Episode 216: The Caledonian

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Maccabee and his small team, Ndika among them, reached the end of the captive man’s driveway and stopped, unsure of what to do next. Maccabee’s only thought right at that moment was getting off the planet, and that meant contacting Hornet, but he didn’t know what would happen if he just tried to hail the ship with his own com system. Regulated by the Angstrom’s orbital traffic control authority, Maccabee’s ship wasn’t exactly free to travel around wherever she liked, and the internal com system in his head didn’t have a powerful enough transmitter to bounce a signal off atmosphere or satellites.

“Sel,” Maccabee said, turning to the other man. His hearing was returning, slowly, but his ears hurt, his whole head hurt, as though someone had stuck him head-first into a drum machine. “Are you still linked to the house?”

“Yes, sir,” said Sel, checking his minicomp. “I have access to all systems.”

Maccabee swung around to face Ndika, who had at least stopped whimpering, though Alger was keeping a tight hand on the man’s arm. “You,” said the captain. “Do you have a secure channel out of the house?”

“Of course,” spat back Ndika, before he could think about his answer. “It’s encrypted,” he added. “You can’t use it without my voiceprint.”

“Lucky we’ve got that,” said Samara. She was prowling around the perimeter of their little group, her hand tucked inside her jacket, no doubt touching her weapon, reassuring herself that she was not without means. But means for what?

“I’ve got access already, sir,” said Sel, almost apologetically. “The encryption was simple.”

Maccabee smiled, and Ndika scowled back at him, but said nothing. “Sel, get me Ashburn,” he ordered.

“Aye, sir.”

A moment later, the channel was open, routed through Sel’s minicomp right into Maccabee’s head. “Are you monitoring the situation planet-side, Ashburn?” Maccabee asked his engineer.

“I am,” she replied, her voice speaking volumes. “They’ve got fifteen buildings, not counting the one that they already nuked. It’s a stand-off for now, but I doubt that Samillion will let that go for long. News says she’s already calling in troop ships from Jeremy, and from Oglazzo.”

“Oglazzo?” repeated Maccabee. That meant military intervention on a grand scale. He was surprised that Samillion would go so far. The Central Government wouldn’t think twice to quash any hint of rebellion with maximum force, but the System Governor might find herself out of a job if she called for that kind of escalation.

“Rumors, right now, captain” said Ashburn. “I’ve checked on the traffic board, and there’s nothing moving right now. Security Forces have shut down all civilian traffic, and are authorized for any force necessary.” Maccabee could picture Ashburn’s grim frown. “I’ve put in a request for retrieval and out-orbit, but it’s a mess up here, captain. As soon as the nuke went off, everyone wanted out, and Samillion’s not letting any traffic move, for fear of some sort of attack space-side.”

“Which wouldn’t be surprising,” muttered Maccabee. “Is there a take-over in Banar?”

“If there is, I haven’t heard of it,” Ashburn answered. “But, captain, there’s more than that going on, it’s a war-zone down there. There’s riots in a half-dozen cities, probably more that aren’t on the news yet. People are running too, captain, trying to get out of the cities, whether there’s a confirmed take-over or not. That nuke started a panic on a planetary scale.”

“OK,” said Maccabee, “save the editorial for later. Work on getting us off this rock. We’ll have five, now.”

“Bringing passengers?” she asked. “That might make this more difficult.”

“That info’s just for you, Ashburn,” Maccabee growled. “Make sure you send something big enough. And hurry it up.”

“Aye, aye, captain,” she said, somewhat sarcastically. “I’ll keep working on it.”

“Maccabee out,” he said, cutting the connection. He glanced over at Samara, who’d monitored the conversation. “Not good.”

“Not at all.” Samara grimaced. “I stand corrected,” she admitted.

“Hardly your fault,” Maccabee said, waving aside her pseudo-apology. “Anyone have any ideas?”

Without warning, a ground-car hissed up on nearly-silent tires, flashed past them in a rush of wind, and disappeared around the corner. Maccabee noted that it was moving away from the downtown, out into the country.

“We might want to follow them,” Alger pointed out. “Sit tight in the country for a while, ride out the storm.”

