Phillipa is five and she’s going to stay with her grandparents. “We’re learning something new, Phil,” says her father, crouched down in front of her while she pouts. Mama is trying to convince James not to cry. “We’re going to have an adventure, and we’ll come back in a few days and have so much to tell you.”
Three days later, there’s a flurry of phone calls and then Phillipa is in the hospital and her mother is standing in the middle of the waiting room with her hands pressed against her mouth. “He stayed,” she whispers when she sees them, and catches Phillipa up in her arms even though she’s getting too heavy for that. “He counted layers wrong and he was so sure he was right, that he had to stay with you and James. He got your hair wrong, God, how could he get your hair wrong, my darling?”
“Mal,” says Arthur who stays with them sometimes, and her mother stops crooning into Phillipa’s hair. “You’re going to scare her.”
“She has to know someday.”
“Not today.” He takes James away from Grandfather, who is trying to speak with a doctor.
Phillipa can already read a little and she’s going to kindergarten in three months and she knows something’s wrong with her father, but he was only dreaming. That’s what he and Mama say whenever they leave her for a while, that they’re dreaming together. “Did he have a nightmare?” she asks, and doesn’t understand the way her mother’s breath catches.
Arthur is the one who answers, eyes on her mother. “No. He’s just still dreaming.”
She’s a little older and she’s telling her father’s hospital bed about her fourth day at kindergarten, dutifully displaying the picture of her family she drew even though she can’t see it (her mother, James, her grandparents, and Arthur, who’s been staying with them except after he and her mother scream at each other). Her mother is dreaming too, hooked up to her father with a silver machine they call a PASIV. Arthur is arguing with her grandfather in the hallway outside.
“She wants to take a whole team down there, says we can replace his projections of us easy enough. See if we can kick him up that last level. Do you know how crazy that is?” Arthur doesn’t notice that she’s stopped talking to her parents. “I’ve been down there with her, and he doesn’t even see her unless she goes down at least one more level with him, and it’s … bad, Miles. I won’t pretend any different.”
“I can’t stop her, you know that.”
“I’m worried we’re going to lose her down there. She told me … they had a family down in limbo too, watched Phillipa and James grow up and have families. She says it’s just like they’re living very far away, but she’s torn up enough already, without spending more time down there, maybe seeing them. Sometimes I think our only saving grace is that Dom will never believe she’s real.”
“She’ll come back. She knew they were real once.”
There’s a pause, and Phillipa starts talking again, tells her unmoving parents about Anna from school and how she let her try the chocolate that she brought with her lunch. She doesn’t overhear anything more that day, and she doesn’t ask about it when her mother wakes up and says it’s time to go home.
Phillipa is six and she’s sent to stay with her grandparents again while her mother makes one more desperate attempt to bring her father back. Nobody tells her it’s one more try, but she notices things, since nobody tells her anything anymore, and she can guess from the way Arthur says “Remember, Mal, if I do this …” She can guess from the way dinner is the night before Grandfather comes to pick her up, how Mama picks at her food and Arthur won’t look up while the guests talk about plans.
They talk over her head because she’s too young to understand, but Phillipa’s father has been dreaming for nearly a year now, and she knows how they wake up from dreams when they can’t wait for what they call “the kick,” and she knows some of what they plan to do to her father. Ariadne, who explained carefully when she met Phillipa that she’s an architect and mathematician who studies the structure of dreams, is the only one who looks at Phillipa like she’s worried she might understand and be upset.
“Should we be talking about this in front of—” she says at last.
Mama waves a hand. “They’ll have to know someday. If she can understand now …”
“For God’s sake, Mal,” says Arthur, and walks away from the table. Phillipa doesn’t look up from her plate.
Three days later, her grandfather brings her and James home and she doesn’t have to look at the team’s dejected expressions to know that it went wrong. They all stay for a week afterwards, like they’re thinking about trying again. Ariadne talks to them all less and the British man named Eames talks to them all more and Yusuf makes them all pancakes in the mornings before Phillipa has to go to school.
They stay until Arthur says one night after Phillipa’s supposed to be asleep that “the only thing left to try is to unplug him, Mal. We all know it.”
“You were in a dream with me once when someone hurt me in reality, and you saw what the whole dreamscape did. Imagine being in a dream while your body starves or chokes for air and then tell me again to do that to my husband.”
They’re all gone in the morning and Phillipa doesn’t see any of them again for two years.
Her mother doesn’t try to dream with her father anymore.
