In Somnis Veritas
"You might ask, Miss."
Ariadne startled, flushing a bit even though she caught herself quickly. "It's nothing!" She glanced hesitantly at Yusuf before looking back at her first level. "Really, it's…it's nothing."
"Far be it for me to intrude unwanted but," she could see Yusuf gently rolling a vial between his hands as he spoke, agitating the liquid inside it "it's often said that arrogance diminishes wisdom. If you have a question, it's better to ask it."
Tugging at her scarf, Ariadne shook her head. "It's not related to this—" she gestured to the maze "—it's more." She stopped and then looked at the man beside her; he was watching her with dark, patient eyes. "Okay, I get that my whole 'training' here is really rushed. It's all 'the pilot died so this total noob has to land the plane' and I understand that. But I have so many questions about so much of this stuff and none of it is about this—inception thing, this job." She picked up her masking tape and tore off a strip, setting it to the table edge for when she'd need it later and have her hands full. "There's not time to ask about anything but the job, I mean Arthur's great and all but he's clearly all about getting this done. It's—frustrating. It's frustrating."
"Ah." Yusuf was quiet for a long moment and when he spoke again Ariadne was honestly surprised. "Well, you're welcome to ask me anything you like. I might not have an answer, but I'll most likely have something to say." He folded one arm across his middle and smiled, tipping the vial back and forth in his free hand. "I enjoy discussing dreaming for more than getting a job done."
"Yeah?" She smiled the question.
"It would be a pleasure, Miss."
She watched him walk back to his area, the bright lights of his lab making him a silhouette for a moment. She went back to her models and her masking tape and let herself think about the things she didn't yet have the time to ask.
Of course, the first question she actually did ask him had only a little to do with dreaming. Settling into what was quickly becoming 'her' lawn chair she watched Yusuf double checking the line he was about to put into her. "What do you do for a living?" She pursed her lips around a small smile as he merely looked at her. "I mean, Cobb said you were a chemist—but for, like, for a company? Like Dow?"
"True, yet inaccurate," Yusuf told her. "I might be considered a chemist, but no, not for a company. To be precise, I'm a pharmacologist."
"And what is that, exactly?"
Yusuf smiled, settling the catheter in her vein before sliding the needle away. "I study both pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics, namely, Miss, the effects of a drug on biological systems, and the effects of biological systems on a drug. There is something inherently beautiful about the interactions of chemicals with receptors and again something fascinating about the means by which chemicals are absorbed, distributed, metabolized, and dismissed from the body. There is wonder in it."
"Huh." She was thoughtful, trying to puzzle him out. "I guess there is."
"And you?" he asked, settling his notebook in his lap and reaching for the plunger on the PASIV. "You make mazes?"
Her eyes flashed to him and she felt a bubble of anger which popped like so much soap when she noticed the way his eyes shone. They were the same, the two of them. She lifted her chin. "I'm an architect," she said loftily. "I use plaster and stone and wood and space and I create worlds."
"Indeed," Yusuf said. The plunger went down with a hiss and Ariadne closed her eyes to better feel the wonder he'd created slide into her bloodstream. She smiled as she went into the dream.
She sat with him in odd moments caught here or there, after that. "So I was thinking," she said to him as she washed her coffee cup and he rinsed an Erlenmeyer flask "how is it that when we practice the levels the streets and halls are always empty? Shouldn't somebody's subconscious be filling it in?"
"A very good question!" Yusuf said enthusiastically. "And one that Somnacin helps to answer very neatly."
She laughed lightly. "You sound so proud of it, like it's your baby." She wondered, brief and sudden, if he had a family.
But he was answering and she forgot about it in the sound of his answer. "In many ways, Miss, in many ways. But, for simplicity and due to reasons that start with 'pharmaco', Somnacin allows dreamers to exert control over their subconscious minds."
"Arthur's subconscious set Eames on fire when Eames showed up in a practice build just this morning."
"Perhaps Arthur thinks Eames is hot?" Yusuf offered with a snort. Then he shook his head, swishing his flask clockwise and anti-clockwise. "And you're right; I've misspoken. Somnacin allows a dreamer—an aware dreamer, mind you—some small bit of control over how much or little of their subconscious leaks out. Since we're all aware that certain strategy sessions are supposed to be empty, our conscious minds and subconscious minds work together to stop up any leaks."
"So then a subject and a dreamer are pretty much the same thing only a subject, like Fischer, brings in their subconscious?"
Yusuf shrugged. "A good a way as any to think of it."
Sometimes, Yusuf asked her things. It was a nice change from Arthur and Eames and Cobb who told her things, taught her things, and that was pretty much as far as it went. A far cry from Saito, who looked wordlessly at her buildings, smiling at her a little but saying even less. Yusuf asked her things and wanted answers, discussions, thoughts. She liked it. She liked talking with him.
Two months into planning, they spent part of the afternoon discussing the effect of the emotional state of the subject on the physical appearances of the projections; it had been a good discussion, if brief. It had been fun and so, as she got herself ready to leave for the night, she'd sought him out again. "Hey, Yusuf," she called quietly, unsure if Eames was asleep or just under. "I'll see you tomorrow."
