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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35. Chapter Thirty Five

Near Swanley, Kent. 06.50

Kevin Norris was hyperaware of his surroundings, alert to any sound which would indicate his position had been compromised. Though as he was nestled deep in a hedgerow running alongside an overgrown environmental 'set aside' strip looking across two recently harvested fields approximately 800 metres from the Emergency Reception Centre under construction anyone who discovered his presence would most likely be specifically looking for him, in which case the game would be probably up for both parties.

This was to be a classic gun and run mission; like many of those he'd performed in those arid Afghan hills. Ideally Kevin would have preferred more time to prepare and more intelligence to work with, but given the circumstances he just had to improvise as best he could and hope luck was on his side.

When he'd received his orders all that had accompanied them was a rough itinerary which had most likely changed or even been cancelled by now; but the scant information was enough for him to go on. Norris had quickly excluded most of the possible target sites as being impossible to reach by any means of transport given the current circumstances, or else the venues were places he lacked any detailed information about, or would be too heavily populated to provide effective concealment. Of all the possibilities it had been this area which seemed the best prospect, nay the only choice.

Before leaving home Kevin had fed Jasper and left a note behind for Debbie, explaining he'd gone out looking for her. As yet he'd heard nothing from her so assumed she was still out if touch, as so many others were. The alternative that she was one of the disaster's many casualties didn't bear thinking about, but he had a feeling somehow she was OK. Then he'd checked his mobile phone was switched off so that his position couldn't be traced by its signal trail, before putting it in one of his bedroom draws. That done, Norris shouldered a nondescript rucksack, swung a leg over his mountain bike, and set off to pick up his weapon.

Though Kevin was a licensed shotgun owner and did the occasional day's shooting to justify his possession of the firearm at home, he was careful enough not to store any of the Organisation's arms there in case Debbie or the police discovered them. Instead the group's local arsenal was kept in a secure lock-up unit rented in a small industrial estate a few miles away. Norris cycled there without incident; but upon reaching the store ran into an unexpected delay while he convinced a suspicious mobile security guard that he was there to check his business for earthquake damage rather than burgle it. The persuasion had cost him time he could ill afford to lose.

After a harder than expected ride to the objective as a result, at least he was now settled in place. Kevin wore inconspicously dull civillian clothes rather than camouflage, and had partially covered himself an olive drab tarpaulin to mask his thermal signature from any surveillance drone's infra-red detectors, though he doubted they would be employed here, given the preparations for Rampling's visit had been so rushed. Lying prone with his stomach resting on a lightweight self-inflating camping pad, Norris lifted a pair of compact binoculars to his eyes and scanned the target zone again.

Set up close to the Swanley interchange junction on the M25 to provide care for stranded motorists who had abandoned their vehicles and trudged their way to it, the village of marquees and plastic portable toilet huts must have come form one of the prepositioned regional 'response pods' of emergency preparedness supplies. Observing the scene, Kevin noted a first aid tent, field kitchen, and a truck mounted water purification system connected by a long, thick trunk of a flexible pipe to a distant water main. Another parked all-terrain lorry carried a large generator to which soldiers were busy connecting heavy duty cables as they set up lighting towers. Few of the military appeared to be armed at the moment, instead relying on the police to keep order. Norris wondered how long that state of affairs would continue as he watched the swelling queues of people shuffling slowly from tent to tent as they were registered, given water, ready-to-eat snacks, and medical attention if required became impatient to return home. From what he'd heard on the radio earlier the orbital motorway was crammed solid in both directions with stationary traffic. It would take days, perhaps weeks to get it all cleared, and that was before taking the collapsed bridges and 'quake damaged slip roads into consideration.

At least conditions were warm and dry for the time being. Kevin imagined what they might be like if this reception centre were being set up during a wet, bitterly cold dark December evening. Then all the matting in the world couldn't prevent the saturated soil from being churned to a quagmire by all those continually moving feet... Life then would be a misery any self-respecting politician would shy well away from being associated with.

The throbbing of engines carried faintly across the open space as the troops' frenetic activity expanded the camp before his eyes. Then Norris' attention was distracted from a squad errecting the tubular framework of another large shelter by a loud airborne clattering, one he was only too familiar with; the sound of an approaching helicopter. Kevin swung his binoculars toward it and and centred the aircraft in his vision. No, this didn't look like a VIP chopper, it was an army Merlin with an underslung net full of cargo. He kept it in view as it swooped to a hover, let its load settle on the ground, and then cast off the sling, pulling away in a steep climb. As it departed troops like swarming ants converged on the bundle, removing the slings and net while other soldiers dressed in full battle gear took up covering positions around the landing zone, weapons held at port arms in case the delivery were to prompt a stampede in their direction.

As an offroad forklift truck picked up the first pallet and wobbled its way unsteadily with it towards a secure storage area, Norris understood the army's caution. He recognised the type of boxes even through the thick shrink-wrapping holding them together; after all his business sold them as well. They may previously have been derrided as "Meals Rejected by Everyone", but now the sealed Meals - Ready to Eat would become manna for those famished, displaced people.

The army cleared the landing zone with efficient haste. Kevin felt encouraged that his hunch as where to set himself up had been proven correct. From here he would have a good field of fire if that traitor Anthony Rampling arrived here, and the fact so many resources were being concentrated in this location confirmed his assessment this was the place where the Prime Minister was going to stage his cynical PR stunt. The thought of such blatant politicking in the face of a national catastrophe rekindled Norris' smouldering rage: Out of the news cameras' view there were bound to be many more people going without what they urgently needed as a result of this media manipulation.

