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Nightmare Machine - Part 3

Title: Nightmare Machine
Author: jaune_chat
Fandom: Criminal Minds
Spoilers: Up through Season 5
Characters/Pairing(s): Aaron Hotchner, David Rossi, Emily Prentiss, Derek Morgan, Dr. Spencer Reid, Jennifer “J.J.” Jareau, Erin Strauss, Penelope Garcia, Cobb, Arthur, Eames, Ariadne, Yusef, Saito
Rating: R
Warning: Violence, aftermath of torture
Word Count: 24,948
Notes: This was written for the crossbigbang. Much thanks to bellonablack and brighteyed_jill for betaing and sucksucksmile for art!
Disclaimer: I don't own Criminal Minds or its characters and I don't make a dime off them. Nor Inception. I own nothing!
Summary: When the BAU learns than someone is using a PASIV as a weapon, they are forced to look for unconventional methods to interrogate the comatose victims of the crime. Dominic Cobb is asked to bring his team of extractors to teach the profilers the ins and outs of their trade, for when a mind is the scene of the crime, both extractors and profilers will have to depend on each other to find and stop the criminal responsible…



Hotchner could hear the agitation in Garcia’s voice even through the fog of fatigue from being woken up out of a sound- and dreamless -sleep.

“Sir, I know you’re probably in bed, but I was running all those databases and the searches from what you gave me from your session the other day, and I finally got into some of the sealed military records-.”

Hotchner did not bother to ask how Garcia had done that.

“And combined that with everything else you’d given me and I have a name. William Thomas, ex-military, dishonorable discharge, now a security consultant, wife left him last year, and she has a restraining order out against him. He’s been hired by every one of the victims, but they concealed that fact through some pretty clever legal wrangling. Not as clever as me, of course.”

Fatigue fled, banished in a rush of adrenaline.

“Garcia, has he-.”

“Since there’s no record that any of the victims knew each other, no red flags went up, but since this is likely our guy I went and looked at the security systems for his remaining clients and one of them had her home security system turn off on its own an hour ago. I have an address for one Valerie Jenkins, it’s local, and I’m going to call the others now.”

“Get the extractors on standby,” Hotchner said, grabbing clothing as quickly as possible. “And contact local PD!”

“Already on it!”

-----

The house was dark when the police and FBI arrived, silent and buttoned up for the night. The alarms were still in place, but a sweep of the ground found the guard dogs dead in their kennels from poisoned food, only hours ago. Hotchner felt a kind of nauseated triumph from that news; the unsub might still be inside. They still had a chance to save one of his victims, if they were willing to put their heads in the lion’s mouth.

“He could still be in there. Go.”

The cops began their sweep of the house, Hotchner’s team right behind them. He knew there was only one likely place for the unsub to be, and he followed the cops right up to the bedroom. Inside was Valerie Jenkins, pale and still on her own bed. Next to her was William Thomas: their unsub, thin, fit, with pale hair still in a military cut. Between them was a custom-built PASIV, with a line running into each of them. Exactly like the crime scene photos of the other three victims.

“What’s the ETA on the extractors?” Hotchner called over his shoulder, kneeling to check Valerie’s pulse. Still strong under his fingers. He turned his attention to Thomas, frisking him carefully, taking away a gun and a phone, and cuffing him to the chair as a precaution. Rossi snatched up the phone with a loose rubber glove and checked it.

“There’s an alarm set for later tonight. Looks like he was expecting a pick-up.”

“Hotch, we have a problem,” Prentiss said, coming in the doorway. She held two purses in her hand. “Valerie has a sister living with her.”

“He’s double-teaming. Go, find her.”

Prentiss was out the door before Hotchner was finishing talking.

“Rossi, call the extractors in as soon as they get here; send Cobb and Eames here with Yusef, Arthur and Ariadne with you, Prentiss, and J.J.”

-----

Prentiss checked the door to the basement room, and found it locked. The arrogance of Thomas was incredibly off-putting, a deliberate taunt. That there had been two victims in the house should have warned the extractor off. Instead he’d taken the challenge and turned it into an accelerated attack, drawing his partner deeper into his fantasies.

The keys in Valerie’s purse opened the room, revealing her sister, Annette, and a man who had to be the chemist. Thomas’ silent partner, the one who’d created a drug mix so “cruel” as to help inflict that hellish damage on three other women. The scene could have been a mirror of the one above, down the last detail.

