Title: EXODUS 2022
Author: Kenneth G. Bennett
Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller (pre-apocalypse)
Release date: May 20th, 2014
Publisher: Booktrope Publishing
Joe Stanton is in agony. Out of his mind over the death of his young daughter. Or so it seems.
Unable to contain his grief, Joe loses control in public, screaming his daughter’s name and causing a huge scene at a hotel on San Juan Island in Washington State. Thing is, Joe Stanton doesn’t have a daughter. Never did. And when the authorities arrive they blame the 28-year-old’s outburst on drugs.
What they don’t yet know is that others up and down the Pacific coast—from the Bering Sea to the Puget Sound—are suffering identical, always fatal mental breakdowns.
With the help of his girlfriend—the woman he loves and dreams of marrying—Joe struggles to unravel the meaning of the hallucination destroying his mind. As the couple begins to perceive its significance—and Joe’s role in a looming global calamity—they must also outwit a billionaire weapons contractor bent on exploiting Joe’s newfound understanding of the cosmos, and outlast the time bomb ticking in Joe’s brain.
The prisoner stepped from an elevator onto Marauder’s weather deck, flanked by Collins and another ex-SEAL. He stood there. Blindfolded. Handcuffed.
Collins pushed the man further onto the deck.
The sky was clear, a rare thing in Southeast Alaska, and Eagle Peak lorded over Admiralty Island like a stoic king, its jagged snow-covered slopes jutting crisp and white against a pale-blue sky. Lush forest blanketed the lower slopes of the great island with trees so huge and healthy, one could almost taste the oxygen flowing from their limbs.
Three enormous brown bears prowled the banks of a brawling stream at the center of the cove, stabbing flashing salmon with daggerlike claws, oblivious to the mammoth ship a stone’s throw away.
Beck nodded at Collins, who untied Ellis’s blindfold but left his hands bound.
Ellis stood blinking in the sunlight, bewildered by what he was experiencing: the cries of seagulls and sea lions. The steady breeze against the ship. The verdant backdrop.
Ellis’s eyes fell on Beck, and his body stiffened. “What the hell is this?” he asked.
“I pictured you bigger,” replied Beck, strolling forward. “Big and pompous. Like your writing.”
“Hell of a thing for you to call anyone pompous, Beck.”
Ellis’s face was pale, his eyes bloodshot. But he did not look afraid, and stood straight and tall. His demeanor in person did not match the weak, intimidated man Beck had perceived on the video feed, and this fact irritated Beck greatly.
“If you think my stories have damaged your…empire,” said Ellis, “wait until this gets out.”
Beck laughed. “What makes you think anything’s going to get out, Mr. Ellis?”
Concern flickered in Ellis’s eyes, but he made no reply.
“Look around you.” Beck gestured at the sea and mountains. “This is Southeast Alaska. Admiralty Island, Icy Straits. Last anyone heard, you were in Kabul, Afghanistan. Afghanistan! Eight thousand miles from here. Your colleagues, your family—everyone believes you’ve been captured by the Taliban. No one, Mr. Ellis—no one outside of this ship—has the slightest inkling that you’re here. Safe and sound, in the good ol’ U.S. of A.”
Ellis stared at Beck but didn’t respond for a long time. Gulls whirled and cried overhead. The breeze picked up, whistling across the deck. “Fits,” Ellis said at last. “It fits.”
“Spoiled rich kid. Unlimited resources. Unlimited ego. Knowing you, Beck, this whole endeavor will be paid for with tax dollars.”
Sheldon Beck’s smile vanished and a vein began pulsing in his neck.
Ellis kept going. “So what’s the game here, Beck? You have your thugs capture me in Kabul in the middle of the night, bring me all the way here—for what? So you can kill me?”
“You attacked me,” said Beck, pacing now. “Out of the blue, with no warning … planting your stories like roadside bombs. You attacked me.”
“I told the truth,” Ellis cried, over the wind. “American public has a right to know about Erebus, don’t you think? I mean, they’re paying for your army—whether they want to or not. Don’t you think they have a right to know what’s going on? Doesn’t that fit with your conservative principles?”
“Your stories are lies.”
“What’s a lie?” Ellis asked. “That Erebus has made billions off defense contracts? That your private, for-profit soldiers in Afghanistan outnumber the real military? That your troops routinely ignore US law? That Erebus operatives torture and kill when it suits them? Show me where I lied.”
Beck’s muscles contracted like heavy steel cables. His jaw quivered. “I love this country,” he said softly. “I’m trying to save it. You and the rest of the Left are a…disease. Taking America down.”
Ellis laughed. “Who’s that speech for?” He glanced at Collins and the other fighters positioned around the deck. “These guys? I don’t think they’re buyin’ it, man.”
