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.


3. Chapter Three

09.13. BBC Radio South East studios, Canterbury, Kent.

So far presenter Neil Simpson considers the breakfast show has been running smoothly. With any luck he'll be off-air within the next hour with another programme successfully concluded.

It has been a slow news day so far, with only the usual national government agenda driven, borderline propaganda stories to report on, and even then there hasn't been much going on in the wake of the 'User Fee' proposals for National Health Service funding reform. After the mauling she'd received when she flew that kite the Health Minister had quickly hauled it back down and gone quiet, but Simpson is sure the idea will return in some form in the future and provide plenty of material for a phone-in or several. Had RSE not been a part of the remnant BBC they might have tried to make more out of the Royal Mexican 'flu outbreak, but orders have come down from Above not to go overboard on the story; the tone of the network's coverage will be set by the corporation's rolling news channel, which though making the most of the story, would be treating it respectfully and not attempt to match the fawning yet prurient extremes of the commercial news organisations. Instead they'd had to make what they could of anything local, and even then there were thin pickings to be found despite Radio South East's increased catchment area.

RSE is barely a year old, a product of the BBC's enforced 'contracting into quality' in anticipation of the planned gradual reduction of the Licence Fee prior to its eventual abolition and replacement by commercial sponsorship. As a result the nationwide local radio network has been amalgamated into a fewer number of 'regional' stations. The move was supposed to reduce costs - which it has, though only barely - and increased the quality of local news gathering - which it obviously couldn't - but still Neil doubts if anything positive has come from the reorganisation, or if the inevitable End has only been postponed, not avoided, leaving a demoralised workforce unsure of their role, direction, or future. RSE is an impoverished rump reduced to covering vacuous local, celebrity, and 'issues based' filler; the aural equivalent of a local paper, mostly ignored and irrelevant; there really only as an emergency broadcaster standing ready to "Connect in a Crisis" if the need ever arises.

"Neil, check your screen."

Simpson's wandering train of thought is interrupted by his producer Chloe Hall's voice through his headphones.

"Thirty seconds."

Her warning alerts him to compose himself before the record he is currently playing to fill one of the increasing gaps between the spoken news features ends and he's live on air again. Neil thumbs an acknowledgement Chloe will be able to see through the soundproof glass separating his little studio from the outside office and sound engineer's console.

Simpson feels a vibration through his feet. He wonders what it is but no sooner has it been sensed it has gone.

The song fades out. Simpson fades up his microphone and begins introducing the next segment regarding the latest controversy about school overcrowding. As he does so he notices a vivid red BREAKING NEWS ticker flashing on one of the news agency feeds; at the same time he sees a sudden increase in the text, email, and social media traffic sent to RSE. What's going on? wonders Neil as he finishes his introduction and runs the prerecorded report.

As the segment plays he is about to ask Chloe what is happening when she speaks to him. "Neil, fade that report down and break into it, we're going live!" As he does as he is asked, Neil's heart begins to beat faster in the anticipation of the unknown and unexpected. This is one of the rare occasions he yearns for as a presenter; those unscripted, broadcast by the seat of your pants moments when it is all up to you.

"We're interrupting that report which we hope to share with you later in order to bring you some breaking news..." he begins, speaking as Chloe reads him the details. "We're getting first reports of an earthquake - yes, an earthquake - in or near Kent. Preliminary measurements indicate it registered..." It's an effort to split his concentration in two, speaking while listening to the unbelievable story his producer tells him and repeating what she's saying. "... and we'll keep you updated on this developing story as we learn more..."

Once Simpson finishes his holding announcement he plays a standby record and opens the intercom to the babble of the production office. Through his window he sees several staff have appeared from nowhere and are busying themselves at whatever work stations or spaces they can find. Chloe is throwing together a revised running order; the details of which begin to appear on Neil's monitor. There are a couple of sound clips to come, and a possible live phone interview (with the standard delay-to-air to avoid any embarrassments) is being arranged.

