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.


42. Chapter Forty Two


PINDAR. 08.13

It was but a short journey to the Situation Room for Anthony Rampling, but every step appeared to be harder, each stride shorter and slower than the one before. A morbid feeling of dread began chewing at the Prime Minister's stomach, along with a heavy depression settling like a leaden cloak over his shoulders. He looked and felt like shit, with his pounding headache so far proving resistant to the painkillers he'd taken.  Anthony had to fight back the urge to burst into uncontrollable streams of tears, and more than anything else he felt an all over fatigued aching. Why did he bother? What had been the point if it all? he thought morosely. Granted his business career prior to his entering politics had been lucklustre, but perhaps he should have stayed the course there rather than taken the road which had led him here, the target of an assassination attempt such a close call he'd felt the wind of the passing bullet.

One of the two sentries outside opened the door for him. Rampling passed through and at the sight of him the lively discussion stopped. Anthony might have anticipated a round of congratulary applause on resuming his office after the attempt on his life, but instead those seated around the cabinet table looked at him as if he were a pale, sweaty, univited gatecrasher at a party.

"Ah there you are, Prime Minister!" Stuart Pullman broke the silence. "We're all pleased to see you've recovered somewhat from your ordeal, but are you sure it's a good idea to get back to work so quickly?"

"I'm fine as you can see; now if you'd be so good as to vacate my seat..."

"Prime Minister, I really don't think that would be a good idea at present. It's obvious you're still suffering from the effects of what must have been quite a shock, and be assured we have the situation well in hand."

"My seat please." Rampling's temper began to rise.

"With respect Prime Minister." Pullman's tone had the warning growl of a dog preparing itself to bite. "I don't think you're in a fit state to resume your office. In fact I think the time has come for a change of leadership. The difficulties we're experiencing in coping with this disaster are a symptom of the malaise which has afflicted the nation in general up until now. At this time of crisis the government needs to respond in a new and vigorous manner: Don't you agree?" Stuart's gaze swept across the cabinet table. He could imagine how each member of the cabinet was interpreting his words, their indecisive minds churning; weighing whether or not to lend their support to his challenge. "We're going to face a difficult few months ahead of us at the very least. We'll need everyone to be able to give the very best of themselves, without exception." he continued pointedly.

Pullman felt utterly terrified, yet also strangely elated as he spoke. So this was the moment; it would be all or nothing. Destiny had tapped him on the shoulder; within the next few moments he would be proved the ultimate victor or have completely blown his chance. For a moment it seemed as if both Owen Walker and Pippa Slater were about to protest, but Stuart fixed them with a firm, assertive look; daring them to interrupt. Neither did; Slater without the support of her mentor appearing to shrink under his withering stare.

Pullman was so nearly there. He all but had them now, the fact of him boldly assuming charge of the meeting unopposed the de-facto proof of the shift of power. All that needed to happen now was his position to be officially codified. He turned toward Anthony Rampling. "I propose a simple show of hands vote on the motion that I, as Deputy Prime Minister, assume all of the executive functions of the Prime Minister's office until such time as he has fully recovered his health."

"I second it." said Christopher Parsons.

"Very well then." Rampling sighed as his resolve finally crumbled. "I don't think there's any need to hold a vote. I've been considering for quite some time when might be the right moment to bring my political career to an end. It would appear that now, given the sudden worsening of my health problems, would be the opportune moment to hand on the baton to the next runner in the relay." He looked sternly at Pullman. "And so I'll announce my resignation just as soon as my office prepares a statement to that effect. As tradition dictates, I'll also inform His Majesty and arrange your formal introduction."

"Thank you." Stuart replied, trying hard to contain his euphoria. Having won his victory he could at least be magnanimous enough to allow the departing PM a dignified exit. Yes go on and bow out with what little pride you have left. He thought. Meanwhile I'll be giving Mrs Elizabeth Pullman the shagging of her life tonight: By Christ, I didn't think it would be like this, but I'm feeling incredibly randy! Already Stuart could feel his loins stirring with the heady aphrodisiac of power.

