The Shaking

Seismic terror is about to strike...

Maverick geologist Brian McLean was ridiculed when he warned London and south east England were at imminent risk of suffering a major earthquake. But when the unthinkable happens buildings collapse, power grids crash, transport is gridlocked, and high-tech life grinds to a shuddering halt.

In the stunned aftermath courier Ryan Buckland journeys through a shattered city to be reunited with his family, Deputy Prime Minister Stuart Pullman sees the emergency as his chance to seize power, while nuclear engineer Alan Carter desperately tries to avert a far greater catastrophe. If he fails, destructive aftershocks will be the least of our problems...

A homage to penny dreadful natural disaster potboilers, The Shaking will rock you to your very core!

A 103,000 word novel. Rated PG 16.

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18. Chapter Eighteen

Prospect Park. 10.17.

Kevin Norris picked himself up and brushed down his suit with his hands. It would need a good clean of course, but that would be the least of his or anyone else's worries for a while; especially the poor bastards out of sight on the major road nearby, but there was absolutely nothing he could do for them. Now the shaking had ceased the cars had stopped piling into each other. Kevin heard the sounds of stuck horns and screams of pain, but as yet no whoooffs of ruptured petrol tanks catching fire. Meanwhile the Enterprise House fire alarm trilled in plaintive sympathy with the distressed wailing of car alarms accompanying the shocked babbling of the evacuating staff.

Norris took in the scene of destruction at the office complex. Someone wearing a hi-viz waistcoat was checking the names of a nervous group of people gathered around him; it must be the staff of one of the larger companies occupying one of the low-rise block's floors. Being on his own in there and having signed out of the register, Norris didn't need to account for himself. He'd survived for the moment; he was all right jack.

Kevin saw the Wizzit van he'd watched streaking up the off ramp earlier in a panicked state nose its way into the car park and reverse into a distant space. The driver had nearly shunted some middle aged frump in a silver micro car who'd stopped abruptly when the 'quake had struck but he'd managed to avoid hitting her: Now he could see the woman had pulled into a safe parking spot and had got out; at the moment she was just standing there stunned and blubbing her eyes out. The van driver looked as if he was suffering a case of shock as well, he was just sitting at the wheel; staring with incomprehension through his windscreen at the world which had so radically changed in the space of a few seconds.

He'll probably spend all day like that expected Norris. He'd seen similar cases before during his commission; men who froze into immobility when suddenly confronted with peril. Someone needs to shake him out of it. And I know how it can be done. Norris began walking over to the van..

 

Prospect Park. 10.18

Ryan Buckland wasn't aware of how long he'd spent shocked in the van's cab before he was startled out of his skin by an overweight man in a crumpled and dirtied mid-grey business suit knocking on his window. What did he want? Was he going to start complaining about Ryan taking 'his' space? If that was his intent then he would soon find out he'd picked the wrong bloke at the wrong time.

Startled, Ryan leaned over and wound down the window on the passenger side door.

"You've got a consignment for R.O.N Limited, haven't you?" asked the dishevelled man. "I may as well pick it up while you're here."

"Uh, yes: I'll just get it for you." Feeling as if he'd just awoken from a nightmare, Buckland got out of the cab and opened the rear doors. Fortunately the packages appeared not to have been tumbled about too much, and if the lads in the depot had done their loading properly the boxes he wanted would be the first ones to hand: They were. He unloaded them and shut the doors.

"Sign there please." said Ryan on autopilot, offering the man the electronic terminal and a stylus. Norris scrawled a signature and picked up his two cartons.

"Thanks." he replied. "Are you all right, Mr...?" asked the man.

"Buckland; Ryan Buckland. Yeah, I think I'm OK. And you?"

"I'm just a bit shaken up, but it'll pass... I'm Kevin Norris." The pair shook hands. "I mean, an earthquake!" Norris continued. "Here of all places! Of all the things I thought might go wrong, an earthquake was the very least. It just goes to prove it's the ones you don't see coming that get you! Well I don't know about you but that's thrown my plans out for the day..."

"You mean you knew this was coming?" Buckland asked.

