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The Shaking

Summary

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.

Chapter One

The Shaking.

by John Curzon.

 

Copyright

©2016 by John Curzon. All rights reserved

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or in any means - by electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise - without the permission of the author.

John Curzon asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this book.

 

Disclaimer

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

...or just hard luck.

 

Dedication

This book is dedicated to my father.

 

Thanks

Grateful thanks are due to Rachael, who has helped greatly during the writing of this novel as an encouraging critic and someone to bounce ideas off.

 

 

The Shaking.

 

Chapter One

The event was long overdue. The pressure building within the earth's crust below the area gradually increased as time too long to measure in fleeting human lifetimes passed, drawing inexorably closer to a critical threshold. One day it would be too much to contain and the pent-up energy which had accumulated over the millennia would be released. This was an inescapable fact of geology: The question was not If it would occur, but When, and how bad would it be when it happened?

The clever mammals who had recently come to dominate the planet they lived on might have predicted what was to come with their artificially enhanced superpowers, but when they looked deeper below their world's surface their limited knowledge and handicapped perceptions didn't allow them to see what was in plain sight. The majority of them believed - quite understandably and for a number of good reasons - that this area was only the site of a insignificant intraplate fault. They considered the risk of anything catastrophic occurring here was negligible, there being scant evidence of anything disastrous having taken place in the past and so no reason to fear a future calamity. The eternally restless earth may feebly shrug and shudder from time to time, but here such rare events were barely noticeable to the average person, and in the very worst case would cause only minor damage and few casualties.

And so reassured there was no cause for concern the majority of scientists and people continued to insouciantly labour under their delusions. Meanwhile, far beneath their feet, the enormous stresses continued to build; until one late August a few years hence...

 

 

Monday. 19.39. Bromley Common.

"Rusty!... Rusty... Rusty!" That bloody dog! It was always running off whenever it got the chance! Ryan Buckland called Rusty's name again, but there was no sign of the rough haired russet and white Jack Russell cross; nor any answering bark. If it had been up to him the dog would've gone to the RSPCA for rehoming, but his partner Michelle had insisted on taking Rusty in when his former owner - her separated mother - had died of cancer a year ago. It was what she would have wanted... So the Buckland family had ended up stuck with the mutt, and typically Ryan ended up taking Rusty for his daily exercise on the common, when Buckland's work as a delivery driver allowed him to.

To be fair Michelle did her share supporting the family working as a classroom assistant during the day; and doing an evening job in the local chain convenience store: She needed to in order to help make ends meet; but still Ryan felt as if the responsibility for looking after Rusty had fallen unequally on him.

"Rusty!" Grace, his nine year old daughter who had come along for the walk, joined in. There was still no sight or sound of him, which was no surprise, as it was normal for the dog to go dashing off out of view when he was let off the leash, but he always came back - eventually.

Rusty was a naturally excitable terrier and Michelle's mum hadn't trained him that well to begin with, but recently he'd been behaving strangely; whining and barking for no apparent reason. At first the Bucklands thought he might have been ill; but whatever was up with him seemed to be affecting the other dogs in their neighbourhood as well. Even Squeaky and Fudge, Grace's guinea pigs, had begun having episodes of madness: Fighting and running around frantically one day; digging furiously at the straw in their plastic cage or refusing to come out of their toilet roll cardboard inner den the next. Michelle was sure the animals were sensing Mum's ghost (she was a bit superstitious like that) but the other dog walkers Ryan spoke to were certain it was something we humans couldn't sense, but our pets could. The thing was, what was making them so edgy? No one knew.

"RUSTY!" This time the dog's name was a short, sharp bellow. Still he didn't come bounding back toward them through the twilight.

"Grace love." Ryan said soothingly. "I think we should go home for now and when Mum gets back I'll come back to look for him again; he's obviously run off a bit further than usual today, but he's bound to get bored after an hour or two, he'll get hungry, then he'll want to come home. Don't worry; he can't be too far away."

Grace looked, and sounded unconvinced; huffing a childish sigh which said so much without needing words.

"If I can't find him we'll call the Dog Warden and put him up on the lost pets' websites: We'll get him back!" Ryan said with emphasis.

Three hours later, with Grace safely at home being consoled by Michelle, Ryan was back on the Common. He shouted half-heartedly a few times; and shone his torch around the deserted park, now tinted a dim dirty orange by the glow of distant street lights. But it was clear Rusty was nowhere around. To be truthful Ryan wasn't that bothered if the dog never returned; Michelle and Grace would get over his loss in time, and Buckland would be spared taking him for walks every day.

Ryan called a final time, more for the sake of it than expecting any hope of success. Hearing no joyously reunited rustling from the undergrowth he turned for home. Maybe Rusty would be there; waiting for him all the time, but Michelle hadn't phoned to tell him so. If not, then too bad. He'd have to put his foot down with her about not getting a replacement pet; the savings on dog food and vets' bills would come in very useful with their family finances teetering on a permanent knife edge.