Watching the activity Simpson feels isolated from it all but knows it is he who will have to make sense of the confusion. An automatic alarm flashes, alerting him the record currently playing will finish soon. As the production staff are all still occupied, Neil seamlessly picks up where he'd left off.

"This is BBC Radio South East bringing you updates on the developing story of the Kent Earthquake. Here's what we know so far: The 'quake happened about ten minutes ago and preliminary measurements from UKGeoScan put it's epicentre about a mile east of Staplehurst in Kent with an estimated magnitude of 5.8. There are reports of some damage to buildings but as yet no mention of any casualties.

RSE will be keeping you up date as we get more information, both on air and via our social media presence; but if you have been affected you can contact us; we'd love to hear from you..." Yes, getting the listeners to do the legwork on the story never fails; they jump at the chance to be citizen journalists and it saves us having to work too hard. "...we'll recap what we know on this breaking story after this record."

While another song plays Simpson reads the newly revised running order which should see him up to the end of his stint and the handover to the morning show hosted by Rachel Green. Some wobbly amateur images taken by mobile devices are beginning to appear online, and from what they are showing - dislodged roof tiles and fallen chimney pots - the tremor doesn't appear to be that bad after all. Neil remembers such minor earthquakes happen from time to time, even in the UK; but they are never serious. Still it has livened up a boring day and RSE will - true to form - squeeze as much juice out of this story as much as they can.

Neil notices his replacement has arrived, but is still in an animated conversation with Chloe Hall. Hurry up and get in here! Simpson thinks; he's dying to finish this programme, spend a token half-hour helping the newsgathering, and then slope off home. The constant 3.30 AM awakenings required of this middle aged early morning presenter are beginning to wear him down; he needs to catch up on some sleep. No, there is very little glamour working on the radio these days; just a constant grind of jaded monotony which not even a minor earth tremor can alleviate.

09.15. Dungeness Power Station.

Alan Carter shrugged on the white laboratory coat and plastic safety hat which all members of the Dungeness Power Station staff were obliged to wear while in the reactor building. Despite his preoccupation with safety, Carter considered the dress code to be ridiculous. If anything were ever to go that catastrophically wrong here a lab coat would be no barrier to a dangerous gamma radiation exposure, nor a lightweight helmet provide any protection against tons of falling concrete. It was just One Of Those Things Which Had To Be Done because someone, somewhere had decreed it must be; it was visible evidence of conformity in Doing Something for the sake of doing so.

Before leaving his office Alan checked the personal dosimeter was still firmly clipped to his lapel. By now the action had become an ingrained habit. No longer the primitive strips of photosensitive film which needed to be developed before an individual's exposure could be assessed, the small, slim, tough black plastic oblong was a live unit, monitoring and wirelessly communicating its readings in real time. If it detected a dangerous level of radiation it would sound an alarm. As yet, apart from the daily function tests, Carter had never heard one do so.

Alan could have used one of the pool bicycles which the staff used to get around the site; the Company's public relations people were eager to stress the 'zero carbon' aspects of nuclear power: But instead he decided to walk the short journey to the reactor block.

As he did so he looked across to the recently finished sea defence improvements. After the Fukushima disaster revealed how vulnerable nuclear plants were to flooding, the concrete sea wall and shingle beach had hurriedly been reinforced against a sea surge, but the relentless waves continually ate away at the protection. A recent series of powerful winter storms had done even more damage, prompting a frenzy of repairs and reconstruction. With those efforts now completed Carter felt a sense of relief, but if it wasn't one thing then another problem - or more likely several of them at once - were bound to occur. The constant stress of dealing with the neverending workload was one of the reasons Alan took any chance he could to escape from it all for a few brief moments; these short breaks helped keep him sane.

An armoured Land Rover painted in a grey urban camouflage pattern but bizarrely sporting self-adhesive yellow and blue chevron fluorescent safety panels drove slowly past in the opposite direction: It was another visible sign of the increased security measures brought on by this paranoid age. Alan waved at it but could see no answer from behind the darkened letterboxes of bullet proof glass. It continued slowly on its patrol while Carter reached the reactor block.

