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» Explaining Inception: an FAQ Guide
What would happen if the machine was turned off and the sedative wore off when people were still on different (non-limbo) levels? Would they all wake up, or would those not on the first dream level end up in limbo?
Time simply goes on in the real world, and that people in different layers experience that same amount of time, only dilated by a factor of X (depending on the strength of the sedative used). So if the sedative wore off when people are in different levels, they would wake up normally after spending a certain amount of hours in their respective levels.
For example, in the real world a 20:1 sedative works for 1 second. After 1 second, everyone wakes up:
whoever is in the first layer stays in it for 1x20 seconds, then wake up.
whoever is in the second layer stays in it for 20x20=400 seconds, then wake up.
whoever is in the third layer stays in it for 400x20=8000 seconds, then wake up.
So on and so forth.