He set his clipboard aside, resting it on Eames' thighs. "If you don't mind, Miss, I have a question for you."
Turn about was more than fair play and even if it hadn't been, Ariadne was full of curiosity about what he'd want to ask her. "Sure, shoot."
"I'm curious about your detachment to this inception. A young woman such as yourself, I should rather suspect that you'd have reservations if not outright objections to what we're doing. We are going to change a man's mind for him, in complete disregard for his autonomy and his feelings. How do you reconcile yourself?"
It stopped her short. She probably should have cared but the answer was already there, on the tip of her tongue. "Because I don't think you can control the subconscious. No matter how deeply you plant an idea, if it's something you can doubt it's something you can—not stop, but stop acting on? If he doesn't truly believe what we get him to tell himself, he won't let it define who he is." She met Yusuf's eyes directly, watching the way he watched her.
"The way he's let his father define him?" he queried gently.
Ariadne smiled at him, slinging her bag over her shoulder. "If he lets us convince him to be his own man, then his father never did define him, did he?
"You're wise beyond your years, Ariadne. Good night."
"So, how does the Somnacin in the dream work—it's not real."
"Real is in the mind, Ariadne. Fischer will know he's being drugged and everybody else knows how the PASIV works. The mind is an amazing medium in which to work. So now I ask you: why are the lower levels of the dream so much simpler than the first?"
"Because everything is simple, when you get right down to the bottom of things. A building is complicated, a foundation isn't."
"The devil is in the details, is it, Miss?"
"Yeah. And the angels are in the architecture, Yusuf."
In LAX, she met him on the other side of customs. "Why'd you trust him?" she asked without preamble.
He looked away from the departure board he was studying. His eyes were dark and fathomless. She was used to him looking at her through a lens of cheery brightness or studious contemplation. She nearly backed up a step.
"Hey," she said when he didn't say anything.
Blinking slowly he looked away. "Where are you off to, Miss?"
Ariadne tipped her head. "Arthur has me flying Air-Saito back to Paris in about four hours." She pursed her lips. "Not gonna lie to you, Yusuf, going back to Paris right now looks pretty unappealing; schools is still out for another month and I've got more money than I've ever had in my life burning a hole in my pocket. "
Yusuf's lips twitched minutely. "Then, to answer your question: Come with me."
"All right," she said after a moment. Yusuf's answers were precise and rambling both, worth listening to and worthwhile to poke holes through. "Sure." She turned toward the ticket counter and stopped. She knew that Cobb had gone to get Eames and that Eames had brought in Yusuf. But that was pretty much all she knew and Yusuf's accent was a fairly even mix between British and American with a dash of India. "Where are we going?"
He smiled fully. "Home," he said. And then, "to Mombasa."
The heat of Mombasa once out of the airport was like walking out into a bowl of soup. Ariadne nearly stumbled under it, drawing in a shocked gasp of heavy air. "Oh, wow."
Yusuf twinkled at her. "Believe it or not, one gets used to it."
"It's four in the morning!" she said, half protest and half in simple rejection of the idea that the heat of the day hadn't even begun to build.
"That is Ibrahim's car," he said, touching her elbow briefly. "This way."
There was an old man behind the wheel of a small and slightly battered car, watching them like a hawk. "Um," Ariadne said awkwardly.
"Ariadne, this is Ibrahim; he assists me here in Mombasa and keeps things running smoothly. Ibrahim, this is Ariadne, a fellow curious mind."
Ibrahim laughed, high-pitched and dusty. "Perhaps you might find a little forgiveness from them after all, bringing her back with you."
Yusuf brightened, "A happy accident," he said, buckling himself into his seat.
"Forgiveness?" she asked.
"You'll see," Yusuf said. "It's all a part of the same answer." He looked out the window, at the light spilling along the horizon. "Though I doubt anybody truly noticed I was gone."
Ibrahim didn't look back at them in the back seat, not even in the rearview mirror, as he said cryptically "No, it was you who did not truly notice your presence here."
She thought that there was something beautiful in the way that Mombasa was put together, all of it jumbled and energetic and new and battered around the edges from use and age. Yusuf's shop was somehow the same: bottles and liquids and a curious cat and shelves and shelves and shelves.
"Well, Miss?" Yusuf asked.
Grinning she twisted her hair up in her hand, away from her neck, "I like it."
"Save the heat," Yusuf added, handing her a pencil.
Ariadne was using it to anchor her hair up when a man came into the shop, the door moving in a way that suggested muted frenzy. The newcomer was probably Yusuf's age, though like Yusuf he had an ageless sort of face. He also had the same dark hair and golden-warm skin-tone. His accent was much, much deeper, something made apparent as he greeted Yusuf. "Finally back, I see! When do we start?"
"Fahari," Yusuf said in return, one hand going to the man's shoulder. "We'll start when we start. For now, this is Ariadne. Ariadne, my oldest friend, Fahari. He dreams for me."
"Nice to meet you," she said, holding out her hand. "I'd ask about what he means but he's promised me answers already, so."
"And what do you do for him?" Fahari asked, shaking.
Yusuf groaned. "We discuss things, Fahari. Theories, ideas, occasionally the lives of people we both know."