“Prentiss, extractors are in!” Rossi called down the stairs. J.J. came in right ahead of Arthur, her mouth set in a grim line. Arthur strode over to the PASIV and Prentiss saw his shoulders relax slightly.

“Standard dosage size and faster timer than the one upstairs. He’s supposed to wake up before Thomas.”

“What about the compound?” Rossi asked. Just because the chemist supplied Thomas with his ammunition of choice didn’t mean he used the same.

“I can’t say. We’ll just have to assume it’s something non-standard.”

“Ok, I’ll handle the transfer,” J.J. said quickly. “Yusef taught me how. Go get her.” Arthur handed her the vials of Yusef’s Somnacin mix, as well as a case with delicate syringes. No one was willing to risk going into a dream with a drug so heavy it was impossible to be kicked out of, not when they were not the ones in control of the dream. Yusef had figured out how to dilute an active mix with another, his own project during the time when the extractors had been teaching.

Thank God J.J. had taken it upon herself to learn. She always did take care of her team.

Prentiss and Rossi quickly checked Annette’s purse and phone, finding pictures of her sister, her mother, and her boyfriend. Prentiss quick look around the room to gather what other clues she could, and that was it. Rossi was doing the same, opening drawers, quickly checking Annette’s computer, and absorbing information about Annette’s life, both of them calling out bits to each other. They would need everything they could to save her.

“Let’s go,” Rossi said. “I’ll hold the top.” That was likely to have the most aggressive projections, and Rossi was a far better shot than anyone else.

“I’ll take second,” Arthur said, glancing at Ariadne. She had experience in Limbo, and Emily would need that experience at her side if they had to go down there. He prayed they wouldn’t.

J.J. frisked the chemist, a slight, dark, rat-like man with a pinched mouth and bulging eyes, as the others got ready, laying themselves down on the carpeted floor. He carried what looked like a can of mace in a pocket, along with vials, wires, and tools in a bag. Emily figured they were for the strange timers, something he’d had to tweak at the last minute.

Rossi was the last to settle the needle in his veins. With a nod at J.J., she pressed the button.

-----

Reid did not want that horrible compound in his veins. It felt both cold and burned hot at the same time, and there was a split second of a horrible taste in the back of his mouth before he went under. When he opened his eyes, the world around him shifted unpleasantly, a weird euphoria roiling his gut. Thomas’ compound, with its additives, making the experience “better” for him.

They were back in Valerie’s house, a logical choice if the unsub didn’t want to give his victim the option that this was not real. Reid listened hard for her, and he heard screaming coming from the basement. He turned and nearly ran into Morgan as they began to move downstairs. Hotchner stopped them, one hand raised for silence, the other gripping his Glock. Further along the corridor, Cobb and Eames pressed themselves against the wall, watching and waiting.

Nodding slowly, Hotchner pressed forward, halting when the screaming moved outside. Carefully moving to avoid blind spots, they pressed themselves to the windows. Outside was not Valerie’s residential street, but downtown in a large city, empty of cars, but full of foot traffic. The pedestrians trotted along the sidewalks, sweeping themselves towards the south. The screams began to fade in that direction, and Hotchner signaled the others. Out the door, they moved through the alleys, working their way south, following Valerie’s voice into a district of plazas and warehouses.

She was still fighting, and while she still fought, they had a chance.

-----

Rossi shook his head, disgusted at the thick swathes of smoke that wreathed the opulent room. The chemist had gone very old school in his dream, creating something along the lines of an opium den to snare Annette.

“Clever in some ways,” Arthur muttered.

“Why? So he can subdue her projections?” Ariadne asked.

“This could be a façade. He could be more aggressive farther down,” Prentiss said. She shook her head slightly; the smoke was making her feel like she’d just drunk a bottle of tequila. The chemist must have had some of the same illegal compounds in his mix as Thomas. Staying alert was going to be a bitch.

“And it wouldn’t matter to him what happened to his self here, as long as he could get to Annette?” Ariadne half-asked.

“Exactly,” Prentiss said. “It’s his first solo show.”

Arthur looked sideways along the corridors and gestured to the right, where the smoke was thickest. “This way.”

