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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27. Chapter Twenty Seven

Approaching Bromley. 16.38.

Ryan Buckland felt a dazed detachment from the world he plodded slowly but determinedly through. Overwhelmed by a phantasmagoria of horrors his emotions had shut down in self-defence to an unfeeling numbness; and maybe that was for the best, blocking out the things he had seen on his way.

It was too much for anyone to cope with, watching their safe suburban world being smashed in front of their eyes, having images previously confined  wartime  history programmes or news reports of faraway conflict torn nations made close enough to touch; the ruined buildings, the mess, the stench, the death...

Buckland really wanted to heave his guts up when he saw the trail of destruction the out-of-control bus had blazed along a pavement as the 'quake had struck. Eventually it had embedded itself into a bathroom suite showroom, but not before leaving bloodied tyre tracks in its wake along with human sized humps now covered by bed sheets, large black plastic bin liners, or lengths of bubble wrap. And there, knocked aside, were the mangled remains of a push chair. Quickly he looked away, not wanting to see or know any more. The single decker's emergency exit had been flung open; up front the lifeless driver remained trapped in a stove-in cocoon of bent red painted steel and frosted glass, his head lolling at an unnatural angle. Although Ryan tried to puke out his nausea, neither vomit or tears would come; his feelings had been suspended for the time being.

Further along his journey Buckland saw where the frontage of a large corner building had been detached and slumped onto the unfortunate pedestrians below. A pair of unmoving trousered male legs protruded from the pile of rubble. Yet only a few hundred metres on from there in a relatively undamaged area life appeared to be going on, not normally, but continuing nonetheless. Ryan looked on indifferently as he passed by a neighbourhood supermarket's manager and staff supervising the removal of the shop's stock; volunteers were carrying it away by the basket and trolley load to somewhere else, or giving away items to anyone who asked for them. He overheard snatches of conversation about a church doing something; certainly there appeared to be some kind of community relief organisation in place but Buckland wasn't in the slightest bit interested. To stop was to risk his knee stiffening, and delaying for even a few further moments the anticipated reunion with Michelle and Grace. Ignoring the friendly calls directed toward him, Ryan limped on.

Several times he was forced to detour around roads flooded by burst water mains still fountaining, or mounds of collapsed brickwork. Elsewhere some buildings were ablaze. With no sign of the fire service people attempted to tackle the flames with weakly dribbling garden hoses or bucket chains. One desperate group, short of water, resorted to dragging their buckets through a spreading brown pool of sewage leaking from a broken pipe.

Ryan noticed a branch of the £oanz4U pawnbroking chain had been given a good turning over, and how other independent shopkeepers were either pulling their steel window shutters down or warily standing guard in their doorways armed with pickaxe handles or similar tools. With the power out it was cash only, if at all; electronic payment cards had been rendered useless by the loss of electricity and telecoms.

Onward he walked, past the body of a girl sprawled on the pavement, her head split open by a fallen brick chimney stack corner, exposed pale wrinkled brains dashed out into the daylight. Glass and grit crunched under his shoes; he could feel the dust tickling at the back of his throat, up his sinuses, and irritating his eyes. Ruefully he remembered it was too late now to use the forgotten face mask in his rucksack. Pausing every now and then only long enough to give his knee another blast of reviving spray Ryan continued his trek, a traumatised human automaton. Occasionally people approached him; asking questions, offering assistance, or begging for help; but they were the minority. Buckland exuded the aura of a man who had been through and seen too much this day to be trifled with, his cold thousand yard stare another warning sign that along with many others - including the motorcycle cop in Sidcup - his sanity balanced precariously on a tightrope.

Ryan's concerns had narrowed to his world, his family. Only they mattered now with each awkward limping step he made bringing them that little bit closer. Just keep on going now; no stopping, no longer caring about his leg, or the blister on his heel, or the chafing he began to feel at his crotch where his underwear was rubbing: None of that was of any consequence. Getting home was his all consuming objective.

