Arthur glanced at his watch again, his face completely expressionless. From across the small vestibule, Eames hid a smile behind the Vanity Fair he was pretending to read. He’d watched Arthur’s gaze shift around the room, from the glass wall of the office they were waiting outside of, to the secretary in front of it, briskly over Eames himself and then back to the watch, his demeanor tightening a bit with every scan. Inside the office, the mark, a Silicon Valley investor named Ken O’Dell, continued to fidget at his desk. He still hadn’t succumbed to the sedative his secretary had slipped in the coffee he drank a good forty minutes ago. Soon he’d be inviting them in for their bogus appointment and it would be Eames’ job to spin investment fables until the drugs took hold.
But that’s not what had Arthur worried.
Though he’d found no hard evidence of it in his research, Arthur had insisted O’Dell was too unstable. Eames countered that the man kept up a successful business, successful enough to attract their employers, who were willing to pay a ridiculous amount for a simple password extraction. Yes O’Dell was odd. His fidgeting made him look like a nutter, constantly turning his head back and forth, mumbling to himself, and occasionally batting a restless hand at the empty air over his shoulders, but Eames considered it well worth the possible risk.
"I don't like it," Arthur said, openly staring at O’Dell, who was having another fit, through the glass.
Since Arthur’s proposal of this partnership in the months after inception, the two of them had been taking lower tier work, waiting for any unforeseen complications with the Fisher-Morrow Energy Conglomerate to make themselves known rather than trying to capitalize on an unproven success. The caution was all Arthur’s, but Eames was easily convinced. After waking in an elevator on Arthur’s level of the inception job, Eames was decidedly more interested in Arthur’s potential as an associate. But he’d been feeling a bit stilted by the relentless caution, and pushed for the easy money on this job.
Always so adorably neurotic, Eames thought, and waved his Vanity Fair with a flourish. "It'll be done with soon enough."
Arthur squinted at him. O'Dell slouched over onto his desk.
They moved quickly to set up for the extraction, while the secretary, whom they’d paid handsomely, kept an eye out for unexpected visitors. Arthur opened the PASIV on the desk and hooked O’Dell to it as he was. Eames lay on the floor and inserted his own line, while Arthur took the chair across the desk. His line-free hand hovering over the injection activation trigger, Arthur said, “Ready?”
Eames nodded. And fell.
It was like tumbling down the rabbit hole, he saw psychedelic colors and feathers, lizard tails and flying discs, bent horns and a roiling landscape. He covered his ears trying to block out the background roaring of the dream and the piercing screams of everything in it. For minutes and hours and days, on and on, looping back over and into itself, unending.
Eames wasn’t sure how he managed to get out of the dream. He was suddenly curling away from the desk, vomiting loudly, with his hands still over his ears. Arthur was already on his feet, spitting the last of his own bile onto his John Varvatos boots. O'Dell, still unconscious, was dry heaving, convulsing over the blotter on his desk.
The secretary yanked open the door to the office, screaming at them, “I’ve called security! Get out! Now!”
Eames, feeling more than a little shell-shocked, pushed his way to the hall past the vestibule, looking for the expected security. Arthur quickly closed up the PASIV and rushed past him, heading down the hall toward the elevators. The call button dinged as he passed, and the light for their floor’s number winked on. He pointed back toward Eames, looking as wild and furious as Eames had ever seen him, and yelled, "GO!"
Without a second thought, Eames ran down the opposite hall, out the building and on, by a crooked path, all the way to his ex-Barbary Coast flophouse in San Francisco.
Twelve hours, a few drinks, and a fitful hour of sleep later, Eames sat on his cot, rubbing his temples. He may have actually hit REM sleep for a few minutes, it was hard to say. The dreams he recalled were more of the screams and roiling from the aborted extraction, perhaps more an echo of the memory than a dream. At least he woke without the vomiting. He was not looking forward to the eventual call from Arthur. The next twitchy, manic businessman targeted would get a pass from his end.
He’d not dealt with that kind of instability in a dream since his earliest days in dreamshare, and never with that level of… Hieronymus Bosch surrealism. Arthur’s eventual call couldn’t come quickly enough. There was the chance Arthur had more experience with that kind of dream, or at least more knowledge of it. Those years with Cobb probably meant an undue amount of dream theory had been a topic of discussion, around him if not with him.
