Descent Into Panic

Chapter 1

The look of alarm in Sam's eyes was enough to tell Al he'd picked up on the urgency of the situation. "I know you can't talk freely, Sam, so just listen carefully," he began without preamble.

Sam nodded subtly.

"You need to stop the elevator at the next floor and get everybody off." Al tried to keep his voice calm; he knew he was already frightening the leaper with his insistent instructions. Sam frowned, uncomprehending.

"The elevator is going to jam, buddy. And that's not all. Don't panic, but the hotel is about to catch fire. Some blonde bimbo on the top floor goes out and leaves her hair curling tongs on a bath towel. Not only starts a localized fire, but shorts out electrics right left and center." Al saw the flicker of terror cross Sam's face despite his instruction to the contrary. Sam had encountered fires a number of times on past leaps and on almost every occasion had barely escaped with his life. He'd expressed an opinion that it had to be one of the worst ways to die, and Al had to agree.

The leaper's mouth opened, but he daren't voice the thoughts rushing through his head.

"Stay calm, Sam." Al knew the advice was worthless, but he gave it anyway. "The two events aren't directly linked. The fire won't start for a while yet. You have time to get everyone safely out, but you have to move soon. Originally this elevator car plummeted to the ground, killing everyone inside. They were trapped inside for some time before that happened though."

Sam could feel his hands starting to tremble. He clenched them into fists. Then he closed his eyes for a moment and drew in a slow, steadying breath. It didn't really help much. He wanted to turn and rail and scream at the hologram, but he knew he had to keep those with him from sharing the fear and panic that he was fighting to control within himself. How he could do that, and at the same time achieve what Al had asked of him, he had no idea.

"Al, how can I get them out?" he asked in a whisper through a barely open and suddenly dry mouth. "They won't believe there's any danger, and even if they did, it would just start a panic."

Al's brow furrowed deeper in consternation. The kid had a point.

Sam looked around nervously, his mind racing in a desperate attempt to formulate a plan. Taking a deep breath, he did the only thing he could think of to do. Go with a measure of the truth.

He edged closer to the attendant, whose polished gold name badge identified him as Andrew Stoppard. "Excuse me," Sam began, speaking softly so only his intended audience could hear, "but can you smell smoke? Shouldn't we stop the elevator?"

"Oh, good idea, Sam!" Al encouraged.

The young man turned to Sam with a sympathetic smile.

"The claustrophobia getting to you again, is it, Mr. Quincey? Would you like me to let you out at the next floor? You can take a few minutes to calm yourself and I'll come back and fetch you when I've dropped these other folks off. We can take it one floor at a time if you like."

Sam returned the young man's smile, despite the fact that his plan hadn't worked. The hotel employee should be commended for his dedication to customer service. There hadn't been the slightest hint of irritation or impatience in his British accented voice or in his body language, merely a genuine desire to be helpful.

Sam now recognized the shaky feeling he'd leaped into as being a bleed-through of Mr. Quincey's claustrophobia. The mere mention of it had Sam feeling palpitations again. The temptation was great to take the young man up on his offer, and get out of the tiny room – for it suddenly seemed to Sam to have shrunk – as fast as he could; the more so because of Al's dire predictions for anyone who stayed aboard the elevator. Yet that was the point. If Sam took the easy way out – literally – he would be consigning the other passengers to a gruesome fate. He was not about to do that. Unless...

A quick glance at Al was enough for the hologram to know exactly what was running through Sam's mind. His own thoughts had been taking a similar path.

Al consulted his hand-link, posing the question that Sam hadn't needed to voice.

Moments later, Al regretfully shook his head. "Sorry, Sam; Zig says if you try to report the elevator failure to hotel maintenance, or try to get it open yourself from outside, you'll be unable to save them in either scenario."

"No. No, thank you." Sam rejected the attendant's offer with a weary sigh. "I really do think I can smell smoke, though. Is there any way you can check it out?"

"I'm sure it's nothing Mr. Quincey sir," the young man reassured him, but since he firmly believed in the maxim 'the customer is always right' he was more than willing to humor the old man, "but I'll call down and have them investigate for you."

"Thank you!" Sam returned hopefully. Perhaps this was going to be an easy leap after all.

He should have known better.

No sooner had the attendant picked up the handset to make the call than the lights flashed, the power went out, and the car jerked to an abrupt halt.

Just behind Sam a woman screamed shrilly - jarring his nerves still further - while the other passengers queried all at once:

"What's going on?"

"What happened?"

"Where are the lights?"

and other unintelligible mutterings of discontent.

The attendant tapped the cradle a few times, and then looked apologetically at Sam by the dim light of the emergency backup power that kicked in with a hum to replace the music.

Both he and Al voiced the obvious fact at the same time, "The line's dead!"

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