What happens if you die in Limbo, but you can't wake up? Ariadne had asked. No one could tell her. She knew the answer now.
His body was thin, shrunken with his great age, the shoulders permanently hunched, limbs twisted from too much time spent unmoving. Liver spots dotted the exposed flesh like measles. His breathing was a constant, high wheeze, his body rocking slightly with each painful breath. Ariadne watched his hands, the joints swollen and stiff, deep grooves in the skin of his knuckles, the fingernails yellow and thickened like claws.
A man so old shouldn’t even exist, Ariadne thought, horror filling her as she gazed at him.
His hands shook constantly as he opened his right hand to reveal the small metal object within it. With his left hand, moving so slowly his effort was almost too much for Ariadne to bear, he took the metal top by the point and held it an inch above the dusty table between them.
It fell to the table with a clunk and toppled over immediately. Ariadne’s heart broke for the old man as she realised he’d meant to set the top spinning. She started forward, intending to offer help, but hands grasped her and dragged her back. She didn’t fight the projections. Not here. It wasn’t safe.
One palsied hand raised the top again, standing it on its point so it cut a visible groove in the dust as the old man’s hand trembled. The ancient fingers twitched. The top fell to its side again, rolled in a semi-circle and stopped.
A third time the old man painstakingly set the top on its point and tried to make it spin. A third time he failed, the strength remaining in his hands simply not up to the task.
Slowly - everything this impossibly ancient man did was slow - he looked up. Blue eyes that still held a spark of their old fire met hers: a challenging look. Ariadne felt hot tears fill her eyes. He thought his fumbling efforts with the top proved something. He was so lost, so completely immersed in this place he couldn’t even remember.
Look around you, she wanted to scream at him. How can you choose this over reality? How can you choose this over the people who love you and need you back in the real world?
This room where she stood had been a rich and elegant space, once. Two of the four walls were glass, giving a panoramic view over the ocean. The floor was black marble. The long table was plain black wood, reminiscent of a Japanese tea house. But all that elegance was a distant memory. The table was scratched and thick with dust and the ocean far below was a solid sheet of ice.
“Cobb,” she tried. Her voice sounded strange in this place, like loud laughter in a library: a sound that didn’t belong. She didn’t belong. “Cobb, please. I came to lead you home.”
He lifted the precious spinning top again. Dropped it on the table top again. Met her eyes again. He believed this place was home. Or, he wanted it to be.
When Ariadne promised she would find Cobb and bring him home, she truly had no idea what she was committing to. Every attempt to reach him led her deeper into his delusions. She understood now, that she would have to call a halt to this soon. She had to stop before she became as trapped as he was, caught in a never-ending quest, trapped in a maze of her own making. It wouldn’t happen to her this time, but perhaps the next.
A strange light on the horizon caught Ariadne’s eye. Barely a pinprick, but it warned her the time was almost up. She had one final gambit.
Closing her eyes, Ariadne concentrated the way she had practised, concentrated on controlling the projections. An instant was all she needed. The hands holding her back loosened - only a little. She seized the chance. She tore herself free and threw herself forward with all her strength. She dived across the table. Dust flew up around her and she tried to hold her breath.
Cobb saw what she intended and his hand moved toward the fallen totem. Ariadne was faster. Her fingers closed over the top as her momentum continued to carry her forward. She slid off the table, twisted to land on her feet, turned, stretched out over the table and set the top spinning there.
Cobb’s blue eyes fixed on the top.
The projections were gone.
There was only the two of them and the sound of the little top spinning on the table. Spinning and spinning and spinning.
It broke every rule of dream-sharing Ariadne knew. A totem was such a personal, intimate thing no dreamer would allow another person to touch theirs. Even to let another dreamer see your totem was an act of supreme trust. Ariadne’s own carefully tooled chess piece was in her pocket, but she didn’t need it to know that she wasn’t in reality. Cobb’s presence proved the dream as surely as her bishop would prove the real world. So, by touching his totem...had she spoiled it? Had she destroyed his non-existent touchstone of reality?
The spinning top wasn’t even his. Ariadne vividly recalled the moment when she understood what it meant that Cobb adopted Mal’s totem as his own. It showed how completely adrift he was. Reality wasn’t real for him without her. So maybe it was okay to damage his faith in the totem. Maybe he needed that.
On the table, the top was still spinning.
“Cobb,” she pleaded again, “come with me.”
The top kept right on spinning.
Cobb swept his arm across the table in an angry gesture. The top flew across the room, hit the glass, bounced back and lay still.
“I...” He tried to speak, but he had no voice in this place. His vocal cords, stiff from lack of use like his hands, refused to work as they should. His voice was lost, just as Cobb himself was lost.