------

“Why are Valerie’s projections trying to defend that warehouse? Shouldn’t they be trying to get in to her?” Reid asked.

“Should be, but they’re not,” Eames muttered. “What the hell…”

“It’s him,” Cobb breathed suddenly. “The projections are him. He’s the dreamer, not the subject. He’s using his subconscious, his projections as the weapon.”

“He had it set up so she was the subject first…” Hotchner said.

“And then switched it.”

“That’s what the breakers are for. So he can switch mid-dream. He loses control of the world but gets to focus all his attention on hurting her instead of trying to hide from her,” Eames said, snapping his fingers.

“Two can play at that game,” Morgan said darkly.

Cobb bit his tongue before he could say anything stupid, like “It couldn’t be done.” He was the poster child for pushing the boundaries of the dream world; Mal had tragically proved that when she’d pushed herself into his dreams for years. He’d built upon the impossible before. Certainly the profilers could.

“You said I have a lethal subconscious. Let’s see what he can do against me.”

Hotchner nodded in approval, and Eames shot Cobb a wildly bemused glance. PASIVs were set up to accommodate up to eight users, but Thomas’ had that extra wiring, and breakers had been at every connection point. It certainly wasn’t out of the question for another user to try to take control. Morgan looked up at the ceiling, took a deep breath, and concentrated. Reid felt something shift under his feet, a tickle in his mind, and shouting and pounding started on the other side of the door.

“Got you, you bastard,” Morgan muttered.

Eames smiled, his eyes a little unfocused. “You’re all marvelously insane.”

“You can thank me later,” Morgan said, peering out the window.

“So… you subconscious is fighting his subconscious. How does that work?”

“Don’t think,” Hotchner muttered. “Just don’t think about it. Let’s move.”

-----

Yusef started as Thomas’ PASIV began to click, his modifications opening and closing connections on several of the lines. He watched it, fascinated, even as he kept up the careful dilution of Thomas’ compound with his own. It was as if the PASIV were switching the primary dreamer around, or even allowing control for multiple users simultaneously. Assuming, of course, that wouldn’t make the whole dream collapse in a psychedelic acid trip from hell, professionally speaking.

He increased the flow as much as he dared. The sooner they could get out of there, the better.

-----

Rossi looked down at the still form of both Annette and the chemist, lying on piles of plush cushions. Although they looked uncommonly peaceful, the minute he and Arthur had locked the door, the sleepers outside had awakened. The projections were finally taking an interest in the proceedings.

“Why now?” Prentiss muttered, pulling out lines from the PASIV that bound tormentor and victim to feed to her rescuers. “Why would her projections come to her defense now?”

“I really don’t care at this point,” Rossi said shortly. “Go on.”

The door boomed behind them, the sounds following Prentiss and the others down into the next dream.

-----

The unsub’s projections were under attack from Morgan’s, and they were losing badly. Whatever this man thought he was, he wasn’t used to fighting for his life. The projections began to run from Morgan, sprinting through the mazes of Reid’s creation with uncertainty and confusion. By the look on Reid’s face, he was bringing his traps on-line, taking full advantage of the unholy mess Thomas had made of the rules of extraction. There would be no place for them to hide and ambush them.

“Let’s go,” Hotchner said. “We have to get to Valerie before he recovers.”

“Are you all right holding this up, Morgan? Because we can’t leave two people on this level. You’re going to have to protect us,” Cobb said.

“I’ll just trade off with him.”

“Morgan, if we’re following her down, you can’t be the subject.”

“I’ll handle it, Hotch.” Morgan lifted the substantial barrel of the M5.

“Don’t be afraid to imagine what you like,” Eames said with a grin. “I like grenade launchers.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

The sprint across the plaza was mercifully unpeppered by gunfire or screaming assailants, letting Hotchner’s team get into the warehouse that Thomas had been defending so vigorously. Inside were Valerie, Thomas, lawn chairs, and his damned PASIV.

Cobb fed the lines out to everyone who was descending, sticking himself with the needle with the ease of long experience. Morgan nodded at Hotchner as he dosed himself and waited just long enough for the others. Then all went black.

--

“Reid, I don’t care for your taste,” Eames said, opening his eyes in the second-level dream.

