds serving Le Big Mac in. The Rue Charade crowd didn't take to any tourist-board efforts to mark them as Little France or the French Quarter. There had never been any substantial French immigration into this part of the city. That was the point. When Bespoke heard about it, he came sniffing, and found Cathan.
"That is what a lot of folks don't get about uniqueness. Anything that can be done can, with time and effort, be replicated. And if you can do it, you can remix it. Modify it. Enhance, corrupt, degrade. Where they tend to fall down is then equating anomalous phenomena and items as technology. That isn't how it works."
Bespoke turned his attention back to the man speaking. The older side of twenties, the pale hard skin with deep dirt that spoke of hard work or hard living, but not in the sun. Tall but stooped, hair kept close-cropped so that you could only vaguely see the fine map of scar tissue that gave his head a bit of an angular appearance. A grey suit whose legs and sleeves were always spattered, as though he'd been painting in them - though they never smelled of paint. Johnathan Cathan could have been a drug dealer or an art dealer, until he smiled.
The extractions had started when he was six, Cathan had explained once. With a pair of pliers. Something to do with religion, at least initially, but after Child Protective Services had removed him from what remained of his living relatives, he'd finished the job himself. The implants were his own work too - white, sharp incisors, sourced from a local veterinarian. A row of sharp teeth, planted in the pink sockets. Smaller than human teeth, so there were gaps. It left a smile like Hell's own picket fence, the thin pink tongue caged and waiting to strike. Bespoke figured that the difficulty in actually chewing anything with those teeth was part of the reason Cathan was so thin.
"How does it work?" Bespoke asks, sipping his own cold coffee and nibbling a beignet.
"Technology is based on readily observable laws. Anyone can do it. Anomalous processes aren't. The laws are either obscure or occult, but they're particular. The results are only accessible through a given process - ritual, spell, alien agency, whatever. The ray gun, you see it work and assume that since you can see it work, you can work out how it works - but that isn't always the case. There's a barrier to the possible there, because it functions on a system which isn't compatible with our regular experience of the world. To grok it, you need to step out of that headspace for a moment - try to comprehend a different system. Sometimes, those systems can sense that, and respond to it. Imagine looking through a microscope and an amoeba gave you the flagella. Which is why a lot of the...more pervasive systems, they tie it all up into ritual and thaumaturgy. Those are relatively safe paths, mapped out and defined by explorers. They're idiosyncratic, and most of them are not optimized for efficiency or effect, but they work. That's the important thing. Fuck with them, and the systems that you're playing with can fuck back.
Cathan was a connection. A low-level one, but he had been in the game since he first got out of juvie, if not before. Bespoke knew how to treat connections from his days dealing in college. You let them talk. You bought the coffee, or the beer. Sometimes they said too much, and you pretended you hadn't heard - but you had to listen carefully enough to ask the right question, to show you'd been paying attention. Because connections didn't like having their time wasted.
"So some of these anomalies can be...manufactured. Or replicated, with the right materials. Even modified, if you have the skill, know-how, and balls." Bespoke said. She smiled. "What have you got for me?"
Cathan peeled the lips back from his teeth to expose the gums, like a horse. He had, Bespoke knew, acquired a vomeronasal organ through one of his anomalous processes - or maybe in a trade; it was like the smell equivalent of being able to see infrared light, a superhuman ability to detect and analyze the chemical constituency of particulates in the air. Bespoke believed him when he said it helped him sniff out bullshit.
He laid a small object on the table. A netsuke, on a loop of black silk with dark brown rosary beads, in the shape of a smiling Budai. Except the Budai wasn't smiling. It's head had been carved in the grinning likeness of a skull, looking odd on the corpulent body.
Bespoke stared at the morbid trinket, but knew enough not to touch it.
"A memento mori - literally. Count back the beads, you get - flashes. Being beheaded. Stabbed. Burned. Drowned. Shitting your guts out. Last five minutes of a lot of lives. Mostly feudal Japan or China, maybe. It stores final impressions, and you can play them back." he said. "Could be useful."
"Useful." she said. "Can you hack it? Replicate it?"
"No." the connection replied. "Not my area. But I can put you together with somebody that can."
"What do you want?" she said. Because for anything this weird, money was usually the last thing that sealed a deal.
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