"What happens if I push too hard?" Ariadne asks, sitting back on the train seat with her legs crossed and her cards spread in her hand with aesthetic precision, like a dainty lady's fan, although the look on her face precludes anyone accusing her of daintiness, and the mud on the soles of her canvas trainers don't suggest ladylike as the primary adjective. She has poise, though.
"Then I will shove you under the train," Eames says absently. "Oh, you mean the cards. You're not going to win." It's his pack. If she wanted to win she'd have had the good sense to use her own cards; Eames marked these as soon as he bought them, naturally.
She scratches her nose and fidgets with her scarf. "Good thing I can afford one beer and two bottle tops."
"It's a terrible imposition on your funds," Eames agrees solemnly, "but I'm sure the fee from this job will help them to recover." He pours himself another coffee. "Very obliging of Mr Pokorny to choose such a refined form of travel."
"Very unlike an arms dealer," Yusuf comments, squeezing past Ariadne. "I thought they favoured private jets."
"Well you have to admit, this is a very nice train," Eames says, tilting his cards so that Yusuf can't see them. "What are you doing?"
"I have to visit the facilities," Yusuf says with great dignity. "There is too much beer in my bladder. Play on. Don't wake Saito."
They obey his instructions, not exchanging a further word but racing each other down a Becks (Ariadne) and the pre-poured coffee (Eames). It cannot be much longer, for Yusuf still hasn't returned, when a change in atmosphere and light makes Eames look up and find Arthur looking down at their game.
He hides his hand hastily.
"Is there enough coffee left for me?" Arthur asks, nodding at the coffee pot rather than pointing; how he manages to make conserving his energy look virtuous when all it ever looks on Eames is indolent is a mystery Eames has yet to unravel.
The coffee pot, an opaque, silver-crafted remnant of a bygone century and probably worth more than all the clothes Eames is wearing put together, rests on the end of the table where a dubious and concerned waiter was coerced into leaving it. It will cost them portion of their deposit which makes his inner avaricious streak cringe like a frightened dog if the thing is not returned.
"I don't know," Eames admits, carefully making eye-contact with the nearest part of Arthur; his crotch. "Why don't you find out?"
"Twenty bucks if you get it within a quarter of a cup," Ariadne says, without looking up from her cards, and Eames would be internally pink with pleasure at the glance that passes between Arthur and he at this, except Arthur looks entirely accusing. Insofar as Arthur looks anything.
"She's picking up bad habits from you," Arthur notes, his hand already on the coffee pot's handle.
"No I'm not," Ariadne says, pushing a card face-down across the formerly immaculate white cotton-and-silk embroidered tablecloth. She examines the remainder with an unblinking gaze. "He's only exacerbating them."
Eames extracts a crumpled-but-beautiful red 1,000-Rupee note and smoothes Gandhi's face out on the tablecloth. "Roughly twenty bucks says that you can't guess how much is left within an eighth of a cup."
"I don't recall taking the bet. Where's Yusuf?" Arthur tightens his fingers and addresses the question to Ariadne, who responds with a beautiful impression of an adolescent shrug that belies entirely her age; mid-twenties.
"Peeing," Eames says succinctly, taking a card from the centre. He leaves it face-down beneath his hand; it is the Jack of Hearts. "He has a bladder like an infant." He smiles up at Arthur without a trace of guile on his face. "Twenty bucks. We're going to be very bored until Sinaia, you might as well."
"I'm not sure I see the entertainment in losing money," Arthur says, taking a coffee cup from the far end of the table; as he reaches over their card game Eames can smell him, the faint after-scent of dry-cleaning on his suit, the unremarkable cologne which has a thin-blueness to it that clashes with his beige-and-grey clothing and the brown silk back of his waistcoat. He can smell the distant, buried sharpness of Arthur himself, a bitter kind of sweat that must taste quite strongly of coffee on the tongue.
"Have courage, Arthur, you might win," Eames suggests, inhaling surreptitiously.
"It's only twenty bucks," Ariadne says, looking at Arthur for the first time in their conversation, "You're not exactly broke, Arthur."
Arthur tests its weight like a strongman at a fair.
