The Silver Platter

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The Silver Platter
by M. Lazarus

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Lark Publishing 2014

For more stories, visit http://subsidingsun.uk/lark/

The Silver Platter
It started, like most things in human history, as a combination of curiosity, vanity, idealism, and of course, money. Some clever university boys and girls had found a way to make a record of someone’s personality – they were doing research on mental health or something, but the problem was that the process was just too damned expensive and they were short on funding. So these head-watchers went looking for the money elsewhere. Eventually, one of them hit on a brilliant idea – they’d approach the rich and famous and offer them a once in a life time opportunity – for a version of their own wonderful selves to live on in recorded form when their original sagged and drooped despite the facelifts. Well, as you can imagine, enough of them were into the idea to throw money at this tech. One of them (a film producer, I think it was) even gave the storage system its nickname – the Silver Platter – I guess because it looked sort of like a cross between that and a big film old-fashioned cannister. I’m sure that was some intentional marketing. Anyway, over the years, they got the thing running – they had actual versions of moguls and actors and actresses and financiers (not to mention the occasional patient, when they actually managed to squeeze some research in) recorded on the platter. They worked hard to give the copies a close approximation of the laws of real-world physics in the Platter, because they worked out that it wasn’t good for mental stability if one of your patients, or a demanding narcissistic mogul for that matter, suddenly went flying off through the sky due to some glitch. Likewise, while comfortable surrounds were built for these study-copies, you didn’t want to cater to their every whim (a lot of the originals had too much of that anyway), since that made them all listless and unstable. All this took a long time, you have to remember, and amazing as the ant-farm of personae was, eventually human nature kicked in again and everybody forgot about the whole system. Like, really forgot about it for a couple of generations. Abandoned, lost, dumped – who knows how or why? That’s the nature of things.
Until recently. That’s where I came in, and I do mean came in. Someone found the damn old science experiment and it appeared to have been running away quite happily on its own all this time. So, following my orders like a good boy, I’m going to be sent into the Platter, electronic style, obviously- it’s the only way to travel to these parts – to give the old place a once over and see what’s what.

Arriving in the Platter feels like every nerve has been switched off. You know that numb feeling you get when your leg goes to sleep? All of me feels like that. I didn’t have a good sense of time yet, but after what may have been a long wait, eventually I had the minor triumph of being able to move my fingers. It takes a little longer until I could discern colours and then shapes. I couldn’t move my neck yet, but I swivelled my eyeballs about to get a good look at the immigration processing room. It’s drab and featureless. According to my barely-remembered briefing, that’s to do with easing the psychological transition into the Platter.
“Good Morning, Sir,” said a slightly bored voice. These ears appear to be working just fine, because I recognised the voice as belonging to G., my personal assistant. He’s a fake – a pseudointelligence, so naturally he doesn’t have all the messy quirks of naturally evolved humans, which meant that he had made the transition into the Platter much more smoothly. Of course, G. does everything smoothly. That’s how he was made. He gives me a damn pain in the neck. I tried to strain my new fake eyes again to see if I can catch sight of G., curious to check how he looks in the Platter, but all I got in my field of vision is a sudden blob of a face. The blob appeared to be smiling at me.
“Welcome!” she beamed at me. Anyway, she sounded like a she. I’m going to go with that until I hear differently. “My name is Dr. Valeria. Don’t try to get up. It will be a few hours before you can move around freely. In the meantime, I’m going to run some tests on you, to see how you’re getting on here.”
I tried to nod but nothing happens. I settle for saying “Sure thing, Val.”
I could see her better now. Her hair was like a giant explosion of red frizz. It made me want to laugh, for some reason. Dr. Val kept smiling at me, all excited. Guess she’s never met anybody from outside the Platter before. After all, until recently, nobody had contacted the Platter for ages. It’s been even longer than that since somebody actually came in. In our defence, we built it quite a while ago,
In her bubbly way, Dr. Val asked me a bunch of damn fool questions, and poked and prodded at me. Eventually she decided I’m ready for the bold adventure of sitting up. I can’t feel the chair at all, to be honest, and I don’t know if that’s just how things work here or not. Maybe they didn’t bother to make uncomfortable chairs feel like anything.
“‘Sat you, G.?” I wheezed. My face felt like a rubber mask.
G. nodded. He’s already up and about. He looked tall, thin, and vaguely disdainful, just like I thought he would.
Dr. Val jabbed me in the arm with something and took some notes on paper that looked like the stuff they used to print x-rays on. The doc looked too young for this kind of malarkey.
“We are honoured to have you here, sir.” she said, giving me the best and brightest of her smile and talking loudly and slowly to me, like I’m a brain-rotted geriatric.
“Can hear you fine,” I mumbled.
“You’ll have to forgive me, we haven’t used this immigration centre in a long time. This is all almost like new to me, and I want to make sure that your health is all checked out before you see the rest of our city.”
I nodded in understanding. This time it sort of worked – at least, I managed to wobble my head about. I’d like to raise an eyebrow of discomfort at being processed by someone who only has a vague, dusty idea of what they were doing, but that’s way too involved for me. When we forgot about the Platter, they forgot about us, too. Seems fair.
After an age and a half of tests, Dr. Val. leads me into another room and reluctantly handed over her favourite new guinea pig to a round fellow in a bright green suit and a tie that flickers softly in different shapes and patterns. He introduced himself as Julius and gave his version of the welcome speech, then poked and prodded me, just for a change, only this time I’m being fitted out for some suitable clothes. After much thought from Julius and lots of protesting from me whenever he tries to get me to wear something better suited for a clown, Julius eventually dressed me in shiny black shoes, a white shirt, with a grey suit, waistcoat, tie and hat, Julius assured me that those greys are in fact charcoal, steel, slate, and stormcloud, although I can’t remember which is which. Julius waved his hand over a section of the wall and I could see myself from various angles. I adjusted the hat.
“I look ridiculous,” I coughed.
“I think you look just swell,” said Dr. Valeria, who has been hanging around and staring at me in case I do anything scientifically or anthropologically noteworthy.
“It’s a little understated for the times,” confessed Julius looking at the various views of me on the wall, “But it will do. I do wish you’d go for something about more bold and distinguished-”
I waved my hand to stop him from launching into another attempt to sell me on shoes that look like mirrors or a tie that scrolls poetry.
“Do I really have to wear the hat?”
“It is the interface for your personal communications system,” said G. in his even tones,. They’ve dressed him all in black tails and a bowler hat. He looked like a damn butler. Figuring it could be worse and I could have ended up looking like him, I resolved to quit complaining.
“A smart hat?” I said. I fussed around with the grey fedora and eventually worked out that by touching the brim, a bunch of screens popped up in front of my face. There appeared to be a mess of tourist info there – maps, guides, some potted histories. I nodded towards a little picture of G. as an experiment and the hat informed me that it was ringing.
“Yes, sir?” said G. in stereo. I touched the brim of the hat and hung up on him.
“There are rather a lot of important people who are awfully keen to meet you,” said Dr. Valeria, and she and Julius ushered me and G. out into a bullet shaped-car that hovered just above the ground. The car took care of the driving itself, which kind of seemed to take the fun out of things. The four of us glided off towards a massive cluster of noise and lights that turned out to be a city.
Welcome to the big made-up smoke.
Julius and Dr. Val. pointed out various buildings of note as we go – the Town Hall,  the Majestic Amphitheatre, the Symphonium. All the while, all I can think was: Geez. Look at that. A new, untapped frontier and these electro-people in the Platter ended up clustering and suffocating each other, living packed together in huge towers – some looking all Classical or whatever it’s called, some looking like stone castles. Everything was decorated in different styles – Gothic gargoyles and stone latticework on some things, swirling runic lines on bright platinum for another structure. The one bit of consistency appeared to be that there were advertisements everywhere – bright colourful things plugging movies and plays and restaurants and clubs all over the place. They even had a fleet of rapid flying blimps about the place whose main function appeared to be trying to find more space to put ads. This wasn’t anything like how the Platter looked last time we looked. This was a congested urban mass. There were glowing lines of what I guess were scaffolding almost everywhere, like the whole town was constantly slapping on new coats of decoration. Anywhere there was space that could be filled, it had something crammed in it – a tiny bar, a clothing joint, a coffee joint, eatery, druggery, even minuscule apartments no bigger than cupboards. The descendants of the original settlers in the Platter sure had gone forth and been fruitful and multiplied, and now they were trying to find a place wherever they could in each and every crack. Maybe they should have spent more time deciding on the new rules for having baby phantasms when they were writing the spatial code for this place. So much for paradise.
“If you are going to do away with death, you better make sure you’ve got the space when you decide to make more of you,” I muttered under my breath to G.
“Actually, Sir,” Dr. Val said, excited to talk about her area of special interest, “While we can control our ageing completely, unlike, um, earlier versions of humanity, and our citizens are much more hardy and healthy, enough violent force can harm or be fatal, so do please be careful on your visit.”
I promised Val I’d try not to throw myself from a speeding car for kicks.
I leaned over to G. and muttered “You getting all of this? Take a picture of those blimps up there, will you?”
“I am recording a comprehensive selection of images and recordings as we go, sir,” G. assured me. That’s one of the things he’s for, my assistant, to save all that stuff in that artificial brain of his so my poor temperamental real skull doesn’t have to worry about forgetting. Although, I had to remember, I didn’t even have a real skull at the moment. I was a recording on the Platter right now, just like all the ghosts who lived here. Heck, my skin still didn’t feel quite right, although I admitted they did a pretty decent job of scanning me. I pretty much had full motor control now, and I could even feel the dull soreness in my shoulder that I had back in the real world. Maybe they decided not to remove that when I arrived so I’d feel settled on my little tour. Nothing like old aches to keep you comfortable.
We’re swept into a large hall with actual fanfare played by a band, the musos all in natty white jackets and with shiny instruments. Julius and Dr. Val. introduced me to a bunch of notables. I couldn’t remember many of their names, but that isn’t a problem, since G. would keep recording away, serving as my external memory and all. There are two main exceptions to my poor grasp of names – the Mayor, whose name is Julia Luciana, and an eerily calm lady with white hair but young skin who was introduced to me as just Raia. Raia is apparently one of the original personas copied onto the platter. That meant she’s very old, despite the unwrinkled skin, and the fact that she’s so old also apparently meant that she was important and powerful.
They sat me down at a long table facing out onto a dining room filled with smaller tables where the local eminences and wannabes clustered around to get a good look at the first visitor to the Platter in forever. I felt like I was in a damn goldfish bowl.
I was given pride of place next to the Mayor and Madame Raia. I tried to look conscious of the honour being paid to me and made an effort not to tell any off-colour jokes. Dr. Val and Julius, being lesser beings, were shuffled off further down the table. As we started to dine, I noticed that they’ve even given G. a spot at the end, despite the fact he’s a pseudon and I don’t think he was actually written to bother with eating for his Platter visit.

