[identity profile] kiyala.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] shannys_corner

I've received several questions about this, despite the fact that it has nothing to do with the stories we cover, so I've decided to address this in a proper post in the hopes that it will put an end to the unnecessary questions.

I am going to talk about the nature of my relationship with Eames.

Yes, we live together and no, we are not romantically involved. And no, that does not mean you can have him, because I will happily shoot the first person who tries to take him from me.

People seem to struggle to understand this, but it makes perfect sense to me. Just like it makes perfect sense to Eames.

People say co-dependency like it's a dirty word. I simply have this to say: if you want to take on a shambling horde of the reanimated dead on your own, be my guest. Eames is an idiot, but he knows how to take care of himself. Without him, I wouldn't have been able to write half the articles I have, and I'm not stupid enough to take that for granted.

Nor am I willing to risk what we have. I pride myself on telling the truth, so I will say this much. We’ve had our moments, where all we would have needed is a little push. Maybe, if we’d ever acted on them, this would be an entirely different post. Yes, we are attracted to each other. Yes, we spend a vast majority of our time together.

No, we are not stupid enough to let that interfere with our work.

Thank you, and please stop asking.

—From Paradox, the blog of Arthur Wolff, July 30, 2040.

It’s interesting, Arthur thinks, how something can be so easy and yet so difficult at the same time.

He leans back in his chair, toes braced on the floor, hand braced on his keyboard. There’s nothing to do, really, but wait. He holds his breath, counts the seconds in his head, and does just that. He waits.

Of course, Eames is the first to notice the article. It’s no surprise, when he was expecting it. Still, of all the people will who read it, of all the opinions they will have, this is the one that matters the most to Arthur. Eames hasn’t read the several drafts Arthur has made of this one article. He hasn’t seen the notes, scribbled into Arthur’s notebook, crossed out, rewritten and reordered. He doesn’t need to see any of it to know how much Arthur has struggled to write this. Eames has had no input in the article, because he trusts Arthur to say things as they are. It’s what Arthur does. It’s his job as a Newsie, reporting the unfiltered truth, but Arthur had picked the job in the first place for a good reason. It’s just the way he is, and Eames knows that, better than anybody else.

Eames’ only reaction when he’s done reading is to nod. It’s just a subtle movement, as natural as a breath. The only reason Arthur notices is because he’s watching for it. The gesture, as small as it is, fills Arthur with relief. It’s not often that he needs Eames’ approval on anything he writes. Those years are long behind them, but this is personal. This is about them and it had been the first time Arthur can remember being unsure of what Eames will think.

His thoughts must show, because Eames flashes him a grin. It’s meant to be reassuring, but Arthur can only manage the smallest quirk of his lips in response. They’ve been with each other for so long that there’s no need for words. The silence between them is comforting in its own way, disturbed only by the low humming of the several computers set up in the office and the music blaring from Ariadne’s headphones.

At that precise moment, Ariadne’s music stops, the ensuing silence filling the entire room. Arthur and Eames look at each other, both of them knowing what is coming.

“Whoa.” Ariadne turns in her chair, pulling her earphones out of her ears. She looks between the two of them with a broad grin on her face. “You know, I always did wonder when we’d get any actual facts about what’s going on with you guys.”

“Well, there you go,” Arthur says simply. He turns away from her, his gaze already sliding back to his computer screen, where he can see the hit counter for their site steadily rising. He sighs quietly, uncomfortable even though he’d known not to expect any different.

“It would be different, if you didn’t go into the field, right?” Ariadne asks. Arthur had known to anticipate her questions too, and he’s prepared himself for them. Still, nothing can stop the strange tightness in his chest when she says, “If you didn’t have to worry about it interfering with your work, then you could be together.”

Eames clears his throat, picking up on Arthur’s discomfort. “Ariadne, why don’t you start getting the van ready for that trip we wanted to take out to Santa Cruz?”

“Now?” Ariadne is clever enough to know when the subject is being changed, and why. She’s also clever enough to play along. Tapping at her keyboard with one hand, she logs out of her computer and gets to her feet. “Okay. I’ll go and find Yusuf.”

Arthur waits until she’s out of the room before glancing in Eames’ direction. “Thank you.”

Eames simply smiles in reply. Without looking away from Arthur, he asks in a low voice, “How do you feel? Is it any different, now that it’s out in the open?”

With a laugh that is a touch shakier than Arthur would like, he shakes his head. “Why would it be? It’s been five years, to the date, since we realised that we have… this. Since we decided that it was better not to act on it. We’ve been dealing with it for so long. Why would it feel any different now, just because we’ve acknowledged it to other people?”

Eames raises an eyebrow at Arthur’s words, but says nothing as he logs out of his computer. Arthur folds his arms across his chest, suddenly and inexplicably defensive. Eames only gives him an amused look and Arthur opens his mouth to ask what’s so amusing, when Ariadne calls to them from the other room.

“If you’re planning on riding in the open, I’m not letting you out of the house until you’re both suited up,” she informs them. Not that either of them are stupid enough to wander into zombie territory without making sure they’re properly armoured, but it takes time to put it all on. If they want to get moving soon, they don’t have the time to stand around, but Arthur is far too aware of just how sharp Ariadne is to believe that her timing is just by chance.

“We’re getting ready,” he calls back, briefly catching his reflection in the blank monitor of his computer. His expression is mostly blank, but he can spot his own tells and that means that Eames can, too. He glances over his shoulder at Eames, who is still watching him. “You try and skimp on your armour and I’m kicking your ass before Ariadne even gets to tell you off.”

“I’m an Irwin, Arthur,” Eames complains, even though his eyes are smiling. “You can’t make a career out of poking at undead things and then expect views when you go out armoured from head to toe.”

