I'm going to experiment with this one. A friend of mine suggested I incorporate more order and mathematics into my writing, whatever that means. This may cause some strangeness as the story progresses. More than ever, reviews are much appreciated.

This is not a sequel to Matryoshka.

Inception belongs to Christopher Nolan.

- Li

S i x D e g r e e s

Of Erdős, Shusaku and Karinthy

r u n , r u n , r u n .

Dear Ariadne,

It is with great pleasure that we congratulate you on your acceptance to the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation's Doctorate Program in Architecture at Columbia University. We are highly impressed with your consistently high achievements both academically and in the workplace, and look forward to seeing you at our campus in the fall. Your skills and talent would be a welcome addition to not just our faculty, but the school community.

Further details regarding your admission, including scholarship, housing and visa details will be mailed to you at a later date. As there are an overwhelming number of candidates still on our waitlist, please note that you must accept your offer by June 1st and deposit a non-refundable, $500 registration fee directly to the Faculty of Architecture in order to maintain your spot on our list of incoming students for the coming academic year.

Once again, congratulations, and welcome to the faculty!

Professor Miles looked up from the letter with an unreadable expression. "Well?" he asked in a detached, almost disinterested voice.

Ariadne cleared her throat and shoved both hands deep into her pockets so he wouldn't see them fidgeting at her sides. Miles was by far her favourite professor at the university, and likely the best teacher she'd ever had. It was usually no harder to talk to him than to her friends, but there were times when he would fix her with a particularly nonchalant look that gave her the impression he was actually scrutinizing her every movement. Times like now, when all she really wanted was a yes or no answer.

She coughed again. "Well…"

He leaned forward in his chair. "You want me to tell you whether or not you should accept?"

She clenched her fists tightly in her sweater and tried to keep her breathing quiet and even.

Smiling, he handed the letter back to her and propped his elbows up on the desk. "Columbia is a very prestigious school," he started, sliding smoothly into lecturing mode. "I taught a semester there years ago. The campus library alone is worth a trip. And of course, the architecture faculty and alumni are all very famous."

Her heart dropped down several notches to somewhere in the vicinity of her stomach. If he told her she should go… Well, Ariadne would be extremely sorry to disappoint him, but there was little she could do now. She had made her decisions weeks ago; although it did seem to her as if her whole life had been spent hurtling towards this one crossroad.

A knowing smile stole over Miles' face as he watched her. "You've already refused the offer, haven't you?"

Ariadne bit her lip rather sheepishly. She might have lied – she came very close to lying – but in the end, the faintest glimmer of amusement in Miles' smile saved her.

"I turned them down the day after I got the letter," she admitted.

Her professor clapped his hands together. In the empty lecture hall, the sound resounded loudly all the way up to the high rafters and back.

"I'm glad you did," he said, to Ariadne's infinite relief. "Columbia is absolutely wonderful, and if you'd asked me a few months ago, I would have insisted you go. But in light of recent…events, I don't think you want another degree."

"Do you think-" Ariadne began, but he waved a hand to cut her off.

"You could lead a perfectly agreeable life as an architect," he said. "There are a dozen firms in France alone that would be delighted to have you work for them. But would you be happy?"

She tugged at the trailing end of her scarf and said nothing. The truth was that she could be happy; she would always be happy so long as she had a pen and a stack of blank cocktail napkins at her disposal. Yet happiness didn't equate living, and what was life without dreams? She could probably manage to eat and breathe and sleep without dreaming, but she would also have to spend each day watching life pass her by, one frame of regret at a time.

Miles, as always, understood her silence better than words. He let out a long sigh and buried his head in his hands. Ariadne watched the display with a heightening sense of alarm as his face failed to reappear. For a fleeting second, she almost changed her mind.

"I had hoped," he finally murmured through his fingers, "that I would not have to watch another one of my students exploit their considerable talents and make themselves miserable in the bargain."

"I'm sorry," said Ariadne, but she was afraid that the apology came out sounding more than a little impertinent. She winced. Tact had never been her strong suit.

Miles shook his head. "Don't apologize." His voice was steadier now, and he had lowered his hands from his face. "It's as much my fault as it is yours. Genius can never help itself, but I should have known better than to introduce you to Dom. If I'd picked someone less talented, we might not be here."

"If pigs had wings they might be pigeons," she reminded him, and he smiled at the recollection of his favourite saying, one that he'd often used whenever a student had brought up a particularly meaningless point.

"I'm getting too old for this," said Miles after a while. "Once your students start outsmarting you, you know it's time to get a pension." With a sigh, he pulled off his glasses, rubbed them carefully on his sleeve and made to put them back on. Halfway there, he stopped and dropped them on his desk. They landed awkwardly, but remained whole.

"So you've made up your mind already. Why are you still looking for my advice?"

