The cubicle faded out in his mind, to be slowly replaced by the corridor he'd left at the end of the last act. Janet was at his side again, and both were running a desperate race against time. He reminded himself--and the viewers--that he and Janet were a team of skilled government agents on the trail of urban terrorists. The terrorists' philosophy was deliberately vague--Dramatic Dreams didn't want itself left open to charges of using Dreams to propagandize against anyone's cherished beliefs--but they were generally in favor of killing innocent people and tearing down all the established values that everyone else held dear.
Wayne and Janet had learned, from a terrorist they'd captured and questioned, that the gang had built a homemade atomic bomb, and were prepared to detonate it here in Los Angeles unless their impossible demands were met. There was no time to call the police or the bomb squad; this job had to be done now, and Wayne and Janet were the only people in position to save millions of lives.
The terrorists, though, were not going to give up without a fight. They'd stationed a suicide squad of their own people here in the corridor to guard their engine of destruction. These men knew they'd die if the bomb went off, and were prepared to sacrifice their lives for their cause. They'd be demons in the struggle to protect their bomb; they had nothing else to live for, and would hold nothing back.
As Wayne and Janet burst into the cross corridor where the bomb had been placed, they quickly eyed the situation. Twenty meters of danger separated them from their target. The moment they came into view, the three men guarding the corridor came instantly alert. Their guns were already drawn and held at the ready for just such a contingency; in a reflex gesture they fired quickly at the government agents.
Wayne could feel the heated air as the laser beam from one guard's gun sizzled scant millimeters by his cheek and burned a small hold in the plaster of the wall. Using the momentum of his run as a push-off, he dove forward onto his stomach. His own gun was in his hands, and as he slid to a halt on the smooth floor, he braced his elbows on the ground, took quick but careful aim, and fired. The guard who'd shot at him screamed in pain as the searing blast from Wayne's pistol vaporized tissue in his right shoulder.
Behind Wayne, Janet was also in action. She'd been one pace behind him as they entered the hall; the shot at him had given her enough warning. She rolled sideways, ending up in a kneeling position with her left side firmly against the wall. Her gun, too, was in her hand and burning down the enemy.
Taking advantage of her covering fire, Wayne slithered snakelike twelve meters down the corridor to the button controlling the metal gate that barred his way to the end of the passage. Laser blasts were hitting all around him, but he ignored them; his sole concentration was on that button.
For dramatic effect, Wayne slowed down his time sense just a little bit. Like everything else in this Dream, the flow of time was controlled by the Dreamers. Wayne could stretch a moment out to eternity to make everything happen in slow motion, or compress any number of events into a single instant. Elongating the time flow here was an artistic effect to build suspense in the audience by making his progress seem slower and by increasing the threat from the guards' lasers. Every man out there identifying with him in this Dream would be straining to reach that fateful button, yet fighting through the molasses Wayne imposed. He had, of course, discussed the time flow variation with Janet, and she was slowing down her own time sense, too; otherwise her motions would be a quick blur to Wayne, and to all the men seeing things through his eyes.
Finally Wayne reached the button. He pressed it and, obediently, the metal gate slowly rolled up into the ceiling. As it did so, Wayne returned the time flow to normal speed. The way now seemed clear for him to get at the bomb. But just as the wave of triumph washed through him, he was struck in the right calf by a laser beam from one guard's pistol.
This was a very tricky effect, and Wayne had been flattered when the station management agreed to let him do it. Throughout the industry there were very strict regulations against inflicting pain through Dreams. A sensation like that could have traumatic effects on someone lying peacefully at home in bed. There had been several successful lawsuits against Dreamers when the industry was just starting up, with the plaintiffs claiming mental and physical impairments because of such traumas. The result was that Dreamers walked on eggshells, approaching the subject of stress in Dreams with extreme caution.
When Wayne ran in a Dream, he never got winded; when he performed strenuous feats, he never got tired, never strained a muscle; and now, when the script called for him to be wounded, he could not suffer any real pain. He'd be fired immediately if he let anything like that go across the wires.
Instead, he had to handle the wound on an intellectual level. Instead of transmitting the searing agony that a real laser burn would cause, he had to send the cool, rational thought that his leg had been hit by enemy fire and that he was experiencing pain. His leg could not bear his full weight and he'd show all the aftereffects of the wound. The only ingredient missing would be the pain itself. To carry off the maneuver successfully was one mark of an expert, and Wayne was glad to have a chance to show off his abilities.
He screamed out in his "pain" just as Janet's laser snuffed out that one remaining guard. But Wayne could not let himself be slowed down. There were only minutes left before that bomb was due to explode--and he, not Janet, was the demolitions expert. With the gate now up, there seemed nothing to stop him from reaching his goal. He couldn't stand up with his leg in this condition but, with the strength born of desperation, he began pulling himself along the ground by his elbows to reach the end of the corridor.
Two more guards seemed to appear out of nowhere on the other side of the gate. They'd remained hidden until now, hoping their comrades outside could handle this threat without giving away their own position. They were the last line of defense, and they were undoubtedly the best men the terrorists had.