“It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” said Samara, quiet authority in her voice. “Samillion’s calling in Fleet units from Oglazzo. That means battleships, ships of the line, ground suppression fire, landing craft, shuttle drops, orbital bombardment. . . . These people do not fuck around, as a rule. Their idea of minimizing casualties is using one megaton instead of ten.” She shook her head. “We do not want to stay on this planet. At all. Anywhere.”

Maccabee thought she was exaggerating a bit, but it was having the desired effect on Ndika, whose face was looking paler by the moment, no mean feat for someone with his skin color. Maccabee smiled.

“Maybe Mister Ndika here has a suggestion on how to get off-planet?” he said. “You’ve gotta have some sort of escape route planned, don’t you?”

“I wouldn’t share it with you cretins,” growled Ndika, digging down to find some more backbone. “Besides, if Samillion’s grounded all traffic, she means it. That woman doesn’t bother with half measures. She’s paranoid, fucking insane. Shoot down anyone who blinks at her wrong.”

“Well, that’s a comfort,” said Alger.

“Fine,” sighed Maccabee. “You’ll just have to risk it with us on the surface here.” He glanced Sel’s way. “Bring a ground car up from the house, Sel, something big enough for all of us.”

“But captain,” said Alger, “we could take a couple of cars.”

“Sorry,” answered Maccabee with a small smile. “You can play with a sports car some other time.”

“Bloody hell.”

Just a few minutes later, a large ground car rolled down the drive from Ndika’s manor. The car was essentially an armored limousine, hand-crafted by Caledonian Auto Works, widely considered the premier car manufacturer in the Colonial Sphere. They built aircars too, but their real love was older technology—which was not to imply that their ground cars lacked anything in modern refinement. As the car rolled to a soundless stop, its doors folded in on themselves in an intricate origami pattern, allowing access to the spacious interior. The vehicle, Maccabee estimated, was a good six meters long, and more than two wide.

The five of them climbed inside, and all but Ndika marveled at the luxurious interior, decked out with real leather—and what an incredibly expensive option that was—accented with wood trim that was also, apparently, the real thing. Every surface was soft to the touch. There was ample seating for all of them, and the bar, Alger noted immediately, was fully stocked.

“Can this thing keep the link with the house computer active?” asked Maccabee as he climbed into the forward section of the car. There was a single driver’s seat, on the car’s center line, surrounded by a broad canopy of ceramaplast. The window was one-way; no one outside the car could possibly look into it.

“I believe so, captain,” said Sel, bending over his computer. “Yes, I’ve confirmed the link.” He glanced up. “We can still use the secure channel to contact Hornet.”

“Good,” said Maccabee. He was sitting in the driver’s seat now, looking over the controls. It would probably be a good idea to get a feel for the vehicle’s manual inputs now, before there was trouble. Disengaging the autodrive features, Maccabee took hold of the yoke-style control stick and pushed on the power button with his thumb. The car surged forward immediately, even under only half throttle, as the holo display indicated, and Maccabee steered hard to get into the road. Ndika let out a cry of alarm behind him, and he smiled.

“No worries,” Maccabee said over his shoulder. “Just getting the hang of this thing.” He eased off the throttle and tapped the brake experimentally, jolting the passengers.

“When was the last time you drove?” Samara asked from the back, but Maccabee could hear that she was amused by his lack of ability.

“I own a spaceship, Samara,” he barked at her. “I fly things.”

“That’s up for debate too,” grumbled Alger.

“I’ll have you all brigged for insubordination when we’re back on the ship,” Maccabee groused, but the humor fell flat. There was too much else on their minds right now.

“Where are we going?” asked Samara, standing and moving up behind Maccabee so she was leaning over the back of his chair, her face next to his. “You got a plan?”

“Not exactly,” he replied, taking a corner in a long, smooth turn, getting a feel for the big car’s handling. Not surprisingly, he was doing much better already. There wasn’t much of anything that Maccabee couldn’t drive, fly, or pilot. “I thought we might head downtown, see what’s happening.”

“Or we could head for the starport, try to find a way off this rock,” Samara suggested. “Give me twenty minutes with Ndika, and I’ll know everything about his escape route.”

There was no flicker of glee, nor of reluctance as she contemplated torture. She had a need that could be filled through the application of force, and Samara had never hesitated to apply force, not in all the years that Maccabee had known her. Doc Monteux thought Samara was clinically insane, a remorseless killer. Hell, Maccabee thought the same thing, but he loved Samara anyway.

