Note/Warning: This fic is 7000+ words long. Contains drug use, people getting hurt, tops, gambling, and chess. Not in that order.
Ariadne plays chess with her grandfather every time she visits him. When she was a younger girl, he taught her the rules, even though the only pieces she cared about were the knights - she was a big fan of horses, at that age. However, she starts to improve as she gets older. Before her visit she spends the nights reading about endgames and openings, memorising gambits and countergambits, dreaming of becoming a chess prodigy. The one thing she isn't good at is sacrificing pieces, but her effortless grasp of chess theory helps to compensate for her flaw.
Then her grandfather announces the new rules for their games, and she stands near the chess board, aghast.
It's a chess variant called Absorption Chess. Apparently her grandfather used to play it at university, but was holding off until Ariadne was "old enough". She isn't sure she wants to play a kind of chess that has age restrictions. She almost doesn't want to sit down, but she really doesn't want to talk to her grandmother about her school life and about the boys in her class, so she slouches in the chair and stares at the board. For once, she doesn't care which side she takes.
"This will be useful practice, Ariadne."
In her grandfather's variant of Absorption Chess, a piece that captures another will take on the properties of a captured piece in addition to its own. He's obviously had far more practice than her - for all she knows he was playing this variant in university all the time. She moves a pawn sulkily, capturing her grandfather's bishop. She's irked by his presumption. Her life has been predictable, so far, and she prefers things with rules. Things that are exquisitely planned. This variant of chess is none of the above, and she fails to see how it will be useful at all.
"That's nonsense, grandpa. How is this even useful? You just want to make it easier for you to win - I can't even remember which pieces I captured. Why didn't you teach me this earlier?" She has so many complaints that she can't decide which one to say and in what order, so she just lets loose, glaring at her grandfather so she doesn't have to look at the chessboard.
"You must have a firm grasp of the rules before you know how to bend them. I didn't want to influence your style of chess any more than necessary." He glances at the board, and shifts his knight a few squares forward - he'd captured her rook a few moves ago. She tries not to cringe when she sees his knight move in a straight line, and he chuckles.
She restrains her urge to snap at him, and concentrates on which pieces she can use, and how they can move besides the standard ways. Even if this isn't a game she likes, she still wants to understand it, so she can win. She'll adapt to this situation, and come out on top. She tries to think a few moves ahead, contemplating which pieces she needs to capture, potential move patterns, and which pieces she should capture for a strategic advantage in the endgame.
She moves her pawn diagonally, imagining the bishop's mitre on it, and he smiles at her, his eyes twinkling.
"The world will shift under your feet one day, dear, and you will have to be prepared."
Several years later, in another life, she buys a metal chess set from a game shop. It costs more than she could normally afford, but she's been saving up, and she has an advance from the job. The shopkeeper smiles and asks her if she's interested in playing a few games with his chess club, and she asks a few questions just so he doesn't feel rejected, before politely demurring.
There's a small ball on the top of the bishop piece, golden and gleaming, and she takes a moment to admire how it looks before she mercilessly files it down into a tiny nub. She's chosen this chess set for another reason - the bishop's head is far rounder than the standard teardrop-shape, and the mitre is a thin line carved on the sphere instead of a hollow slit, which allows for ease of modification. After the sanding and filing and polishing, it looks like a strange conglomeration of a bishop and a pawn. Too tall to be a pawn, but too round, too pawn-like to be a bishop. Everyone who looks at it will project their own preconceptions of her onto it, but only she'll know the truth. Only she'll know how it really moves, how it's supposed to feel, what it's meant to be.
She hollows it out with a drill, tips the metal shavings out and weighs the piece in her hand, memorizing the feel of the cold metal against her palm.
The key's the weight, and not the looks. She knows this, but she has a thing for symbolism, even if it doesn't matter.
She tips the piece over, and she can almost feel the world shifting.
Eames is playing poker at a casino, but not in the typical way. Traditional poker is terribly, terribly boring for him, mainly because the other players are so predictable. They put on their stoniest face and pride themselves on not giving anything away, when they're giving everything away with the movement of their hands, the slight shift in their shoulders, the movement of their eyes. To Eames, manipulating his face and controlling his reflexes has always been as easy as breathing, so he plays the other game.