Phillipa is eight when her mother goes to the hospital with the silver case again, and she knows enough to eavesdrop on the phone call Mama makes when she gets home.
“He isn’t down there anymore. He died and he didn’t come back to us. I’ve got to … I’m sorry. Tell everyone to come. I’m taking the children to say goodbye to him tomorrow.”
The next day, when Mama tells her to put on her coat so they can go visit the hospital, Phillipa screams at her. “I won’t! He’s not there anymore! You said! You said it, you said it on the phone, stop lying!”
Her mother leaves her alone in the house for the first time, white-faced, and takes James (who remembers nothing about their father) to the hospital to say goodbye without her. Phillipa hiccups out sobs until Arthur arrives, and even after two years it’s normal to throw her arms around him and let him help.
Later, after her mother gets back and she and Arthur yell and then hug each other for ages, after Yusuf and Eames show up and say Ariadne’s on her way, Phillipa climbs into her bed for the first time in years. “I’m sorry,” she mumbles.
“Oh, no, darling.” Mama draws her in close. “You were right. I wish you hadn’t heard that way, but you were right.”
“Will you tell me what happened? All of it?”
“I promise you I will, when you’re older. When it will make sense to you. I promise.”
Her father dies a week later.
They move to Cambridge when Phillipa is nine, across the country from everything she knows. She doesn’t mind much, but James screams about it all through the move, even though their house is nice and near the library that looks like a castle and Arthur lives in an apartment on the third floor.
Mama starts working during the days, a professor of the new department of dreamshare at MIT, one of the first schools in the world to add a whole major for the new science. Sometimes Phillipa goes to the campus with her, a brisk twenty-minute walk from their house, and plays in the hallways and finds the science fiction library and loses hours in there.
Her first week at her new school, the teacher greets her with a bright smile. “Welcome, Phillipa! You’re lucky, we’re just about to start a unit on dreamshare and how it got started, some of the basic principles.”
“I already know,” she says, and doesn’t realize anything is odd about it until her teacher goes pale and upset.
“You don’t have to join in the unit if you don’t want to, dear. I didn’t know you were one of those Cobbs.”
When Phillipa gets home that day she spends hours looking her father and mother up on the internet, and finds more results than she knows what to do with. Famous dreamsharing pioneers, suspected criminal activity, studies about limbo, the tragedy of Dominic Cobb …
She almost asks her mother to tell her everything when she gets home that night, but she’s got a stack of papers to grade and James is keeping her occupied, so instead Phillipa deletes their browser history and goes upstairs to sit with Arthur.
“You should tell me,” Phillipa says at ten.
Her mother looks up from a diagram she’s staring at and nods, as if she’s been waiting. “James is staying with a friend this weekend. I’ll tell you then, but only if you promise not to tell your brother. If he asks, tell him to come to me, but only if he asks.”
That weekend, Mama makes them both tea instead of asking if Phillipa wants cocoa and sits down across the table from her. “Where do I even begin?” she asks, but Phillipa knows better than to tell her to start at the beginning (the first way to tell if you’re dreaming, say her teachers, is to ask yourself if you know how you got where you are). “You know about dreamshare. Something of it, at least.” Phillipa nods. Of course she does. She reads all the books she can find and sometimes she can make Arthur tell her about it some, even if he won’t tell her what happens on the weeks when he goes traveling. “You’ve been told, perhaps, that if you’re the architect, you should never make anything look too much like reality. It makes it too easy to get lost.”
“Yes. Is that what happened to my father?”
“In a way.” Her mother blows on her tea. “He could build buildings, he was the best at that, one of the first who could construct a dream that didn’t look like a child’s painting, that kept its structure even when his attention wavered. There were always little differences when he based things from reality—there had to be. He recognized them, he was good at that.”
“So it wasn’t that?”
“Hush a moment, Phillipa. You’ve also heard of projections, how they are the sort of faces you see on the street every day, perhaps someone you know but just like a figure in a dream.” This time, Phillipa just nods. “Your father was a brilliant architect, the best in fact, but he was really remarkable for being an … architect of people, if you will. Not a forger, I was always better at that if not as good as Eames, but his projections felt real, were almost exact copies of the people he knew, sometimes. Not perfect, but … close enough, that one time when I hadn’t seen Arthur for nearly a year and met Dom’s projection of him I thought that Arthur had entered our dream as a surprise.”
A flash of a memory—they had kids down there—from the hospital. “He fooled himself?”