"I'm an architect," Ariadne said, tucking her hands in her back pockets. "I build mazes."
Fahari didn't react to that, not the way she would have thought. Instead he turned to Yusuf, "Let's bring her in."
Yusuf picked up a bottle on the shelf, though Ariadne almost thought it was at random. "When it's time to start," he said. He set the bottle back down and released Fahari's shoulder, pushing him slightly. "For now, it's been a long trip. I imagine she wants to sleep."
"Sorry, yeah, wiped out." She wasn't, and was, but mostly she wanted a moment. She crouched and looked at the cat while Fahari left and Yusuf locked the door.
He touched her arm, helping her up with a hand at her elbow despite the way she didn't need it. "I'll show you to the guest room," he said softly.
"No, show me where he dreams for you," she said.
Mombasa was hot and bright, humid but bearably so. Ariadne wrinkled her nose and turned to ask Yusuf why they'd gone out but stopped when she remembered that they hadn't gone out. They'd gone down in to the cool, dim basement of his shop, to the room with twelve beds and a chair and PASIV devices wired to one another.
She looked around as she started to wander up the twisting road she'd found herself on. Fahari was sitting in a café, watching the street. He waved her over. "I thought I'd dreamed you," he said, smiling widely. "Yusuf's architect. What can you do?"
Ariadne turned to the street and watched trees spring up, paint spill out over walls, saw alleyways widen and buildings wink with glass. "What can't I?"
"Oh, yes," Fahari said.
It was fun, for a few hours. But after lunch—in a restaurant that came from nothing and crumbled away again—she started looking at her watch. "How long are we under? And where's Yusuf?"
Fahari looked at the sun. "Yusuf never comes here," he said. He didn't answer her other question and, when night fell, she shot a building into the sky and fell backward into an ocean she'd yanked out of the dust and sand.
Ibrahim rang a bell, a strangely heavy brass note. Yusuf was down the stairs moments later as Ibrahim laid a cool cloth over her forehead. "Ariadne?' he asked, one hand on her wrist and checking her pulse. He was obviously concerned.
She shook her head, swiping away the cloth with the hand not under his. "I just wanted to wake up," she said.
Yusuf perched on the edge of the cot beside her, a delicate balance. "Ah," he said.
"Depends on the dream," she murmured, looking away and remembering. She looked back at Yusuf. "But that—down there, it's not—you know?"
He was no longer feeling out her pulse, his fingers merely wrapped around her wrist. "And that, Miss, is why I trusted Cobb," he said. "He wanted so badly to be awake…how could I not?" His hand turned. "All these beds, all the people, my friend Fahari, they want so badly for all of this to be a dream and Dominic Cobb wanted only to be awake, even with it all in shambles. Do you understand?"
Ariadne sat up, felt her shoulder settle lightly against the line of Yusuf's arm. "Yeah," she said. She looked around the room, at the sleepers in every bed and Ibrahim in his chair. "You know, down there I changed streets around like this was planning stages and nobody came at me. What's up with that?"
Yusuf stood and she let him help her to her feet. "You have the best questions," he said. "I'll make you a cup of tea and you can tell me what you think and I can offer a guess that probably has something to do with my wares."
"It's not all in the veins, Yusuf," she said leading the way up the stairs.
She stayed in Mombasa for three weeks, half recovering from Paris to Sydney to LA to Kenya and half engaged in constant conversation with Yusuf about the questions she'd built up and the questions she uncovered as they talked.
Part of the talking was done over makeshift buildings and blocks. Fahari had been interested and Ariadne hadn't been averse to remapping her designs.
"Yusuf?" she asked, moving a tree down the street, "do you think Cobb went too far? No, I mean, he went too far, obviously, but more like: do you think it's that easy? Not knowing and falling into Limbo and going too far?"
Yusuf pulled Shwari away from what Ariadne considered to be a public library. "I think the world is flat until somebody finds a way to navigate the curve, Ariadne." He set his cat down with a shrug. "People find the edges by falling off. Now that Cobb has found one edge, the rest of us may better avoid it."
Nodding she inverted the free clinic. "You don't go under very often," she said. "Most of the testing—Fahari and the others do that for you. Do you worry about the edges?"
He rocked a park bench under his fingers, back and forth like a seesaw with no fulcrum. "I wasn't there for the earliest days of this drug, Ariadne, but I know how many people died or were irreparably damaged with each new formulation." Up and then down went the foam form bench. "But nothing improves without risk. The world isn't round until the edges get curved. Fahari and the rest, they know the risks and accept them. Eagerly."
She reached out and held the bench down. "In the dream, today, it's already years in the future. What happens in a few years? When everybody is older than they are?" And don't want to stop waking up in the dream even then, she didn't add. She'd only been down every three or four days—Yusuf ruled over everybody's time under—but it had been obvious that not everybody appreciated it.
"That, Miss, is an edge we haven't found yet," he said. "I imagine we'll see."
At the airport, checking in to go back to college, she gave him her phone number. "I feel oddly shy about this," she said, handing him the scrap of paper she'd scribbled it on days ago.
"Indeed, if we stop to consider things we might conclude that I am old enough to be your stupid, teenaged father," Yusuf said, taking it.