Eames looks surprisingly unruffled. He's sure of it; he doesn't feel especially unruffled but he knows his poker face (and indeed his "being shot at by projections" face) is a long-refined work of art.
Another bullet smashes through the door and halts somewhere inside the barrier. It is a thick door, Eames thinks with a certain kind of pride.
"Do we have everything we need?" Ariadne asks, watching the screen rather than the dents appearing on the metal sheeting of the inner door, as Eames finds himself doing. "Arthur?"
"This should be exactly what we came for," Arthur says, completely blasé in the face of weapons going off, a computer screen full of what looks remarkably like gibberish, and the presence of a menacing hypodermic needle lying just by his elbow. He looks up from the monitor and says, "Lera Alekseeva of St Petersburg, supplier, Alejandro and Andres Toledo Vargas, buyers. Those are the most recent ones."
Eames drags his gaze away from the door again. "That was quick."
Arthur says, "I'm good at codes," without so much as a shrug or a self-effacing smile. Americans, Eames thinks a little irritably.
"Come over here and be good at guns instead," Eames suggests.
"Where's yours?" Arthur makes no mention of his propensity for preposterous, overblown automatic weapons that look more at home in action movies from the eighties, but his eyebrows have been raised in silent judgement enough times in the past that he no longer needs to make any reference.
Eames says, "I left it in my other gung-ho violent fantasy." Another bullet punches a mound in the inner sheet of the door and loud voices shout in what he assumes is Hungarian. "Would you mind awfully coming over here and shooting someone please?"
Arthur abandons Pokorny into Ariadne's care and slips over to the door like a shadow, his gun already raised; Eames didn't even see him draw it. The sound of gunfire against the metal door – judging by the dents they are still struggling with the staircase, or their weapons don't have the stopping power they should – puts him in mind of heavy rain on car windshields, something that is not as harmless as it sounds either.
One of the blat sounds erupts into a kind of metal-sounding sneeze, and in a blink of an eye Arthur's right arm does something Eames will describe later as "going a bit noodly", and his gun thunks onto the floor and then clatters as something Eames can't see comes off it on impact.
There are a few more sneezing noises from the door, and Arthur leans heavily on the wall beside it, his right arm hanging heavily and gunless from his red-oozing shoulder.
"Arthur!" Ariadne cuffs Pokorny to his chair and rushes to the door.
"We still have time on the clock." Eames checks his watch; by now they all know that this is a symbolic rather than informative gesture, timepieces not working in a dream state and Eames's very facetiously being set to read only "now" anyway, but his statement is no less true because of it. "Arthur, you're bleeding all over the place. Doesn't that hurt?"
There's a good chance that if Arthur were anyone else – say, if their roles were reversed – he would have given the finger at this flippant question. Eames crouches and picks up Arthur's gun from the floor, offers it to him.
Apart from a grimace of pain which goes some way toward convincing Eames that Arthur is in fact human rather than an annoyance-bot created by a mad tailor with a fetish for jug-ears, Arthur looks as serene and composed as ever. The blood spreading across his waistcoat, already soaked through his shirt at the shoulder, turning the pressed fabric an ugly shade of dark crimson, gave a little of the lie to his coolness.
"Then I'll die."
"You know you might not be dreaming after all." Ariadne looks strange under the green glow of the fairy lights in the trees, but Eames supposes they all do.
There is a soft breeze in the garden which carries the feeling of a summer evening. Eames has never quite been able to shake the Englishman's Equivalence of Seasons from his mind, no matter where he travels in the world, and so a warmish night is always a summer night to him. The cicadas and crickets and most of all the chorus of randy frogs that mark this as early spring can't elide his sense of July, the connection of hot air and night and summer as interlinked as blood-and-veins-and-heart.
"Or that I might still be dreaming when I wake up," Saito agrees. He is far enough away from the range of the fairy lights that his face doesn't look as alien and nightmarish as hers does, but the shadows cast by the main attraction of the night garden put stripes over his suit and render him a cartoonish representation of the clash of good and evil.
"Could we save the philosophising for after the job," Arthur says, his face almost entirely in shadow.
