Arthur wakes up to the quickening arpeggio of 'Dream Operator'. He keeps his eyes closed for a long moment, unwilling to let go of the dream. He'd watched the sun set over Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower. The two of them, Arthur and his projection, had been alone (Arthur has a pretty good idea of how much that would've cost to arrange in the real world). There'd been champagne. There'd been slow kisses and heated looks: there'd been a hand on his dick, then a mouth. His projection had stared up at him from under surprisingly long lashes, smirking even as he gave Arthur one of the best blowjobs he'd ever (not) had. There'd been another kiss. Even now Arthur's body is tricking him into thinking that he can still taste his own come.
And he's awake, despite David Byrne singing: 'Don't you wake up, this dream will come true.'
He's in his own bed, his left arm held motionless against the tiny sting of the needle, the PASIV on the floor beside him. His other arm's stretched across the bed as though he's reaching out to embrace someone. With his eyes closed, it almost seems as though he can taste and smell and feel the lingering presence of another person. It's years since he's brought anyone back to this apartment. He likes his privacy. But the sheets under his right hand feel rumpled and warm, and when he turns his head (his eyes still closed) and inhales, he thinks for a moment that he can smell ...
According to the Journal, it's rare for anyone to dream in more than the three simplest senses: sight, sound, touch. Some people don't even experience touch, which has to be kind of confusing if you're trying to manipulate dream-objects. Arthur, though, pays attention to detail: he can still remember how his dream lover smelt: Puissance Deux, sweat, cigarettes and hair product. (Brylcreem, which has to be because of that British accent Arthur's associated with him.) It's oddly specific.
Arthur chuckles at the extravagances of his unfettered imagination, and opens his eyes.
He's alone. Well, of course he's alone. His portable security system's not sophisticated, just a few infrared sensors and a wire, but he's modded it to send an alarm to the PASIV if there's any intrusion: he'll be kicked out and up, no matter how far down he's dreaming, if anyone enters the room while he's under. There's a needle in his arm, the red flash of zero in his peripheral vision, a lingering stiffness in his bad knee that's the result of having lain still — old habits die hard, and he was trained not to move during a session — for too long. He removes the needle, hooks the buds out of his ears, turns over and sprawls on the cool smooth sheets, faceplanting on the other pillow where nobody's lain for a long long time.
And yeah, it's basically jerking off, when he goes into the dream and seeks out that particular projection (who insists that his name is Eames; Arthur hasn't worked that one out yet, but maybe his subconscious associates good design with good sex). It's masturbation, nothing more. But it's a hell of a lot easier than reality.
Okay. Morning. He's in New York, in a rented apartment on 42nd Street. (He can see the Empire State from the bathroom window). He's just finished a job in Seattle, and it makes sense to lie low for a couple of weeks while the noise dies down.
Arthur takes a long shower. He jerks off to the sharp clear memory of Eames' mouth on his dick and the lights of Paris twinkling on beyond the safety glass. If he closes his eyes as he props his forearm against the tiles, it's just to focus his mind on the memory, the invention, of Eames' blue-grey eyes, the black ink that shifts and pools over his collarbone, his full red mouth. For a masturbatory fantasy, Eames is astonishingly detailed and thoroughly random. Arthur wishes he could use Eames as evidence for the defence, next time Signe accuses him of having no imagination. (Not that he'll be working with Signe again for a while. He doesn't like to use the same team twice. It draws the wrong kind of attention.)
Over breakfast (black coffee, an omelette, juice) he checks the Time Out site. There's a Diane Arbus exhibition he wouldn't mind seeing, and a couple of movies he's heard good things about.
The New York Times counts as business, because it has a feature on the aftermath of the Tadashi job. "Author reveals sources in unexpected u-turn." The piece doesn't mention Saito, doesn't question why Tadashi changed his mind after months of making such a big deal of the anonymity of his contacts. There's no indication of the go-between, the guy who passed the information from a network of small-time criminals to a respectable investigative journalist. Arthur mentally ticks off another successful extraction.
He needs something real. He needs to work out at the basement gym, walk the boulevards in thin grey drizzle, soak up the sounds and sights and smells of a city he can't predict or amend. He needs to anchor himself.
—Once there was a princess who lived in a perfectly round room at the top of a very high tower.
