Disclaimer: Inception belongs to Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros.
The Absolute Basic
"So, this is just another dream?"
A perfect stretch of striking blue dominated over the animated city of Hong Kong. The white, blinding sun hung in the corner of the sky, slowly weaving its way behind ambitious, reaching skyscrapers that reflected its rays in all directions. As always, the heat seemed to hover just above an agreeable level, and, sure enough, Clara Etheridge could already feel beads of perspiration appear on her forehead.
Even after three years of living in this weather, she had never really adjusted to it. Sometimes it would simply be unbearable, and she had often thought of jumping into the nearest open refrigerator with as much enthusiasm as she would greet an old friend. She was glad that in here, in this malleable world, it was possible to at least keep the humidity from growing into something suffocating.
This was, however, not her dream.
Her dark eyes wandered back to her client, who was standing a few paces ahead of her on the pavement. The well-groomed man was staring unabashedly at her projections, and she could see from his eyes that he longed to interact with them. It was like watching a toddler walk into a zoo for the first time and wishing to pet every animal in existence.
The new ones are all the same, Clara mused, clasping her hands behind her grey, boring suit. She walked up to her employer and cleared her throat.
"Yes, Mr. Ross, this is a dream," she stated in a voice that rang dull. "I understand that this is not your first time?" she inquired, remembering the file she had read about the man. She took a breath and launched herself, rather unwillingly, into the explanation that she had given hundreds of times before: "Mr. Ross. You are the Dreamer. I am the Subject. As a Dreamer, you choose where the dream takes place. You can create structures and manipulate the very essence of physics and space. I see you have chosen Hong Kong as our dream space today." She gestured to the familiar grand buildings and narrow streets.
Clara guessed that Mr. Ross must have been at least fifty, but the fascination in his eyes seemed to drain the years from his lined face. He was drawn in by her very words and the concepts she was describing. "Yes, this city means a lot. It is, after all, where I founded my organisation."
Clara allowed herself to dip her head in quiet (and faked) admiration before plunging on. "Very good, sir. So Hong Kong is our dream space, which you are in control of. A dreamer can, for example, manipulate and build secure locations to hide secrets. Or create defences to trick foreign Subjects."
"Wonderful. Yes, I've been told." Mr. Ross wrung his hands together in anticipation.
"However, if you were to be attacked by so-called Extractors, I'm afraid you won't be in the position to create a space in which to hide your secrets. A specialist team would have already designed an area for your secrets to subconsciously occupy. If that were to happen, you would be the Mark." Clara gestured at the people walking down the streets. "These people you see are called projections. Subjects populate a dream space with projections; my mind is subconsciously doing just that." She smiled dryly. "If I were to feel threatened, or if my projections were to suspect that there is a Dreamer or foreign body at work, they would advance on the Dreamer. You."
At this, Mr. Ross smiled benignly at Clara. "I suppose I don't pose much of a threat to you?"
Clara let out a humourless chuckle. "Not at the moment, sir. But this is not what you hired me for."
"Quite right. I don't want to learn how to steal; why would I want to do such a thing?" He laughed, eyes glistening with mischief and lies."No, what I really want you to do is to tell me how to protect my secrets."
Clara smiled at her employer and gestured for them to walk down the pavement. "Exactly, sir. Shall we begin?"
Night had long fallen. Clara exited the emblazoned glass door of the soaring office building and was met by an orange pool of light from the streetlamps. She halted in her steps, feeling the fresh night breeze graze her neck that was so different to the persistent heat of Hong Kong's day. She allowed herself a few more lingering seconds before walking at a consistent pace toward the bus stop, where several other people stood waiting in silence. She was tired from work, but ironically she wanted a long bus journey home. For her, tired meant busy, and busy meant her mind was much too occupied to even give her a chance at falling asleep that night. Perhaps the prolonged ride back home could let her clear her head a little.
As she stood by the bus stand, Clara released her mahogany brown hair from her strict pony tail and sifted her fingers through her long strands. She inspected them almost childishly, letting her mind wander. She thought she could see a hint of red. Her mother had always said she had auburn hair.
The longing pang in her heart didn't even register in Clara's strained mind. She was beyond tired. She was mentally - and emotionally - exhausted.
The double-decker bus arrived. Clara climbed on, paid her fare, then headed up to the second floor and sat right at the front so that she had a unobscured view of the streets and the blinking neon signs up ahead. The lights were dim in the bus compartment, and shadows flitted among themselves; it was so easy to think of them as living things, laughing and taunting her. Her hand drifted to her necklace, and she started to fiddle with it idly.
When had she gotten herself into such a mess of a job? Clara worked as a private senior Dream-walker, and was in charge of teaching a whole line of mighty people to guard their secrets. Her clients were mostly multinational billionaires, and had offices in Hong Kong where Clara was currently living. The sad thing was, she had somehow ended up in a position where she didn't work for a single firm, but instead wandered back and forth and got dragged around by all different sorts of companies. It wasn't like there was a shortage of people like her, but she had found that her boring, plain appearance and personality had gained a reliable and trusted reputation, and hence she was now in high demand. Sure, she got paid a large sum of money from all directions, but that had never been the goal. Her goal. She had wandered off-track and was finding it impossible to retrace her smudged footsteps.