He scrubbed a hand across his face, and... What was that?
He heard something, something that sounded suspiciously like Arthur's voice mumbling in his ear.
It was far too early for any contact from Arthur. That was not his MO after a failed job, and Arthur was nothing if not reliable. Something else must- What the hell was that! He smacked at something large that appeared on his shoulder.
"Hey, watch it!" That was definitely Arthur's voice.
"Are you OK?" Arthur again... from his other shoulder.... He turned and was looking at a six inch tall version of Arthur, an Arthur in a white suit waistcoat, grey shirt and white pants, with feathery, white wings sprouting from his back and a golden loop of a halo hovering over his head. "Hello!" It said, and smiled at him.
"Eh...," Eames replied. His brain was refusing to process this. Turning slowly, he saw, on his right shoulder, another six inch tall version of Arthur, in a black suit waistcoat, red shirt and black pants, with a long, black, spear-tipped tail curling around behind him and a pair of black horns curving back from his forehead. "Asshole!" It said, rubbing its head and scowling at him.
Eames tried to forge, and failed. He found his excuse for a totem exactly as expected. This had to be reality. But this couldn’t be reality, no matter that his hallucinations assured him it was.
He pressed his fingers against his eyes, drank the last bottle of whiskey, even swallowed the last of the mouthwash in the bathroom cubby, and held his head in a sink full of ice water - nothing worked. He'd obviously lost his mind. That much his hallucinations agreed with, after he’d coincidentally dunked them in ice water.
"You don't exist," Eames said.
"Of course we exist!" Tail and Horns said. "If you'd stop trying to puncture your own eyeballs you'd see that."
“Then explain yourselves,” Eames said, in a huff.
"Well, we still don't know what was wrong with O'Dell," Ring and Feathers said. "He could have been taking psychedelics, or having some kind of mini-seizures, or..."
"We’ve already been over all that!" Eames was getting more frustrated. Losing one’s mind was more exhausting than he'd imagined.
"No we haven’t." Feathers looked miffed.
"Not you," Eames said. "Your... Arthur. Arthur said all that... before." He waved a hand around, accidentally smacking Horns.
"Hey!" Horns was livid. "Jackass!
“Were you listening?” Feathers said.
To Arthur? Eames thought, furrowing his brow. No, he didn’t suppose now that he really had.
“What about somnacin?” Horns was building up to a righteous anger now. “Do you know how it does what it's supposed to do? Do you know what is or isn't possible when it reacts with something else? When it reacts with several something elses?" He swung his tail around and stabbed Eames' cheek with its point, punctuating each syllable. "Do. You. Know. All. Its. Properties?"
"Ow, ow, ow!" Eames smacked at him and caught the horns full-on. "You little bastard!" He sucked on his palm and raised that hand again.
"Hey, you started on me first!" Horns tensed on Eames' shoulder, with both his tail and horns pointed at Eames' palm.
"Fine." Eames dropped his hand, resigned to being needled to death by pint-sized Arthurs. It was both more and less terrifying than the real thing, the tinier versions being far more direct and less cautious than his Arthur.
"Transference!" From his left shoulder.
Eames twitched and turned to Feathers. "What?"
"It's all in your mind, right? All in the group-mind of the dream. All of O'Dell's crazy. All of your crazy. All of, well, our crazy." Feathers gestured between himself and Horns.
"All of Arthur's bloody-mindedness, you mean." No, that was unfair, thought Eames. Though he wouldn't put this kind of morality-play punishment past Arthur. In fact, a pair of his own miniature, personalized, phantasmal spies just might be Arthur’s wet dream.
" He means all of your Karma ," Horns all but spat at him.
These things must be reading my mind; they must be a part of my mind, he thought. “No wonder they look like Arthur.” Arthur, who made it his job to point out every flaw, and had, apparently, imbedded himself in Eames consciousness as his conscience. Tra-la. Though Arthur, at his worst, didn't hound him like these two did.
Feathers was giving him Arthur's very best “now I know you’re crazy” expression, and he turned and raised an eyebrow at Horns.
Horns scowled back at him. "I didn’t start it," he said, without much conviction.