"No, not this; but my company - Ready Or Not is its name - distributes emergency preparedness supplies so I practice what I preach. It looks like today is going to be a massive test of how effective they are." replied Norris.

"This is bound to throw my schedule right out!" Ryan moaned. "I'd better call the depot and tell them, I'll ring Michelle as well, just to let her know I'm all right." He pulled his phone out of his pocket and selected the number he wanted to call from the speed dial list. No sooner had he done so than he heard three rising tones signalling the call could not be connected. As if to confirm the fact a NETWORK UNAVAILABLE message appeared on the display. The signal strength and data icons at the top of his phone's screen had vanished as well.

"I thought that would happen." said Norris. "Everyone is doing what you did; ringing their loved ones to let them know you're OK and to see if they're all right. It's a perfectly natural and understandable thing to do, but the networks can't cope with such a surge in demand. That, and they're bound to have been disrupted by the 'quake. The phone companies don't exclusively use mobile towers; they rely a lot on trunking the calls through the fixed line fibreoptic network which may be disrupted, and even though the mobile base stations have a separate power supply from the mains as well as back-up batteries, they won't last that long..."

"You're a real bundle of joy!" said Ryan sarcastically."

"I'm only telling it the way it is." Norris replied, although Buckland felt he was beginning to revel in the destruction. "The mobile phone network is quite resilient most of the time, and can be useful in emergencies; but something on this sort of scale is likely to cause it problems. The only alternative would be a satellite phone as they would be unaffected by problems with the terrestrial network."

"And I suppose you've got one..."

"I sell a few of them to small foreign aid agencies and the like, but not many to the general public as the contract tariffs are astronomical, especially for satellite internet. Anyway I'm not going to try calling on it yet because the numbers I'd want to call are landlines which are likely to be affected for a bit. If you're worried about your family all you can do is wait a while for repairs to be made and then try later; and remember a text message can get through where a call might fail; texts use less bandwidth."

"Thanks; I'll do that."

"Your best bet is to stay here for now; you're unlikely to be going anywhere soon and at least you'll be safe. Tune in to the local radio for updates, but the chances are they won't know any more than you do for a while. If worse comes to the worst you'll have to spend the night in your van. You've got an Ready Bag in there haven't you?"

"Of course! I'm not daft you know!"

"Good! At least you're better prepared than most of the dopey saps on the road. Remember, the best thing you can do for yourself and your family right now is not to become another casualty."

"What do you plan to do?" asked Ryan.

Norris nodded to a small shipping container placed in a corner of the car park. "You'll see!" he said with a hint of irritating smugness. "I live a few miles away and my warehouse lies along my route back in the other industrial estate - you've probably delivered there-"

'Yes I have."

"-so I'll check in on them on the way back. I'd better be going; good luck to you, you're going to need it." he said in a serious tone.

"And to you as well."

With that Norris took his packages, turned and walked over to the container store. Setting the boxes down he fished a ring of keys from his pocket and unlocked the two substantial padlocks securing the steel doors. After swinging one of them open he picked up his cartons and stepped inside. He emerged moments later wearing a rucksack and cycle helmet while wheeling out a chunky looking mountain bike.

He really has planned for every contingency thought Ryan, watching on enviously as Norris re-locked the container and straddled the bike, a dull grey basic model which could be found in a well-known motorists' supplies chain; it looked barely used. Norris paused to put on a pair of cycle clips and short-fingered gloves before pushing off. He wobbled slightly to begin with but soon settled into a rhythm, gliding away and gathering speed. Soon he reached the entrance to the car park, turned left, and rode away, seemingly dispassionate about the emergency unfolding around him.

Yeah, good luck indeed! mused Ryan as Norris rode out of sight. If things really were as bad as he made out it wouldn't be long before people concluded the fastest - maybe the only - way of getting around would be by bicycle; then they'd all want one, and some of them wouldn't be too particular about how they got one. Buckland wondered if Norris had a concealed weapon about his person, and how far he'd go to keep his bike if someone decided they needed it more than he did. Norris looked the sort who would relish the opportunity of finding out.