“Not yet,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of need for that man. I want him to answer me truthfully, not spit out something to make the pain stop.”

“Tisk, tisk, Maccabee,” said Samara. “I’m better at it than that. Pain is for amateurs. I work in other mediums.”

“Nevertheless,” he said firmly, “we’ll wait him out. He’ll see the light.” They were leaving the neighborhood where Ndika lived, heading into more populous areas of Banar. Manor homes gave way to apartment blocks, still artfully landscaped, but closer together and visible from the street. They passed a handful of shops, clustered around what appeared to be a neighborhood park, and then Maccabee was following signs that pointed him towards the downtown. A ramped roadway led him down to a divided highway, sunken below ground level and often plunging into tunnels, leaving the surface unmarred by the six broad lanes of traffic.

“Trouble up ahead,” said Samara, pointing through the ceramaplast windscreen. Flashing blue and red lights marked out a roadblock at the other end of the tunnel they were traveling through. Maccabee started to slow the car.

“Everybody stay cool,” he said for the benefit mostly of Alger and Samara. He didn’t expect trouble from Ndika, and Sel was always discreet.

No other cars were stopped at the roadblock, and Maccabee brought the big limousine to a halt a good ten meters from the trio of armored cars that were parked at right angles to the roadway and surrounded by about a dozen Security Force troopers. One of them motioned to two others and headed towards the car.

“Keep him quiet,” warned Maccabee, glancing over his shoulder and nodding towards Ndika.

“Aye, lad,” said Alger.

“This roadway is blocked,” said the voice of the officer leading the other two troopers. He was plainly audible over the car’s internal speakers, using some sort of police override switch. It occurred to Maccabee that he might be able to access more of the car’s systems.

“The Security Forces are trying to access the car’s internal systems, captain,” said Sel, confirming Maccabee’s fears. “I’ve locked them out, for now, sir, but if they want to get in, I won’t be able to stop them.”

“Understood.” Maccabee switched on the external speakers. “Mister Ndika wants to go downtown, officer. Is there some reason he shouldn’t?” He tried to make his tone haughty, with just the faintest veneer of respect layered over the top.

“My apologies to Mister Ndika,” said the officer, obviously not impressed, “but there is a disturbance in the city center. There is no access past this point.”

“What kind of disturbance, officer? Is this related to the nuke in Gavarnie?” Maccabee felt his heart hammering in his chest. Why was he so nervous? Perhaps because these Security Forces were a large, well-equipped unit, capable of coordinated action and possessing all the latest enforcement and combat technology. Yes, that was the ticket.

“I’m not at liberty to say,” growled the officer, apparently growing impatient. “Please turn your vehicle around and return to Mister Ndika’s home. You’ll be safe there.”

“So there is a threat?” pushed Maccabee. He could well imagine Ndika wanting to know. “Mister Ndika deserves an answer if his life is in danger, officer.” He put a bit of a warning in his tone. The SF officer might be in control here, but he had bosses, and bosses were always willing to listen to money.

“There is no threat,” said the officer, his voice flat. “I’d like to speak to Mister Ndika, personally.”

“My apologies, officer,” replied Maccabee. “We’re on our way.” He put the big car in reverse and started to back up.

“Hold!” said the officer. His men brought their weapons halfway to the shoulders, ready to fire in a moment. Maccabee stopped the car. “That wasn’t a request, driver,” spat the officer. “Open the doors. We are conducting an official search of your vehicle, pursuant to Article Six of the Laws of Military Justice. Open the doors. Now.”

“Mister Ndika will file an official protest,” said Maccabee, trying to think of any reason not to open the doors. “You’re not going to have a job when this is over, officer.”

“We’ll see,” he replied, his voice calm. Obviously, he was not going to be intimidated. “Open now, or we will seize your vehicle and arrest everyone in it. And yes, we have every authority to do so.”

“Walked into that one, didn’t we?” said Samara under her breath. Stepping back from Maccabee’s seat, she pulled her laser pistol out of her vest pocket. “You heard the man, Maccabee. Open the door.”

For a moment, Maccabee thought of protesting, but there was no point. Samara knew what had to be done. He opened the door in front of where the officer stood, keeping his hands on the car’s controls, ready to move at a moment’s notice.

