When Cobb opened his eyes, it was still raining.
He had been hoping that he could count on his subconscious to rectify the troubling weather, but not only were the storm clouds as oppressive as ever, he had managed to place himself in the middle of a cross walk, with no umbrella and far removed from any shelter. Within seconds he was soaked through.
Mal's hand was still tucked neatly in his. "Are you doing this?" Cobb asked her as they crossed the street, unhurried, and ducked under Markneuheiten's entranceway.
"It is raining in the level above," Mal said coyly. "And in reality. Stein's subconscious expects rain."
Puddles sloshed at their ankles, and the feeling of icy water seeping into his socks remind Cobb of waking up in the ocean. He could almost taste salt at the back of his throat. "Mal." He faced her, her bare shoulders cold beneath his hands. "I know you're trying to help, but you can't stay here," he said. "Arthur and I can handle it. You need to go."
"Why?" She stared back at him, shivering but determined. "You need me here. I can distract Stein's projections--I can forge Jensen for you. How are you even going to get to Stein?"
"I'll figure something out. I always do." He tried to smile and wasn't successful. "But you've done enough, and it's time for you to leave. Please; I'll come back after the job and let you know how everything went. I'll even bring Arthur."
"You promised you wouldn't leave me behind," said Mal. Her eyes bore into him. "Have you forgotten?"
Cobb had to look away. His hands tightened and trembled against her shoulders, and knots lodged in his throat, and he almost gave in. "I'm breaking that promise," he said, ripping the words out. "You're staying here, Mal. I have to keep going."
Her eyes widened, but before she could reply he let go and turned away. "You're just a projection," he continued as he headed for the entrance. "I'm sorry, but this is the way it has to be, before you put the job in jeopardy."
Cobb shoved through the glass doors and there found Arthur waiting for him. "Sorry," he said as he tried, in vain, to wring some of the rain out of his coat and hair. "But I handled it, all right? She's not going to cause any trouble."
Arthur frowned past him, and when Cobb gathered the courage to glance back, he shivered at the sight of Mal still standing under the canopy where he had left her, staring straight ahead, unmoving. Stein's projections milled past her, some bumping her shoulder to no reaction.
"Are you all right?" Arthur asked.
"Fine." Cobb turned them both away from the doors and continued inside. "Let's just get this job over with."
The lobby was just as they had left it. Despite his fragmented concentration Cobb's subconscious had provided every detail in near perfect clarity, down to the colored notes in the security cubicle and Cobb's photo on the wall. Cobb slicked his hair back and instructed himself sternly not to look back a second time as he and Arthur approached security. All the date references in the building should refer Stein to a week ago, he reminded himself. I'll get back to his office--I'll suggest hiring an extractor. We'll get the name together just as Stein would have. This is going to work.
Cobb clipped his ID badge to his lapel and smiled to the guards going into the metal detector. His friendly acknowledgement was not met with the familiar nods and wave-through that he had expected; the guard eyed him coldly, and as Cobb passed he nudged his associate as if in warning. Suspicion rippled amongst the men and through the lobby like a tangible pulse, but it wasn't until Arthur shot him a hard look that Cobb knew for sure something was definitely wrong.
Cobb stepped through the metal detector and was stopped on the other side by a hand thudding onto his shoulder. "Mr. Hector," said Kortig. "Please come with me."
He looked to Arthur, who was shaking his head, tensing for a fight. "I don't suppose you had a Plan B?" Arthur asked dryly.
"I'm...working on it." Cobb sagged, but allowed Kortig to guide him no more than three steps before making a move; he shifted his weight and drove his heel back hard into Kortig's kneecap. Something gave, and with the added attack of Arthur rushing him from behind, the big man went down. More security reached for them, and Cobb very nearly took a baton to the head, but his reflexes were just sharp enough to put him ahead of their grasping hands and swinging weapons. Arthur knocked two more off their feet and then they were running full out for the stairwell.
"You said the projections would forget about us once we were down a level," said Arthur as they slammed through the door. He reached behind him and pulled a previously-absent handgun from his belt.
"Did I?" Cobb engaged the door's manual lock and then hurried up the stairs two at a time. "Stein's subconscious is even sharper than I thought."
Arthur grumbled a curse and followed. "So now what? Let them kill us so we wake up, and try again? No matter what we dream up now Stein's going to be agitated."
"I know, I know." They passed the second floor, which Cobb also locked, and kept going. "There's got to be a way we can work it to our advantage. If we can convince Stein that--"
"At this rate we're not going to even get to Stein," Arthur interrupted. "You do realize he's--"
A door banged above them, and they halted, listening. Men's voices echoed down from the fourth floor, and mixed with them the unmistakable, metallic clang of a gun slide being racked. Without other options Cobb and Arthur rushed the last few steps to the third floor landing and ducked out of the stairwell.