"Somehow," Eames said, almost a whisper, "this is all Arthur's fault." It was something he usually thought aloud when he was fairly sure something he’d done was at fault, part of an irresistible need he had to push pack at whatever Arthur was pushing him towards.
"Hah!" Horns and Feathers chorused at him. Feathers' halo bounced off his nose.
He simply had to contact someone about this, as embarrassing as that might end up being. The constant yammering of a miniature Arthur in each ear would drive him round the bend, assuming he hadn’t gone that far already and was on his way into completely uncharted territory.
Luckily, one of the numbers he had for Yusuf still worked. Small favors, Eames thought, and snorted. Horns squinted at him. Feathers frowned and looked like he was about to say something.
"Yusuf!" Booming into the tiny receiver earned Eames the desired effect: both Arthurs turned away, hands over their ears. "I have an odd sort of problem, a kind of after affect of a job gone south. I remember you mentioning various treatments..." Yusuf began to ask questions about the experience. Eames answered as best he could, breaking off his explanation with, "I'm left with some persistent hallucinations."
"We. Are not. Halluci..." Horns began, before Eames closed his hand gently over his upper body. Horns thrashed. Eames squeezed. Feathers appeared to clutch imaginary pearls.
"Yes. Just a moment." Eames said, and released Horns to reach for a pen and notepad. "Go ahead." He began writing down pharmaceutical names, and phone numbers of known suppliers within Yusuf's circle of contacts who were reasonably close to Eames location. Horns glared, looking furious. Feathers just shook his head.
A very rushed visit to the closest supplier of Yusuf's top choice of anti-Arthur pills later, and Eames was downing several fluorescent green tablets with a vodka chaser. After closing his eyes and taking a few deep breaths, he peered first left and then right. Feathers and Horns stared back at him, looking unimpressed. He swallowed a few more tablets, plus several more shots of vodka, and decided a lie-down was in order. The Arthurs lounged on his pillow on either side of his head.
Eames listened to the ticking of the clock on the wall, enjoying the silence. His miniature companions were very still. The numbers on the clock blurred and faded.
"You could be nicer, ya know." Eames eyes snapped open. That was Arthur's voice. Was it the real thing this time?
Feathers leaned into view, giving him an arch look. Eames closed his eyes and took deep breaths.
"You're an asshole." From the right. Horns.
"He's not an asshole," said Feathers.
"He's always brushing us off."
"We could try harder." Feathers was still looking at him, now with concern.
"HE should try harder." Horns poked Eames right ear with his tail for emphasis.
"Yeah," Feathers said. He pulled himself back down to Eames shoulder, and staggered across his chest to get to Horns. "He should." Feathers threw an arm around Horns.
Eames snorted at them; they were drunker than he was.
"It's not that hard," Horns said, leaning over Eames and dragging Feathers with him.
"A little less sarcasm," Feathers slurred a bit, looking sloe-eyed, nodding down at Eames.
"And more action!" Horns nodded along with Feathers, and gave Eames a goofy grin.
"Yeah..." Feathers swayed a bit, turning to give Horns a broad grin. "Dinner... Some polite conversation..."
"Right here." Horns pointed at his throat. "With those lips." He turned and pointed at Eames mouth.
Eames eyebrows shot up. He had caught Arthur staring at his lips on more than one occasion, but this could still be all a product of his own imagination.
"No. Here," Feathers said. "Here first." And he fanned his fingers and brushed them over his own mouth, grinning and glassy-eyed.
Eames sat up quickly, and fought down a wave of nausea, drugs and alcohol lurching in his stomach. "Good God, this is even worse."
"Worse than what!" Horns yelled up from the pillow, where he and Feathers still swayed back and forth in a loose embrace. "All that innuendo?" They clutched each other and laughed.
"What Innuendo?" Eames said. Arthur had often given a raised eyebrow, or two, by way of reply to his more colorful suggestions, but they weren’t necessarily intended to be flirtatious. Not always.
Eames swayed perilously close to the Arthurs’ spot on the pillow. He thought he might be about to vomit on them. They apparently saw that in his expression and went racing off in opposite directions.
He fetched a glass of water and his cell and began pacing the room, dialing. Yusuf wasn’t answering.
"Why are you so sure of all that?” He waved the phone in the general direction of the nightstand, where Horns and Feathers began drinking from a teacup of water as if it were a trough.
