A/N-I make no money now, but I'm willing to negotiate with Mr. Nolan or his reps. That's how confident I am in this story.
Prologue: From some other Beginning's End
As the 747 taxied toward the gate at Los Angeles International Airport, Robert Fisher, Jr., retied his black necktie. From an inside pocket in his suit jacket, he took out his smart phone intending to check his voice messages and emails.
For a long moment, he looked at the phone.
Then, he put it back in his pocket. Robert smiled, feeling at peace. He was his own man. He felt well rested and relaxed. He half remembered some amazing dreams from his nap during the flight they were fading away like the morning mist.
The young businessman looked out the window at the grass in the taxi-way median and thought about nicknames for the first time since he'd entered school. Bobby? Bert? Maybe just Rob.
Fisher had decisions to make, but there would be time to make them. He would see to his father. His companies could do without him for a little while. They'd better get used to it.
As he stood, Robert noticed two of his fellow passengers, a middle aged Japanese and a sandy haired thirty-something, both still sleeping. But didn't worry about them. Nothing worried him at the moment; his father's arrangements had been settled in a Tandberg conferece hours before the flight. And that was that.
The businessman calmly gathered his own bag and his coat, unhurried for perhaps the first time in his life. The stewardess, flight attendant he corrected himself, stepped over and helped him out of the cabin. The one guy had been nice enough, returning my passport and toasting my father...
Ariadne glanced from her architecture notes to Cobb and back. Again. He still wasn't awake. It's going on ten minutes now. She hadn't actually been studying her notes from graduate school. She'd been going over the first aid she'd learned in Girl Scouts fifteen years ago. She still remembered how to evaluate a casualty and treat for shock. Did I learn any remedy for coma? I ... can't remember. I know they didn't teach anything for What To Do When Your Boss Hasn't Woken Up From Limbo.
Arthur pretended to be studying the screen of his phone while he watched Fisher carry his briefcase out of the first class cabin and begin to descend the spiral staircase. As soon as Fisher's head dropped below the deck, the Point Man sprang into action. He leaped from his seat to the overhead bin, without first adjusting his necktie.
Eames, the ruddy and muscular forger, and Yusuf, the portly chemist, rose to gather their things. Casually glancing at Cobb and Saito, they saw their Team Lead and their Employer were still asleep. Yusef's eyes went wide and Eames looked away. Eames pulled his and Yusef's gear from the overhead bin while Yusef just stood there looking dumbfounded.
Ariadne moved around Eames and Yusuf to check Cobb's pulse and respiration.
Arthur removed his brown leather weekend bag from the overhead bin with an efficient and practiced motion. He set several of the airline inflight blankets-the ones he'd stacked next to his bag after boarding for just this emergency-into his seat. Cobb! No time for him now. The best thing Arthur could do for his friend and mentor right now was to get to somewhere else with the Dream Machine.
The Point Man set the brown weekend bag next to the navy blue blankets, zipped it open and pulled out an empty garment bag. Empty garment bag in hand, Arthur dashed around Eames and Yusef and gathered the metal case that contained the Dream Machine from where the stewardess had stashed it in the galley.
Back at his seat, Arthur packed the case into the garment bag with several airline blankets around the it to make the bag appear filled with clothes, rather than a metal case. Garment bag zipped, he donned his suit jacket and scooped up his bags.
Eames shuffled Yusef out of the first class cabin to the stair well next to the stewardess's tiny galley. It wouldn't do for a staring, incoherant chemist to be caught here with Cobb and their employer. They maneuvered around the flight attendant on the stairwell.
The pilots opened the reinforced door to the flight deck and immediately noticed Saito and Cobb still apparently asleep. Having both served as Naval Aviators, an exchange of glances was all it took, and the pilots, too, sprang into action.
The Captain returned to the flight deck and grabbed his headset. The First Officer began to evaluate Saito, first checking for pulse and breathing. "Janet, I need you to see to these other passengers," he called out to the flight attendant.