Ryan's shoes were scuffed from kicking debris; unevenly crackled road surfaces unbalanced him, almost causing him to trip over at one point. Once he had to take a running jump over a crack which although it wasn't too wide, appeared infinitely deep. But those were just minor interruptions to his inexorable pace, the cadence which had taken him this far through the asphalt hell to this point where the area became familiar to him.

At last! His ordeal was nearing an end. From now on he knew these roads and also the various alternative routes and short cuts, though for now he kept to the main thoroughfares as they were less likely to be blocked. But along with his relief grew an apprehensive sense of dread; after passing through a relatively undamaged district the earthquake fissures were beginning to reappear; their width and the vertical displacement increasing as he got closer to home. Overcome with worry Buckland finally turned the corner of the street where he lived and stopped dead; stunned at what he saw.

Ryan, Michelle, and Grace lived in a low-rise brick-built block; their flat located on the third of four stories. Now looking at the building Ryan saw the outer wall had been cleaved away, leaving the interior revealed like a giant doll's house. There was no sign of his family or of any rescue services in attendance; no vehicles, strobing lights, or marker tape rustling in the breeze.

Buckland's paralysis was but a temporary one; letting forth a howl of anguish and forgetting all about his injuries he ran wailing toward the ruins.

"MICHELLLLLLE!... GRAAAAACE!..." Ryan's cries echoed off the stairwell walls as he clattered up the steps leading to his home. Out of breath by the time he reached the third story, Ryan saw his front door was narrowly ajar. Coming to a cautious halt he pushed at it, gaining entrance to a narrow hall. Buckland passed through it and into what was left of his sitting room.

Ryan knew the view through the window well enough; but now with the glazing gone along with the wall it seemed as if he was standing on the edge of a panoramic precipice. He watched, mute, as a single brick detached itself from the ragged edge the wall, falling to land with a clink far below. The sound - along with a creaking groan coming from the floor he'd never heard before - reminded him of the danger he was in.

Quickly Buckland made a mental inventory of the living room; most of the furniture had spilled out and on to the ground. The sofa was the most noticeable by its absence, but had Michelle and Grace been sitting on it when the 'quake struck? He couldn't tell from here; the only way to be sure was to get closer to where the carpet sagged away into thin air and look down.

Carefully he crept forward, wary of every subtle noise and breath of wind, ready to spring back at the first sign of trouble. Keeping his weight as far back as possible while leaning as far forward as he dared Ryan caught sight of the rubble pile below. Along with unfamiliar items from the other flats there were recognisable items of his furniture strewn among the debris, though thankfully no sign of any bodies. Buckland eased himself away from danger and began a rapid search of the rest of his home.

The kitchen and bathroom, though severely disordered, were intact, but absent of life. On reaching his and Michelle's bedroom he saw their double bed teetering on the edge of sliding away to join the rest of the shambles below. Grace's room was the next to it, and likely to have suffered a similar fate. Though it was all but certain to be empty Ryan had to be sure.

The door leading to his daughter's room proved harder to open, something - possibly a chest of draws - had been sent juddering along the floor by the tremor until it had stopped, blocking the way.  Buckland had to push hard in order to widen a large enough gap to squeeze through.

Once inside he found it was Grace's room which had been the worst affected by the collapse; most of it, including her bed, was missing. Ryan looked out over to the tarmac space surrounded by lock-up garages where it, or his daughter would have fallen, but was once more fortunate to see nothing.

Buckland was just about to back out through the narrow space he'd created when he was startled by a rustling noise. Looking for the source of it he saw a plastic and wire cage laying on its side perilously close to the edge. It contained Squeaky and Fudge, Grace's guinea pigs. She adored the little rodents, and was probably heartbroken wherever she was to be separated from them. There was no way her father could leave the cavies here in jeopardy of falling to their doom when the next aftershock hit.

