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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40. Chapter Forty

Dungeness Power Station. 08.02.

Alan Carter was where few people ever ventured; in between the outer and inner containment vessels of a nuclear reactor. This space was designed as the unit's final safety feature: If a problem occurred in one of the access points where the primary steam circuit or coolant pipes entered the reactor, any leak of radioactive gas or fluid should be captured here and not escape into the wider environment.

Exiting the airlock he took in his surroundings. Normally off-limits when the reactor was running, and accessed only for maintenance during shutdowns, the gap between the two stainless steel cable tensioned reinforced concrete drums was a narrow one, no more than three metres wide. Alan looked up and saw ladders and mesh catwalks suspended at intervals high above him all the way up to the unlit gloom at the top of the pressure vessel.

Paradoxically for an area so close to such an incredible source of power the cavity was illuminated only by a scattering of weak LED bulbs which had been fitted to the decades old wire caged bulkhead holders; there just in case it were ever to become necessary for someone to enter here in the event of an emergency - such as now. There was an air of starkly functional sterile inhumanity about the environment; the only hints of colour dotted about the nude concrete and dulled natural metallic hues of the pipework were the primary reds, yellows, and blues of the safety notices. Truth be told being this close to the immensity of it all; the heavy flanges with their large protruding tightly screwed down bolt heads where metal pierced the bulwark; the scalp tingling proximity to such elemental forces - the temperatures, pressures and radiation levels approaching those of a fatally inhospitable alien world - gave Alan the willies.

But what really spooked him was the relative silence, even though there was some ambient noise to be heard. If the unit had been operating normally the resonances caused by high pressure gas rubbing along the inside of the large diameter piping should have been so loud as to be unbearable. But instead of external vibrations loosening his bowel it was a dread sense of aloneness, a feeling that he did not belong here.

Time was of the essence, so Carter set off for the nearest hooped ladder which would lead him up to the circular walkway he wanted, located half way up the curving wall. Looping the holdall strap over one shoulder he began to ascend carefully.

"How are you doing?" Paul asked. His radio signal relayed through the monolithic construction by a series of repeaters.

"I'm OK; climbing now." Alan spoke into his voice activated transceiver. "What's your situation?"

"We're getting suited as you ordered. The hot spot temperature has increased by 160° in the last five minutes and the flux is intensifying: For God's sake hurry up and launch those beads!" There was an undertone of fear in Glover's voice which Alan had never heard in the years he'd worked with him. If an unflappable character such as Paul was getting rattled, the situation must be getting really bad.

"I'll be there shortly. I've almost reached that level!"

Carter stepped off the ladder onto the catwalk; the boron injector was only a short walk away. Within a few more steps it came into view.

There were two large hoppers containing the beads, each mounted inside a welded framework of steel scaffolding. When triggered a combination of gravity and pressurised carbon dioxide gas would force the tiny boron spheres through the thick pipe penetrating the inner containment into the heart of the reactor, shutting it down permanently. Alan reached the first hopper and checked the gas pressure gauge; it appeared to be fully charged.

"Control; stand by, I'm about to release Hopper One."

"At last! Do it quickly!"

Carter located the red painted large valve wheel. Removing the safety lock and taking a firm grasp he began loosening it. There was a hiss of gas followed by a crackling rumble as the beads rushed along the pipe. The deafening noise sounded like a lorry load of shingle being dumped.

"Hopper One deployed. Is it having any effect?" he asked, ears still ringing.

"Not too much of one." the reply crackled back. "There's some reduction in activity around the periphery of the hot spot, but it's not fallen very far or quickly; initiate Hopper Two!"

"Roger!"

Alan ducked under the thick inlet pipe to the Hopper Two release valve. As he began unwinding the wheel he was overcome by an abrupt sense of melancholy; almost the same feeling as that when having a family pet put down. After spending so long trying to coax some extra Promethean life from this reactor, fate had selected him as the one to finally quench its electric blue fission incandescence.

Wishing his helmet had better soundproofing, and that the suit's air conditioning was more powerful - he was beginning to feel the heat in spite of the refrigerator unit - Carter opened the valve. There was the reassuring metallic sound of the pipework ringing as the beads scurried along it.

"Hopper Two deployed!" he said relieved. "Is it having an effect?"

"I can't tell at the moment." Glover replied." But you've done all you can in there; come out now. When we can get hold of some we'll saturate the reactor with boron dust which will reach all of the places the beads can't."

"I'm on my way down."