Ariadne offered him her hand. “Even if this were reality,” she suggested, “why would you want to stay?” She held her breath, waiting, willing him to see what she saw so clearly: the inexorable decay of his mind all around them.
The old man raised one shaking hand.
Ariadne grasped his hand firmly. Her breath quickened. The light on the icy horizon was coming closer, growing in size and intensity. She was running out of time. Even here, so deep into Limbo that minutes could stretch into centuries, she had no time to explain or ease him into it. She had to act, now!
She gripped his hand as if her life depended on it. His skin felt like dusty paper and she felt fragile bones move beneath her grip. She pulled the gun from her back and took aim, not at Cobb, though she felt his terror of her intent, but at the glass.
The light was bright as a sun now, bigger than a harvest moon. She fired, three rapid shots that echoed in the quiet room. Glass shattered, a million shards catching the light of that not-sun as the window blew outward. Ariadne ran for the edge, dragging Cobb with her.
“No!” he rasped, resisting.
Ariadne couldn’t let him go. Not after that initial gesture of trust. Not now she could feel his hand in hers. “Trust me!” she cried, and it was more a demand than a plea.
It was all she had time for. She leapt, pulling the frail old man with her through the shattered window into the blinding light beyond. The force of her jump carried her body upward at first, even with Cobb weighing her down. They flew in a graceful arc and then, after a breathless moment of weightlessness, they were falling. She felt a moment of triumph in her success.
Then Cobb’s hand was torn from her grip.
Ariadne screamed. “Cobb!”
It was too late. She fell, plunging toward the ocean of ice, falling, milliseconds away from impact, from the kick that would mean she had failed again, oh, not again, please not again...
An instant before her body met the ice, the very instant when she should have woken up, the ice melted. Black water rose to embrace her, and her alone. She plunged into her doom, unable to check her fall. She took a breath by reflex and icy liquid flowed into her lungs. She tried to cough but couldn’t. She kicked out for the surface, but had no idea which way was up. It was agony, a thousand icy needles penetrating her body, her chest going into spasm as she struggled to breathe.
Ariadne woke screaming!
The familiar room seemed to close in on her as she ripped the needle from her wrist. The spotlight trained on her face was too bright. She kept her eyes squeezed shut. Her heart beat wildly, her breathing too rapid. Panic rose in her breast as she struggled to drag oxygen into her lungs.
The light clicked off.
Then Arthur was there, his arms around her, pulling her upright.
“It’s okay. You’re back, Ariadne. Look at me. Look at me.”
She leaned into the warmth of his body, shivering with reaction. The soft fabric of his suit was silky against her cheek. Her throat burned as she finally dragged in a deep breath, her mind still convinced she was underwater. It was too much, the sudden rise from Limbo. It was always too much.
“Look at me,” he insisted again.
She obeyed, drawing back a little so she could see his face. Slowly, her panic receded, her heart steadied. She felt better, but still not right.
The bishop was in her pocket. She could feel its comforting weight against her thigh. Her fingers strayed toward it and Arthur’s hand closed over hers, firmly preventing her from touching her totem.
“Not yet, Ariadne. We’re still under. Remember? One more minute on the clock.”
For a moment confusion overwhelmed her and she stared at him. He blinked, once. His eyes refocused on her, his expression expectant. Ariadne drew a breath to tell him she didn’t know...and that was the instant it came back to her. Yes. This was the way. Arthur built the first level, so she wouldn’t rise from Limbo too fast. Like a deep sea diver taking a rest stop to avoid the bends, she woke into a dream first. It was how she kept the twisted labyrinth of dreams from intruding on her reality. It was how she avoided becoming Cobb.
She nodded to show she understood and was rewarded with a smile of relief.
“Was it...?” he asked hopefully.
Ariadne bowed her head. “He was so close this time. He started to come with me. But I think...not far enough.” A single tear rolled down her cheek.
Arthur touched her face, gathering that single tear onto his fingertip. “Close is good,” he told her. “Maybe he’ll come back on his own.”
“Maybe,” she agreed. She didn’t truly believe it. She had seen him: a withered wreck of a man, living in the debris of his hopes and dreams. Ancient and dying, but unable to escape into true death. Once, perhaps, he could have found his way home without help, but now he lacked even the will to try, without someone to lead the way. And every time she failed, he slipped a little deeper.
She drew Arthur close to her and he obliged, opening his arms to her again. He kissed her, slow and deep, waking her body to desire. She drew him down beside her, slipping one hand beneath his suit jacket. She felt the clean, smooth cotton of his shirt and the heat of his skin just as the dream dissolved around them.
Ariadne woke in tears, because she’d failed again.