"I'll make us another stairwell," Cobb said as they passed the cafeteria. "Another route, straight up to Stein on the eighteenth."
Arthur shook his head. "That's how we got in trouble last time." He paused at the cafeteria window and pointed out the handful of workers that were still in their seats, lazily enjoying their morning coffee. "Right now it's just security after us, but if you start changing things again we're going to have the whole building after us--and everyone outside it. We can't fight an army, Cobb."
"No..." Cobb frowned through the window at the clueless workers. He remembered the glossy looks they had given him only minutes ago when realizing for the first time that they were not real, looks they would give him if he dared to change their environment again. It was an eerie transformation he'd seen too many times; sometimes he even wondered what it felt like to be a projection, to be oblivious, acting out his part until the moment the world turned and reminded him that he was only someone else's soulless puppet. He wondered if it felt as unrelentingly defeating as waking up out of a perfect dream into an empty hotel room.
"It's strange, isn't it," Cobb said, his hands to the glass. "Watching everyone around you realize they're not real."
Arthur cast a wary look to the stairwell door. "What?"
"I bet even someone like Stein would find it unsettling."
"What are you talking about?"
The door finally burst open, and Arthur grabbed Cobb by the arm, trying to drag him into retreat. Cobb resisted, and used his greater weight to pull Arthur back down the hall to the cafeteria entrance. "I have a plan," he assured as they weaved through the tables and headed for the kitchen. "Just play along."
"There's no way out of the kitchen," said Arthur, but with security closing in he had no choice other than to follow. "We're going to get pinned down."
"That's fine--if this doesn't work, they'll just kill us and we'll wake up." Cobb stepped instinctively over the space of floor where his chute had been and plowed into the kitchen. "Then we can start over with something else."
It took only a moment of Arthur waving his gun to get the kitchen staff out, and then he and Cobb were huddling at the back of the room behind a line of heavy cabinets. Security rushed in after them, but as soon as they were in range Cobb dreamed up a weapon of his own and fired just enough shots to make them cautious. "I have the data," he shouted. "I'll give it up, but only to Stein himself. Get him down here!"
"You're in no position to be making demands," one of the men shouted back.
"I have my cell phone here." Cobb waved it over the counter, and yanked it back just as a volley of bullets ricocheted across the countertops. Arthur winced and drew closer. "I'm going to email this data to Columbia if you don't get Stein down here to negotiate now!"
The guards clucked at each other, and when one crept closer Arthur fired a few more rounds to drive him back. "All right," came the answer. "But give up your guns."
"Not until Stein is here," said Cobb. "He's got five minutes!"
As the guards relayed the situation to their boss Arthur checked the state of his ammunition. "What are you planning?" he asked as he clicked the magazine back in place. "Even with the chance to talk to him there's no way he'll give anything up now. We're wasting time--we should just wake up."
"I have a plan," Cobb insisted. "But I don't think you'll like it." He dug his thumb into the hammer of his gun, determined to not admit that he wasn't sure he liked his plan, either. "Just let me do the talking, and follow my lead." He flashed Arthur a brief and bitter smirk. "My plans always work out, don't they? Do you still have your earbud in?"
"Yeah," Arthur replied, and he seemed to relax a little, nudging one of the metal cabinet doors across from him so that he could use it as a mirror to the entranceway. "But no, they don't always work."
Within the five minutes Stein's irritated growl echoed back to then, and Kortig's with it. "Stein is here," said Kortig. "Now throw out your weapons, both of you."
Cobb obediently tossed his handgun over the counter, and after some coaxing, Arthur did the same. Security rushed forward with guns drawn and grabbed both men, hauling them into the cafeteria to be cast in front of their boss. By then their numbers had grown to a dozen, and a dozen more of the building's staff stood around the edges of the room, watching the showdown in fear and shock. It was just as Cobb had hoped.
"Carl," said Stein, glaring down at them with cold animosity. "This is a bitter disappointment. I never would have expected a stunt like this from you."
Cobb took a deep breath. The worst that can happen is you wake up, he reminded himself, and with that reassurance he was able to assemble confidence in his face. "I'm not Carl Hector," he said. "And this isn't Kurt."
"Oh?" Stein leaned back, unimpressed. "Then who are you? You work for Columbia, I assume."
"No." Cobb licked his lips and picked the first name that came to him. "My name is Mr. Charles. I don't have any data." With one hand up to placate the guards, he retrieved his cell phone and tossed it to Kortig. "I just needed to get to you, Mr. Stein. To deliver a warning."
