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
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…
“Look at the way he does this,” Rossi said, tapping the pictures of the unmarred front doors equipped with expensive deadbolts and electronic keypads. “This unsub knows how to get inside the home without forcing the lock or tripping the alarms. He knows when his victims will be home, when they’ll be in bed, and when they’ll be alone. He knows how much time he’ll be able to have with them before he has to go.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Hotchner could see Arthur react very subtly, barely more than a tightening of his jaw, and Cobb barely less so. Was this kind of protocol standard for an extractor? From what little Cobb had said about his former profession, it would fit.
“So he’s definitely stalking his victims. Despite the varying physical type, these aren’t targets of convenience. His ‘type’ is behavior, not appearance. He’s going after very high-risk targets for a reason; they’re his preferred prey,” Morgan said confidently.
“He wants the paranoid and well-protected. He’s delighting in defeating their security measures one by one until he has them,” Prentiss said. “He’s a security expert in all the vital areas: alarms, keys, guards, even handling guard dogs.” She pointed at something in the case file in front of her. “He tazered and drugged the security guards at Kaitlin Braymer’s house, and poisoned the guard dog at Ashley Sorenson’s. He defeats every aspect of their security, and then them.”
“And then their personal security,” Cobb added, making everyone look at him. “Their subconscious security.”
“What?” Rossi asked.
“I don’t know any of the victims personally, but if they were that careful about security and in those high-profile positions, they might have had subconscious security. There are ways to train your subconscious to defend yourself against extraction. You can militarize your mind. I’ve been doing that for Pentagon officials for the past three years.”
“That’s a level no one anticipated. If that was the case, no wonder the therapists were thrown out. How can someone learn that? Do you always need a teacher, or can you teach yourself?” Hotchner asked.
“Someone generally has to teach you. If the victims went through public channels, it was probably someone with connections to the military. If it was private…” Cobb paused and gestured to himself. “-their teacher was an extractor, or rather, an ex-extractor, as far as anyone would admit. Most prefer a private sector tutor, because people think they have less of an agenda than a government one.”
He did not add the usual, “no offense intended.” Having worked with Erin Strauss for years, Hotchner didn’t ask for it.
“Would there be records?”
“Only if it was public. If it was private, they wouldn’t have it listed as ‘subconscious security training.’”
“For obvious reasons,” Eames muttered.
“It makes a nasty surprise for an extractor if no one knows you’re protected,” Arthur added, his tone very flat. Hotchner wondered at that, but filed away the question to ask at some other time.
“I doubt they would have gone through public channels. None of the victims were government or military. They were security conscious, but they were not ostentatious. So it’ll be listed under another expense. How long does it take to teach someone?” Prentiss asked.
“It varies. The fastest time for me was five days, the slowest was four weeks. Ten days to two weeks is average, if the buyer is only training an hour or two of real time a day,” Cobb said. “It’s less intense than extracting.”
Hotchner pushed a button on the phone on the table.
“Yes, my liege?” a woman’s voice chirped from the other end of the line.
“Garcia, look for security consultations or training with an average duration of ten days to two weeks in their financials,” Hotchner said. “That could be how the unsub is finding his victims, and it would account for the frequent changes in location.”
“On it!” A click terminated the call abruptly.
“Now why can’t you do that, Arthur?” Eames asked. Arthur made a subtly rude gesture in Eames direction and didn’t waver his attention from the task at hand.
“We have a question for you all,” Rossi said.
“I think I know what it is,” Arthur said calmly.
“We have to ask it anyway. Does this sound like anyone you know?”
The extractors all looked at one another, Ariadne mostly in confusion, Eames, Arthur, and Cobb with deliberate thoughtfulness.
“No one that off the rails. You leave a trail of bodies behind you and no one hires you anymore,” Eames said. “The job is dramatic enough without making things difficult on purpose.”
Arthur and Cobb shook their heads. “I ran with a lot of people, but no one willing to try something like that on someone else,” Cobb said.
“I have a question,” Ariadne piped up. “If this guy is hurting these women like the therapists said, why don’t their projections fight back? After a while, even if he’s somehow tricked them into thinking they’re awake or something to get around their security, they’re going to imagine the cavalry coming to save them.”
“She’s right. The projections should be ripping this guy apart before he’s able to shove them into Limbo… if that’s what he’s doing. I don’t know any other way of keeping someone unconscious once they’re unhooked. You’d need a team to pull off something like that-.” Cobb stopped himself when the profilers sat up in interest.
“Multiple unsubs?” Morgan asked.
“It’s possible. The physical evidence has been scanty at best, and we’ve only recovered traces of one male at the scene. He’s pretty good at hiding his tracks. But if he had someone to assist him…” Reid trailed off as he looked at the case file with renewed interest, clearly trying different scenarios in his head.
