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.


4. Chapter Four

07.25. WizzitCouriers; South East London.

Even though he'd set off early in order to give himself extra time to get here, Ryan Buckland's tired old French hatchback arrived at the Wizzit Couriers Logistics Centre only five minutes before his shift was due to begin. The rush hour traffic these days was getting worse. Ryan would have cycled the few miles to work, and no doubt have saved himself some time and a lot of money doing so; but the location of the depot - just off a busy major road junction - rendered that impractical. He'd be risking his life on every journey.

Parking the car and grabbing his rucksack, Ryan swiped his card in before reporting to the dispatch office. László the shift supervisor was waiting to present him with his portable terminal. "The usual van and area, Ryan." he said in his typically friendly manner as he handed over the device preloaded with the day's assignments.  "And be careful; Stinky was driving it overnight!"

"Thanks for the warning!"

Ryan left the office to collect the van already loaded for his run. Once he did so it was only a moment's work to dock his terminal with the custom dashboard mount and adjust the driving seat. As Buckland did so his nose wrinkled; Stinky was named not only for his poor personal hygiene but his fondness for skunk cannabis which he smoked now and then in flagrant defiance of the company's rules while working; a faint mixture of both odours lingered in his wake. His weed habit was a well known fact among his coworkers, but no one bothered to make an issue of it provided he got his job done. Somehow he always seemed to be able to avoid or pass Wizzit's occasional employee drug tests or the random police roadside checkpoints, though one day his luck would be bound to run out. Ryan gave the cab a quick inspection for anything Stinky might have carelessly left behind; the last thing he needed would be any of that kind of trouble

With László's warning still fresh in his mind, there was one final check to perform before starting the vehicle. As Ryan expected the radio's volume knob had been left turned all the way up; he muted it prior to switching on the van's DAB console: Stinky's favourite heavy rock station appeared on the display. Buckland changed channels to BBC Radio South East before raising the volume to a non distracting background murmur. His seat adjusted to fit and preparations complete, Ryan eased the van out of the depot.

It should be an easy run; the optimum route had already been calculated for him. All Ryan had to do was allow himself to be guided by voice prompts from his terminal, scan the label and collect an electronic signature for each delivery which would be accounted for via a real time link, and keep up with the schedule. The latter might be the hardest part though; already the heavy traffic around him was beginning to slow. The van's terminal beeped a warning tone; demanding a reason for his slow progress. Buckland barked a curt "Traffic!" to silence it. Though smart, Wizzit's devices and the programmes which supported them didn't yet cross-reference their vehicle's position against the Real Time Traffic Information which was widely available, leaving the drivers to explain any delays themselves. The courier business was a constant, relentless pressure to deliver the goods on time; being late was an unforgivable sin

With any luck the speed of the traffic would increase and Ryan would be able to make up the time to reach his first delivery at one of his regular stops - a distribution business for something or other, he didn't know what - located a few junctions further along the motorway on schedule. So far the cheerfully inane Radio South East presenter hadn't thought it necessary to mention the problem so it couldn't be that bad. Their breakfast show might be excruciatingly mind numbing but at least RSE were on the ball with their traffic updates, often giving out advice and warnings well in advance of the van's terminal.

The traffic's speed began to increase. Relieved, Ryan eased his van into a faster stream on the middle lane. It wouldn't do him any good to get too stressed too soon; better just to go with the flow and hope things would all work out for the best. Perhaps he'd get a message sometime today that Rusty had been found: At least that would be one less thing off his mind.

So far Grace seemed to be coping with the dog's disappearance; well; her initial withdrawn sulking had passed, but both she and Michelle were absorbed by worry over Rusty's fate. Involving Grace in posting pictures of him online as well as a repeated searches of the Common had proved cathartic, but as yet no sightings of had been reported, and checking with the dog warden and RSPCA had drawn blanks. Not that Ryan was all that bothered; as long as his partner and daughter got over Rusty's loss quickly he'd consider it to be a fortunate occurrence. It had been such a relief to have got home later than usual yesterday as a result of the widespread but minor earthquake disruption and not have to worry about walking the dog. As he drove further along the M25, Buckland secretly hoped the chances of finding the pet were about as likely as another 'quake occurring.