Rolling his eyes, Arthur leads the way upstairs, to the section of the house they use as a living area rather than a workspace. He and Eames have extended their rooms into one, joined by a sliding screen that they can open or close whenever they want. It’s kept open most of the time, because they know each other well enough to know when to keep to themselves. Arthur walks into their room, walking straight to Eames’ closet and pulling the doors open.

“Here,” he says, pulling out an assortment of clothing. He drops the Kevlar vest, reinforced jacket and gloves on Eames’ bed. “These are non-negotiable. If you’re clever, you’ll wear something more protective than cargos. If hell feels like freezing over, you’ll wear goggles for once.”

“Sorry.” Eames smiles, not looking apologetic in the least. “If I’m going to be recording videos, they’ll need to see my face.”

“I’m sure your viewers are clever enough to know it’s you anyway,” Arthur says dismissively, going to his own closet and pulling his assortment of body armour out.

“Ah, but it’s important to connect with them. Besides, would you turn down the chance to look at this face?”

Arthur’s hands falter, and Eames falls silent, turning to him.

“You’re sure that nothing’s changed—”

“Of course,” Arthur interrupts heatedly. His grip tightens on the jacket in his hands, and he holds Eames’ gaze.

With a quiet chuckle, Eames reaches for the screen that separates their rooms. “Five years, Arthur. Five years of this, and several years more of knowing each other, and you’re still absolutely rubbish at lying to me.”

Eames leads the way out on his bike. It’s one that he’s built mostly from scratch, with a light frame for speed and cameras mounted on the front so he can record on the go. It’s the reason that both Ariadne and Arthur are so insistent that Eames wears enough protective gear, because he’s the most vulnerable of them all. Yet, there’s something inherent in all Irwins that drives them to go looking for trouble—especially when it gets people to watch.

Ariadne and Yusuf are better protected, following behind Eames in the team’s van. It’s heavily armoured and acts as their base of operations when they’re not back at the house, and it has enough cameras built in to get a clear picture at any angle. It’s Yusuf’s pride and joy, as he’s the one who has made all the modifications to it.

Arthur brings up the rear on his own bike. He’s customised it rather than building it, so it’s sleeker than Eames’ and much sturdier. It has an engine that lets him match Eames in speed, and although neither of them are wearing helmets, Arthur is at least wearing his sunglasses. He’s heard enough stories about people undergoing amplification just from a zombie spitting in their eyes that a pair of glasses with a light tint to them are up there among the things he’ll never go into the open without, just like his Kevlar vest.

When the Kellis-Amberlee virus first started turning people into the shambling, mindless monsters of the old horror films, the facts were not handled well. The initial news reports had dismissed the Rising as nothing more than a large-scale prank, and this had cost more than just lives.

There are still entire countries that haven't been reclaimed, more than thirty years later. Places that hadn't been able to fight back with enough force and found themselves overwhelmed. America has such cities; zombie territory, surrounded by a buffer of ghost towns that aren’t inhabited by humans, but are routinely cleaned out with enough fire power that the zombies don’t take them either.

They’re travelling through a ghost town now, decaying buildings and barren earth, all covered in scorch marks. If there are any infected stragglers hiding among the rusting metal here, they’re too isolated and probably too underfed to pose a real threat. Not that this stops Arthur from pulling his gun out the moment he sees a zombie emerging from the ruins. It's slow and decomposing with every step it takes. Arthur's suppressor keeps the gun from alerting any others to their presence, and he keeps riding onwards once he sees the zombie fall.

“Perfect headshot, as usual,“ Yusuf says approvingly. “Rear and side cameras caught that one. I’ll make sure it's nice and edited so we can add it to your field report later.“

“Oh, you love reminding everyone that you’re the fearless Newsie, don’t you Arthur?“ Eames joins in on the communication link.

“Just the way you love playing up the senseless Irwin,“ Arthur replies, holstering his gun again.

“Guys, if you’re going to start with the banter, at least wait until we’ve got a live feed going. The audience loves it—and I’m pretty sure they’ll like it even more now.“

Arthur is silent, his brows furrowing, but Eames says, “Do it.“

“What?“ the other three ask, all at once.

“The live feed,“ Eames replies, just as casual as always. “You think it will get us more hits, so do it.“

No one says anything for a long moment, until Arthur speaks up. “Fine. Once we’re in zombie country.“

Eames’ laugh is quiet and bitter. “Arthur, the whole damn world is zombie country.“

Several things have changed since the Rising. For one, people don’t go out as much during the day, and not at all during the night. Zombies have better night vision than humans do, and it’s a risk that only the stupid or the unfortunate take. Most people live in secure, gated communities that require at least two blood tests to get in or out of. And traditional media has lost its good reputation. It’s no longer trusted the way it was in the days before Kellis-Amberlee. It’s why there are blogs all over the internet, run by teams like Inception, reporting the news, talking about the state of the world. It's Arthur's job, as the head Newsie, to remain detached and objective—a job that he is sometimes told that he does too well. The Irwins like Eames are all about making the best of a bad situation. Fictionals, like Ariadne, are extremely popular when they’re as talented as she is, softening the harsh reality of the world by providing an escape through their art.

Yusuf is their glorified technical support, maintaining their servers, keeping their cameras functioning, and editing anything that requires it. He’s also got the added bonus of having the same level of weapons training the rest of them do. The law dictates that trips such as these cannot be made without the right license. It essentially equates to requiring that they can all make accurate headshots with the vast assortment of weapons they carry with them, and if it means having an extra pair of eyes and another person to shoot at the zombies, none of them are complaining.

“We’re almost there,” Eames says, breaking the silence that has settled between them. “If you’re going to set up a feed, you’d best get started now.”

“Right,” Yusuf replies. “I’ll check that your picture’s clear.”

“Of course it is.” The confidence in Eames’ tone is justified. The arguably fun part of his job is the part where he goes head-first into trouble armed with a crowbar or whatever else he has at hand. The business part is making sure that his cameras catch everything in great detail.