"I was just reminding Saito why it's important to find himself a totem soon," Ariadne says. She's not as testy as she might be when addressing Eames. It is that tiny mirror everyone carries in their mind, reflecting back a little of the spoken to when they speak; Arthur makes people calmer and more measured.
"The cages are a nice touch," Eames says, redirecting the conversation.
"The Bourgeois exhibition," Ariadne points them out. "Also a feeling of safety."
"Mr Pokorny has interesting taste in art for a man with such questionable revenue streams," Saito observes. The cages are not exact replicas of the photographs Eames recalls, but they are similar enough to call to mind the exhibition from which Pokorny will be travelling; the contents of the cages are not the pink marble statues of Bourgeois, but pink marble fountains instead, and he thinks he recognises one of them from the V&A in London.
"People are complicated," Arthur says. "Is the mansion complex?" he points with his chin toward the building just outside the circle of illuminated trees.
"Five floors, a basement, and spiral room layouts," Ariadne ticks off on her fingers. "The doors have three types of bolting systems, and there's a panic room at the centre."
"That should suffice." Arthur looks around at them. The invitation to begin memorising the mansion is unspoken and clear; conservation of energy, conservation of energy. Eames looks back at the cages and their strange pink cargo. Complicated man, this Pokorny, with odd tastes.
"It needs to be something small," Ariadne continues, leading the way up the slight hill, her trainers parting a line in the grass like a comb through hair. "Something only you are familiar with, in some way."
There are situations, Eames thinks (but does not say), where a totem isn't much use for determining whether you're dreaming or not. Sometimes reality gets profoundly weird and there is no amount of groping the rim of his worn and slightly warped poker chip that will convince him – dents and letter shapes or not – that he isn't having the whole thing made up for him, just for a moment.
Then there are situations where one's hands are too much otherwise occupied to reach for anything …
And with his totem out of reach in his pocket, how is he going to check?
"I'll take that risk." Arthur says, binding Pokorny's hands in front of him with what looks like plastic cable-tie. Eames, who has been bound thus on at least two occasions that he can remember, winces in short-lived sympathy. Behind Arthur, Ariadne pulls her scarf out of her mouth and tries to stop the wind from turning her hair into a briar bush. "But until your rescue party shows up to shoot at us; where are we?"
He is confronted with a concrete wall sunk into the dunes and a metal sheet covered in small black letters. With a gulp for air, Pokorny reads the security sign – unusually for a dream, it appears to be fully legible, even if the warnings are in Hungarian. "We are now entering base number … sixty-four?"
Arthur says, "How many are there of these things?" with the gun pointing menacingly at Pokorny's face.
"One, in all probability," Pokorny says defiantly.
"But you might want to take note of the number," Eames mutters, lifting Ariadne's hair away from her forehead for her. She slaps the back of his hand with a warning look.
"They're usually significant. A concrete number retained in the subconscious is almost invariably one that has importance to the subject's life. The subconscious is after all the realm of symbols and emotions and –" Arthur says, putting his hands over Pokorny's ears as he covers the man's head with a cotton bag.
Eames interrupts him with an exaggerated yawn. "Yes, thank you, we've all read Jung."
"I haven't," Ariadne says pointedly. The fog envelopes her legs as they open the outer door, but releases her as they step inside the antechamber of the half-buried bunker.
"Well you should."
She snorts. "Well you should try reading something else."
"Children, please," Arthur says in a low voice, inclining his head toward Pokorny.
The antechamber is long and lit with low, swinging lights hanging from the ceiling over head; at the end is a door which exudes intimidating in the same way that Eames knows he exudes sleazy and, on occasion, homosexual.
The door is plastered with the paraphernalia of security; if ever an idiot needed to be reassured that something was safe, Eames thinks, they'd shove it behind one of these. He is proud of the design, but as they approach Ariadne wrinkles her nose.
"This looks like a computer game," she tells him. "I can almost see the polygon count."
Eames makes a hurt face. "Well how would you symbolise a secure underground bunker at short notice?"