The most fun part of poker is passing off his fake chips, because it depends on factors independent of how well he can bluff. It depends on sleight of hand, his ability to work the printer, his power of observation, and a myriad of other factors. He draws the line at cheating the big Vegas casinos, not because he has some moral qualms, but because he doesn't want to get convicted for forgetting to include microchips. So he travels through tiny casinos in different parts of the world, and tries to perfect his tricks.
While everyone at the table has their eyes on each other, Eames focuses on slipping his homemade chips into the pile. The croupier seems exceptionally inattentive, and Eames will be out of the country the next day, so he gets a bit greedy. Perhaps it's the cockiness from getting away with it, for so long, but he slips more than the usual amount in. He deliberately loses the next hand - he wants an early night, he has to drive the next day - and takes the remaining chips to the cashier's window.
The cashier smiles at him, but as she examines the chips she starts to eye him strangely, and his grin dies on his face. In a moment, security is on him, hauling him away to a backroom, and he almost wishes that he'd cheated at a big Vegas casino instead. Primarily because those didn't have such ham-handed security personnel. He can tell they can't prove anything, and they let him go after a perfunctory questioning. His shirt is slightly stretched, but he's none the worse for wear.
Which is when three thugs from the casino corner him at the alleyway near his hotel. They're too angry to be coherent, but from what he gathers, they are very displeased with him. They couldn't prove that he was cheating, but they know, and they want him to remember this lesson whenever he even thinks of another con. He smiles at them, and attempts to persuade them to leave, but they don't seem too susceptible to bribery from a suspected casino cheat.
For a moment he thinks that he can get out of this situation without much damage except a bruised ego, but that's when one of them kicks him in his gut. The other two hold him still, and the third gears up for another kick. The air whooshes out of his lungs, and all his instincts are telling him to curl up to protect his kidneys, but he can't. There are sweaty fingers gripping his upper arm, leaving bruises with the pressure.
The bruiser gears up, and he can't do anything but watch the fist travel towards his face. He flinches, the thug stops in mid-punch and shares a laugh with his friends, and the actual punch comes when Eames is unprepared for it. The laughter is a constant ringing in his ears. The cartilage of his nose makes a crunching noise with the third impact. Every time the man pauses, he can feel him calculating which area to hit next. Eames can read him, and can interpret all his body language, but he's powerless to stop his head from snapping back with the next hit, helpless against the impact of knuckles to his eyesocket. The only thing he can do is lick the blood away from his split lip and try to breathe. His sole comfort is that they seem to be avoiding his chest, and that this ordeal might be over soon.
That's when the two thugs holding him force him down, and hold his right hand down, splaying it on the ground. He can see the boot above him, ready to stomp, ready to grind down.
He starts screaming, and it almost drowns out their laughter.
They're more merciful than he expected. He's actually able to stagger back to the motel, and none of the smaller bones in his hands are broken. He should be able to regain dexterity within several months.
He's lucky to make his flight. They almost reject his passport because his face is so swollen that he looks nothing like the photograph. He finds a stack of leftover chips in his luggage when he's unpacking, and he pockets the prototype, discarding the rest. It doesn't take long for him to win back what he's lost in the next country and the next, but the lesson stings. It's a reminder that he wasn't the best for once, that his gamble failed. It's a blow to his effortless self-confidence, and it takes him a long time to recover. He doesn't dare to attempt the other game for a long time.
He promises himself that he'll become a better forger, a better thief, a better conman. He will always have an exit strategy, and he won't do anything that comes with an undue risk unless the payoff is worth it.
The repercussions of this vow come back to haunt him, years later, when he's standing in his shabby hotel room, confronted by two people who need a good forger for a situation he never expected. His reputation as a conman and forger precedes him by now, it's almost flattering. If only he were known for his handsome looks as well, but one can't have everything.
"So, Mr Eames, are you any good?" Mal's using her teasing tone of voice, it's so adorable that he almost wants to tell her to save it for the bedroom, but Cobb is standing behind her with arms folded, so he wisely refrains. It sounds like a dare, to him.
Eames' hand grips the old ceramic chip. The weight is wrong, and he didn't align the chip correctly so the printed logo is several fractions of a millimeter off. He's spent nights looking at it, and he knows exactly what he should have done differently that night, what he could have done better. It's a reminder that he won't always come out on top, that he's still fallible, that he shouldn't get too cocky. He rubs the chipped edge of the casino token, then releases his grip, fixing Mal with his most charming look, his most rakish grin.