“We went too deep, into what he called limbo, and we were there for years and years, a lifetime. We were old when we left. I believed, for a while, that perhaps it was the reality, because we had children there, another Phillipa and James, but eventually I trusted that we had to leave, and we went up almost back to reality but when the kick didn’t synchronize just right Dom thought that the top level of the dream was reality. I knew it wasn’t, and left, but his projections were so perfect, and we’d been down there long enough to forget the imperfections, that he thought it was all real, so he stayed there, to be with another version of you and your brother.” Her mouth twists. “I made it hard for him to be there, in that reality, harder than I can tell you now and still have you forgive me, but that is the simplest explanation I can give.”
He got your hair wrong, Phillipa remembers. “How could you be sure?”
“I couldn’t, at first, but then I started noticing the imperfections. How your hair was a little too long, and Arthur’s ties were wrong, and how he’d built my favorite café one door too far down the street as a marker to remind us it wasn’t reality. He still wouldn’t believe me.”
“What were.” She swallows. “What were the other Phillipas like? The one in limbo and then father’s?”
Her mother looks off to the side. “Your father’s was very much like you, from what little I saw of her. A bit more inclined towards the outdoors than you were as a child, perhaps, and as I said the hair was wrong. I imagine she would have grown up into a different person, though. The one in limbo … she was sweet. We both loved her very much. She stole my perfume and read stories to her brother when they were both learning to read, and she eventually grew up to be an architect like her father and married a biochemist named Peter.”
“Do you miss her? And the other James?”
“I have two sets of children, a boy and a girl each, and they happen to have the same names. One set is grown and gone and I think of them fondly but know they were happy and settled when I left them, and one set is still growing and showing me everything they’ll be someday. I don’t love you or your brother any less, I promise you.” She pauses. “Yes, I miss them. But it matters, knowing they were happy.”
Phillipa scalds her tongue when she tries to sip her tea. “They were in your head.”
“They were still real, for a certain value of it. But I wouldn’t give you or James up for the world. You’re wonderful in your own right.”
Phillipa doesn’t say that she doesn’t want to be an architect and doesn’t ask if her mother is disappointed that she never steals her perfume. Instead, she blows on her tea and waits to take a sip. “Why didn’t he wake up when he died in that top layer?”
Her mother takes a long swallow of her tea, throat working. “I don’t think we’ll ever know the answer to that question.”
Her mother isn’t always in the mood, and she won’t talk about it in front of James, but whenever Phillipa can get her alone she asks for stories about the other Phillipa and James, the ones her mother spent a lifetime with. “She wore yellow on her wedding day,” her mother will say, or “He played the guitar for a while,” or “She hated sushi.”
“Do I even look like her?” Phillipa asks when she’s eleven, when she realizes that even if her father could construct almost-real people he couldn’t know what she’s going to grow up to look like.
“As much alike as if you were sisters.” They’re sitting in her office, James off watching a movie at a friend’s house, and her mother reaches out and grabs a blank piece of paper from the printer. “Here, I’ll draw you a picture.”
Phillipa sits and watches while her mother sketches a girl years older than she is, probably about the age of the students she teaches. She does look like Phillipa, and a lot like pictures of her father, with lighter hair and glasses. “When did she start wearing glasses?” she asks, peering over her mother’s shoulder.
“I think she was fifteen. She hated wearing them at first, but your father always said they made her look distinguished.” She adds a few last flourishes and hands the picture to Phillipa. It’s rough, but she has a face to think of, now. “She takes more after your father, I think, and you take more after me. I can’t blame him for thinking it, you were such blonde children.”
“Would he have liked me?” she blurts.
“He would have loved you, Phillipa,” her mother assures her, which isn’t the same thing at all.
“I will give you this lecture, I will give you this semester and year of everything you need to know about dreamshare and the dreamscape, and you will still not be ready,” says Dr. Mallorie Cobb in her first lecture of the year for Introduction to Dreamshare. Phillipa, sitting in the back row with a book after a dentist’s appointment, doesn’t look up, but everyone else goes silent. “It was years ago now but if you have an interest in this subject I know you know my name, and my late husband’s name. We had been going into dreams for years and still lost touch with reality.”
Nobody breaks the silence. Phillipa turns a page.
“I will teach you tricks. I will teach you about totems, and warn you a hundred times not to let your boyfriends or girlfriends or parents touch them as a sentimental gesture and I will be the voice of experience. I will tell you everything I know about how to tell when you are in a dream even if you aren’t the dreamer, everything about how to keep track of layers, everything about what to do if you find yourself in a dream unexpectedly. Some of you will not listen. If you are lucky, you won’t be killed.”