Ariadne swallowed, or tried to, but her mouth was suddenly dry. When she tried again, she fared little better and gave it up as a lost cause.

"Last time, Cobb gave me his number, in case something happened," she explained. "But he's not around anymore, and I-"

"-need to find someone who can get you into the business," Miles finished. He frowned. "Do you really think I'm going to help one of my best students throw her life away?"

At his question, she felt herself start to bristle like a porcupine. He might have seen it as throwing her life away, but for Ariadne, this was her one chance at ever having a life at all and she was not about to let it escape her grasp without some kind of fight.

"I've found extractors in Paris who're willing to give me a job," she lied bluntly. "But Cobb always said his team was the best."

"They're certainly the craziest," said Miles with a tinge of bitterness. Ariadne wondered if he was remembering his daughter, and the dreams and crazy experiments that had eventually driven her to take her own life. "But you couldn't get far in the business without some craziness," he conceded, half to himself. "And I suppose if you're set on doing this, the least I can do is make sure you don't end up with a gang of hoodlums." He reached into his desk and pulled out a file card, onto which he scribbled a few lines.

"This is Arthur's number," he told her. "He's a little saner than the rest of them. He'll take good care of you."

Ariadne took the card and shoved it into her pocket with her bishop. She hadn't needed to use the totem for a while, but nonetheless, it comforted her to know that it was there.

"Thanks," she mumbled, slightly ashamed of her outright lie, especially when she saw the weary look of disappointment on his face.

He smiled, or tried to. It came out looking rather forced. "Come back and visit before you start gallivanting around the globe. Bring Arthur with you if he's around. I haven't seen him in years. I won't be here next week, but the week after should be fine."

She looked at him curiously. "What's happening next week?"

"Hip replacement." Miles grimaced. "One of the many disadvantages of old age." He cut off her questions with a shake of his head. "It's nothing to worry about. I would worry more about myself, if I were you." His voice turned serious once more. "You remind of Dom, you know."

"Do I?" she asked, genuinely surprised. She couldn't decide whether it was a compliment to be held up to the best extractor in the world, or to be worried that she was being compared to someone whose subconscious was just a shade unbalanced.

Miles picked up his glasses from the desk and turned them around in his hands. "There's no denying that you're both brilliant architects," he said, addressing his glasses. "But you worry me." He looked up and fixed Ariadne with one of the piercing stares that always left her feeling mentally exposed. He sighed and closed his eyes.

"One of these days, you're going to have to stop running away from reality."

Before she could ask what he meant, there was the sound of a soft knock at the back of the room. Ariadne turned and saw a group of her classmates at the door, waiting to speak to the professor. She thanked him again, muttered a hasty goodbye, and hurried out another door.

In the echoing silence of the halls – empty for the summer – she slowed down and pulled Arthur's number out of her pocket. The rapid thump of her heart against her ribcage nearly drowned out her footsteps on the tiled floor. Funny the strange things a few digits could do to her pulse. Carefully, she placed the card back in her pocket. She wouldn't call – not yet, anyway. The loose ends of the old life had to be snipped and tied before she could move on to the new one.

She would start with her apartment. Of the seven years she'd lived in Paris, she'd spent five of them in the tiny rooms just across from the university. It seemed only right to start wrapping up her life in the comfort of its walls. The apartment was not hers, and once she left, someone else would be bound to move in. Apartments close to the university were always in high demand. Of course, with all the money from the Fischer job, she could have easily rented a larger flat, or bought the entire building, but a reluctance to let go had kept her. Besides, even then, she had already started to form vague plans of a future that did not involve permanent living in any one place.

When she surveyed the work ahead of her, Ariadne came quite close to giving up. It took her a moment to realize that it wasn't so much that her apartment was small as that she had crammed it with too many knick knacks. Piles of textbooks and novels were littered all over the floor, just waiting to stab an unsuspecting victim's foot. The walls had once been papered with pale lilacs, but now they were covered with posters of everything from space shuttles to Impressionist paintings. Her old school projects were balanced haphazardly on stacks of half folded laundry. When her friends had teased her about her chronic untidiness, she had argued that it was all organized chaos – she could always find anything she wanted within five minutes. Now, she wondered if it might not be smarter to call Arthur first. If he refused to help her or if – her heart skipped a beat – Miles had given her the wrong number, she would at least be able to save herself the trouble of packing up.

Yet something held her back. A vague feeling that she needed more time. Was it fear or anxiety? Or perhaps a small nagging voice at the back of her head, warning her, as Miles had said, to stop running?

In the end, she decided to take her mother's advice and sleep on it.

f a l l i n g , f a l l i n g , f a l l i n g .