"I'm the best, sweetheart."
The story of Arthur's die purportedly starts a few years ago in a seedy bar, but it actually starts when his parents decide to name him Arthur.
Arthur narrowly evades being named Peregrin, because he looks too regal for a hobbit's name. He is very thankful that he was not born with curly hair. His parents, both huge fans of fantasy novels, read myths and legends to him as a child. His primary childhood fears are the bullies at school (especially Samuel), the Erlking taking him away in the night, and Ragnarok. Although when the bullying gets too bad, sometimes he thinks he'll take his chances with the latter few.
His parents forbid him from fighting back, and he knows that it's better not to. It's a small town, and they can't afford to move, so he'll be stuck in school with the same people until he graduates. He's teased for all sorts of things - his choice in reading material, his shabby shoes, his failed attempts to fit in - and he retreats deeper into himself.
Whenever his black eyes are too swollen for him to attend school, he sits in his room and thinks about what he'll do once he gets out of this town.
He starts weightlifting in private - he'll never be able to use his strength against his present bullies, but he wants to be prepared for whatever the world might throw at him. He's fascinated with grappling and clinch fighting, and learns what he can from tapes and books, and dreams of the day he can use it on Samuel. He plays the waiting game all through high school, but he never throws a punch. It's not worth getting expelled, even when Samuel mocks his name and laughs so hard that he snorts. Even when Samuel makes fun of his parents and calls his mother a hippie slut. It's not worth it.
He doesn't sacrifice his grades for such pursuits, it would be utterly stupid to get distracted by fantasies when what he wants to do is get a scholarship and get away. Whenever he loses his determination, he imagines Samuel's snorting laugh, imagines being stuck in this town forever, and the thought is so horrifying that he works even harder. He writes his application essays, going through at least twenty drafts, because it's his only ticket out and he wants it to be perfect.
In university he gets drunk every weekend (but not too drunk), learns how to box, and is a regular at any martial arts classes offered. It's surprising that he has enough time to study classical literature and military history, but he makes good grades, and even manages to have some friends. He's careful not to be too outstanding.
Despite that, he ends up graduating summa cum laude, and with absolutely no idea what he wants to do with his life. He's considering going into academia, but hasn't decided yet, so he goes out to think it over. With a beer. He normally prefers gin martinis (not vodka, that's too James Bond), but the occasion seems to warrant a beer at the sleaziest dive he can find. He sticks out in his Oxford shirt and jeans, so he tries to wrinkle his shirt a little.
He sits in a quiet corner of the bar, and everyone ignores him. He ignores them, sipping his beer. It tastes like pisswater and reminds him of that incident with the empty locker room and the bullies, but he's left that far behind.
Then he hears a nasal laugh, ending in a snort, and his back stiffens, and he realises that his past has come back for him.
Samuel's sitting at the counter, laughing it up with people he doesn't know, talking about sports that Arthur doesn't care about. Arthur observes patiently - he's learnt to play the waiting game - and he might only get one shot at this, in his entire life. The stars have aligned for him, for once, and he's going to make it count. He waits and waits, and finally the pack of drunkards peel off one by one, leaving Samuel alone. Arthur rolls up his shirtsleeves. Arthur's been through several beers by now, he doesn't even notice the pisswater taste anymore, he's too intent on his prey.
There's a deserted alleyway by the bar, and there's a moment of opportunity. This isn't even an ideal situation, but he doesn't have the patience to do the long game. He's been waiting ever since elementary school. He can't wait any longer. He doesn't do anything cliche like introducing himself and reminding Samuel of their shared past, that would be too sloppy. Samuel puts up a token resistance, but he's no match for years of training, years of waiting, and sheer pent-up fury. Samuel ends up with a broken nose, a fat lip and two black eyes - and possibly a concussion - but it's hard to tell when the subject is unconscious.
Arthur rolls Samuel's body over with the tip of his shoe, and goes through his pockets. There's a wallet in his pocket, car keys, a battered pack of cards, and a loaded die - clearly he was a gambling man. Samuel's blood drips from Arthur's knuckles, and he wipes it off on the man's faded jeans. Weathered denim is always in. He leaves the wallet and the keys, and takes the cards and the die.
The deck gets waterlogged in the next rainstorm, and unceremoniously tossed into a dumpster. The only memento of the event, of what he did to Samuel, is the die. He keeps it in his pocket like a good-luck charm, a reminder of his first prey, and his hand reaches towards it whenever people start to test his seemingly-infinite patience.