Phillipa is only twelve, but she reads the news, especially when it comes to dreamshare, and she knows at least five inexperienced dreamers a year end up in comas, and that hospitals are looking into coma patients from when it was still underground and wondering if that’s what happened to them as well. She also knows that since Dr. Mallorie Cobb came to work for MIT they’ve never lost a student, even though they have the largest program in the country.
“I could spend this whole semester making you read articles and giving you case studies of everything that can go wrong in a dream, in whatever way you wish to use dreams. I could spend years doing it and not find all the ways. I could tell you how horrible it is to lose the ability to dream without the PASIV, to always have control over what you’re dreaming or to let someone else have that control. I don’t say this to scare you off. The work will do that for me, when it turns out not to be glamorous enough for some of you.”
When Phillipa looks up, it’s just in time to see her mother give the room a sharp-edged smile.
“No, I say all of this because despite it all, it’s worth it.”
“Mama says that she and Daddy had children when they were stuck in limbo,” James says to her, sneaking into her room one night when Phillipa is thirteen.
It takes everything she has not to say You didn’t know already? It seems like all that’s mattered about her life for years, and it strikes her for the first time that James still calls their father “Daddy,” something she hasn’t been able to do since she was five and weeks of do you understand what happened to your father, Phillipa? “Does it bother you?”
“She says she loves us just as much,” he says, but he doesn’t sound sure.
Phillipa knows that feeling, knows how James will sometimes wonder if he’s a replacement for someone even though he was born first, or if he measures up to the success that the other James had as he grew older. Sometimes she hates their mother for telling them even if she would still rather know. Still, she manages a quick “She does,” because he deserves that and it’s even true.
“It shouldn’t be just as much, though. They weren’t even real, they were just in her head.”
“She loves us enough that she came back for us even when our father didn’t,” she offers, because that’s true too, and then she rolls over to make room on the bed. “Come on, you can sleep here tonight.” It’s the first time they’ve done it since before they moved to Cambridge, since just after their father’s body died, but he doesn’t hesitate, just slips under the covers beside her. “She loves us,” she repeats, even though she knows that it will never mean quite the same thing to James again.
Phillipa dreams of a county fair like she sees in the movies and the Ferris wheel and the house of mirrors, where every reflection looks like the other Phillipa, and when she wakes up, James drooling on her pillow, she wonders how anyone could ever think any of it was real.
Arthur mentions a houseguest the next summer and the next day Ariadne arrives, just as small and dark-haired as she was when Phillipa was a child but less quick to smile. Her mother pretends to ignore the whole thing but sounds far too frosty whenever Ariadne’s name comes up to pull it off. James doesn’t care, since he doesn’t really remember her. Phillipa spends all the time with them she can, which isn’t much. “We’re planning a dream,” Arthur explains when he kicks her out for the first time. “It’s a complicated one and we need to be on the same page.” It’s the most he’s ever told her about a job—it’s only been a year or two since he started saying that he was going somewhere to dream when he took one of his trips instead of just saying he would be away.
When she sees Ariadne, though, Phillipa asks the questions that her mother and Arthur won’t answer for her, or that she doesn’t want to ask them. “What happened to the other people that tried to help my father? Eames and Yusuf, right?” she asks during their third conversation, while Arthur is cooking dinner in the other room and Ariadne is curled up with what look like blueprints on her lap.
“Oh, wow.” She looks up, eyes crinkled with a smile. “Yusuf is working in the chemistry department at Oxford, these days, and Eames is … working. I didn’t think you would remember us all.”
Working, she translates. Doing criminal or top-secret jobs like these two do. There’s a whole secret language adults don’t think she knows how to speak. “Of course I do,” she says, although the truth is she remembers Ariadne the best, just for the way she looked at Phillipa directly and didn’t treat her like a child.
“Hmm.” Ariadne taps her pen against her mouth and Phillipa looks away, face heating. “I suppose you would.” She tilts the work on her lap towards Phillipa. “They’re teaching dreamshare theory in schools these days, right? What do you think I’m building? This isn’t for the project Arthur and I are working on, don’t worry.”
“For fuck’s sake, Ariadne,” says Arthur from the door, spoon in his hand from cooking. “Of all people.”
Phillipa shakes her head. “I don’t—it’s just dreams. I don’t see what the big deal is.”
Ariadne looks like she wants to argue, but Arthur interrupts. “Good. Your mother would kill me. Ariadne, come to the kitchen, would you?”