“Step inside, officer,” said Samara, her voice sugary sweet. “You might want your men to put their weapons at standby, unless you want a new hole in your head.”

“You’re all under arrest, whoever the hell you are,” growled the officer. “I’m not getting in that car. You put your gun down, and step out. Now.” He was persistent, Maccabee gave him that.

He heard the whine of the laser pistol firing twice, and saw out the window that Samara had put the two troopers down. “Should have thought about that one a bit harder, officer,” said Samara. She stepped out of the car, grabbed the stunned man by the arm, and tossed him to Alger. “Go, Maccabee!”

He had the car moving already, however, rolling slowly backwards just for a moment so Samara could jump into the vehicle, Sel catching her and pulling her inside. Then, Maccabee squeezed down hard on the accelerator and the big car surged backwards. Automatic systems popped up a hologram in front of him, letting him see where he was going, and a small icon informed him that the car had reversed its steering controls. He was momentarily disoriented by the switch, since his body said he was going backwards, while the visual displays showed him going forwards, but he let the feeling slip away and concentrated on steering.

The car was continuously geared in both forward and reverse drive modes, so there was no limit to how fast Maccabee could drive in reverse, technically no difference in the handling of the big vehicle, except for aerodynamic considerations that were paltry compared to the excessively large power plant that drove the car. Maccabee silently thanked the designers, and the rich idiots who competed against each other to own the most advanced, best performing vehicle, in a car that couldn’t even fly! In just moments, the Caledonian raced up to two hundred kilometers and hour, then to three hundred. The speed was paltry compared to the velocities of aircars and shuttlecraft, but the proximity of the roadway and the tunnel overheads made the view terrifying.

The flare of a missile launch was clearly visible through the holo, from the windscreen behind it. Maccabee jerked the car sideways, and automatic systems immediately took over, compensating for his over-sharp movement. Swift and nearly silent, the car slipped effortlessly out of the way of the dumb missile, which streaked past them and impacted at the side of the tunnel, blossoming into a blue plasma flower that died a moment later in smoke and blenching flame. “Hold on!” shouted Maccabee at the others.

The car was highlighting upcoming obstacles, scanning ahead with a full sensor suite to notify the driver of what was ahead, lest his or her reflexes not respond quickly enough at this speed. Maccabee could see that a new roadblock was already being set up ahead of him, so he swerved onto the next ramp, simultaneously slowing the big car for its entry onto surface roads. Bright red alarms flashed up on his holo, and the car took control again, breaking so hard that Maccabee and the others were thrown against their restraining harnesses, then slammed back into their seats as the car surged forward between two heavy trucks that were on the crossing road. Maccabee swung the controls over, ran the car onto the curb, drove through several bollards designed specifically to prevent that sort of driving—the car didn’t even seem to notice the reinforced ceramacrete posts, just ripped them up and drove them over—and then careened back into traffic, sending other vehicles scattering out of the way.

“We’re an easy target out here, Maccabee!” called Samara as Maccabee veered around a slower truck and accelerated again. He was barely pushing a hundred k-p-h, though, and she had a point: Security Forces shuttles and air patrols would be moving at more than twenty times his speed, vectoring with ease towards his location and taking him on from the air, with impunity. It was time, in other words, to sow some confusion.

Maccabee slammed on the brake, and turned sharply to the left in the middle of the block. He thought he heard Ndika scream, but he was concentrating too hard on driving. The big Caledonian smashed through a two-story ceramaplast wall and into the shopping center Maccabee’d spotted from half a klick away, shouldering aside debris as though it were a tank, which it basically was. Pedestrians scattered out of the way, and Maccabee blocked from his mind the very real possibility that he was running over innocent civilians. He drove down the covered concourse of the shopping center, keeping a reasonable pace, the car jumping up and down stairs and casually knocking aside planters, booths, and whatever else lay in its path.

“Sel!” shouted Maccabee, turning right and entering another part of the complex. There was a real roof over head now, instead of vaulted ceramaplast. “Does this thing have any hidden features? Anything our friend here isn’t telling us about?”

“Working on it, captain!” called Sel from the back. Maccabee, meanwhile, brought the vehicle to a stop and shifted back into forward drive. Immediately, the main holo disappeared, leaving only a few static displays, and the driving mode shifted back to its normal setting. He took a moment to readjust, then started moving again.