He doesn't expect to have other opportunities until a couple comes along to offer him a job. He's smart, young, and very bored, and they're offering him a chance. They phrase it very delicately, and he'll be helping them with "operational management" and "security", but years of being a Literature student allow him to read the subtext. They're offering him a chance to help them plan highly illegal activities.
But more importantly, they're offering him a chance to hunt.
The die is heavy in his pocket, and he knows there's only one right answer.
Yusuf studies chemistry in university, because he couldn't get into pharmacy and it seemed like the second-best choice. He's determined to do well, to make his parents proud and to get on the Dean's List, just so he can prove everyone wrong. He's bitter about the rejection, but he just has to work even harder, he thinks. He writes his lab reports in his best handwriting, declines his friends' party invitations, and spends Friday nights in his dorm room reading about the finer points of organic chemistry.
One day, his friends' incessant cajoling gets too much, and that's how he ends up trying pot for the first time. His friends are passing around a bong, it's made of bluish-green glittery glass and decorated with tiny octopi. It looks like it originated from the sea. They tell him that it's the best way to try pot for first-timers, the smoke will be less harsh because of the water, and they show him how to take a hit. He doesn't inhale, he's too nervous, and they patiently show him how until he does it the right way. He ends up taking two hits and passing the bong to the next person.
It's so good, it makes everything seem so hazy and it makes life seem much simpler, like he's reached a different level of awareness. He can relax and not think about anything. For the first time since he was rejected from pharmacy, he feels like he could be happy.
It would be so easy to just sit back, live life in a perpetual haze, float by and not care about anything. But it would be too easy.
On his next birthday, two of the friends who were present at the party give him a keychain. It's a small metal pipe, they explain how it works and how to pack it the correct way, and Yusuf goes through the motions, an elaborate pantomime. He laughs and thanks them for the thought. He feigns interest in why they bought it, and they look at him earnestly, and comment about how the time at the party was the first time they'd ever seen him happy.
He's acutely aware of that, and he knows that it can never happen again.
He gets through the rest of his degree, painfully declining every overture his friends make, and eventually they stop asking. When he's not studying, he reads up about drug development, drug interactions and manufacturing processes. His dorm is near the pharmacy faculty, and he tries not to give the students jealous looks as they trudge out of the gates.
He keeps the keychain pipe as a reminder of what he won't be, a reminder not to succumb. He twirls it around his fingers when he's studying, like a habit of sorts, and in time the weight becomes familiar to him. It's painted a bright red and looks cheap, but the metal used is oddly heavy. Most of the keychain pipes that his friends use are punched out of lightweight metal, but his seems to be good quality.
He last sees his friends at his graduation ceremony - they've deferred graduation for a while because they keep failing the required courses. They're sitting on the lawn, laughing at jokes that he can't hear, eyes red-rimmed. When the speaker calls Yusuf's name, none of them look up.
After graduation, he can't find a job that actually fits his degree. The research firms claim he's too highly qualified, but he can tell that they'd wanted to reject him from the moment they saw his name on the resume. He resorts to scut work, washing dishes for a restaurant. He hangs out in low places, and makes a few interesting friends. One of them teaches him how to read people well enough to cheat on poker, and listens to him when he gets a little too maudlin and talks about how he always wanted to be a pharmacist.
Perhaps Yusuf seems like the trustworthy sort, because the man offers him the chance to operate a dreaming den when the proprietor mysteriously vanishes. He's handed a bunch of heavy keys, a stack of research papers on somnacin and its formulation, and an instruction manual for the PASIV device. Some of the test tubes are broken, and there are a few dried blood stains on the floor, but he doesn't mind, it's much better than washing endless stacks of dishes. It's a steady paycheck, as long as he remembers to give the syndicate its cut.
After he gets more comfortable in his new role, he starts to make slight modifications on the military-grade formula. His dreamers are the test subjects - they inform him of the effects, and he takes detailed notes. It's not quite what he imagined when he dreamt of being a pharmacist, but it's good enough, in its own way. He's helping people, making their lives easier and better, and they're always so grateful to him. He's surprised when extractors start approaching him for his versions of the compound, but he tries his best to help them. It might be for unsavoury purposes that he can't prevent, but he can't exactly afford to turn business down, and he can at least make sure that the dreamers have a good sleep. He's tried somnacin once or twice, but he doesn't want to get too absorbed in dreams. He's concerned he'll never be able to leave, he'll create a world so tempting that reality will never be able to match it.