People jabbered at me the whole evening, grilling me about the outside world. I answered a bunch of questions as best I could, and give them a run down on real history since we lost the Platter – the usual list of wars, poverty, ideological squabbles and inexplicable obsessions with sporting events. They found all of it delightful. They found everything simply delightful, and never tired of telling me so. The Mayor herself told me at least twenty times, and kept touching my arm, I guess for the novelty of touching someone from the proper world. I was uncomfortable with all the attention, and I thought I even caught G. smirking at me, but that’s probably just his default facial expression for reasons known only to his coders.
The food was surprisingly amazing. They’ve done incredible things with ranges of contrasting flavours – to be honest, most of it was probably too subtle for me, and there was course after course of duck and beef and quail and fish and even crocodile and a bunch of other stuff I couldn’t even begin to guess what. The Platter clearly cared about cuisine and there must be something built into the place that let them do all sorts of clever-clever chicanery with cookery. I also didn’t feel as disgustingly full as I would if I was eating outside, which is handy for coping with this barrage of gluttony.
True to Julius and Val’s word, pretty much everyone was dressed in the same faux-gangster style as they’ve got me in. At a moment of relative calm between courses and between numbers by the white-jacketed band, I leaned over and whispered to Mayor Julia.
“Ma’am, may I ask about the whole look you guys have going on – the old school hats and the like?”
The Mayor smiled diplomatically at my ignorance.
“Why, it’s simply the style. I’m sure where you are from would look just as odd to us. In fact, you should have seen the place when I was a young girl – it was all very Imperial Roman back then, ah, togas and chariots and that sort of thing. It isn’t fashionable to admit it, but I do miss those days.”

The banquet went on late into the night. The Platterites don’t have to worry so much about wearing themselves out.
Eventually, after shaking hands with a long line of people, G. and I were whisked away in another floating silver bullet car and bundled out into a hotel room where the walls were made up to look like carvings of what the ever-helpful G. informed me where imitations of art deco images- lots of furious straight lines and determination.
“What’s the time, G.?’ I asked, as I got out of my grey suit and dumped it on a chair along with my hat. I was experimenting with yawning, but was finding it oddly tricky to pull off.
G. stood in the middle of the room and tilted his head.
“The local time is now half-past three in the morning. We have now been in this place for eighteen hours, twenty-five minutes, and forty-nine seconds.”
I threw myself onto my bed. Felt damn comfy. I bounced myself a little to test the frame, as I’m quite the furious sleeper.
“We better make a call back home then, m’good’fellow,” I said, “Have you got a link to an outside line, like they promised?”
“Yes sir,” G. intoned, and tapped the brim of his bowler hat. “Please wait a moment.”
He fiddled with his hat for a bit and recited a long string of numbers and letters that no meat-head like me could remember.
“Please proceed with your message, sir” he said when he was finished.
I leaned back and looked at the ceiling. Why the hell was it so damn reflective? It was almost a mirror.
“Right, take this down,” I said, eyeing my own blurred reflection on the roof, “Dear All, have arrived safe and sound. Everyone is very pleasant. Terribly interesting place. Will be in contact when I’ve had some more time to look about. – Add some of the photos and films you’ve taken so far today to the message.”
G. nodded and stared into space for a moment. A bunch of images appeared in a halo around his bowler hat. I picked out one or two shots of the Platter and night-time and left the rest to the discretions of G.’s clever old algorithms.
“Send that off, would you, G.” I said as I found and examined a cloudy purple pill Dr. Val had given me. She had explained that the trip into the Platter could be disorienting for a body, and that I should take the pill to help me get to sleep.
“Message sent,” G. said.
I showed him the pill.
“You think this is safe to take?” I asked him.
He took it from me and inspected the pill, then returned it to me.
“It seems improbable that it would cause you lasting harm or death,” G. said matter-of-factly. Not exactly a deeply encouraging review, but what the hell. I shrugged and swallowed the pill and soon found myself drifting off into something like sleep.

I woke up fuzzy. It still felt odd being in here. I was dislocated and weightless, but the pills I had at night might have been a contributing factor for that.
Dr. Val came by to check up on me, and Julius came around shortly after. Today his suit had moving stripes that looked like silvery rain drops sliding down a window, and he had a broad brimmed hat with shifting clouds and a blue-sparking cane to lean on and generally aid in his peacocking and preening. Julius and Val pretty much poured me straight out of my pyjamas and into my officially sanctioned suit and hat and hustled me on my way. Julius huffed, tapping his lightning cane impatiently on the floor and puffing his cheeks out, constantly referring to ‘the schedule’. I apparently had a very full day ahead of me.

I was shuttled around in the floating bullet-car to a whirlwind of monuments and presentations and committees. The Platter was big on statues, which was odd for a place where everything lives so long anyway. Even when space was obviously at a premium, the locals thought nothing of whipping up a giant statue of some lady looking fiercely constipated on a rearing horse. Did they even have horses here? They clearly loved a good committee too. All that time on their hands, no wonder. I met with the Committee for Cultural Exchange, the Committee for Didactic Art, the Committee for Ideological and Moral Development – hell, I don’t remember half of them. G. would have to lean over and quietly remind me where I was and who I was supposed to be addressing. They kind of blurred into one, partly because a lot of the same people were on the same damn committees. I saw venerable old Raia at a couple of these presentations, sitting quietly in the back with an aura of absolute Zen boredom. I guess when you’ve lived in the Platter since they constructed the joint, nothing much looks interesting any more. After a day of smiling and waving while Julia the mayor cut ribbons and showed me off to the press in various locations, I could sympathise with Raia’s attitude.