"A warning." Stein glanced to Kortig, who was busy tapping at the cell phone in search of its latest calls and contacts. "From whom?"
"From Jensen," said Cobb, and Stein tensed. "You hired him to look after your subconscious mind, right? Well you've been compromised. Extractors are here, and they're trying to break into your mind. I need to move you somewhere secure."
"More secure than this?" Stein gestured to the men around him, two of which were brandishing firearms, the rest armed with batons. "What extractors would be bold enough to come to my building in broad daylight, against all this security?"
Cobb met his gaze seriously. "We're not in your building, Sir," he said. "And this isn't your security."
"What are you doing?" Arthur hissed, shifting on his knees.
"You're being held in an abandoned warehouse in the industrial district," Cobb went on. All around Stein's workers stood a little taller, watched him a little more closely. "You got there after you were kidnapped from your office this morning. It's exactly what Jensen warned you about when you became interested in extraction in the first place, isn't it? This feeling that you're not where you're supposed to be. That you can't remember how and when you got here."
Stein's brow furrowed, and he started to protest, but then Cobb turned his head. Stein followed the movement of his gaze across the room and saw his projections--men and women he likely knew and saw every day--gradually going slack. The workers stopped their huddling, each personality tick melting away in favor of the broad strokes of instinctual, soulless attention. Even the guards were growing eerily silent, their fidgeting ceasing, the sweat evaporating from their brows. All around them human beings were being replaced with shadows bearing empty eyes.
Cobb had seen it a hundred times but it still chilled him; he could see that same prickling anxiety in Stein, in the way his eyes darted, and his fists tightened in his pockets. Beside him, Arthur was holding his breath, but Cobb suspected his apprehension to be focused entirely elsewhere. I'm sorry, Arthur, he thought. He gave Arthur a tiny squeeze at his elbow while Stein was distracted. He tried to convey through his eyes what he meant to do. But you were always the better decoy.
"What is this?" Stein demanded, gaping at the room that was suddenly full of strangers. "What's going on?"
"I told you--you're in the middle of an extraction." Cobb pushed slowly to his feet, and Arthur followed. He couldn't tell if Arthur had understood his message or not. "These people don't work for you. They're not real." He took a step closer. "You're dreaming, Mr. Stein. And one of these men or women is here to steal from you."
The guard on Cobb's left lifted his gun, but Cobb was expecting it, and he managed to swing his arm just in time to divert the muzzle. It left the man open for a fist to crash into his jaw. As he reeled back Cobb managed to jerk the weapon out of his hands, and he turned, aiming directly at Arthur.
Arthur flashed Cobb a look that he had seen maybe too many times, to the tune of we're going to have a conversation about this later. But he had caught on, and he lurched out of the way, allowing Cobb's shots to rip through the pair of guards that had moved to his back. With Cobb's firing as a distraction Arthur was able to incapacitate the second of the armed guards with a few quick punches, and then he dashed for the exiting, gunning down Stein's workers on the way.
Cobb kept his finger on the trigger. While several of Stein's projections gave chase after Arthur just as many stayed behind, and he backed into the wall to keep from being flanked. Stein threw himself behind a table, cursing, as Cobb made precise work of his attackers. Seeing the hapless office drones and researchers collapsing beneath rounds of lead turned his stomach, but he continued to tell himself that it was only a dream--they weren't real--they couldn't even feel it.
As soon as the cafeteria was empty Cobb rounded the nearby table and hauled Stein back to his feet. "What in God's name have you done?" Stein cried, staring at the bloodied, sometimes twitching bodies in horror. "You just--"
"Mr. Stein, you have to listen to me very carefully," said Cobb. He positioned Stein behind him and headed for the door as if protecting him. "You're dreaming right now. None of this is real--these people aren't dead, they were never people to begin with. They're projections, under the control of Columbia's extractors, and if they catch you they're going to get everything they want out of you."
Stein followed several steps behind. His bravado had not faded entirely, but he was shaken, and his eyes kept going to the bodies. "Then who the hell are you? If I'm dreaming then wake me up!"
"I can't do that, Mr. Stein." Cobb leaned into the hallway. He could no longer see Arthur or the flock of projections that had chased him out, but he could hear gunshots from down the hall. "I'm not exactly real, either."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"I'm a projection." The words came out of him almost automatically--he had no idea what he was really doing or where it would take him, but Stein's attention was absolute. It was his only chance. "Jensen implanted me in your subconscious so that you'd be protected from extraction like this."
