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In Duty Homeward Shall We Fly

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Arthur had been on this planet for nearly fourteen years now and everyone still insisted on treating him like a child. He had long since shed all the trappings of adolescence: the floppy hair, the shapeless clothes, the ease with which he used to be provoked into a smile or a laugh. Everything about him was expensive now, because Arthur had found that while money couldn’t buy respect, it could at least buy him the appearance of it.

Well, in most cases anyway.

“Your condescension is always much appreciated, Arthur. Thank you,” said Eames with a smirk, and Arthur barely managed to keep himself from growling, because dammit – he was older than the whole fucking team put together, older than Yusuf or Cobb, far far older than baby-faced Ariadne, and of course, much older than smarmy Eames. When Arthur, yes, condescended to compliment an aspect of the plan, Eames should take his words with due appreciation for Arthur’s considered opinion.

Not that Arthur could say any of this. Some of the rules of his mission had changed since 1996, but not the most important one, the one that had to do with not ever blowing his cover, no matter what the reason, no matter how compelling the urge to disclose everything.

So Arthur settled for throwing a glare at Eames and letting the team slowly work out a highly flawed and incredibly stupid plan. It would be a miracle if Arthur didn’t end up shooting everyone in the head on the first level out of sheer frustration.

It turned out Arthur wasn’t allowed to shoot anyone in the head or he’d wind up deep-sixing them into limbo.

“Are you serious?” Arthur asked, frustrated beyond the telling of it and not even able to express that frustration by shooting Cobb in the head.

He was forced instead to take it on the chin, to listen with growing apprehension as Cobb tried to rationalize his complete irrationality, the disregard he clearly had for all their lives. But yes, Arthur had missed something in his research, he’d missed a really fucking huge something; it stung to the core to have his professionalism as Information Officer take such a brutal hit.

It had been a lot easier back when his job was about researching stupid shit like the military history of medieval China and what times of year were okay for wearing slingbacks to a party.

The seed, the core, the heart of the PASIV technology was alien. How could it not be?

Someone on Team X had been careless, that’s all Arthur had been told by the emissary of the BGH, someone had been careless -- as though losing a piece of technology that permitted lucid dream sharing was as simple as leaving a door unlocked. Arthur never got any more details, he was simply told about Team X’s careless action and ordered to proceed straight from college to the nearest US Armed Forces recruiter.

“We’ll be needing your expertise on the inside,” the BGH emissary had said casually. “You will have to make arrangements in order to ensure your proximity to the device. If the humans are to use it, it’s imperative that they do so with all due caution.”

Making arrangements, of course, meant that Arthur had spent four and a half frantic years scrambling up the military ranks and making lateral moves closer and closer into the darkest of black ops. This maneuvering meant endless patient hours of espionage, infiltration, forging documents and passes and security clearances wherever possible, forging far more difficult things like trust and respect in circles where no documentation could take him. Arthur had slept only a handful of hours each night at most for those years. It wasn’t until he’d walked down a fluorescent-lit corridor and stepped into a room with a steel-sided briefcase on a lab bench that Arthur knew he’d at last completed the first part of his mission.

“Hello,” said the man with the suitcase, extending his hand in greeting. “You must be Captain Solomon, I hear you’re joining the team.”

“Please,” said Arthur, “call me Arthur.”

“In that case, call me Miles,” said the man, and nodded across the room towards the slender beautiful woman who was reclined in a chair, linked to the machine inside the briefcase via a snaking length of IV tubing. “If you’ll just have a seat, I’ll hook you up and introduce you to my daughter.”

All due caution, Arthur wrote in his report later that night, may already be out of our grasp.

“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling,” said Eames now, and blew away the projections with a single shot.

Arthur was impressed with him, again.

It wasn’t that Arthur lacked imagination, really; imagination was little more than a varied knowledge turned to practical and creative use. It was just that under pressure, Arthur instinctively restricted himself to what he knew, what felt like a fit for this simple world and its primitive people. It really wouldn’t do, after all, to pull out a disintegrator beam in the midst of an extraction. That was exactly the sort of thing that would make the projections completely lose their shit.