“If he has been doing this for a while, he would likely have contacts in the extractor community, even if none of you know of him personally,” Rossi said, not without sympathy
“Hang on,” Cobb said, leaning forward. “Anyone who would be this sadistic would have been kicked out from his group a long time ago. The last thing you want in this business is to be memorable. Any dream that intense could leave traces.” Cobb still wondered if Fisher ever dreamed of a snowy hospital or masked kidnappers.
“Could he have been caught before?”
Eames snorted. “They’ve just barely gotten around to outlawing extraction. It’s bloody difficult to prove unless you’re caught in the act.”
“So, unlikely. We’ll have Garcia run it anyway,” Rossi said.
“Is there anything that could paralyze projections?” Reid asked.
The extractors all laughed softly. “Wish there was. It would have made our jobs easier,” Eames said.
“You’re infiltrating the subconscious to find what you’re looking for. If you paralyzed the subconscious somehow, you wouldn’t be able to discover anything or have any interaction with the subject. And I’ve never been on a job where there have been no projections,” Cobb said.
Hotchner thought he detected a slight hesitancy in Cobb’s explanation, but he let it pass for now.
“Even if he were a far better maze-builder than anyone I’ve ever seen, he can’t possibly hide from the projections for that long in dream time if he’s doing harm to the subject,” Arthur explained. “The mind will defend itself. He has to be using something to give him an edge.”
“Ok,” Hotchner said. “Mr. Cobb, then let’s bring your chemist into this. We need your professional opinion on the hard evidence we have. Morgan and Reid, J.J. and Prentiss, I want you to start on training now. We’re going to need as much time as we can get.” The chosen four stood up, ready to go immediately.
Cobb looked at his team, seeing what Hotchner was doing. Could he deal with his own team as effectively and smoothly? Could he bring as much professionalism to this job as the FBI?
“Arthur and Eames, Ariadne,” he said, splitting them into two groups. From what Arthur had found out, Morgan and Reid were likely to be the hardest to deal with in terms of mental landmines. Best to let the two more experienced extractors deal with them. Ariadne hadn’t done this for nearly as long, but she could definitely lay solid groundwork and give Prentiss and J.J. architect experience right off the bat. Besides, Cobb expected Arthur to keep his hand in everywhere; that was what he did. That didn’t even need to be said aloud.
“All right, let’s get to work,” Morgan said.
Yusef had been in the conference room all morning, poring over the chemical analysis of the trace amounts of drug found at the crime scenes. He was so deep into his thoughts that he barely registered Cobb, Hotchner, and Rossi coming in and setting up right next to him.
Cobb pulled out his silver briefcase and laid it on the table next to the open PASIV from evidence. He had a faint crease across his forehead as he opened it up, and Hotchner could understand why as he saw Cobb’s normal unit side-by-side with the unsub’s.
“He’s modified this.”
“Very heavily,” Cobb said, looking the two units over carefully. “The Somnacin dose bottles are twice as big as normal. And it looks like there was something else that plugged in here and here-,” he pointed at the timer, “-that he must have taken with him. This was designed for a very long haul. I would never use a dose that large. You could dehydrate and die before coming back up.”
“That only bears out our prior theory. He’s not working alone,” Rossi said.
Yusef looked up from his print-outs and beautifully hand-written notes with a curious expression on his face, like he was impressed and disgusted at the same time. “This person is either making his own compound or working with someone who is. And the maker is a disgrace to his profession. This is a cruel mixture.”
“Each chemist has different techniques he prefers, different additives.”
“A signature,” Hotchner said.
“Like a bomb-maker,” Rossi said, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
Yusef ignored Rossi as if he didn’t exist.
“The person has put a sedative in the compound, a very heavy one. He can take the subject very deep, and in that state any attempt at escape-.”
“Killing herself,” Cobb put in, his voice very slightly strained.
“Would drop her into Limbo. This combination is so heavy that he has to use a separate timer just to pull himself out of the dream. He wouldn’t even feel a kick.”
“A separate timer on a single unit?” Hotchner asked.
“That must be the wiring I couldn’t account for. He must have taken it with him.”
Yusef tapped the table softly to bring everyone’s attention back to the vial of straw-colored liquid. “In addition to the sedative, he’s put in some perception and mood-altering drugs into this mix. This is a very dangerous compound. The sensations would be intense, and there would be side effects. If he could drive soon after using this, I’d be surprised. There might be memory gaps, and certainly there would be errors in judgment.”
“Sounds like being hung over,” Rossi said ruefully.