She punched him in the arm feeling, if anything, even shyer about it. "Don't be crude. And you aren't, anyhow. You're, like, ten years older than I am or something. I just—this is weird. It's not like I have Arthur's number or anything."
Yusuf tucked the paper into his pocket, his hands careful and precise. "Arthur has everybody's phone number. And if he doesn't, Eames does have it and those of all your friends because he'd have nicked your phone." He smiled and handed her a square of notebook paper. "I wrote this out before we touched down in Los Angeles," he told her.
Ariadne took it, held it, smiled up at Yusuf's kind face. "I'll call you when I wake up and am coherent again."
"Ah, a few weeks, then. I look forward to it, Miss."
"Somehow you are the mutant offspring of Arthur and Eames, you know that, right?"
"Yusuf, hey!" she said, diving for her phone as it chirruped in the middle of a beer commercial. "Give me a sec, all right?"
"Ah, it's her mysterious boyfriend," Ariadne's flatmate, Laure, said to Josette, her other flatmate. "Now she will leave us again."
Ariadne tucked her phone under her chin. "We're watching hacked in American television," she said as she got up from the sofa. "I'm not missing anything by going anywhere."
"For another month?" Josette said coyly. "And coming home tanned and smiling unstoppably?"
"Seriously," she muttered as she headed for her bedroom.
"Mmm," said Laure carryingly, "he is either extremely handsome or hideous but rich beyond belief."
"What are they saying?" Yusuf asked, his voice distant as she juggled her phone and escaped onto the tiny Juliet balcony that kept her rent high. "Ariadne?"
The streets of Paris were lit with the golden glow of evening street lamps, the city shone with the last of the afternoon rains. Ariadne took a deep breath. "The usual," she said. "Mystery boyfriend strikes again."
Yusuf chuckled. "Tell them I'm your father and I'm sure they'll leave you alone."
"Because leaving the room every time my dad calls is totally normal," she returned, leaning on the rail. "It's too late anyhow: they know you exist."
"And were I a certain point man we're both acquainted with I'm sure I'd tell you to burn the city to the ground to rectify that."
"As I'm not, I find I don't mind that they do. Paris may remain as it is, Miss."
She let out an amused huff and looked over the city before turning and leaning her back on the rail, watching her own room and her stubbornly, depressingly unfinished model of Parisian modifications. "And how is Mombasa?" she asked, thinking of the labyrinthine streets and the markets, heat and hearing Swahili.
"Ever changing, as you left it," Yusuf told her. "Though I've been brushing up on my Bantu, as the population around the post office has shifted balances yet again."
"Yeah, well, my Swahili is still the ultimate in crap, so…" she braced her feet on the stone wall beside the door and settled herself comfortably on the rail. "What's up? Besides the sky, the crime rate, the stock exchange and us, I mean."
"I'm working on a new formulation. It's extremely experimental but I'm attempting to elicit certain emotions from the subjects using the Somnacin. It will mean less risk during extractions if I can get it right."
Ariadne felt a frown wrinkle her forehead. "Less risk, how? Are you getting the subject Somna-stoned? Or is it more like 'oh, I feel so happy and nostalgic and look, that's my old best friend who is definitely not a forger and I'm not suspicious at all'?"
"Either would be perfectly fine," Yusuf said honestly. "I can always use one or the other in the basement, can't I? And one can always springboard the other. Chemical discovery is a forgiving field. In some ways."
"Ways that don't explode test tubes?" Ariadne asked, grinning. "No, I know you—shut up, god, I can hear both of you!" she shouted as her giggling, suggestion-making friends apparently paused outside her door. She barely remembered to lower her phone. "Did I deafen you? Sorry. Can I tell them you have a dick the size of a thoroughbred stallion?"
Yusuf snorted. "No, it's fine, and please do. Tell them my trousers are bespoke because of it."
"I am going to use my models to plan out the best places to bury them," she told him. "Can I work while you tell me about this new blend or is that too rude for you?"
"That depends; can you make interested noises while I talk about metabolic decay and neurotransmitters?"
"Mmhm, sounds fascinating," she said, dropping her feet and going back inside. She was only half joking.
Sometimes, however, she realized that they spent only a little time talking about dreaming or work.
"Wait, wait, Arthur called you and told you that you had to send me a crate of Ketepa?" she looked from the box to Arthur, at his desk in the corner of the old, closed used-book store they were working out of. Where did he even find these places, she wondered idly.
Yusuf made a vague humming sound. "He did. He was ordering some Somnacin at the time and said you'd run out of tea and were complaining about it."
"Huh," she said. "I didn't know he noticed."
"He called it 'whatever it is she drinks that comes from Kenya and can't be found in France'," Yusuf explained. "According to Eames, Arthur only notices things as part of the job and the rest of the time he's a bit of a slob."
Arthur chose that moment to throw a gum wrapper, with used gum inside of it, in the vague direction of the trash can and then take a drink of day-old cheap coffee. "Yeah, okay, I can see it."
"The next time we meet I'm going to make you drink mursik," Yusuf told her. "It's either completely disgusting or an extremely acquired but highly delicious taste."