Checking his watch Kevin estimated that if the rough schedule hadn't been changed Rampling was due to arrive within the next ten minutes or so: It was time to make ready. Giving up all pretence at being a exhausted refugee temporarily resting under a hedge Norris languidly reached for his rucksack - as quick movements attract attention from counter-sniper observers - and after carefully donning a pair of disposable surgical gloves extracted a compact object from it. Deftly he began to dismantle the solid lump and reassemble it into a new form; within a minute the task was completed and Kevin held a potent weapon in his hands.

The McMillan Armaments Company Alias SC5 had been specifically designed for situations such as this. The collection of menacing matt black tubes could be packed down to fit inside a small rucksack in seconds, yet despite its diminutive size was still able to deliver a formidable punch. Norris set the rifle on its bipod and checked the three magazines containing ten rounds each he'd brought with him. There was the choice of a subsonic low noise .308 cartridge; a louder but more powerful supersonic version of the same round; or the signature custom made depleted uranium tipped ammunition he'd used in the previous attempt on the Prime Minister's life. After weighing the pros and cons of each option, Kevin decided on the DU bullets; given the weapon's suppressor would quieten the noise of the shot to a loud air rifle whipcrack it would be unlikely anyone near Rampling's helicopter would notice the report amid the turbine and rotor noise. Not hearing Norris' fire the Prime Minister's bodyguards would be unaware of his attack until their dark suits were splattered by his brains.

A further time check showed that if the PM hadn't been overly delayed by playing Mr Munificence elsewhere he should be arriving here imminently. Having already 'dialled in' the estmated range and windage into the 40mm Leupold scope, Kevin completed the final focus and magnification settings. Happy with the result he looked through the zoom optics and noticed some new activity at the landing zone. It appeared something was about to happen as what looked like senior police and army officers, along with civillians he took to be local councillors were assembling there. As he watched this happening he heard the note of another helicopter approaching: This had to be it!

Norris worked the Alias' bolt and was satisfied to feel the first round chamber with a precise snick. The rifle's single shot action was among the lightest and quickest he'd ever used, though he doubted if he'd be able to loose more than two shots before the target was either hit or pushed to the ground and shielded by other bodies; then he'd have to exfiltrate in a hurry.

Looking up he spotted a tiny dot in the sky growing larger. This helicopter lacked an underslung load so it must contain Rampling, his entourage, and their tame camera crew. As it began to descend Kevin streched and shivered the tenseness out of his limbs a final time before snugging the Alias' infinitely adjustable stock into his shoulder; then he concentrated on slowing his breathing as well as heart rate down.

Norris had the aircraft centred in his sight, but resisted the urge to shoot. Though helicopters were at their most vulnerable when taking off and landing the chances of him bringing one down with a few rounds from even this powerful rifle were slim; modern rotorcraft were notoriously difficult to kill with small arms fire being constructed with aluminium and kevlar armour, with areas such as the turbines being further surrounded with titanium protection. Kevin remembered from his service days how a venerable Westland Sea King once had a sizeable chunk blown out of it by a Taliban RPG but had kept on flying, eventually being repaired and returned to action. He was aware many modern rotor blades are made from a carbon fibre-titanium weave which rendered them all but impervious to bullet strikes. Even the cockpit windshields would be armoured; the chances of him penetrating one at this range and killing the pilot were negligible.

Instead Kevin thumbed the safety catch forward to the 'fire' position; moved his eye back from the scope to avoid the recoil bruising of a 'shooter's shiner' and waited for the 'copter to touch down before the fuselage door was slid aside. Then, after the boarding steps were swung out Rampling's stooped form would emerge, head bobbing as he disembarked and was surrounded by his minders eager to hurry him away from the spinning rotors. That would be a difficult shot; far better to keep the target centred in the crosshairs and wait until he halted to be greeted by his reception committee. The PM wouldn't be moving then, but his head might be nodding up and down as he leaned forward to shake hands... Or Norris could wait for the visit to be concluded and the party to return to the helipad; if things had gone well the entourage would be more relaxed, an easier target, though still flanked by a ring of bodyguards...

Snipers act on gut instinct, and Kevin's sixth sense which had rarely failed him before urged him to take his chance as soon as he felt he could. Just one instant was all he needed... As the helicopter landed Norris' index finger tightened around the Alias' fully adjustable Anschütte trigger, easing it all the way back to the second stage. From then on it would take just a tiny extra amount of exactly chosen pressure to fire a shot which would be heard around the world, knocking down one domino which would in turn collapse the whole rotten line of them in an unstoppable chain reaction... Norris felt himself as one with the weapon he had spent so much time customising to his needs that he considered it an extension of his will. He sensed he could almost reach into the chopper's cabin beyond the opening door to tap Rampling with the icy touch of death.

From the gloom of the helicopter's interior his target suddenly emerged. Thinking ahead Kevin anticipated the Prime Minister would raise his head in a moment, and then would be the time for that infinitesimal extra squeeze... Instantly he adjusted his aim to cover the expected spot. As he predicted Rampling stood up slightly - YES!

Time slowed to a crawl. In the immeasurably prolonged interval between breaths, between heartbeats, Norris' trigger finger twitched.

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