He woke up in the middle of the night, dizzy and shaking, covered in a shower of cold, clinging sweat, to a dark and silent room. In that fractional second between sleep and consciousness, there was no memory of where he was or how he got there. And he thought, this is it, and lunged for the well-worn Beretta. Only when his fingers brushed chipped coffee cup ceramic instead did he remember to breathe. In an excruciatingly slow rush of recognition, the details of the room sharpened and leaped into focus. The flowered wallpaper, handpicked by his wife and her mother, the dresser set that had taken hours to assemble, the faded snapshots taped crookedly to one pane of the custom French windows. The fistfuls of blankets in his hands that smelled of lilac and nostalgia.

There could be no sleep now, perhaps not ever. With a Herculean effort, he swung his trembling limbs out of bed and groped his way in the semidarkness to the bathroom across the hall. He was still only half awake, but old habits had always died hard with him and in spite of the dull ache in his head, he remembered to step around the creaky floorboard in front of his daughter's room. It had been a joke, that floorboard. The carpenter had just about died laughing when they'd asked for a squeaky board barring each of their children's bedrooms, in case they should ever try to sneak out of the house as they grew older. It had been more her idea than his, and now she would never see it completed.

In the bathroom, he switched on the frog shaped night light that his son had insisted on. Its muted green was much kinder to his eyes than the ceiling light's fluorescent glare, but did little for his complexion. Staring at the reflection in the mirror, he almost didn't recognize his own face peering back. His hair was a mess and in desperate need of a trip to the barber's, and the stubble on his chin was more than a few days old. Somehow, there never seemed to be enough space in a day now, between school and soccer and ballet and meals and laundry and a hundred and one other sundry matters that he had never noticed before. It baffled him, how he had gone from creating time to chasing after it in the space of a plane ride.

His hair was not the only less than appealing feature in the glass. There were lines on his face that had not been there the last time he'd been in this house; small lines around the corners of his mouth and deep furrows between his eyes that aged him beyond his thirty odd years. It had only really been two years, hanging onto the thinnest traces of reality, living for the sound of childish voices whispering through cheap speakers.

Two years multiplied by seventeen extractions, plus several hundred trial runs and too many solitary 'experiments' to count, with a trip to limbo to top it all off.

These days, he tried not to think too hard. It helped that he'd stopped wearing a watch.

Still, he could count. Math had never been his strength – a sticking point with his university professors, who had declared him a genius in every other respect – but that most basic of skills had not yet deserted him. He would never find peace until it did. After lifetimes spent counting seconds, it had become second nature, whenever there was a momentary lull, to tick off the seconds in his head. Twenty seconds since he'd started counting sheep. Seven seconds until the end of triple overtime. Three hundred seconds before the egg timer would explode into a cacophony of unpleasant crowing.

As his daughter often pointed out with an air of smugness, only roosters crowed.

He lived for those moments now. Moments in between preschool tantrums and scraped knees and muddy footprints trailing through the clean kitchen – because his children were a long way from perfect – when he remembered what it felt like to be in love. Sometimes, when those moments were particularly sparse, he found himself doubting his decision to come back, although there had not been much thought of choosing at the time. There were nights when, with the world fast asleep, he became desperate to dream again, not of painful, sepia memories, but of wonderful impossibilities that soared up beyond the clouds. He missed the thrill of somnacin slipping into his veins and the jerk of a kick pulling him awake. It was like a phantom limb plaguing at his body with an ache so terrible that he could not sleep.

Tonight was one of those nights.

With a vicious tug, he wrenched the faucet on and stuck his head under the pounding jet of cold water. The icy deluge made it hard to think about much besides the physical pain of his skin freezing over, unless it was to wonder about the possibility of hypothermia setting in. Over the numbing rush of water, he did not hear the creaking floorboard or the sound of small, bare feet on tiles.


He spun around on his heel and nearly cracked his elbow on the sink's marble countertop. His daughter was standing at the bathroom door, peering up at him through puffy, half-closed eyes. When he caught sight of her, with her long hair sticking up in every direction and her baggy pyjamas trailing on the floor, he remembered exactly who and where he was. The world spun around several times before settling back into its familiar pattern. Reaching behind him, he closed the tap to the sound of silence ringing in his ears and crouched down on the floor. He spread his arms open a little and she tumbled obediently into them.

"What are you doing out of bed?"

She dug her tiny nose into his shoulder. "I had a nightmare," she mumbled.

His grip on her tightened with his heart. "About what?"

She wriggled in his arms and he adjusted his hold until she stopped. After a while, she leaned her mouth next to his ear and whispered, "There's a monster caterpillar under my bed" before bursting into tears.

At the last moment, he caught himself and remembered not to laugh. He'd done that the first time his son had come diving into his bed in the middle of the night, crying about the mummy that lived in the dining room clock. The result had been more tears and a severe scolding from his mother-in-law. Instead, he brushed his fingers through his daughter's hair silently until her sobs showed signs of dying down. Then he sat back on his heels and wiped the tearstains from her face with his thumbs. It was not exactly the most efficient method, but he had washed all the towels earlier and forgotten to dry them.