"Okay, but then you're buying me mrenda from that place by the railway."
"Mrenda? From Joe's? Oh, Ariadne, no."
She grinned even though she knew he couldn't see it. "Yeah, Joe's."
"It's one health violation away from closing, Miss. A Kenyan slum health violation at that! You can't ask such a thing from a man."
"Deal with it," she laughed as she hung up.
"Miss, you should be kissing the boy down the hall, not on the phone with me."
"Well you should know that I do what I want to do. The boy down the hall has nothing on you. Besides, I was always taught to start as I mean to go on."
"Ahh. Then I suppose all I can say is happy New Year, Ariadne."
"Yeah, you too, Yusuf."
"Hey, Yusuf," Ariadne said as stretched and snagged her masking tape with the bare edges of her fingers. She tucked the phone more securely against her shoulder. "You're early tonight. Which is good, because I was thinking about those brai—hey, what's up?" He'd made some sound, some noise that hadn't been right, strange on him like a dream from somebody else.
"Fahari died," Yusuf said, matter-of-fact, yet there was a thrum of grief to it, like an undertow.
The masking tape thumped to the floor. "Oh." Ariadne swallowed around the lump in her throat. "I'm sorry." And that sounded so clichéd and lame and terrible. "Yusuf, I'm so sorry," she said, willing the words to mean more.
"It's all right," Yusuf said. Then, "I tell you this because I'll be a bit absent. I'll be the one dreaming, until I can find a replacement I trust." He let out a semi-amused sounding snort. "Somebody who actually wants the job."
She said it without thinking. "I'll do it."
"No, no, I'm—school is just about done and I need a work-placement for a semester anyhow. I can do that in Kenya. I'll…let me do this for you. Until you find somebody who wants the job," she said.
"Oh, Ariadne," he sighed quietly. "What am I to do with you, Miss?"
"Book me a plane ticket while I pack," she suggested.
The heat of Mombasa was just as she remembered it, sticky and wet, clinging to her skin. It was a far cry from the dying dregs of a Parisian winter. She lifted her hair off her neck, twisting it up absently as she left Ibrahim's car, watching him drive off to obtain who-knew-what for Yusuf. She walked the half-familiar streets, heading for Yusuf's unassuming building in the distance. She hadn't been aware that she'd remembered it so well, but it was like walking paths in a dream she'd built.
Yusuf was waiting for her at the corner by the market. "You remembered the way," he told her as she reached him.
She smiled at him, tired and travel worn. "I'm surprised I did," she said and then she stretched up and wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him. "Hey."
His hands were broad at her waist, dry against her damp shirt. "Hello, Miss."
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I wish it were better circumstances."
He set her back and smiled at her, head tilted. "I know."
Ariadne had the impression that he'd been about to say something else and had stopped himself. "He died a long time ago to you, didn't he?" she realized suddenly.
Yusuf smiled again, a little sadder. "Yes," he said simply. "Now, when last we spoke we were discussing your ideas about shared dreaming and traumatic brain injury. I'd very much like to hear your further thoughts on the matter."
"It all depends on the families, any experiments," she began, only partially listening to her own thoughts as they formed and fell. She reached out and took his hand in hers. She meant it to be nothing more than a quick squeeze to say that she—if not knew, at least understood—but he didn't let go and neither did she.
Fahari had been a point man at one point, Ariadne learned. He'd kept copious and detailed notes about the dreamscape version of Mombasa. She poured over them but kept looking to the windows, to the city bustling by outside. "Yusuf, seriously, I could probably do better by getting out there and walking around." She twisted in her chair, tucking a leg underneath herself and watching him, his hands steady as he worked his compounds.
Yusuf didn't look up from his pipettes. "I don't doubt that you could recreate Mombasa just as it is, Miss, but that's not what you're doing."
"Yusuf," she started, trailing off and waiting for his attention. It didn't come. "Hey! Yusuf! Are you ignoring me now?"
He still didn't look up. "I'm not ignoring you, Ariadne, nor would I ever. These are positive displacements I'm working with; I'm in a volatile stage. I'm also quite correct: undoubtedly you could build something wonderful down there but for the time being, at the very least, you must build what is written out, what is already there in their minds. It chafes, I know. Believe me, I do understand."
She sighed and pillowed her head on her hand, still watching him. "For the time being and then changes. Tiny ones," she added before he could say it. "To start."
In the dim shade of the mid-day shop she saw him smile, rich and full. She went back to the notes.
"Small changes, Ariadne, tiny ones, please," Yusuf said, staring at her working model. He folded his arms across his chest. "This is far too much."
Humming a laugh, Ariadne shook her head. "This is work-work, Yusuf, not basement-level stuff. You remember that I have work-placement, right? Not just you?"
"I shall never forget it," Yusuf told her, his hands falling to his sides. "If this isn't a dream, then what exactly is it?"
She looked at the scaled-down Mombasa that had grown to take over half of Yusuf's upstairs guest room. Her room. "Theoretical stuff, mostly. I just wanted to show you what I'm up to down in the city-planning office." She felt pride swim through her. "I'm supposed to be doing buildings and I am—" she waved at a far corner where more buildings, bigger in scale, waited "—but since I had time I thought I might work the whole thing. I do want to try it out in the dream but this is…" she blew out a breath. "Well, anyhow, this is stuff that's maybe twenty years down the line."
