A/N:

This chapter crosses over with After Ragnarök chapter 35: The Danger of Dreams.


Chapter 30: The Inception of Dreams

Level 38, Sublevel 2

Robert Fischer was nursing a drink at the hotel bar. He was watching the ice slowly crackle in his glass, lost in thought.

A woman's voice next to him said, "Am I boring you?"

He looked up and saw a beautiful young blond sitting on the bar stool next to him. He was startled and began to look around.

She looked annoyed. "I was telling you my story.."

He blinked his eyes and tried to catch up on whatever their conversation was. "Oh?"

The beautiful woman gave him a frown. "Well, I guess it wasn't to your liking." She stood up.

Fischer felt a bit disoriented. "Uh, sorry. I have a lot on my mind."

A man in a business suit then walked quickly up and introduced himself. "Ah, Mr. Fischer! He pumped Fischer's hand vigorously. Good to see you again. I'm Rod Green in Marketing." Then the new visitor turned to face the attractive woman.

He looked her up and down in admiration of the female form. He smiled and said, "And this lovely lady must be.."

"Marie." She looked him over in turn. She returned his smile with one of her own. "Ooh, you look handsome. Do you come here often?"

What? That unexpected response threw Cobb off his rhythm.

"Uh, excuse me..?" What was Eames doing?

"Yes, you look very handsome indeed."

Huh? This wasn't in the script.

It was because Cobb, Eames, Ariadne, and Authur were running a con on Robert Fischer, the sole billionaire heir of Fischer's father, the oil magnate, who had just died in real life.

For you see, Cobb knew that Fischer was actually dreaming.

And so was Cobb.

All of them were dreaming, in fact. It was a shared consensual dream state. (Well, consensual for everyone but the mark, of course.) It was because Cobb was running a con on Fischer.

Cobb, Eames and the rest of them were professional thieves, the best in the business. But what they stole was neither money, nor bonds, nor paintings, nor jewels.

No, they stole something else, something that was far more precious.

They stole knowledge. Information. Ideas.

They did it by digging into the mark's subconscious dream state. And in doing so they created imaginary scenarios where the mark would be maneuvered into divulging whatever information their client wanted. Cobb and his team were called extractors. They would carefully guide the mark through his dream journey until they found exactly what they needed to know.

But not this time.

First, it was because this run was different. Cobb's elite team were not attempting to steal an idea from Fischer, no. Instead they were attempting to plant one. To create one. To insert the inception of an idea into Fischer's mind. The real trick was to convince the mark to believe that he had thought of the idea himself.

Second, it was because the run was now falling apart. Actually, the job was botched right from the beginning. It was because what they did not know was that Fischer's mind had been trained specifically to resist extraction, the stealing of his knowledge during his dreams. Fischer's subconscious guards were everywhere, and they were now zeroing in on Cobb's team. This was why Cobb had his team quickly improvise the Mr. Charles gambit, like on the Stein job. It was a desperate hail-mary attempt to try to salvage the op.

But Eames was now blowing it big time. That idiot!

Eames' role was to be the mimic. He could impersonate another person within the mark's dream. He could look like anybody, be anyone. And since it was only imaginary he could do it better than even Mystique in X-Men.

Cobb glared furiously at the beautiful and fetching blond. When Cobb saw Eames create her the first time he chuckled inwardly. He might have even felt some attraction for her himself if he didn't remember Eames' stubbled beard.

But now Cobb was getting angry. It was because Eames was totally screwing up the job. He was supposed to simply walk away so Cobb could go to work on Fischer.

Instead she gave him a totally seductive look, "My, you are quite the specimen. Such a le homme.."

Argh! This was no time to fool around, Eames! Cobb leaned in and hissed, "What the hell are you doing!?"

The blond merely pushed out her lips and pouted. "So you do not like me, then?"

Ugh. He got right in her face and hissed again, "Stop it! Just get the [bleep] out of here!"