Beck stepped forward and clubbed Ellis across the face with the back of his hand. The reporter crashed to the deck, hands still bound, blood spraying in a wide arc as he fell. He discharged a strangled, raspy cough and said in a thick voice, “Another murder then. In cold blood. Only proves my point.”
“Stand him up,” Beck commanded, and Collins jerked the prisoner to his feet.
Collins removed the cuffs and Ellis massaged his wrists. Shook his hands out. Blood streamed from his nostrils, cascaded down his shirt and pooled on the polished teak deck, but he made no attempt to stanch the flow.
Beck moved closer, eyes locked on Ellis. “We’re going to fight, you and I,” he said. He removed his shirt and tossed it away, revealing heavy, thick muscles. “You attacked me—and my company—from afar. Now you can confront me face-to-face. Man-to-man.”
“I’m not playing this game,” said Ellis.
Beck glanced at one of the ex-SEALS waiting near the elevator: a compact bull of a man named Wilden. “Give him a weapon.” Wilden turned and fished a fiberglass case from a compartment in the wall.
“I’m not a fighting man,” Ellis said, voice calm, head high. “You’re a trained killer. I won’t fight you.”
Beck circled closer. “You will attack me. Well-armed. With two weapons, if you like.” He nodded at Wilden, who snapped the fiberglass case open, revealing a collection of gleaming blades.
“I will be unarmed,” Beck continued. “And you will attack me.” He stopped inches in front of Ellis’s face. “Because, if you do not,” he said softly, “your wife, Anne-Elise, and your daughter, Sarah, will vanish from your home in Silver Springs, in the middle of the night. Just as you disappeared from Kabul. And they will never, ever, be heard from again.”
For the first time since he’d arrived on the solarium deck, Ellis’s composure broke. His jaw tightened, his hands clenched into fists. “Beck,” he said. “Please. Leave my family out of this. You have a problem with my articles, take it out on me. Kill me. Or tell me what you want.”
“I want you to fight,” said Beck. “Choose your weapons.”
Ellis ripped two thick fiberglass-handled knives from the foam-lined case, tucked one into the top of his right boot, and crouched low, with the remaining blade outstretched.
“Certain guys on my crew,” said Beck, “might like to get to know your wife, come to think of it. Beautiful woman.” He chuckled. “Might like your daughter even better, knowing them. How old is she now, Ellis? Seventeen?”
Ellis leapt forward, gripping the knife as he drove for Beck’s throat. Beck easily sidestepped the older man, grabbed his arm, and yanked him forward, pulling him off-balance. Ellis stumbled and Beck whirled and shoved him hard into a wall. Ellis thunked against a steel barrier and collapsed to the ground. The knife he’d been holding skittered across the deck and he lay on his back, moaning. Beck’s men laughed.
Beck picked up the knife and tossed it back to his adversary. “I said fight.”
Ellis rolled to his knees, then stood, slowly, clutching the knife once more. Mimicking Beck’s actions—staying low and loose—Ellis came for his enemy more warily this time, jabbing with the blade, edging his opponent back, into a corner. He was sweating heavily now, heart thumping, redlining. When it seemed there was nowhere for Beck to go, Ellis lunged again, flying forward, slashing low, and rising as he charged.
Beck ducked, and twisted away hard at the last instant, smashing the reporter’s outstretched arm with a hop kick, like a move from an Irish dance. Another spinning, booming kick hurled Ellis into a railing, where he collapsed like a rag doll.
Beck, barely winded, leaned over his bleeding, battered quarry and laughed. “What do I have to do to get you to fight, old man?”
Ellis blinked and his eyes swam in pale sockets. His brain stuttered. Tried to reengage. Like a computer restarting after a crash.
“Should’ve had that daylight-basement door fixed, Ellis,” Beck said mildly, turning away. “Makes for very easy access, you know? Off the street, out of sight. Poorly lit. Haven’t been keeping up on your home maintenance, have you?”
Ellis struggled to his feet, clearly suffering now.
“That’s how my men went in,” said Beck, “to place the cameras that are monitoring your family now. And how they’ll go in tomorrow night to take your wife and daughter.”
Ellis gasped, his voice a ragged whisper. “Beck, please. They’ve done nothing to you. Nothing at all. I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll write articles praising your company. I’ll swear that everything I said was a lie.”
Beck laughed. “Little late now, my friend. Your reporting cost us three billion in contracts.”
“Your reporting,” Beck said slowly, his rage evident even in his controlled, measured delivery, “sparked investigations. Congressional hearings. I had to appear. It was messy. Awkward.” He paused. “And now you want to make it all good? I don’t think so.”