“Arthur?” Ariadne asks. “What about you?”

“What about me?” he returns the question.

“Are we setting up a live feed for you too? Of course, it would be so much easier to set up the cameras and mics if either of you ever wore helmets—”

“Save it,” Arthur interrupts. There’s a good reason he doesn’t bother with a helmet; if he falls off his bike in the middle of a horde of zombies, cracking his head open would be the best possible outcome. “I don’t need to record anything live. You’ll get my voice on Eames’ feed and that’s enough.”

Ariadne doesn’t say anything else and they continue forward in silence, save for the sound of Yusuf checking recording settings with Eames.

Although they all have blogging licenses that allow them deeper into zombie territory, they drive a few miles in and stop. It’s pointless to court any more trouble than strictly necessary, and with Arthur’s latest blog post, they won’t need to worry about drawing traffic to their site for a while yet. They’re here because none of them are fond of sitting idle, and as much as they insist that Eames is their resident thrill-seeker, there’s only so long that any of them can resist the siren song of danger.

“Do you hear anything?” Ariadne asks once they’ve stopped the van.

“Just picking up the normal levels of background noise,” Eames reports, glancing around the area. They don’t hear the tell-tale moaning of an approaching horde, but there’s definitely not the pin-drop silence that warns of an even bigger group. Revving his bike, Eames takes his favourite crowbar out of its built-in holder. “Let’s go find some fun.”

The zombies aren’t hard to find, especially when Eames is so well-versed in rounding them up. As mindless as they are individually, they only become smarter as their numbers increase. It’s one of the main reasons that it’s so difficult to survive a large-scale attack, but Eames has found a small group of three. Enough to keep their audience entertained, but not enough to pose a real threat. He drives small circles around them, crowbar prodding at them enough to irritate them. They’re all old and decaying, their bodies close to failing. Even if the Kellis-Amberlee virus keeps them going after their first death, there’s only so much food to sustain them in a remote area like this, where there’s hardly any fresh meat to feed on. Eventually, they decompose and they die, for good the second time. The closer they get to their second deaths, the more sluggish they are, faces sagging and limbs no longer co-operating.

It makes Eames bold—bolder than he normally is. He gets too close to the zombies for Arthur’s comfort, riding into their reach before circling back out. Where Eames has built-in cameras, Arthur’s attached small screens to his bike, allowing him to monitor the site’s statistics on the go. He can see that Eames’ antics—maniacal laughter and all—are definitely making the watchers happy, but that doesn’t ease his worry at all.

Arthur revs his bike, and even though Eames’ engine is the louder one, he captures the zombies’ attention as he makes a big circle around them. He scans the area for any lurking zombies that would turn this from a manageable situation into something far more serious.

“Nobody likes a show-off, darling!” Eames calls after him cheerfully, and Arthur can hear him both in the physical distance between them as well as over their communication link.

“Aaand the forums have just gone crazy,” Ariadne announces, her tone thick with amusement.

Eames laughs loudly. “I didn’t even mean it like that, you know. But if you all really want me to start on the pet names, my favourite one is—”

Arthur cuts in before he can continue. “I feel it’s appropriate to remind you that I do have a loaded gun in my hand.”

“—Stick In The Mud, of course,” Eames finishes, and even if Arthur can’t see it, he can hear the grin.

“Just tell me when you’re done with your new friends,” Arthur says, arcing around in a wider circle to make sure the area is as secure as it can get. “I know you like to occasionally feel that you’re more intelligent than the people around you.”

“Oh, you’ll pay for that later,” Eames says in a low, playful growl. It’s the kind of threat he’s made countless times before, but this time, accompanied by the sharp spike in activity Arthur can see on his portable screen, it sends a strange jolt right to his stomach.

“Whatever,” he mutters, as dismissively as he can manage, and pretends not to notice the way that Eames briefly glances in his direction.

I grew up much the same way as most of you did, my dear readers. In a small neighbourhood with high, impenetrable fences around the perimeter, where playgrounds are illegal because they would lower the safety rating of the entire place. The only friends I had were either the people who lived in the houses around me, or the ones that I met on the internet.

I ask you, what kind of life is this? I know you‘ll say that Mal, it‘s just the way things are. It is what I‘ve been told my entire life, every single time I’ve asked this question. In response, I say only this:

Aren‘t you bored? Because I was. I had been, for years, and that‘s why I'm an Irwin. It‘s dangerous, it can be frightening, but it‘s definitely not boring. If I‘m going to die, I‘m not going to die huddled up in my house, too afraid to go outside. I‘m going to go out with a bang.

—Originally published in Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, the blog of Mallorie Cobb, July 22, 2037.

The house that Arthur and Eames live in is a two-storey structure that was built pre-rising. It’s had to undergo heavy modifications to be even remotely legal to live in. The windows are no longer large enough for anything that has undergone viral amplification to fit through—nothing over the size of a common house cat is considered safe anymore—and even then, whatever is left of the glass has been reinforced with metal bars.

The entirety of the bottom floor is open to all members of the Inception team, with individual work stations for each of them. Most people are squeamish about spending extended amounts of time in any area with a safety rating lower than Grade 10—or Grade 9, if they’re particularly attached to the idea of leaving the house on a regular basis—and this is a Grade 7 area. It lacks all the security gates and blood tests that most neighbourhoods prefer, but it’s quieter. Arthur and Eames had bought it the moment they could afford something outside of the Grade 9 neighbourhoods they’d grown up in. It’s much cheaper than the more secure housing, even though it’s built to be just as sturdy. Many blogging teams prefer to have their base of operations somewhere much safer, but no one gets into Inception by being afraid of a little danger.