When the dreamers are in the underground room, letting the somnacin drip into their veins, and there's nothing to occupy him but his cat and his research, he twirls the keychain pipe aimlessly. He thinks of his old friends, and wonders if they're still on the grassy lawn of the university, living meaningless lives, and he realises he's stagnating in the exact same way that they were. The thought scares him, and he decides that he'll take whatever new opportunity comes along, whatever can shake him out of the rut he's in.
He has a flash of regret the next day, when his old poker-playing friend introduces him to his new acquaintances, and he's offered a job in the field. But he's a man of his word, and he agrees. Even if this wasn't what he imagined, he'll play his role to the fullest.
A month later, he's in someone else's dream, driving a van past a pack of guards. They're shooting at him, punching bullet holes in the windows, and he's swerving all over the road. It's actually worse than reality, because no one ever tried to kill him in his day job.
The keychain pipe rests in his pocket, too light and too flimsy to be real.
He laughs, and steps on the accelerator.
Cobb's first totem is his wedding ring. Mal's read the latest research, and has come to the conclusion that they all need something to anchor them and defend them against other extractors. Arthur has his die, and Mal has her top, but Cobb needs something small that he knows the exact weight of, something that he wears everyday.
Mal's put her foot down on extraction missions if he doesn't acquire a totem, and he doesn't want to risk her ire. She can practically breathe fire when she's in a bad mood. He needs to find a totem, or he'll be sleeping on the couch for the foreseeable future, and they won't have any disposable income for the next month.
He casts his eye about the room, desperately, and his gaze lands on his wedding ring. It's plated tungsten carbide, so it's heavier than a normal ring, and it's definitely familiar to him. They chose tungsten carbide because it's far harder than other metals, and it's very durable. It's plated to maintain the veneer of normalcy and to prevent everyone asking them about their unusual rings. However, the lack of a diamond is an unconventional choice in itself, and some of her old school friends tease her over not having a fancy ring. This period of teasing ends after her impromptu lecture about conflict diamonds and not supporting a horrible industry, and she comes home to fume at him, and he strongly suspects that Philippa was conceived that night.
When he mentions his idea to Mal, she rolls her eyes, but she's smiling. He can tell she thinks the idea is stupid, but really sweet.
She makes a conscious effort not to touch his ring after that, but he supposes it doesn't matter - they share dreams all the time - and they chose the rings together. He doesn't want to inform her that he doesn't care if she handles his totem, because she's very proud of her idea, and he doesn't want to ruin it.
When they eventually explore limbo, his totem is useless. The dream is created by both of them, and he knows the properties of his own ring, so he grows to depend on Mal's totem to affirm his reality. Unlike other totems, hers isn't a normal object in dreams with an unusual property in real life. It's a normal top in real life, but only displays its unusual properties in dreams. Mal's totem works regardless of the dreamer, and he doesn't know how she managed to create something like that. He theorizes that it's sheer force of will. It suits her, she's always thought in a different way from him, and he loves her for that.
He still keeps his ring on his finger - they are married, even in dreams.
As the train finally comes for them, Mal grasps his hand, and her fingers graze his ring.
Mal's totem is a top. She's been fascinated with them since she was eight. They have relatives living in Malaysia, and when she visits her aunt, there's a gasing competition. The tops used are wooden and gigantic. When one of the adult competitors takes a shine to her and lets her play with the top, she can't even lift it, it's too heavy. When they release the string to set their giant tops spinning, the base of the tops clatter on the oiled wood, and they're spinning so hard that it looks like they're boring into the ground. When her aunt drags her off for dinner, an hour later, three tops are still spinning on their wooden planks, and it seems like they'll never stop.
When she gets back, she asks her father to teach her how to work with wood, and she makes a top of her own. It spins longer and steadier than the plastic store-bought tops, and her obsession starts there. While the rest of her class discusses which boy from their year is the handsomest, she sits in class and makes modifications to her original designs. She learns how to work with plastics and metals, and forces herself to stay awake through physics class when half of the students are dozing off. She's convinced that if she just keeps trying and trying, she'll find some way to make a top that will spin forever.