"Subconscious security?" When Cobb moved into the hall it took Stein a moment to steel himself into the same. "But I didn't hire Jensen for that."
"Jensen's a tricky man," said Cobb, biting back a scowl. He waved for Stein to follow him to the elevator. "Listen; I don't think the sedation will last long, but we're totally outnumbered here. We need to find you someplace secure, and..." Cobb's pulse fluttered with a moment of inspiration. "I need backup. We have to get your mind to provide us with projections that can help us fight off these extractors."
"But if I'm dreaming, weren't those my projections?" said Stein.
Cobb held out his hand. "Give me your override key for the elevator."
Stein hesitated but finally handed it over. "I know a thing or two about shared dreaming," he said. "If you're a projection why is it that you--"
"Please, Mr. Stein, there isn't time to explain dream concepts this complicated." The elevator opened, and once they were inside Cobb used Stein's key to bypass the security lockout and set them on a path directly to the basement garage. "We need to appeal to your instinctual subconscious--fight these extractors with extractors already on your side. Fire with fire, understand?"
"No, I don't understand," Stein continued to protest. He edged away from Cobb, watching him suspiciously. "How about you dream us up an army if what we need is firepower?"
"It doesn't work that way." Cobb hesitated to push further, but if Stein actually knew as much about shared dreaming as he claimed, he would have been caught already. I'll just have to keep close track of my bullshit. "We need to find your projection of Jensen, or find a way to make your mind produce him. Can you call him?"
Stein shook his head but pulled his phone out anyway. "This is absurd," he grumbled as he dialed. "How do I know you're not an extractor?"
"If I was I would have you tied to a chair by now," Cobb said without missing a beat. "Torturing you for information." When Stein glanced up, Cobb made his face hard. "That's why they do extraction, you know. Torture in the mind doesn't leave scars."
Stein tried not to look intimidated as he put the phone to his ear. "Jensen." He pursed his lips and covered the mic to speak to Cobb. "But this isn't really Jensen, this is...my projection?"
"Tell him to meet us," Cobb insisted. "Somewhere safe. And to bring any extractors in town with him."
He hefted his gun just in case Stein was considering more stall tactics, and it did the trick; Stein related Cobb's plan. Taking the brief window for what it was, Cobb turned away just enough to whisper for his earbud, "Arthur?"
"You're crazy," Arthur huffed. He sounded like he was running. "This is never going to work. What are you even telling him? You can't just make up the rules."
Cobb wanted to reply Of course I can, but Stein was already hanging up, and the elevator doors were opening. "Let's move," he said, pushing Stein through.
A few straggling workers turned into dream killers as soon as Cobb and Stein entered the garage. Fortunately Stein's imagination hadn't improved since the first level, and Cobb had no problem taking care of a few clumsy office drones. They piled into Stein's luxury car, Cobb behind the wheel, peeling out into the abominable rain.
"I'm pinned down in the fucking executive bathroom," Arthur reported. Even in Cobb's ear it was difficult to make him out over the pounding on the roof and traffic blaring all around them. "I'm not sure I can get out of this."
"Where did you tell Jensen to meet us?" Cobb asked of Stein as he swerved out of the path of a racing SUV.
"Winde Café." Stein sank into the leather seat to peer out the window with as little of himself visible as possible.
"I said somewhere secure."
"It's where he asked to meet before," Stein grumbled.
When he pointed out the next turn Cobb remembered he knew the place: the same café Jensen had arranged their first pickup to be. "Winde Café," Cobb repeated. His dream Berlin was too much of a maze for Stein's projections to be able to locate the place based on a name, but Arthur would--hopefully--remember the layout. The basic structure was a maze he had used before.
As usual, Arthur understood him perfectly. "I'll try to get there, but there's a mob of them trying to get in here." He was interrupted by a cacophony of gunfire. "And no, don't go altering things now; it'll just get you caught faster. You're on your own."
Cobb clenched his teeth and forced the pedal down.
The maze served its purpose. Stein's projections were fierce but not organized, and by the time Cobb made the last turn he had lost any pursuers that had been on their tail. He screeched into the first available parking space and hauled Stein onto the sidewalk. A face and a name, that's all we need, he thought, and as they hurried from awning to awning he spotted Jensen huddling with a stranger just outside Winde's picture window. Cobb's pulse raced.
The stranger's back was turned. He was broad-shouldered, with short, brown hair slicked back by the rain. Cobb couldn't identify him by his worn suit alone, but he took quick notice of a watch chain disappearing into his pocket. Only half a block away, their target stood waiting. All he needed was the name.