The name change hadn’t been, strictly speaking, necessary. In fact, it had been kind of a pain in the ass, forcing Arthur to go back and alter almost everything in his original dossier. There wasn’t really any reason he couldn’t have gone to the recruiting office as Thomas Solomon except the nagging sense that if he did, he’d never really be able to leave behind that long-haired sex-obsessed pubescent kid. It was a weird impulse, based more on intuition than logic or research, but Arthur had by then been a human long enough to respect his animal instincts.

The name Arthur meant ‘bear’; perhaps a bit of a stretch given this body’s stature and slender frame, but at least no one tried to shorten it into some kind of diminutive form. Arthur was nobody’s ‘Tommy’ anymore.

He did, however, seem to be Eames’ ‘darling’.

It was a bit of a shock when Arthur realized that he didn’t actually mind.

Eames had a military background, or so Cobb said. Arthur had to take this on faith; by the time he met Eames, they were both of them well shot of their military ties, and every time Arthur impulsively did a little digging on Eames it was like trying to investigate a reflection or a hologram – nothing but air.

“What’s your real name?” Arthur had asked him once, drunk and uncharacteristically off-guard on a long flight from Johannesburg to Taipei.

“Please,” Eames had answered, swirling scotch around his glass, smirking at Arthur. “That would be like giving my social security number to a common thief.”

“So you have a social security number?” Arthur asked triumphantly, smirking right back.

“Eames does,” responded Eames, or the man who went by that name. He flipped open his American passport and tapped the number underneath the surprisingly flattering though unsmiling photo.

Whoever had done up Eames’ identity was very good. The man had an unpaid parking ticket in Des Moines. He belonged to a bowling league there too. He’d made a noise complaint against a neighbor once, which was the least believable thing about the whole package.

“You don’t seem like the type,” Arthur had said when he showed his folder of research to Eames the next day, hungover and irritable. “It’s a mistake.”

“Like you’re one to talk,” Eames returned, matching Arthur’s grouchiness, “playing at being from Rutherford, Ohio with the non-rhotic ‘r’s that slip into your accent now and then.” He made a face and waved at Arthur’s side of the diner table. “Pass the creamah, Ah-thah,” he mocked with flat New York vowels, deadpan.

“I did live in Ohio,” Arthur wanted to say, “for six years, you putz,” but instead he pushed the creamer towards Eames and held his peace.

Ariadne, from the Greek, meaning ‘most holy’; see also ‘Minotaur’, ‘Labyrinth’, and ‘Minos and Theseus’; see also ‘Cobb’s most recent half-assed recruiting effort’ and ‘Arthur’s biggest current problem’.

Any second now Fischer’s subconscious was going to work out that Arthur was the dreamer, and here he was stuck babysitting Cobb’s greenest recruit while he explained and explained. He explained while they tried to blend into the background of the hotel lobby; he explained while he laid charges in the suite upstairs; he kept explaining right up until Cobb strode into view with Fischer in tow and Ariadne’s endless questions were perforce silenced; but the second Fischer was under she started asking again.

Arthur had never been so relieved to face the prospect of battling projections with his very sanity at stake.

“I’ll lead them on a merry chase,” Arthur told Eames with grim satisfaction as he jabbed the IV into Eames’ muscled forearm. “Go to sleep, Mr. Eames.”

There was being Information Officer (point man, Cobb called it) and then there was having to give the galaxy’s stupidest briefing while plotting out where best to station himself for the hand-to-hand battles and gun fights that were coming his way.

At least he had some substantial experience working in zero-g conditions.

If the High Commander were still around instead of enjoying life as a purple tube on their homeworld, he doubtlessly would have been delighted with the ingenuity of Earth’s citizens, the way they’d taken technology meant for mindless entertainment (‘like television, only with slightly less consciousness,’ Harry had once described it) and warped it into a weapon for espionage and mind control. Dick would have loved that shit, he would have eaten it up with a spoon: Humans are so endlessly selfish, Tommy, isn’t it wonderful?

Tommy, cum Arthur, was somewhat less impressed when he had figured out what the US military was up to.

“Reality could quickly become doubled or tripled,” Arthur had told Cobb and Mal once the somnacin prototype took shared dreaming out of the merely whimsical and into the disturbingly stable, “we can’t keep going under, we’re going to lose track of the difference between living up here and dreaming down there.”