Ariadne ticks off her fingers as Arthur gets to the door before them; "Soviet fallout bunkers, the Cabinet War Rooms in England, the Kingsway Tunnels, the Bahnhof Office, the Null Stern, Mielke's Bremen projects …" She gives him a sideways look as they catch up to Arthur. "To begin with. Read more, Eames."
The door reads, The Fourth Spin of Narcissus, and Arthur raises his eyebrows at Eames so fractionally that if the light were any lower he'd not be able to see it at all. "Is this yours or his?"
"No idea," Eames says, "but it shouldn't be locked." He gives the door a light push with his finger tip, and it swings open as if it's been shoved by a tank. "Ta-da."
Arthur shakes his head and pushes the bagged and drowsy Pokorny through the door, his hand on the back of the man's neck like a joke, or the restraint of a collared dog; Eames looks away quickly and follows them onto the rough-rusted floor of the landing as Arthur takes to the stairs and alright, maybe this bit is a bit blocky. On the other hand, Pokorny's head is in a bag.
"What's that?" Ariadne asks, as she takes to the stairs after Arthur.
Beneath his feet, sprayed onto the steps in stencil, are letters. Eames remembers them; it was originally a joke with himself, a selection of pedantic assembly instructions for the identikit bunker, but as is the way of writing in dreams, they no longer make sense.
He closes the door behind them and follows in Ariadne's wake.
ras cq js virswmvt
His feet clang on the metal, and ahead of him Arthur readjusts his grip on Pokorny's nape without changing pace. Eames decides to focus instead on the way that Ariadne's French Twist, in front of him and two steps down, is coming a little loose, the way that her self-image, her internal self, is not immaculate any more than her reality is; he can see the blue plastic tip of a mechanical propulsion sketching pencil peeking from among the chocolate-brown coils, the shaft of it helping to hold together the entire structure. Ariadne in a nutshell, or in this instance, in a hairstyle.
e iqsgif sx wea izmxervixpe
"This way, Mr Pokorny," Arthur says, quietly threatening. "You're going to get us into the company computers now, or the gun I have against your kidney is going to make an unsightly mess."
ilx iwyegif permqmvg e
Eames says nothing, but mouths to the back of Ariadne's head oh he's getting so much better these days, isn't he? and that was almost chilling. Arthur turns at the end of his second silent remark, catches his lips moving, and frowns at him.
He shuts his mouth and points to the door at the bottom of the stairs.
Arthur uses Pokorny to open the door with, and the stairwell is flooded in pale green light. Ariadne speeds up, taking the stairs two at a time with her silly tiny legs, and Eames easily overtakes her.
When he enters the room – low-ceiling, unlikely tiles patterned like honeycombs because he wasn't really concentrating when he designed this bit and there was a BBC Wildlife thing on the TV in the next room and it's a generic all-purpose bunker and who really cares – Arthur has already pulled Pokorny into the computer chair and removes the bag from his head just as the door swings shut behind Ariadne.
Eames produces the hypodermic full of mint-green opaque fluid from his inside breast pocket with the same flourish as he gave to his 1,000-Rupee note, and hands it gingerly into Arthur's waiting fingers.
Pokorny stiffens in his chair, a look of frozen alarm assailing his face; Ariadne mouths what at Eames.
Suggestive, Eames mouths back, not sure how much of the idea crosses over with this word but less interested in explaining to her than he is in letting Pokorny feel mounting disquiet and a sense of palpable risk running through his veins as Arthur lowers the needle to the back of Pokorny's neck, moves it gently over his skin.
Eames inhales as slowly as the needle-tip moves.
"This is a – well, I'm sure a man as intelligent as you can work out what's in this needle," he says, as Arthur position's the needle's point against the jumping, terrified vein in the side of Pokorny's neck; Eames neither knows nor cares to know the name of the thing, he's not the one who'll be jabbing it with a hypodermic. They sit poorly in his hands for all his imagined Tommy guns and smooth-as-butter threats Eames knows he is unwieldy and cowardly when it comes to calculated, close-up harm to someone who cannot fight back.
Arthur is of course another matter.