After clearing the security check at the sturdy turnstile entrance he made his way up flights of utilitarian stairs and along clinically lit stark corridors reminiscent of those in a hospital, broken in stages by heavy wood veneered fire doors. Reaching the substantially constructed, keypad locked control room door Alan typed in his code and entered.

Once this room had been as leading edge as the reactors it monitored. Now the steel consoles painted in pastel industrial shades of enamel with their schematic diagrams, backlit square push buttons and the large white analogue gauges appeared clunky, outdated; quaint in fact. Over time there had been some modernisation, with computer keyboards and flat screens juxtaposed among the older equipment, but the overall effect was still so very seventies.

After greeting the senior staff present to oversee the final steps in the run-up to full capacity, Alan's expert eyes quickly scanned the key displays. All the readouts were well within tolerances; the reactors were humming along nicely.

"Are we ready to go?" He asked Paul Glover.

"Whenever you want."

"Let's do it!"

On his command, technicians consulted laminated checklists in ring binders, clicked mice and pushed buttons. Slowly - because nothing was ever done here in a hurry unless in a dire emergency - the start-up began. As the control rods were carefully withdrawn from the newly refuelled reactor matrix, readouts showing neutron flux and carbon dioxide gas temperature began to rise. It was at times like these when Carter could feel with an almost visceral sense the potency which was being unleashed here: This soundproofed strongroom was isolated from the thrumming of high pressure gas circulating through thick titanium pipes and the keening of the turbines winding up to full power elsewhere in the plant, but he imagined it none the less.

Calmly, the operators announced each stage of the process as it was completed. Alan looked at the large green LED display which dominated the control room; it showed the amount of power reactor Two was generating, the figures passed the 400 megawatt mark. Good; the ramping-up of the decades old complex was proceeding smoothly so far without flagging up any problems.

The automatic systems sensed it first; then the human staff felt the faint vibration through the soles of their shoes, but by the time they did and registered surprise the warbling trill of emergency shutdown alarms had sounded and the safety systems - realising something was not right but not knowing exactly what it was - had cut in. What the...? thought Carter as he watched lines of red error messages scrolling down on a large monitor. There was an undertone of uncertainty in the voices of the technicians rapidly leafing through their binders to find the checklists required for the successful completion of the closing down - known as a Scram in nuclear jargon. The problem wasn't immediately apparent, but whatever it was it had affected both reactors.

As Carter watched the nuclear activity fading he speculated what the issue might have been. Had one of the high pressure boiler pipe brackets failed, leading to a section of unsupported tube cavitating? The problematic components had caused long delays in the construction and maintenance of the reactor before. Or was it to do with one of the steam turbines? A catastrophic bearing failure in one the carbon dioxide gas coolant circulators might have been responsible for the transient vibration, though he considered those scenarios unlikely. It might be any one of hundreds of things... Whatever the cause there would need to be an exhaustive process of analysis, debriefing, and meticulous examination before a restart could be contemplated. It would mean more work, and yet more hold ups; the last thing they needed with everyone breathing down their necks.

The operators acted with unflappable professionalism as they completed the hold down procedures, making sure the station's operating logs were up to date, as well as ensuring all of the data was captured and stored.

"OK." Carter said to the assembled heads of departments. "See if you can give me an initial assessment as to what happened in two hours. We'll convene a debrief conference this afternoon."

Bugger! He thought. And it had all been going so well...

09.24. Connect24 News studio; Clapton, London.

Radio South East aren't the only media organisation relieved by the news of the earthquake as a thirsty man finding an oasis in a desert. In common with the others of their kind the commercial rolling news channel Connect24 latches onto the story with relish as well. The tremor hasn't been felt in their studio, but as soon as the first reports began to come through Dominic Paige, the production editor, took the bold decision to drop the royal 'flu outbreak for the moment and run with this instead.