After being out in the field, the easiest way to get back into the house is through the garage. Entering the actual house requires a series of tests, starting with the house’s built-in security system verifying their identities and ending with blood tests for all of them. Because Arthur and Eames have been outside and actually exposed to areas with lower safety ratings, they need to decontaminate before they do anything else. Arthur leads the way up the stairs, claiming the bathroom first. Decontamination showers are quick, but never enjoyable. No matter what, being sprayed with bleach for thirty seconds can never be anything but unpleasant. When the warm spray of water takes over, Arthur quickly scrubs himself clean, getting out of the shower as soon as he can. Bleach baths come hand-in-hand with good skin moisturisers and Arthur grabs the bottle that Eames had bought for him some time ago—something with a vague, earthy scent to it. It serves its purpose, and Eames still seems pleased whenever he smells it on Arthur. If he truly wants, Arthur can pretend that his actions never have anything to do with making Eames happy, but they’ve been living together for years and it’s honestly not worth the effort anyway.

“Shower’s yours,” Arthur announces as he opens the door, dressed in his freshly sterilised clothes. He’s learned to look for the small quirk to Eames’ lips as they pass each other by, and he can hear the deep breath that Eames takes. He eyes the blond in Eames’ hair—a result from the constant bleaching—and self-consciously runs a hand over his own hair. “And once we no longer have company, I really need to get the dye out.”

Eames chuckles warmly. “I do make a better blond than you.”

“Oh, just look at you,” Arthur mutters, his mouth deciding not to consult his brain first. “I’m sure you could pull anything off.”

Eames raises an eyebrow, and his hands flex at his sides like he’s holding himself back. Of course he is, Arthur thinks, with only a touch of bitterness. They’re always holding themselves back.

“I should go and take that shower. Before you end up needing another one.”

Arthur knows that Eames only means that he’s going to need to be decontaminated all over again if Eames touches him before showering. That doesn’t stop other possible meanings from running through his mind. It must be the same for Eames, because he coughs quietly and turns away without a word, shutting the bathroom door behind him.

Arthur goes to his computer desk, briefly checking their site’s traffic as he waits for Eames. He can go back downstairs by himself and he probably should, considering that Ariadne and Yusuf are both waiting down there, neither of them needing to shower when they hadn’t left the van. They’re familiar with the house anyway, so they’ve probably already made themselves at home. Besides, it’s a habit to wait for Eames to be done, and he’s certainly not going to slink off downstairs instead of facing… this. Whatever it is between them that has already become so much more difficult to ignore.

Eames doesn’t take long in the shower. Arthur is done glancing through the comments on his post and he turns his screen off, getting to his feet. Eames leads the way down the stairs, to the lounge area where Ariadne and Yusuf are waiting. Except when they get there, Eames stops in his tracks. Arthur side-steps, just barely stopping himself from walking right into Eames’ back, and looks up.

Sitting there, in one of the plush single-seaters with a look of mild apprehension on his face, is Dominick Cobb.

“Oh look, Arthur.” Eames’ voice is suddenly colder. “It seems that we never did get around to changing the locks.”

“Eames,” Arthur says softly, not quite a protest, but a request for him to back down. In a louder voice, he addresses Cobb, “What are you doing here?”

“I saw your recent post.” Cobb tries to smile, but it fades quickly. “Mal knew all along, you know. She’d get frustrated sometimes, waiting for the two of you to just admit it.”

“You didn’t answer my question.” Arthur straightens up, folding his arms across his chest. At a glance, he looks every part the leader of Inception, clearly not in the mood for any nonsense or time-wasting. But all the members in the room know better than that. They were all there, back when Cobb was the head of the team, along with Mal. There are several reasons that Arthur and Eames are now in charge, and none of them have any good memories attached to them.

“And I see you just got back from the field…”

“Cobb.” Arthur’s tone is sharp. “Do you have a reason for being here? A good one?”

Cobb’s shoulders slump as he stops trying to act so casual. There’s still a hopeful look in his eyes when he says, “I found us a job.”

“Us?” Eames asks incredulously, before Arthur can even speak. “Us?”

“I’m still on the team,” Cobb points out, a touch of authority in his tone that harks back to the old days, before everything went downhill. “You’ve got me on the payroll. I still contribute to the site.”

“Only because Arthur couldn’t kick you out,” Eames spits. “Only because Arthur still has some kind of loyalty to you, after you—”

“That’s enough,” Arthur interrupts. Ariadne and Yusuf are sitting silently on the three-seater, watching as Arthur and Eames stand in the doorway. He looks at them and doesn’t even need to say anything before they eagerly get up and leave, going to hide—and probably eavesdrop—in the other room. He crosses the room and sits down on the recently vacated couch. “What kind of job?”

“I was contacted by a man who wishes to remain anonymous until we accept the job. Fischer-Morrow has come across some old, pre-Rising technology that they want to upgrade and mass-market. It doesn’t sit well with our prospective employer. He wants us to dig up some dirt on it.”

Arthur is silent as he considers this. Fischer-Morrow is one of the biggest entertainment companies around. In a world where most people are too afraid to venture beyond their front doors, entertainment companies are thriving, and few are doing better than the legendary Fischer-Morrow. They release everything from high-tech gadgets to simple toys, keeping the public happy indoors.

“Let me guess,” Eames says, sitting down beside Arthur. “You’ve been contacted by a business rival who worries that this might give Fischer-Morrow the edge. What’s our real job? Digging for dirt so this rival can then expose Fischer-Morrow for what it truly is, effectively stopping the production of whatever new toy they’re making and allowing… oh, let me see, Proclus Global to remain in the market?”

Cobb’s mouth drops open, and Arthur can’t help the pride and awe that surges through him.

“Don’t feel bad, Cobb, it wasn’t that hard. Of the three entertainment companies in constant competition, we all know for a fact that Cobol doesn’t get along with you. That leaves Proclus. So who contacted you, and what do they really want?”