But no matter what she tries, the top always loses its momentum and clatters to the table, so she shoves that dream aside and puts her efforts into studying for the baccalauréat. Her father's an architect, and it seems like something that would appeal to her, so she applies to his university. She gets in, and she meets Dom. He has a quick mind, and he makes her laugh with his silly jokes. It doesn't hurt that he thinks she's brilliant and lovely. They become friends, and soon become more than that. Their first date is near the school, because they're both too tired after a day of lessons to travel much further, and they need to get back to the workshop later. She's afraid that her classmates might see them and tease them until graduation, but they end up adjourning to the nearby bridge to look at the scenery. People don't give them a second glance, and she becomes less nervous. When he cracks a wry joke about their instructor, she can't help it, she starts laughing.
When her father introduces her to the world of shared dreaming, she wants to share it with Dom, and her father grudgingly agrees. She can't bear to keep such a beautiful secret to herself, and Dom picks it up faster than she did. Her father is reluctantly impressed, and soon takes a shine to Dom, even approving of their engagement. He doesn't approve of their emigration to America, but they can't explore the limits of the technology if they're constantly under her father's nose.
They move to America, and become thieves. It sounds so 1920s-gangster, but it's the truth. They are thieves. And they are the best at what they do. They add Arthur to their gang, occasionally work with Eames when he's stateside, and get on good terms with some of the best people in their line of work. They quickly become the go-to pair for difficult dream architecture, and they never work alone. They spend their nights in a shared dream, and keep up-to-date on the latest military research.
Extractors are prime targets for extraction, because the field is highly competitive, and any decent extractor has a head full of top-secret information. Anything that helps them, even slightly, is worth investigating. This is how she decides that everyone in their team will need a totem to warn them if they're in someone else's dream. It won't work in their own dreams because they'll be aware of its physical properties, but it's not meant to be a foolproof method of discerning reality from a dream. It's a defense mechanism which is good enough for their purposes.
Her totem is the last top she ever creates. It's her ideal top. There's no other way to put it. It's slender and uses the minimum material possible. It's heavy enough to feel comfortable when she spins it, but light enough not to topple over immediately. The top doesn't spin for long, but when it spins, it's beautiful. It reminds her of a dancer, whirling so fast that her skirt spreads out into a full circle around her. The weight is unique, and she depends on its physical properties to ground her, to remind her that she isn't in the real world.
In extraction, the dreamer renders the layout, and the mark fills the dream with his subconscious. The properties of items in the dream tend to be heavily influenced by the mark's subconscious knowledge, and the dreamer's conscious knowledge. Arthur's trick die acts like a normal die in other people's dreams, because the mark and the dreamer are not aware of the trick. Her top feels lighter than it is in real life because no one but her is aware of how it was created.
But, all things considered, there's some leeway for the extractor's subconscious mind to influence matters. If an extractor learns too much of the layout from the dreamer, their subconscious will start to invade the dream with its own projections - which is quite disruptive on a large scale, as they found out from the incident with Arthur's elephant.
But on a smaller scale, perhaps it's possible to experiment.
She visualises the top continuing to spin, never making the jerky moments as it reaches the end of its momentum, and it becomes a subconscious effort. Every waking moment, she focuses on the top perpetually spinning in her mind, rotating on its axis, twirling gracefully. She uses the PASIV device while Dom is asleep - she doesn't bother with architectural layouts - and plunges into a world where nothing exists except her and the top, and the top continues to spin, even when she looks away.
Her subconscious won't have any effect on the top in real life. The top will still succumb to the laws of physics, it will fall regardless of her wishes.
But in the dreams, the top spins forever, endless and perfect.
Cobb obtains his second totem on their wedding anniversary, a few months after they wake up. Mal has just plummeted to the street, and his mind is a complete blank. The top rolls on the floor of the hotel room, and he picks it up, holding it in his hand. The broken glass crunches under his shoes, and he runs to Mal. The police find him next to his wife's crumpled body, trying to shake her awake, and he's clutching the top so tightly that it leaves marks in his palm.
A month after fleeing the country, he takes off his wedding ring. It's tight around his finger, and almost refuses to come off. He doesn't deserve to wear it anymore, he's a widower. He's helped to kill the most brilliant person he knew, the only person he ever loved. He spins the top on the hotel's desk, and it falls off the desk's edge. He watches the top roll around on the carpet before coming to a halt, and he starts to weep.