Eames inhales again, holding his thoughts in place, against the weak fluttering pulse in Pokorny's troubled mind. "When this enters your system it will render you so hopelessly compliant that you will give up anything we want to hear," he says, moving closer, closer, until his voice is unobstructed by space, by dream physics. Until he's almost talking inside Pokorny's head-within-his-head-within…
Arthur pricks through the man's translucent skin with the certainty of a doctor and Eames cannot drag his gaze away. The plunger comes down, and Arthur nods a minute, job-done nod.
The idea of the fluid in the needle takes effect at what feels like the speed of a lethargic snail hopped up on codeine but what even in the dream-within-a-dream can only be a few seconds, fragments of seconds; Pokorny's head droops, and Eames strokes his shoulders companionably with both hands.
"You're going to open up the files in here, Pokorny, and you're going to show us where you're keeping the key," he whispers in the man's ear, taking care that none of the strands of surprisingly soft, cobweb-like hair get into his mouth while he's speaking. He clasps Pokorny in place and raises the man's arms for him, positioning his fingers over the keyboard.
He begins to type, slowly at first, but with increasing fervour, the keys dancing to a tune which Eames thinks he might recognise if he hadn't been listening to outdated crooners for the last two months as part of a little side project of his; he watches Pokorny's hands dance from habit, the habit of observing the way people do things, and not what they're doing.
The screen flashes green and Pokorny sits back, his hands in his lap like a well-trained schoolchild. From up above come shouts and shots, the cataclysmic sounds of his rescue party of projections coming to dig him out of the bunker. Of course, in a few seconds their presence will be immaterial and they will jerk from out of this dream-within-a-dream…
Ariadne tilts the screen back so that they can all see it, and says, "That's not helpful."
"What's this gobbledegook?" Eames asks, panicking slightly. Perhaps he should have used the coloured blocks, or the roulette wheel, or something that would allow for more easily-followed dénouement.
"Don't worry," Arthur says with his finest condescension, patting the table next to Eames, "the bits in blue are the important ones."
There is the sound of gunfire, loud and insistent, against the upstairs door. Ariadne puts her hands over her ears and stares at Eames with the accusing cast she has down so very bloody well. Eames shrugs back at her and puts his hands over his own ears.
So preoccupied, he misses what Arthur says to their captive next, just sees his lips finish moving and has a momentary jolt in his stomach like Pavlov's dog, like a sodding dog. He lifts his hand from his ear for long enough to hear amid the sound of a security door smashing in on itself Pokorny's reply.
His face is pale and lined as he mutters to the computer screen, and not to Arthur.
"Yes, but who are you doing it for?"
Eames smiles, swallows, and offers his best. "Mr Pokorny," he says, courteous as a courtesan and about as honest, a red satin dress with silk sleeves and a pear-shaped brunette with over-plucked eyebrows and a low voice hiding any sense of strangeness from Pokorny with her half-exposed breasts, "perhaps you'd like to head inside?"
The Hungarian looks torn, his indecision as plain as a candle flame on his large-jawed face; on the one side he has an exhibition of new artworks and fresh air, and on the other a woman who looks like his former mistress did ten years ago is asking him to come somewhere more private with her.
Eames smiles enticingly and says, "Our host thought you might prefer to view the main piece before the rest of the guests," he says, angling wide hips at Pokorny's crotch, lowering his head and raising his eyes to meet his. It works like a charm – that particular combination does with most men – and Pokorny offers a tight smile in return.
"That's very generous of him."
"He's grateful for your continued patronage, Mr Pokorny." Their feet part the grass on the slope like knives through butter, or flesh. "Anything we can do to make your visit more enjoyable will be done as soon as you say the word."
Though there are projections in the hallway (with its slate floor covered in intricately-patterned rugs, and every wooden fitting made of teak) they are ignoring them for now; Eames immediately heads for the door on the left with the rose-shaped handle, the one which leads to the first floor of the spiralling rooms.
It is a library, with more teak and a showy army of well-bound literary antiques, a lectern in the middle and an overhead light that seems to be pouring out of the mouth of a brass eagle. He spots Arthur by the shelves, engrossed in reading (or pretending to read, for it's a rare book in a dream that has comprehensible words printed in it) a slim brown volume whose gold-embossed title proclaims it to be "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde."