Arthur slipped out behind her with the garment bag folded over his left arm and his weekend bag slung over a shoulder. He wasn't sure how he'd get the Dream Machine through customs yet, but he couldn't leave it right there with Cobb and Ariadne.
"Mr. Kwan," the First Officer called out to the flight engineer/navigator who was still on the flight deck going thru the postflight checklist, "come out here and evaluate the other casualty."
Ariadne! Arthur glared at her as he made his way down the spiral staircase and out though the boarding door into the jetway. Striding down the jet way, Arthur checked his wallet and found that he had forty-one euros and sixty-four dollars Australian. Good to know, but not what he needed. He kept looking. Eventually found his old Scientific Atlanta ID badge. He smiled and immediately began to calmly and casually unzip the garment bag and remove the metal case from it. As he passed through a set of double doors at the end of the jetway, he deposited the garment bag in a waste bin and asked beautiful passerby if she'd hold the case for him a moment. He would use a well-practiced way of getting through customs.
Her feet riveted to the deck of the first class cabin, Ariadne stood just stood there smiling sheepishly back as Arthur descended the spiral staircase. The back of her hand against Cobb's cheek, Ariadne felt no fever. She did feel Kwan brush past her on his way to Cobb. She could hear the Captain in the cockpit talking with the Tower about his request for ambulances, EMS and police. She wondered if Arthur would call Professor Miles and decided that she wanted to call him either way. Looking up at the flight attendant who had positioned herself to block Ariadne's path, Ari realized the other woman had said something.
"I asked if you knew him well?" Janet said, smiling a firm professional smile, almost devoid of warmth. Behind her, Kwan held a mirror to Cobb's mouth with one hand and felt for the radial pulse near the wrist with his other.
The architecture student stood up from where she'd been checking on Cobb, leaving him with the Flight Engineer. "Nobody knows anybody. Not really." Adne noticed the sound of sirens in the distance and getting closer. A glance out the window showed not a single airplane or airport crew vehicle moving.
"What?" The flight attendant looked puzzled.
Inside the airport, in the hall that led from the jetway to customs a beautiful woman asked Arthur, "What, d'you think, I'm going to get this thing through customs for you somehow?" She sounded slightly annoyed, but her eyes held a touch of mirth.
"Nope," Arthur replied. "I wouldn't do a thing like that to a nice lady like you. Not after all the trouble I went through to steal it."
The look on the beauty's face was priceless. Her eyes got wide; she held the case out a few inches away from her and then glanced down at it sideways. But she did not drop it. That was very important.
Breezily, Arthur held up his right hand, open palm facing up and next it to his closed left hand facing down. He showed her his unkempt sleeves and smiled. Turning his left and over smoothly and opening it like a magician revealing the turn, he said, "No, I'm kidding. I'm just ask you to give me a second put in my cuff links." He smiled and fiddled with his cufflinks. "It's mine. Really, it is. Or it's the company's anyhow."
Back in the first class cabin, Adne told a confused looking flight attendant about how long she'd known Cobb. "A couple of weeks." Adne said. "I knew him for two, maybe three weeks. We did a project together in Sidney." The first statement was truth, the second a half truth. "Now we return to LA and resume our lives." Another truth, this time followed by an outright lie. Adne reached into her pocket and pulled out the chess piece she'd machined in the workshop back in Paris. She stooped to set it on the flat drink holder next to one of the seats. She balanced it on it's edge and it stayed. If she were in someone else's dream it would fall over because no one's subconscious besides hers could account for it's unique mass and balance.
She scooped it back up. She felt mildly ill, dehydrated, famished. She wanted an omelet with homefries, an English muffin, orange juice, and hot tea. How much time is passing for Cobb four levels down in Limbo? How could she just go back to her life?