At some sort of museum, I was standing around half listening as G. pointed out what historical periods the various floating images and sculptures represented. Crowds of fake rich people milled about. They had the damn whitest teeth I’ve ever seen. I tapped absent-mindedly at my own and made a mental note to check to see if they’d reproduced them – stains and chips and all.
A petite lass was trying to wend her way through the VIPS with a tray of drinks with little success. Even someone new in town like me could see anxiety behind her own forced smile. Looks like waiting on people is a tough job no matter what world you’re in. She had short cropped red hair that was remarkable for being such a plain red. Plain didn’t seem very ‘in’ here at the moment. I left G. to field some inane questions from a couple of gawkers who wanted to know about what the weather was like over where I came from, and elbowed my way over to the waitress. I managed to scoop up a glass of greenish-brown stuff that made a fizzing sighing noise when you went to drink it. I downed it and felt better. It was booze, or at least, something booze-like, and although the fizzing clawed at the throat as it went down, I could feel it settling me.
I smiled at the waitress.
“Keep ’em coming, ma’am, if you don’t mind,” I said in an undertone, “I don’t think I’ll be able to get through this shindig unless I get a heap of drink into me.”
She smiled back. It looked half real.
“I’m not supposed to talk to the customers, sir, ” she whispered back.
I shrugged.
“No worries. I ain’t paying for any of this stuff, lass, so I’m no customer of yours. Myself and G. are from out of town, so your local dignitaries are showing me around.”
She looked confused.
“Pardon me, sir, but I’ve never heard of anyone here in the centre giving a damn about anyone living in the outer burbs.”
It was a relief to talk to somebody who didn’t know who I was. Guess she had more important things to worry about. I decided not to correct her. After all, part of why I was here was to see how everything in the Platter worked. It’d be nice for me to have a bit of a nose around the place without everyone staring and pointing at me, or else G.’s coded messages to back home were going to be nothing but endless descriptions of the parties and presentations I was being whirled around.
“What’s your name, miss?” I asked the waitress.
“Clara Nasa, sir.”
“No need for the sir, Clara.,” I leaned over conspiratorially and tried my hardest to whisper, which was pretty doomed to be just below a shout because of all the background hubbub of the hobnobbing around us.
“Clara, I’ve been stuck in events like this all damn day. Any chance you know of anywhere nearby where a stranger in town could get a drink and a bit of a break from these finely smiling individuals?”
“Sure, stranger,” Clara Nasa said with a thoughtful bob of her head, “I’m a regular at a little bar called the Tambourine, and I think it might well be of interest to someone new in town. I can show you myself. I finish my shift in about half an hour. Meet me out the side entrance then, if you like.”
“Sounds brill,” I said with a grin, helping myself to another fizzing drink from her tray. She gave me a look of mild curiosity and was about to say something when we were interrupted by the arrival of a tall, good-looking fellow whose presence seemed to occupy a whole lot of space around him. He inclined his head, and shook my hand vigorously. He was obviously someone important, as Miss Clara had frozen into silence and then melted away without a word to continue serving drinks in the background.
“Hail to you, dear guest!” The tall guy said. He had just the right sort of voice to go along with his perfect hair and sculpted jaw – deep and distinctive. It was enough to make a guy feel inadequate.
“How do you do, Mr-?” I said, making some attempt to cover up my irritation at losing Clara and her tray of drinks. I’d obviously said something funny, because tall and aggressively good looking there threw his head back and laughed.
“Oh, that’s so refreshing! Nobody has called me Mr. anything for a long time! And not to be recognised! Well, I thought I’d experienced all the novelty our world has to offer, but how delightful to be pleasantly surprised. Everybody has always just called me Dev. I’m sorry we haven’t met before, but I’ve been rather busy since you arrived and haven’t had the chance to do my bit as part of the welcoming committee. D’y’know, I’d be fascinated to know how you find us. It’d be marvellous to get a fresh perspective on our gaudy city for my poor jaded eyes!”
“I’m still pretty unsure on my feet here, Mr., uh Dev,” I responded, making some attempt at being tactful and thoughtful. G. had given me a whole talk about it’d before.
“How cautious of you! Marvellous!” Dev looked me up and down thoughtfully. “I’m surprised you are dressed so quietly, given that they left Julius in charge.”
I shrugged. “I managed to fight him down to this. I’m not one for showiness.”
Dev beamed.
“What unseen reservoirs of fortitude you must have, dear fellow! Julius is a renowned apparel bully. That’s why he’s been so successful. Why, you are quite the original – I’m sure the news-hounds and biopiccers will be all over you before you know it! In any case, you’ve given this aged heart quite the thrill, my dear visitor. I believe you and your man-servant will be attending the dinner tomorrow night at the manor?”
I made vague noises that could be taken either way. Since I couldn’t ask G. right now, I had now idea what the plan for tomorrow was. My plan, for right now, however, was to escape and give myself a break from all those glowing good-looking folk. Luckily, I was given a small rest from the shadow of Dev’s glory when his watch flashed and told him something. He nodded vaguely in my direction and said his good-byes, then swept off majestically to his next mission. I hadn’t noticed that Dr. Val had crept up to me and was staring at Dev’s wake as he went.
“Oh wow, I’ve never been so close to him,” she whispered, “He’s just like all the shows say!”
I tried not to say anything bitter.
“G., who was that guy anyway?” I muttered.
“Dev, son of Raia, is one of the first children born in the Platter,” G. recited from a file somewhere in his head, “This combination of age and novelty has meant that Dev has had several successful careers in the Platter – as a performer and musician in his early days, then as a director and impresario and latterly as a businessman. As he belongs to one of the oldest families in the Platter, he remains one of the wealthiest and most influential members of society, second perhaps only to his mother Raia, who, although one of the original immigrants to the Platter, is no longer as actively involved-”
I cut off G. with a wave. I got the gist of it. Dev was old and handsome and important around these parts. Dr. Val was still craning her neck to get a look at his radiant self.
“Don’t see what the big deal is,” I said, unconvincingly. I needed another drink.

I tried to dump G., hoping he would cover for me while I slipped off to explore some other aspects of the Platter with young Miss Clara Nasa, but G.’s single-minded tick-tock brain wouldn’t have any of it.
“My duty is to be by your side at all times, sir, as I’m sure you recall,” G. said in that superior way of his. I huffed and kicked peevishly at one of the grey boxes stacked about the place. The alleyway of the side entrance sure lacked the glitz and glamour of the museum soirée inside. Pretty much every available inch was packed with more of those dull grey crates, not to mention all sorts of stacked bric-a-brac and stored junk like folded tables and chairs. There was barely enough room left for G. to stand disapprovingly next to me.
“Where is she? She’s late!” I muttered and tried to make my smart-hat tell me the time, but ended up dialling G. again. G. tapped the brim of his bowler and disconnected my pointless call.
“In actual fact, sir, Miss Clara Nasa is not yet late. You are one minute and twenty seven seconds early for your appointment,” G. intoned,
I scowled at the box-brain and nudged some rubbish on the ground with my foot. The trash looked like unravelling tufts of cotton wool. It took me a moment to work out that they were something like cigarette butts, designed to collapse and blow away like tiny tumbleweeds when they were discarded.
“At this point, sir, may I advise you against this course of action,” G. chipped in, “You may well offend our gracious hosts. I’m not sure it is advisable to abandon them in the middle of a function. They have, after all, had no contact with anybody from outside this construct for several local generations.”
I tapped G. on his bowler and scowled at him.
“Relax, will you? I was shipped in here to investigate the flimsy place, wasn’t I? I can’t very well do that if Julius is steering me straight ahead through the upper crust alone, can I? This will give us a much better, broader view of this no-place. Besides, most of those posh grinners in there have already seen me several times today, and I’m tired of being on display. I’m taking the rest of the evening off, and since I can’t get rid of you, you irritating pseudon, you will just have to lump it and come with me.”
Naturally, G. was unmoved by all this.
“Should have made a run for it on my own when I had a chance,” I grumbled.
Around one minute and twenty seven seconds later or thereabouts, Clara squeezed out into the alleyway to join us. She had changed into a little black coat and a cap that hugged her head. She had a scarf on that was presumably supposed to match her hair. It was pretty far away from being a chilly night, presuming they ever had chilly nights around here, and I couldn’t understand why she was so bloody rugged up.
“Thank heavens you finally arrived,” I said to her, “G. is a terrible conversationalist. I couldn’t have lasted another second with just him for company.”
“Now don’t be like that,” Clara Nasa said with smile. G. nodded in her direction. She waved me towards the end of the alley-slash-box-storage-area and said “Let’s be getting on. I’m awful weary from my shift, and I’ve some people to meet. Since you’re new in town, my friends might be of some interest to you. They aren’t like those wealthy sprawlers you met inside there. This is the real world out here.”
“I assure you, lass, none of this is the real world,” I muttered as she marched off down the cramped passageways of the city.