Ariadne goes, but at the end of the week, when she and Arthur are getting ready to leave, she puts a miniature sketchbook in Phillipa’s hands. “We don’t all lose things down there,” she whispers, and leaves her there to wonder for the first time if dreaming might be worth it.
“I won’t allow it!” her mother shouts, waving the permission slip around like Phillipa doesn’t know what she’s talking about. “It’s not some sort of game to be done on a field trip before you go to the aquarium, and I don’t care if you are fifteen, you are too young.”
Phillipa knows that shouting back will only make her seem childish and make her mother even worse, so she bites back every horrible thing she wants to say and wishes James or Arthur were around to mediate the argument. “I doubt the science museum would have the age limit as low as fifteen if they hadn’t studied it enough to say it’s okay, Mama,” she manages as evenly as she can.
“And what the hell do they know, with their stupid music-playing staircase and their dinosaurs?” She stops and takes a deep breath through her nose. “Do you even want to go?”
She thinks of Ariadne’s little half-filled sketchbook of paradoxes and numbers, the math and physics and biology of the dreams instead of the psychology her mother works with, where she’s slowly been filling some of the blank pages with crude little mazes and designs of her own. It’s reassuring, thinking of dreams as something that can be quantified and structured instead of some abyss to get lost in. “I want to go.”
Her mother swears in French, more out of habit than because she thinks Phillipa’s too delicate to hear it in English. She speaks French as well, after all. “You were never interested before, after I told you about your father.”
“I changed my mind.” She points at the permission slip. “It’s as controlled as they can make it. You’ve done simulations like it with your students, with a perfect kick and barely any time down in the dream and someone experienced building the world.” She pauses. “I just want to know what it feels like. I’ve heard your lectures. You always, always say that you can’t explain how it feels down there. I’d like to know.”
Slowly, her mother puts the paper down and rubs her temples. She’s been working on studies all semester, preparing for a sabbatical where she’s going to write the seminal book on limbo, and she looks tired even though half her job is sleeping. “Give me a year. This doing it with school-children is still new, let me watch and make sure some other mother doesn’t have her child’s brain scrambled because it isn’t developed enough to take the dreamscape. And when you do go down, you have a choice of myself, Arthur, or the staff at the MIT dream lab, not the museum. Is that compromise enough?”
A year. She can wait a year. “Okay. Deal.”
She chooses Arthur, in the end, because she’s sixteen and doesn’t want her mother wandering around her head and because the graduate student running MIT’s dream lab is gorgeous and she doesn’t want her there either. He looks through the sketchbook she’s had for the last two years, at the improvements in her drawings and the snips of articles pasted next to some of them, and then he shuts the book and spends two weeks teaching her how to dream like someone who works in the field instead of an academic.
It’s February and the city is knee-deep in slush, and when she wakes up in the dreamscape for the first time it’s springtime and she’s in the lobby of what looks like a museum, though none of the museums she knows. Arthur’s in the middle of handing their tickets over to the boy at the counter and she doesn’t know how she got here, but she doesn’t need that prompt, because she knows. “How could anyone ever think this was real?” she asks, and a shiver goes through the projections around them.
Arthur raises his eyebrows. He’s sharply dressed in the dream like she only sees him when he’s going off on one of his trips, and she can’t decide if he looks older or younger than he is. “What do you mean?”
It’s nothing like reality, but nothing like dreaming at night, either. She’d expected it all to be fuzzy and disconnected, but instead everything is sharper, brighter, realer. She doesn’t think she’ll ever think it’s reality, ever need a totem, ever get stuck in a dream, but for the first time she wonders if she’ll want to. The thought should be terrifying, but she doesn’t bother lingering on it. She’ll have time when she wakes up. “It’s not like being awake,” she says, with a shrug. “It’s nothing like being awake. Everyone always makes it sound like it’s almost impossible to tell, but it isn’t.”
“That’s interesting.” Arthur is good at giving nothing away. “Come on. I made it a museum for a reason. You’ll learn what you need to know as we go.”
Phillipa pays attention—she has to, she knows Arthur will never take her under again if she doesn’t learn what he’s teaching her. The whole time, though, she’s wondering if her father knew he was dreaming after all, and just chose not to wake up.
She’s seventeen the first time she dies.
Arthur takes her into dreams every few weeks when he’s in town, and tells her not to go to the dream lab too often because REM sleep without PASIV should be retained as long as is possible. She learns how to bend the rules, but not far enough to rile her projections—or his, which are much touchier. She learns how to build the paradoxes she’s been diagramming for years.