"Non. I think I will stay." Her finger touched his lips. "With you."

Cobb swore he would deck Eames for this. Then he glanced quickly behind him to see whatever it was that Fischer was doing.

But Fischer was gone. Vanished.

By now all of the patrons at the hotel bar and at the tables were sitting absolutely frozen. Through the windows he saw that nothing was moving outside on the street either: people, cars, all frozen. Cobb stumbled backwards and looked around, wild eyed.

"What the hell is going on..?"

The seductive smile on the Marie's face changed a bit. She seemed a bit more serious now. But even then she was still a little bit flirty with him. She knew it was inappropriate just then, but she just couldn't help it. After all, it was who she was.

She said, "Monsieur Cobb, I feel very sympathetiqué for you. Truly I do."

He just stared at her, looking dumbfounded.

It was because she had changed. She was no longer the blond wearing the low-cut off-white cocktail dress. She was now a brunette with deep brown eyes and strange blue diamond markings on her forehead and cheeks. Her hair was also shorter, in a regal cut that came off the shoulders. In the back it had a long braided ponytail that went down past her waist. The change in hair lengths was striking.

And her new costume was even more outrageous. Cobb thought it was more appropriate for a stripper in a Vegas revue than anything that ought to be seen in public.

She gave him a luscious smile. "You are so handsome.." She stroked his chin. "I might bring you upstairs with me."

Wow, Fischer's mental security is good. Real good, better than I ever imagined. Not if he can manifest something so exotic as that. I didn't know a woman that hot could even exist. Yeah, I see it now.

He realized that Fischer's subconscious weapon was not brute force. It was seduction.

Damn, it's an amazingly good construct too. Such a clever defense. This is going to be even more difficult than I thought.

She sighed, "But, alas, I am on duty so I cannot."

She lovingly stroked his chin again, then lowered her hand and looked at him dolefully. "Monsieur, I am so sorry to tell you this, but I must."

"Tell me what?"

"You are dreaming."

Cobb flapped his arms. "Of course I am! I know that!"

Ugh, Fischer's subconscious defense is self-aware. That meant that the Mr. Charles gambit would never have worked. I gotta improvise something..

"Oui. Please understand me.."

"Understand what?"

"You are not in Fischer's dream."

He folded his arms skeptically. "I'm not?"

"Non. You are within your own dream."

"Suuure I am.." Wow, his defense is good.

"Please comprehend. We are not projections from Mr. Fischer's subconscious. We are quite real, as real as you are. Even more so, in fact."

Then Ariadne walked up.

Cobb's head turned. "Ariadne?"

She gently put her hand on his shoulder. "Cobb, she's right. We are here to help you. All of us."

That startled him. He spin around to face her. "Ariadne? You too?"

"Yes. All of us are here to help you. We need to get you out of here."

Fischer boxed me in. Damn! "Great. Fine, you busted me." He raised his hands. "Okay, I'll play along." Maybe there's still a way. There must be. I can't give up. For my children's sake. For James and Phillipa. Otherwise I will never see them again.

He looked at Ariadne and said, "So, just for the sake of argument, may I ask you why you feel you need to 'help' me so badly?"

Ariadne's face looked sorrowful. "Because, Mr. Cobb, you've been here a long time. A very long time. It's time for you to move on."

Then Ariadne's appearance changed. She was taller now and wearing some kind of white uniform. She had bluish white hair that she wore in an oddly assymmetrical cut, with one side longer than the other. Her eyes were deep blue and striking. She looked quite athletic and stood ramrod straight with a military bearing. On the middle of her forehead he saw three small blue circles grouped in an inverted triangle.

Then he noticed she was holding a long pole-axe. It was huge, heavy, and looked incredibly dangerous.

She casually pointed it at him and frowned. "Look, mister. This is not Fischer's dream. It is just your own. You need to wake up from it."

He fell backwards. "Who.. who are you people!?"