Euan Rees - the owner of Connect24, as well as the rest of the sprawling Connect Media empire - might well call in to complain as he often does when he feels the channel isn't reflecting His wishes and His priorities, but Paige is one of the few staff left courageous enough to stand up to Rees' micromanagement. It has been Dominic's fearlessness which got him this far, and will most likely end with his dismissal one day when Rees tires of him; but that would be nothing unusual for C24, and hardly a stain on his CV: In fact he can probably capitalise on it when the time comes. Euan Rees is hardly the most popular person in the media world...

Besides, Dominic has the ratings on his side. Even the royal obsessed slack jawed viewers who make up most of Connect24's audience are beginning to tire of the saturation coverage, and making their feelings known either through the social media, changing channel, or switching off. Rees' ethos is "If it bleeds, it leads" sensationalism, and his values permeate the station; so he is hardly in a position to complain if Dominic leaps on to the earthquake story and milks it for all it is worth. Even with two royal children seriously ill but in a stable condition in an intensive care unit as a result of the influenza pandemic there is only so much which can be done when it came to reporting live from the scene that nothing has essentially changed.

Already the on-call digital artist has created a dramatic logo for the breaking story, and a moving image is promised soon. Meanwhile Paige and his team are busy sifting through the incoming feeds, collating them into a narrative which Anna Coombes and Andrew Patterson, the two worldly wise presenters, can breathlessly relate. From what he can see of the developing story it appears to be a pocket disaster porn fest, but despite its low intensity there should be enough prurient imagery to keep the punters engaged for a while, and once the scale of the incident has become apparent it might be possible to play the Blame Game; that always gets the hoi polloi wound up... It will be a useful diversion, and once the novelty begins to wear off it'll be back to the royal 'flu or if all else fails, some celebrity gossip.

As he watches a circling drone's eye view of a collapsed chimney stack which has fallen onto a car's roof (the vehicle is obviously a write-off but fortunately there was no-one inside it at the time) Paige wonders if any celebrities have been affected by the quake. He thinks it might be a good idea to get Chanelle Hopkins - Connect24's showbiz correspondent - on the case. 

09.31. Chelsfield, Kent.

Rusty's tension had been relieved to some extent by the foreshock, but still he felt a continuing sense of unease as if it were a nagging headache: Far from the danger having passed he sensed there was more to come, though for the moment the feeling was less insistent than his gnawing hunger: Ever since he'd run free he'd survived on discarded fast food scraps, gnawed at flattened roadkill carcasses when the traffic allowed, and had caught one unwary young rabbit. Rusty knew he wasn't too far from his home and its comforts, but still his instincts would not allow him to return there. It was not yet safe; better to run from the city and the overpowering sense of peril which engulfed it like smog. The terrier cross kept up his fast trot away from the menace, heading southeast into the suburban hinterland and into the countryside beyond.


The Kent, East Sussex and South London areas soon began to dust themselves off and patch up the often minor quake damage. But the worst incidences, the cracked brickwork, crumpled tarmac, toppled chimney stacks, collapsed gable ends - and in a couple of cases fallen church steeples - would take longer to repair.  As scaffolding was erected around and large blue tarpaulins stretched over damaged buildings; even while the debris were being shoveled into skips, the novelty of the story was waning. By the evening the focus had moved on to advising householders whose properties were need of repair how to avoid being ripped off by disreputable tradespeople. By tomorrow few would be interested in or talking about the already stale news. Soon it would be consigned to the belated local papers and obscure geological journals.

However, far from being the end of the story, the event marked the beginning of a new, far greater one. The fragile creatures living in the fresh air and sunlight above the feature didn't understand how the easing of tension from the known shallow fault had in turn unlocked the potential of the far larger, more powerful fault which lay unobserved deeper below it. Now its unimaginable seismic energy was teetering on the brink of being released; nor could it be constrained from being liberated for too long...

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