The Tambourine didn’t look like much from the outside. It was a tiny door down another cramped alleyway stacked with boxes, and in this case, what looked like some homeless locals. There was a whole lot of wrappers and litter and the like that hadn’t yet degraded into that candy-floss looking stuff I had seen the old ciggies break down into before. There was a floating, flashing sign above the door with a pixilated picture of a manicured woman’s hand tapping what was probably meant to look like a tambourine over and over. I couldn’t decide if it was supposed to be another of these old-fashioned fashion things they were so into here or if it was genuinely a bit crappy compared to what I’d seen of the Platter so far. When I squeezed in after Clara, I was starting to lean towards the crappy interpretation.
I felt a moment of dizziness as my head filled with a thick smell of sweet-smoke. The inside of the Tambourine wasn’t much bigger than a collection of cupboards, but that didn’t seem to worry the locals. Pretty much every available space was occupied by badly-lit individuals trying to smoke and drink without burning or soaking each other with any sudden movements. If it wasn’t so loud in here with the bluesy music and the muttered conversations, you could probably nod off standing sandwiched between these sardines and still not fall over. Clara made good use of her petiteness and slipped between the pack until she made her way to the other side of the bar. I tried my best to swim along after her. When I finally made it across the room with a trail of apologies behind me, Clara was leaning on a bar and chatting to the stringy-haired barman. The place was so cramped that it looked like they’d built the bar snugly around the barman, then stuffed bottles and boxes anywhere they could around him.
Stringy nodded at me with mild curiosity and mouthed a question about what I’d have. Clara pointed at a bottle behind the barman that lit up with a flickering glow while she she waggled her finger at it.
“Sure, I’ll have that,” I shouted over the noise. The barman poured something deep violet into a small beer-glass and floated a white pill on top of it. The pill was slowly dissolving into the violet booze. I sniffed it, but all I could smell was the haze of whatever people were smoking in the Tambourine. I turned my back to Clara and the barman and let G. have a sneaky check of the concoction to make sure it wasn’t going to knock me flat straight up. He didn’t exactly approve, but G. made no sign that I shouldn’t sample the stuff. I shrugged. When in Rome. I took a slug. The violet liquid was sweet and light, and whatever the dissolving pill was made my face tingle with a sour shock for a moment that immediately started to fade.
“Come this way, Stranger, come and meet some of my friends,” Clara managed to comunicate to me, and dragged me back through the crowded room.
Squashed into a corner was a tall muscular woman with short spiky hair wearing a pair of black gloves and an angry expression. She was introduced to me by Clara as May Belle.  G. cleared his throat loudly enough for me to hear and I realised I was staring at her gloves and she didn’t appear to like that much, so I gave her a big dumb out-of-towner smile. Next to May was a young looking fellah in a blue velvet suit who looked like he was dying of some slow wasting disease, but for all I know, that might have been the look that was in that week. Apparently, his name was Vik Hanno.
“May is a loader at the museum, Stranger” Clara explained to me, “And Vik…well, Vik hasn’t been able to find work for a long while.”
“I am a poet,” Vik squeaked, “I am always working.”
May rolled her eyes.
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you all!” I shouted. G. gave a nod of agreement. “Clara was kind enough to agree to show us her side of town.”
“These guys were mixing with the swells at the museum tonight,” Clara explained to her friends. May grunted and lit a smoke, handing it over to Clara. Vikram raised his eyebrows. “Maybe they can talk to one of them, get us some help with the disappearances?”
And here I thought I’d been invited out for a drink just on the basis of my charm.
“What disappearances?” I said.
Clara looked around, as if someone could be hiding in this packed room, or that you could do any spying in all this cacophony.
“Friends of friends of ours,” Clara explained, ” Thomasina Nicodemus, Dec Tershawe, Lili Wu-Lang. They weren’t rich or powerful or famous, so nobody cares that they’ve vanished. The coppers don’t give a darn about helping – we’ve been asking them for a long time.”
” ‘Lo, an abundance of souls encroaching on their sacred lands’, as I believe I once composed.” said Vik.
“Which is to say,” May growled, “The swells think there are already too many people in this city and that it can afford to lose a few along the way.”
I looked at G. to makes sure he was recording all this. 
Clara stamped her foot with mini revolutionary zeal, and if her drink obeyed the normal rules of physics and didn’t move with a jelly-slowness it probably would have slopped over the side of her glass.
“You see, we’re trying to do something about the people nobody else cares about. We’ve formed the Plebeian Union to meet and make a difference! To help the helpless, starting with these missing people, to show that they do matter!”
The kid had a lot of fire for a tiny fictional female.
“That’s very admirable,” I said cautiously. G.’s face didn’t change, “And I’m sure interested in seeing as many different sides of the city as I can while I’m here.”
“Well, we think we know where they vanished,” Clara declared.
“There’s nothing to lose in showing them,” May said slowly, squinting at me, “He don’t look like much, but maybe him and his fancy-man might be able to bend the ear of someone with reach.”
I tried to look indignant.
“G. isn’t my fancy-man,” I protested, “He’s my, uh, butler, assistant, and an all-round pain.”
“As you say, sir,” G. intoned.
“Seems the same thing to me,” May said with a scowl that looked like it could strip paint.
“Quit it, May,” Clara said, “They’re interested and they know the rich and powerful.”
“Not particularly well,” I confessed, “I haven’t been about that long. Although I did meet somebody called Dev. He’s apparently some kind of local celeb, I think. Show ’em some pictures, G.”
G. unfolded a sheet from his pocket and held it out flat. When he tapped the edge of his bowler hat, some vid of the museum soirée appeared above the sheet, including the aforementioned Dev, not to mention Raia, the Mayor and various other dignitaries I couldn’t remember the names of.
Vik whistled.
“Oh my. I’ve always wanted to meet Dev,” he gushed, “Is he as tall and handsome as you think?”
“Just about,” Clara said dismissively.
“You must be some hick to have never heard of Dev before,” May said with a snort.
“You bet,” I said cheerily.
May seemed satisfied to think of me as a dumb rube from the limits of the constructed Platter, and I wasn’t in a rush to correct her.
G., folded the sheet away and returned it to a pocket inside his tail-coat.
“Let’s focus here,” Clara insisted, waving her finger “They know swells. They might be able to get us some help. I vote we take them down the Squeeze and to the spot so they can see what it’s like down there. Maybe someone there remembers something and will be willing to talk this time.”
May thought carefully for a moment.
“Okay,” she said reluctantly.
“Fine,” said Vikram nervously, “But if you insist we go down there, first let’s have a few more drinks. A lot few more.”
He downed his glass and began the struggle back to the string-haired barman trapped in his little bar.