The ring still appears whenever he enters other people's dreams, but he can't rely on it as a gauge of reality anymore. It feels uniformly heavy, weighing his hand down with his residual guilt.
When he spins the top in dreams, he imagines it spinning forever in the deep recesses of Mal's mind, going round and round and round, drilling apart her reality.
In his own dreams, no matter how hard he tries, he can never get the top to fall down.
It's three months after the Fischer job when Saito realises that he wants to go back into the dream world.
Not limbo, of course, that experience isn't worth repeating. But he just wants a taste, so that he can feel more grounded in reality. It seems to run counter to logic, but he needs a break. Consciously entering the dream world will help him prove that he has control over it, that it doesn't control him. He's read the military manuals on PASIV devices, and he's read all the papers on somnacin. However, it's too risky for him to go in alone, and it will make things very awkward for his company if he gets lost in limbo again.
There are several reliable extractors that his company uses on a regular basis - none as good as the team he worked with, but they should be able to maintain the dream and deliver a kick if things go wrong. They're all acutely aware of what happens to hired extractors who get greedy, and he can trust them not to take advantage of the situation.
Then he emails Cobb to ask how he should start. Cobb's first email is a terse reply asking if it's secure on his end. When Saito replies in the affirmative, Cobb's second email is far longer and consists primarily of capital letters and a lot of exclamation marks. Saito pictures Cobb angrily hammering on the Shift key. Cobb alternates between questioning Saito's sanity, questioning his level of intelligence, and threatening to track Saito down just so he can slap some sense into him.
Cobb has definitely become crankier since returning to America. Maybe the stress of parenting has altered his brain. Saito shrugs it off, and types a quick reply. He asks how Cobb's children are, and mentions his current mental situation. He doesn't describe it in detail, but Saito's hold on reality is definitely getting more tenuous. Perhaps it's all the time he spent in limbo.
Cobb's third reply is more understanding, and it comes with two documents attached. Saito opens the first document. It reminds him of a consent form. There are key questions for him to ask the extractor maintaining the dream layer. The document also has strict requirements for the duration of time Saito should stay in the dream world (fifteen minutes in actual time), how often he should do it (monthly at most), the level of sedation he should be under (not too heavy), and the bottom of the document has the words "GET A TOTEM" in 30-point bold font.
Cobb really is getting very parental. It's strangely endearing.
He opens REQUIREMENTS_FOR_SAITO_TOTEM.doc and takes note of the key points, since it is five pages long. Cobb mentions that people who have previously been in limbo need to have a totem with a visual trick as well as a unique weight, and the rest of the document consists of descriptions of potential totems and a list of what to avoid when choosing a totem, a screed against Saito's terrible life decisions and how he's not going to visit Saito in the hospital if he lapses into a coma. He's surprised that Cobb didn't include a personality quiz just to round things up.
But Cobb is only concerned about his safety, so Saito tries to decide on a totem. Memorising its physical properties shouldn't be too difficult, but the main problem would be acquiring an inconspicuous, yet significant item. He doesn't have many things of personal significance, and he can hardly drag that carpet he loathes around on a regular basis. He'd have to create something new.
He really wants to use the device by the end of the month, so while he's in boardroom meetings and reading everyone's body language and trying to figure out long-term strategies, he makes a list of totems that he wouldn't mind having. It's like those workshops he sends his underlings to, the ones where they figure out their spirit animal, except more irritating. The requirement for a visual trick really cuts out a lot of potential choices, and he doesn't want to get another top, because that would be hideously unoriginal and give Cobb another reason to type angry emails to him.
When he really thinks about it, he was lucky to get out of limbo the first time. Perhaps his totem should represent that. A daruma, or one of those beckoning cats from shop windows - a good-luck charm won't seem out of place for a businessman. Kitsch, maybe, but he's so rich that it could be excused as a personal eccentricity or a quaint affectation.
He has a concept in mind, so he emails a manufacturer with his specifications. He knows he can trust them to be discreet, primarily because they're in the business of making custom sex toys for wealthy businesspeople. He doesn't want to know what they might think of his sexual preferences after this.
Three days later, a package arrives at his door. He signs for it, neatly cuts it open, and removes the totem from its nest of packing foam.