—That's me, maman, that's me!
—Yes, darling, it is. The princess was named Philippa, and every day her maman would come to visit her; but her maman couldn't always be there with her, because she had to go away to look after the princess's papa.
—Can I see my papa?
—Maybe, when you're older, cherie. ... And the princess's maman came to see her whenever she could.
—Why don't you and papa come and live here with me? You could have the room downstairs. We could make the spiders go away, and we could get some pretty curtains for the windows, and ...
—I'm sorry, darling. We can't come to live with you, because Papa can't come here.
—Why can't he?
—Because he's not allowed.
—Why can't I come and live with you, then?
—Because you were born here, darling, and while you're a little girl you have to stay where you were born.
—Where were you born, Maman?
—A long time ago, in a city called Paris that's far far away.
—And did you stay there when you were a little girl?
—I did, cherie.
—Is that where Papa lives?
—No, Papa lives in another faraway city called San Francisco.
—Can I go there when I'm older?
—Maybe, darling. We'll see.
—My other maman tells me stories sometimes.
—Your other maman, cherie?
—She's not really my mother. She's just a nice lady. She comes to see me when you're not here. She does magic, and sometimes she makes herself look different but I always know it's her. But she never knows any new songs, and when I forget how to do a game she pretends she's forgotten too. I love you best, maman.
—I love you too, Phil. I —
…Mal is awake, with only Edith Piaf's brave defiant voice for comfort. There are tears on her cheeks, which Dom mustn't see: she scrubs them away, blinking until she can see the clock clearly. He won't be home from work for another hour at least. There's some big case he's investigating, something to do with a professor at Berkeley. She has time to shower, to change her clothes, to be Dom's wife instead of Philippa's maman. She has time to dream herself into the real world.
When he's between jobs, Arthur tries to block out at least a week when he doesn't use the PASIV. It's not enough downtime to restore his sleep cycle (let alone his ability to dream naturally) but it forces him to focus on the real world.
The problem is, the real world is ... unsatisfactory. He's been to the movies a couple of times, alone; he's spent an afternoon wandering around MOMA; he's taken a look at the fall collections from his favourite designers. (Looks like Tala went with the new print, even though it'd been leaked. Arthur doesn't especially care. He can take or leave paisley.) He's caught up on his reading, professional and otherwise, and he's cut three seconds off his previous record for running a mile. All well and good.
He wants to be working again.
He wants to be dreaming again.
Signe calls him one afternoon in early October.
"I was talking with a guy at the University," says Signe, faux-casual, once she's established that Arthur's alone and reasonably confident of a secure phone line. "I think you might find him useful. Want to set up a meeting?"
"Which university?" says Arthur. He can hear the crackle of a public-transit announcement (Danish, he notes) in the background, but that's irrelevant: they all travel a lot.
"Boston," says Signe. "His name's Alex. An architect. I went under with him, and he' s very good. Crisp, you know?"
"There's plenty of good architects out there," says Arthur. "What's special about this one?"
Signe hums. "He's fresh. Nobody knows who he is."
That could mean anything. Maybe he's inexperienced. Maybe he's a plant. Maybe —
"He's British," says Signe, sing-song. "Easy on the eye, too."
"Signe …" Arthur pinches the bridge of his nose. "Are you seriously trying to set me up with this guy?" he demands, halfway between annoyance and amusement.
"Oh no," says Signe. "Would I do that? But Arthur, maybe you should meet him, yes?"
"Sure," says Arthur. "Why not?"
He heads out to the Penthaus that evening, as arranged, and takes some time to check out the other customers before he grabs a seat by the window.
It's an English accent, which makes Arthur's pulse stutter: but when he turns and looks at the guy who's gesturing at the stool next to his, it's not —
Well, of course it's not. He's awake, goddammit. So awake he hasn't even bothered to check his totem for the last few days. And he hadn't let himself wonder if 'Alex' was a pseudonym of someone he'd already met.
"That's me," he says.
And okay, this guy isn't Eames, but he's pretty hot in his own right. He's a redhead, with wide-set blue eyes that give him an air of perpetual surprise: he's as slender as Arthur, probably has a couple of inches on him. His fingers are long and elegant; sinewy wrists; a well-tailored suit in charcoal wool. (It's from one of the English designers, but Arthur can't place the cut.)
