It happened because Eames was too arrogant, too cocksure of his own invulnerability after serving out a stellar service in the special forces with hardly a scratch. He was twenty-nine years old, handsome, sharp as a tack, fit, and a bloody brilliant point man, if he did say so himself.
Dream share was still in its absolute infancy, with chemists having to calculate dosages by weight and metabolism with a calculator and more than a little guesswork, rather than a PASIV device to do it for them. No one had yet considered the possibility of a dream within a dream – stabilizing one long enough for a basic extraction was still hard enough.
So when Murphy, a chemist Eames had worked with on several previous jobs, asked for a volunteer to test his newest compound, Eames immediately stepped up. It was his job, after all: first in, last out, and whatnot. Also, he was a bit hung over from the night before and could use a nap.
He remembered, later, Murphy's bruised eyes and drawn face, like he had just come from a bender himself. At the time, it hadn't seemed to matter. Murphy was a chemist, a smart man. He knew what he was doing.
"Sweet dreams," Murphy said as he depressed the plunger.
Eames didn't remember the dream, or even if he did at all. The next thing he knew, he was waking up flat on his back on a cold concrete floor, his chest aching like he had been punched and a sour taste, like vomit, in his mouth.
"Jesus, mate." Rollins the extractor's voice come out in a relieved breath. A hand was curled around the back of Eames' skull, pillowing it from the floor. "We thought we lost you there for a minute."
"What?" Eames asked. His voice sounded muzzy and far off to his own ears. He cracked open his eyes only to squint them shut again. Everything was too bright, too loud.
"You had a fit," Rollins said kindly. "Don't move just yet. I had to do chest compressions on you when... Well. Just lay back for a minute."
Murphy's voice filtered in from further off, high with panic. "It's not my fault. There must have been something off in the compound itself – Hawkley fucked me over in the ingredients. It's not my—"
"Shut it!" Rollins snapped, silencing him.
I nearly died? Eames thoughts were coming a few beats too slowly. He tried opening his eyes again, instinctively wanting to check over himself for damage. The light was still very bright, but he blinked through it to see Rollins' concerned face hovering above him.
But there was more.
On one level, Eames saw Rollins as he normally would – a pale, slightly doughy Scotsman with kind eyes and a rather wide gap between his two front teeth. At the same time, however, he saw more. Deeper. Now there was a low red light surrounding Rollins: a haze that radiated from his skin. As Eames watched, Rollins' brows pinched together, and the red haze about his head darkened to purple.
"Eames," Rollins repeated, and Eames realized he'd called his name a few times. "Eames, stay with us. Murphy! Quit your pissing and moaning and ring for an ambulance. I don't think he's come quite out of this."
"We can't. They'll draw his blood, and they'll see—"
"See what? What the hell did you put in there?"
Rollins absently batted away Eames' hand as he reached to touch the red light. His hand went through it without connecting. It felt like nothing at all... but it was there, wasn't it?
A shadow fell over Eames and he forced his eyes away from Rollins to see Murphy kneeling over him. He, too, had that odd sort of depth. Only the haze surrounding him was a roiling sort of green – a sickly color, shot through with brown. There was something wrong in it somehow, and Eames heard himself slurring, "No..." as Murphy, with syringe in hand, darted forward.
Eames felt a sharp pinch to his bicep, heard Rollins and Murphy arguing over him... and then, for a long time he heard nothing at all.
Six months later, Eames was a different man.
Rollins and Murphy never called for a doctor, deciding that the risk was too great and allowing Eames live or die on his own, sleeping it off in the back-room of the warehouse. It took two days for Eames to get back on his feet, and as soon as he did he scarpered off without so much as a goodbye. Rollins was a decent sort in his own way, but every time Eames laid eyes on Murphy and the green-brown haze that surrounded him, he knew there was something diseased in his soul.
Some years later, he would hear rumors of a nightmare chemist who tested on his team members, sometimes without their knowledge. The chemist killed three men and a woman before someone wised up and put a bullet in his brain. No names were mentioned, but Eames had no doubt it had been Murphy.