“You’re welcome,” Reid said flatly, looking around for trouble. The halls of the library were spacious, and enough gaps existed that it would be difficult to sneak up on them. Then again, finding Valerie could be difficult. Reid picked up a reference book that was right at hand, and he took a look at the index. Then he smiled; books had always been his friends, and in this dream, that was no exception. Valerie Jenkins was neatly catalogued in the non-fiction section, alphabetically. “This way!”

-----

Arthur shook his head. “You’re joking, right?”

“You said yourself that Annette would have been a lot more aggressive, because she was trained to defend herself, just like her sister. But the chemist wasn’t trained; he never needed to be. This is the mind of someone untrained, someone who is used to being protected, behind the scenes, unnoticed. He didn’t make the first level into something she would feel at ease in, he made it for himself, so he would feel comfortable. Same with this level. This isn’t just his dream, this is him,” Prentiss insisted.

Arthur stopped himself from shaking his head, and he took a second critical look around the corridors. There was a reason the profilers were so good at their jobs. They did the kind of raw reading of a room that usually took him days of study to achieve. In this instance, in this dream, Prentiss had a solid point.

Ariadne looked down the corridors of the elegant, endless laboratory, and nodded in agreement with Prentiss’ outrageous statement. The chemist had taken Annette inside himself

“Arthur, you’ve been in Yusef’s lab, right?” Ariadne asked urgently.

“Yes, but-.”

“So where’s the vault? He’s trying to hide himself like an extractor would, because he didn’t expect other real extractors to try to get in here. Where is it, Arthur?”

A thin cry echoed throughout the glass-fronted cabinets, and Arthur turned to one of the fading echoes, and began to thread the maze. As they walked, Prentiss’ appearance in the reflections began to shift, hair shortening and lightening, bones shrinking, until Valerie Jenkins marched with the extractors to save her sister.

-----

The blackness had lasted longer the second time.

The shouts of anger and shattering wood had echoed in their ears as Reid had pushed the button to send the rest of them down into Limbo. Finding Valerie hadn’t been that hard, but pushing through Thomas’ projections with only four of them had been a closer thing that Cobb wanted to admit. Bad enough to know he had to go back into Limbo, once they’d realized Thomas had gotten to Valerie already. Twice as bad to get thrown into it unwittingly, if Thomas had managed to get to them. Reid had managed to get them to Valerie and Thomas in one piece, warping Thomas’ dream around him and quietly not giving a flying flip about how difficult it was.

Idly Cobb wondered how long it would take Eames to make the man a job offer when this was all over. Better to think that than to let fear take him when he dropped into the one place he had never wanted to see again. Hotchner had raised an eyebrow at his non-expression when they’d found Thomas, when it was clear they were going to have to follow him into deadly danger in order to possibly save at least one victim. Cobb had just stared back as he ran out the lines and positioned his needle.

“We have time,” Cobb said, dropping his gaze to concentrate on getting everything right. “We’ll have plenty of time down there.” Too much time, honestly. Every deeper level stretched out time, seconds could pass in the real world while hours or even weeks passed in the dream. That was how Thomas had managed to hurt his victims so badly in only a night. And in Limbo, it wouldn’t be hours, it could be years. Even decades.

Eames mercifully refrained from commenting as he and Hotchner prepared themselves, ignoring the sounds of impending violence as Reid stood by to guard them during their descent.

But the blackness had still lasted forever, as if Limbo was making certain Cobb remembered where he was going.

Cobb found himself on the shore, shoes wet but clothing dry. The remembering sense of loss, of mourning that he’d felt here the last time was far less. He could breathe easier, without the lurking sense that Mal would appear and try to drag him down into an ocean of guilt. It helped, in a perverse way, that the other victims had been in Limbo for so long.

God only knew what they had thought him the remnants of his and Mal’s creation, but through experimentation or desperation, they had wrought their own changes on the face of Limbo. It no longer looked how he remembered it, and that helped dispel the old ghosts.

However, it did not fail to impress. The victims had a wide variety of interests, and it showed in rows of elegant skyscrapers, towering trees, magnificent ziggurats, and gothic mansions.

“Mr. Cobb?” Hotchner asked quietly. “Valerie grew up in a house similar to that. There was a family photo on her nightstand.” He gestured at the gothic manses, and Cobb shook his head and focused. Though different buildings held sway, Cobb realized the women hadn’t fundamentally changed the layout he and Mal had created years before. Streets and avenues still ran how he remembered them. If one house was there, a practice run, then the others would be…

“That way,” Cobb said.