Back in the airport, outside the customs area, Arthur took the metal case back in his left hand, and offered his right to the beautiful woman who had briefly held the case. "Thank you very much. I'm Arthur by the way." That was even the name on his old ID card. "Very. Pleased to meet you. I consulted for Scientific Atlanta and I've just demonstrated this very fine product at a technical conference, in Sidney."
"You last name is Very? That's quite an odd name." They both turned to rejoin the flow of passengers. The beauty fell into step next to Arthur. She flashed him a mischievous smile. "I'm Amy Just."
"Oh. That's a good one. Two actually." Arthur mimed stroking two points on an imaginary scoreboard. "So, I'll tell you mine, if you tell me yours." They were stuck in a bit of a line now.
"Your... what? Your blood type?" She poked him in the shoulder. "Your astrological sign?"
"My name. It's Slate. Arthur Slate. I'm from Queens in New York."
"I'm from South Island, Enn Zed," the beauty replied.
The sound of sirens had stopped next to the 747 from Sidney. Both Adne and Janet the Flight Attendant glanced toward the sound of heavy footsteps clomping up the spiral staircase. Ariadne wondered if the police or the EMS would come first.
Back in the customs line Arthur asked, "And your name..?"
"I told you." the beauty replied.
"What... are you a famous singing sensation or something, back there in South Island? Do you go by just one name, like Frank or Sting or the Edge?" Arthur extended his free hand and looked up into the middle distance miming a glance at a marquee. "8:00 pm Tonight! Five nights a week and twice on Sundays! Amy!"
"Oh, you're good too. Buy my a drink at that bar over there after we clear customs. I'm up next." She smiled and moved off.
Arthur hated leaving his friends like that. Especially Ariadne. He didn't know what to make of her: young, idealistic, insightful, maybe the conscience of the team? If there was still a team. On the other hand, besides her, they'd all left him. Which was expected. Even Cobb. Which was not expected. Damn him. Well, not entirely unexpected. Damn him, anyway.
A voice from down the way calling, "Next," jarred Arthur out of his reverie. The Point Man smiled confidently and made his way down to the open counter. "I have nothing to declare." He unshouldered his brown leather bag, setting it down on the table next to the passport man's stand. He passed over his documents.
The passport man at went through the usual drill with Arthur's passport and glanced at his Scientific Atlanta ID card.
Arthur took back the Sci Atlanta ID card.
"What about that metal case." The passport man gestured for another customs inspector to step over to and go through Arthur's leather bag.
"What this? This metal valise? It's classified technology. I can't declare this." He smiled broadly. "Just look on the blue form. It's all there. Really"
The customs inspector glanced down on top of the case. A moment ago there had been no form. And now, presto. There it was. He looked the form over. "You didn't say what it is. All you wrote was classified." The passport man gestured. "Open it up."
Arthur smiled. He opened the case.
The customs man looked at the Dream Machine. "What. Is. That. Is it some kind of medical device or computer?"
"I told you. It's classified. I shouldn't even be showing it to you."
"Oh, I get it, if you told me, you'd have to..." the Customs man smiled, made a gurgling sound and drew a line across his neck. He glanced back at the other inspector who gave a thumbs up.
"No. Not me." Arthur shrugged. "I should think it'd be another one of the US Government's alphabet soup agencies that would be doing that."
The customs man smiled and waved Arthur through.
Arthur grabbed his passport and his things and moved along toward the bar and the babe. He wondered if they took euros or Aussie bucks. Probably both in a place like the international terminal at LAX.
Meanwhile, back on board the 747 airliner Arthur had just walked away from, a four man stack of SWAT cops wearing bullet proof vests and hazmat suits wound its way up the stairs to first class, weapons pointing in controlled directions. Chemical protective masks turned this way and that, always in line with the weapons as the cops each scanned a sector looking for threats. They moved with practiced ease, as though they were quite used to working in the hazmat suits. Entering the first class cabin, all the SWAT cops began barking orders. The flight attendant knelt on the floor and put her hands behind her head. Ari followed suit. Cops first. Hmmmpf. Makes sense, I guess.