“If the user isn’t dipping into illegal painkillers to stop the headache he has after using this, I would be surprised.”
“So we can add a pharmaceutical background and possible drug convictions to the profile, but how is he getting away from the scenes if he’s so impaired afterward? Taxi, public transport…” Hotchner paused and tapped the phone to get Garcia in the loop, repeating their newest round of speculations.
“Hmm… No public transport in those areas, sports fans. I’ll start checking taxi records.”
“If his partner was picking him up, someone might have noticed. I’ll get local PD to recanvas for unfamiliar vehicles,” Rossi said.
“Once you’re done, Dave, we better get started. Garcia’s going to need a lot more information to narrow our suspect pool down.” Hotchner looked over at Cobb as the man carefully closed his PASIV and picked up clean, sealed vials of Somnacin from Yusef.
“I’m ready whenever you are,” Cobb said, looking uncommonly grim.
In theory, everything about the ins and outs of extraction could be written on two sheets of paper. In practical application, it took a lot more than that. You could tell someone, “You can create anything,” in one breath, but until they saw and felt it for themselves, it was hard to make them truly believe it.
In the beginning, the extractors made each profiler take turns first being the architect, then dreamer, just like they had when they started teaching Ariadne. Part of it was pure experimentation, to see who could create the best mazes. Part of it was caution, to see if anyone else had particularly paranoid projections. And part of it was simple curiosity; what could they build, if told they could make anything?
J.J.’s first world was small towns and city steps, with a thousand and one briefing rooms, police stations, and homey little houses offering oases of comfort. Rossi’s was a strange amalgam of opulent hotels and mansions with frightening back alleys that did not invite exploration.
Hotchner’s ended up as a city of solid homes bisected with rigid pockets of offices in almost mathematical precision. Occasional parks were wide open, but the homes were chock full of hiding places. Prentiss’ world was a pure pleasure to visit, an aesthetic melding of all the major European cities, with architectural flourishes that impressed even Ariadne.
Reid’s was hard to work with, an utter hodgepodge of university buildings with an agonizing amount of detail. He inevitably built the best mazes, spirals mixed with elaborate formulas that wound their ways through infinite varieties of libraries and classrooms. Dark places existed throughout, and everyone knew better than to venture into the woods.
Morgan’s world was a combination of old and new, dilapidated buildings with walls torn out, fresh paint in weary rooms making them young again. It was in a constant state of reconstruction, which gave it plenty of places for people to hide.
The trick was that places to hide generally meant something was hiding there.
Eames’ eyes snapped open, as did Arthur’s a moment later. Extremely irritated, Eames stalked over to tip Morgan and Reid’s chairs on their sides.
“Would you do me a favor and stop bloody killing me?!”
Morgan stared at him blankly, still not quite awake, but Reid flushed with embarrassment. “I’m sorry!”
“Eames, ease up,” Arthur said, massaging his temples briefly. “It’s not their fault.”
Morgan picked himself up and hauled Reid to his feet. “Is that normal?”
“For you to kill us that fast when we weren’t doing anything? No,” Eames said testily.
“It would be excellent if you thought you were in danger of an extraction on yourself. It’s not so great when you’re trying to work with people towards a common goal,” Arthur clarified. “You have very aggressive projections, Morgan.”
“Maybe I should build this time,” Reid suggested. “I want to try some different traps in the mazes.”
“Anything that doesn’t involve me getting shot,” Eames said, sitting back down.
“I’ll be the subject,” Arthur said, which mollified Eames slightly. “Let’s try again.”
“Bloody hell,” Eames said, looking at the endless rows of books with trepidation. Between polished wooden cases and satin metal beams, the endless library was certainly one of the more unique dreams he’d ever been in.
“I haven’t been in enough libraries. Where’s the vault in a place like this?” Arthur asked.
After almost a week into training the profilers, there was definitely progress was being made. Reid was probably the best maze-builder Arthur had ever seen, even better than Ariadne, though they tended to be so complex that only he could keep track of them. Good for hiding for projections, bad for finding information. In the spirit of that, they were letting Morgan try to be the subject again; Reid could probably keep them from getting killed long enough to thread the difficult maze.
If they could extract here, then they were very close to being able to try their new-won talents on the three victims.
“The archives,” Reid said instantly. “In the basement.”
“All right, this is impressive. Any of the subjects librarians?” Eames asked. “Academians? Professors?”
Reid shook his head. “Lawyer, VP, marketing director,” he said ruefully.
“Well, still,” Eames said. “If one had ever been at university…”
“Which you haven’t,” Arthur said pointedly.
“It could be useful. Go on, show us the vault,” Eames said, ignoring Arthur’s jab.
Reid led the way past scores of students thoroughly engrossed in their books.