With a heavy sigh, Cobb leans back in his chair. “It was Shuuya Saito, the CEO of the company. I’ve had some correspondence with him before because of other stories I’ve covered for him, but he isn’t looking to benefit himself, here. He genuinely does sound worried about whatever technology Fischer-Morrow has gotten their hands on. He can’t investigate himself, which is why he’s asking us to do it for him. He already has some spies placed within Fischer-Morrow, so he can get us in as a press team. We go in under the guise of covering a story on the company due to Maurice Fischer’s poor health. Once we’re in, we start looking for the information we’re really after.. He said he’ll cover all of our expenses.”

Eames snorts. “So now we’re doing corporate espionage, too? I don’t know what you owe Saito, but I don’t see why you need to drag the rest of us into this.”

“You’re the best,” Cobb says simply. “Arthur is famous for his no-nonsense approach to getting information. You can charm the truth out of anyone before they even realise what’s happening. If I went in by myself, I wouldn’t just look suspicious for being on my own, I also wouldn’t be even half as successful as we would as an entire team. Come on, this is the kind of job that you’re really after. Not driving around in Grade 4 areas in the hopes of getting good footage.”

Arthur looks at his feet, not knowing what to say. He’s intrigued, but this requires a lot more thought before he can commit to anything. Especially if it involves the rest of the team as well. Even if Ariadne and Yusuf are listening in from the other room, that’s not enough to make a proper decision right now.

Luckily for Arthur, Eames knows him well enough to tell all of this from the line of his shoulders. “We’ll think about it, and let you know.”

Cobb sighs, clearly relieved. “Thank you.”

Lifting his head, Arthur jerks his chin in the direction of the door. “You know the way out. Next time you come over, let us know in advance.”

“Or better yet, don’t,” Eames mutters under his breath, as Cobb rises to his feet and leaves. Arthur elbows him in the side and Eames huffs. “What? Tell me you weren’t thinking the same thing.”

“I know you don’t like him, but he’s still Cobb,” Arthur replies. “For whatever that’s worth, now.”

“You heard him,” Yusuf says. “All expenses paid. Why would we turn that down?”

“Maybe because this is Dominick fucking Cobb we’re talking about, here.” Eames paces angrily, arms folded across his chest. “I don’t trust him.”

Ariadne looks to Arthur for input. He’s sitting at the table in the middle of their work room, his head in his hands, and he simply sighs. He’d be lying if he said that he hadn’t seen Eames’ stubbornness coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier for him to deal with.

“Well, Cobb did mention that it gives us the opportunity to cover a real story for once,” Ariadne points out. “And I remember that even back in the days when I wasn’t part of the core team, that’s something that you guys were always after. There are bloggers everywhere, but it takes something special to be recognised as a team that can cover serious events. Think of the amount of exposure we’d get if we covered Fischer-Morrow. And it’s not just one small story that would fade away, either. Cobb said that Saito can get us into Fischer-Morrow. I don’t know who his spies are, but I’m pretty sure that if he wants us to do some digging, he’s going to make sure we’re around for a while, and that we’re fairly close to the people at the top. That’s definitely going to work in our favour.”

“Ariadne’s right,” Arthur says, sending her a grateful look for saying exactly what he was thinking.

Eames turns around, his brow creased. “Et tu, Arthur?”

“Look, I’m not taking sides between you and Cobb. We’re better than that. I called this meeting so we can actually weigh the pros and cons of taking this job. Regardless of how it’s been offered to us. Yes, Cobb is going to be with us, but we can work with that. It’s not the end of the world.”

“Have you forgotten what he did?” Eames asks. “Or what he didn’t do?”

“I am never going to forget,” Arthur snaps. “So you can stop pretending that you’re the only one who cares. We all loved Mal, and she deserved a proper death. Cobb couldn’t give it to her, but at least you did. What’s done is done.”

Eames takes half a step backwards, his shoulders no longer hunched. He sits down at the table, at Arthur’s right, and it’s enough of an apology.

There’s a good reason Eames doesn’t like Cobb. Originally, Inception had been a blogging team run by Dominick and Mallorie Cobb. Dom had been a great Newsie, clever and relentless in his pursuit for the truth. Arthur had looked up to him, and had worked with him for years. Mal had been one of the best Irwins out there: fearless, entertaining and beautiful, she had won all kinds of awards for her work, including two Golden Steve-O’s. She had been Eames’ mentor, the way Dom had been Arthur’s, and they’d been close friends.

So on the day that Mal’s field blood test came up positive, it had broken all of their hearts. She had sobbed until the Kellis-Amberlee had dried her tear ducts, begging for her husband to shoot her before she turned completely, before the virus made her forget who she was. Dom had just stood there, rooted to the spot, shaking his head as if he could deny reality with enough determination. He hadn’t even reached for his gun, no matter how much Mal pleaded with him.

In the end, it had been Eames who fired the shot. By then, Mal’s pupils had dilated all the way open, giving her the unnatural stare of the infected. The bullet struck between her eyes, and her body had fallen to the ground. By then, she wouldn’t have remembered who they were. She wouldn’t even have remembered her own name.

Eames hates Cobb for not being able to make the killing shot. It’s a reality that anyone who lives in their world needs to accept. It’s something that needs to be treated as an eventuality, by the ones who go out into the field. Especially for Irwins. For the partners, friends and team mates of Irwins. Arthur would know. A world without Eames isn’t a place he wants to live in, but he’s a realist. The majority of Irwins don’t stop working because they retire, they stop because they die.

Since Mal’s death, Cobb’s mental health has seriously deteriorated. Eames isn’t aware of it, but Arthur knows that Saito—who had been an acquaintance of the Cobbs for years—had used his considerable influence to make sure the Child Protective Services didn’t hand custody of Phillipa and James to Mal’s parents. That alone is enough to make Cobb willing to comply with Saito’s wishes, and while it makes Arthur apprehensive, he also knows that this is too good an opportunity to pass up.