“Please,” said Ellis. “My family—”
“No good, man,” said Beck. He stopped pacing and looked at Ellis. “What’d you call me in that last piece?”
Ellis gawked at him stupidly, his skin slick with sweat and blood.
“Thug is the word you used,” said Beck. “You called me a thug.”
Ellis licked his lips. Nodded. Wide-eyed, like a terrified child.
Beck said, “Would a thug offer his adversary a knife, while he himself remained unarmed?”
Ellis shook his head and kept his eyes locked on Beck. “No.”
“Would a thug give his adversary two knives, while he struggled barehanded?”
“No. He wouldn’t,” said Ellis.
“Would he offer his adversary a gun? Bullets? While he fought with nothing?”
Ellis turned to find Wilden standing in front of him, face impassive, inscrutable. He held a metal case this time, and the lid was open.
Ellis’s eyes flicked between Wilden’s face and the objects nestled in the container’s foam liner. A snubnose .38 and a handful of loosely scattered rounds. The bullets looked huge in the compact case, and the metal glinted in the late afternoon light.
Beck sauntered away from Ellis, toward the far railing. He called over his shoulder, yelling against the breeze. “They’re real bullets, Ellis. And it’s a real gun.”
Ellis stared at the gun, ears ringing. He wondered if he had a concussion.
Beck said. “And if you can load it and fire before I get there, then you win.”
Wilden set the case on the ground and backed away. Beck reached the far railing and began to turn. Slowly. Almost casually.
Ellis gawked a split second more, as if what he thought he’d heard Beck say couldn’t possibly be right. Like he’d missed something. Like it was all a joke and he just hadn’t figured it out yet. Like the case would explode in his face if he touched it, or one of Beck’s men would stab him in the back when he knelt down.
The hesitation lasted only a nanosecond and then Ellis was dropping onto the case, falling on top of it and fumbling with the gun. He knew guns. Handguns specifically. He owned a Baby Browning .25 and a Ruger Speed Six .22. He’d taken a firearm-safety course with his daughter. They’d been to the range a few times.
Ellis struggled with the .38’s cylinder—he couldn’t find the latch—and registered a flicker of movement in his peripheral vision. A shape flying toward him. He focused on the gun. Fingers working. The .38 was different from his guns. He could figure it out, but--
He found the latch, the cylinder opened, and he slid a single round into the chamber. One bullet. No time to load more. Ellis slapped the cylinder closed, lifted the gun.
And Beck was there, coming like a freight train. He smashed into Ellis’s chest, feetfirst.
The gun boomed. But the shot went high. Into the air.
Ellis bounced violently against a steel post, bones cracking on impact. Beck caught the gun, spun, and clubbed Ellis across the head with it, then scooped one of the knives from the deck and rammed it into his enemy’s thigh.
Ellis howled in agony and crashed to the ground, blood spurting from his leg.
“No one,” Beck roared, grabbing Ellis by his shirt and lifting him off the ground, “fucks with me and lives to tell about it!”
Muscles bulging, face taut with rage, Beck lurched toward the railing, holding Ellis a foot off the ground. “No one…fucks…with…me!”
Ellis regarded Beck with milky, terrified eyes. The left side of his face was smashed and bleeding. A jagged shard of bone pierced the skin like broken glass.
“Kill me,” Ellis coughed, spitting blood. “But leave my family alone.”
Beck laughed. “Oh, I’m not going to kill you, Ellis,” he said cheerfully.
They’d reached the railing and Beck twisted Ellis’s body around so that he was facing the shoreline, where the three enormous brown bears continued to feed.
Beck heaved Ellis’s mangled body from the deck and hurled him off the ship. The reporter tumbled through the air—too battered to try to right himself. Fifty feet he dropped, smacking the frigid blue-green water like a sack of cement. A Zodiac manned by two of Beck’s crew waited by the side of the ship. They hauled Ellis out of the water and motored toward the salmon stream. And the bears.
Kenneth G. Bennett is the author of the young adult novels, THE GAIA WARS and BATTLE FOR CASCADIA, and the new sci-fi thriller, EXODUS 2022. A wilderness enthusiast who loves backpacking, skiing and kayaking, Ken enjoys mysteries, science fiction, action adventure stories and, most especially, novels that explore the relationship between humans and the wild. He lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and son and two hyperactive Australian Shepherds.
THE GAIA WARS series was optioned for film by Identity Films, LA in 2012, and both GAIA and BATTLE have been featured as Top 100 Bestsellers in Teen Literature and Fiction on Amazon. Kirkus Reviews called THE GAIA WARS “A solid first entry of a promising, imaginative new young-adult fantasy series featuring a well-crafted character.”