"Bloody dog..." Buckland muttered to himself as he considered how to break the bad news to Grace.

 

22.14.

Being free at night was a new and strange experience for Rusty. Up until recently he'd been happy enough to sleep indoors, but over the last few days the atmosphere had changed. He knew it; the other animals appeared to be aware of it as well; yet the people who had adopted him into their pack seemed blissfully ignorant. How could they not feel it? At first it had been a vague sense of unease growing over time; similar to what he'd felt just before his previous owner died, but now it was stronger, more insistent; the foreboding of imminent peril was almost palpable. He'd tried to warn his new family but they just couldn't understand. They lacked the senses to do so and he communication gulf between the species was too great to be bridged.

Eventually the frustration of confinement and inaction became too much for him to bear. He had to escape when the next opportunity presented itself. The moment he was let off the lead in the park was the instant the overpowering instinct took hold and made him run off.

Now he was freed from the cloying restraints of home, Rusty's acute panic subsided slightly. But still there was a sense of wrongness. His fur stiffened and prickled at the roots; as if from the static electricity of an approaching thunderstorm. He could smell the fear and the barely controlled panic in the scents left by the other animals who used the Common. In an eloquent chemical language far too subtle for humans with their poor senses to comprehend; from animal to animal - sometimes between different species - the message spread like a wildfire: Great danger, coming soon; flee!

 

 

Tuesday.

01.56. The M4 motorway, eastbound.

So it's finally come to this... Prime Minister Anthony Rampling thought. Sneaking back into the country in the early morning in the hope few people would notice... Not that he'd had much choice in the matter; the G7 summit in Warsaw had overrun and the delay had thrown his schedule into confusion; again...

At least his security detail would be pleased at the unpredictability of his small hours arrival back at Heathrow. Even though the darkness might provide cover for those who wished him harm, on balance his protectors considered it would also make a repeat of the previous attempt on his life more difficult.

Rampling recalled the incident once more: In truth he could rarely keep it out of his thoughts as it constantly preyed on his mind. The event had occurred ten months ago upon his return from a visit to China, a new trade agreement just signed. The Prime Ministerial convoy was driving along this same motorway through the western outskirts of London when he was startled out of his dawn jet lag by a loud crack-crack and sudden appearance of two multipointed white stars surrounded by coronas of newly frosted glass on his rear window.

His bodyguard, realising an attack was in progress, yelled a codeword over the radio while his driver and the rest of the motorcade accelerated to a frightening speed in an attempt to escape the area. Five terrifyingly high speed miles and a change to an alternative route - along with an alternate destination - later, the immediate danger was deemed to be over.

The subsequent investigation revealed the bullets which struck his limousine had been tipped with depleted uranium; the remaining fragments of which were analysed. Their unique radiological fingerprint pointed to their originating from an American reactor. It was surmised the material had come from cannon rounds first fired by a ground attack aircraft, most likely over Syria or Afghanistan, or else it was the remains of an anti-tank warhead. Someone had taken the trouble to gather some misshapen scraps of the spent munitions and refashion them into amour piercing bullets which might, had the circumstances been more favourable, have penetrated the bombproof window glass.

The marksman, who had yet to be caught, was obviously good at their trade. They'd managed to set themself up in a spot overlooking the motorway, take the shots and depart from the area undetected, taking their weapon with them; leaving scant forensic or surveillance video clues behind. Their motive remained a mystery: Was it money or ideology? Rampling's fear was the rabble of a small but increasingly popular anarchist resistance who wanted to see his government overthrown by force had entered into an alliance with an implacable enemy of the UK. Whoever it was, the shooter - now characterised by the media as 'The Shadow Man' - was still out there and might be biding their time; planning to try again. The thought chilled Rampling to the core..

But right now the unquantifiable threat of another assassination attempt was the least of his problems. His immediate concern was closer to home where Stuart Pullman - his deputy - had no doubt been busy plotting against him while he was out of the country; and while the cat is away...

The Prime Minister knew he ought to bring the issue to a head, and stamp his authority on the cabinet; maybe demoting Pullman to teach the young upstart a lesson, but the truth was Rampling neither dared to, nor cared that much any more. Never mind being in an assassin's cross hairs, just the continual stress of the job was wearing him down, and he had become jaded with it all. Had his predecessor not surprised everyone by anointing him as heir apparent when they retired mid-way through their term of office it was doubtful if Anthony could have ever gathered the support required to win the post on his merits; but after a series of party splits and short-term leaders the job had unexpectedly fallen to him so he'd had to make the best of it.

The pundits considered Rampling to be a disposable stop-gap candidate; someone thrust into the position because he was the least offensive to the divided factions within the party. It was a given the unpopular government would be voted out of office at the next election, and Rampling's leadership would fall with it: Then the real contenders would declare themselves.

