“Welcome to Sim’s Mules. Can I help you?” the young woman said, and the older woman still at the round table returned to her work.
“I need a new coat,” Silas said as he took his off and handed it to her. “She needs help,” he added. “Lots of it.”
“Of course. I’m Kelly,” she said as she handed the coat in turn to an assistant dressed to look like a behind-the-scenes prop man. Tsking, he took it to the center counter to clean it.
“If you’d like to step into the scanner, we can find your perfect fit,” Kelly said, hiding a wince as Peri fingered an especially fine drape of rough silk. “We usually require an appointment, but it’s slow this morning. The weather is so nice outside.”
“I’m on file,” Silas said. “So is she.”
Peri turned to him as Kelly’s entire demeanor shifted three tax brackets up. “I am?”
Silas took the palm-size keypad Kelly had enthusiastically handed him. “We are two blocks from your old apartment,” he said as he typed in first his, then her name. “You’re on file.”
Kelly beamed at the cheerful ding, turning to see the two holograms that shimmered into existence at one of the stages. “You’re on file,” she said happily as the two mules in their silk boxers and black panties and chemise began to interact with each other on basic programming.
“Welcome back, Ms. Reed. Dr. Denier,” Kelly said as she took the keypad and read the screen. “Have a seat and feel free to look through the catalog. I’ve put you at table three. I’ll be right back with some refreshments. Coffee mocha for you, ma’am?” she said, glancing at her readout. “Straight black for you, Doctor?”
Peri didn’t remember setting up her profile, but the simulation “talking” to Silas’s double looked up-to-date. “Sure,” she said, not realizing until just that moment how wide Silas’s shoulders were. And was she really that short beside him?
She stifled a shiver as Silas set a light hand on the small of her back, escorting her to the small table overlooking the commons, bright with light and busy with people living their lives. She could see everything, and for the first time in ages, she felt safe. But then her butt gave a twinge and her tension swung back around as she tried to find a comfortable position.
“Can’t try on coats half dressed,” Silas said as he swiped through one of the two glass catalogs and quickly chose a classic pair of black pants, striped shirt, and matching tie. Peri’s mule clapped her hands and jumped, showing her belly button, and Peri hid a smile. Marketing at its finest. But even she had to admit it looked good. She glanced sidelong at Silas. Really good.
“I’m going to change your drink,” he said, eyes furtive as he suddenly stood. “Trust me?”
“With my drink order, sure,” she said. “What are you really doing?”
He chuckled sheepishly. “Calling Howard. He’s going to want to run his bug detector over you before I bring you in.”
Peri leaned back in the cushions, arms over her chest. “Yeah, I wouldn’t trust me either.”
“Oh, stop looking for shoes to throw,” he said sourly. “I’m going to be right over there. Pick yourself out something. That blouse is awful.”
“I think Allen bought it,” she said, mollified as she pulled the second tablet to herself and brought up the women’s section.
“It looks like something he’d like,” he said, already walking away, and Peri smiled.
But it faded fast, and her gaze fell to her palm where her message to herself stood out in harsh letters. Opti would never let her out, unless it was in a body bag.
Mood tarnished, she quickly dressed her mule in a tight, thigh-high evening dress, a wash of color at the collar to show off her slim neck and a pair of six-inch heels to bring her closer to Silas’s mule’s height. They looked good enough for a night on the town—a really expensive night—and she started, sighing when Jack’s presence was suddenly standing beside her. “I hope you like what he brings back,” he said as he sat down, his arms spread across the back of the wide chair to own the space. His suit rivaled the one Silas’s mule wore on the stage, now sharing a glass of not-there wine with her double.
“Me too.” Fidgeting, she turned to Silas at the center counter, talking on his own phone. “It’s probably some foo-foo drink with too much sugar.”
“I meant,” Jack said, pulling her attention back, “I hope you like the memories he brings back. He wants to, you know. Damn psychologist anchor.”
Peri frowned. She was here to buy her way out of Opti, not defragment memories. Besides, how would she know what was real and what was false?
“Here he comes,” Jack said as Silas approached, two ceramic mugs in his hands.
“Try this,” Silas said as he put the one with the cinnamon stick before her with a satisfied firmness. “I guarantee you’ll like it.”
Silas began to sit, and she watched in amazement when Jack all but fell out of the chair, scrambling to get out of the way and swearing as he strove to maintain the illusion that he was real. Oblivious, Silas took his place, clearly eager for her to try the frothy, steamy drink.
It looked like it had too much milk, but she took a taste, turning it into a long draft when she found it creamy but not too rich, spicy without hiding the nutty flavor. Eyes closing, she held a swallow on her tongue, savoring it. “That’s good,” she said, and Silas beamed, sipping his own straight-up black coffee. “You’re an anchor, aren’t you,” she said, and he hesitated. The all-too-familiar feeling of having said something stupid came over her. She should know that already.