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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2. Chapter Two

06.59. Downing Street; Whitehall.

Deputy Prime Minister Stuart Pullman was becoming frustrated. Yes he wanted - had to - to get rid of the useless old fart Rampling, but he dare not play his hand too soon for fear of coming badly unstuck. Anthony Rampling had the air of a dead man walking about him and should have been eased out of his position by now, that much was a given; but a wounded animal is the most dangerous of all. As the deputy PM Pullman was in pole position to take over, yet he remained vulnerable to Rampling's influence, declining though it may be: The Prime Minister was still powerful enough to lash out in his death throes and take Pullman down with him.

But the political clock was ticking. The Influential Ones who were in contact with Pullman as they were with the major figures in all of the mainstream parties had let it be known to him they were impatient for greater progress to be made on their covert agenda. They'd also told him that if this government couldn't or wouldn't deliver the reforms they sought, then regrettably they would have to hold their noses and lend their support to the Opposition.... After all, there were very few ideological differences between the parties these days...

No, thought Pullman, that could never be allowed to happen. Rampling and some of the softer members of his cabinet might balk at the radical policies They wanted to see introduced, let alone the public; but Pullman and the Young Turk right wing he led wouldn't flinch when it came to doing what needed to be done. They'd just need to be careful about how they acted with the balance of power between the factions in the parliamentary party and cabinet being so finely divided.

And there was his problem. Just as Rampling did, Stuart also walked a political tightrope. A mis-step on his part, acting too presumptuously too soon, would set off a divisive and electorally calamitous civil war; while waiting too long would see the so-called Soft Faction consolidate their power, and in a desperate attempt to court popularity the government take a different - to his mind disastrous - direction. Or worse still, Rampling might do as his successor had done and throw his backing behind a surprise candidate other than Pullman.

Deciding when and how to act would be the judgement call of Stuart's political career; one requiring all of his intellect and nous. They didn't tell him when the opportune time would be to make his move; it was left up to him to prove he had the balls to force the issue when he felt confident enough. The trouble was that he was fully occupied just coping with the workload involved in being the Deputy PM to concentrate on dethroning the Prime Minister. It seemed as if Rampling was deliberately giving him extra duties not only to test his ability to cope with the stress the ultimate post would inflict on him, but also to wear him down until he cracked under the strain and so nullify the threat of his challenge. The old bastard didn't like him; that much was obvious, and Pullman was only too aware he owed his position as a sop to temporarily cement a fragile party unity.

Though his time would come soon, it was not now, not yet. So in the meantime Stuart would just have to put up with what he was given and demonstrate to everyone he was up to the job. However that didn't mean he had to tolerate the amount of crap which ended up in his in-tray.

Take for example this report - a printed one rather than an electronic file; Pullman found paper copies easier on the eye - it should never have reached his desk, nor he had to waste part of his most productive early morning hours reading it or the attached multi-page commentary.. Yet here he was shaking his head in disbelief at the obviously deranged ramblings written by a high ranking scientist in UKGeoScan, the recently fully 'commercialised' former British Geological Survey. Stuart had been responsible for the process - hiving off the organisation to a conglomerate of industrial interest groups along with the ubiquitous company which had more or less taken over the provision of most government services these days - during the time he held the Environment portfolio, while at the same time he'd been busy purging every notion of the Climate Change agenda from the Ministry's name, organisation, activities, and ethos.

Pullman thought he'd done a thorough enough job on that department by ordering a wholesale clear-out of the dead wood during his shake up, but obviously a few eccentrics had kept their heads down or slipped through under the radar. Now one of the alarmists was warning in this confidential briefing the risk of a major earthquake in the UK had been greatly underestimated and the government ought to be preparing contingency plans to deal with the effects if - or rather when  - the worst happened. What utter nonsense!  Stuart thought. Annoyed, he skimmed through the remaining pages of the executive summation and flicked through the rest of the paper. Though not a trained scientist, Stuart was well educated. He remained unimpressed by what he considered to be the thesis' scant supporting data and incomplete theorising as he read through the document.