Ryan had to decide what to do next; try to continue his delivery round, or stay put as Norris had suggested? He needed to know more, and quickly. Getting back into his cab Buckland turned up the radio volume, but heard nothing but the unintelligible gargling of a DAB signal which was almost, but not quite receivable. He was just about to try another station when RSE came back on air. "-So for those of you tuning in, this is what we know so far: There has been a major earth tremor - a far stronger one than the one we experienced previously - which appears to have affected much of the south-east and London. We're still trying to get our links back up and running, but first reports speak of building collapses and widespread power cuts. Traffic has been particularly badly affected with severe problems reported on the M25 and other main routes. Flights from Gatwick and Heathrow airports have been suspended for the time being, with arrivals being diverted elsewhere. The South East Police Service has declared a Major Incident; all off-duty Fire and Rescue Service personnel along with health workers are requested to report for duty. I repeat; a Major Incident is underway and all emergency personnel are asked to report for duty. Radio South East will continue to keep you updated with the developing situation; stay tuned for further updates and informa-" then the programme abruptly dropped off the air. Ryan didn't know if it was a temporary loss of signal or a problem with the transmitters; but what was obvious was the BBC were going to have a hard time Connecting in this Crisis.

He tried flicking through the other stations but got nothing but silence, apart from one brief burst of chopped up speech and a faint constant whine on another frequency. No, he wasn't going to learn any more by listening in. Instead he tried using his phone again; but no sooner had he speed dialled Michelle and the depot than he got the same infuriating rising triple tones. Cursing, he gave up calling; further attempts would only drain his phone's battery more quickly.

Something Norris had said about satellite communications getting through when all else failed jogged in Buckland's mind. He remembered how the handheld terminal he used to record his deliveries operated. When it could it used the mobile networks to register each acceptance in real time, but if that wasn't possible it defaulted to a satburst, as it did in the event of an emergency. Well this counted as an emergency all right! Flicking through the device's on-screen menu he found the emergency message link and tapped out "Earthquake! Gridlock everywhere. Will stay put here as am safe for now. What shall I do? If no answer soon I'll return to depot if possible." Ryan tapped the Send icon, but apart from a 'Message Sent' confirmation popping up on the screen, nothing appeared to happen.

Then he noticed a Menu icon he had never had cause to use before off to the left hand side of the display. Touching it brought up a Message Settings list. Yes! There were options to choose a mobile phone number and email address as alternative recipients. Ryan typed in Michelle's mobile number and email address in the 'To' box, then a brief note explaining he was OK, that he would be in touch when the situation improved; oh, and by the way, he loved her. He posted the message, but again only received a confirmation of its sending, not its arrival.

Worry began to knot Ryan's guts. Were Michelle and Grace safe? And what about his home? What state would it be in? Had it been damaged by the quake? Ryan imagined all the problems there might be getting that useless money-grabbing bunch of tossers at the housing association to sort out any repairs. They'd probably try to pass the buck on to the Buckland's household insurance company. The more Ryan thought about it the more he felt he should be at home fulfilling his manly duties instead of sitting around here stranded being no help at all.

Buckland tried the radio again; still there was nothing. Once more he attempted to call Michelle and the depot, but without success. Briefly he considered trying to drive as far as he could, but looking over at the mini roundabout which led to the site he saw the same cars were still in the same places as earlier; no one was going anywhere at any speed.

Through his windscreen Ryan noticed how the huddles of staff who had run from the offices in terror had now given up just standing around and had begun to settle in the cars which were parked outside the likely collapse zone of the building; they obviously expected to be stuck here for a while. However not all of them had resigned themselves to an interminable wait; one person seemed to be engaged in a animated debate with his colleagues; though inside his van Ryan couldn't hear what it was about. Having made his decision the brave or reckless soul dashed over to the covered cycle rack situated near to the block's entrance. Hurriedly he fumbled his key into the heavy D-lock securing his bike before freeing it and running with his machine out the range of falling debris back to safety. After returning to say something to his coworkers the man saddled his bike and pedalled off.

At least he had the balls to do something, thought Ryan, I ought to as well. Suddenly filled with a sense of determination Buckland plucked the smart terminal from the van's dashboard. Using the satellite text function he composed a message to the depot explaining the van was parked safe and undamaged here, but he was leaving it to make his way home on foot. He, or they, could collect it later. The text sent, he grabbed his ready bag.