“It’s bloody three against one, isn’t it?” Eames grumbles, resting his chin in his hand. “Four against one if you’re counting Cobb. Might as well go ahead and announce your decision.”

“That’s not how we work.” Arthur gives Eames a sharp look. “If we’re doing this, it has to be something that we’re all willing to do. If you aren’t happy doing this, we won’t do it.”

“You could just—”

Arthur shakes his head before Eames can even finish. “I’m not going without you.”

Yusuf looks at Ariadne and shrugs. “That’s it then, right? That’s our decision.”

“No.” Eames doesn’t look at them, but instead, he’s watching Arthur. Neither of them look away from each other, and Eames sighs quietly. “You’re right. This is a good opportunity for us and I’m not going to let my stubbornness get in the way of that. I just have one condition.”

Arthur smiles, and it’s one of those smiles he saves for Eames. The kind that he usually doesn’t let other people see at all. “I’ll keep Cobb away from you.”

Eames nods, his fingers skimming across the back of Arthur’s hand. “Thank you.”

Arthur looks at Ariadne, who is glancing between him and Eames unashamedly. “Do me a favour and contact Cobb, will you? Let him know that we’ll take the job. Take your time—he won’t be back home for a while, anyway.”

Ariadne salutes him, not bothering to hide her grin of excitement. Arthur doesn’t try to hide his, either.

…They run, following the winding path, not daring to look back. They can’t bear to see the faces they recognise, changed, unfamiliar, blank, hungry.
They cry, because their fallen companions cannot. They scream, and are answered with dull moans.
They stop, realising at they’ve made a wrong turn. Three walls, and their approaching death, shuffling one foot at a time.
Like looking into a mirror, they think to themselves, made of carnival glass.

—From Labyrinthine, the blog of Ariadne Evans, August 5, 2040.

The Fischer-Morrow building is massive. It towers over all the other buildings nearby and its lobby is a pristine white, once you pass the three blood tests it takes to actually get through the sliding doors made of bullet-proof glass. Arthur leads the way, but even he can’t help looking around in awe. The entertainment industry is thriving just as well as the arms industry, and it shows. At the reception desk, the employees go on with their work as cheerfully as ever. It makes Arthur wonder if they’re even aware that several storeys above their heads, their boss is dying a slow death.

When they’d accepted the job offer, Cobb had organised a meeting with Saito. They’d been briefed on all that they needed to know; Maurice Fischer, the CEO of the company, was an old man nearing the end of his days. He’d already battled cancer once, pre-Rising, before the Kellis-Amberlee virus spread like wildfire, wiping out cancer and the common cold, leaving the reanimated dead in its wake instead. Now, his immune system was finally failing him and his son Robert was unwilling to put him out of his misery. From Saito’s sources, Maurice Fischer spent the majority of his time either in his hospital bed at home, or the hospital bed they’d set up in his office.

One of Saito’s spies was attached to the PR department, and had convinced the higher-ups to allow a team to cover the story of Fischer-Morrow, as a tribute to Maurice Fischer while he was still alive. It gives them the perfect excuse to get to know the company and its projects in great detail. With any luck, they’ll find some good information on the new project—some kind of virtual reality device that allowed lucid dreaming. The technology had been in progress by the military before the Rising, but when the outbreaks started, it had been benched while the military dealt with more serious problems. They hadn’t gone back to it, and the PASIV device had been left unfinished—until now.

Arthur is intrigued, and Eames even more so. Saito had expressed his reservations about such a device, and while it’s understandable, Arthur just wants to find out whatever he can about it first. After that, he can deal with whatever it is that Saito wants them to do.

Saito’s spies are all too low in the company’s hierarchy to get any information of this scale, but it also means that they don’t rouse suspicion. One of these men—Tadashi—is sent down to greet them. He leads them up to a small conference room that has temporarily been converted into a makeshift office for them.

“Make yourselves comfortable,” he says, as they set up their laptops. “Fischer senior is unable to meet you in person, but his son Robert will be able to see you sometime around eleven o’clock.”

“You’re telling me we came all the way here just to wait for two hours?” Eames asks, tugging at his tie. “This is ridiculous.”

“Stop fiddling with your tie.” Arthur lightly smacks Eames’ hands away, replacing them and doing his tie up properly. “We have two hours to prepare a good approach to this story. We don’t have to ask Fischer a barrage of questions. If we ease him into it, he’ll be more likely to actually want to talk to us.”

“This is ridiculous,” Eames repeats, and pulls his tie off, scrunching it up and shoving it into his laptop bag.

All of them are used to wearing practical clothes for the field; cargos, t-shirts, vests… not suits. They all had to go out and buy suits to fit into this environment, and Arthur feels entirely different in his three-piece suit. It’s not an unpleasant feeling. The way his vest clings to him is comforting enough that he can ignore the fact that it isn’t made of Kevlar. He still has his favourite Glock on him, because corporate environment or not, it’s plain stupid to go anywhere unarmed.

Eames looks good in his suit. With the tie off and his collar unbuttoned, Arthur can see one of Eames’ tattoos peeking out from beneath his shirt. Arthur doesn’t really understand why it catches his attention when he’s seen all of Eames’ tattoos and had been there when he’d gotten every single one. Still, his eyes linger over Eames’ collar until he remembers to look away.

Ariadne clears her throat, grinning at Arthur, earning a scowl from him. It had been a fight to get her into a skirt, and she’d flat-out refused to wear heels. Arthur had made Cobb back off—Ariadne owed him for that.