"Hi," he says, with a broad smile that reveals bad teeth. "I'm Alex."
"Arthur," says Arthur. "First time in New York?"
"Nah," says Alex. "I come over pretty regularly. Work, you know."
Arthur doesn't know, and doesn't care. But it's got to be good for him to do some living in the real world, right?
He gets Alex talking about his work. Alex, it turns out, is a recent graduate from the University of East Anglia. He's smart, and he knows plenty about paradoxical architecture and tricks of perspective, and Arthur can't work out why someone like that hasn't already made a name for himself. And the way he looks at Arthur, holding his gaze for a second too long, sucking on the slice of lemon in his G&T …
Arthur gets Alex another drink, and switches to gin and tonic himself. That way he won't mind the taste so much if they kiss.
When they kiss. Arthur's gonna be an optimist, at least tonight.
Then Alex wrecks it all by saying, "I heard you were the brains behind the Seattle job."
Arthur frowns at him. "I'm sorry?"
"C'mon," says Alex. "I mean, you've got a brilliant reputation, you do know that? And how you pulled off the job with Smith: that was fucking inspired."
"I don't even know what you're talking about, man," lies Arthur. And yeah, he should just walk away from this, get out while the getting's good. But he's feeling reckless, and if Signe's been stupid enough to connect him with the Titanic job ... Well, Arthur doesn't suffer fools.
"But hey," he says, more amicably, "maybe you can tell me more when we don't have an audience." He flicks glances left and right, exaggeratedly wary, then leans in, his hand on Alex's knee as if he needs the balance. "Wanna get out of here?"
"Yeah," says Alex, staring at Arthur's mouth. "Yeah, let's take this somewhere more private."
Arthur lets Alex lead him out of the bar, but then, instead of turning right for the elevator, he pulls Alex left, towards the stairs.
"Are you kidding? We're twenty floors up!"
"A lot might happen between here and the ground," says Arthur over his shoulder. He winks at Alex and opens the door. "And I could use the exercise, if you get what I mean."
Arthur's been to Penthaus before, and he knows where the security blindspots are. In the dim corner of the landing between the seventeenth and sixteenth floors, he stops abruptly, turns on his heel and shoves Alex up against the wall.
Alex looks thrilled for a moment, before he registers Arthur's expression.
"Now, Alex," says Arthur. "Suppose you tell me what you're really here for?"
He doesn't carry a gun in the real world — carrying tends to mean using, sooner or later, and that attracts entirely the wrong kind of attention — but he's perfectly capable of intimidating somebody without any weaponry at all. Twenty minutes later, a white-faced Alex is stuttering something about a government agency ("I don't know which one, I'm not a bloody American! All the uniforms and badges and shit, they all look the same to me!") and a guy who promised to wipe the slate clean for Alex if he could just ... accompany Arthur to a particular hotel.
"An' that Danish bird, she better watch her back!"
"Did she tell you I was in on the Seattle job?" says Arthur, in tones of polite disbelief.
"Nah, she didn't give me anything I could use. The American bloke, the government one, he told me what you did to Smith."
"And you believed the government?" says Arthur. "Shame. I guess we're not going to be able to help each other out after all."
Because he's a little bit drunk and also kind of an asshole, he kisses Alex goodbye, and bites his lip hard enough to draw blood. "You follow me," he says darkly, "and I'll knock you out and shove you in a dumpster."
"Sure," manages Alex.
Arthur listens carefully all the way down, but he doesn't hear Alex's voice or his footsteps. Nobody's watching the building (or if they are, they've neglected the service entrance) and there's no one following Arthur as he makes his way unhurriedly down into the subway. He's home before midnight. Alone.
Fuck reality, he thinks, firing off an email to Signe. (I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt. Stay alert, they're onto you. Don't call me: I'll be in touch.) Can't even get laid.
Tonight Dom's amorous, hands everywhere, breathless laughter behind everything he says, his mouth punctuating every come-on with a kiss. Soon enough, instead of mind-crime and militarisation, he's talking of romance, desire, love.