09.47. Undisclosed location near Downing Street.

The COBRA briefing room was located underground in the warren of chambers which had been excavated beneath the government district of Westminster during the Second World War and greatly extended in the Cold War decades afterward. The secret underground complex, almost a self-contained city in its own right, was codenamed PINDAR.

Stuart Pullman thought it frankly ridiculous that two meetings within 24 hours to coordinate a national response to a minor regional earthquake had needed to be held at all, especially underground when the official buildings comprising Downing Street had been surreptitiously 'hardened' against terrorist attack over the year: But the bunker had been designed to survive most contingencies apart from a near miss by a nuclear warhead, and those in charge had to be seen to be doing something, even if there was little which needed doing or could be done... In any case he hated being in these close, duct lined spaces. It wasn't a case of borderline claustrophobia; more a disliking of being confined like a mole in a reinforced concrete burrow. Still, at least it gave the civil servants something to get excited about, especially the ones champing at the bit to run their emergency preparedness simulations.

In truth there was very little for the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (the redundant A being appended to give the acronym some otherwise lacking venomous serpentine machismo) task group to do. The local authorities were the lead agencies to deal with this situation and they had yet to ask for any central government aid: The chances were that they wouldn't need to. Reported disruption, though initially thought to be widespread, had turned out in the end to be transitory and minimal. This event was mostly a matter for the private household insurance companies to take care of. All Downing Street needed to do was award token grants to help the minor clear up operations and offer congratulatory pats on the back to all concerned.

Pullman as Deputy Prime Minister could have initiated and conducted a COBRA meeting on his own authority had he felt such a response was warranted, but the Prime Minister had wanted to be seen as the Man In Charge, so it was he chairing the meeting which was coming to an end.

"It seems you all have things well in hand." said Rampling smugly. "I'm pleased to see such a rapid and coordinated response from the lead departments." He beamed complimentary smiles to the deputy Home Secretary as well as the ministers of Local Government and Environment. "The machinery of government has been tested and found up to the task." Oh cut the pompous crap! thought Pullman, and let's get out of this miserable fucking hole!

"You have something further to add?" The Prime Minister asked; Pippa Slater, the Environment Minister had caught Rampling's eye.

"Yes; I wonder if the Deputy PM has had time to review the briefing paper on earthquake preparedness my department forwarded to him? Given this event it is a reminder that we ought to be ready for the next one, whenever it may occur." So this was her game... thought Pullman. The opportunistic cow was trying to make him out to be overworked and struggling to keep up with events - incompetent. No doubt she wasn't acting by herself; she was probably doing the bidding of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ian Campbell, Pullman's greatest rival and most potent threat; at present attending an IMF summit in Mexico but due to return tomorrow. Slater was one of Campbell's closest allies and wouldn't let an opportunity pass to put Pullman down. Well Ms Slater, if you want a fight I'll give you one...

"Yes, I have." Stuart replied. "And from what I read I was less than impressed. The report was badly written and its conclusions poorly thought through. I was surprised, not to say disappointed, that this had got as far as my office without being challenged within your department: And then we must ask what you expected me to do about it? As Deputy PM I don't have control of the purse strings as the Chancellor does; nor do I have the executive responsibility which would reside in your remit, along with the Home Office and Local Government. If you wanted something done about this issue you really should have set up an interdepartmental working group which would have closely examined the report's findings and methodology before bringing a concrete set of conclusions to the Cabinet as a whole to discuss; and certainly not to be tacked on as an aside at such an important collaborative meeting as this. To be frank Ms Slater, the fact such an important issue as preparedness was left for me to deal with indicates that you don't fully have a complete grip of your own department; something which you really should address, and quickly." Slater flinched as he rebuked her.

Quickly Rampling intervened. "I don't think we have anything to gain from airing our differences on this issue at this time in this way." he said curtly. "We can go through the organisational procedures and lessons learned at some other time. Right now we need to concentrate our energies on aiding those affected by the earthquake. In that regard I believe we have achieved all we usefully can for the moment. The committee stands adjourned pending any further developments. In the meantime our staffs will conduct any liaison activities which may be necessary. Thank you all."