By the time we left the ‘Tambourine’, I was pretty lightheaded from my sampling of drinks and pills. We all followed Clara in single file down the narrow passages and back ways of the Platter. Most of the time it felt like we were spiralling through a sprawl of barely-connected chaotic laneways just to get across a block. Urban planning wasn’t the strong suit of the programming on this level of the Platter. I had no idea where we were, and no sense of direction under the artificial night sky when we arrived at some stairs leading underground. A sign half-heartedly informed us that this was a service area and that access to unauthorised individuals was forbidden.
May fiddled with the gate to the stairs until it made a clanking noise and faded away. It was dark down there. I’m not a big fan of trooping down into the cramped and dangerous darkness, no matter how simulated, but all of me was still humming and floating merrily from my indulgences at the Tambourine, so I followed everyone down.
At some point I had obtained a pack of smokes. I put one in my mouth and try to work out how to light the thing. G. cleared his throat and leaned over, flicking his oversized thumb at the end of the tube. It lit up and I breathed in a numbing mix of spices.
“Good man,” I said to G. “Where to now?”
“Allow me to proceed first, sir,” G. intoned.
“Forget it,” I said with a snort, and slipped into the flat blackness after Clara. G. followed behind in disapproving silence.
I kept to trying to whistle, but couldn’t quite make these copies of my lips do their thing.
“Come on, Vik,” growled May’s voice, “Hurry up. I’m fading away from boredom.”
“Blasted dull thing,” Vik was muttering and clanking something against the wall. I couldn’t see much besides the glowing tip of the smoke in front of me and staring at that made me go cross eyed, so I quit it.
“Praise be to me!” Vik said with satisfaction as a tube of light began to shine in his hand. He fiddled with it and managed to illuminate the path in front of us. It was a cramped network of green and grey pipes and tubes. We had to hunch over as we followed Vik and his lamp through the cramped tunnel.
“Now I know what it’s like to live inside a vein,” I muttered to myself. All the junk on the walls must have soaked up the sound, because I could barely hear my footsteps. 
Two smokes later we came to some sort of junction where I could almost stand up. Lit by an ugly low purple light from strips nestled in the low roof of cables and pipes, we had emerged into a large underground hub. Other low black tunnels branched off from this area and the place was filled with unsettling figures. It took me a while to work out what was wrong with them – they all had suits and dresses and hats and I couldn’t really see an obvious difference between them and us – but there was a kind of raggedness to these people, even if their clothes didn’t show it. They mumbled to themselves and rocked back and forth or stared into nothingness. It looked like this was where the mad and the homeless and the dispossessed of the Platter ended up.
Clara, Vik and May were clustered around one particular guy with the widest, pinkest lapels I have ever seen who was chewing viciously at his thumb and kicking at a cluster of cables.
“That’s Georgos,” Clara whispered to me, “He’s got the melancholia. I know the signs pretty well – that’s what killed my father way back when.”
May and Vik went around the various broken people-shaped remnants, talking to them quietly and with a genuine concern I wouldn’t have expected from the artsy fop and angry bruiser I’d met in the Tambourine.
Meanwhile, Clara had crouched down in front of Georgos with his blush pink suit and his thousand-yard stare. She spoke soothingly to him, like you would to a scared animal. Georgos made a clicking and babbling series of noises. G. and I approached carefully, wary of spooking him into flying off down a tunnel like a crazy pink bat.
“I think he saw them,” Clara said to me in a low voice, “The ones who took the missing.”
“Hyasin, Hyasin,” Georgos murmured and chewed even more furiously at his thumb.
Vik and May returned shaking their heads.
“Most of them don’t want to talk about the vanishings,” May said.
“Or they’re too scattered to talk about anything,” Vik added.
“Georgos knows. He was trying to tell me,” Clara said, “His head’s pretty sick, but when he could make some sense he was saying something about this being one of their hunting grounds. They come down here into the Squeeze to find people nobody will miss, to put out their lights for fun and giggles.”

Clara’s Workers’ Party or whatever she called it spent a while longer wandering this depressing scene and talking to the broken creatures hunched wherever there was space.
“Hey!” May called over, “Come and look at this!”
She was holding something. One of the screwed-up personae – a young woman with braided hair – was hissing and flapping her hands furiously at us as we gathered around May, like she was trying to drive us off. Clara tried to calm her down, but the homeless lady with the braids backed away terrified, staring at the object May was holding up.
It was a shoe. A small brown woman’s shoe stained with a bright, theatrical red.
“You recognise this?” May said to Clara and Vik.
“Lil’s,” Clara said in a low voice, “That was hers.”
Vik rubbed at his eyes.
“Dammit, I remember when she bought those things,” he said hysterically, “I never liked ’em and now -”
Clara grabbed the shoe and waved it at me.
“See? They’re taking us, and nobody cares! Lil was a friend!”
May put her arm around Clara.
I stood there awkwardly, not knowing where to look.
There was a sudden flash in the air and I saw the outline of a woman appear for less than a second with a noise like an underwater scream. I was so scared by this thing, I almost jumped out of my suit and into G.’s arms.
Vik hung his head and May bit her lip like she was going to start crying.
“What the hell was that?” I said.
“I believe it was an imprint relic,” G. explained, “Under certain conditions due to the failure of a local environment to properly refresh, it is possible for brief echo image to remain after the initial event-”
“What? Talk proper, G.! It was a ghost, basically? Almost gave me a heart-attack.”
None of the Platterans seemed to be as terrified by this after-image as I was.
“It was Lil,” Clara said sadly.
“Ain’t that a shame,” said a sneering voice from the darkness of the tunnel.
“Told you to clean up properly, Stoop, you jackass,” said another voice.
“Relax,” said a third giggling voice, “We come to have a bit more fun again, then we take care of this lot too. Ain’t nobody going to talk, not once we’ve had our jollies.”
The three figures came into the low purple light, strolling like they didn’t have a care in the world. They were wearing matching black suits with a white flower pinned on each side. and their hats had absurdly large brims that were so dark that they didn’t seem to have properly defined edges. When you saw them from head on, the edge of the hat just looked like a long line without depth. An angry red glow from below their giant hats played across their eyes and lit their faces. There was something wrong about their faces – something plastic looking. Something that didn’t move properly.
“Well, looky,” said Sneery and grinned. His teeth glowed in the dark. Sneery’s mates bared their teeth too and had similarly fluorescent smiles. G. quietly stepped in front of me.
“I believe it would be wise for us to leave, sir,” he said to me.
“Nobody’s going nowhere!” said the whiny one.
“Tell us what you did to our friends!” Clara shouted. It would have sounded braver if her voice hadn’t cracked.
“Made some use of ’em, made something out of those nothings, that’s what we did,” Sneery muttered through his neon teeth, “Made ’em interesting, until there wasn’t anything left.”
Giggles cackled at this.
“You smears, I’m gonna break you,” May growled and lunged at the three black hats.
“Hang on there, sister,” Sneery said, producing some kind of smooth silver gun-shape, “You just all stay where you are, or me and my pals will start betting on how many holes we can put in you.”
Vik threw his hands in the air and started making sobbing noises. May tensed and looked like she was thinking about making a try for them, but Clara gently pulled her back.
Giggles and Whiny produced cork-screw knives.
Giggles threw his from hand to hand.
“Let’s start cuttin’ and twistin’,” he said happily, “Let’s get this show on the road, Lurk, man! Let’s do it! C’mon, man, c’mon c’mon c’mon!” Giggles sounded as excited as kid with a box of new toys and was hopping from foot to foot, raring to get his hands on us.
“Would it bore you to act all professional for once, Stoop?” Whiny moaned to Giggles, “Stop being such a bum all the time. We’ll do them slow and proper this time, right? Ain’t that right, Lurk?”
Sneery nodded happily.
“That’s all right with me, Trip, that’s all right,” he said, stepping deftly to one side to stop G. from dragging me away.
“And where do you fine and bright gentlemen think you are going?” Sneery said, pointing his gun at me, “Why, just look at you, I don’t think you belong down here do you?”
“Too bad.” screeched Whiny, who had grabbed Vik by the throat and dug the corkscrew deep into Vik’s arm. Vik screamed.
“Hey, hey hang on, ” I shouted, ” Stop that, nobody wants any trouble here.”
“Sure looks like you want trouble, stranger” said Giggles, skipping towards me. He leaned over close until it looked like he should have toppled forwards and stared at my face.
“Careful, pal,” I said, “You might have all your knife things and guns to make you brave, but there are more of us than there are of you clowns.”
Giggles pondered this and then punched me in the jaw. Now, I’m not going to lie, back in the real world I’ve been punched more than once. I was half-steeling myself from a knock from Giggles just a second before he hit me. But the damn punch didn’t feel anything like I’d ever felt before. There was so much more pain, it felt like my bloody face was being torn off. I wasn’t expecting how much it hurt, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t see, and the stabbing pain didn’t let up. I collapsed in a heap.
“Who needs a weapon?” Giggles cawed.
“Wait. Listen up, Stoop,” Sneery said, like something was wrong, but Giggles had already kicked me in the side, just to add to my troubles. He was running up for a second boot, when a figure I could hardly see hit him stiffly but rapidly. I think the blur was wearing a bowler hat, but by then I hurt so much that everything around me became too irrelevant to notice.