He looks up as Eames and Pokorny enter.
"The Invisible Man," Eames observes with a smile. "Good book."
"Indeed." Arthur excuses himself, replacing the book on among its fellows, and sees himself out of the door they just came in by, heading for the short-cut through to the attic.
Meanwhile, Eames and his ponderous pulled-on woman-hips lead Pokorny on a merry chase through the shell-like chambers of the mansion; the final pieces is always "just through here" or "maybe this way", and a few times he can tell that it's only the motion of his high-heel-swayed thighs against the rippling hem of the red dress that keep Pokorny from losing his cool and his patience.
The attic is mostly empty but for shadows and an elaborate chair at the far end, which rises up from level with the trap door toward the beams of the roof like a skyscraper. It has the legs of a spider beneath it and what look a lot like deformed metal penises clumped together in a tightly-packed forest make up the back of it, with the words "sit here" scrawled across them in rust.
Had Eames not already seen this Bourgeoisian nightmare he might have had difficulty keeping a straight face now, but he just smiles and gestures to it grandly.
"Ta-da. The jewel in our crown," he says, standing like the glamour girl on a daytime gameshow from his childhood. He half fancies Jim Davidson, that loathsome insect, will pop up with a conveyor belt and a terrible joke, but of course there's just Saito with an expression of polite affability that is as fake as Eames's breasts and shoulder-length hair.
"Have a seat, Mr Pokorny," Saito says with the charming deference of the very powerful.
The place is not so deserted after all, Eames notes as Pokorny lowers himself with reverence into the Bourgeoisian throne. There is Ariadne, standing quiet and still behind a dusty set of filing cabinets, three-deep, and there is Arthur, cuffing Pokorny to the chair with smooth, businesslike ease.
He sheds the woman like a winter coat.
"Good evening Mr Pokorny, we have some questions for you," Eames says, directing his attention back now that the hallucinogenic business of changing faces is over. "Questions about passwords, and questions about bank accounts."
He sees Ariadne make a face behind the filing cabinets. It's not subtle, and it's not clever, and it's certainly not mature, and if she expected any of those things then she's a fool. Eames makes a performance of cracking his knuckles where Pokorny can see him.
"But first I'm going to offer you a choice," he says encompassing Arthur, Ariadne, Saito and himself in a sweeping and somewhat managerial hand motion that is all in the wrist. It's a lie, of course; there is no choice. He has already decided who is doing what, but the point of the game, of any game, is to let the subject believe that they've brought it upon themselves with their own decisions. Let them think they have some control.
"Choice," Pokorny says, as level as Arthur, as filled with unspoken menace as someone Eames pretends he can no longer remember.
"A choice," Eames repeats, Mephistopheles in a salmon-pink shirt. "Who would you like me to —?"
— But Arthur shakes his head: "Eames".
He leans back on the back legs of his chair – Eames extends his foot warningly and Arthur thuds back upright with unseemly haste. Saito ignores their tableaux and continues.
"We want the name of his supplier, and his buyers, not access to his bank accounts," he says, delicately drawing the definitions without a flicker of his fingers in the air. "Try to think like a businessman, rather than a criminal, Mr Eames."
"Ah yes, breaking into a man's mind to steal his secrets is entirely legal and not criminal in the slightest, how silly of me," Eames yawns, taking a swig from a bottle of what purports to be "myrtle-infused lemonade"; he feels as if he's sweated all the liquid out of his body already and it's only ten in the bloody morning.
"The difference," Saito says, unperturbed by his interruption, "between corporate espionage, and petty crime."
"He has fifteen million in sterling in one of those accounts," Eames says, unable to let it lie. "I wouldn't call that petty."
"I would," Saito smiles. Eames imagines that if anyone else had coupled the sentiment and the smile he'd have now the powerful urge to deck them (not to be given in to, of course; he's aware of his limits, and he's shite at fighting without a nice handy weapon to keep the other guy at bay), but Saito has a way of uttering words that leaves one open to suggestion. He's studying it, of course. "It is a gamble, Mr Eames, but a gamble on excellent odds; the identity of Mr Pokorny's supplier gives direction to the more orthodox investigation I am funding. With his sales and acquisitions activities exposed to the press, he will struggle to keep share prices for his more legitimate concerns stable. When they dip below a certain point he will begin panicking, and my company will acquire his copper mines in Peru."