As Alan began walking to the ladder he felt flushed. Was it the heat in here, or a delayed physical effect of the realisation of what he had just done? He checked the suit's cuff readout; the radiation level was still near normal, but rising slowly as was the external air temperature. Carter wondered if he was beginning to exhibit the first symptoms of heat exhaustion; maybe it would have been wise to have worn the next to the skin cooling undergarment instead of his shirt and trousers, but there hadn't been the time to strip completely and wriggle into it. Alan justified boosting the suit's cooling system to maximum by the fact he'd soon be out of here anyway, and even set at this level there should be thirty minutes of endurance left.

Carter was half way down the ladder when the latest earthquake ambushed him with an approaching tube train rumbling which quickly developed into the strongest tremor he'd yet felt. The vibrations wrenched Alan's grip from the ladder and he fell backward, his fall only arrested by the safety hoops. Feeling like one of the plastic figures in a game of Hang On Harvey, Alan broke his fall in stages by grabbing at handholds with his flailing arms as his body bounced off the bars of the ladder's safety cage. Shaken and disoriented, yet remarkably not seriously injured he landed in a heap at the bottom of the ladder, banging his helmeted head as he did so. He could hear Paul Glover shouting in his earpiece, but such was the thundering noise his speech was rendered unintelligible.

"WHAT?" Alan shouted, barely able to make himself heard.

"-e're -osing it." came the disjointed reply.

"SAY AGAIN!"

Glover's repeat was almost as garbled, yet the meaning only too chillingly clear. "Get -t of there -actor -ing ou- of -ontrol."

Alan heaved himself up to a crouch, his back cramping in agonised spasms where the rounded edge of the life support pack had been rammed into the base of his spine. It was difficult to stand or even remain upright with this intense shaking going on so he stumbled forward in an unsteady ape crawl. Paul Glover was saying something to him, but Carter tuned out the voice in his ear, concerned now only with reaching the airlock.

Above him the catwalk sections clattered, and further away the echoing of something big and hollow breaking free, striking other pieces of equipment as it fell pierced even this cacophany. God, when would it end? thought Alan. With a final jolt which sent him sprawling against the the inner containment vessel, the activity ceased. Bloody hell! Carter could feel the warmth from the concrete radiating through his fire resistant overall. It shouldn't be that hot!

"Alan! Talk to me!"

"Uhh... I'm on the ground level, close to the airlock. What's happened?"

"Another 'quake! The worst yet! I've boron flushed One and evacuated the control room; we're falling back to the CCC and we'll pick you up as we go!"

"Just go! I'll make it out by mysel-"

At first it felt and sounded like another tremor, but this was different, a shorter lived muffled crump on the other side of the imposing structure - the graphite matrix must have finally succumbed to the shaking and collapsed in on itself!

"PAUL! I THINK THE CORE HAS FAILED! GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE!" No sooner had Carter spoken then an automatically generated alarm he'd hoped never to hear except during testing began it's all-consuming shriek, sending a cold steel shaft of fear through him; the incredible volume all but drowning out the sudden insistent beeping of the suit's radiation alarm and that of his personal dosimeter

Alan reached the airlock and opened the inner door, stumbling through, closing and sealing it behind him before starting the atmosphere cycling process. He suddenly felt weakened as well as nauseated. Christ! had he been irradiated that much so quickly? It shouldn't be possible given the thickness of the concrete biological shield but... No; that would mean the simulations were wrong and the shattered remains of the fuel matrix were behaving far differently and reacting much more energetically than ever thought possible... And if that were so then the sequence of events expected to take place over hours or days might occur within minutes!

The roaring of the atmosphere exchange pump stopped, the interlock disconnected, but before Alan had time to reach for the handle the door was opened from the other side and swung in toward him. A figure wearing a set of white hooded coveralls and respirator leaned round to support him.

"Come on, we don't have much time!" It was Glover, shouting above the din of the alarm, sounding as if he were speaking with his mouth full behind the mask. Lie down on that and we'll get you out of here!" he motioned to a pole and canvas stretcher opened out on the floor. Carter, feeling too tired to argue, too fatigued to care much about anything, did as instructed.

"Paul; I think I picked up a dose in there..."

"Don't panic!" Glover soothed as he checked the display on Alan's suit cuff, but Paul couldn't conceal the look in his eyes.. "There's a chopper standing by to pick us up and it'll fly you directly to a hospital for a check up. Even if you did catch some rays they can transfuse your blood and give you a bone marrow transplant. I expect a lot of what you're feeling are the effects of heatstroke. As soon as we get you to a safe place and unsuit you we'll give you an IV of rehydration solution; you'll feel a lot better then."

Once the airlock outer door had been sealed and Alan settled into the stretcher two more white-suited figures - the reactor operators - picked it up. Moving quickly, almost running, they made haste for the exit.