The woman in white said to him matter-of-factly , "We are angels. Now, if you don't believe in that sort of thing you can call us spirits, or phantasms, or whatever you like."

"You're angels?"

The brunette had a twinkle in her eye, "Some even call us goddesses."

The white woman turned to her friend and said testily, "Peorth, stop it. Don't confuse the man. You know very well that we were never actually immortal. Otherwise you and I wouldn't be here right now."

She added, "Now be quiet." Then the woman in white turned back to face the confused man. Meanwhile, Cobb saw that the woman in black seemed to be pouting.

"Just ignore Peorth. Now, Mr. Cobb, please, listen to me. We are your personal angels. We were assigned to you. To be your angels. We are here to help you."

"Help me? How?"

"We are your escorts. Technically we are called psychopomps."

She took a step towards him. "Mr. Cobb, you have been here a long time. Too long."

"I have? How long?"

"We're not sure. Possibly forever."

He was incredulous. "That's nuts. I don't believe you."

"I really wish you would. Believe us."

"Why? Why should I?"

The woman in white said, "Because, Mr. Cobb.."

He continued to stare.

".. you are dead."


He said, "I'm dead?"

The woman in white said, "Yes. I am sorry."

"I don't believe you. This is bull-[bleep]. I'm just dreaming."

"Mr. Cobb.."

He looked around and now saw that he was standing in the middle of a large city park. From the design of the lamps and the park benches he guessed it was probably somewhere in Paris, probably Les Halles. He nodded to himself. Yep.

"Look, I know what a dream feels like: the disorientation, the time skips, the sudden changes in scenery, the non-linearity." He waved his arms around at the park that was now surrounding them. "I'm an expert. Either this is Fischer's defense, or.."

His eyes lit up in the realization. Of course. "This is somebody else's. Yours."

The woman in white looked down a bit guiltily. Aha! Busted!

"I knew it! You are both extractors."

The woman in black put her hands on her hips and addressed her friend. "You fool, now look what you did!"

Cobb was nodding to himself. "Of course. Cobol Corporation captured me. This is just a run, a mental attack. Not by me, against me. Am I right?"

The woman in white shook her head. "We are only here to help you."

"Stop lying to me. And as a pro I have to tell you, you aren't very good at it. Not at all."

The white woman dropped her shoulders and looked down. "No, I'm not. I admit it. I'm a terrible liar.

"No [bleep], girl. You're awful."

"Yes, I know." She looked up again at him in ernest. "That is why you have to believe me. Everything I told you is true. And I literally can't lie. I don't know how."

He looked at the woman in black. "And what about you?"

"Moi? Ah, well, I cannot either. It is not permitted, not allowed."

The other woman made a grin, "Heh, don't listen to Peorth. She can charm the skin off a snake if she wants to."

The woman in black crossed her arms and pouted, "Well!"

Cobb folded his own arms and muttered to himself, "What a bunch of amateurs."

The white woman said, "Look, it's true. We're not good at this. You just have to believe us.."

Cobb had enough. "Obviously somebody with a suitcase dream inducer has me plugged in somewhere. And apparently it is connected to a pair of idiots." He rolled his eyes. "Sheesh, this is so amateurish. I'm guessing it must be one of the small fry, maybe a rival gang in Mombasa."

"But.."

"I quit. I'm outta here."

He walked quickly away, leaving the two woman behind looking dumbfounded.

After he was out of earshot, the woman in black muttered a surprisingly rude epithet in French.

"C'mon, Peorth. Let's go. Pop us out."

The woman in black waved her arms, and then everything shifted.


Level 38, Sublevel 0

Another botched op. Dang it, I give up. We'll never get this guy to move on.

I rubbed my eyes, then I opened them slowly. I was laying in the cot looking at the ceiling yet again. Sigh, by now I had every little crinkle in those ceiling tiles completely memorized.

I slowly turned my head and saw that my hand was still touching Cobb's head for the neural connection. I lifted my head and spied Peorth laying in her own cot on the far side of him with her own hand still touching the other side of his head.