"What did the caterpillar look like?" he asked seriously.

His daughter hiccoughed several times and sniffed loudly. "Hairy."

He smiled to himself. "And?"

"It had twenty thousand legs and one big eye right here." And she jabbed a finger into his forehead, to illustrate the eye's exact position.

He grimaced in mock horror. "You think it's still under your bed?"

She nodded vigorously, knotted hair swinging up and down. He felt a brief stab of jealousy that she could be so certain on the dividing lines between dreams and reality. Still, he swung her up off the floor, albeit not nearly as effortlessly as he had once been able to manage, and carried her briskly around the creaky floorboard to her room.

It was dark inside, darker than he remembered it from years ago. Back then, she had been terrified of the dark and there had been a veritable parade of nightlights and glow-in-the-dark mobiles in her room. Now the only light came from the moonbeams peaking through the cracks between the curtains. A tangled lump of blankets lay in the middle of the bed. He reached a hand out to the light switch by the door, but she grabbed his fingers and held on grimly.

"If you turn on the light, he'll disappear," she informed him solemnly.

"Why didn't you turn them on, then?"

She gave him a look that clearly showed what she thought of his monster-catching abilities. "Because he'll come back with his friends after."

"Ah. Of course."

He searched around for some other way to comfort her. The dark space under her bed did look oddly sinister. There was even a glimmer of light reflecting off of something that could have been the monster caterpillar's one eye. Gently, mindful of the precious cargo in his arms, he lowered himself to the floor beside the bed. His daughter let out a tiny whimper and tugged tightly at his hair. It was rather painful, but strangely enough, he enjoyed the sensation. When he reached his hand under the bed, she just about had a five year old heart attack.

"It'll eat you!" she breathed.

"I haven't found it yet," he muttered, stretching his arm further. His palm brushed against something soft and furry. "Hang on; I think I've got him."

Faking enormous effort, he dragged the thing out, much to the distress of his daughter, who let out a small, terrified squeak and nearly strangled him with her grip. Once the thing was out, he groped at the base of her bedside lamp and switched it on.

"Look. There's you monster."

A large, ragged teddy bear lay on the floor, light glinting off of it glass eyes. She stared at it blankly for several seconds before sliding down from his shoulder and prodding the furry bundle with her foot. When it didn't move, she turned her head upside down and peered under the bed.

"Are you sure it's not still there?"

He picked up the lamp and shone it under the bed. There was nothing there except dust and a few candy wrappers. His daughter let out a sigh of relief and patted his hair with both hands.

"Thank you Daddy."

He coughed and tried not to look over pleased with himself. "Are you sure you don't want to sleep with your brother tonight?"

She jumped onto the bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. "Ew."

"Alright. Goodnight."

She shook her head. "It's morning already. Look." She pointed at the Mickey Mouse clock on her dresser. His gloved hands pointed at just past two.

He smiled and looked quickly away from the clock, already ticking off seconds in his head. "Good morning, then."

Back in the quiet of his own room – he had to constantly remind himself that it was no longer their room – the overwhelming flood of memories pressing down on him was a little easier to bear. He could still smell lilac perfume in the air, but it brought to mind his daughter leaping across the stage as the Flower Queen. If he looked closely, he could see the marker drawings taped over much of the wallpaper. The chipped coffee cup bore the words Number One Dad in block capitals across its sides.

He might have been able to leave it there, already halfway back to normalcy – whatever that was. He might have been able to keep the past in the past, and let his daughter finish piecing his life back together. He might have been able to live again.

If pigs had wings, they might have been pigeons.

The phone chose to ring just then, shattering his fragile web of realities. He snatched up the receiver before it could wake either of his children.


"Hello?" The voice was distinctly French. "Is this Monsieur Cobb?"


"Monsieur Dominic Cobb? You are the son of Monsieur Stephen Miles?"

Blood pounded against his eardrums, nearly deafening him. "I'm his son-in-law," he corrected shakily. "Who is this?"

"I am Doctor Pasteur, Monsieur Miles' doctor at the American Hospital of Paris. You are aware that Monsieur Miles was scheduled for a total hip replacement yesterday?"

"I-" His mouth was suddenly dry. "Has something happened to him?"

There was a sigh, and then a ruffle of papers on the other side of the line.

"Monsieur Cobb, I am not permitted to disclose a patient's personal information over the phone. I think it would be best if you came to Paris to see for yourself. The sooner, the better. The secretary at the front desk will know where to direct you."

A click, the silence of a dead line, and then the all too familiar sense of falling.

Only this time, there was no dream to fall from.