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.


11. Chapter Eleven

Woppa Burga.

As Jason Wallace entered the branch by the staff entrance he felt as if he was leaving the realms of daylight and entering a claustrophobic prison. Once his initial relief at finally getting a job after a great deal of trying and at least having a foot on the bottom rung of the career ladder had worn off the dissatisfaction of working in such an awful place had begun to set in, then festered into a loathing at the company and all it represented.

There was much to despise: The brightly coloured interior decor of the restaurants for a start;  redolent of a children's preschool play group. Not for this business the stripped wood, natural earth tones and 'healthy options' of their competitors; instead Woppa Burga proved that you could never aim too low at your target demographic, and there was always money to be made from the unsophisticated end of the market. Jason cringed at the excruciating contortions of the english language written into the menus; deliberately contrived by experts with degrees in English to appeal to the barely literate.

He also found the warm airless fug of frying oil - something not even the best kitchen extraction systems could completely remove - stifling and uncomfortable. He hated being expected to be artificially cheerful in spite of being paid a pittance, while being constantly busy and on his feet all the time exhausted him. Over time Wallace's contempt developed for the humiliatingly servile uniforms, the dimwitted staff, and the even more stupid patrons: Dull eyed, moon faced, pasty complexioned, obese, shabbily dressed, gum chewing, tattooed oiks and their badly behaved brats.

The company's saturation advertising campaigns pandering to the lowest common denominator customer base made Jason's flesh crawl. But must of all Wallace had grown to detest, with a vehemence he scarcely could have believed possible, the incessant piped music which played within the premises: It was literally beginning to drive him mad.

If he could have his way as a manager he would ensure it was silenced for good; but he no longer had that option. Now, like so many other aspects of the Woppa Burga operation, the in-house music had become directly controlled by Head Office. It was their choice as to the content and even the volume - which Jason considered to be far too loud - of what was played in the outlets.

The aural equivalent of a bad smell continued to gnaw away at his wellbeing; stressing him. Like a chipped tooth or a cold sore it was something that couldn't be ignored. While it was possible to look away from an unpleasant sight, he found it impossible to listen away from the irritating sounds. Wallace found as time passed he was becoming ever more sensitised to the noxious noise.

Over recent years this aural pollution had become pervasive. Seemingly it was thought people were unable to function without a constant Frankenstein jolts of stimulation through their ears; and just as cows were found to be more productive when played music, so vacant minds comforted by an ever present lullaby were more susceptible to being influenced. Whatever the venue - shopping centres; outlets selling all manner of tacky crap at a single low price point; fast food vendors, or just about anywhere public these days - there was no escape from it.

And the 'music' sounded almost exactly the same wherever you were; probably because it was the same, produced by a single anonymous source. Filling the long gaps between the widely spaced chart artists the company deigned to pay royalties to was a never ending production line of unknown but inoffensive rappers, boy bands, and shrill or soulful divas performing hastily thrown together songs with inane lyrics snatched from a rhyming dictionary. It had become known as 'Jeremy Kyle music' or 'Burger Rock': As cheap, nasty, artificial, fatuous and insipid as the surroundings or instant meals it accompanied. People would meet and fall in love to it; children grow up considering the muzak to be a normal part of their soundscape along with it playing as an audio backdrop to their 'major life events'... Just the thought made Jason cringe.

As if the metallic mosquito whining of the toneless vocoded singers wasn't bad enough, Wallace found himself particularly vexed by the percussion and bass lines which were accentuated by the speakers; they seemed specifically designed to cut through the buzz of conversation and provide a constant rythym to chew the cud to. Then there was the fact of the earworming loops of programming being repeated ad nauseam, although few Woppa Burga customers either knew or cared what ad nauseam meant.

Jason fully expected his day to be another one of musical hell. At least he'd been able to postpone his arrival until later in the morning and so avoid the annoyingly upbeat energetic cheerfulness of the breakfast time selection. His delayed start was an experiment to see how well Rasheem, the designate manager, was able to open up unsupervised and get things running. As expected there were no problems and all was going smoothly. However, the daytime playlist was now in full swing. Already Jason had been forced to suffer another excruciating rendition of "You Make Me Wanna..." by the East Side Krew; the urban boy band's latest release's Whump...Whump...Whump...Whump.Whump.Whump... hypnotic bass thumping inducing a severe case of resonant booming in the ceiling mounted speakers. The song made him wanna puke.