And it's so long, too long, since Mal has let herself fall into sheer sensation, so long since they've made love with the lights on, just the two of them with no angry little ghost between them. She allows Dom to kiss her, lets herself kiss him, caresses and undresses him, wrestles with him 'til the two of them are giggling like teenagers, wraps her hand around his dick and simply squeezes. The noise he makes is almost as pleasing as the feel of soft warm skin over pulsing hardness in her curled palm.
His fingers are exploring her. His tongue. He hasn't ... she hasn't let him do this since before. She couldn't help remembering all the blood, and Dom's a fastidious man: he'd taste it, taste what they'd lost, and turn from her. Now, this autumn evening with the wind howling past their bedroom window and drowning out the traffic-noise from the road six stories down, she lets the sensation lift her away from that grief, carry her back to brighter times. She acknowledges the grief but lets it fade. She is living in the moment. She is being here now.
Then Dom's dick is pressing into her, skin to skin, and it's exquisite. It's alive.
"Darling," she murmurs, curling her hands over his broad shoulders, kissing his neck.
Dom holds himself very still above her, his dick twitching inside her. "Mal," he whispers. "Darling, is it ... is it still too soon?"
"I'm fine, beloved," she tells him. "You're not hurting me."
Dom sighs shakily, and moves. "I meant," he gasps against her ear, "is it too soon to try again?"
Mal locks and stills and freezes, and she doesn't even realise it's a physical reaction until Dom stills too.
"Mal? Honey, what's ...?"
I can't tell him, she thinks.
"Sweetheart, I'm sorry." Dom's hand on her face smells of ... of her. She tries not to flinch. "I didn't think. Hang on. Just let me grab a condom, and —"
"No," says Mal. She bites back There's no need. She bites back I can't leave her. He doesn't need to know.
But she made a promise, when she married him.
Mal clutches her courage around her, and says, "We don't need a condom. I'm taking the Pill again."
The look on Dom's face is bitter and hurt. "Mal …"
"You were right," she says. "I'm not ready. And … I must not, I cannot fall pregnant again. Not now."
Dom rolls away from her, folding his arms behind his head, staring up at the ceiling. He looks … sad. Betrayed. Disappointed. Mal shivers, and not just because of the sudden chill of her bare, sweat-sheened skin: but she can't let herself give in to the need to comfort him,
"Why, Mal? Just make me understand."
"I need to keep dreaming," says Mal helplessly.
"Sure, honey, but getting pregnant won't —"
"How do you know?" Mal flings at him. "How do you know it wasn't the very first time we dreamt, while our daughter was still invisibly small — before we even knew that she was there — that did the damage?"
"Somnacin's been rated safe up to the second —"
"And how many pregnant women have used it?" Mal laughs, bitter. "I don't recall the Army being happy with female soldiers who fall pregnant."
"It was tested —"
"Do I look like a laboratory animal to you?" Dom has no answer to that (or, more likely, knows that silence is the only safe response). "No, Dom. If we are to have ano— have a child, I must give up the dreaming before I conceive. And I cannot do that now."
"Why not? Help me out here, Mal: make me understand why the dreams are so important. Why you need to keep dreaming. Why you'd sooner dream than live in the real world."
Dominick is turning all his persuasion, all his charm, on her. It feels like a weight, like a peine forte et dure. "My work!" she says frantically, feeling like a little girl again, confronted by an angry parent, inventing to cover up some blatant offense. It wasn't me! It was an accident! I lost it! "I need to dream for my work!"
"You never talk to me about your work any more," says Dom. Mal wants to hear hurt, sympathy, interest. What she hears instead is a calculated challenge.
You never ask, Mal doesn't say. Instead, "I'm working on a new project, looking at projections — particular projections, persistent projections, the ones who appear in dream after dream." The words come easily. It's almost as though someone else is speaking through her: someone who isn't bound by a secret she can't confide, someone who's never had a daughter who lives only in dreams. "The faces we see again and again that come, not from the real world but from somewhere in our subconscious: somewhere in humanity's shared dreamscape." ("She's not really my mother. She's just a nice lady. She comes to see me when you're not here," Philippa had told her earnestly. "She does magic, and sometimes she makes herself look different, but I always know it's her." Philippa had giggled, and Mal had made herself laugh too.)
"I see," says Dom slowly. "Have you talked to your father about it?"
"Not yet," says Mal. "Maybe we should visit."