With that he rose, signalling the meeting was over. As the Prime Minister left, the ministers along with their assistants began collecting their papers and making ready to follow. Pullman slid his chair back, but as he did so he noticed Slater looking daggers at him. Well you little tart, you shouldn't have tried it on, should you? I'm more than a match for you, and when I take over I'm going to see that not only are you demoted back down to the back benches but I'll also be having a few quiet words with your Constituency Party chairperson about getting you deselected as a candidate for the next election. It's people like you who have led us to being in the state we're in; and I intend to do something about it, as well as you.

Almost as if she could read Stuart's thoughts, Slater quickly looked away. Yes, I've got your measure. You and that young khaki skinned newbie you're having an affair with and who you wangled a Private Parliamentary Secretary post for: You ought to be ashamed of yourself, you trollop! Don't think I don't know what's going on; I do. It's common knowledge and I'll make an example of you yet. Acting to eradicate any notion of impropriety, cleaning up government and all that... You're fucking history when I'm in charge, bitch: You'll be out on your ear along with your Pakistani lover boy.

Followed by his aides Pullman left the briefing room and took his preferred route back to his office. No one spoke as they followed him up the long flights of stairs up to the surface - walls have ears, and whatever needed to be said could be spoken in a place where they felt more secure later. Stuart felt that he'd put Slater back in her place at a minor cost to his standing with the PM, but the opinion of the Dead Man Walking was less of a concern to him than what Slater's barely concealed attack indicated: He wasn't the only one eager to seize the moment; Chancellor Campbell was also aware the time when imperative action needed to be taken was rapidly approaching.

The Downing Street media relations unit had already no doubt issued statements about how the government united in purpose was well on top of the situation. Yet the divisions which racked the administration were only too obvious to anyone who looked beyond the spin. Like the tectonic pressure which had been building up, the political tensions had been increasing as well; as imperceptible as the geological strains but just as real. It was only a matter of time until they too were released. Pullman wondered what it would take to prompt that earthquake, and how soon it would be.

10.09. Whitehall.

Politicians have contacts everywhere, eager to grant favours in the expectation of one in return at some future date. So it was no surprise for Stuart Pullman to be tipped the wink in advance via a covert self-destructing email that news of this morning's spat between himself and Slater was about to go public.

This was a complication he didn't need: Though it was an open secret the government was divided, Pullman wouldn't be thanked for aggravating the split. But he hadn't chosen the battle; Campbell through his proxy Slater had started the fight and Stuart felt obliged not only to defend himself but to go on the offensive. Perhaps had had pushed back too assertively and been more abrupt with her than was necessary, but the frumpy harridan had deserved it: Politics is a rough game, and if you can't stand the heat... Still, what was done was done; the worst that could happen was that the PM would have a word with him; that would be unfortunate but survivable; what might at first appear to be a setback may even be turned to his advantage if the closet chauvinists of the back benches secretly liked the thought of the drippy woman being put in her place...

There was nothing to be done about it for the moment; just to wait and see how the incident was reported. The way the story was portrayed might provide a clue as to who had blabbed, and their motive for going public. By tipping their hand whoever it was would declare their allegiance for or against him; most likely against. Well if that was their choice they would have to live with the consequences when Stuart took charge...

Pullman considered how Ranpling would handle the crisis. The fact the PM had wrapped the meeting up so quickly in an attempt to stop the row erupting suggested he knew how delicate the situation was, which also meant he daren't obviously favour one faction over the other; but that didn't mean he couldn't drop subtly nuanced hints for those with the most finely tuned antennae to pick up while simultaneously quashing any speculation about a cabinet rift with a 'united in a common purpose' briefing to the lobby correspondents.

But it was obvious that things couldn't go on this way for much longer; Pullman would have to make his move soon or be beaten to the punch. He resolved to have his allies take some more soundings from the parliamentary party once the story broke, and see where he went from here based on what was reported back to him. If what he heard was encouraging he'd make his move when the next opportunity presented itself.

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