Jason knew it would be only a matter of a few minutes before the next commercial break when the volume would be automatically increased to ensure the thundering messages got through. Then no doubt the TizzTizzChickaChickaTizzTizzChickaChicka clattering drum and bass backing of the adverts would be replaced by another female singer with an alley cat growl of a voice expressively wailing her innermost emotional turmoil to everyone, whether they wanted to hear about it or not.

Wallace couldn't stand any more. Leaving the current tiss-chikt-tisstiss... tiss-chikt-tisstiss... out of earshot and Rasheem in charge he left the serving area, walked through the staff rest room, then climbed up the back stairs to his cubby hole of a desk on the first floor. Settling himself in Jason began to compose an email to Head Office. In it he explained how the branch was back on an even keel and no longer needed his supervision: All that remained to be cleared up were the serious accounting discrepancies of the previous management who had done a runner when their franchise agreement had been terminated; but that was beyond his competence, being a joint investigation between the police and Woppa Burga's forensic accountants. Using carefully chosen assertive language he explained that unless he was immediately informed to the contrary he would be returning to his place at the regional office from next Monday. For the first time in a long time Wallace felt a weight lifting from his shoulders as he sent the message. Let them complain if they chose to; he no longer gave a damn.

That done he began to go through his crowded inbox. Most of the incoming mail was from the company of course; they seemed to derive some perverse form of pleasure by issuing masses of information and expecting their already overstressed staff to absorb it all.

Today's batch of announcements were exactly what he would have expected: Managers now had greater discretion to refuse service to customers they considered to be inappropriately dressed (and about bloody time too!) with active consideration being given to producing formal dress code door notices. An experimental new design of seat was to be piloted in some selected outlets; its ever so slightly revised forward and downward facing angle supposed to encourage patrons to vacate their places that much sooner, freeing space for their replacements and increasing branch 'throughput'. In addition to the newly released ringtone of the latest advertising tag line - free to download by anyone lacking a sense of culture - a social media drive would encourage flash mobs to gather and sing the "WoppaWoppaWoppa...Burga!" jingle at prominent public places. There were plans to try the same tactic with crowds of sports fans.

A further email invited him to "Grow with us" and set up his own Woppa Burga franchise. Easy finance terms were available... Jason deleted it with a stab of anger; that was just taking the piss!

Then he read a message which made his heart sink. In partnership with WorkForce - the newly created Job Centre employment agency - the company was going to trial a scheme in which unemployed people who hadn't taken anything to begin with would be compelled to 'give something back' to society and gain 'on the job' experience by working unpaid for six months. As a result managers should be aware of the risk of protests - possibly violent ones - by anarchist groups and take precautions. Yes, that would be right up Woppa Burga's exploitative street! Wallace could imagine only too well the difficulties there would be in handling such coerced, demotivated staff: He wanted to have nothing to do with the programme. Reading the notice only reinforced the decision he was already very close to making; and while he was thinking about it...

Logging in to his own private browser, he checked his personal email account. There were several replies to previous job applications, but he could tell from the opening lines that they were all automatically generated rejections. Just as the unfortunates who would be dragooned into the modern slavery were sure to discover, Jason was beginning to understand how any association with the toxic brand of Woppa Burga was a permanent blight on his CV. Despite his 'transferable' management and people skills, no one wanted to know him. His Academy qualifications were unrecognised and worthless elsewhere.

Undaunted he edited his standard covering letter to apply for a management position to an upmarket big shed 'homeware' company whose vacancy had popped up in his inbox. Normally he'd consider such a role - massaging the egos of the pretentious middle classes while they bought even more pointless decorative objects to clutter their living space - a dead-end as meaningless as the customers' empty, materialistic lives; but Jason was desperate to escape Woppa Burga and any port in a storm would do. More in determined resignation than hope he sent the completed application form: Nothing ventured - nothing gained. That done he looked through the rest of the few risible opportunities his search algorithms had found.

With a few finger swipes Jason sent his CV to some more likely prospects. Reluctantly he finished his jobseeking and returned to his company email; but as yet there was no reply to his earlier message, which might be a good or bad thing, although it would be just typical of the Woppa Burga management to indifferently ignore him.

Logging off, he was halfway back down to help with the lunchtime rush when he tripped and fell, or at least he thought so at first. That sudden thud; the loud, deep rumbling sound, along with the building trembling must have been a truck running out of control while negotiating the roundabout at the end of the pedestrian precinct and crashing through the front of the restaurant!