Looking up through his face plate Carter measured the party's rate of progress by the flickering fluorescent ceiling lights and strobing red alarm beacons passing by. However they hadn't gone far when there was a tremendous subterranean explosion which was sensed rather than heard, followed almost instantaneously by a far more powerful thunderclap of a blast which shook the building and made the stretcher bearer at Alan's feet lose his grip on the wooden poles, spilling Carter out of the litter. FUCKING HELL! IT'S BLOWN!" the technician cursed.

"There's a Land Rover waiting outside!" said Paul. "We'd better run for it! Once we're inside it'll limit our exposure; let's go!" Picking up Alan between then Glover and the reactor operator set off at a stumbling run.

Bursting out of the exit the group came to a shocked halt: Amid a scattering of debris it was obvious their escape vehicle wasn't going anywhere, its cab was crushed beneath a large chunk of concrete. Where had that come from?

"Check the driver!" ordered Paul. One of the technicians ran around to the other side of the 4x4 but was back almost at once shaking his head. The man was clearly beyond help. In any case the quartet had their own problems to deal with. Alan turned around and looked up at the reactor block; his heart skipped several beats as he realised the round blockhouse tower containing Reactor Two had a wide crack running all the way down its side while thick grey smoke along with dense clouds of steam were darkening the sky, venting from the jagged crown points where the roof should have been: This meant the pieces of metallic scrap now blanketing the area must have come from inside the core and were therefore dangerously radioactive.

"We've got to get away from here!" he shouted, noticing as he did so the tangled remains of the refuelling robot lying nearby, and fuck! that was a twisted spent fuel rod over there! Abruptly blown clear from its cooling tank the element was beginning to melt and give off smoke as well as subjecting the group to deadly levels of radiation while it did so: It was killing them even as they looked at it.

But even as the realisation struck the men, another more immediately life-threatening hazard became obvious: From around the corner of the reactor block a knee-deep carpet of agitated dirty grey water flowed toward them; a tsunami surge! This latest one had either overtopped the shingle beach and concrete sea wall, or else breached a soft spot in the weakened defences. However it had happened didn't matter, the site was flooding and nothing was going to stop it.

As a group they ran for their lives, heedless if doing so brought them closer to the intangible dangers scattered nearby. Carter was the hindmost. The frothing water caught up with them and Alan felt an insistent tug at his legs; a current which threatened to bowl him off his feet, sweeping him along with it while battering him with the nuclear flotsam it contained. Even his remaining few minutes of supplied oxygen would only delay his inevitable death...

Then a loud chuddering sound resonated through his body and a large dark green object loomed low above him - the helicopter! Coming to a hover just above the roiling water in front of them the side door was flung aside and the crew reached out toward the figures beginning to flounder in the rising tide. One, two, three of them were hauled aboard by the army flight crew dressed in full protective camouflage gear; now there was only Carter to save. He waded with increasing difficulty toward the machine but felt the last of his strength fading as he did so. Then he was no longer standing but floating, carried along with the turbulent flow.

Alan thought he'd be dragged under the chopper and away, beyond any hope of salvation. But the pilot lowered the aircraft slightly, dipping its skids in the torrent but risking the cabin being swamped. The engineer was washed on to a skid and felt many hands gripping him. With an effort he was manhandled inside, and an order was shouted; the helicopter clawed its way free of the maelstrom while the door was slammed shut.

Deafened by the full-throttle whine as the chopper desperately gained altitude and distance Carter caught a glimpse of the Dungeness complex through the fuselage windows as they flew away from it: The scene was a nightmare. From this angle the full extent of the damage to Reactor Two was visible; with a growing sense of horror Alan looked into the depths of the atomic cauldron to view what no human eye should ever see. He observed a white hot glow far down there and could only imagine what would happen when that inexhaustible source of heat met an endless supply of seawater.

As the perspective shifted he took in the entirety of the site. The English Channel had broken though a large gap in the beachhead caused by the uplift of part of the Dungeness spit; the extended fault looked as if it had just missed the eastern perimeter of the station, but even from this distance it was clear the hundred thousand ton poured concrete raft upon which the B complex of reactor buildings rested had been bodily moved and most likely been canted down at a slight angle. Then, with a last brief sight of the twisted electricity pylons staggering away across the shingle, it was gone from his view.

Alan felt a hand on his shoulder; it was Paul Glover's. "You did what you could..." he said, his voice contorted by the respirator which he along with the rest of the crew kept on. Suddenly Carter had an overwhelming urge to retch; he clawed at his faceplate release catch.

"No! Don't do it!" Paul urged. "The air in here is bound to be contaminated!" But there was no dissuading Alan. He yanked the visor up just in time and threw up a spray of watery beige vomit over the cabin floor. Having finished he had the presence of mind to pull the visor closed again before he lapsed into unconsciousness.

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