“Now your projections behave,” Arthur muttered, with a sideways glance at Morgan. He shrugged.
“I always hit the books hard enough to get bruises. I was here-.”
“Not here,” Reid said quickly, a stickler for accuracy, and that was so very important for what they were doing right now.
“At college on a football scholarship,” Morgan amended. “Then I blew out my knee.” Eames winced in sympathy. “Besides, my mother would have let me have it if I hadn’t gotten on the Dean’s List.”
Reid led them down a few staircases (behind three different doors and down four twisting corridors) and onto an elevator. A couple projections started to glance at them, and Morgan took a quiet, steadying breath.
“What are we looking for?” he asked.
Someone yelled beyond the elevator doors in reaction to his nervousness, and Eames looked exasperated.
“Whatever you want to put in there. This is just a dry run. When you talk to your subject, you steer the conversation so that whatever secret you’re trying to find is the one in the vault,” Arthur explained very calmly, but also very quickly. This had always been around the point when Morgan’s projections started swarming them.
Morgan relaxed, and the yelling stopped.
“I’ve worked with Cobb for five years. I never knew all his secrets,” Arthur added. Unsaid but seen was the way the two extractors took in the surface of what they saw but didn’t inquire about any details that didn’t pertain to the exercise. Perhaps it was all for their benefit, but Morgan doubted it.
‘Sometimes you see things, but unless it affects the job…” Arthur trailed off.
“I’ve got enough to think about with pissing off more people accidentally,” Eames added cheerfully. “Besides, you’re rather lethally defensive, and I’ve died enough for one week.”
“You’re a forger?” Prentiss asked.
Eames smiled broadly, reflected in the glossy black marble walls as a thin blonde woman. “Always a useful skill. Sometimes you don’t have time to gain a subject’s trust yourself.”
“So you make yourself a figure of trust.”
“A pretty woman is often welcome with some types.”
“You observe someone else the subject trusts and forge them. It’s a con job, when it’s all said and done, only a lot more fun.”
The woman was gone between blinks, and Eames’ usual appearance returned.
“Can all extractors do that?”
Eames chuckled. “Oh, no. Most try to learn, but not everyone has the mental flexibility to want to be someone else.” The arrogance in that statement was backed up by the flawless imitation Emily had just seen. If she hadn’t known it was Eames, if she hadn’t seen him shift, she wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.
Prentiss smiled. “And that’s why you asked which one of us had ever done undercover work.”
“I know Morgan said he had, but I’ve been killed by him quite enough, thank you.”
Prentiss had to hold back laughter at that. Arthur had made a small betting pool on how many times they were getting killed in a day, and Reid had been cleaning up on it.
“Besides, I’ve seen you build. I think I recognize buildings from half the countries in Europe. You don’t make that kind of detail unless you’ve been there, or have studied it. And I don’t think you’re an architectural student.”
“Diplomat’s daughter,” Prentiss confessed.
“So, you wanted to fit in every time you moved. You learned the local languages and customs. You tried to become one of them every time, right?”
These extractors had a lot more in common with profilers than they let on. In many ways, their jobs were eerily the same. Eames’ question cut far too close to the bone for Prentiss’ comfort.
“Right,” she said shortly.
“So, you didn’t just play a part to get close to some naughty boy so you could bring him to justice. You really wanted to be someone else, at least for a while. That’s what makes it work. Most everyone else is too tied up in who they are.”
Prentiss could see Eames’ passion; for a moment, he was stripped of his trademark sarcastic wit. This was what drew him to extraction, the same way Ariadne was drawn by building. Whatever con jobs he did in the real world, those were just to keep him in bread and butter. When Ariadne had shown her and J.J. how to build, Prentiss could see the joy on her face, a pure pleasure in creation that made her understand how a seeming-student could become part of an illegal criminal enterprise.
Now Eames’ true reason for extraction shone through. He loved this; he wanted this more than anything else. Exercising this deception gave him what he needed-.
“You think the unsub is forging?” she asked. “To gain his victim’s trust?”
“He certainly could be.” Eames shrugged. “It’s one way of disarming your subject.”
Prentiss shook her head to clear it from speculation and focused on the task at hand. When they went into the victims’ minds, it would be a hell of a lot easier negotiating them if the subject’s subconscious didn’t think she was a threat. Having two forgers available would double their chances.
She took a deep breath (firmly ignoring the pointlessness of breathing in a dream; think about that too hard and you could think yourself crazy) and thought of her subject. Skin and bone, the way of walking, posture, texture of the skin, color of the hair, typical clothing, the usual tone of voice… Between one blink and the next, Eames was facing Aaron Hotchner.
