The car had dropped another couple of feet, knocking those inside off theirs too. It was making alarming creaking noises as it strained on its cables.
"Everyone okay?" Sam asked, trying not to think about how loudly his own heart was pounding in his chest, or how his stomach was doing flips.
Nods from below and mutters from above soon let him know there were no new injuries, though a fair amount of shock was evident all round. McFarlane swore again as the jarring sent stabbing pains from his injured ankle.
Woodrow Wayneforth had instinctively grabbed Sam's arm to steady himself as they got back to their feet, and was still gripping it tightly. He pulled Sam around to face him; "You have to get us out of here!"
What happened to 'Who says we have to take orders from you?' Sam wondered, rolling his eyes. He was not in the least surprised by the absence of a 'please' from Wayneforth. Sam could see from Al's expression that his friend found this turn-around amusing. Were their roles reversed, Al may well have shot the arrogant nozzle a snide comeback, but that was not Sam's nature.
"I've every intention of doing so," he said instead, "if you'll kindly remove your hand from my arm before it goes totally numb."
Wayneforth took his hand away and looked at it for a moment, as if wondering how it had gotten there in the first place. For a split second it looked as if he was about to apologize to Sam for grabbing him so roughly, but the moment passed without event.
Sam rubbed at his arm, but didn't push it. Though manners cost nothing, he couldn't afford the time to make an issue of it. In other circumstances he'd have delighted in teaching Wayneforth a lesson in humility, but this was neither the time nor the place.
Naturally, the American declined to assist Sam in helping Ms Mancini to get up. It was consequently an inelegant affair, and a renewed strain on Sam's back, but after a couple of bungled attempts, Sam managed to get her to her feet.
Sam turned his attention to the group above them, who had carefully regained their feet and were now clinging to each other, seemingly too terrified to move further. He could hear Drew calmly reassuring them, but they appeared unwilling to heed his advice as to how to proceed.
"Miss Kingston," Sam called out gently, "can you hear me?"
"Y-yes, Mr. Quincey," she replied, her voice shaky.
"Listen carefully," Sam began, "I want you and Mr. Attenborough to go out through the doors, and then have Drew pass Mr. McFarlane across to you. Once you're clear, don't wait for us. Mr. Attenborough, you need to support Mr. McFarlane. Make sure he keeps his weight off that ankle. Head for the stairwell and get downstairs. Don't panic, take it nice and steady, but keep heading down. If you happen to see anyone from rescue services let them know we're up here. Do you understand?"
"If you think that's best," Bryony answered uncertainly.
"I want you off the car before it moves again," Sam reasoned and Attenborough for one mumbled his agreement.
"I'm not sure it's such a good idea to split up, Sam." Al cautioned.
"We'll catch you up as soon as we can," Sam reassured both Bryony and his friend. "Drew, once you've helped them out, stay there and help me with these other folks, okay?"
"Yes, sir," Drew replied, grateful for the assistance with the awkward guests, and even more grateful that taking charge seemed to be helping the old boy to stay in control of his claustrophobia. Mr. Quincey was the one he'd have most expected to go totally to pieces in a situation like this, yet he seemed to be the calmest of them all. Drew hoped he would remain so, but knew the panic attacks could strike at any time without warning.
Sam could hear them hesitantly moving about above, and feel the vibrations as their weight shifted over. The two remaining passengers in the car with him began to pace nervously.
"I think it would be safest if we moved to the back of the elevator," Sam told them, a trifle snappily. He was relieved that they followed his example without argument, though they seemed puzzled as to why they were doing so. "To counter-balance their weight above," he explained, "Keep the car as steady as possible." Not to mention steadying his nerves, which were fraying at the edges again and in imminent danger of totally unraveling. The panic was there all the time, bubbling just below the surface, waiting for him to loose his fragile grip. Keeping busy and concentrating on the problem of getting everyone to safety was helping, but it was getting harder and harder to ignore the irrational fear that gnawed at his innards and made him want to scream and cry, and run and curl up and hide in a dark corner all at once.
"Hang in there, Sam," Al encouraged, seeing by the look in Sam's eyes that he was barely in control. "You're doing great, kid."
Sam smiled at him weakly, but was dismayed to find it instantly turned into a nervous twitch of his facial muscles. He ran his hand down his face, closing his eyes for a moment to compose himself.
"Hold on, I'll be right back, pal," Al then announced, preparing to key a command into the hand link.
Sam looked up at him in alarm, his face pleading not to be abandoned. Sam began trembling again. He realized he was grinding his teeth and every muscle in his body was coiled tighter than a watch spring. He was having palpitations. He was sure his blood pressure was going through the roof.
"It's okay," Al hastily reassured him, "I'm not leaving you, Sam. I'm just gonna check up top and see how they're getting on, okay buddy?"
Sam looked as if he could burst into tears any second. He certainly didn't seem as if he was okay with the notion of Al leaving his sight for even a second. Nevertheless, he pressed his lips together and held his breath for a moment, then gave his consent with a short sharp nod. His eyes qualified that permission with the silent instruction to hurry back.
"I'll be back before you know it," Al promised, and had himself re-centered onto the roof.
True to his word, Al returned almost immediately, smiling reassuringly. "They're filthy from all the dust and the grime up there, but they're doing okay," he reported. "The car roof is almost level with the floor now, so they only have to step down a few inches."
Yet since time had seemed to stand still in his absence, Sam had long enough to have missed Al, and to fall deep into the clutches of the phobia. Al realized his words had fallen on deaf ears as he found Sam slumped against the rear wall of the elevator car, clutching his chest as if he were having a heart attack.
Sam was completely unaware of Al's return. He was too busy struggling to breathe, feeling as if he were suffocating. He was bent double with crippling stomach pains and had a splitting headache. He moaned softly. He felt awful. A tiny part of his rational mind knew that his symptoms were merely a manifestation of his host's phobia and were irrational and unnecessary. The greater part of him was lost to a catalogue of complaints that had him feeling totally wretched and convinced he was about to breathe his last.
"Sam?" Al addressed him cautiously; afraid he would startle his friend. Sam didn't respond. This panic attack had a far tighter grip than its predecessor. It had evidently come on very suddenly, and completely overwhelmed the normally levelheaded Dr. Beckett. He was a gibbering wreck.
"I'll never get everyone out," Sam mumbled, clutching now at his head in total despair mingled with abject terror. "I'll never get everyone out," he said again, and then repeated it over and over, as he rocked back and forth. "I'll never get everyone out. I'll never get everyone out."
"Course you will," Al reassured him, though he didn't dare ask Ziggy to confirm it. "C'mon, buddy, snap out of it. It's just the phobia talking. You can do it, buddy, I know you can. C'mon, Sam."
Sam stared straight through his holographic friend as if he no more saw him than the other two did.
Meanwhile, Allegra Mancini and Woodrow Wayneforth were staring at each other. Neither one wanted to approach the madman on the floor, yet both felt their lives were in his hands and wanted him back to being in charge of their rescue. They hadn't a clue what to do for themselves.
"Sam, listen to me, buddy, take your mind off it like before, huh? Do some Math or quote some theorems or something."
Sam continued to stare into space, muttering under his breath. His hands were now wandering rapidly over his arms and torso, as if trying to brush off something that was crawling on him.
Al crouched down in front of him, trying to get Sam to look at him, but without success. He kept talking – softly, calmly, reassuringly – but he didn't think any of it was getting through. Al started to worry that Sam's pronouncement was going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.