“So, how are we going to get on Robert Fischer’s good side?” she asks, looking around at the others. They’ve already decided not to directly discuss what they’re really after unless they’re in the safety of Arthur and Eames’ house. If Saito has spies within Fischer-Morrow, it’s only reasonable to suspect Fischer-Morrow to be listening in on their conversations. Considering that it would be too suspicious of them to find and remove the bugs, they simply have to work around the fact.

“I’ll leave him to Eames when he gets here.” Arthur stands at the head of the table, subtly asserting the fact that he’s the one in charge here. “If any of us are good at getting the measure of someone, it’s Eames. He can ask Fischer the easy questions first, the ones he’s used to answering. How his father is, how he’s holding up, those kinds of things.”

“And once I’ve got a good idea of how to properly approach him,” Eames adds, “we’ll do that.”

“I like the sound of this,” Cobb says, nodding approvingly.

“Didn’t ask for your opinion, did I?” Eames asks, and though he keeps his tone completely calm, his expression clearly says otherwise.

Cobb raises both his hands in the air placatingly. “No need to be so hostile. We’re all a team, here.”

“No need, you say,” Eames laughs bitterly, rising to his feet.

Eames!” Arthur grabs Eames by the collar of his jacket, pulling him into the far corner of the room. Eames’ eyes are clouded over with anger and Arthur growls under his breath. “I am not taking sides, so don’t you dare start accusing me.”

“You’re the one who said it, not me,” Eames replies with a nasty smile.

As much as Eames means to him, there are times when Arthur wants nothing more than to punch him in the face. Repeatedly.

“Look, I know you don’t like him, but here, we need to present a cohesive team. You think Fischer’s going to warm to us if we can’t even get along within our own group? I shouldn’t have to tell you this, Eames. You’re the one who understands how people think.”

With an agitated sigh, Eames looks away. “I know that. I do. It’s just…”

“Hard. I know.” Arthur lowers his voice, so that even he can barely hear himself. “If you think that I’ve forgiven Cobb for not shooting Mal before she forgot everything about who she was, you’re sorely mistaken.”

Eames places a hand on Arthur’s shoulder, looking at him without the need for words. Arthur quirks a small smile, gone as quickly as it comes, in reply.

“Hey, guys,” Ariadne says, from where she’s set up her laptop on the desk in the middle of the room. She doesn’t look up from her screen as she speaks. “I was going through the list of articles that Arthur found regarding the—the company. You might want to check this out.”

Arthur and Eames immediately cross the room, sit in front of their laptops and access the secure server that only members of Inception can reach. In Ariadne’s files, they see a copy of an old article. In fact, it’s so old that it’s dated several years before the Rising. It’s a scan of a printed document about the PASIV, which come as a surprise when Ariadne had been unwilling to discuss it out in the open.

Arthur opens the document and reads through it. From what he can tell, it’s a progress report on some kind of project. He’s the fastest reader among them, but Eames isn’t very far behind. Arthur can hear Eames’ breath hitch moments after he finds the one line that brings him to a halt as well.

“Cobb,” Arthur says slowly—before Eames can begin—and looks up at him. “When were you planning on letting us know about this?”

Cobb doesn’t say a word. In fact, Eames doesn’t speak either. He’s furiously typing away on his laptop and soon enough, a new line of text pops up on their internal chat.

Eames: When the FUCK were you going to tell us that your father-in-law was involved in the development of the PASIV?

Jonathan Miles had, in his mid-twenties, been recruited for a secretive military project only known as Project Oneiros. In select, well-protected documents, he's credited as one of the main engineers involved in the development of the earliest assisted dreaming devices.

Arthur has hacked into enough of the military’s old databases to know that if they want information on this new PASIV device, the first person they should have gone to is Cobb’s father-in-law.

“Do we have to?” Cobb asks uneasily, when they’re back at the house. Eames is reviewing the recording he’d made of his initial interview with Robert Fischer, which keeps him nice and occupied while Arthur talks to Cobb. “I haven’t seen him since…”

“Since Mr. Saito used his money to make sure you got primary custody of your children?” Arthur asks, raising an eyebrow. He knows that Mal’s mother still lives nearby, taking care of the children whenever Cobb is unable to, but Miles had moved away after Mal had died. “Face it. We have barely any information to go on, if we’re trying to find out how far Fischer-Morrow has gotten with the development of these PASIV devices. You want us to do a real job? It means that we need to do real research. That includes talking to people that you would rather avoid.”

Cobb visibly deflates, but he nods. “I’ll give him a call and see what I can do.”

From what Arthur can tell, Miles doesn’t seem the least bit enthused to be talking to Cobb. The moment that they mention assisted dream devices, however, the entire tone of the conversation changes and even Cobb seems surprised by it. Arthur only manages to pick up what Cobb says before hanging up: “Yes, it takes an hour. Sure, I’ll bring them. We’ll start right now.”

“Eames,” Arthur calls, before Cobb even hangs up.

“We’re going to visit Miles,” Cobb declares as Eames enters the room. “He asked that I bring the two of you. He said that this was the kind of information that you needed to hear.”

Eames raises an eyebrow, his antagonism for Cobb momentarily forgotten as it’s replaced by curiosity. He glances at Arthur, who simply shrugs in response.

Cobb picks up his bag. “I told him that we’ll be there as soon as possible, so we’re going to have to leave now.”

The hour’s drive is unpleasant, but Arthur is just thankful that Eames and Cobb make it to Miles’ place without completely tearing each other apart. As it is, they get out of Cobb’s armoured four-wheel drive as if they can’t get away from each other soon enough. Arthur sighs heavily, leading them to the security booth for the first of the blood tests required to actually get through the gates of the secure little village. Five minutes and countless needle pricks later, they’re finally walking to Miles’ door. He’s standing there waiting for them, and greets Arthur and Eames like old friends. He’s noticeably colder to Cobb, only nodding in greeting to him before ushering them all inside.