Ariade says, "That sounds more like chess than gambling."
"Gambling on chess, then," Saito says, almost serene. "Arthur?"
"With a man like him there will be a certain amount of obfuscation," Arthur says, pinning the press photos to the wall with identical blue drawing pins. Eames wonders if he'd be thrown off completely by the substitution of a red one somewhere in the box.
"Obfuscation," he says aloud.
"Obfuscation. Encryption, symbolism. The market in extraction-protection has moved on from merely militarising projections," Arthur says, smooth as fresh-fallen snow. "Fortunately we have Eames on our team."
"A man with exceptional talent for misdirection, deception, and obfuscation," Eames agrees, pretending to quote a review. "You are too kind."
"Can you two save the flirting for later?" Yusuf asks, clearly amused. He looks as if he hasn't been getting much sleep recently. "What countermeasures do we have for subconscious encryption?"
"Brute force," Arthur says, blunt as a pebble. "And Eames."
Eames blows him a kiss, which he ignores. "There will be a decryption key somewhere in the dream, a symbol of some sort brought in by the subject."
"What did I just say about flirting?" Yusuf snorts.
"Only one of us is flirting," Arthur says patiently, "the other one is trying to do his job." And that may well be what his mouth says, but there is something in the way his hips align that says Eames isn't the only one enjoying the conversation. And the word us is a warm coal in the bottom of his diaphragm.
For a moment no one says anything, and everyone studies the photographs.
There is a silence between them as thick and heavy as the blood in their sleeping veins.
"Don't play games, Eames," Arthur sighs. He rewinds the tubing on its spools with neat haste; Yusuf may have been the one minding their sleeping bodies (or more probably reading a book and occasionally checking they were all still breathing), but tidying up is ever after Arthur's role, and Eames thinks with slightly savage amusement that he should come equipped with a maid's outfit.
His imagination, of course, gallops away with this image and leaves his face serious and attentive only through the application of the usual disconnect between mind and face; the outer Eames nods and apologises while the inner one snickers in childish delight and adds a cartoon feather duster.
Ariadne checks her watch. "Ten minutes before Bucharest."
"Back ahead of time and with all the information we need," Eames says, rolling his head across his shoulders as Yusuf checks the pulse of the drooling Pokorny. "All in a good afternoon's work for the dream team, wouldn't you say?"
"Dream team," Arthur echoes, and just because he doesn't actually roll his eyes doesn't mean Eames can't almost hear him wanting to.
They relocate to another carriage for the remaining ten minutes, armed with luggage, and at the last minute Arthur darts back to return the coffee pot to the nearest troubled-looking waiter. And because Eames notices things, even when he's not trying to, he notices that the waiter in question is almost certainly Italian, probably a Neapolitan, that he's taken off a ring from his ring finger on his left hand quite recently, and that he is as gay as a maypole on the first day of spring.
Silence falls over their compartment as the train slowly pulls into Bucharest, the sun slipping ever closer toward the skyline in a threat of dusk; Saito is busy with his phone, Ariadne staring into space with a complicated expression playing across her features, but it's not until they arrive at the station that she brings up what's evidently been on her mind the whole time.
"We need to talk about our methods before we take on another job," she sighs, as the porter insists on helping her down the two whole steps to the platform with her luggage, as if she is made of glass or six years old. "What happened to your, your Countryside Code version of ethics?"
"What?" Arthur looks non-plussed, his hold-all dangling from his hand like the counterweight on a clock pendulum.
"Take only photographs, leave only pictures?" Eames hoists his own hold-all with a little less grace, and drops down onto the platform beside her, resisting the urge to rest the bottom of his bag on the top of her head. This time. "Expedience."
"That was unnecessary," Ariadne insists, still bristling a little. They are, in all probability, going to have a very long talk about their methods after this, and they are, in all probability, going to make some important changes. But the platform at a railway station in Bucharest is not the place for it.
