I'm sorry. I really am. Engineering is fun but ... *insert choice of expletive here*.
Anyway, school's over until September, so I'm going to try and finish this story before then, if I can manage to crawl out of bed in the mornings.
Thanks to everyone who reviewed, alerted and favourited this story, even though I completely abandoned it for a few months. I don't deserve you guys.
Reviews are deeply appreciated. And loved. And adored. Etc.
Props if you know where the title and various subtitles comes from... :P
Inception belongs to Christopher Nolan.
S i x D e g r e e s
Of Erdős, Shusaku and Karinthy
t h e o n e f a l l s d o w n
Eames met them outside the hospital, his expression abnormally subdued.
"Cobb's not here," he informed them, casually pushing himself off the concrete pillar he had been leaning against and walking with them into the lobby. "Miles has been moved too, into the intensive care ward. Only immediate family members allowed." His glanced over his shoulder at Ariadne. "I'm guessing they noticed your little excursion earlier."
"No back doors?" Arthur asked, jamming his finger impatiently into the "up" button beside the row of elevators.
Eames shook his head. "It's a fortress in there. They don't want any bio-hazardous waste entering or leaving without authorization. It's a good excuse," he said, "keeping Miles there. No one will think it odd if he's secluded up there."
The elevator arrived with a soft, musical ding. As the three of them stepped into the empty lift, a harried looking man in a rumpled suit waved wildly at them from the other end of the lobby to hold the door. Eames waved back with a smile and forced the elevator doors shut.
"Sorry to disappoint you princess, but I don't fancy being overheard."
Ariadne almost grinned. "It's nice to see you too Eames."
His eyelid flickered briefly in what might have been a wink. Arthur caught the exchange and coughed. Eames chuckled. Repressing a smile, Ariadne looked away as the memory of a flickering moment that had never really happened floated to the front of her mind.
"So there's no way in or out?" asked Arthur, either completely oblivious to the sudden static in the air, or choosing to ignore it. Ariadne was willing to bet most of her possessions that it was the latter.
"Not without these," Eames replied dramatically, pulling out a tangle of plastic and lanyards from his breast pocket. "Visitor passes," he explained, handing one each to Arthur and Ariadne. "Nicked them from the nurse up front."
Slinging the lanyard around her neck, Ariadne glanced sideways at Arthur. "Nurses are a speciality of his?" she whispered under her breath.
"In more ways than one," Arthur answered, and she decided that she really didn't want to know any more than she had to. Nevertheless, her curiosity begged to know if Arthur had any specialities. She would have to find out some time.
They got out on the fifth floor and followed Eames through an intricate maze of corridors that all looked exactly the same, even to Ariadne's practiced eye. Eames brought them to a halt in front of a locked door that was identical to every other one on the floor – there were no distinguishing characteristics other than the room number. How Eames had managed to figure out which room Miles was in was a mystery to her, one that was soon superseded by the key card he swiped through the door's lock.
"Nurse again?" she guessed, as he held the door open for her, and this time, he did wink.
The room was almost exactly the same as the one Ariadne had been in earlier that day. The only discernible difference was the absence of the television and white furniture instead of green. Miles lay motionless in the middle of the room, his face a shade paler than she remembered. His arms lay above the hospital blanket, and this time, the pinpricks on their surface were clearly visible. Fluid from the IV beside the bed dripped steadily through the catheter sunk into his wrist.
Eames let out a low whistle. In the silence, it was almost deafening.
"He's definitely been under once too often. Look at his wrists."
"Look at his eyes," Arthur replied dully.
At first, Ariadne didn't know what he was talking about. Miles' eyes were closed, as they should have been. She stepped closer to the bed to stand beside Arthur. The gasp escaped her before she could catch her breath.
Miles' eyes were jumping violently beneath his eyelids, rolling madly in their sockets. As she watched, his eyelids twitched open a little, and she caught a glimpse of his sclera, shot through with veins of red. She took an involuntary step away, brushing against the sleeve of Arthur's jacket as she did so.