It wasn’t exactly like waking up. It was more like being trapped alone but aware in nothing, and then everything shuddering slowly back into focus until I could hear and see again.
G. was leaning over me, and his solemn face was not really the sort of thing I wanted to lay eyes on after being punched into an embarrassing jelly. Based on the explosion of frizzy hair I could see, Dr. Valeria was also here. She was fussing about and doing some tests on the implacable G.
“How are you feeling, sir?” G. inquired.
“Fine, fine,” I muttered, “Back home being punched hurt, but nothing like that.”
“I would surmise that is due to the development of the senses here, sir,” G. said, “Since one of the major emphases of the original design in this construct was for the experience of more nuanced and intense pleasure, as an unavoidable side effect, pain is often equally of an amplified nature.”
“Great,” I said, trying to sit up, “Remind me not to get hit here, then.”
“As you wish, sir,” G. said primly.
“You shouldn’t have been punched at all! It’s an outrage,” Valeria said with shock, as she wrapped something around G.’s left arm.
“Hullo there, Val, ” I said, “Nice to see you. What’s up with G.?”
“He was shot twice, that’s what’s up!” Val said, her voice rising.
“I assure you Dr. Valeria, I am stable and functional for the moment. Please attend to me after you have finished with your other patient.”
“Naw, I’m fine too,” I said with a toughness I didn’t really feel, “Val, you keep patching up Geebles. It’d be a shame if his arm should drop off or something.”
I patted in my pockets and found I still had some smokes left from the night’s entertainment. I lit up and breathed in the numbing vapour.
“That may well interfere with the shot I gave you,” Val said nervously.
“Sure, if I’m lucky,” I said, “Where the hell are we?”
We were squeezed into a shoebox of a room with one minuscule window overlooking what looked like factories. The walls were plastered with videos of Clara with her friends, as well as some unconvincing simulations of wide open fields in the countryside.
When I got up the bed folded itself into a couch.
“It’s my place,” Clara said softly, coming into the room. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know who you were. I wouldn’t have involved you, I – I didn’t think that they would be there.”
She had a deep ugly gash zig-zagging across her face.
“You look like hell, lass,” I said, “Dr. Val. can you do something about her face?”
“She is not important right now,” someone blustered indignantly to my right, “And I can assure you the more she is ignored in this damn situation, the blanking happier she will be!”
Oh good. Julius was here too. The chubby fellah looked unhappy.
“She’s done nothing, Julie, relax. I asked the young lady to show me the Squeeze and the tunnels. There are only so many soirées one man can take, y’see. Say, Clara, where are your pals? Are they all right?”
Clara shook her head.
“The men with the teeth and the flowers…they took them somewhere. They hurt Vik and May so they wouldn’t struggle and they took them away.”
“You stupid scattered girl!” hissed Julius at Clara, “Don’t you see what you could have done! Our first visit from outside in who knows how long and you drag them into that sort of dangerous and unsightly place!”
This struck a chord in Clara. She drew herself up.
“My friends are probably dead. I’m sorry about what happened to your guests, but maybe now you swells will pay just a bit of darn attention to what’s going on in all the tight spots where the little folk try to live!”
“Of all the selfish, petty-” Julius spluttered.
“Everyone, please, let’s stay balanced here!” Dr. Val interrupted. “The damage to our guests is not as bad as it could have been. Let’s try to look on the bright side of things and not get stirred!”
“Look, forget it Julius,” I snarled, “I’m not here just to see all the pretty sights. I’m supposed to get a comprehensive view of this ridiculous goddamn Platter, and that includes the parts that offend your sensibilities.”
Julius stomped over the brief distance to the small window and stared moodily at the scene outside.
“I lived around here when I was younger,” he said, “In fact, I think you can see the fabricum where I had my first job. I was nothing – just one of a heap of little scraps. We all knew we were disposable and cheap labour. I watched lots of people get mangled by the machines, in body and mind. There was always someone to replace us, so you just did the repetitive, psyche crushing work, because that’s all there was.”
Julius turned to give each of us a stare.
“But I crawled up out of here. And I’m something now, and by all that’s bright, I assure you that I have no intention of ending back here again.” Julius loomed over Clara.
“I don’t care if you are mentally incapable of considering how your dull little crusade affects others, but if you can’t stay away from our guests for yourself and for our city, you’ll do it for me. Because you don’t want to make an enemy of me, girl. I’ve got too much to lose.”
“Lay off, Jules,” I growled, “Leave her out of it.”
Julius rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“Valeria,” he said, “Patch our guests so there’s no sign of this unfortunate event on their person. I think it’s best for everyone if we keep quiet about this unpleasantness. Yes, let’s not say a word about this to anybody else. That sort of publicity will not do us any good, don’t you agree, Valeria?” Val made a nervous sound of assent.
Julius put his chunky hands on Clara’s shoulders.
“And we understand each other, don’t we, Miss Nasa? You’ll keep quiet.”
She nodded.
“Then, when our guests are ready, our auto will take them back.”
“Fix Clara first,” I said, “Or we aren’t going anywhere.”
Julius nodded and Dr. Val began sealing the gash in Clara’s face. G. handed me my hat.
“You working all right, G.?” I muttered.
“It will require some time to run further thorough checks, but I believe I am not permanently damaged, thank you, sir.”
“Well, good, I guess. I presume you got holes poked in yourself when we tussled with those guys with the fluorescent dentistry, but I was too busy hugging myself on the floor at the time to notice.”
“Merely doing my job, sir,” G. said and waved towards the door, “Shall we?”

***

Dr. Val insisted that we rest most of the next day, and Julius fussed until he was something close to content with how we looked and had triple-checked for the slightest blemish that might betray what went on last night. G.’s arm didn’t seem to be working quite right and hung a little stiffly, but the po-faced box-head assured me that he was in ‘acceptable operating condition’. We had to look just right because we were about to make an appearance at Raia’s joint, that regal dame who was one of the original personae to populate this fantasy-land.

We were bundled into our shiny bullet-shaped floating car and whisked off. I presumed that someone like Raia who had been copied into the Platter from the early days probably wasn’t living in a matchbox like Clara Nasa, but as we came up the gates, I may still have gawped a little. Our auto floated down a long, long driveway flanked by vast rows of lawn. There were many-hued fluffy sheep milling about the place on one side of the drive, and on the other, an intricate patterned garden made of flowers I’ve never seen in the real world. The house itself stretched far and wide and had more windows than ten families would ever need, but was a restrained three stories high, unlike most of the towering stacks in the centre of town. The auto stopped near the front door and as we unpacked ourselves, a gigantic furless tattooed dog loped over and inspected us critically. Fidosaurus was just starting to make me feel uncomfortable when a guy at the front door dressed in baroque style with a fancy white wig whistled. Fido barked the same note that had been whistled and stepped aside. The doorman in the wig invited us inside with a well-practiced graceful bow.
We were ushered into a ballroom-sized hall by a succession of guys in wigs. Milling about in all that space were the same old faces of the rich and famous that I was already getting sick of seeing after my few days in the Platter. I grabbed a glass of something gratefully when somebody floated past with a tray and downed it for medicinal effect.
After an appropriate period of chit-chat about how I was finding the Platter, we were escorted into a dining room that made the previous room look meagre in comparison. Lights hovered above the long table in chandelier configurations. G. and I were seated towards the head of the table with Mayor Julia, the silently aristocratic Raia, and her beaming son Dev. I drank as much as I could get my hands on and considered lighting up one of my remaining smokes, but G. was already looking very disapprovingly at me, so I thought better of it. We were treated to another cuisine procession that topped even all the stuff I’d chowed down before. I only nibbled at everything that was put in front of me. I didn’t have much of an appetite for gluttony and showy cuisine today. I noticed that Raia barely ate anything, which fit in with her whole unearthly aura. Her offspring, Dev, charmed and told anecdotes and jokes and was an effortless centre of attention.
“Quite the bunch of flowers, you have out the front, ma’am,” I said to Raia in an admittedly feeble attempt at conversation.
She answered me like she was talking indulgently to a child.
“Oh, those are all Dev’s. He has such a splendid artistic eye.”
“You are a fellow who has developed a whole lot of talents,” I said to Dev with a nod, as I tried to work out what the spicy chewy thing I was currently eating was supposed to be.
Dev spread his hands in a gesture of modesty.
“I’ve been rather interested in hyasynths for ever so long now,” he said, “They’re a bloom based on something from your own neck of the woods, I believe.”
I shrugged. What the hell did I know about flowers?
I was pondering whether to bother with another bite of my current dish, when Dev leaned towards me and, with that winning grin, whispered “Your jaw is looking quite well, considering.”
I went cold. Julius and Val had been pretty keen on keeping shtum about the attack from last night. When I looked at the charming giant in front of me it was clear he knew all about it.
I tried to swallow.
“These smart-hats you guys wear, they can record and stream, can’t they?”
There was a nasty playful twinkle in Dev’s eye.
“Oh my, yes. They’ve really come along. With the proper outfitting you can send someone out while you sit back and enjoy every sensation they have, as if you were right there.”
The smug colossus. He knew all about the three bastards in the giant hats. I had no idea how to handle this.
Dev looked so pleased with himself.
“You know, if you are interested, I can show you the little set up I have in mother’s house. Why don’t we retire down there and have a private chat?”
Understandably, given that Dev appeared to be the employer of sadistic psychopaths, I hesitated.
“No reason to be nervous, my good man,” Dev assured me, “Nobody will mind if we pop out for a bit. You haven’t come over all timid now, have you, my dear guest? Don’t be a bore!”
He looked at me, sizing me up like I might be some kind of insect. Like I didn’t have the guts.
I don’t do well with taunting. I nodded.
“Sure. Let’s go have a look at that,” I muttered.
Dev made apologies and everyone was very understanding. All those starry-eyed folks in the room were delighted at his every rotten word and glance. Did they know what he was capable of, the golden boy of the Platter?