“Arthur is right,” Mal had said, eyes going wide, seeing it, and for a second Arthur’s heart was in his throat – were they about to see the fatal flaw in their efforts? Was Arthur’s mission accomplished?

Cobb had said, thoughtfully, “Well, it helps a little when we restrict the architecture to our imaginations, stay away from our real experiences.”

“No, something more,” Mal had added urgently, eyes wild with a certain air of epiphany that Arthur had come to dread in humans. “We need an anchor, we need something to make us certain that we are in control of the dream.”

The concept of the totem, unfortunately, Arthur had written in his quarterly mission report to the BGH, has enabled the team to overcome some of the PASIV technology’s inherent dangers, which has in turn necessitated yet another extension of my current assignment in order to best minimize the impact of the homeworld technology on this civilization still in its infancy. With all due respect, I begin to have concerns that the technology cannot be contained indefinitely.

Arthur had won ‘Understatement of the Year 2007’ at the Probies for that one.

(He’d been less than gracious when he expressed his thanks to the Academy for Space Exploration Arts.)

In 2007, everything had gone to hell with remarkable rapidity. First Arthur had made a slip, he’d made a huge fucking slip, because one day he went over to Mal and Cobb’s for dinner and found the two of them strung out on PASIV like junkies.

“You don’t take this shit out of the lab!” Arthur had bellowed when he’d kicked the pair of them back to reality, too pissed off to bother with the niceties of military professionalism. “What the hell were you thinking? You have two babies, for christ’s sake!”

“Haven’t you noticed that you don’t dream anymore?” Mal had reproached Arthur tearfully while Cobb rubbed his eyes and glowered. “We need to dream, Arthur, it’s part of being human.”

Arthur didn’t have anything to say to that, of course, but he’d been forced to pretend that he understood it all, the whole goddamn mess of it. He wasn’t here to assassinate or sabotage; even the BGH understood that it had gotten too far away from that point. It was on to damage control, and Arthur had two potentially damaged idiots right in front of him.

“No more,” he’d barked, wrapping up the IV leads. “I’m serious, no more or I’m taking this to the top.”

But next – well. Next had come all the shit with Mal and Cobb and the hotel room, and after that the shit with the warrant for Cobb’s arrest on suspicion of homicide, and after that Arthur was walking the PASIV prototype out of the military research facility feeling disturbed to realize just how easy this was going to be.

At least civilian clothes were a bit more interesting.

“The problem with most people,” Arthur said to Eames once, meaning ‘all people’, “is that the worst case scenario is always death.”

“Which is total shite,” Eames had returned, leaning back and blowing a long stream of cigarette smoke out from between beautiful pursed lips that would have made even Sally envious. “There are far worse things than death.”

“What,” Arthur asked, expecting a turn of irony next, “what, like living a life without pink polyester shirts?”

Eames had perused Arthur with that damnable ever-present curve playing around his mouth. “Something like that,” he allowed, tapping the ash from the tip of his cigarette, shifting in his chair. “Death is only one limitation, and it’s one we can’t defeat. I’d sooner spend my time on this planet trying to find out what obstacles I can knock down.”

That little conversation had led to Arthur doing a new kind of background check on Eames, but the BGH HR division swore up and down that Arthur was the only operative currently on assignment in this part of the Milky Way.

Arthur did his level best to talk Cobb out of inception but of course Eames, with his thirst for knocking down obstacles (up to and including Arthur), hadn’t batted an eyelash.

“Eames says it’s possible too,” Cobb had told Arthur when he came back from Mombasa with Eames and Saito and some drug dealer named Yusuf in tow.

“Well, if Eames says so,” Arthur had said, under his breath, glaring across the workshop to where Eames was standing with his hands in his pockets chatting up Ariadne.

The only good news Arthur could come up with for his latest quarterly report was: It seems likely that this will end disastrously for all of us, which may serve as a warning for other humans tempted to try an inception of their own.

Much to Arthur’s surprise, it didn’t end disastrously for any of them.

It still wasn’t looking good for the mission, though.

“You almost looked happy for a moment there,” Eames said, sitting down at Arthur’s table in the L.A. hotel bar. “When we woke up on the plane.”

“You’re not supposed to be here,” Arthur replied, but kept his body language calm and neutral. If Eames was going to go around breaking all their rules about walk-aways after a job, Arthur was at least going to avoid drawing attention to the fact.