"What's happening to him?" she asked, and she hated that her voice was shaky despite her best efforts.
"He's dreaming," said Arthur simply. Ariadne had never heard him sound so defeated. She chanced a glance at his face, but it was unreadable as always.
"It's not a very pleasant dream, is it?" muttered Eames, who, for the first time, had completely lost his look of enjoyment, and finally seemed as equally worried as Arthur and Ariadne. The sudden change did nothing to assuage Ariadne's fears.
Arthur did not reply. He closed his fingers around Miles' wrist, the one with the needle, and counted off ten seconds on his watch.
"His heartbeat's skyrocketing," he said, stepping back from the bed. "If they keep him like this for much longer, he might not be able to come back."
"Let's do it now then," said Ariadne, and she reached out to tug the catheter from Miles' arm. Arthur pulled her back quickly.
"You can't just end a dream like that," he told her, keeping his hold on her wrist. "Especially not one like this. The shock of waking up would be worse than the dream. He could end up like-"
"-Mal," Ariadne finished, remembering the shade of her professor's knife-wielding daughter that still haunted her nightmares sometimes. She withdrew her hand. "Then what do we do? We can't let him stay like this."
"We might start," Eames suggested, "by finding that extractor you told Arthur about."
l i a r t h i e f k i l l e r c r e e p
The elevator stopped on the second floor with another ding and the doors slid open to reveal a janitor pushing a large, metal crate in a trolley. He ducked his head when Ariadne stepped past him on her way out, muttering something which might have been a greeting. It was difficult to hear anything past the curtain of long hair on either side of his face –
She whirled around just in time to stick her foot between the elevator doors, forcing them open. In his surprise, the janitor made the mistake of looking up. The moment their eyes met, Ariadne recognized him as the extractor in Miles' room.
She lunged instinctively at him, but Arthur was faster. In one swift movement, he had moved past Ariadne and pinned the extractor against the elevator wall by the neck. His trolley crashed sideways to the floor and the crate split open, sending two PASIVs and spare catheters clattering over the vinyl tiles.
"Take his stuff," Arthur spat out through clenched teeth, dragging the extractor out into the hall.
"Just do it," said Eames, picking up one of the PASIVs. "Don't try to mess with Arthur when he's in a temper. Trust me, I've been there. Often. It's not pretty."
Rather reluctantly, Ariadne swallowed the questions burning in her throat and picked the scattered contents of the trolley off the floor, all while trying to ignore the muffled sounds of the extractor's futile attempts to escape from Arthur's hold. They dragged the overturned trolley and the extractor into the nearest empty room, a men's washroom at the end of the hall. Only after they had locked and barricaded the door did Arthur let the extractor go. He staggered against the sink, massaging his windpipe.
"Please," he rasped out, "don't kill me."
"You're supposed to be dead already," said Arthur. "Who did you sell us out to this time?"
His voice was calm – extraordinarily so – and yet Ariadne had never seen him so angry before. She recalled his constant irritation around Eames, even his flashes of anger at Cobb, but this – this was different. Cold, inescapable fury that frightened Ariadne more than Cobb's psychotic dream-wife ever had.
"It was Cobol," spluttered the extractor, backing away from Arthur. For a moment, Ariadne came close to pitying him, until she remembered Miles' lifeless face.
He gasped loudly for air. "They made me do it, I swear. I had no choice. You know what Cobol's like. They would have killed me."
"And you would have deserved it," Arthur replied coldly. "What did you tell them?"
The man actually snivelled. Ariadne looked away, disgusted, and met Eames' eye. His attention kept darting back and forth between their – for lack of a better word, prisoner, and Arthur, like some kind of silent tennis rally. The expression on his face gave Ariadne the impression that he found the entire situation to be extremely entertaining. The mood was contagious, and she found herself holding back an inexplicable snigger.
"Everything," the man was saying, and Ariadne's attention snapped back to him. He was no longer sniffing, but his voice was still shaky. "How we got in, Saito's reaction, his test – everything."