But that would be later. It was another three weeks after Eames' near-death experience to get all of his coordination back. The odd haze, the auras that seemed to surround people, never left.
He'd thought he'd gone mad at first. It was as if his mind were assaulted by a vibrant multi-color rainbow every time he walked down the street. Even his land-lady's cat had a strange glow about it – buttercup yellow with swirls of white like a child's lollipop.
Eames tried at first to ignore the oddity and get back to his life, but it was difficult when he could watch someone's expression change at the same time the part of the aura – usually about the head – would darken or lighten or, occasionally, become a different color all together.
It was impossible not to make connections between certain personality traits and colors. Reds were more outgoing, while indigos were loners. Browns were deep thinkers, darker greens were connivers, lighter greens were generally more of the spiritual type – more motherly, for lack of a better word. But it was more than that: a difference of hues that Eames could not fully put into words, but sensed as much as saw. No two people had the same coloring – not that he tried to look very hard.
He was half certain he was insane, and half convinced that maybe he was some type of experiment gone wrong, thanks to Murphy.
Worse yet, with his mind in such a turmoil he was all but useless as a point man. Eames' concentration was shot to hell now that he could read and watch his team members emotions literally play out over their auras. He spent more time observing them than doing his bloody job. His projections had become almost deranged as a reflection of his own inner anxiety. They tore his team apart twice before the extractor – a man with a fluid blue aura like running water – fired him.
So Eames fell into drinking.
It didn't stop him from seeing, but if he was pissed enough, he could stop paying attention for awhile. More and more often, he could accurately guess what people were about to say, before they said it from the color of their shifting aura. He found he had an insight into their thoughts, could see when they spoke the opposite of what they felt. Friends he had known since they were young enough to get whippings for cutting class were no longer the people he knew. Or, they were, but he saw them differently now. He could see their lies. Their desires.
For a few months it was fascinating. Then, by slow degrees as Eames learned to read the real person underneath, it became terribly disillusioning.
Eames was stumbling home one drizzly, cold November night, shivering and clutching a coat around his shoulders which was too thin to keep in body heat. He hadn't worked in months, and thrown most of his savings away playing cards. Trying to forget.
If the dealers were honest – and he could usually tell now when they were – and he was drunk enough not to be able to read the other players, it was a mostly even playing field. There should have been satisfaction in being able to tell when someone was dishonest or bluffing, but the challenge, the thrill of the game was gone when he was sober and everyone was like an open book.
The problem was, he was a shit player when he was drunk.
Somehow, Eames found himself in an unfamiliar part of town. He stopped, wavering slightly, and had to brace himself against the stonework to keep his balance. The rain dripped icy rivulets down his neck, making him shiver all over again.
He didn't know where he was, and didn't feel up to spending his last twenty pound note on a taxi ride home.
Eames was just considering curling up in a deep doorway and sleeping it off when he happened to glance up at a flickering sign set over a shadowed door that read:
PSYCHIC READINGS AND PALMISTRY
He would have discarded it – he didn't believe in that nonsense even if he was now seeing auras – but for the hand-drawn illustration above the sign: an outline of a human form, and above that, a shading of colors surrounding the figure. It looked was very much like an aura.
Eames found himself stepping into the little storefront without making a conscious decision.
Inside was a grubby little waiting room with a single counter, two chairs, and an old fashioned cash register set to the side.
"We're closed!" yelled a voice from the other side of a closed doorway.
"I need..." Eames' voice cracked on the word, and he stopped. He didn't know what he needed. A knock on the head to set him right again, like in the cartoons, perhaps? A mental institution? Somewhere with padded walls, and where everything was white and septic and there were no more people-colors to haunt him?
A woman, dark and rotund, bustled out from the doorway, clearly intending to throw him out by his ear. Then she stopped and stared at him. Eames stared right back.