“Nonsense, I’m merely a hotel guest having a sociable chinwag with a fellow guest,” Eames smiled, waving away Arthur’s concern. “Mere coincidence that we came in on the same flight from Sydney today.” He was holding two glasses of something – whiskey by the look of it – and now he set one down in front of Arthur. “I was only trying to say that I was surprised to see you smile.”

“I smile,” Arthur told Eames, taking the drink. “You know, this looks more like you’re picking me up than having a friendly chat.”

“Oh, you noticed that, did you?” Eames said breezily. “And no, you don’t smile, not often anyway.”

“Not around you,” Arthur pretended to muse. “I wonder why that is.”

Eames’ tongue poked out of his mouth playfully. “Arthur. So serious, so secretive.”

“All part of the job,” Arthur said, and lifted his glass.

“Too bad, you’re bloody gorgeous when you smile,” Eames sighed. “Well, you’re always bloody gorgeous but it’s something else entirely when those dimples pop up.”

Arthur had chosen this stupid body out of a catalogue because of those dimples, dammit. He’d flipped through his notes on their new mission destination and found where he’d written:

Dimples: imperfections in underlying muscle tissue that present as small divots in skin; humans find them charming for some reason, particularly in their young.

Well, he’d been selected to be the thirteen-year-old, after all. How was Arthur to know he’d still be stuck in the same damned body all these years later, forced to avoid smiling lest someone think of him as cute and young instead of scary and efficient?

“I’ve said something to upset you,” Eames observed, and Arthur realized he’d been scowling at his reflection in the scotch for the better part of a minute now. “Fuck, this was a mistake, please do chalk it up to yet another lapse in judgment on my part and next time I see you we’ll be back to our usual animosity plus sexual tension.”

“No,” Arthur said, looking up, blinking, because if Eames had been surprised to see Arthur smile, Arthur was even more shocked to hear Eames sound regretful about upsetting Arthur. “No, it’s not that, it’s – it’s okay. Just”—and Arthur wrinkled his nose, replaying the last part of that. “Did you say sexual tension?”

“Yeah, I did,” Eames said ruefully, scratching his nose, half out of his chair already, “bugger, I am clearly on some weird post-inception high, I’d better clear off before I say something really mad and unacceptable.”

“I’m an alien,” said Arthur.

Eames dropped back into his chair with a whoosh of breath and gaped.

“I never told any one that before,” Arthur continued, and swirled his drink around, tapping his foot, fighting every instinct, human or otherwise, to get this out in the open. “Look, there are lots of rules about this and the biggest one is not to tell anyone any of this, but there it is.”

“You’re taking the piss,” said Eames, but he wasn’t smiling at all.

“No, I’m not,” Arthur said, and scrubbed the back of his neck with his hand. “Shit.”

“You’re not taking the piss,” Eames tried, with equal mistrust.

“Does that seem like my style?” Arthur pointed out in return.

“No, that’s why I’m wondering if you somehow slipped down to limbo and went dotty while I wasn’t paying attention earlier,” Eames said, squinting at Arthur.

“Trust me,” Arthur said, “me and limbo would be a really really bad combination. You don’t want to see what my unstructured subconscious looks like.” He drums his fingers on the table. “Start with Dr. Seuss and you’ve got the barest idea of it.”

“You’re serious,” Eames said, leaning across the table, dropping his voice down to a whisper. “Are you really serious?”

“I’m really serious,” Arthur returned, searching his mind for some proof to offer, anything that will keep Eames from having him committed, but of course there was nothing. There was only him, Arthur: an alien mind in a human shell.

Eames blinked, considering this. “Explains a hell of a lot, actually,” he said, and nodded.

“You believe me?” Arthur asked, narrowing his gaze.

“You’re, what, here to keep us humans from destroying our civilization by using some of your stolen technology for our nefarious primitive purposes?” Eames surmised, pursing his lips.

“Uh,” Arthur hedged, “sure. Close enough.”

“Is this all your way of explaining to me why it is that you won’t shag me?” Eames asked, leaning closer still. “Because if so, this is the barmiest rejection I’ve ever had.”

“No, that’s not,” Arthur began, but stopped short because Eames was getting really close.