"You're planning the city twenty years in the future?" Yusuf asked, eyebrows rising.
Ariadne nodded slightly, shrugged slightly. "It's a fascinating city. This is all experimental." Gesturing to the bumpy ridge of high-rises she explained, "The idea is to sweep back from the beach, gain height to the buildings as they go backward. It gives the property in the back added value, having a soaring view of the city and the water. Palaces in the sky and mansions on the beach, that sort of thing. It creates two equidistant, high-money areas."
Yusuf stepped to her side, one hand coming to settle on her shoulder. "And where, then, does that leave the likes of us, Miss?"
Ariadne turned in toward him, to the solid warmth of him, just a little bit, smiling down at her city. "Somewhere in the middle," she said, gesturing to the whole of it. "They can have the edges, we can have the rest."
Normally Ibrahim sent her down, putting her under while Yusuf fine-tuned the Somnacin, and so she knew something was going on when Yusuf crouched beside her cot. "Small changes, Ariadne," he said softly. "They notice. Shared dreaming moves between minds; what one notices, the rest do as well."
"Is this about the new wharf?" she asked, tucking one arm behind her head and watching him slide the needle out and adjust the cuff holding her lines in place. "Because I've been under for months and nobody really even goes down there, you know."
Yusuf reached out and brought her arm down from behind her head, bringing it to rest gently on her stomach, keeping the blood flow optimal she knew. "In part."
"The city changes, Yusuf. It's a new pier and a few warehouses. They're in the city offices, ground breaks in a week."
"I'm aware," he told her, his hand still steady on her skin. "As are they. Make your changes, take this city if you will, but slowly and in small ways."
Resolutely she turned her face to the ceiling, the stone and shadows familiar by now. "I am, Yusuf. They'll settle into it in a few weeks. If they don't, I'll bring in a carnival to distract them."
"I don't want them to turn on you," Yusuf told her plainly. He stood and her arm was cold where he had been. "Have a good day, Miss."
"Yusuf, wait," she started but she heard the hiss of the plunger and felt the world slip sideways.
"It's still a shame about the heart attack that killed Farahi," a woman told her down in the dream a few months later. Whether they were dream months or real months she couldn't figure out at the moment and didn't bother to try. "We all had hoped he'd have more time."
Ariadne stopped the construction—she'd added an actual construction site to the dream—and looked at her. "Heart attack? But he wasn't…" she trailed off. "How old was he, again?"
The woman patted her arm. "Seventy-five. He was more than old enough to have a heart attack but he had been taking good care of himself. Guess you can't stop some things. Now be a good girl and help granny across this mess. Always something changing with this city, not like it used to be at all."
She wanted to wake herself up but she was what was holding the dream together, she was the one holding onto the fake Mombasa while the others wandered and lived in the dream. She held out her arm for the woman instead. "A little change is good," she said absently.
"Not really," the woman said, patting her again. "But you're young."
"How did Fahari die?" she asked Ibrahim as he roused her into waking. She watched the other dreamers, some still sorting themselves out and some already on the stairs and leaving. All of them were looking at the real world with honest regret in their eyes.
"He had a heart attack," Ibrahim told her.
Ariadne narrowed her eyes. "And how did his body die?" she asked when Ibrahim continued calmly cleaning her wrist.
Yusuf sighed, stepping down the last step, passing the last dreamer to straggle up the stairs. "He died in the dream and didn't wake up. I ran an IV for a few days before letting him fade away."
She looked down and touched the mark on her wrist that was beginning to show a scar from going under every day for three months. "The curve of the world," she said.
"Will you ask me if I am going to stop them?" Yusuf asked.
"No," replied Ariadne with a shake of her head. "You could try but it wouldn't work, so why not learn from it." She let out a breath and rolled on to her side, facing him. "They know the risks, they want it anyhow. They might as well find the edges."
Yusuf's fingers were familiar on her skin, circling her wrist and stopping just shy of the puncture mark. "Thank you," he said softly.
She looked at his hand, his dark skin against her own paleness. "I'm starting to think we should just put a picc line in me."
"I'd rather not, Miss," he said, his hand moving down her arm to cup her elbow and help her sit up. "Let's go upstairs. It's nearly time for dinner and it's your night to cook."
"What am I, your wife?" she complained with a sigh. Then a thought struck her. "Yusuf, do people in this business get married?"
"No," he said, stopping on the bottom step and looking at her.
She wasn't sure what the feeling in her chest was or why it was there. She looked at Yusuf, at the shape of him and the way he held himself and felt things she couldn't understand. "Oh." She wondered at her own tone. "Oh, well, I mean, I can see—"
"No, sadly they all live in sin," Yusuf said solemnly.
It took her a moment and then she launched herself at him, laughing and chasing him up the stairs as he ran from her. "Yusuf! You're such a jerk!" She followed him up, through the shop and up and up into the apartment above it where dinner was waiting to be made.