"I can't take any time right now, Mal. The case —"
"Then maybe," says Mal icily, "I should go to Paris. Alone."
The notion is suddenly everything she wants. Nights where she can sleep alone, without the constant pressure of Dom's warm presence. Days to think about what she wants. Time to spend time; to dream.
Sex with a projection is, at best, masturbation (if it's your own projection); at worst, harassment (if the projection's spawned by someone else's mind). Arthur's okay about sex with his own subconscious. Like Woody Allen said, it's sex with someone you love: and it never gets complicated.
Never till now, anyway.
He realises he wants to see Eames again: which shouldn't happen, shouldn't be possible. Projections don't ... it's not like it's going to be the same Eames as the one who blew him and kissed him at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Never mind how often he runs into a projection that looks like and talks like and feels like Eames, there's no continuity. It's not like Eames is going to remember anything.
Not a chance in hell.
Still, he hooks himself in: twenty minutes of white noise on the iPod, followed by the Talking Heads — which has been his wake-up music since back when he first discovered shared dreaming, though now it's more ironic than anything — to signal the end of the dream. He doesn't bother with architecture going in. It's easy enough to change a dream once he's in it, and it'll be his dream: his projections aren't going to get aggressive about it.
The dream begins on a tropical beach, but Arthur's not really in the mood for sunburn and sangria: too much of a contrast with the autumn evening he left behind. He closes his eyes and concentrates on the sound of wind in the palms until it's the patter of rain on brickwork and tiles. The rush of waves becomes the sound of traffic on wet tarmac, several stories below.
"Always a pleasure, Arthur," comes a voice from behind him. English accent, light tenor, slightly slurred. "But to what do I owe this particular instance of said pleasure?"
Arthur opens his eyes. He's standing in the doorway of a narrow room, the ceiling sloping steeply above him, the lower wall given over to bookshelves, the dormer window blurred with rivulets of rain. To his left there's a big rumpled bed, crimson duvet and pale sheets.
"How long has it been?" he demands.
"Since?" says Eames lightly, putting his hand on Arthur's shoulder to move him aside as he steps into the room. Arthur watches his imperfect reflection in the spotted mirror at the end of the room. Eames is naked to the waist, and tattoos swirl around his muscles like oil in water. Arthur remembers tracing the curlicues and serifs of an unfamiliar alphabet on Eames' warm bare skin. He remembers the knowledge that he was tracing his own name. If the ink's spelling anything now, it's in a language he can't read.
"Since you last saw me," says Arthur, suddenly uncertain of his hypothesis but damned if he's going to show it.
"Just yesterday," says Eames. "Assuming you meant in dreams."
Arthur's breath hitches in his throat. He turns to stare at Eames.
"Oh, come on, Arthur. D'you think I'm an idiot?"
"No," he says honestly. (There are lots of words he uses when he thinks about Eames, but 'idiot' has never been one of them). "But you shouldn't — you can't know that."
"What shouldn't I know?" Eames settles himself on the bed, leaning back against the Rorschach patterns of the walnut headboard. A paperback novel (The Tower, Arthur registers) tumbles to the rug. "What I am? 'Know thyself', isn't that what they teach you in school? Or should I not remember where I've encountered you before?"
"You're my projection," says Arthur, brutally honest. "You came from my subconscious. I'm pretty sure there's no schools in there."
Eames doesn't respond to the feeble witticism. "If it comforts you to believe you created me," he says, "then by all means do continue to cling to that belief." The skin around his eyes creases, though he doesn't smile. "And let me be the first to congratulate you on your exceptional imagination."
"If I didn't create you, how come you're here?"
"You found me, Arthur," says Eames. "You can find me wherever you like. Though I have to say I've no idea how we found ourselves here."
"I don't even know where 'here' is," says Arthur, scowling.
"Of course you do," says Eames. "It's your subconscious, after all. The decor's all yours: I just wandered in."
"Huh," says Arthur. He moves to stand by the window, gazing out. There's a sea of green foliage, a low grey sky, the distant geometry of houses. The rain makes everything softer, greyer, blurred. "I'm guessing somewhere in England," he says. "Where do you think we are?"
It's a test. Does Eames have any imagination? Any independence?