"Did you tell them why we failed?"
His Adam's apple bobbed visibly as he swallowed, hard. "No," he admitted. "They – they didn't ask."
The entire exchange was starting to strike Ariadne as extremely odd. It wasn't just Arthur's unreasonable anger; something akin to familiarity lingered between the two men in front of her, one kneeling in front of the other. She wanted to ask Eames, to see if he was as confused as she felt, but his expression was even harder to read than Arthur's.
Out of nowhere, Arthur suddenly pulled out a gun and pointed it steadily at the extractor's head.
"Why don't I do Cobol a favour and finish you off?"
Cowered between the sink and mirror, his hands shaking in the air, the man cut a pathetic figure that was nothing like what Ariadne knew of extractors. He repulsed her, but neither did she want him sprawled on the floor, blood splattered over Arthur's hands. She made to move towards Arthur, but she need not have bothered.
"I'll tell you everything," gasped the man, sinking to his knees. "Anything you want. Just don't kill me."
Arthur lowered his aim slightly, keeping his finger ready on the trigger. "What does Cobol want from Miles?" he asked.
"Nothing," the extractor sobbed in response. "All I had to do was keep him under. Keep him sick enough to get Cobb's attention."
"So he's bait."
"What did I keep telling you?" Eames muttered, but only Ariadne heard him.
"Yes," the extractor replied clearly relieved that they were taking the news so well. "Cobol still wants payment for the job. They said someone was tailing you too," he added, glancing sideways at Eames with a plea in his eyes.
"Not a very good one," said Arthur carelessly, and Eames scowled. It amazed Ariadne how they never missed an opportunity to jilt each other, even in the middle of a hostage situation.
Hostage situation? She really had to lay off on the late night thrillers.
"Is that all Cobol wants?" Arthur demanded. "Revenge?"
"I told you, I don't know. They wouldn't tell me anything."
"In case someone got to you and you blurted out the whole thing?" Eames asked sarcastically. He received a dirty look from Arthur in return for his efforts.
"Please," the man begged. "Believe me."
Arthur glanced at his watch, and then lowered his gun.
"Get out," he ordered, and the extractor nearly fell over himself in his rush to the door.
a t a n g l e d w e b
"I'm impressed," said Eames, sitting up and disconnecting himself from the PASIV on the floor. "Not that I'm complaining, but I had no idea you had it in you to hold a gun to a man's head and mean it."
Arthur did not even look at the forger. "Just pack everything up," he instructed, pushing himself off the tiled floor of the men's bathroom. "We need to get out of here and find Cobb."
"I've already got a contact of mine in the hotel business on it," said Eames, winding up the rubber tubing on the floor. "But what are we going to do about this idiot?" he asked, gesturing at the unconscious extractor still lying on the floor. "I really don't fancy taking him with us."
"Leave him here," Arthur instructed. "He'll be too scared of what Cobol will do to him to tell them anything about us."
Ariadne sat up herself. "Speaking of him, is there something you're not telling us? Like how you know this guy?"
"It's got nothing to do with you-" Arthur began, but she cut him off.
"You know, I called you because I thought you would be different, but you sound just like Cobb."
Arthur shut his mouth abruptly and looked at her, really saw her, for the first time since he'd knocked on her door. It was a little disconcerting to be under the scrutiny of his microscopic gaze, but Ariadne stared back at him, determined not to be kept in the dark again. Arthur turned away first, returning his gaze to the extractor.
"His name's Nash. He was the architect when we were working for Cobol Engineering, before the Fischer job. He messed up and when we failed, he tried to sell us out to Saito in exchange for his own life. I thought Cobol would have finished him off, but he's obviously been able to sell them more information."
There was silence when he finished, broken by Eames snapping the PASIV lid closed.
"Lovely story, really touching, but that man's going to wake up in approximately thirty seconds, and it won't be sunshine and rainbows when he does, so unless you fancy spending the rest of your natural life staring at the back of your head, I'd get out of here."