Dev lead me to a blank wall, knocked on it and then waved me through. Inside was an elevator cage made out of ornate iron-work suspended in a dark shaft. I leaned over. You couldn’t see the bottom.
“Come now, there’s no need to be so skittish,” Dev said cheerfully and hopped into the lift-cage, doing a little tap dance number inside. “See?” he said, “I am awfully keen to show you the room I’ve set up downstairs, and the other guests will miss you if we’re gone long.”
Yeah. He probably wouldn’t try anything while everyone was upstairs stuffing their faces with imaginary food. And I had my trusty manservant at my side, who even if he wasn’t brilliantly programmed to stop me getting beat up, could at least take getting shot a few times and survive to annoy me another day. Anyway, I had to admit, I was curious to find out what Dev’s whole deal was. Scoping things out – that’s what this whole crummy job was about in the first place, and it’s a terrible character flaw of mine that I like to do a job properly, no matter how much I grizzle and moan about it. Besides, none of this was really real – at least, not for me, so what’s the worst that could happen?
I stepped into the elevator, eyeing Dev warily, and G. squeezed in besides us. The lift made a ridiculous bing noise and we drifted gently down the shaft.

Dev’s little playroom was like a club for leather-bound old men – lush deep red carpet that seemed to wave back and forth ever so slightly like grass in the wind, fake stained wood panels cut from the finest non-existent trees, and oxblood wingback armchairs that looked just a little bit too comfortable to be decent. There was a selection of images and silent vids on the walls that I guess were from flicks or shows Dev had some involvement in back in the day, every little snapshot of his long insubstantial history in the Platter in tasteful, discreet bronzed frames. He even had a couple of marble busts of people looking pensively off to one side. Damn things gave me the creeps with their blank eyes.
“Do have a seat,” Dev said and I gave one of the oxblood chairs a go. I was right, it was unnervingly luxurious and felt like I was floating rather than sitting, but it didn’t squeak properly when you moved like a real one should. G. stood stiffly at my side.
“Y’know, for a bunch of phantasms who are programmed so that they stand up all day with no trouble, your lot sure put a lot of emphasis on sitting pretty.”
Dev laughed.
“How refreshing your perspective is! You’re quite correct, dear sir, of course. That’s precisely what we are all about here – the form of things is what’s important. Social custom and appearances trump practicality and necessity every time for us.”
“What necessity? I can’t think anything you imitations really need.”
“Certainly we have needs, dear guest. They are simply far different from what you might need. Our needs are predominantly of a distinctly psychological variety. That’s were the ebb and flow of our lives plays out. ”
Dev strode over to a big globe of the world with sepia-coloured countries and old fashioned cartographers’ pen handwriting that must all be a bit meaningless to somebody from the Platter. He tapped his little finger on the globe and it swivelled and opened, revealing decanters of booze.
“Drink?” he said.
“Sure, that’s one of advantage of this place,” I grunted, “You can swill like it’s going out of style and never worry about your liver being cranky the next day.”
“Both an advantage, and a disadvantage, if you take into account the mentality of relying on mood-altering substances, but let’s not get into that.”
He handed me a glass of amber-brown liquid. I had a vague sense as I held it in my hand that the glass was doing the job of ice and giving the drink a little chill.
“I think you’ll like that,” Dev said, “It’s something like your whisky, I suppose.”
I had to admit that it was the least colourful and noisy drink I’d yet had in the Platter.
“Anything for you?” Dev asked G. playfully, waving a second tumbler of Platter one-hundred year old hooch in his direction.
“Very kind, sir, but no thank you,” G. said.
“Of course!” Dev said joyfully.
“Forgive, my lack of patience, fellah,” I said between sips, “But why exactly are you so keen for me to come down here?”
“For the experience,” drawled a voice I recognised.
Two guys wearing the big black hats melted out of a wall, flashing their lit-up teeth.
Ah, I recognised Sneery and Whiny.
“What happened to the other one?” I said, swishing my drink, despite the lack of ice.
Dev hung his head.
“I’m afraid that Stoop overstepped the mark. You are an honoured guest, after all, and he was quite clearly informed not to lay a finger on you. I suppose his lack of understanding is what brought his end about.”
The remaining two stooges seemed pretty unfazed by the implication that the third of their trio had got the final chop. They just preened, playing with the flowers on their lapels.
I got out of my seat and tried to look angry. G. shifted in a way I’d imagine was more conducive to punching them in the face.
“You admit that these murdering bastards work for you?” I snarled.
Dev threw his hand up.
“Please, for a moment remember that you are visitor to our shores. Things that horrify you are perfectly normal for us and vice versa. After all, how long have you lived in your disgusting meat world? You have visited us for a week or two – surely you shouldn’t presume to understand how things work here? We have centuries of society that are entirely beyond you.”
“All I know is that you do some nasty stuff to the locals,” I said.
“Now, wait a moment,” Dev said, “Perhaps this will give you some small insight.”
He tapped at the wall and a set of four or five black hoods slid out. He passed one of them over to me. I hesitated with the velvety black stuff in my hands.
“Come now,” Dev said with a nod, “Aren’t you intrigued to understand us better?”
Sure I was. I put the hood over my head. There was a momentary crackle and then I was looking at the messed up forms of May and Vik. They were crouched in cells were the bars were made of wavy watery stuff. It was like I was right there in front of them. I could almost smell their despair. With a horrified grunt, I tore the hood off.
“So you get off on your lunatics murdering and torturing people, then? Is that what you wanted to show me? If so, it’s pretty damn disgusting, even for to a jaded fellah like me.”
Dev took a sip.
“You need to understand,” he said in that golden voice, “We are different from you. Can you imagine how long we live? You are like mayflies out there in the unstructured world. You live a day and an hour, compared to us. I am the first child of our world – and believe me, it took a long time for them to work the kinks out of that little bit of coding – but I’ve been many, many things in my time. You blanch at my diversions, but I assure you that I’ve done what you would consider worse in the past, and have never suffered for it. After all, this world was built for pleasure, was it not? You spend a few days mooning about and you start worrying about the suffering of a few drab lights? Surely you have noticed how overpopulated we are here? I might have been the first child, but it wasn’t long until coders found a quicker and cheaper way to deliver children to the small and the dull and the poor. There are too many people and they don’t die quickly enough, and to be honest, a bit of death and terror does a body good – the nouveaus here lead such grey lives. Killing some is a helpful solution, but it would be better if they were never born at all. Rather than making it possible for us to smear and spurt new lives all around the place, it is a terrible shame that they didn’t spend more time finding ways of treating our inherited and absurd obsession with reproduction. We have so many archaic bad habits inherited from your kind.”
“Like murder,” I grunted.
“Why, my dear visitor, I’m surprised at you! I understood that you didn’t even believe that we are real here, not like the chaotic accidents of life out in your ugly short-lived world.”
“You tell ’em boss,” said Whiny nodding his glowing teeth and giant black hat for all they were worth. His co-worker Sneery cuffed him around the head and told him to be quiet.
“You think you’ll get away with it, chum?” I said, staring at my fake nails on my fake hand in this fake room. Trying to remember that he was right and none of this really mattered.