Venturing as close as he dared Ryan stretched for the cage; but his reach came up just short of it. Buckland understood he'd have to take a calculated risk to avoid his daughter bursting into tears when she asked about her pets, so grabbing hold of the door handle with one hand he extended his body further out over the weakened floor.

I must be mad doing this! he thought as his fingers closed around the wire bars of the cage. The guinea pigs - apparently unharmed - scratched excitedly among the mess of shredded newspaper and plastic exercise pipes jumbled in one corner of their home. Suddenly the animals let out a chorus of alarmed wheeks and Ryan thought he felt a vibration through the palm of his hand gripping the door handle. Oh shit! Not now of all times! But his worst fears were confirmed, another aftershock struck.

In one movement Buckland swept up the cage and threw himself back against the wall, squeezing through the door just as the remnants of the bedroom floor dropped away. In a panic he ran along the hallway chased by an extending crack along the ceiling. Ryan noticed rather than saw the door frame he'd just been holding on to vanish along with the rest of the wall; its disappearance suddenly allowing more daylight in and giving the previously dim corridor an unnatural illumination.

He was just flinging open the front door when the light grew even brighter and Buckland sensed a cavernous void open immediately behind him. Bolting in pure terror he rushed down the flights of stairs leading to the ground floor, but as he did so felt a drunken queasiness underfoot. The wall to which the stairs were tied was falling away and would take him with it unless he got the hell out of there!

Partly running, but mostly jumping down and rebounding off the corners of the heaving stairwell, Buckland reached the relatively safe second floor, though he was not out of danger yet. Almost tripping over himself at times Ryan dashed down to the foyer, was held back for a couple of agonising seconds as he dragged the heavy door open, and then ran as if death were at his heels for safety. To his rear there was a loud WHUMP! and a shudder felt through the soles of his feet, then he was overtaken by a gust of displaced air.

Engulfed by a wave of dust Buckland stopped and bent over, hardly able to draw deep, sobbing breaths. His last reserves of self-restraint exhausted, he burst into uncontrollable streaming tears.

"RYAN!... RYAN!..." A male voice was calling him. Buckland recognised it as Wesley, a fellow resident of the block who worked shifts in a call centre somewhere. "RYAN! THEY'RE SAFE!"

"What?" he asked confusedly to the man who had jogged up to him.

"Your family are safe!" Wesley replied. "Didn't you hear me shouting at you as you rushed in?"

"No!"

"Everyones' gone to the Common; they're setting up a camp there. Michelle and Grace are with them."

"Thank God for that!" Ryan sobbed, unable to contain his relief.

"I stayed behind to tell anyone who turned up about it." Wesley continued. "You must be mad, risking your life for a couple of hamsters! When that quake struck and the flats collapsed I was sure you'd had it!"

"They're not hamsters - they're guinea pigs and they're family!" insisted Buckland. Indeed they were family now: Ryan's normal indifference toward the creatures had vanished, replaced by a genuine attachment to them and what they represented. Those furry little bundles were a link to the family's pre-quake life, now lying in a mound of rubble: They would help Grace through the hard times which would undoubtedly lie ahead; giving her something to focus on and cling to, a sign of hope as well as continuity for the family in a world sorely lacking it. Right now Buckland would even welcome Rusty back, not that there would much chance of being reunited with the dog in the midst of this chaos.

"The Common, you say?" Ryan asked again, as if it were too incredible to be true.

"That's right." Wesley confirmed. "We're all sticking together as a group there; we'll be easier to find. When you see Angela, let her know I'm OK and I'll be back before dusk."

"I will."

"Ryan, are you all right? You look a bit..."

"I'm fine. I just had a bit of a hard time getting here. Anyway, thanks for letting me know."

Guinea pig cage in hand, Ryan Buckland - stiff legged and covered in a crust of fine grit - turned and set off for Bromley Common.

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