He sets the beckoning cat figurine on the table, and tips it over. It springs back into place. It's not immediately obvious that it's weighted to do that, so it should topple over in the dream world. The only way to find this out is to test it, so he books an appointment with the extractor for Friday evening. The cat comes with a ring on top for a keychain attachment, and he clips it onto his smartphone for safekeeping. He strongly suspects that the ring wasn't actually meant to be for a keychain, but tries to avoid thinking too deeply about that.
During the next series of meetings (some stockholders have issues with his mergers and acquisitions) he puts on his most serious face, delivers sincere replies about his aims for the company, and memorizes how the beckoning cat feels in his hand. By the end of the week, it feels natural to him, and he unclips it from his phone before meeting the extractor in an empty conference room.
The extractor doesn't bother to introduce himself, and he's brought along someone to man the machine and operate the musical cues. Saito's interrogated him with Cobb's list of questions, so the extractor is understandably quite irritated with the situation. The extractor will stay in a small part of the level he's creating, and let Saito explore the rest of it. Saito will have a choice between killing himself in the dream or waking up normally when the musical cue ends. Whatever Saito does within the dream will be his own responsibility.
They attach the drips to their veins, and start the timer.
The level that the extractor creates is a replica of Shinjuku. Saito takes a moment to marvel at the extractor's lack of creativity, then bids him farewell. The extractor tells him that he's heading to Kabukicho, leers unsavorily at one of his female projections and leaves before Saito can reply with a scathing remark.
Saito heads in the opposite direction. He doesn't know what he's going to do now that he's in the dreamworld. People flow all around him, some elbowing him, and he can't tell if the projections are on to his foreign nature or if they're just being realistic.
Eventually he reaches a place that's relatively devoid of people. He checks his surroundings, then takes the beckoning cat out, and drops it on the pavement. It falls over, and doesn't spring back up, rolling around on the pavement. He hastily reaches for it before it falls into the gutter.
He clutches the beckoning cat with a sense of relief, then shoves it back into his pocket. He's always resented the fact that he hadn't consciously created anything in Limbo, and there'd be no better time to experiment than now. He stares up at the sky, and it turns dark grey. Thunder booms in the distance, and lightning flashes, illuminating the thick clouds. The extractor's projections flee for shelter, and Saito walks in the rain, clutching his totem, not caring where he's going. His clothes are soaked through. He gestures, and a tidal wave sweeps through the road, knocking the cars backwards.
The projections start to notice him. They're staring at him from the buildings lining the street, all accusing eyes and pursed lips. He removes the supports from the buildings, just to see their faces melt into panic as their shelter collapses into rubble.
The surviving projections wade through the flooded streets, clutching broken bricks and fragments of windows. He starts to run - it's exhilarating - and they give chase. He moves even more obstacles in their path, whatever he can think of, creates pits for them to fall into, creates walls to keep them out.
He waits in the rain, totem in hand. They're almost over the wall, and baying for his blood.
Before they reach him, the music starts to play.
He'll go with the classic death scenario. He gestures beneath him, and the ground gives way, and he's falling, still clutching his totem. A few of the more determined projections have followed him down, but they won't be able to get him, because the music is getting deafening, and the wind is racing against his waterlogged clothes, and he's about to hit the ground.
And he wakes up.
He takes the IV out of his arm and leaves the deserted meeting room, heading back to his office. The extractor wakes up a few moments after he walks away, and he hears the plastic tubing retracting into the briefcase and the latches clicking shut. The lift door opens a minute after. The extractor and his helper shuffle into the lift, scuffing the floor wax with their terrible shoes.
He stands in the corridor for a moment, watching the lift head to the first floor, till he's finally sure that there's no one remaining on this floor of the building.
He heads back to his office to retrieve his briefcase from his cabinet. He updates his draft email with a few key details (Cobb doesn't need to know everything) and sends it from his phone. Finally, before he leaves for the weekend, he sets the beckoning cat down on his desk and flicks it over.
It wobbles, then springs up again, and his phone buzzes with an email from Cobb. It's 3 am where Cobb is, but Saito supposes Cobb has disregarded the normal custom of sleep to worry about him and chide him regarding his terrible irresponsibility.
Saito attaches his totem to his phone and tries to think of a reply to Cobb's hysterical email. It's difficult to choose between "why are you acting like my father when you already have two children", or "for a young man, you certainly act like an old biddy", but he eventually decides on the former.
As Saito types, the lucky cat swings in midair beneath his phone, dangling from its strap, perpetually upright.