" Innuendo.” Eames shook his head. “I may take the piss, but I’m not-” Hopeful, he thought. “-suicidal."
They both turned their heads sharply towards him. Feathers looked heartbroken, Horns, murderous.
Eames raised both hands, waving the glass of water and the cell phone at them slightly. “I mean I don’t want to take that kind of chance with a business partner, a possibly brilliant business partner.” Not while I’m unsure, he thought.
"How is it you can't see that I.. We.." Horns motioned back and forth between himself and Feathers. "HE only ever does anything, says anything, threatens anything, for your own good!." He began to stomp back and forth on the nightstand, tail whipping side to side behind him.
Feathers shook his head at Horns. "We've been over this. Fear is a big part of rejection. Even familiar things can feel unknown and intimidating in new situations." He shrugged.
"Oy! I," Eames thumped a finger against his chest, "am not afraid. And I haven’t rejected anyone. Or been rejected." And these two short-arsed imposters weren't going to make him feel.. What? Inadequate?
Horns scowled at him, just like Arthur might have in this situation. Feathers smirked at him, just like Arthur might have in this situation. Eames decided more alcohol was in order.
He retrieved the bottle of vodka, and another, sizable, glass of water, and sat on the bed. He considered the fluorescent tablets, but decided against taking any more. They seemed to be doing much less for him than the alcohol.
“Then, what if,” Horns said, standing up and pointing at Eames from the nightstand, “you had the idea and we’re just pointing it out to you? What if we’re a part of both of you?”
He sounded reasonable enough, Eames thought, but he still looked furious. And the black horns on his head suited that expression perfectly. Feathers, on the other hand, was looking placid, still crouched by the teacup.
“I’m not sure I could hold that both of you came from the same person, so” Eames said, tipping the bottle to acknowledge Horns. Though, obviously they did, Eames thought. It was just odd to see the two faces of Arthur side by side, arguing with each other, alongside arguing with him.
“I think we’re all a little polarized,” said Feathers.
“I’ve never felt that way,” Eames said, and downed a mouthful of vodka. “But I do feel there are always possibilities. You have to be ready to change when they do. You’re constantly changing but never really changing at all. This binary,” Eames waved pointed the bottle back and forth between the two of them, “makes no sense.” He took another swig.
They were both looking at him thoughtfully, probably an effect of the alcohol. Then Horns rolled his eyes and flung a hand out in Eames direction, dismissing him.
“Let’s do something more constructive,” Horns said to Feathers. He started unbuttoning his waistcoat. Feathers’ eyebrows, and halo, rose up and his mouth dropped open.
As Horns dropped the waistcoat and began unbuttoning his shirt, his tail whipped around towards Feathers and plucked the halo from him. It began swinging the halo back and forth on its tip, like a miniature hula hoop.
Eames gulped down more vodka, surer than ever that he was imagining all of this.
Horns’ tail lowered the halo onto his own head and then reached out to Feathers, carefully wrapping itself around his neck and pulling him in for a sloppy kiss. Feathers, still looking a little shocked, grasped the edges of Horns’ shirt and hauled him closer.
Eames scrubbed a hand over his stubble and finished the vodka, feeling emptied out.
Then Feathers use his wings to tickle Horns until the tail released him and began tickling Feathers in return. Feathers screeched like a loon, wings, at full wingspan, flapping franticly at the attack. A tiny white feather fluttered up Eames’ nose and he sneezed. His whole head tingled. Horns and Feathers suddenly froze, looking euphoric, and collapsed into each other.
Eames watched the two of them slide to the surface of the nightstand. He reached to pick them up, and stopped when Feathers pressed more snugly into Horns. Then Feathers reached over the curved bones protruding from Horns’ hairline to clutch his halo. Horns wrapped his arms around Feathers, and pulled his wings around them both. They stilled.
Eames held his breath. He couldn’t look away, afraid, now, that they would disappear. Fluty snoring started up. Eames gave a sigh of relief. Keeping one eye on the Arthurs, he pulled out his cell again, dialing for help one more time. He would find Arthur - Arthur would know what to do; if he didn't, Eames would at least give him a good laugh.