Her aura was unlike anything he'd seen so far: like a pure, white, shimmering net of energy. It seemed reflect the myriad of colors in the room, taking them in and reflecting them all at the same time. It should have been discordant, but it was beautiful.
"Please," Eames said again, and dug into his pocket for his last twenty. He held it out to her. "I need help."
Thin silver strands weaved through her aura as she registered surprise. She turned with an abrupt, "Come" and led him into the adjoining room.
The next room was a claustrophobic little set-up, dominated by a table with an honest-to-god crystal ball on it. Eames sat in the chair indicated, while the woman squeezed herself in on the other side, settling a purple shawl around her shoulders.
Eames couldn't stop staring at her. "You can... see me?" he asked, with slight emphasis on the word.
"Yes," she said, curtly. "And you see me?" She waited for him to nod before adding. "You've the eye."
"The eye. The eye!" she repeated and reached over, tapping a long painted nail to the center of his forehead. "Some are born with it. You came to it late, yes? I know. You have the look."
"I..." he swallowed. "I think I died." For months he had been blaming whatever drug cocktail Murphy had pumped into his system, but that had been an easy excuse. Much more frightening was the thought that, for a few minutes, he had been... gone.
Her aura shimmered as looked at him with pity in her eyes. "It happens that way for some. You were brought back, yes? Then you see."
"Yes," he breathed, and for the first time since this ordeal started, Eames felt a surge of hope. "How can I stop it?"
"Once the eye opens, there is no way to close it." She must have had some insight to his despair because she took his hand in hers. "It is a gift."
"It's ruined my life," he snapped, and to his horror he felt tears threaten, born of long months of fear and frustration. "I was a solider – No," he amended, knowing she would see at once he wasn't being truthful. "I was a thief, and I was very, very good at what I did. Now I can't work – I see people I thought I knew... my friends..."
She nodded, patting his hand. "Things are different once you see your friend's true inside. But you can still be a thief – a better one." Her smile was sly as she indicated the room where they sat. "You think I actually read futures?"
Eames closed his eyes. "Somehow, I don't think the life of a psychic is right for me."
"Then be something else." She flicked her free hand in the air. "You see people as they truly are. Use it. Politics, acting, healing... all are open to you."
"I don't – hold on, acting?"
Again, her smile turned sly and the way the silver once again rippled through her aura made Eames suspect she had been leading him towards that. He could see all of her – presumably, she could see all of him as well.
"You don't know," she said. "Tell me, what color is your aura?"
"I don't know," he said, honestly, because when he looked down at himself he only saw skin, as he ought. Mirrors didn't reflect auras, and neither did cameras.
"No one can see his own inside," she said. "But I tell you a true thing: yours is like mine. Crystal, some call it, but I think it is more like a mirror. We reflect what we see. We can tune it, too. Focus it, sharpen it... You practice some, and you see."
Eames shook his head. He saw how her aura's hue deepened as she spoke, and felt the weight of the truth reflected in her words, but that didn't mean he understood. "I'm not mad... or insane?" He felt like a little boy asking a question like that, but the last six months of self-doubt had stripped him down to his bare bones.
"You are sane." She assured him, and reached up to pat his cheek. "At least as much as the rest of us, yes? Keep your money." And she pushed back his fist, still clutching his last twenty pound note. "There's no charge for one of our own."
As little sense as the psychic's words made when he was half-drunk and nearly at the end of his rope, they made even less sense once Eames had sobered up.
Still, it was a great comfort to know that he was not suffering some sort of a breakdown, and that he was not alone.
He took the next job that he could – again as a point man, though he was the first to admit he hated dealing with all the little hundred details that went into making a successful job. His talent had always fallen into keeping people safe down in the dream, not administration work, which was usually a point man's other duties. It was worse now that he found himself distracted by people around him, and not on the computers and maps in front of him.
This time, however, there was a new addition to the team: someone his extractor had called a forger.
The forger himself was a pompous ass, and his aura reflected that by glowing a deep royal purple. Yet Eames noticed at once that there was something different about the quality of the aura. An almost reflective, crystalline sharpness to the edges. It reminded him of the psychic's aura, although much less intense.