Just then one of the ubiquitous, anonymous grey suited aides who always seemed to be hovering around spoke up; snapping Pullman out of his reverie. "Prime Minister; I really think you ought to see this!" The attention of the entire room focused on the man sat at his terminal in the corner of the room. Whatever information he had just received through his earpiece had obviously affected him; he looked as if he'd just seen a ghost.

"What's happened?" demanded Rampling.

"There's been some kind of incident at the Dungeness Power Station." the aide replied in a quivering, slightly breathless voice made higher in pitch by fear. "I'll put it up on the wall screen." He tapped a key and the Connect24 stand-in channel appeared, greatly enlarged.

Inside the black bordered screen with the pictures and names of the two recently deceased reporters - one located in each upper corner - it was at first hard to make out what the picture was; then the autofocus settings of an amateur grade camera took over and the scene resolved itself: It was a long shot of a field with a big prairie sky dividing the frame horizontally in half; the camera shook again, moved to the left, and the image blurred. Suddenly becoming sharper, the view zoomed over a hedgerow - that must be where the power station was, obviously - and the image became more detailed, a pall of some kind of smoke was billowing upward. Then it dawned on Pullman what he was looking at. Oh fuck! His thoughts of an ecstatic night vanished as quickly as his errection turned flaccid, then went into a shocked scrotum shrivelling reverse.

The others present seemed to be numbed by imcomprehension until, along with the return of the temporarily lost sound, the penny dropped.

The gritty New York accent of the female newsreader boomed out of the monitor's speakers. "-or those of you just joining us, these are the first pictures coming in from the site of the earthquake affected Dungeness Nuclear Power Station in southeast England. It's not clear what's happening there, but we'll keep you updated with this breaking story-" The scene abruptly changed as the distant camera person realised the cloud was beginning to drift towards them. After a couple of dizzying seconds showing the ground, then blurred shoes running past a silver car toward the back of a white motocross bike the video ended. The studio switched to different footage taken from far across a pebbled beach, most likely the other side of Dungeness Bay: Viewed from this distant angle the blocky concrete buildings shrouded by a roiling dark grey mist reminded Stuart of something he'd seen years ago: Oh shit; the Fukushima explosions and subsequent meltdowns!

As that brief clip ended, the previous one began once more on an endless loop, Pullman felt an icy hand of fear clench his spine and his stomach churned with an acid swirl as he grasped what had happened, and what would occur next. As the news anchor continued to intone a commentary which no longer registered with him, Stuart stared blankly at the GNN weather map of south-eastern england which appeared on the wall screen; a graphic showing the predicted wind direction which would carry the silent, invisible, fallout plume in an expanding red shaded wedge toward London and the surrounding areas; dispersing uncountable billions of deadly particles as it passed over. He imagined the radioactivity falling from the sky, settling on the improvised tents of the displaced; or carried with the wind into quake damaged buildings; the microscopic specks finding their way through the tiniest of gaps into undamaged homes; lodging on exposed skin; finding their way into peoples' unprotected noses and respiratory systems; continually irradiating them from the inside out.

Pullman had been given The Briefing when he'd reached the exalted cabinet rank entrusted to order a nuclear strike; for any decision to launch weapons of mass destruction in the absence of the Prime Minister had to be taken knowing the full terrifying consequences of their use. He understood the fallout particles - though they may originate from a civilian reactor disaster rather than a nuclear explosion - would have identical effects. They would pollute the the open reservoirs, rivers, and streams, which for the immediate future would be the only sources of even vaguely drinkable water for many. They would also become bound up with the soil, then incorporated within the growing crops; rendering them hazardous to eat.