Unbalanced and sent sprawling down the steep, dimly lit, narrow stairs Wallace couldn't grab anything to stop his tumbling. He landed awkwardly at the bottom, feeling a jolt of pain shooting up his right arm where it had taken the brunt of the impact. Ow Fuck! Jason hoped he'd sprained his wrist rather than breaking it. Disoriented he wondered why the shuddering continued; surely the juggernaut must have come to a stop by now? Then his incredulous mind grasped the reality of the situation; it was another earthquake! an event much stronger than the minor rattling of the previous one which had left the restaurant unscathed.

Heaving himself off the trembling floor with his uninjured arm Wallace pushed open the door to the rest room. He noticed how the harsh fluorescent strip light was flickering, illuminating in stop motion the clouds of dust, paint chips, and small pieces of plaster raining down. A large crack was running along the edge of the ceiling above the bank of grey metal employees' lockers running along the longer edge of the wall, and as he looked he could see it was widening. The closet doors were rattling so much they sounded like a swarm of buzzing insects. Jason watched incredulously as more cracks appeared and larger flakes of plaster began to fall: He needed to get out of here - the staff and customers had to be evacuated as well! - before they were injured by the falling debris. Avoiding the staff room table and chairs which were juddering their way around the floor as if pushed by an invisible force, he reached the door on the other side which opened on to the kitchen area. As Jason grasped the vibrating handle a sound began which sent a stab of fear through his quickening heart: It was the ear splitting two tone insistent off key shrill of the fire alarm.

Wallace threw the door open ready to bark an evacuation order, but what he saw stilled the words in his throat.

The kitchen area was a shambles. The lights had gone out here leaving just a gloom barely lit by the dim glow of the emergency lighting. Ceiling tiles had been shaken loose; others continued to flap like book pages blowing in a breeze before detaching. The large stainless steel shelf rack standing between the cooking area and the counter where the freshly heated meals were kept prior to being sold was rocking wildly; it looked as if it might even topple over. But it was the hot frying vats which concerned him the most. They had slopped boiling oil over their sides. Already a sheet of dirty yellow-orange flame had erupted from one of them at the far end.

"F-FIRE!" yelled Jason. As he shouted he wondered where the staff and customers were. Had they ran out of the building, or taken cover beneath the counters and tables? Quickly Wallace looked around for an extinguisher; as yet the main fire suppression system hadn't activated. Spotting one which had been partially loosened from its retaining clamps by the 'quake, and grabbing it he began to advance across the oil slippery, debris strewn floor towards the fire. Though he moved quickly walking was slow, difficult and unnatural; as if he were on a boat in a storm-tossed sea. His legs and lower abdomen felt as if they were made of a rubbery jelly.

The sense of detachment extended to his perception of time as well. How long had this been going on for, and how long would it continue? This couldn't have been more than a few seconds, less than a minute certainly, yet it felt far longer.

Abruptly the tremors ended and the strident alarm was cut off, though the fire still blazed. The sudden peace seemed only to increase the ferocity of the conflagration, sending reinvigorated waves of roiling flames climbing the wall and flowing over the ceiling. Jason had to put them out at once lest they took hold, or worse still ignited any gas leak. Only then could he check everyone was out of the building and accounted for; given first aid if required; as well as summoning the emergency services.

Pulling the long cone shaped nozzle up into position and tearing away the plastic strap securing the large trigger, Wallace pointed the extinguisher at the base of the seething fire and let it off. With a loud whooosh! a jet of white carbon dioxide gas issued forth and began to smother it.

However the blaze wasn't dead yet; as if stunned by the assault on it the inferno shrank back, then like an enraged animal, went on the attack. Jason was briefly engulfed by the fireball, saved from injury only by the clouds of fire suppressant surrounding him although he'd still been scalded as well as feeling his hair singe; he'd probably need to regrow his eyebrows as well. But though it fought back hard, the burning oil was no match for the relentless, determined manager. He kept hosing away until nothing but thick, dark, disgustingly foul smelling fumes came off the surface of the oil, and then for good measure emptied the rest of the extinguisher's contents over it to ensure it didn't flash back into life.

Wallace threw the spent canister down, and turned to go into the dining area. It was as he did so he noticed Esme lying motionless on the floor. She was one of the brighter, more motivated members of staff, and could probably make a career for herself at Woppa Burga if she wanted to. Instead she worked here only to support herself while  studying accountancy part-time at the local college. Normally vivacious and chatty, she was now silently curled in a semi-foetal position in a corner where the counter met an internal wall.

"Oh shit - ESME!"