When the team went down into the dream to do a walk through of the maze, Eames watched carefully as the forger crafted his new identity. People carried with them their auras into the dreamscape, although projections only had vestiges of some, or none at all.
When the forger screwed up his eyes (like he was going to take a shit, Eames thought, rather uncharitably) and became the rather handsome woman that was the mark's wife, Eames saw a shift in the aura as well. The crystalline edges became a somber red in a close approximation of the mark's wife – though it overlaid the royal purple and clashed horribly.
"Keep up, boy. This is how you forge," the man, now a woman, had sneered as he caught Eames staring.
"We reflect what we see. We can tune it, too."
The words returned to Eames as loudly as if he were hearing them all over again.
"Right," he said, and strode over to a nearby window front. It was dark inside the store, and Eames could see his own reflection in the glass. He imagined the mark's wife – how she looked, but most importantly the specific red of her aura, with its burnished hues around her head. She was like red velvet, that one, aged but still beautiful.
And with a mental twist he wasn't aware he could do until that moment, he made her color, his.
Eames turned to the forger, raising a finely plucked eyebrow. "Is that it?" she asked, and her voice sounded the exact double of Mrs. Hermann. "You made it sound difficult."
The forger sputtered – it had taken weeks for him to manage what Eames had done in seconds – and his thin veneer of the Mark's wife cracked and fell away.
Eames never worked as a point man again.
Over the intervening years, Eames refined his techniques. As he his observations continued, it became easier to see subtle shading in auras and find, by trial and error, what exactly they meant. He gained new contacts and friends - people with whom he didn't know before he could see, and therefore he knew what he was in for.
Slowly, he started to see what he had as a gift, not a burden. He even started to enjoy gambling again, though there was still more sport in it when he was drunk
They called him the most talented forger in the industry, and they were right. He liked being the best – it allowed him to be choosy with who he worked with. In an industry where double crossing was as easy as reporting into a local embassy and selling out one's teammates for immunity and cash, Eames was never once caught flat-footed.
One memorable occasion had him working with a husband and wife extraction team out of Paris. They were a young academic type. The man, Dom Cobb, had vibrant purple tone – like the petals of an orchid – indicating he had a bright mind and a large ego. Strings of lighter green were strung about the head and the heart, however, which told Eames that there was a caring side to the man.
His wife was the far more interesting one, and the reason he'd agreed to take the job. Her aura was a pure, delicate shade of light pink, utterly unblemished. Whatever she felt affected her coloring in an even tone like a unflawed gem. It lit the room wherever she went, and when her aura touched her husband's, the green within him seemed to shine with its own light.
They were a fascinating duo, and as soon as he could Eames planned on stealing the PASIV for a few hours to practice with the colors on himself.
He was sitting in the workroom with Mal Cobb as she told him of the concept of a dream within a dream, when his ears picked up the sound of Cobb speaking from the other room, and a low answering reply.
Mal beamed. "That will be Arthur."
"Oh." Eames relaxed back into his puffy armchair. "The point man he told me about?" Cobb's aura had radiated enthusiasm when he talked of the final member of the team, and a certain amount of paternal pride. Eames suspected that the former professor had brought his favorite student into the business.
"You will love him," Mal told Eames. It sounded a little like an order. Her delicate pink aura deepened a few shades into a maternal, rosy coloration.
Dom Cobb stepped into the workroom at a brisk pace, already in the middle of his introductions and clearly anxious to get started. "Arthur, this is Mr. Eames who will be working as our forger for the job. Eames, this is Arthur."
Eames half rose, extending his hand, some bland greeting already on his lips. When Arthur walked into the room, however, all thought was washed away.
By that time Eames had seen thousands of auras, and tens of thousands of their various shadings and patterns. No two were exactly alike, true, but many were very similar to one another.
Arthur... there was nothing usual about him.
His aura was simply the most beautiful thing Eames had ever seen.