"We're in south-west London," says Eames promptly. "Kew. More specifically, at the top of the pagoda, in Kew Gardens."
Arthur scowls out at the rain. He remembers wandering around Kew Gardens as a student, with a guy called Dave who'd been giving off frustratingly mixed signals. They'd kissed outside the pagoda, which had been locked, and dared each other to break in. Later that night, at an overcrowded party, Arthur'd seen Dave groping a bosomy blonde.
"I've never been to Kew," he lies. It's another test.
"Whatever," says Eames. "Maybe you saw it in a movie."
"Maybe I saw you in a movie," says Arthur, turning from the view to take in the sight of Eames sprawled on the bed. "Must've been a porno."
If Eames is offended, it doesn't show. He smiles that slow wicked smile, and says, "Flattery'll get you everywhere."
"How about … here?" says Arthur, crossing the room with two quick strides and looming over Eames.
"Whatever you like, Arthur," says Eames, and he's smiling again as he twists and heaves and bears Arthur down into the too-soft mattress, pressing his erection against Arthur's thigh.
"Beats jerking off in the —" snipes Arthur: but then Eames is kissing him, rough and wet and delicious, and words are overrated.
The thing is — okay. Arthur doesn't like to dream from memory: it's the easiest way to lose those memories for good, overlaying them with the brighter, tidier, finished recollection of his reconstruction. But every dream has to have some basis in reality, in the dreamer's experience. Imagination isn't actually that important: what matters is rearranging notions, images, fragments from reality into something new. Arthur's built immense, surreal towers that he could never have created if he hadn't, as a child, been taken to Paris and climbed the stairs of the Eiffel Tower. (He remembers counting out loud as he climbed. One thousand, six hundred and sixty six.) He's designed a hotel with corridors that loop and contort, just like Jack Nicholson's lair in The Shining. And that tropical beach earlier was straight off the poster on his mom's kitchen wall.
So what the fuck is the foundation of sex with Eames?
Because it's ... it's fucking amazing, is what it is. Arthur's willing to bet a considerable amount of money on never having felt this way in the waking world. He's never been reduced so quickly to a shivery, incoherent mess, sinking down onto Eames' dick, unable to stop trembling as Eames' quick, sinewy hands map every inch of his skin. He's never craved more so wholly, never wanted anyone's fingers as well as their dick, never even considered how much he could take. (Fisting? No way.) He's never been so out of control, unable to stop himself shaking to pieces around anyone, on top of anyone, someone's dick in him and him trying to push himself through someone's — through Eames' skin, into Eames' mouth. He's never lost it, never passed out when he comes, never —
— never kicked himself out of a dream by orgasm before.
He's lying on the sweaty sheets of the New York apartment. He's come in his boxers, and it hasn't started to cool yet. He's alone, and ragingly thirsty, and ragingly ...
"Fuck," he says to the empty room. "Fuck you, Eames."
"I really thought we had him," says Dom, pacing up and down the kitchen.
Mal props herself against the counter, arms folded, and watches him. These moods make her prickle. There's such an air of suppressed violence about her husband: and yes, she knows what it is that he does. She knows that he'd never deliberately hurt her. She knows that there's simply too much tension in him to dissolve on the drive home. But still: it's like being in a cage with a feral beast. She'll be glad to escape the cage, tomorrow. She'll fly free, fly to Paris, be away from this faceless dream-thief who's stolen so much of Dom's attention.
"Why are you so certain it's a man?" she says.
"I'm not certain at all," says Dom, frowning at her. "It could be a woman. You could do it," he says, smiling, gesturing towards her with the mug in his hand. She takes the cup from him (he drinks his coffee strong and black, and spillage stains the tiles) and pours him more from the cafetière. "You're as good as he is, Mal. And don't get me wrong: I'm saying 'he' because it's quicker than saying 'the offender'. There's nothing to say it's a man or a woman. Dreams have no gender."
That's not true, thinks Mal. "Tell me about your Mr X, then."
"He's good, Mal. He's incredibly good. I even ..." His gaze drops, abashed. "I emailed your father to ask if any of his graduates fitted the profile we've drawn up."
"Papa? What did he say?"
"He said if he'd had anyone with that kind of potential, he'd have moved heaven and earth to keep them on at the university." Dom shrugs. "But he'd say that anyway. He wouldn't want to set the FBI after someone he liked."