Winter in Mombasa was better than summer, cooler and less humid, not usually reaching past the mid-eighties. Ariadne got to wear her scarves to her work-placement and Yusuf could pick her up from work, the compounds less volatile without the fierce heat. She leaned into him as they swung up the street to the shop. "I don't get how you can do all that work on Somnacin and still have curiosity left over for finding out what chemicals you can get out of random other things."
"And I don't understand how you can make buildings in your head all day long and not want to go running off to live in a cave," he replied cheerfully. "I try not to think on it."
She stopped at a late-arrival food cart and reached for her wallet. "I'm making nyama choma for dinner," she called over her shoulder. "Two," she told the vendor in Swahili, holding up two fingers as well. "And ugali? Ubusuma?" He nodded to the second. "Crap. Yusuf, what's the Luhya word for 'goat'? Because he's going to try to talk me into chicken over here."
"Nonsense," Yusuf said, coming to stand behind her. "You dress like a native, you walk like a native, and you want goat. He won't try to swindle you."
"Ha," Ariadne said. "Tell him 'goat'."
Yusuf held out his hands for the kebabs. "Pay him."
She narrowed her eyes at first Yusuf and then the vendor. "You speak so much English, don't you?" He nodded and she called him something companionably filthy (and still friendly) in the piecemeal street vernacular that was becoming as easy for her as French.
"And you talk like a native," Yusuf said as she rejoined him, stepping around and ignoring the last of the day traders trying to get her to buy. "Nobody thinks of you as an easy target."
She laughed. "If only. Unless they know me-know me everybody still shouts at me like a tourist."
"It's so cute when they try to entice you, Miss," Yusuf laughed back, letting them into the shop and heading for the kitchen. "Speaking of enticement, Somnacin Soft-S is ready for trial on people who know how to work with it. Depending on how it goes, I might ask you to share your room for a few days."
She frowned. "I am not sleeping with Arthur again and there's no way I'm gonna sleep with Eames," she told him as she helped him lay out dinner.
"I've done my turn of sleeping with Eames," he told her. "It's your turn. Do it for science," he urged her.
It made her laugh. "I'm not taking one for the team. We should leave them out of it and go under with it together." She thought of it, dreaming with Yusuf again. She'd dreamed for him daily for six months and then some but she hadn't dreamed with him since Fischer. She wanted to go under with him again. "We should; you and me, we could test Soft-S together. I already know it, right? We really should."
"Perhaps you're right. Though Arthur and Eames are both already on their way. Next time we won't worry about sharing rooms."
She nodded. "Sounds like a plan. For the record, though, I wouldn't mind sharing with you if I thought we could trust those two to a room together."
"I wouldn't mind either." Yusuf smiled, so familiar and smart and incredibly dear to her.
"Do you think it was like this for Cobb and his wife?" she asked without thinking, thinking of the only other people she knew who even began to resemble herself and Yusuf and what they did together. "Do you think it was this—" she looked at Yusuf and smiled goofily "—good?"
Yusuf set down his kebab. "You're going back to Paris."
She nearly dropped her plate. "What?"
"You've been here long enough. Too long. You're going back to Paris as soon as you can pack."
She almost laughed. It was almost funny for all that he obviously wasn't joking. "What are you even saying?" She shook her head. "Soft-S is ready and if they're already coming in—and even if they're weren't you can't test it and take care of dreaming for the basement, too!"
"I'll have somebody in tomorrow."
"You're telling me you're just going to hire out to somebody? In a day? You haven't found anybody in half a year and you think tomorrow you can have somebody?"
Yusuf pinched the bridge of his nose, where his glasses habitually sat. "I have had people asking after the job every day."
"What." She could hear the flatness of her voice, dry and harsh like salt plains. "No."
"They've been waiting. Surely you've heard the rumors? That you're here and dreaming for me only because I'm—that you make the changes you do and I allow it because we're—" he shook his head dismissively. "I can have somebody in tomorrow. Finish dinner and then pack, Ariadne."
She didn't know what the hell was going on but she was damn well going to figure it out. "Fine. Fine, you don't want me dreaming, you want me out of here but somebody has to teach the newbie the layout. It upsets them when things change too much too fast, remember? Give me a week or two to show whoever you get the ropes."
But he shook his head again. "No." He took her kebab and set it aside. "Barasa knows the dream. She will do in the interim. You're leaving tonight."
"No." Implacable, immoveable. "Go upstairs and pack. I'll book your flight."
Fury boiled over inside her, sudden and hot. "Fine! But you know, if this was how it was going to be, you could have at least fucked me first," she spat. Her chair clattered back as she stood.
"Are you having a domestic? Should we come back?" Eames frowned from the doorway.
"We're not having anything," she said and slammed into her room.
Arthur drove her to the airport. "Are you going to change your phone?" he asked as he helped her unload her bags.
She set down the last of her luggage and looked at it, at all the things she'd got since coming to Mombasa with a duffle bag and a suitcase. "No," she said at last, taking out her mobile and blocking Yusuf. It was childish, but it felt good.
"Um." She hesitated. "Could you…? I left my models back at—there. I left my models there."
"I'll make sure you get them," Arthur told her.