He unlocked the bathroom door and held it open for Ariadne and Arthur.
p a i n t e d r u s t
When the Fischer job had finished, he'd stepped off the plane into the arms of his children, hoping that he would never have to leave them again. Hoping that he would he would be able to pick up what was left of his life and piece it together. Hoping that he would never have to be here again; in another city, another hotel room, his revolver and totem lying side by side on the bedside dresser beside the silent phone.
It was amazing how quickly time could fall away, as if the months at home had been nothing more than a long dream.
With a quiet sigh heard by no one, Cobb picked up the ID card Ariadne had given him, the one she had stolen from the extractor, and turned it over in his hands. The name was different, of course, the hair a little longer, and the eyes more wary than they'd been the last time he'd seen them over the lip of a helipad. He never forgot the face of anyone he worked with, and he certainly wouldn't forget the face of the only man who had ever tried to save his own skin by selling out the rest of his team. Extracting wasn't exactly legal and business allegiances changed all the time, but it was an unwritten rule that the safety of the entire team came second only to information.
Nash was, by all standards, a despicable human being. It certainly didn't help that he was now trying to ruin the one man that Cobb had always been able to turn to for advice. And Cobb had no doubts as to who had sent him here in the first place. It was common knowledge in the business that Cobol Engineering did not accept failure; the extraction on Saito had been the worst of its kind. He was surprised they hadn't gotten to him sooner.
The phone on the nightstand burst into a series of loud rings, blaring through Cobb's thoughts. He snatched it up halfway through the second ring, before he remembered that no one, not even Marie, knew where he was staying.
"Aren't you eager."
Cobb stayed silent, waiting with bated breath. The voice at the other end chuckled.
"I know you're there, Mr. Cobb, even if I can't hear you. Don't waste my time pretending otherwise."
"Who are you?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you that. Classified information and all that. What I can tell you is that I am a representative of Cobol Engineering, and I have to say, they're not all that pleased with you at the moment. But you know that already, don't you?"
The voice waited for him to reply. When he didn't, it sighed heavily.
"You're a difficult man to find, Mr. Cobb. Very difficult. We were almost afraid you wouldn't come for your father-in-law, but it seems our source was correct after all."
Cobb stiffened. "Who's your source?"
"Nobody you need to concern yourself with. If I were you, I'd be more worried about your father-in-law."
"What do you want with him?"
"It's not really a question of what I want from him. Stephen Miles has served his purpose already. No, it's a question of what I want from you. I should think the answer to that would be obvious."
"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about," said Cobb, faking confusion.
"Don't play games with me Mr. Cobb," the voice snapped. "It doesn't suit you. Besides, Monsieur Miles really can't afford any more mishaps at this point."
The words slipped out before he could catch them:
"Don't touch him."
"I wouldn't dream of touching him," replied the voice, sounding very much amused. "So long as you deliver."
"Must I spell it out for you?"
"Put simply, I want Saito gone."
"Gone," Cobb repeated sceptically. "You know Extraction doesn't kill-"
"Oh, I don't want him dead. No, that would be too painless for him. I want Saito to suffer. Financially. Emotionally. I want his business finished. His life destroyed. You get the picture."
"I don't care how you do it as long as he's ruined. Soon. Tell you what, I'm a generous man. Take a month. Two months if you want. But remember, the longer I have to wait, the longer Monsieur Miles stays under. And don't even dream of trying to free him yourself."
An abrupt click and the line went dead. Cobb held the phone frozen to his ear for a few more seconds before setting it gently back on the dresser, his mind a blur.
Out of the myriad of thoughts bursting through the seams of his brain, one stood out clearer than the rest. Miles. He had to make sure Miles was safe, that nothing happened to him. He owed him that much. And for that, he needed Saito.
Saito. That was a considerably bigger problem. Normally, he would have had no qualms about switching sides – it was the way corporate espionage functioned, and anyone who stayed loyal to only one employer was bound to find themselves out of work sooner or later. But Saito was different. He hadn't just been another aloof employer. He had been, however grudgingly, a member of the team and Cobb, however much experience he gained, was still naive enough to believe in honour amongst thieves.