“Well?” he/she asked, moving her/his hands with a very faint show of surprise at their differing size.
Eames carefully walked around Prentiss, tweaking the fold of the jacket and pointing out the lay of the hair in the polished marble wall. He finally nodded.
“Not bad. You see him every day, practically, so he should be easy. You’re not going to get so lucky, usually. I have a few people I use for general distractions,” he raised his eyebrow suggestively, and for a second, blonde hair cascaded down his back, “But most of the time you’re being someone’s brother, or girlfriend or mistress or wife.” He grinned widely at that. “And that can be a hell of a lot of fun.”
Prentiss’ return smile was rueful and a little bitter. “I guess it would be, in a dream.” She closed her eyes for a moment, and then opened them to stare at the wall. “Ok, who?”
“Ariadne,” Eames called out.
Prentiss let her dark hair lighten and her features soften as she tried to become someone else. Eventually someone a traumatized victim would trust.
“Pointman? That’s what your job is called?” Morgan asked. He handed Arthur a bottle of water as he waited for his coffee to brew.
Arthur nodded. “I do background research, scout out locations, and help provide a second layer. Basically act as the extractor’s second set of hands.”
Morgan looked like he was holding back laughter.
“Garcia, our analyst. She does a lot of those kinds of things for us.”
Arthur looked interested, and Morgan waved him towards another set of corridors. They needed to take several breaks between training sessions to keep themselves sharp, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to check up on what Garcia had been doing with the information and speculation they’d given her in the past few days. They were hoping to get the suspect pool cut down at least a little.
“Come on, I’ll introduce you.”
Inside her electronic sanctum, Penelope Garcia was currently smashing her top scores on Tetris while running searches on everything the teams had figured out about the unsub thus far. What brought Arthur up short wasn’t the multitasking, it was her wardrobe. She was wearing a dress in an eye-smarting shade of blue, with orange and red accents. Brilliant orange shoes contrasted with a red belt, and explosions of blue and red glitter seemed to be coming from her copper-colored hair. A rainbow of plastic rings and bracelets decorated her arms and hands.
“Hey, Baby Girl.”
Garcia spun around, clicking a key to pause her game, and turned her smile on full blast. “What brings you do the throne of the Queen of All Knowledge, tall, dark and handsome?” she asked cheerfully.
“I thought you might like to meet one of the extractors. Arthur, Penelope Garcia.”
“Hey,” she said, suddenly shy.
“Hello-.” Arthur barely got the word out when the computers beeped. Garcia turned back to them and rapidly scanned through the results.
“Derek, looks like this nasty may have had half a dozen prior attempts. Two interrupted break-ins and one home invasion, plus three other people in transient housing found in their rooms on what they thought was a near OD, in that order. All had Somnacin in common. The victims; descriptions of the perp- those that saw him at all -were similar, though the guy went masked. One report does mention a silver briefcase. All of these in SoCal.”
“That fits the profile. He was trying to get at his victims more directly before he switched to stalking to give himself more time. We knew he couldn’t be a first-time offender,” Morgan said. “And that gives us a base of initial operations.”
“Exactamundo. I’m going to track down the lead detectives and see if anyone has more info that didn’t get put at my fingertips.”
Morgan leaned over to give her a kiss on the top of her head. “You’re amazing.”
“You only say that because it’s true!” She waved at Arthur. “Nice to meet you.”
Morgan steered Arthur out as Garcia turned back to her precious data gathering, and repressed a chuckle at Arthur’s stunned expression. Comparing Arthur’s restrained and severe sense of style to Garcia’s colorful flamboyance was enough to make his week.
He saw Arthur surreptitiously pull out his loaded die totem from his hip pocket and roll it inside his loose fist. Morgan couldn’t repress the burst of laughter.
“Garcia’s from her own reality; a totem won’t help,” he said. Morgan put his hand in his pocket and ran a finger along his own totem, a heavy screw with a stripped-out head. It was one he’d kept from one of his first renovation projects.
Arthur cracked a faint smile and put the die away. “You got me. I thought you’d manage to dream up my exact opposite.”
“Oh, I couldn’t dream up Garcia. You haven’t seen her in my head, have you?”
Arthur considered the projections he’d seen when Morgan had been the dreamer and shook his head.
“But if we need a distraction…”
“Oh no, Garcia’s the one and only. Come on, we better get back to work.”
Ariadne watched as Reid twisted the world around them.
He created covered pits, snares, locked doors and spike strips, traps to stop projections intent on his destruction. She’d opened her mouth to warn him that he’d just be attracting unwanted attention, but Arthur had put his hand on her arm to silence her.
“He’ll remember this more clearly if he figures it out on his own,” he murmured.