Wayne could hear Janet behind him muttering muffled curses as her laser ran out of charge, but she refused to give up. With an accuracy that would make a major league pitcher jealous, she hurled her weapon straight at the gun hand of one of the remaining terrorists. Now it was her turn to slow down the time sense; the gun wafted in slow motion through the air toward its target. Would the guard have time to fire before it hit? No--for at the last possible moment Janet accelerated time once more. Her pistol hit the guard's with sufficient force to knock it out of his hand and across the room.
The other guard had his gun out too, but so did Wayne. Janet's diversionary throw had given him enough time to get a bead on the second guard. He fired, but at that same instant the guard moved slightly, and Wayne's shot only grazed the man's hand. Although the guard was not taken out of the fight, the pain was enough to make him drop his weapon and shake his hand to rid it of the stinging sensation. It was all right for the guard to feel pain in this Dream; he was only a shadow figure created by Wayne and Janet, and there would be no viewers at home identifying with his feelings.
Wayne readied his pistol for another shot, only to discover that it, too, was out of charge. Disgusted, he chucked it aside and resumed his crawl down the hallway. Eight meters and two suicide-bent guards stood between him and the bomb. All he could do was crawl and hope that Janet could take care of his antagonists.
The guard who'd had his gun knocked away by Janet's accurate throw looked around to retrieve his weapon, but couldn't spot it in his first hasty scan of the hall. Realizing it was more important to stop Wayne on his mission, the terrorist abandoned his search and moved toward the crawling agent. At this point, Janet came to the rescue once more. Her exquisite body--modified in this Dream to make it more sensual than it was in reality, and propelled by legs ever so slightly stronger than could be expected of a human being in real life--leaped through the air, tackling the husky guard and knocking him to the ground. As she hit, she swung her legs sideways to trip up the other guard, who'd also started to move toward Wayne.
Wayne didn't have much opportunity to watch the fight that went on to his right; he was too busy concentrating on reaching the bomb before it could explode. Having read the script, he knew exactly what was happening: Janet was having a fight on her hands, though the outcome was inescapable. The women identifying with her would have an exciting time before she finally subdued her two opponents. In the meantime, he had an atom bomb to disarm.
He kept the time sense nice and easy; there was no point to rushing the matter, and a little added suspense shouldn't hurt anybody. He kept careful tabs on Janet's progress out of the corner of one eye; this was her big scene, and he had no right to ruin it by arriving at the bomb too early, before she'd finished beating up her terrorists.
His timing was perfect; he reached his goal just as the last guard slumped to the floor unconscious. Janet was not even breathing hard.
Looking over at him, she asked, "How much time?"
Wayne looked at the timer on the side of the casing. "Three minutes," he replied. With exaggerated caution he leaned himself against the wall, pulled his miniaturized tool kit out of his pocket and began his work.
Calmly, refusing to allow himself to hurry, he unscrewed the four bolts holding the timer in place. Then slowly, ever so slowly, he pulled the timing device itself out of the bomb casing and set it gently down on the floor beside him. He let a few beads of perspiration gather on his forehead as an artistic touch, and he wiped his sweaty hands on his pants. The timer said two minutes.
There was a multicolored tangle of wires connecting the timer to the bomb itself--such a maze of them that it would surely confuse a layman, although Wayne instilled in his viewers the confidence that he knew what he was doing. "I have to disconnect these in a particular sequence," he told Janet--thereby informing the audience as well. "If I make any mistake, the bomb will go off immediately." He made a big point to study the order of the wires for several long seconds. "Here goes nothing," he said at last.
Pulling an electrodriver out of his small kit, he set about unfastening certain of the wires from the body of the timer. As he looked down at his hands, his fingers became longer and nimbler--another artistic effect, to make the hands seem more skilled. He separated the last of the wires from the timer with a minute to go, yet the bomb was still armed. He looked at it for a disbelieving moment, then said, "They must have an auxiliary on it."
Time was precious now. He made the ticking sounds from the bomb louder, so loud they nearly echoed in the narrow hallway. Quickly he scanned the surface of the bomb, looking for the second fuse. "They'd have put it somewhere within easy reach," he told his partner. "They'd want to turn it off themselves if we'd met their demands. It's just a question of... ah, there it is." He pointed to a small nodule on one side of the bomb.
Forty seconds. The timer was attached by only one screw. Taking his electrodriver once more in hand, he undid the fastening. Twenty seconds. Carefully he used his long, narrow fingers to pry the timer off its mooring and examine it. There was only one set of wires.
Ten seconds. There was no time to be dainty. Wayne put down his electrodriver and took out his wire cutters. With two deft motions, the pair of wires was severed. The loud ticking came to a crashing stop with five seconds before detonation.
He slumped against the wall, breathing a deep sigh of relief. Janet sat down beside him, her own relief evident on her face. Reaching her arms around him, she kissed him lightly on the lips; the look in her eyes promised richer rewards to follow.
Then she stood up and helped him to his feet. He put his arm around her shoulders and leaned on her so he wouldn't have to put a strain on his "wounded" leg. The position forced his body into close proximity to hers, and he allowed his viewers--and himself--to enjoy that feeling.
"Let's see what the Chief says now about our being able to handle an explosive situation," Janet smiled, referring back to a line at the beginning of the Dream. Wayne smiled along with her as they hobbled together down the corridor.
Around them, the walls began fading to blackness. The Dream was over; it was time to return to real life.