She’s the dreamer when he teaches her about forgery. She picks up skills fast in the dreamscape, fast enough that she knows it bothers him even if he doesn’t tell her about it, and even though Arthur’s an awful forger, flicking back into himself after just seconds of being some nameless businessman, she gets the basics, and then she thinks of who she wants to be.
She’s about to try being Amita, her best friend at school, when the other Phillipa pops into her head, the picture her mother drew her that she keeps in her desk and all the information she’s amassed over the years. She situates herself in front of the mirror, closes her eyes, and thinks of being older and having two parents and glasses and a husband who’s a biochemist, and when she opens her eyes, there she is. She knows she’s probably not an exact copy of her mother’s Phillipa, the one she spent a lifetime with, but she’s the version she always imagines, poised and wearing a yellow sundress Phillipa would never touch in reality.
“Who are you?” Arthur inquires, because it’s logical, because he doesn’t know about the conversations she still sometimes has with her mother, or with James, who thinks about it less.
“Phillipa,” she says, and even her voice is different.
Arthur sighs like she’s being difficult. “Who are you forging?”
She turns to face him, hands on someone else’s hips. “The other Phillipa. My mother’s Phillipa, from limbo,” she says, and her subconscious rips her apart, projections pouring into the room she didn’t think to lock.
When Arthur wakes up, a full five seconds in reality after her and minutes of fighting and thinking in the dream, he stares at her like he doesn’t know what to do. “Christ. Jesus Christ, Phillipa, what the fuck?”
She leans back in her chair and laughs drunkenly. “I wonder why they killed me. I was just forging me, after all. The other me.”
Anyone else would reiterate what her mother’s been saying for years—Phillipa is her own person, the one in limbo is a different person completely, her mother loves her. Arthur just leans back in his chair, breathing hard. “What the fuck,” he repeats, eyes closed, but he isn’t really asking for an explanation, and she’s still gasping in her air, laughing and unable to say why. He doesn’t interrupt her while she gets herself under control, just waits until she’s calm and then gives her a level look. “Never do that again, and especially not if you ever go under with Mal.”
“I won’t. I just wanted to know.”
Arthur slides the needles out of their veins and packs away his PASIV. “The first thing to remember when you forge is that you are still you, no matter what the mirror says. You especially aren’t the replacement Dom came up with to keep your mother happy in limbo. I don’t care what you—”
“I promise, I’m sorry. Are you going to stop taking me under?”
“I should. Pull something like that again and I will. Forge someone real next time, someone you definitely know you aren’t.”
That night, she hears Arthur and her mother shouting in the kitchen while she’s doing her homework. Her mother never mentions any of it to her, but she does make a point of hugging Phillipa more often, and helping James with his homework, like after all this time Phillipa doubts that her mother really is committed to this reality.
“It’s not about my mother,” she says the next time Arthur takes her dreaming, safely forging her grandmother. “I just want to see if I’m anything like her.”
“You’re better. You’re real,” he says coolly before starting to correct her technique, and she hates that it’s the first time she believes it.
Phillipa ends up at the University of Chicago, despite her mother’s constant litany of places she could have gone, places she has connections. Their dreamshare program is good, though, if not as good as MIT’s, and she’s glad to be away from home.
Her classmates look at her like some sort of living legend, like she has anything to do with her parents’ story at all, and her professors seem uncomfortable with how quickly she picks things up in the dreamscape. Even if it weren’t like that, they all spend too much time in each other’s minds for her to want to see them more, so she spends most of her time in the library, or with her roommate, who’s majoring in civil engineering and couldn’t care less about dreamshare. She goes on a few dates—Jared the physicist who wants to go out clubbing too much, Maria without a major who asks too many questions about her family, Peter the chemistry major who seems perfect until she remembers the other Phillipa’s husband—but for the most part, she doesn’t bother.
Her nights in the library are how she ends up pre-law, after meeting a sophomore named Caroline who taps the article about internet censorship Phillipa is reading for one of her gen ed classes and says “Politicians just keep focusing on the internet because they have no idea how to regulate the dreamscape.”
Phillipa is used to people talking to her about dreams. It’s like once they figure out whose daughter she is they assume she isn’t interested in anything else. “You think they should forget about one set of laws to jump onto the next thing?”