Ariadne shook her head. She’d seen Reid build, had seen the dark corners he tended to create in even the brightest dreamscapes; his was not a mind that needed more unexpected trauma.
“They’ll be coming for you,” she called.
Reid looked up as Arthur’s projections began to convene on the plaza. His face a mask of concentration, he opened up pits under their feet, blocked their way with buses, and locked doors against them.
Ariadne raised an eyebrow at Arthur, the “Yes, I do know what I’m doing,” look. Arthur didn’t bat an eyelash, silently supporting her decision. Reid lasted far longer than they expected him to, and using his traps and twisting corridors to fight to the bitter end, actually survived to hear the musical cue.
When Ariadne opened her eyes, Reid looked remarkably calm and composed. The first few times she’d built, Ariadne knew she’d been a lot more unsettled. For all the wonder and instinctual understanding, creating and manipulating a dreamscape wasn’t easy, and Reid had just pulled a hell of a trick in defending himself. If he’d been a real extractor, he’d have more work than he could ever do. Ariadne smiled at him in encouragement as he slowly sat up.
“That was harder than I thought it would be,” Reid said, rubbing his head almost ruefully.
“You didn’t die,” Arthur said. “That’s all that really matters. You’re going to be able to keep everyone safe once we do this for real.”
Reid nodded, looking sad and resigned. “Then I think we’re ready. The victims have waited long enough.”
Cobb looked down at the still form of Jessica Rand and felt a surge of guilt. He hadn’t let himself think about the victims too much when he’d been teaching the profilers; he couldn’t. Letting that kind of worry and stress into his subconscious while he was teaching other people could be a recipe for disaster, and he knew it. But he’d still known, in the back of his mind, the reason for putting Hotchner’s team through grueling extraction training at the fastest pace possible. Each of the three victims had been fading a little at a time, day by day, their minds retreating in a misguided effort to save themselves from some kind of pain.
“Mr. Cobb?” Hotchner asked quietly.
“Everyone ready?” Cobb asked, turning to his team for the run into Jessica’s mind. He, Eames, Hotchner, Morgan, and Reid would try their luck with the first victim, while Arthur, Ariadne, Rossi, Prentiss, and J.J. would make their own attempt to gather clues in Kaitlin’s subconscious, the second of the victims. Neither was sure what they would find, and they didn’t want to risk smaller teams.
“Let’s see if we can find what this son of a bitch left behind,” Morgan said, looking fiercely determined as he lay back in his chair near Jessica’s hospital bed.
Cobb looked over at the others, hooked up and ready, and finally nodded at the nurse. She pushed the button on the PASIV, sending them into sleep.
Morgan found himself sitting at a table, drinking a cup of coffee as Reid picked up his cup from the barista. Hotchner was sitting in a corner, reading the paper, while Cobb and Eames talked at another table. The coffee shop should have been a warm, inviting place, but something about it repelled him. Reid had designed this level, a common enough place to hopefully not alarm Jessica, but something was pressing down in Reid’s design.
The walls and floors looked grimy, the air was chill, and the conversation around them was in short, terrified-sounded whispers. Taking a closer look at the projections, many of them bore signs of violence, bruises or cuts on their faces and arms.
Morgan gingerly walked over to join the extractors, Reid trailing behind him. “Have you ever seen this before?”
They shook their heads. “It’s like he roughed up her whole subconscious.”
“As much time as he had in here…” Cobb trailed off, more than a little disturbed by what he was seeing. He’d never seen someone subconscious mar an architect’s design like this before.
“Come on, we know she’s not here,” Hotchner said over their shoulders. “Let’s get looking.”
“These are just projections. Where’s the subject?” Arthur asked.
“I haven’t seen her.” Rossi turned down another dream corridor, only be faced with more blank-faced and beaten projections listlessly walking from room to room.
“Wait, try here,” Prentiss said, pausing outside a door half-concealed by a trick of shadow and perspective.
Arthur palmed open a small door and Rossi cursed fervently. Prentiss looked over his shoulder and blinked in confusion. Their victim, Kaitlin, was tied to a bed, a PASIV unit hooked up to her arm.
“Two levels,” Arthur stated. “Damn it, I thought only Cobb could do that.”
“He learned this from Cobb?” Prentiss asked.
Arthur rounded on him so fast the walls actually pulsed in anger. Ariadne took a step back in surprise, almost bumping into Rossi.
“No,” he said flatly. “Extractors know it can be done, but most can’t do it very well. The dreams collapse under their own weight, even at two levels.”
Ariadne incongruously stifled a snort, and J.J. looked at her strangely.
“If he can do this, he’s been practicing for a long time. The mix he was using probably helped a lot,” Arthur explained.