By now she had her other arm draped over her eyes as she spoke a bit over-dramatically, "Another defeat. It is tragic."

I sat up. Reluctantly I had to agree with the Frenchwoman. "Peorth, we are getting nowhere with this guy. His denial is just too strong."

Peorth sat up as well. "I confess that I believe you are correct, mon cherie."

"So what are we going to do about him then?"

"I agree with you that this is not working. We need help. We need to find an expert in creating dreams. A professional."

"Here? Good luck with that."

We left our charge in his permanent endless sleeping state. It was beginning to look like he would never wake up, trapped forever in a prison within his own mind.

In Limbo.

For you see, just before Cobb ran to see his children for the first time in five years, he had placed his special totem object on the dining room table and activated it. It was a little toy top. He started it spinning. If it eventually slowed and toppled then he would know that he was outside in the real world. But in his excitement to see his children he ran outside and left it there on the table, forgotten.

And so the top kept spinning.

And spinning.

And spinning.

And spinning.


Level 38, Sublevel 1

I was sitting at an outdoor café in Paris with my good friend while drinking coffee. The fact that half of Paris was hanging directly over our heads upside-down did not bother me a at all.

We reviewed our most recent failed op. I told Peorth that we should not try another run on him until we came up with a new plan, a fresh one.

We were using Peorth's memory-snapshot power to reset Cobb's mind after each run. That way he would not remember all of our embarrassing failures. It was part of Peorth's standard matchmaking powers that she used to help guide her subjects to find True Love. That way if she botched a pairing attempt she could simply reset the couple and try again with a different approach.

By now I had lost count of how many times we had dived into Cobb's mind to try to pull him out of Limbo. Frankly, I was ready to give up. But I knew that would be a violation of our charter. Failure was not permitted for a psychopomp. Sooner or later everyone in our charge must be guided home.

I stared at my coffee cup. "Peorth, this will never work."

She smiled at me, "Continue to be patient, mon cherie."

"It's hopeless."

"I have an idea."

I sighed, "Not again." I knew that her 'ideas' never worked.

But I had to ask, "Okay, so what is it this time?"

"I will go for help."

"Huh? From where? From Upstairs? You know very well that we are maxed out here. We cannot travel above level 38. Nobody can. You know that. It's a hard ceiling for our kind. No one from Asgard can go above level 38."

To be more precise, no one who originated from below our level could surpass it. Now, higher beings who had originated from somewhere far above us, entities like Belldandy or Anzus, could of course cross the level 38 boundary-line in either direction, and at any time they wished. But there was no way for us to contact them from here.

"Oui. So I will call for help from somewhere else."

"From where?"

"I will call for help from below. From Asgard."

That made even less sense. I knew Peorth could be pretty daffy sometimes. "That's stupid. Nobody else from Asgard has come up this high in a millennium."

"That is true."

"Well?"

She looked down. "Mon ami, I have a confession to make."

Uh-oh. "Peorth, what did you do this time?"

She leaned in and confided in me. "I have already made the call."

That surprised me. She rarely hid anything major from me, especially ever since she joined me up here on level 38. Until then I was the only Asgardian at this level. That re-union was beyond joyful.

But I knew Peorth. Yeah, she was scheming again. I was certain of it. Oh well, let's see what kind of crazy wacked-out plan she has cooked up now.

She may have the beauty, but I had the brains. So I decided to humor her. "Okay, Peorth, so you made the call.."

"Oui." Her eyes were glittering brightly.

I knew I was going to regret this. "And, may I ask, just who did you call?"

Instead of responding she stood up from the café table.

I caught the hint and stood up too. What was going on?

Then I heard it. It was behind me, two pairs of fast-running feet.

Huh?

Before I could turn around I was gang-tackled from behind. And as I went down I heard two voices.

"Lind!" "Mom!"

Well, well, whaddaya know.

I always keep underestimating that Frenchwoman.

The End