A few too many hours, favors and very large bribes later, Eames was standing outside Arthur's so-obvious-you-look-right-past-it resort hotel hideout.
For a while, as he made the convoluted trip to Arthur's hideaway, the Arthurs seemed to have stayed put, back on his nightstand. At the very least they hadn't seemed disturbed by his leaving them. He'd half expected to find them floating along behind him, like a pair of balloons on strings. It left him feeling very foolish, standing so alone outside Arthur's door. He turned to head back, and caught a glimpse of something climbing up onto his right shoulder. Eames jumped in spite of knowing exactly what it would be.
"What kept you?" Eames couldn't help the jab. The two of them looked far more hung over than he felt, clinging with more fervor than was probably necessary to the lapels of his suit jacket. He resisted the urge to try forging again. Was this what limbo was like, he wondered.
Arthur would be able to help him - help him stay sane, at least. He hoped he could withstand the blow to his ego that explaining all this was going to land on him.
Eames stepped up on the porch and could see Arthur through the bay window. He looked ragged, exhausted. Eames watched him look left and right, talking to someone out of sight. Moving quickly off the porch and round the side of the resort, Eames found another vantage point. Through a window, he watched Arthur look at a point just above his left shoulder, and then turn to look at that same point just above his right.
Horns and Feathers exchanged snorts.
"Looks like Somnison delusions are going around." Horns said.
Feathers nodded. “Talk about unpredictable results.”
They laughed, and then groaned, clutching at their respective halo and horns.
Eames shook his head. "I didn't think this could get any worse.” He reached for his phone and sank to the grass beside the window.
He had no trouble contacting Yusuf, who turned out to be full of useful information. Arthur had, apparently, only just contacted him with a problem that sounded very similar to Eames’. He’d been delayed for leading security on a merry chase, paying off the secretary yet again, and ensuring that their clients weren’t likely to hunt them down looking for that never quite extracted password. His delusions appeared after he’d finally had a chance to sleep, and to dream, as Eames had, about the psychedelic landscape of the extraction attempt.
O’Dell hadn’t survived the extraction, but Arthur had been able to track down, with Yusuf’s help, his involvement in a different type of dream-share racket. It was ostensibly a purely recreational use of a PASIV using a psychedelic strain of chemical assistive drugs. But they were discovering a viral element to it, and the details were far from clear. Its users called it ‘Anathema.’
Eames slumped to the ground under Arthur’s window and cut off his cell. Horns and Feathers still clung to his lapels, looking marginally better than before he began the call, if a little bit shaken up.
“We’re anathema,” Feathers said.
Eames opened his mouth to correct him, and shut it again when a shadow blanketed both of them. He looked up at his Arthur, who twitched a little, and started to turn his head, but visibly forced himself to stop, opened his mouth, and twitched again, closing his eyes.
Eames continued to stare, silently.
“Talk to him!” Feathers said, looking upset. “We’ll tell you what to say.”
“I promise to stab you if you start to say something wrong,” Horns said. Eames could hear the smile in his voice.
Feathers gave a dramatic sigh and flung his halo at Horns. Eames closed his eyes as it passed under his nose.
“Just be yourself,” Feathers said. “How would your partnership have lasted even this long if the two of you couldn’t handle that much anyway?”
Eames stood up, meeting Arthur’s eyes. “Would you rather be left alone,” he said, with a pained smirk.
Arthur just looked tired for a minute, and then answered: “Yes and no.”
“How about if we talk about this inside,” Eames said. “Yusuf thinks we should both go on holiday for an undetermined amount of time. Yeah?”
Eames slowly put an arm around Arthur’s shoulders. He couldn’t feel anything in his way; however, Arthur watched his progression across one shoulder, and then the other, with a steadily widening grin. He took a quick peek at his own shoulders, but if Horns or Feathers saw anything he didn’t, they gave no sign.
Pulling Arthur to get him moving toward his own front door, Eames asked him: “Have you been seeing me? In miniature?”
“Oooh, yeah.” Arthur nodded, with a wry smile.
“Is my devil as vicious as yours? I’m sure my angel isn’t as sweet.”
Horns stabbed him. Feathers hugged his neck. Eames ignored both of them.
“Angel?” Arthur stopped and turned to him, looking exhausted. “Eames, you have two devils.”