He recalled the forecast medical consequences of such an event; the beta radiation burns and suppurating lesions on faces; the cataract opaqued eyes. There would be bleeding gums; loosened teeth; hair falling out. And those were only the short term symptoms: Those who survived their exposure would have to contend with compromised immune systems and the dread uncertainty of waiting for the inevitable cancers. Common, usually innoucous diseases which would be shaken off all but unnoticed by a healthy population in normal times would become mass casualty epidemics. Following would come the longer term effects; and a rash of birth defects... The health services which struggled to cope at the best of times would be overwhelmed by the demands placed upon them and most likely crack under the strain. Stuart thought of the communal graves planned for such an eventuality, and shuddered.

Then there were the other problems to consider. The Russians and Japanese had been forced to declare wide radiai around their nuclear incidents Exclusion Zones and banned any settlement or agriculture within them. Now large swathes of England's green and pleasant land would be similarly blighted beyond realistic hope of any clean up for generations to come.

It was a certainty there would be radiological hot spots occurring within the capital as well. The economy, already in a parlous state, would collapse as money bled instantaneously away from the City to safer places; for who would want to do business within a contaminated Square Mile, or buy investment property in a 'quake ravaged radioactive zone? Despite the acute accommodation shortage certain to be caused by the disaster, the unrealistically hyperinflated bubble which was the London housing market would burst; the knock on effects of which would inevitably paralyse or bring down other sectors. The insurance and reinsurance companies would be badly affected by the unexpected demands on their resources. No doubt they'd come crying to the government along with so many others in the expectation of a bail-out.

As time moved on things would only get worse. Many of the Critical Infrastructure Nodes which had already been damaged or destroyed would be located within the fallout affected areas. Only the suicidal would dare venture there to attempt to repair or operate them. Although the Civil Contingencies Act and the Declaration of Martial Law gave the government the power to conscript or direct labour as it thought fit, it would be all but impossible to force people to comply, for those expected to impose the state's will on the recalcitrant would face exactly the same risks as their captives; and what kind of reward could ever be hoped to induce any of the limited number of workers who had the specialist skills required for the tasks in hand to dramatically shorten their lives by performing them?

Major parts of the transport network which remained functional would be put out of action for the time being - maybe permanently in some cases - as travelling on them would be too hazardous. The few unaffected warehouses, supermarkets, and shops, dependent on 'just in time' resupply, would quickly run out of stock thanks to the hiatus; and who knew when the next deliveries would arrive, if ever?

As the longer-term effects of the disruption became ever more apparent, the shortages more acute, and the privations more severe, the mood of the population would change. The Blitz Spirit would be replaced: First by a sullen resentment; then by an increasing anger against those who had so obviously failed them. Before long the hostility would turn into a white hot seething rage as the scale of the official mismanagement and failure to cope sank in; for no amount of stupefying propaganda could alleviate the gnawing rumblings of hungry stomachs; no spin offer condolences to people holding dying loved ones coughing up blood in their arms.

And this, of all governments, was particulaly hated. The pretence of being a One Nation administration while simultaneously screwing anyone not a member of the privileged classes would collapse like the facades of so many of the nation's historic buildings had done; and he - now the figurehead of it - would be the focus of the public's wrath. Prior to these events there were already many places where politicians dare not go, even with heavy security and a prior 'sanitisation' of the area. Now, with nothing left to lose and death's chill breath blowing on the backs of their necks, there would be many people - like the Shadow Man - seeking vengeance: Literally out for Pullman's blood. Occasional pot shots by lone wolf snipers would be the very least of his problems from now on. The prime ministerial security detail would have to be lucky all of the time; his mortal enemies only needed to be lucky once...

And beyond that, there was his reputation in future history to consider. Even though there was little if anything anyone could have done to alter the course of events once they had begun, it would be Stuart's name which would be irrevocably linked to this catastrophe. It had happened, and would continue to happen on Pullman's watch; he would never live it down.

"Prime Minister..."

Sir John Underwood's words cut through the room's disbelieving silence. Startled from the detachment of his shocked fugue, Pullman grasped it was he who was being addressed, not his predecessor. He was in charge now, and people were looking to him for a lead. He realised Sir John was still speaking.