“All right, so how do you do two levels?” Prentiss asked impatiently.
“You leave someone up here to hold the dream in place, and then you plug yourself into this PASIV and follow her down,” Ariadne explained. “But you’d need a kick to get back up again…”
“We’re not following her down on a standard Somnacin mix anyway,” Arthur said. “Kaitlin can hold multiple levels in her own mind, but if we start mucking around in here, we could end up collapsing everything unless she was sedated.”
“She’s in a coma,” Rossi snapped.
“Would you like to be caught under two or three levels of collapsing dreamscape? I wouldn’t,” Arthur said testily. “Not even in a comatose subject. I thought we were hunting for clues.”
“We are,” Prentiss said firmly. “Let’s go before you two collapse this thing on your own.”
“If you look at the patterns of injuries on the projections, they show a great degree of similarity. It’s almost symmetrical,” Reid said. “Eight-five percent similar to the marks on Jessica’s dream body.”
Reid’s careful examination of the “physical” damage to Jessica was the only thing helping Hotchner keep his demeanor perfectly calm. He’d seen the clues of the sadistic nature of the unsub all over Jessica’s subconscious, and he had carefully revised his mental profile to include a few new definitions of cruelty. He was going to have Garcia add restraining orders to her searches because any man who would go to these lengths to torture women like this had clearly attempted to do so in the past. His controlling behavior would have started early.
Morgan, however, had not welcomed the news that Jessica’s conscious mind was on a second level down, nor that this was a trick Cobb himself was known for.
“So it still could be someone you know,” Morgan said.
“We don’t know everyone in that field,” Cobb said wearily. He was reluctant to start blithely naming names in the extractor community, of setting the FBI on the trail of people that had, until recently, been his co-workers. His kind.
“You can give us a start. This man is a monster.”
Eames rolled his eyes at Cobb dancing around the subject and the profilers’ pressuring questions, and he unceremoniously shot Cobb in the head. Morgan and Reid’s protests were drowned out by the building collapsing on top of them.
“I thought you were sick of getting killed,” Morgan said as he woke up.
“For Eames, that’s practically hello,” Cobb muttered. Eames fluttered his eyelashes as he took the needle out of his arm.
Arthur and Prentiss appeared in the doorway. Both were grim-faced.
“She’s on a second level,” Prentiss said.
“At least,” Arthur added.
“So is Jessica. I’d bet Ashley’s the same way,” Cobb said. “We need to talk, now.”
“The projections, they’re deteriorating,” Cobb said. “The damage to the projections, the state of the dream itself, it’s like it’s collapsing in slow motion. If we go deeper, I don’t know if there’s going to be anything left of them to work with. Our presence could make what’s left of the dream collapse.”
“They’ve been badly traumatized. They’re withdrawing and retreating so they can’t be hurt, going comatose along with the victim’s mind,” Rossi said. “From what you described, Kaitlin’s mind wasn’t quite as bad as Jessica’s.”
“I think we need to try to follow them down as far as we can,” Hotchner said. “It’s likely the unsub became more personal on deeper levels. The farther he was inside his comfort zone, the more likely he would be to be careless.”
Cobb tried not to look as worried as he felt. Inside though, he felt like he was rapidly getting out of his depth. He’d never been inside the mind of someone that badly hurt, someone who’d been tortured for days (effectively years in dream time) at the hands of a master sadist. He’d been in the mind of people with issues, and even there things could be amplified all out of proportion. This level of damage… this was beyond his comfort zone. He didn’t know how effective he could be; he didn’t know how he would be able to stand continuing to do what was effectively a dreamscape autopsy. None of these women was going to wake up again. There would be no saving them like he had with Saito.
“Dom,” Ariadne said softly, giving him a look of earnestness tempered by a haunted look in her eyes. “Please. We have to try.”
“Garcia’s got our list of names down to a dozen. I know none of you recognize them, but we’re getting closer,” Rossi promised. “We’re going to be able to end this.”
Cobb could practically hear what he’d told Hotchner over a week ago, “I’m working off a few lifetimes’ worth of bad karma.”
The second level was worse. Here the damage was far more spectacular, enough so that even Hotchner, who had gone through several levels of hell in the past few years, looked a little green. The walls crumbled at a touch, projections lay half-crushed underneath them, and those that still walked stumbled on shattered bone and shrieked at the touch of the wind against their flayed, raw skin.
It hadn’t even required any discussion to attempt to find Jessica as quickly as possible. Cobb wished the profilers luck in attempting to get knowledge out of this charnel house; he and Eames were far too busy locating their subject. So busy they could not, would not, pay too much attention to the horror around them.