No; he thought exasperated, this obvious scaremongering - nothing but a concealed plea for extended funding - should never have reached him, instead being dealt with - binned - by someone far further down the pecking order than he. Angered now by the diversion of his valuable time, Pullman resolved to speak to Sir John Underwood, the Head of the Civil Service about the caseload he was given to deal with; Stuart would ask him to lean on the Downing Street staff and ensure they sorted themselves out so that thiis sort of thing didn't happen again. Pullman felt he had quite enough demands for his attention already; incidents such as this were evidence of a slipshod, timid culture within the Cabinet Office, as well as being yet more symptoms of the lackadaisical drift which was paralysing the government and the nation in general: Someone needed to grasp both by the scruff of the neck and point them a new, forceful direction. Stuart Pullman would be the man to provide that bold style of leadership; soon...

Stuart was about to toss the report into the 'reviewed,' tray when something tugged at his sense of intuition. Instead he decided to keep it in a holding file for the moment; a hunch telling him the paper might be a useful brickbat to be thrown in a future cabinet tussle. How the briefing might be employed and who would be the target of it remained to be seen, but Pullman felt sure it could be used to his advantage in the not too distant future.

 

07.10. Dungeness Spit, Kent.

Alan Carter never ceased to be wonderstruck by the sight which dominated his drive into work. Each day on his commute in from the town of Ashford he noted the transition from the pastoral Kentish fields to the flat scrub grass of the coastal salt marshes, and then on to the shingle desert of the Dungeness Spit. But it was the giant concrete structures dominating the skyline comprising the nuclear power station there which made the greatest impression on him. Even after two years of seeing the plant it still seemed hard to believe that he wasn't dreaming and about to wake up; but yes, he really managed it all...

Carter had joined the nuclear industry in the heady days of the early-1980s when the future of atomic power generation appeared assured.  Now that Mrs Thatcher had given the miners a good kicking, and they along with their dirty coal mines were history, nuclear fission would be The Way Forward. A secure career beckoned for an ambitious graduate with two newly-earned degrees in physics and engineering in his pocket. The future seemed limitless and bright.

But then the Chernobyl disaster happened and prompted a worldwide disillusionment with nuclear energy. Carter was a firm believer in nuclear power but even he began to have his faith tested by what he saw and learned during the course of his career. Nevertheless, what had already been built could not be undone, and Alan resolved it would be his mission in life to make the parts of the industry he could personally affect the best they could possibly be in terms of efficiency, performance, and above all else, safety. His single minded focus had led to a series of promotions, culminating in this current Director of Operations post.

Carter had experience of several nuclear sites and reactor types; he'd gained a reputation as someone who could sort out difficult technical problems; it was for this reason he'd been sent to the ailing Dungeness B station, to supervise its recommissioning after a long period of downtime for renovation and maintenance.

This would probably be his greatest challenge yet, Alan mused as he drove his car slowly along the narrow Dungeness Road; and most likely the final one of his career, for both for he and the reactors were reaching the end of their working lives. Once he'd got the plant online and running smoothly he'd be able to leave all of the stress behind, moving with his wife Jane, and Bracken their chocolate labrador far away to an idyllic cottage in the country where the local towns didn't have the air of a barely suppressed end times anarchy about them; an ideal home in a rural backwater where it was possible to visit a shop without having to pass through a bomb detecting portal at the entrance. The Carters hadn't started house hunting yet, but they would soon.

But that would be a few months yet into the future. As he eased his car along in the stop-start queue to the perimeter security checkpoint Alan's thoughts became preoccupied with all of the last minute niggling things which needed to be done and the final checks that had yet to be carried out before the reactor could be restarted tomorrow - Deadline Day.

Even under his leadership the timetable for reconditioning the plant had fallen behind schedule, and he was under intense pressure to get it running again. In the numerous series of emails, phone calls, and meetings with the operating company management he was left in no doubt that they in turn were under intense political scrutiny; the national power grid was under such strain, its margins of leeway so slim that getting the station running had become a matter of national importance, nay, national security. Normal operations had to be resumed tomorrow in time for the peak demand spikes, even if a few corners needed to be cut and a few redundant checks fudged to get the job done.