She didn't hate her job, though, that was for sure. A small part of her still felt a small thrill every time she stepped into a new dream, and the thought of her being able to create and build was still enticing. But the purposes, the goals, the selfishness behind these employers' actions - and her own - were putting her off. She was not naive, nor was she blind to the importance of money, but she supposed she didn't exactly like how she was fueling these people's greed in order to, strangely, support herself and earn a living. Furthermore, she was not part of any Extracting team. Her job was half as exciting as a real Dream-walker's. She was just a senior coordinator, finding the right people to refer to the companies and backing off once her job was done. She was loyal to no one, and that somehow saddened her. There was a need to feel secure that simply was not satisfied, as well as a need to feel alive and powerful.
But she had had her fun, hadn't she? Years ago, when she had been first introduced to the potential of dreaming, at a time when she had worn the same expression that she had seen on Mr. Ross' face today...
A piercing clanging jolted Clara out of her troubled doze. She gasped and blinked rapidly, getting her bearings before realizing her mobile phone was ringing. She chased it out of her handbag and looked at the blazing screen distractedly through the semi-darkness. It read 'Private'.
This did not surprise Clara. She was often recruited in this way, by an anonymous caller who would then set up a time and date for her services. Understandably, some companies didn't want to leave any tracks that suggested they had been partaking in something fishy. After all, if one company wanted to hide secrets (which was not technically illegal nowadays), it might want to steal secrets too (which was very illegal). She accepted the call and brought the phone to her ear. "Hello?" She wasn't even bothered by how drained her voice sounded.
"Is this Clara?"
The male voice sounded familiar. Articulate, light, and cautious, but not unfriendly. "Yes," she said slowly, "who is this?"
A face matched itself to the voice. Clara felt her jaw slacken. She gripped her smartphone tighter, working her mouth around her words, "Arthur? Oh my God. How did you-"
"You shouldn't be surprised, really. You know how I steal phone numbers everyday." She could hear the smile growing on his thin lips.
"Arthur..." she repeated stupidly. She had not spoken to the man in almost four years. He could have easily called her on any one of those days, and yet he had not. Perhaps, after everything, she had gained his respect, and he had left her alone. Until now. "Hey."
A quiet smirk. Then: "Hi."
"How...how are you?"
"Really? Small talk now? After you walked away without saying goodbye?"
She bit her lip. "Yeah, about that, I'm sor-"
"Don't. It had nothing to do with me."
"It kind of did."
"Only a little."
Clara waited for him to go on. Arthur never did anything without intention. She waited, but silence had fallen on the other end.
"Yeah, I'm here. I - you know, he was really worried."
Clara shut her eyes against the moving neon lights outside the shimmering bus window. "I don't want to talk about it, if you don't mind."
Clara could tell just from his voice that this sort of talk was making Arthur uncomfortable. He had called for something else. "It's okay. Why are you calling?"
Arthur took a calm breath over the line. "We did it."
She laughed in disbelief. "Don't be stupid."
She laughed again, but Arthur wasn't saying anything. She sat rod straight in her seat, holding her breath suddenly. "You're serious."
"Like I said."
"My God...Inception. When did you - and h-how?" she spluttered into her phone.
"Come see me and I'll explain," Arthur replied evenly.
Clara froze. "You've got a job for me, haven't you?"
Arthur hesitated only a beat, and that was enough.
"You're baiting me in," she said, almost defiantly. "You're reeling me in just 'cus you need a job done. Well you can forget it, 'cus I'm not-"
"Clara, it's not like that," Arthur interrupted. "I'm calling you 'cus I thought you'd genuinely be interested in the job. We were always talking about inception and now I need to do just that. Again."
Clara's pulse was coursing in her ears like the low rumble of thunder. Her heart was beating laboriously. "I'm - I was a Chemist," she blurted. "It's been ages. You don't need me. And I always preferred Forging."
"We don't need a Chemist. We need a coordinator, someone who knows what they're doing. We need a leader, Clara." Arthur's voice was gentle but insistent.
Clara shook her head, then remembered to speak. "I can't, Arthur. I'm no leader, and I'm out of training."
But even as she spoke, Clara knew it was futile. She was already drawn in, planning things out in her mind's eye. She hated and loved dreaming. She would cave eventually to this mysterious and sudden challenge. She shook her head again desperately. "I wanted nothing to do with it," she muttered helplessly.
She could see Arthur tilting his head, smiling that understanding but distant, faraway smile. "Inception," he repeated. "It's what you wanted all along."
"Damn it, Arthur," Clara chuckled, pushing her hair back from her forehead. He had always been good at the art of persuasion. She gazed out of the window and saw her apartment building loom ahead. She stood up and headed down the shaking stairs to the bus exit.
"I'll think about it." The bus pulled to a stop and Clara stepped out.
"I'll call again tomorrow, then."
"Okay." Clara walked toward her building through the apartment complex; shadowed, whitewashed buildings towered over her, and balconies glittered in the moonlight. "One more thing," she added, her feet tapping almost silently over the mosaic floor. "Is he going to be there?"
Clara felt her shoulders sink at the name. "Yeah. Will he be there?"
"I don't know, Clara. Maybe."
She sighed. "Okay then, Arthur. Call me tomorrow."
AN: Please tell me what you thought of it my lovelies! I am forever trying to improve my writing creys