"He wouldn't protect a criminal," says Mal, though she's not wholly certain of this.
"Someone that good has to've been trained somewhere."
"Perhaps he is military? Sergeant X?"
"Nobody's left the program for years," says Dom. "No one unaccounted for, any road."
Mal knows what that look means. It means don't ask me. It means you won't like the details. It means people have died. People have been killed.
"This man," she says. "He steals ideas, yes? He is an extractor?"
"More than that. He ..." Dom scowls. "It's possible that he's pressuring his victims in some way. Coercing them to act in ways they wouldn't act. Getting that journalist to reveal his sources, even though he maintained he wouldn't."
Mal stares out of the window, thinking about blackmail. A bird perches on the balcony rail, singing its liquid song. "That's nothing out of the ordinary," she says. "A simple case of extortion. Any extractor worth his pay could do it."
"True," says Dom. "Though it was kinda smooth, you know? The one before that, and we're pretty sure this is the same guy, a marine engineering project got cancelled. He —"
"Cancelled?" Mal frowns. "How can an extractor cause something to be cancelled? He steals the ideas; he does not steal them away. Or ..." She swallows, leans back on the granite countertop, bracing herself. "Dominick, do you mean inception?"
She's terrified that the answer — despite everything she knows, despite everything her father believes — will be yes: but Dom shakes his head. "No. No, there's still no evidence that inception's even possible. No: what our man did was, he took the engineer down into a dream and made him believe that the plans he was working on were about to be stolen. — I didn't get the details, but there's something groundbreaking about this guy's work, something that could make a real difference in naval warfare. So the engineer's dreaming, and Mr X goes in and convinces him that his project's about to be dumped, unless he hands over the plans right now."
"Still, Dom, this does not sound unusual."
"Our Mr X is very creative," says Dom, almost fondly. "Okay, that time we don't think he got what he was after. The victim, the engineer, walked out of his job; retired with immediate effect, didn't even stick around to get his final salary. He's fine, by the way: we flew out to Seattle to interview him. Took the PASIV." He looks at her meaningfully. "He's forgotten the designs; forgotten everything about the project that was his life for six years. Nothing to make me think he's lying. Mr X might not have meant to do it, but when he tried to steal those plans, he left an empty space behind him."
"That's not how extraction works," says Mal. There's a cold pressure on the back of her neck, as though someone is pressing metal or stone or ice against her nape. If thoughts can truly be stolen away from a dreamer, then nothing in her mind is safe. Nothing anywhere is safe.
"Maybe the engineer destroyed the plans himself; maybe it was another subconscious reflex, a kind of self-protection. There hasn't been nearly enough work done on the mind's innate defences." Dom looks curious, intrigued. "It might be another avenue to explore for militarisation."
"What makes you so sure that these jobs are the work of the same man, of your Mr X?" asks Mal. It's an honest question. She can't see any similarities between the two extractions.
"Something," says Dom, and frowns. "Something in the flavour." He shakes his head. "It's like when I go into a room and it smells of your perfume," he says, smiling, and for the first time this evening Mal feels as though he's truly here with her. "I know you've been there. I know it was you."
"So your Mr X wears perfume?" says Mal, amused.
"It's high time someone came up with a proper vocab for dream-work," grumbles Dom, reaching out and rubbing his thumb across Mal's cheekbone. She leans into the caress. "Yeah, Mr X's mind is ... pretty distinctive."
The first thing I remember is I'm running away from the burning tower. My left eye's swollen shut with dust, or glass, or tears: that's why, just then, I can only see the world I call 'fixed'. I see yellow taxis, people running and screaming, a bright opaque sky, a chaos of light.
Like waking up in the middle of a dream: I couldn't remember where I'd come from, where I was going.
Running away. Everyone around me was running too. People were screaming: I was screaming, but I couldn't hear myself, only feel it in the stretch of my throat. I could taste panic and it wasn't only mine.
I didn't dare look behind me but I could see the reflection of a great tower in the mirrored facades of the buildings I ran past. The tower was afire, black smoke billowing from it up into a clear blue autumn sky.
I didn't know my own name. I didn't know where I'd come from or where I was going. I just knew that I was alive, and I wanted to stay that way.