Alan wasn't happy about this all-consuming haste, but he was used to working under pressure and confident everything would all come together at the eleventh hour as it always had before. The grid would get its electricity in time as expected, and he'd ensure it was done in the right way; or at least as much of the right way as he could manage.

Carter eased his car up to the security post and offered his pass to the armed guard for inspection along with the usual "Good Morning." He was gratified to see the gatekeeper take a few seconds to compare his face to that of the photo on the card before signalling for the barrier to be lifted and allowing him to proceed. Though Alan was conspicuous for being as hands-on everywhere and anywhere as he could be throughout the complex, and known by sight to this guard, you couldn't be too careful; especially these days... But maybe he'd need to update his photo again... Had the worries of his job etched themselves still further into his face, aging him further? Driving off at a moderate speed he drew up to his reserved space near the Administration Block and parked.

Getting out of his car Alan looked around at his empire. He took in the starkly utilitarian blockhouse of the Transformer Hall where the electricity generated by the power station was conveyed to the national grid via a line of imposing pylons marching across the flat shingle levels. Then his gaze moved to the now decommissioned Dungeness A reactor site. Though the turbine hall had been demolished years ago, the cores of both obsolete reactors contained deep within their reinforced concrete containment vessels were still intensely radioactive: They would remain dangerously so for as far into the future as anyone could imagine; perhaps their toxic legacy would outlast human civilisation itself... Quickly banishing that thought Carter looked to his all-consuming charge, the B complex.

Conceived during the white heat of 1960s technological optimism when everything seemed possible and Utopian science appeared to be the answer to all the country's problems, the actual construction project had run into real world setbacks. The twin 525 megawatt Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors hadn't started generating electricity until seventeen years after their construction began, but on the increasingly rare occasions when both could be run in tandem at full power they produced enough energy to power a million and a half homes.

Bizarrely in the following decades the large, crenelated drums of the power station had become an intrinsic, iconic part of the Dungeness peninsula landscape. Over time the elements had weathered the formerly clean cream exterior to a dirty flagstone grey as grubby as the public image of nuclear power on those rare occasions when the public actually gave it any thought. Well, I'll do what I can today to stop the reputation from tarnishing any further, thought Alan.

The brisk sea breeze blowing off the English Channel hurried him into the Admin Building. This being a less critical area of the site he needed only to run his pass through the reader to the side of the armoured glass entrance door rather than go through the biometrically controlled security protocol required to access the reactor block. Once swiped-in and inside Alan signed for and picked up his dosimeter from the reception desk, clipped it to his lapel, then took the stairs up to the conference room where the morning site meeting would be awaiting his arrival.

The conference was a daily occurrence at which all the heads of the various technical specialisms within the complex coordinated their efforts; though this meeting would be slightly different given today would be the day a decision would be taken as to whether the temperamental Reactor Two could be coaxed to join its twin on-line.

Carter looked around as he entered the conference room which overlooked the pebbled Dungeness beach, and beyond it the hammerbeaten pewter sea of the English Channel; everyone else who needed to be here was already seated, including Paul Glover, the Deputy Director of Operations who had been supervising the overnight preparatory steps to the power up. He looked tired and drawn after working for twelve hours with barely a break.

Alan called the meeting to order. After each of the departmental chiefs given their updates on the previous 24 hours there was a general discussion on the state of Reactor Two. As Carter had expected the preparatory steps had gone well and the unit was easing its way back to running at operational capacity. There were the usual procedural niggles of course, but nothing that couldn't be resolved. All present were agreed the final ramping up to full power could take place today. Alan proposed it would begin in time, to be ready for the mid-morning and lunchtime demand spikes. The meeting ended.

That done, Carter went to his office. He'd be able to catch up with his emails and admin duties for a while before he needed to supervise the powering up of Reactor Two. Preoccupied with his work, the next time Alan noticed the tiny clock in the lower right corner of his computer monitor it was time to be on his way to the reactor control room.

 

Far below an unsuspecting nation the inevitable moment arrived. The balance of geological tensions reached, then surpassed a critical point. Friction was no longer sufficient to bind the deeply buried blind thrust fault together. The earth shuddered as its potential energy was released.

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