“What are you, all tentacles and goo inside your pants, is that it?” Eames murmured, his breath ghosting over Arthur’s mouth.

“No, no,” Arthur said, dazed, “perfectly functioning parts, all standard Earth-issue,” and he kissed Eames, grabbing him by the back of the head to hold him still for it, desperate with the long celibacy of this whole hopeless tour of duty.

“So you’re telling me this why?” Eames asked, breaking away, panting.

“I don’t know,” Arthur admitted, shaking his head, trying to move back in for another kiss, but Eames was one step ahead and already sinking back into his seat, too far away to reach conveniently. “I guess – I just wanted you to know something about me.”

Eames was busy tossing back the last of his drink. He didn’t answer.

“Because you impress me,” Arthur tried, not sure himself what he was getting at. “Because no one impresses me. I’m – I can’t say how old I am, it doesn’t translate that way – but I’m old enough, I’ve seen just about everything, I’ve seen stuff that you literally could never see because your body is too limited. I speak every language there is on this planet and about four hundred others. I memorized Wikipedia last year just in case something might come in handy on an extraction job. It’s my assignment to blend in, Eames, but sometimes humans are so petty and stupid that I want to scream, and no, I guess that means I don’t do a lot of smiling anymore.” He exhaled shakily; Eames was blinking at him again, puzzled and maybe a little offended. Arthur took Eames’ hand. “Except – you impress me. You do, no one else.”

Eames licked his lips, brows drawing together in confusion or irritation. “That was incredibly condescending, even coming from you, darling.”

Arthur slumped down in his seat, dejected.

“It’s a lucky thing for you that I find it charming when you go all snobby and holier-than-thou,” Eames continued blithely. “Come on, let’s go up to my room, I want to see what passes for standard Earth-issue these days.”

“Really?” Arthur asked, and smiled.

Eames’ smile tipped a little sideways with fondness. “You don’t believe me?”

“Well,” Arthur hesitated, “you do seem to take a lot of pleasure in knocking me down a peg or two.”

Eames stood up, took Arthur by the hand, and leaned down to press his lips against Arthur’s ear. Eames then whispered his real name, softly but so carefully that there could be no mistake about it.

“Okay,” Arthur said, unable to lose the huge dimple-bracketed shit-eating grin on his face, not even for a second. “Okay, okay.” And he got up from the table and went with Eames.

Harry had been replaced in 2001, with an alien-doctored cell phone that served as transmitter and receiver for the BGH. Arthur had carefully upgraded it every few years to keep up with Earth technology, and in its current iteration Harry (Arthur had been unable to lose the name for it in his mind) was an iPhone 3GS. Arthur could now email and text the BGH in addition to the more traditional voice calls (not to mention challenge Mrs. BGH, a.k.a. Vicki Dubcek-BGH, to the occasional networked game of Scrabble; the fact that Arthur always let her win was merely good diplomacy).

Arthur lay in bed while Eames slept next to him and used the tiny soft keyboard on Harry to draft his final report regarding Project Dreamweaver 3000. It was slow going but the pace allowed Arthur to carefully ponder each word before moving on to the next: PASIV was out of their hands; it seemed clear that the humans were ignorant of its extraterrestrial origins; now that Fischer had been incepted it was certain that the technology would continue to propagate at an even faster rate; it was far too much for this Intelligence Officer to manage single-handed and furthermore this Intelligence Officer respectfully recommended that the planet known as Earth be left to its own success or demise, stricken from official BGH records, and scheduled for review in two or three human centuries.

As for me, continued Arthur, wriggling over to catch some of Eames’ sleepy warmth, please find attached my notice of retirement (Form 2341-X2S) and request for permanent corporeal relocation to the human-form body code-named Thomas Arthur Solomon (initially issued to this Security Officer on January 9, 1996; see attached Form 43256-X1G for complete serial number and latest maintenance logs.)

In case that wasn’t enough to drive the point home (namely, Arthur was staying and the BGH could kiss Arthur’s BGA if he thought otherwise), Arthur appended the report with one final paragraph:

On a personal note, I add now that it has been my honor and privilege to serve as emissary to the BGH on this, my final tour of duty. Across the void and field of stars have I indeed soared, and here have I unexpectedly found myself at home.