Dev laughed uproariously. I twitched. G. stiffened. Whiny snarled at G. and pointed a silver gun at me to make sure G. didn’t try anything foolish.
“Oh, you are priceless! Splendid, splendid stuff. You are full of delightful diversions. I can’t wait to see your reaction to this.”
The golden boy waved a hand and black-hatted Sneery went over to a wall and drummed his fingers on it in a sequence. The wall disappeared, Sneery vanished inside and after a minute or two pushed out a small, bowed, stumbling figure who had her hands bound with a grey band.
It was Clara, and she didn’t look so well. Someone had been knocking her around and her face was pretty messed up. Clara was also reeling and swaying, like they had doped her up.
I stood up, full of temper. G. put a hand on my shoulder.
“Be careful, sir,” G. murmured, “Let us not do anything rash. Remember that we are guests here.”
“Julius told you where to find her?” I said, barely suppressing the hatred in my voice.
Dev tilted his head and looked amused.
“Well, Julius, of course, knows how things work. He is a cynical little dandy-ball. He would have told all, if I asked nicely enough, but we have other ways of finding people and doing things. We have an awful lot of practice, you see.”
I shook off G. and growled at the black hats.
“Let her go, you damn lunatics.”
Whiny laughed and started scratching his name on Clara’s face. Clara’s eyes opened wide in pain and terror and she waved her hands pathetically, but didn’t have enough strength to fight off a geriatric moth.
“Well, we’ll see,” said Dev and took a big slug from his drink. He squinted at Clara like he could hardly see her, “She’s part of a disruptive little group, as I’m sure you know. Whatsername and her friends could be wiped out and the law would smile upon these fellows here.”
Whiny took this as a hint and now started on cutting his shopping list into Clara’s arm. That bright red blood was starting to stain her jacket. It flowed too smoothly and looked too deep in colour to be plausible, but it made me furious anyway.
“Sir,” G. whispered, “I cannot inform you thoroughly whether that is a correct interpretation of local law, as something is blocking the signal of my hat. I just thought it prudent to inform you that we appear to be cut off.”
Dev waved his glass at Clara and scoffed at me.
“Do you think she wouldn’t try and turn you inside-out if she thought it would help her little cause? You are so terribly naïve, my dear visitor. I remember the old days of my youth, when we used to get tourists coming here – wide-eyed and judgmental creatures, but fundamentally ignorant of our world. You remind me terribly of those drop-ins when you behave like that, sir.”
Clara made a choking squeal.
“I believe the young lady is trying to communicate with us,” G. noted.
Sneery stroked her hair.
“Speak up, baby. We can’t hear you.”
“Ch-ch-Le-Leave him ‘lone. Leave alone. Let my friends go. S-s-stop this.”
Hell, she was beat up, doped up, and facing the sharp end of a curly knife, but Clara Nasa was still standing up for me and her friends. She had guts, that lass. Too bad the glow-teeth were about to spill them all over the floor.
I guess for a moment, despite G.’s  best efforts to keep me level-headed and diplomatic, I forgot where I was and did something stupid. I lunged forward and punched Whiny. I had been aiming for his chin, but he turned his head a touch as I came at him and ended up thumping him on the cheek. He shrieked and staggered backwards. G. took strides over towards the other big hat, but that one had his arm hooked around Clara’s neck and flashed his silver gun appliance at both of us. Two muffled explosions went off – one just past the left side of my face and one that took off G.’s hat. Sneery was a good shot. G. and I froze and I stared at Dev’s thugs with bloody hatred.
“Can I offer you another drink?” Dev said with an unruffled smile, “Do please relax, my dear fellow. You can’t do anything here. All of this is out of your hands. You don’t want to be a bad tourist, I’m sure.”
I threw my glass to the ground. Unsatisfyingly, it did not smash. It didn’t even crack. Damned Platter.
I laughed my fool head off. G. stared at me with concern, fearing I’d finally lost what few marbles I had left.
“That’s a good one, chum” I said when I managed to stop cackling. I wiped my eyes automatically and straightened my tie. “You are confused on that score, Dev old pal, no matter how old and smart and brilliant you think you might be. I’m not a tourist, wonderboy. I’m an Inspector. Out there, where the air is not so great, but real, someone finally remembered that your vanity mirror funhouse in here existed and there was just enough of a damn given that we thought somebody should be sent to see how things were getting on here in playtown. Now, that damn that was given was sure small, I have to admit, you could hardly see it, so people weren’t lining up for the job, so they sent reluctant old me to be chaperoned by G. over there to make sure I get the job done. And here’s the kicker, Dev, old pal, old darlin’, the real world could break this whole Platter in half. In fact, that’s why I was press-ganged into this place, to decide whether we leave you electrogeists running along, or whether we smash your world and the whole thing goes dark. Everything around you, everything about you. Gone. And if G. and I don’t get in our little phone call on our outside line to the real world by our regular check-in time, some grubby fingered engineer has instructions to just trash the whole Platter.”
Dev’s eyes filled with a fascinated horror.
“Do you think I’m afraid to die, particularly if everything else goes with me? Why, it sounds fascinating.”
He looked just crazy enough to tip over that way. Clara tried to choke out pleading noises.
I shook my head at G.
“I tell you, Geebles, I haven’t liked a lot of what I’ve seen here in the Platter. I think I’d be awful remiss in my duties if I let this glittery cesspit continue in its little imitation of life.”
“No – please,” Clara managed to rasp out, the passion in her voice at odds with her face doped up into a limp mask. “Not all – not all like him. Good people too. Deserve.” She couldn’t get much else out besides an erratic warbling.
I measured up Dev. Time to take a shot. We couldn’t all hang around here forever, after all. The glow-teeth might get bored and accidentally drill us when they’re twiddling their thumbs.
“Y’know, G. old pal, I think golden boy here talks a big game, but I don’t think he’s as tough in his shiny fake head as he reckons.”
G. tilted his head.
“The last census indicated that one in three residents of this construct will develop some form of mental disease,” the factbook that walks rattled off as he picked up his ruined bowler hat. I scowled at him.
“That’s the thing, Geegee,” I went on, “I reckon that the longer you live, the harder it is to think about dying, and our pal here has had a long time to live and a long time for his head to fester. I don’t think he can stomach the thought of exiting this performance. And if he doesn’t let us go, and Clara Nasa and her friends don’t go free, then my world will throw this one in the trash. You may have lived a long time, Devvy, old pal, but if you don’t behave like a good little boy, then you are going to be in the dark nothing for much, much longer.”
For just a moment, it looked like Dev was going to call me and take the leap into non-existence.
Then his face twitched just a little and slackened and I knew I’d won.
“You won’t be about forever, Inspector,” Dev said quietly, “We can wait.” He waved his hand at his thugs and they reluctantly let her go.
Clara stumbled to the ground. G. and I lifted her up and supporting her on either side, we started walking back to the lift. I turned back to look at the deflated golden godling and his two black-hatted jackals.
“You know what, pals, I think I’ll stick around a little longer than I planned here in the Platter. Just to keep an eye on things.”
I winked, and with G. and I holding on tight to twitching Clara, made awkward by how much taller my pseudo manservant was than me, we made a less than dramatic hobbling exit.
Without looking back, we beat a hasty retreat from Raia’s house, without bothering to say our goodbyes to the empty notables in the dining room.
Outside it was another perfect sunny goddamn day.