Back in the main hall of the shopping center, Maccabee glanced left and saw a Security vehicle following his trail of destruction. They spotted him at the same time, and a fifty-round burst of plasma came from the mini-tank’s roof-mounted cannon, hosing down the stores along the side of the hall, only a handful of shots actually connecting with the car. Fire and glass exploded into the main hall, and Maccabee gritted his teeth, knowing that the Security Forces had just killed dozens of the citizens they were supposed to be protecting. The Caledonian, on the other hand, just shrugged off the heavy plasma rounds, revealing at least one after-market modification. Thankfully, Ndika appeared to be the paranoid type.

Maccabee kept accelerating across the hall, and down another section of the shopping complex, jumping up over a long flight of stairs. Ahead of him, the corridor ended in a wall of windows, beyond which was another store. There was no way back, so Maccabee gunned the car forward, smashing through the wall, veering through the many aisles and products displays in the store, sending everything flying. Toys and clothes piled up on the windscreen, and the car automatically activated its wiper system, which created a charged field in front of the windows. Debris leapt off the car and burst into flame, falling to the side. Maccabee grinned. The car was over-designed to the point of insanity.

“Sir!” shouted Sel as Maccabee turned, looking for another way out of the store. “The car’s equipped with a limited hover mode, armored panels, mesh tires, a nose-mounted blaster cannon, an overdrive mode, and an extra mini-bar.”

“Extra mini-bar?” replied Maccabee, banking the car around another turn. There was no way out of the store, no obvious exterior entrance. Only the doorway he’d smashed through on his way in.

“Sorry!” Sel said. “I’m routing controls to you.”

Suddenly, a handful of additional icons appeared on the car’s holo displays, and Maccabee smiled again. Guns. Guns were definitely good. The car roared past the store entrance, and again the Security Forces mini-tank took a shot at them, connecting with a handful of rounds that again did nothing to interrupt the progress of the massive Caledonian. Then Maccabee was turning, heading for what he hoped was the building’s exterior wall, his finger reaching for the blaster cannon controls. “Get ready!” he shouted.

“Ready for what?” was all Alger had time to say, and then the blasters lit up, carving a thirty centimeter path of destruction through the store, lighting half of what it touched on fire, before the shots tracked to the wall, hammered into it for a moment, then blew it out. Ceramacrete vaporized, the wall crumbled, the overhead supports sagged down as a structural element failed without warning. And then the Caledonian smashed through what was left, leapt out into space, and started to fall.

Maccabee was too slow to activate the hover controls, so the car took over yet again, yanking itself upright and seeking a clear landing site. That handful of seconds let Maccabee recover his senses, and he retrieved control, turning the car in midair and aiming it right for the nearest busy road, which just happened to be a small access highway that ran behind this collection of shops and homes. Cars and trucks were rushing along the street, oblivious of the Caledonian descending from above. Then, plasma fire from a hovering Security Forces aircar lanced out, missing Maccabee’s vehicle by only centimeters, then blasting two cars on the road he was aiming for. Cars slammed on their brakes, and trucks maneuvered wildly, losing control and crashing into roadside barriers.

Maccabee banked the car left, then let it drop the last ten meters unassisted to the ground. The big Caledonian hit hard, bounced a meter off the pavement, then dropped gracefully down and motored forwards as though nothing had happened, as though crashing through walls thirty meters above ground was a normal, everyday kind of thing. Sadly, the continuing barrage of plasma fire from the hovering aircar overhead dispelled any notion this was a normal day, and Maccabee gunned the accelerator, throwing the car recklessly into traffic. Just a hair too slow, he tried to swerve around an oncoming truck, and for the first time, the Caledonian was bumped aside, but hardly damaged as it careered off the front of the big transport vehicle.

“Samara!” shouted Maccabee as the aircar fired again and scored a few glancing hits on the fast-moving car. “Get that bastard off me!” He reached out both hands, letting the car steer for a moment, and activated the navigational assist, then asked for the car to help him get to the starport. It was still ten kilometers away, in a straight line, fifteen along the available roads.

Samara was moving, unstrapping from her seat and holding on to a handle cleverly built into the plush overhead. Maccabee was only dimly aware of her, glancing at the internal display on the car’s holo for half a second, then back to the road. The aircar had found its target, now, and the plasma was pounding down on the car. The Caledonian was doing a good job of keeping them alive, but bright red alerts were appearing all over the holo display, showing the armor was losing its integrity. The car’s actual body would provide little protection to that caliber of cannon.