A gun hammer clicked close to his temple. Cobb halted, and before he even had time to look, chilled fingertips brushed the shell of his ear and plucked out his earbud. It tapped quietly against the sidewalk and was crushed beneath a woman's heel moments later.
"Shh. You don't want Arthur to hear this."
Cobb tried not to look. His goal was only a few shops away--Jensen had even noticed them and was looking their way. If only the man he was with would turn, he would at least have a face. When the muzzle of a handgun kissed the side of his throat, he had little choice left. "Mal...." He turned, a cold sweat mingling with the rain already soaking through him. "What are you doing here?"
A strand of hair clung to the corner of Mal's lips when she smiled. "Arthur was right," she said, and when she turned her eyes on Stein, Cobb took a step to put himself between them. "You can't just make up the rules."
"Who is this?" Stein demanded. He glanced nervously to the projections on the street who were gradually becoming alerted to the poised handgun. "Is she...?"
"I understand," said Mal. Her smile faltered, and when she drew it back it was tight, almost pained. "You don't need me anymore. I knew it would come to this; that you would try to leave me behind."
"We don't have time for this," Cobb said, his heart inching up his throat. He took Stein by the elbow and started to lead him down the sidewalk, but Mal circled in front of them, and when she turned her weapon on Stein Cobb was forced again to halt. "Mal, please--I told you, we'll sort this all out later."
Mal shook her head slowly. "But I won't let you," she said, with the quiet finality he knew too well. "Whatever you think you have to do, I won't be the one to leave you behind."
Stein glanced between them, and as the city-goers crowded closer to them, he seemed to realize that their attention was entirely on Cobb instead of him. He straightened up. "Who are you?" he demanded again, this time of Cobb. "Who is Mr. Charles?"
Mal smirked. "Mr. Charles," she repeated. "Wasn't that the name you gave your secret agent persona? When you were in the fourth grade?"
"Mal," said Cobb, his hand tight around his gun. He looked past her, where the light had faded from Jensen's eyes and he was stalking forward with the same mindless malice of Stein's other projections. He held his breath, expecting the stranger to do the same, but instead the broad-shouldered man slipped back into the café without having ever presented his face.
"I saw your old journals when we moved," Mal went on. "With your Mr. Charles adventures. I'm not surprised it's the name you used."
Stein backed away. "I was right--it's you." He shook his finger at Cobb as the projections moved in around him, shielding him. "You're the extractor!"
Cobb took in a deep breath; he had only one option left. "Even if you try to wake up, you can't," he told Stein, forcing whatever confidence he could into the words. "There's only one way to beat an extractor, and that's with another extractor."
He turned to run. The café door wasn't far and he knew the interior wasn't large--there was still a chance of catching up to the stranger. He didn't make it more than four steps. Stein's projections swarmed him in a fury, grabbing his arms and kicking his legs out from under him. He hit the sidewalk hard, bruising his elbows and knees, still struggling. Then the bullet hit. It was a kind shot, all things considered: pierced his heart clear through. He was granted only a brief sensation of the blood pouring out of him, of rain spitting into his open wound, before the earth fell out from under him and the dream stripped away.
Cobb awoke in the warehouse, sweating. As he twisted in his chair, disoriented and gasping, Arthur grabbed for his wrist. "Cobb?" The needle stung on its way out. "Cobb, are you all right? Did you get it?"
"Arthur?" Cobb waved him off. A vigorous rub to his face helped with his clarity, but just as he tried to formulate a proper answer he was cut off by the roar of gunfire. His hands flew to his ears and he scanned the room for the source.
Their warehouse stood in shambles. All around the walls had caved in, and holes gaped in the ceiling, leaving the concrete floors slick with rain. Many of the jagged openings had been crudely bandaged with wooden planks and lines of razor wire, like a battlefield trench. As Cobb gaped at the transformed scenery he finally located their dreamer, squatting in the doorway barricaded with bricks and hunks of raw steel. He had changed to fit the new backdrop; instead of a mechanic's uniform, Bone was clad in gray army fatigues, loaded with equipment, an automatic rifle barking in his hands and a cigarette burning out the corner of his mouth.
Bone glanced back during a break in the volley. "Did you get it?"
Cobb smeared the spot of blood on his forearm and checked on Stein. "What the hell happened up here?"
Bone ripped a grenade off of belt, pulled the pin, and hurled it past his barricades. The blast ripped down an already crumbling wall, revealing a collection of Stein's projections: German GSG 9 units in full tactical attire, armed to their gills. Bone's rifle picked off a pair of them while the rest escaped to better cover.