There was also the small matter of owing his newly found freedom to Saito. If Cobb turned on him now, he would never be able to look at his children's faces without seeing Saito's, lined and twisted with pain. Yet if he didn't, he would never be free, and he would spend every waking minute in agony, wondering who would be next to go. For if he was certain of anything, it was that Cobol would not give up on him. Either way, Cobb knew the result would be the same.
An old man, filled with regret, waiting to die.
Out of habit, he picked up his totem and dropped it, perfectly centred on its point, onto the dresser. It was a game he played with himself, letting his mind spin in tandem with the top, wavering between his options.
Miles. Saito. Miles. Saito. Miles. Saito. Miles-
The top toppled loudly, leaving another dent in the already heavily scratched surface of the desk. Cobb stared at it blankly for a minute before snatching it up and shoving it deep into his pocket, his decision made. The revolver followed the top into his suit, and then Nash's ID card. He thought about calling, just in case, when his eyes fell on the bedside phone, but there was really nothing left to say. Only whispered words across the ocean that would be twisted into yet another broken promise.
He made one last unnecessary check of the room, seeing as he had not had time to unpack more than the contents of his jacket pocket, slung his bag over his shoulder and opened the door. He only just managed to stop himself from colliding into the petit brunette leaning against the outer wall.
She glanced up at him through her lashes with a casual smirk that he could swear she had picked up from Eames.
"Going somewhere?" she asked innocently.
Cobb fixed his eyes determinedly on the wall, the ceiling, the hall lamp, anywhere but her. "Ariadne," he said firmly, "go home."
He did not want to know how she had found him in the most out of the way hotel in the city, signed in under a false name with a counterfeit passport. He did not want to ask her these things, because speaking it aloud would cement her presence in this mess, in this life, and he knew he would never be able to pull her out until it was too late.
Miles had been right. She was too curious, too talented, too hungry for more than reality could give her. Too much like him. He had to admit it was what had made him trust her so definitely in the first place, that spark of hope that she would understand. And she had.
But this, this was too much. This was not her fight. He had to make her see that.
"I'm not going anywhere," Ariadne said before he could fish out another excuse as to why exactly she couldn't be here. "And don't tell me you don't need me because I doubt you'll be able to take down Cobol on your own."
Cobb's mask slipped for a moment. "Who told you about Cobol?"
"Arthur," replied Ariadne with the faintest upward curve of her lips. "He told me about Nash and Saito too." She wasn't sure why she added the last bit, other than perhaps to convince him how deeply she was already entrenched in this whole business.
"Arthur." Cobb rolled the name on his tongue hesitantly. It had been a long time since he'd spoken it, and it felt rusty and out of use. Funny how two simple syllables could bring back years and lifetimes. In all his years of working, he had never met anyone else he would rather trust his back with. Determined as he was to figure out the Cobol problem on his own, he couldn't resist asking.
"Is he here too?"
"He's waiting in the car with Eames," Ariadne replied. "I called them," she elaborated when Cobb half raised an eyebrow. The look of skepticism he had been giving her changed into one of shrewd calculation that he normally reserved for suspicious targets. Ariadne shoved her hands in her pockets and stared back at Cobb with equal determination.
"Look, I'm not trying to shove myself where I don't belong," she said as evenly as she could. "But you're not going to get anywhere on your own, and I'm involved already, whether you like it or not. Miles is my professor and I'm pretty sure that Nash will recognize me after the hospital-"
Cobb held up a hand. "Wait, you said he was under when you took his wallet."
Ariadne lifted one shoulder in a helpless half shrug. "Well, I went back with Arthur and Eames afterwards to find him..."
Cobb dropped his hand and ran it over his face. He suddenly looked older, more careworn, like Miles. Ariadne wondered if she should apologize.
"Eames and Arthur are downstairs?" Cobb asked wearily and she nodded.
He picked up his bag from the floor beside him. "Alright then, let's go before Cobol sends somebody else after us."