Containing the essentials one would need to survive a variety of natural or man-made disasters they'd become almost a fashion accessory to be toted along like a comfort blanket or worry beads, a reassurance against the nervous zeitgeist, with companies such as Norris' producing pre-packed examples. But Ryan had compiled his own in an army surplus pack he'd bought cheaply from a car boot sale.

In addition to his lunch and a flask of coffee Buckland's rucksack contained an assortment of emergency supplies any wise person who spent a lot of time on the road kept to hand: Bottled water; some ready to eat cereal bars; a powerful LED hill walker's head torch, along with a spare set of batteries; a waterproof poncho; a warm fleece zip neck pullover; a pair of thick, comfortable walking socks, as well as a set of one-size-fits-all stretchy gloves and a beanie hat; a small first aid kit; a dust mask; a flat pack of toilet tissues as well as a resealable pack of cleansing wipes for obvious reasons; a couple of supermarket special offer lightweight microfleece blankets which had come in useful when he was caught out overnight in the van during the unexpected blizzard which gridlocked much of the south east two winters ago; a large scale road map, even though he knew a lot of the area by heart; a backup power pack for his smartphone; a cheap folding pliers multitool... sensible things really. He'd had to use some of the items 'for real' on a couple of occasions but never expected his preparations to be put to this kind of test.

Squeezing open the plastic buckles securing the pack's lid, Ryan picked out the pair of walking socks he kept inside a sealable freezer bag and changed into them. Then he placed the still switched on terminal on top of the rest of his supplies where it could be quickly reached if it signalled a message had been received. He pulled the drawstring closed snow skirt around it to ensure it didn't fall out before cinching the pack lid down tight over it; that ought to do it.

Was there anything else? He looked around the cab but saw nothing that he wanted to take along with him. He decided just to lock the van rather than set the alarm; there was more than enough harsh electronic screeching already from the car security systems which had been activated by the quake or chunks of masonry falling onto their roofs or windscreens, and weren't there supposed to be aftershocks following an earthquake? If the sensitive alarms were constantly triggered, by the time he came back to collect his vehicle - whenever that may be - its battery would be drained.

Shouldering his pack Buckland trotted purposely away from Prospect Park. He estimated he was about ten miles away from home as the crow flies, maybe a bit longer by road following the rough route he had in mind. At a reasonable pace, and allowing time for the inevitable problems he would encounter it could take him four or five, perhaps six hours at the most to reach home. Still, at least he'd be on the way and doing something rather than buggering about here. With luck things might not be as bad as had first thought; the traffic would be flowing again, and some kind soul might even offer him a lift. Yeah, everyone pulls together in a crisis and he might be able to save some time that way...

But rounding the corner his perspective changed; now he could see more of the roads and cityscape which lay beyond it. Already there appeared to be at least one column of thick black smoke rising from a large fire away in the distance; the source of the blaze remained hidden from view. He thought he saw other faint smudges of smoke - or were they dust? he couldn't be sure - as well. As the cacophony of the car park began to thankfully lessen in volume Ryan heard far away sirens wailing; he also thought he heard a woman screaming, or was that his fertile imagination going into overdrive?

So this was what the long-feared Armageddon looks like thought Ryan. He always expected The Disaster if it ever came would be something weather related - a snowstorm or flash flooding - or perhaps a mega traffic jam or a terrorist event, but never a bloody earthquake! Like the drivers sat waiting in their stopped cars he walked past, many with their engines still running, Ryan was in a mild state of dreamlike shock. It all seemed so unreal; so different from the scenes imagined in the movies; so personal... This sort of thing didn't happen in England! Yet it just had!

Buckland was breathing deeply and his heart beating quickly; he was walking too fast. It wasn't possible to keep up this pace; he would soon start to tire or his legs would begin to cramp up. He'd have to slow down and adopt a more energy efficient lope of a walk. He was in it for the distance, so he'd just have to calm down and keep on putting one foot in front of the other in a measured trudge that would gradually eat into the miles separating him from his family. 

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