Bone tossed his rifle to Arthur, who automatically reloaded it from a crate of ammunition in the corner, and in the meantime resorted to a handgun. "Little while after you went under, the projections went apeshit on me," he said. "Did you break cover?"
"Stein knows he's dreaming," replied Arthur. He slid into position next to Bone and steadied the rifle, taking careful aim at the police and various military officers trying to approach through the cluttered warehouses. The ease and precision with which he took on his new role as gunner was as impressive as ever, and Cobb appreciated it even more when he didn't elaborate on how their cover had been blown. "Level two is collapsing, which means this one probably won't remain stable for long, either."
Bone grunted. "Do you need it to be stable? Did you get the name or not?"
Cobb hunkered down with them, though after seeing the efficiency of Bone and Arthur's cooperation decided it best not to interrupt with his own, comparably modest marksmanship. "It's a man," he said. "Built, Caucasian, brown-haired. Mid to late thirties, maybe. I didn't see his face but it wasn't someone I recognized."
"McAllister?" Bone suggested. "Grace?"
"No--not American." Cobb glanced back and noted uneasily that Stein was beginning to stir. "Arthur's introduced me around that circle."
"Sergei?" offered Arthur, but Bone immediately shook his head.
"Couldn't be Sergei," he said grimly.
A gasp alerted them to the pair still connected to the PASIV behind them. Even having been given a few minutes Cobb had not prepared in the slightest for what he would do when Mal's wide brown eyes were on him again. He was spared having to choose; as soon as she lurched upright, a gun in her hand, Cobb caught movement out of the corner of his eye. The gunshots from so close were almost deafening, and his ears rang as he watched bullet after bullet rip into Mal's fluttering sundress. Her body tumbled from the office chair as if in slow motion and crumpled without a sound.
Cobb's body moved without him; he gripped Bone's arm in both hands, shoving his aim off in vain. "What are you doing?" he shouted, senseless, a taste of bile at the back of his throat. Mal's blood seeped across the concrete. "What the hell was that for?"
"Get off me or I'll shoot you, too!" Bone snarled, and when Cobb didn't let go fast enough, he punched Cobb full in the face. "I'm fucking sick of this!"
Cobb collapsed onto his back. His entire head was throbbing, and blood poured into his sinuses and down the back of his throat. Bone and Arthur were still arguing overhead, but he couldn't make them out--everything was blurring and buzzing. When he tried to roll himself upright he only made it to his side, and was put at unwitting eye level with the gory results of Bone's temper. He shuddered. Mal's eyes were closed but her lips were upturned, as if she had expected it. As if she had welcomed it.
Stein was making a run for it. Arthur tried to intercept, but the earth pitched beneath them, and all around the decaying warehouses began to rumble and collapse. Each falling raindrop tore at the buildings and surrounding vehicles like bullets raking Bone's dream apart at the seams. The whole world was falling apart. Cobb dropped onto his back again and stared, disoriented and nauseas from the overwhelming taste of the blood dripping into his lips. For one mad instant he was convinced that it was Mal's blood, and he was so terrified by the prospect that he almost didn't notice Jensen trying to breach Bone's haphazard perimeter.
The police were swarming in--some were trying to reclaim Stein, others pouncing on Bone in his distraction. More than their attire was uniform. Cobb stared blearily from one to the next, despite his present state more than certain that he was not mistaken: every man was Jensen. Each officer was long-faced and spectacled, with Jensen's pursed lips and Jensen's unimpassioned eyes. Stein had made an army of him.
"Only an extractor can beat another extractor."
Cobb blinked up at the broad-shouldered stranger standing over him. Mid-thirties, brown-haired, unshaven, lips full and smiling. A gun in his hand and a watch chain disappearing into his pocket.
"Isn't that what you said, Mr. Charles?" the man said, crouching down next to Cobb. "And what if I'm more than an extractor?"
Cobb scarcely breathed. He could hear Bone's curses turn to a wet gurgle, and somewhere even closer, Arthur fell over dead. Sickening, that he recognized the sound. "What's more than an extractor?" he asked hoarsely.
The stranger flashed a bitter smirk. "Inception, Mr. Charles." He pressed the muzzle of his gun against Cobb's suddenly racing heart. "Give my regards to Ms. Weston."
When Cobb woke up, the rain no longer surprised him.
He kept his eyes closed for a moment, listening to the sound of it on the roof of the ambulance. He breathed it into his lungs, tasted antiseptic and felt the vehicle jostle with every uneven patch of road. "British," he said. "A British accent. Whiskers, and bad teeth." His fists clenched at his sides. "Stein must think he's pretty good."
Bone went very still next to him. "British," he repeated. "Fuck."