“I think it matters more if a man pays a forger to forge his wife in the dreamscape and spends hours torturing her before he shoots her awake,” says Caroline, and sits down like Phillipa asking a question was some sort of invitation. “Next to that, people being trolls on the internet really doesn’t seem like a big deal to me. I’m Caroline.”
“Phillipa. Is that a real case?”
“Yeah, it was a big deal in Norway last year. They eventually determined that the forger could sue for psychological trauma, but they couldn’t legally do anything about the wife. That’s the kind of thing we need to change.”
She shrugs. Arthur doesn’t tell her much about his jobs, but she knows that that’s just the beginning of what can go wrong in the dreamscape. “It’s just dreams. Not real. It’s impossible to regulate what people are thinking, and I don’t know if we should try.”
“Just because it’s in your subconscious doesn’t mean it’s not real. Didn’t you read Harry Potter? Have you ever been in a dream? How do you know?”
She counted up, once, and she thinks she’s lived almost six months in dreams that she hasn’t lived in reality. “I’ve been under plenty. It’s my major.”
“And you don’t think it’s real?”
Phillipa considers that. “No, but I guess that doesn’t mean that what happens down there doesn’t matter.”
Two weeks later, she’s calling Arthur and admitting that she’s now pre-law as well as in dreamshare and he laughs longer than she’s ever heard him laugh before, laughs until she has to join in because she knows just how ridiculous it all is.
Eventually, people in the dreamshare department stop giving her sidelong looks because she’s Dominic Cobb’s daughter and start giving her sidelong looks because she’s good. Dreaming isn’t as fun, when it’s for a class and she has to perform tasks and write papers for assessment on things she’s been doing for years, and doing more efficiently, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t pay attention. Within a semester, she’s the best forger in her class, and within two she’s learned to forge the other Phillipa without her subconscious ripping her to pieces, though in the effort she’s also responsible for the first deaths of nearly all of her classmates.
Caroline drags her to a weekly meeting for pre-law majors, and she fits in better there. None of them care that she’s a Cobb, and all of them are interested when she talks about dream law, and how the most interesting cases are around forgers and forgeries—is it prostitution if the sex is all in the dreamscape? Is it murder? Is it identity theft? She spends whole evenings debating whether dream evidence will ever be admissible in court, and she’s happy enough that it surprises her.
She calls her mother once a week, every Thursday evening like clockwork, and spends half the conversation talking with James because she and her mother don’t know what to say to each other now that Phillipa is away. She calls Arthur sometimes once in a month and sometimes five days in a row, and thinks he probably tells her mother everything she doesn’t tell him in confidence because he’s always been their best go-between.
She finds an internship that first summer, at a sleep facility studying dreamshare’s effects on insomnia, and when that’s finished she’s invited back for more summers, and there’s no reason to say no, so it happens that Phillipa isn’t in Cambridge for more than a week at a time for her entire undergrad. Her mother and James visit a few times a year—James mostly in the summers, especially after he goes off to Dartmouth to study history of all things—and Arthur visits whenever his flights for jobs take him through O’Hare, and it’s enough.
In the end, she graduates cum laude, with an acceptance to Harvard Law, and because she would be a fool to turn it down, Phillipa works one last summer at the sleep center and moves back to Cambridge.
Law school is horrible.
It isn’t the work—she loves the work, actually, the way she barely has time to breathe, the way her professors expect her to be intelligent and don’t care that she’s Dominic and Mallorie Cobb’s daughter and care even less that she was the top of her dreamshare class. She loves sitting up late with her classmates and arguing about precedents and the ways that politicians are slowly putting dreams into the law books.
Something is always wrong, though, making her fidget, making it hard to sleep, ruining her concentration if she starts poking at it, and it’s her mother who figures it out, at one of the weekly coffee dates they always try to find time for. Arthur and James still talk to both of them more than they talk to each other, which is quite a feat considering James doesn’t even live in the city anymore, but they try, despite the awkwardness that Phillipa often thinks comes from too much honesty when she was younger, and the knowledge that she’s not the only daughter her mother had with her name.
“You aren’t dreaming,” Mal says simply, blowing on her latte to cool it.
“I am, actually. Not as often anymore, obviously, but I do dream at night still, I would have told you if not, I know how much it messes things up.”
Her mother rolls her eyes like Phillipa’s being dense on purpose, then taps a vein in her arm gently, where there’s still a track mark from her most recent trip down. You don’t become a dreamer without looking like a heroin addict. “Our kind of dreaming. I was like this, when I was pregnant with you and James and didn’t go under for months at a time. It’s fairly common, though few people feel it the same—your father never believed that he was always grumpier when he hadn’t dreamed in a few weeks, which was one of the reasons he couldn’t believe he was still dreaming.”