"Would you repeat that please? I didn't quite catch what you said."

"Are you all right, Prime Minister? Sir John asked anxiously. "I-"

"Yes. I'm fine!" Pullman snapped tetchily in reply. "Just the effects of a lack of sleep. You were saying?"

"I recommend we activate Stalwart Black immediately."

Pullman realised he had to take the iniative now or forever risk being seen as indecisive. "I agree; let's do that at once. And get on to them!" He motioned at the screen showing the now muted news broadcast."The last thing we need right now is a full-scale panic! Tell them to tone down the speculation or get them taken off air!" he ordered.

"That may be difficult." replied Sir John. "The programme originates from the United States and is beamed down to English viewers by an american owned satellite the UK does not have jurisdiction over, nor the means to prevent broadcasting. The Connect24-UK operation only provides images and talk-back correspondents. I believe Euan Rees has deliberately set it up that way to avoid the SoE provisions."

"I don't care how you do it, just get it done!" Pullman hissed angrily.

Meanwhile the cabinet members and their aides were quickly gathering their electronic devices or papers. Everyone in the room knew what Stalwart Black entailed. Soon they, along with their next of kin, the royal family and public figures deemed to be worthy of preserving, would be transported to one of the designated Alternate Seats of Government located elsewhere in the country, far from London: There to begin the difficult task of trying to coordinate a response to the catastrophe.

"Sir John..." Rampling's authoritative voice cut through the hubbub of the meeting's dissolution. "Once you have Stalwart Black underway, we'll go through the protocols regarding the handover of office. It won't take more than a few moments." He fixed Pullman with a knowing look "...and then this will all be yours. I wish you the very best of luck with it!" Stuart thought he detected a note of triumphal schadenfreude in Rampling's voice.

The bastard! Rampling was going to walk away from it all and leave him to clear up the mess! Oh, the deposed former PM could look smug; it was almost as if he'd realised his time was up but decided for himself when to abandon the sinking ship for the safety of the lifeboat before being forced to. He'd be all right of course; he'd have his seat in the House of Lords, in whichever provincial city it might eventually be reconstituted; or if he was smart he might decide to fly at once to the United States in order to linger a while on the lecture circuit or take up a notional academic post; he'd have no shortage of offers. His influence would get him a priority flight there, despite the disruption of air travel, and a Green Card was his for the asking. His memoirs - ghostwriten, rushed into print, and no doubt recounting this crisis in detail, but painting himself in the best possible light - would make riveting reading. He was already wealthy in any case; and his pension, as well as his guaranteed income would see him set up for life.

The more Pullman considered it, the more he realised he'd just picked up the shitty end of the stick. All his political life he'd been working for this day; yet just when he grasped the golden chalice in his hands he found it to be poisoned. But there could be no backing away now; he'd have to drink from it.

"Prime Minister; we really should be going!" Sir John urged insistently. Pullman's security detail hovered just outside the heavy bunker door; they were eager to get their charge on board the rapid response helicopter which having been summoned would be landing shortly in one of the nearby London parks, depending on the circumstances. Stuart felt himself like a swimmer caught by a strong rip current, swept along and no longer in control of his destiny. His world from now as far ahead as he could see would be a constrained one; comprising starkly lit low ceilinged utilitarian corridors, claustrophobic meeting rooms, and the continual close presence of people ever demanding of his attention. He was about to become a prisoner, and the bitter irony was that he'd sentenced himself.

With his heavy heart pounding rapid beats Pullman willed his reluctant legs to walk him through the opened situation room door. As he turned left into the narrow corridor leading to where the long series of steps up to the surface began, four fully armed soldiers came to attention at his appearance. Two began to walk ahead of him while the others fell in step behind. They were acutely observant, ready to draw their weapons on the slightest threat.

This moment should have been the crowning achievement of Stuart Pullman's career. Instead, as the group walked purposely toward their designated exit, he felt like a condemed man being led by his guards to the gallows.

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