Arthur twisted in his seat. "Sound like someone you know?"
"Yeah." When Cobb opened his eyes he felt a childish satisfaction from the discomfort in Bone's face. "It's fucking Eames."
"Eames," Cobb echoed. "Who is he?"
Bone leaned forward to check Stein's pulse. "You can go ahead and give his name to Weston," he said. "It's not like she'll ever catch him anyway."
Cobb settled--he kept his eyes on Stein and his mouth shut for the rest of the trip to the hospital. He could feel Arthur watching him but he pretended not to notice. He replayed Eames' words over and over in his mind, and had to tell himself several times that the man was only a projection, relating boasts from Stein's subconscious. It didn't make it any less unsettling.
The ambulance pulled into Franziskus Hospital, and Cobb tried to stay out of the way as Bone helped their driver unload Stein into the nurses' hands and Arthur casually repacked the PASIV. "We should split up," he found himself suggesting as he leaned against the back bumper. "Meet back up at the hotel later. I'll go to Weston with what we have."
"The job included finding out what this 'Eames' is after," said Arthur. "We don't have that."
For the first time in a long while, Cobb ached for a cigarette. "Then maybe we don't get all our fee. I'll try to swing it as much as I can, but I don't think we'll have another chance at Stein." He looked to Bone. "Or you could just ask Eames what he's up to, since you seem to know him."
Bone's hands twitched in the pockets of his jackets. "Transfer my share of whatever she ends up paying," he told Arthur. "It'll be enough." He scowled. "I'm getting out of Europe for a while."
"I'm sorry, for this," said Arthur. "You were right--I owe you."
"Yeah, you do." He shook Arthur's hand and glanced only briefly to Cobb. "Take care of yourself."
Bone stalked off, shedding his EMT jacket on the way. The hospital staff looked on in confusion as he stuffed it into a trashcan and kept going. Cobb and Arthur made the slightly less conspicuous choice of dumping theirs in the back of the ambulance before beating a hasty retreat.
"At least it wasn't a total bust, I guess," said Arthur as they took to the sidewalk. When Cobb didn't reply, he cast him a sideways look. "What?"
"What?" Cobb repeated, staring straight ahead.
"What's wrong? You've got that look on your face."
Cobb didn't slow. "I don't have any look."
"How did you know he was British?" Arthur persisted. A cab pulled up to the curb and he stuck his arm out to catch it. "You didn't learn that in level two."
"I gave Stein a suggestion." Cobb opened the door. "His subconscious followed up. Honestly I'm a little surprised it worked..."
Cobb slipped into the cab, and was so distracted by his racing thoughts that it wasn't until he started to scoot over that he realized the cab wasn't empty. A man was already nestled into the far seat: broad-shouldered, brown-haired, whiskers. The sight of him smirking at them with such calm contemplation sent Cobb's hand quickly into his pocket. He pressed his thumb into the tip of his totem until it stung but still wasn't sure he could trust it.
"Good day, gentlemen," said Eames as Arthur hesitantly joined them. "Where to?"
Arthur glanced between the two of them warily. "Cobb?"
Cobb took in a sharp breath and managed to fit a smile into place. "Mr. Eames, isn't it?" When Arthur started, Cobb gave his wrist a squeeze to keep him still. "I expected that we'd meet sooner or later, but maybe not this soon."
"I couldn't pass up the opportunity to meet the new Americans on this side of the pond," said Eames. "Now, then. Where were you headed? The driver's waiting for a destination."
Arthur shifted anxiously and related, "The Marriott, Postdamer." Not the hotel they were staying in. "How did you know to find us here?" he asked. "Did Jensen sell us out, too? Not even he knew we were going after Stein today."
Eames snorted. "Sell out? And here I thought you knew the man. Jensen's actions can't be described in such petty terms." He settled more comfortably in his seat. "As it happens, I had my own dealings with Herr Stein today. And the very lovely Greta, though I don't believe you've met the young lady."
His smile was hard, searching, but Cobb wasn't about to give him too much. "Stein's secretary. No, I haven't had that pleasure. What do you want?" he quickly changed the subject. "Are you going to turn us in?"
"He can try," Arthur muttered. "And see how far he gets."
Eames laughed. "Tense, aren't we? What's the matter? Didn't get what you wanted from Herr Stein? He's a tough old nut to crack, that's for certain. He must have been a joy to work on." When Arthur made a face, he went on. "You ought to know, the authorities are not the ones that you truly have to worry about. The worst they do is lock you up, after all."
Cobb continued to finger his totem, but no matter how many times he traced its familiar curves, it still felt too far away from him. "For some people, being locked up is the worst they can do," he said grimly.