Phillipa blinks; it’s rare that her mother brings her father up in casual conversation, especially not when they’re talking about dreams. “I’ll keep it in mind, schedule a time at a dream lab quite soon.”
“You’ve got the afternoon free, haven’t you? Come back to MIT with me, Harvard’s dream lab is pitiful, and we’ll have a dream.”
Phillipa is caught too far off guard to refuse, so they take the twenty-minute walk from the coffeeshop where they usually meet to her mother’s campus and go into the dream lab, and that’s how she ends up dreaming with her mother for the first time.
A few years before, she would have showed her forgery of the other Phillipa, to see what she would do, but now she just walks around the pleasant park her mother built for them, and does her best forgery of Arthur to make her mother laugh.
Her weekly coffee dates with her mother turn into coffee followed by dreams, and it’s the first time in years that Phillipa feels like she has anything to say to her mother. It’s easier to talk in the dreamscape, even if it’s about nothing important, and Mama is freer down there, both of them a little more honest and kind. They talk about everything from going on dates—which is more her mother, since Phillipa doesn’t have the time—to what dreamshare was like in the very beginning.
One day in her third year of law school, Phillipa tells her mother not to freak out and does her best forgery of the other Phillipa, and it isn’t to hurt her but to see how close she is, see if it helps at all. “Oh, darling,” says her mother, something she hasn’t called her for years. “You’re closer than you could ever guess, but you must understand I never wanted the two of you to be the same. Of course I miss her, just like I miss Dom and the other James, but you’re what’s real, and you’re what brought me back home.”
Phillipa dashes at her eyes—she always cries more easily when she’s forging the other Phillipa, wonders if that’s true to life—and shakes off the forge. “It was my hair that clued you in, right? In that last layer, when my father miscounted them? I think that’s what I remember.” The smell of hospital, her mother’s wide eyes, Arthur’s stony expression—it’s hard to remember the words through all that, but she thinks she does.
“Yes, that was it.” Her mother laughs. “I’d almost forgotten myself. I just remembered that you needed me, and the children Dom thought were real didn’t.”
You needed me, and not you were what was real, and after dreaming for years, that matters more than it might have when Phillipa was fifteen. She lets out a long breath, holds the dream solid around them when it wants to shake.
“You’re a good dreamer,” observes her mother, noticing (of course) the brief waver. “Shame you’re wasting your potential on the law.”
“It’s important work.” Even if half her class seems to want to concentrate on dreamshare law, since it’s the most innovative field the law has had to deal with since the internet. “Besides, I’m not interested in dreaming as an academic. I had four years of that.”
Her mother smiles as music starts filtering in around them, the sign that they’re almost out of time. “That’s not the only way of dreaming, and you know it.” Phillipa raises her eyebrows, because she’s never heard her mother talk about Arthur’s kind of dreaming without some disapproval. “Something to keep in mind,” she says, and they wake up.
Phillipa gets a call three weeks before she’s due to take the bar exam, and answers because Arthur never calls when she’s studying unless it’s urgent. “What’s going on?”
“I have a job coming up that needs two forgers,” he says, cool and professional like he only is when he’s working. “Your name came up.”
“Coming up when?” she asks, putting a bookmark in the book on tort law she’s been staring at for hours.
“I’m flying to Mumbai in two weeks to start the prep work, I would need you two weeks after that.” He pauses. “Ariadne is the architect on this one.”
A week after the bar, when she certainly won’t have her results and when she should be starting to scout around for jobs in a field suddenly in a glut with dream lawyers. “Legal?” she inquires, more out of curiosity than anything else.
“To start with,” he says. “Are you in?”
And who says she can’t have both, in the end? Arthur’s smart enough to keep them from being arrested and keep her from practicing after she passes the bar, and she can straddle the line until she has to pick one. She can have both, for a while. “My mother?”
She knows him well enough to hear the quirk of his barely-there smile when he answers. “I said your name came up.”
“Okay,” she says, staring at the study guides she has pinned to her bedroom wall, at the row of sketchbooks on her top shelf, all of them filled after she finished with the one Ariadne gave her. “I’m in.”
She has one of her infrequent PASIV-free dreams that night. She’s sitting with her mother in the coffee shop they always meet in, sipping on a mug of coffee, and the other Phillipa is with them. They’re all laughing and laughing, it doesn’t matter about what, and she wakes up smiling.