"Where are we going now?" Yusuf asks, his tiny and endearingly ridiculous suitcase on wheels the lone note of civilisation in their army of leather sports bags. "Hotel?"
"Airport," Saito says, "I have someone to meet in Delhi."
"Always flying off to talk to people about money," Yusuf says, mock-grumbling. "Never a minute to spare for socialising. Work, work, work."
Saito gives him one of his unreadable smiles. "That's what I do."
There is a pleading note in his voice as the cord tightens. Ariadne averts her gaze and holds her hand up as if shielding her gaze from the sun. "That's hurting him," she points out, as if Eames can't see that for himself.
"No, he just thinks it's hurting him. When he wakes up he'll be a bit disconcerted but nothing's actually happening." He puts his hands in his pocket and watches Arthur twist the ligatures until the blood pools in Pokorny's fingers and they begin to swell and darken.
"Right now it is," Ariadne says, fierce as a tiny tigress. "Right now we're torturing him for information. That's what he's experiencing. How is this different to –?"
"Because nothing is actually happening and there's a very good chance he won't even remember it," Eames says impatiently, reaching to give her shoulder a reassuring squeeze, but she jerks away.
"Psychological torture is psychological torture. I'm not letting you do this." She raises her chin and Eames thinks better of his next intended remark, which is going to involve the words Jiminy Cricket until he catches the look in her absurdly beautiful eyes and decides that he isn't in the mood to feel that bad about himself.
"I don't have a secondary level prepared," Eames says instead, his attention wandering back over to the way Arthur has his tie still tucked so neatly inside his waistcoat, out of the way of potential struggles from Pokorny. "Do you have one i could –"
She shakes her head, but she looks slightly less like she wants to see him locked in a box for the rest of eternity. "Why didn't you prepare a secondary level?"
"Because," Eames hisses as a sound of pain ricochets off the walls and buries itself in his brain, where he knows it will take several bouts of heavy-duty denial and deliberate forgetting to excise it from his most uncomfortable moments, "this will work eventually and I wasn't especially hung up on hurting an arms dealer."
"Then maybe you should be," Ariadne says, grabbing his upper arm hard enough that it actually hurts. "He's still a human being."
"He's a bastard! He is the bad guy! He moves the weapons that blow off the faces of sad little children!" He realises he's gone too far and is just being facetious, stupid and sarcastic in his pursuit of justifying his lack of preparation. This will work, but it's not as elegant as Cobb would have done it; this will work, but it's messy and disgusting and will give them all waking nightmares. This will work, but he'll be responsible for his own and Ariadne's dazed and uncomfortable looks, even if it does nothing to Arthur.
"You are quite seriously screwed up," Ariadne says, not releasing his arm or his gaze. "First and last you and he are both human beings and this will stick in his mind." She keeps her voice almost as level as Arthur does; looks up at him unblinkingly and gives the impression of being a foot taller. "Stop letting Arthur do that to him, get us down another level, use a stock one if you have to."
"Letting, she says, as if I'm his keeper," he mutters, trying to pry her fingers off. "Okay, yes. Alright. There should be a device around here somewhere – will you please let go of my arm?"
"Arthur," Ariadne says, turning away from Eames without lessening her grip, "change of plan."
She's right, of course, Eames thinks as he extracts the emergency PASIV device from the drawer in which Yusuf has so thoughtfully stashed it. There is no call for marching into someone's mind with all guns blazing and ligatures in hand and treating the entire extraction like the plot of an action movie, except that this one looked boringly easy based on the research. And he wants some excitement.
Back over his shoulder he hears a half-sob of relief from Pokorny as Arthur releases the ligatures and Saito nods gravely back at them; the PASIV will not come as a delight to him, but there's a chance he'll prefer it to being put through agony.
He says, "I st-still. I don't know anything. You must not attack me again. I don't know … I know nothing."
Eames strongly doubts this. He passes the cannula for Pokorny into Arthur's hand, careful not to let his fingers touch Arthur's, careful not to distract either of them too much. He doubts that Pokorny knows "nothing"; the limit of what the man knows lies somewhere far further afield.
And he's no idea if he's dreaming at all.