Eames frowned thoughtfully. He kept Cobb's gaze for a long moment as if fully comprehending the meaning behind the weary admission. "Indeed."
"So," Cobb said, trying to push past it. "You're not going to turn us in."
"Now why would I want to do that?" Eames shrugged his own slight discomfort off. "Few enough good players in Europe at the moment to work with, after all. Most seem to burn themselves out after a few jobs and aren't in it for the long run. You just appeared on the scene recently, from what I gather, though your contacts are good."
"And?" Arthur asked when Eames trailed off.
"I'm taking care of a few loose ends here in Berlin, but I'll be leaving soon enough. It is a very lovely place to visit." A touch of true irritation marred his face. "You've made my job a bit more difficult, but it remains to be seen if it all worked out or not. Such is the nature of the field."
Cobb's heart skipped, and though he knew better than to tip his hand, he couldn't help himself. "So you've done it already," he blurted out. "You were at Stein's collecting payment." When he followed the thought to its logical end he wanted to gloat, imagining the resistance Eames must have come upon in a freshly militarized dreaming mind, but something approaching panic was already simmering at the back of his lungs. "Did it work?"
Eames gave away nothing in his face. "Only time will tell."
The cab slowed outside the Marriott, and when Cobb reached for his wallet Eames abruptly smiled and motioned for him not to bother. "On me," he said. "Consider it a friendly gesture from a possible future colleague."
Arthur frowned incredulously. "After all that, you want to work together?"
"You can find me through the usual channels," Eames continued. "Jensen always keeps in touch with the ones in the business worth knowing." His lip quirked, and he offered his hand. "No need to hold grudges, is there?"
Cobb shook his hand despite Arthur's look of disapproval. "None at all."
They climbed out of the taxi, the last sight of Eames a flash of his smirk before he was driven away. Cobb and Arthur stood together in the rain, watching until it had turned a corner to seek another cab. "What the hell was that about?" Arthur grumbled.
"Not entirely sure." Cobb forced himself to let go of his totem as they climbed into the new cab. "But we need to get to Columbia."
"Half a fee is better than no fee," said Cobb when, an hour later, he and Arthur at last returned to their hotel. "And there's still the forty grand she paid us for the training. I'll make sure Bone gets the twenty he was promised."
Arthur shook his head as he peeled out of his vest. "Christ, Dom, what a job. I still can't quite get my head around what happened down there." He tried to watch Cobb without looking like he was watching. "For a second there, I thought that 'Mr. Charles' bullshit of yours was going to work."
"It did work," said Cobb. He stripped out of his layers of soaked clothing--it stuck to him like extra layers of skin, and he felt an uncharacteristic, almost manic relief with every piece removed. "It didn't get the projections off our back but it convinced Stein. I was only a few steps away from Eames the first time--it would have worked."
"So what went wrong?"
It was the tone Arthur used when he already knew the answer. Cobb kept his back turned, modesty his excuse as he changed into a dry shirt and loose-fitting pants. "It was my fault," he heard himself say. "I tipped him off. It was stupid, really. But now I know it can work." He gave his hair a brief toweling, just because it prevented Arthur from catching his eye a while longer. "Not to mention that suggestion I gave Stein traveled up a level. We didn't make the money we wanted, but it was worth it."
Arthur watched him a while longer, expecting more, but Cobb offered none. His thoughts were still whirling around the last important information he had learned and was withholding: everything was about to change. All of the shared dreaming community, rocked to its core by a concept he had hoped would never reach the waking world. Almost without realizing, Cobb retrieved his totem and spun it on the bedside table. Its quiet, rhythmic hum was lost to the rain.
Arthur stood still and silent, waiting until the top had wobbled enough to satisfy Cobb before fishing his wallet out of his pants pocket. "I'm going down to the restaurant for some lunch," he said slowly. "I'm starving. Are you coming? Or do you want to..."
He glanced to the PASIV. Cobb looked, too, and despite being finally out of the rain, his fingertips went numb with cold. She was waiting for him--he could feel her, brimming at his edges, her hands sliding into his. He could taste her blood at the back of his throat.
"No--I'll come with you." Cobb drew himself to Arthur's side. "We still have a lot to talk about." He touched Arthur's shoulder to turn him away from the PASIV.
"You mean, Eames?" Arthur supposed as they left the room together.
"Jensen. We still have a fee to settle, and something to bargain with, considering we didn't sell him out after all." Cobb closed the door behind them. "And I think...we might have to ask him about helping us find a new architect."
Thank you for reading! And don't forget to check out The Meier Job!
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