In two steps Jason was at her side. Kneeling he shook her and shouted her name as he had been taught to during his first aid course. She was unresponsive. As far as he could tell she was alive; though obviously in urgent need of medical attention. It appeared the 'quake had caught her unaware while she was tending the fryer, splashing her with a wave of boiling oil: Her face and hands were a mass of blotchy red blisters; the unmistakable signs of serious burns developing. Unbidden his first responder training returned to him; her injuries needed to be cooled in cold - preferably running - water to ease their severity, and her breathing might need to be assisted as well. It was a certainty she'd be going into shock. Normally he'd put her in the Recovery Position, then monitor her and treat her as best he could while waiting for an ambulance to arrive; but this was obviously not a normal situation.

He could do little to help her here; they both needed to be out of this dangerous building. Gently, trying not to touch her burns, Wallace began to haul her up. As he did so he heard the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps crunching on rubble.

"HELP! I NEED HELP OVER HERE!"  Jason called out. Rasheem leaned over the counter. He looked pale and a gash on his temple was bleeding freely.

"I got them out!" he blurted. "They're all outside. I told them to go then I did the head count and I realised you and Esme were still in here, and I didn't get the chance the check out the bogs so I came back in for you-" He spoke rapidly; his hyperventilating words almost tripping over each other as they were spoken, lent speed by fear and adrenaline.

"RASHEEM!""Wallace said firmly, cutting the torrent off in mid-flow and taking control of the situation. "We've got to get her out of here! We can't stay put, the place might collapse!" As if to reinforce his point there was a loud wooden ship in a storm creak of straining timber splintering along the grain. "Help me with her!"

Rasheem vaulted over the counter and together they lifted Esme, supporting her by the armpits between them as they draped an arm each over their shoulders. The partly ajar door leading from the serving area to the restaurant had jammed into it's warped frame so Jason booted it open with a couple of hard kicks. Part lifting, part dragging their colleague they made their way through the chaos of the diner to the outside.

Blinking in the daylight Jason and Rasheem carried Esme out into the precinct where the stunned group of Woppa Burga customers and staff had assembled. Wallace noted several of them appeared to be suffering from bleeding wounds caused by falling debris or shattering glass. One middle aged man was slumped on the pavement and being given CPR by two of his friends. A mother was trying to comfort her screaming toddler; Jason couldn't tell if the kid was injured or just frightened.

"Rasheem; has anyone called the emergency services?"

"People have tried but there's no signal or the lines must be jammed!"

"Well try again, and keep trying until you get through! I'm going back in to get the first aid kit and check there's no one left in the toilets."

Jason made to reenter the building but was stopped in his tracks by a breathless authoritative female voice. "STAY OUT OF THERE! THE BUILDING IS DANGEROUS!"

Looking round for the source of the order, Wallace saw a Community Support Officer running towards the group. "LEAVE THE AREA AT ONCE!" she shrilled."MOVE OVER TO THE ROUNDABOUT!" motioning to the wide traffic circle not too far away at the end of the High Street. Around it vehicles had come to a halt and their confused drivers were getting out. "GO NOW! THERE IS A RISK OF FURTHER AFTERSHOCKS AND BUILDING COLLAPSES!" she commanded.

As if to emphasise what she said one of the frontages further along the row of shops in the precinct slid downwards in a clinking, rumbling avalanche of bricks and tiles, nearly engulfing a group of screaming, fleeing shoppers. They all but disappeared in thick cauliflowers of billowing grey dust.

The sight was enough to send a few of the huddle of people outside Woppa Burga  jogging for the open safety of the roundabout, out of range of more falling masonry. "You as well!" insisted the officer to the mother and child rooted in place by fear, along with the first aiders still attempting to assist the heart attack victim. Still shocked and uncomprehending the group largely ignored the order, remaining where they stood. Jason, Rasheem, and Esme were among them.

"Esme needs treatment!" explained Wallace to the CSO. "Have you called in an ambulance?"

"I think there'll be an overload of calls right now, sir; and my radio has gone down." the policewoman replied, checking it again. "It uses the same technology as the mobile networks; the base stations must be out. We'll just have to carry the casualties to safety and do what we can for them there."

"Right!" said Jason. "I'm going in there to grab the first aid and burns kits; then I'll check the toilets for people on my way back. Once I'm out I'll need your help to get her over to the roundabout."

"You can't go-" but the officer's protests were directed at the thin air, a jagged gap where a plate glass window used to be, and some new lightning fork cracks running along the mortar courses of the brick walls; Wallace had already reentered the building.

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