At the center of the crumbling city, they found her, curiously undisturbed and whole compared to her projections. With a needle in her arm with little sign of violence upon her, her face was still soaked with tears with her hands clenched into fists, her nails digging bloody gouges into her palms.
“This is the second level…” Reid said slowly, looking down at Jessica’s too-still form. “How many more levels can there be?”
“Nothing beyond two, not with all the damage he’s done. Down below this is Limbo.” Cobb stared at the girl and swore silently. He did not, did not think he could handle that twice. Hotchner saw his hesitation, and he put his hand on the girl’s wrist.
“We can’t save her if we die.”
“There is no time down there. It’s possible.” Cobb heard himself saying it, and his voice sounded so different, haunted, he wondered who was talking.
“You’ve done this before,” Hotchner stated.
“Once on purpose. Once not. You don’t want to do this.”
“You don’t want to do this,” Hotchner corrected gently. “You know it’s been too long to save them. Jessica’s vital signs are slipping every day.” Cobb let his breath out in an explosive sigh and nodded in agreement.
“Hotch, this place looks like bombed-out Baghdad. The unsub could have a military record. Makes sense considering where PASIV technology came from and why he’s so experienced at it,” Morgan said, unobtrusively inserting his comment into the tense moment.
“The flaying could be symbolic,” Reid put in. “He wanted these women to know they could hide nothing from him. He’s likely been rejected recently before the start of the first incident, probably something job-related.”
“Is this all we’re going to get?” Eames asked, not impatiently, not smiling in this terrible place.
“Very likely,” Hotchner said.
“And you think he’ll do it again.” It wasn’t a question.
“Rossi and Prentiss checked Ashley’s mind earlier today. It was a slaughterhouse. He’s getting a real taste for this,” Morgan said.
“Then I think I can teach Prentiss a few more tricks to help if we catch this bastard in the act,” Eames said. “And I rather think time isn’t on our side.”
Eames sat in the half-ruined corner of the café, watching Emily Prentiss practice the form of the strong, independent Vera Braymer, mother of Kaitlin. Though both Emily and Vera had outwardly similar personalities, there were nuances in behavior that could trip up a paranoid subject. Poor Kaitlin might not able to be revived, even at her “mother’s” urging, but it would be an important test for Emily to be able to be accepted.
And yet all of this preparation and practice was not even for the real job. Arthur had been appalled at how the profilers had only days, sometimes hours or even minutes to figure out how to interact with their subject. The shortest job Eames had ever pulled had had a week’s prep time (barring a few clusterfucks from when he’d been starting out that, frankly, sometimes he’d been surprised he’d avoided jail or death from). The Fisher job had had several months of prep, even if they’d had to do a lot of condensing and improvising in the end.
That was one area in which Eames would give the profilers kudos. They were fast studies and good at shooting from the hip. Both teams were good at reading people, though the extractors were a lot better at evading projections. The agents weren’t used to having to run for their lives from an angry mob every time they tried to talk to a subject. The extractors weren’t used to that ability to fall back on authority; in the dream world, your team was all the back-up you had. There was no way to call for reinforcements.
Emily called for her “daughter,” gratified and pleased when the remaining projections seemed to welcome her and relax their sorrowful air. It was as close to victory as they were going to get in here.
The thin sound of piano music, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, penetrated the dream, and moments later they both woke up.
“All right?” Cobb asked. Emily was shaking her head slightly and rubbing her arms, dispelling the physical ghost of Vera Braymer’s body.
“I’m fine,” she said calmly.
Eames nodded at both Cobb and Hotchner. “You’ll do,” he said to Emily, a smile adding emphasis to his spare praise. She was good at playing a role: the only hard part for her was getting used to the medium.
“Jessica Rand died an hour ago,” Rossi announced. Emily tightened her lips in anger for another life lost. The only comfort was that death was probably a relief for Jessica.
“Once that hits the media, he’ll look for another victim,” Hotchner said. “He probably already has one in mind. He’s been watching her since he took Ashley, possibly even sooner.”
“Get ready to move at a moment’s notice. This is it,” Rossi said, looking at Cobb.
“You’re not taking twelve people down there, are you?” Cobb asked incredulously.
“You said he’s probably working with a partner, most likely a chemist, and our profile agrees with you. His partner has given our unsub some ideas, and those didn’t come out of nowhere. This man has experience too. It’s likely they’ll start double-teaming.”
“How the hell can you know that?” Eames asked.
“They’ve been hunting together for several victims. It creates a profound bond. The chemist has pushed the boundaries for the extractor, so the extractor will reciprocate to keep the balance of power even. He needs bigger thrills, and being able to swap stories will keep the rush longer. It’s very likely we could be looking at a double attack the next time he strikes.”