“I can’t go out there while they’re shooting, Maccabee!” yelled Samara from the back. There was no mistaking the repeated impacts of plasma, each one filling the car with sound and making the body shudder slightly, a bit more with every hit.

“Tell me when you’re ready!” he barked back at her.

“Right fucking now!” she replied.

Maccabee slammed on the brakes, and the Caledonian ground to a halt so fast that Samara’s whole body pivoted around the handle she’d grabbed, her feet flying into the air. But she held on. Maccabee saw through the windscreen as the aircar whistled past them, but it was already banking, coming back around to get a better lock on its target. On them. He started reversing again, accelerating away from the aircar, trying to give Samara a bit more time.

She was already opening the top hatch, halfway out before the aircar even started to turn. Bracing herself in the slot, her booted feet up against one side, her back against the other, she raised the laser pistol in both hands and took aim. It was ridiculous; Maccabee knew it, and so did she, but they didn’t have a lot of other options. The pistol had enough range for the job. All she had to do was hit somewhere in the hundred or so square centimeters of the aircar that weren’t heavily armored against just this kind of fire.

Maccabee knew she was shooting, but he could see nothing, could hear nothing, and the aircar was still coming. He glanced around at the traffic he was dodging, noticed that it was starting to thin out, and got suddenly afraid. The Security Forces officer strapped into the back of the car was silent. Probably, the bastard knew that no one was going to save his life, or even try. Why bother negotiating when you’re about to die?

Samara dropped back down into the car, quickly closing the top hatch behind her. “Maccabee!” she shouted.

He looked up, saw the aircar bearing off, smoke coming from somewhere, its plasma gun still silent. But above it, he could see two dark specks, growing larger so fast that they could only be one thing: assault shuttles. Samara could take out an aircar, with a shot so good as to border on the miraculous. All she could do against an assault shuttle was hit it with bad words. She was already strapping herself back in.

Maccabee looked over his shoulder at Ndika. “If you have any escape plan,” he bellowed, “now would be a good time!”

He didn’t hear an answer as he turned back to the road, but he saw something better ahead of him: a hydrogen transport, a tanker truck that was ferrying raw hydrogen to be processed into fuel cells, or used in a reactor. Tankers like this were built to withstand a lot of punishment, but they’d never really been intended to ward off weapons fire. Throwing the wheel over, Maccabee spun the big car around, shifting into forwards drive again as the vehicle compensated for his crazy maneuver, leaning dangerously to the side before righting itself and accelerating again. Maccabee swerved behind the tanker truck, activated the Caledonian’s blasters, and hosed down the tanker with half a hundred rounds. The rear bulkhead crumpled inwards and glowed an ugly red color, while smaller bits melted off and dribbled to the pavement, but the truck remained whole. Its driver slammed on the brake, then dove out of the puller unit in front, jumping heedlessly into traffic as his truck rolled on, slowed, but not stopped.

Maccabee slowed himself, about to fire again, aware that the shuttles were already slowing down, probably targeting him. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the flash of a missile launch, the streak of flame as the missile—missiles, actually, at least ten micromissiles—flew past him, and then the patter of explosions as the projectiles painted the side of the hydrogen truck with fire. It blew a moment later, a vast, bright-white explosion that picked up the Caledonian and hurled it sideways like a child’s toy. Maccabee was just dimly aware of the shuttles swerving off, bugging out, and then the car slammed down on its roof, slid twenty meters, hit the roadside barrier, flipped into the air and spun three times over. It landed this time on its wheels, rolled twice more, bounced off an embankment, righted itself, and slowly rumbled to a halt.

It was a long moment before Maccabee moved again, a moment in which he simply stared at his lap, dimly aware that his head had impacted something in the car. Then he blinked and looked up, at the blue sky streaked with black smoke through the cracked ceramaplast panes of the windscreen.

Then a man’s face appeared in the window, and an arm, and he pulled himself up to a broken section of the ceramaplast, looked through inside the car, and caught sight of Maccabee. “You’ve got about thirty seconds to get out of there and come with me,” said the man, “or you’re dead.”