“I think you’re quite mad,” Eames muttered. “Both of you.”

Hotchner didn’t deign to reply, and Eames subsided to talk directly to Cobb.

“This has changed quite a bit,” he said.

“Just the buildings,” Cobb nodded, unsurprised. He hadn’t talked about what had happened here, either years ago with Mal or more recently with Fisher. The only person he’d told the whole story to was Ariadne. He hadn’t wanted to tell Arthur, whom he had to work with, but Ariadne had been necessary and safe.

Cobb hadn’t asked her not to speak to the others. He’d actually counted on her telling them eventually. They deserved to know, but he didn’t want to have to talk about it again. Once had been enough. So the only way Eames could have known what Limbo looked like was if Ariadne had built an approximation and shown them. He wondered when she’d done it. Sometime right after the Inception, or just before this job, perhaps?

Did Hotchner already know? It was hard to know; the man had been a lawyer and was now an FBI agent – he’d made a career out of being absolutely unflappable. A con artist (Cobb would not give an extractor a prettier title) had to be able to take things in stride, but frankly the profilers were better at it in the real world. Most extractors fell into the job, drawn there by desperation or need, like him, or curiosity and wonder, like Ariadne or Yusef. Hotchner had chosen his job, and that gave him a stable base. Whatever else had happened to him in his career, he had that faint feeling of certainty, of right, that made a shield almost impossible to crack.

--

Morgan could feel his hands starting to go numb with repeated firing, and he scanned the plaza for his quarry. A bare flicker of movement made him smile grimly, realizing the projections were starting to gang together. Thomas had gotten tired or frightened of having his projections shot down. Finally he was starting to realize he was no longer up against an unwitting victim, but an alert and wary adversary.

But no matter how tough Morgan thought he was, he couldn’t hold Thomas here forever. He’d realize something was up, and eventually his projections would try something that would overwhelm Morgan… or more. And if he started getting extra aggressive here, that would translate into the lower level. Could Reid hold Thomas off if things started to get worse? Yes. Not with Morgan’s firepower, but with his own mazes and traps. Morgan just needed to warn him.

Something moved at the corner of Morgan’s eye, and he ducked below the window. If Thomas subconscious realized how dangerous Morgan was, he would probably redouble his efforts to kill not just him, but Reid, Hotch, and the extractors too. And if Thomas had been as cruel as they’d profiled, he probably already had Valerie on the lowest level, which mean Reid was defending three sleeping teammates on his own.

Reid was on a low chair in the warehouse floor behind Morgan, and though he couldn’t be kicked out of his dream level, he would feel movement. The whole world would shift. Arthur had once demonstrated that graphically during their training and had left Morgan clutching at the floor, trying not to fall on the ceiling. Reid would remember that even better than him. Morgan took careful aim and then slid Reid’s chair across the floor violently.

“He’s coming for you Reid,” Morgan muttered. “Watch out.”

--

A level down, Reid barely hung on as the library slewed sideways, dumping books and tipping desks. The world stabilized, and Reid began to look around as his heart pounded in his ears, fear sickeningly real in this unreal place. Someone was coming, something was happening. Either Thomas had gotten through to Morgan, or Morgan was… trying to warn him. Bars slammed up from the floor to protect his charges, as he turned his attention to the projections invading his library.

--

The tallest tower of the most elegant manse, that was where Valerie had gone to hide, seeking security in the place she’d known as a child. Which was exactly where Thomas had gone to find her, seeking out the one place where she should have been the safest and turning it against her.

“Eames, I hope you have someone she trusts lined up,” Cobb muttered, looking up at the attenuated house, hearing Valerie’s whimpers fall down the street below. Hotchner shot them a look as Eames looked to the window, letting his body shift, age, lighten, an older woman taking his place, her hair curled in an elegant style.

“Facebook photos on the trip from the hotel on our phones,” he explained shortly. “Your Garcia does a very quick electronic tango. It’s her mother.”

Hotchner just nodded shortly, drawing his gun and beginning the ascent up the stairs, a fast jog in time with Valerie’s fading cries.

-----------------
Part 2
Part 4
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