He’s already got tea waiting for them, pouring four cups before sitting down at his dining table. “So, Dom tells me that you’re trying to find out more about the PASIV device.”

“That’s right.” Arthur has already discussed it with Eames and Cobb in the car—they’re going to tell Miles the truth about what they’re working on, because it’s going to be the easiest way to get the information they need. “We’ve been hired by someone to take a look at Fischer-Morrow. From what they’ve heard, the company has their hands on the technology to put the PASIV into production and market it as a recreational device. Our employer wants this stopped, and we’re trying to find out exactly why he seems so keen on making sure it’s never released.”

Miles’ brows raise as he takes a long sip of his tea. “So I take it that you did your research, Arthur, and found out that I was involved in the early days of assisted dreaming? Why don’t you tell me just what it is that you’ve learned, so I can fill in the blanks?”

Arthur, prepared as he always is, takes a notebook out of his satchel and flips it open. Ignoring Eames’ huff of amusement, he glances through the notes he’s made.

“You were working on Project Oneiros before the Rising, as one of the head engineers. You successfully made a machine that allowed assisted dreaming that supported multiple people in the same dream, provided they were all hooked up to the same machine. You had made the first generation of the portable devices before the spread of Kellis-Amberlee gave the military more important things to worry about.”

“All of them were destroyed in the following chaos,” Miles says with a grimace. “I checked, once things settled down. Even after we got through the worst of it, nobody wanted to open up the project again. You said that Fischer-Morrow is going to make them again, now?”

“They must have found the information somewhere,” Eames replies, frowning. “Perhaps another person who was involved in the project?”

“They’d need to be pretty high up if they can access the files that I couldn’t hack my way into,” Arthur points out. Tapping his fingers against his teacup, he looks at Miles. “I know it’s been a long time since then, but…”

Miles smiles, clearly understanding. “I’ll see if I can remember who I worked with, and I’ll keep in touch.”

Arthur nods. “And I’ll continue digging around for more information, just in case I come across something new. Thank you.”

“So, with that out of the way,” Eames says, folding his arms on the table. “Care to tell us why you look so bloody terrified about the thought of someone releasing the PASIV to the public? Clearly, you and Saito both know something that we don’t, so why don’t you enlighten us?””

Miles shifts uncomfortably in his seat, looking down at his teacup. With a deep breath, he speaks. “We did a lot of testing with the PASIV device, even before it was released for wide-scale use in the military. It was originally created as a training device, but we allowed our test subjects to use it whenever they pleased. We thought that it would be a good way for them to become more familiar with the concept of lucid dreaming.”

“But…?” Eames prompts.

“But then we realised that there was the risk of the dreamers losing track of reality. In the dream, everything still felt real. In fact, it took a lot of training for the subjects to even remember what happened, let alone actually realise that they were dreaming in the first place.” Miles shrugs helplessly. “With all of that… when it was difficult to tell dreams from reality, some would just lose track of which was the real world, and which was the dream. They became addicted, and wanted to stay in their own dream worlds.”

“They lost track of reality,” Cobb says with wonder. “The device is really that powerful?”

“You can dream up whatever you want,” Miles declares, his tone the slightest bit sharper when he looks at Cobb. “Places. Objects. People.”

Cobb drops his gaze to his teacup without a word.

“Wait a minute,” Eames speaks up, his brow furrowed. “If people could lose track of reality then…”

“Just imagine how easy it would be in this world, post-Rising,” Arthur finishes. The thought terrifies him, and it’s clear from the look in Eames’ eyes that he’s not the only one. “At least back then, reality wasn’t such a bad thing.”

“So you understand why I’m not exactly keen on the idea of this device being made readily available,” Miles says with a strained smile.

“Do you think the higher-ups at Fischer-Morrow know about these risks?” Arthur asks, turning to Miles. “If there’s someone with access to all the files for Project Oneiros, they should be aware of all the risks…”

“…And yet, they’re going ahead with this,” Eames finishes. He gets up, beginning to pace as he thinks. “Unless they’re not the one making the call about whether or not this goes through. Arthur—who authorises the company’s projects?”

“Used to be Maurice Fischer,” Arthur replies immediately. “But since he’s been sick… his son.”

“Robert Fischer.” Eames nods. “Nice guy, if a little bratty. Comes from being in daddy’s shadow, I suppose. Anyone who reads the news would know that he doesn’t exactly get along with the old man. He’s been sheltered. Probably doesn’t know what to do in his sudden position of power. He’d be eager to listen to advice, if it’s given to him the right way. It would be far too easy to pull the wool over his eyes.”

“He’s being tricked by someone.” Arthur raises an eyebrow. “It would have to be someone he trusts. Problem is, that could be just about anyone.”

“Now we’re getting to the good bit,” Eames declares with a grin. “It’s exactly like what we were planning before. I get close to Fischer, so we can get to the bottom of this. Except instead of trying to find information about the PASIV—which we now have, thank you, Miles—we find out how much he knows, and who’s keeping the rest from him.”

“Assuming that he’s not behind all of it in the first place,” Arthur points out. He gives Eames a serious look. “You be careful.”

This time, Eames’ smile is softer, and even though there are others in the room, Arthur knows that it’s only for him. “Always, Arthur.”

I don’t really blog all that much, but I have to say that visiting the Fischer-Morrow offices has been one of the best experiences of my entire life. If you live anywhere close to it, you know the one I’m talking about. It towers over everything else and when you’re standing on the roof, you feel like you’re the king of the whole damn world.

I took photos (of course). Check out the gallery—I’ll have them up soon. I can’t describe the feeling of having all that wind in your hair and do it justice, but do me a favour. Go outside. Take a deep breath of fresh air. Pretend, for a second, that you’re free.

—From The Tech Guy, the blog of Yusuf Zaheer, August 29, 2040.

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February 2012


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