Paris was the same as it had been when she'd left it, though the weather had changed. She had changed far more than the city or the weather. Laure and Josette learned to not ask about her mysterious boyfriend or her long absence. They weren't home the day her models arrived and she discovered that Eames must have packed them because each tiny building was full of M&Ms. She'd laughed a little, cried a bit, and set them up again. She finished her degree with honors and moved out of her shared flat. She settled into finding a job and preparing for life after school. A life not built in dreams.
Despite that, though, she took small time jobs when they came up. She mostly worked with Arthur or with Eames or with both of them whenever they were around. She knew other people in the business now, knew how to find them and how to vet a good point man by the surface man he chose, but she preferred working with the people she knew and knew she could trust. An extractor and forger who filled her city with candy? A point man who drove her to the airport in the middle of something tense and domestic but never said a word about it? She'd never find better.
Or ones who'd talk about Kenya in voices just loud enough for her to overhear but not loud enough for it to be obvious if she wanted to pretend it wasn't.
It was on just such a job, just before she was set to leave Paris for good, when Yusuf found her again.
She knew even before she opened her eyes in the dream that it was one of Yusuf's compounds, she could feel it in the way it swam in her system and tugged at her heart. Yusuf's Somnacin was sharp and real, unassailable. It was subtle, too, wrapping around the senses unnoticeably.
Ariadne closed her eyes again as Paris formed around her and waited, waited, waited until she felt it: a soft wash of gritty, raw regret. She opened her eyes to the sky and threw gravity away, waking herself by bursting past the clouds above her.
Yusuf was standing next to her chair, holding a vial of Somnacin in his hands. From the way he was shaking it she knew it was the E compound and that hurt. He didn't take his eyes off of her and she didn't take hers off of him. "I do precious little in this world, Miss, that isn't motivated by curiosity or greed. Please, don't continue to punish me for this."
He made her want to roll her eyes. Instead she held out a hand and waited for him to take it and hold her balance for her while she got to her feet. She dropped it once she was standing even though she'd missed the feeling of his steady hands on hers. "C'mon," she said, making for the door. "I want to ask you something."
"Just some questions I have." She led the way back across town, Paris sparkling around them. She barely noticed it.
"Ariadne," Yusuf said as they waited at a streetlight but he said nothing more.
She only nodded and didn't ask him anything, comfortably silent until they reached her building and she opened the door to her tiny flat. It was still full to bursting but it had been furnished when she'd moved in. The only things of hers still there aside from her clothes were the models. She moved around the ones that were for the job she was working and uncovered the one she kept in the corner, the one she worked on when she wasn't working anything else. She took a deep breath and waited until he stepped up behind her, waited until he settled one hand on her shoulder in the way that had become second nature to them both. "What's this?" she asked, watching his face.
She saw the way it tightened, going pale before flushing. "You're still working on the dream," he said shortly. He looked at her, his eyes flashing like they had the night she'd left, full of solid determination. "Did my sending you away tell you nothing? Was I somehow unclear in my meaning? Cobb and his wife found an edge and whatever risks I will take, I will not risk you to that."
"Did I ask you to?"
Yusuf's mouth shut with a snap though his face told her everything his voice didn't. He looked away. "It doesn't matter if you did or didn't."
"You're not getting me here, Yusuf," she said. She felt warm, like Kenyan sunshine was flooding into her through the one place they touched. She turned slowly, careful not to lose his touch, and looked up at him. "I might dream but I want to be awake. Even when we're not talking and I'm so pissed at you and I want you to come after me and settle this and you don't so I'm even more pissed off and upset…Yusuf, I want to be awake."
"…what?" Yusuf's face folded into a perplexed frown.
Ariadne lifted her arm and turned her wrist up, showing him where the scar had faded there. "I'm an architect. I like practicing in the dream but I want to build things that are real. I want to build things that last and that get dirty and worn and need to be shored up. I want to build things that take time to get put together and require blocking traffic and a ton of permits and arguing with a hundred different people in city-planning." She smiled crookedly. "I want the challenge of creating something that fits and stands out. I want to build cities. Not just buildings and streets but tiny shops and hipster cafes and neighborhood bars and mosques and offices and places that people can call home. I want reality. I want this city, my city, to be that."
Yusuf's face was a study and she knew it, she knew it so well. It was the face he wore when things were coming together the way he wanted but it was still too early to really smile about. His hopeful, happy face. "Why would you choose Mombasa?"
"Why wouldn't I?" she asked. "Yusuf, Paris is great but it's pretty set. Believe me; people here don't like to see change anymore than a certain group of Kenyan basement dwellers do. I'd have to build it the way they want it, just how it is in their heads and out there." She cast a hand out toward her windows. "But Mombasa…it's thrown together and it's a mixed bag of materials and styles and it's a labyrinth without even trying. Mombasa is still finding itself and I want to work in a city that will let me use anything and everything I can find to build it. I want to build something special and I can't do that here. I can't do that anywhere but there.
His hand moved, twisted, caught up against hers palm to palm. "How are you so certain of this?"
"Because you're in Mombasa and I'm probably in love with you and I'm pretty definite that you're in love with me."
He smiled at her. "That, Miss, is the very best answer I have ever heard."
"No, there's one better," she said, and kissed him.