But events didn't happen as predicted. The feeble Opposition once more snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and against all expectations Rampling managed to stay in power, but with a greatly reduced majority. His many critics were forced to hold their peace for the time being. Though now, midway through this parliament, the concerns within the party about the direction the government was taking were beginning to surface again.

The PM knew his time was coming to an end. He'd managed to pull off the surprise victory (with the aid of a little careful gerrymandering in a few critically important marginal seats; but of course that never happened) though there was no way he could repeat the feat. With his government suffering mid-term unpopularity, the sharks - led by Pullman - sensed his blood in the water and were circling closer before going in for the kill.

His cabinet he could keep at bay, at least for a while longer; but it was the others he couldn't ignore, those who really held power. Rampling had met Them before on numerous occasions. Some of their number were well-known public figures, though the true extent of their influence remained concealed; such as Euan Rees, the son of the deceased global media magnate, who's Connect Media Group of companies proved stubbornly resistant to scandal, regulation and government influence. Stepping into his late father's shoes Rees' opinions were even more extreme, and he was only too eager to use the electronic means at his disposal to manipulate the views of those they misinformed around to his way of thinking.

The names of the other kingmakers were unknown to the general public, yet it was they who were even more powerful. It was at a recent unpublicised 'informal' meeting at Chequers - the Prime Minister's official country mansion - when Anthony realised the tide was turning against him and their support for him ebbing. The puppet masters didn't spell their concerns out in direct language; instead they spoke in nuances and code, but one who understood the subtleties as Rampling did was left in no doubt as to their meaning: They weren't happy with the way things were going; and expected to see an improvement soon or...

Anthony understood only too well what the Or... would be. Words would be whispered into the ears of the tame political hacks; murmurs of disquiet would surface within the parliamentary party. Speculation regarding a possible leadership challenge would gather momentum; the intimation that events had been getting on top of the poor tired man would coalesce into a private delegation of party grandees regretfully expressing the fact he no longer had their confidence... His deposal would be polite, but equally quick and brutal; done according to the unwritten conventions which governed this sort of thing. Then he'd be elevated to the House of Lords as a reward for his services as long as he didn't kick up a fuss, which of course he wouldn't.

Yes, Anthony knew The Rules, but also understood his seniority allowed him a certain amount of leeway. He could grasp the nettle himself, and decide to bow out with dignity at a time of his choosing on his own terms. And frankly he was tempted to; but not just now. He might yet begin to turn things around; to regain the wavering support of his paymasters for long enough to really leave his mark behind as a Man Who Made A Difference. But in order to cultivate such an image he'd have to stop skulking around like a thief in the night. From now on his prime ministerial travel arrangements would have to be bold as befitting a Man Of Action, and proudly visible in the light of day.

As his motorcade sped on - untroubled this time - along the orange lit  near deserted city streets toward Downing Street, Rampling made a fatigued mental note to talk to his staff about his future travel protocols.

06.47. Woppa Burga branch 114. Maidstone, Kent.

For Jason Wallace, every second of every hour at work dragged, but hopefully he wouldn't have to be here for too much longer. By rights he shouldn't be doing this, it wasn't part of his job description, but if he wanted to progress further in the company he felt obliged to.

Wallace was a junior executive at Woppa Burga, a rapidly expanding fast food chain. From a standing start just a couple of years ago the company's primary coloured logo with the trademark infantile cartoon lettering had become a feature of the country's decaying high streets; their branches sought after 'anchor tenants' of otherwise emptying shopping centres and a familiar addition to the totem poles of retail mediocrity found at the entrances to out of town retail parks. Aggressively expanding as its competitors retrenched, the unrepentantly downmarket company - a combination of corporately owned and franchise outlets - now had 'restaurants' in most towns and cities.

Unlike the majority of graduate managers Wallace had joined the business as a 'crew member', but before long he'd worked his way up to supervisor and then deputy branch manager when the previous incumbents left as they often did for better jobs outside the organisation. After completing a management course at the company's online 'Academy of Excellence' in his own time and at his own expense his hard work was repaid by a promotion to run his own unit, then a 'cluster' of outlets, before finally obtaining a coveted position in the company's regional office a year ago.

Then this emergency came up, and Jason found himself called upon to take temporary charge of a troubled franchise located in this Kentish town. Now he was back at the sharp end with a chance to make a name for himself and plenty of hands on sorting out to be done.

Only an utter incompetent could screw up a Woppa Burga outlet, it was a perennial cash cow; but somehow the previous manager had let things go to the point where the local authority were threatening a prosecution due to breaches of the food hygiene regulations and the fact it had become a focus of anti-social behaviour. The local notoriety was beginning to reflect badly on the public image of the chain in general. Drastic measures needed to be taken, and Wallace was sent there.

When he'd taken control of the place he found the situation was even worse than he expected. The staff were slipshod and demoralised; discipline had gone to hell. Blatant drug dealing and taking was going on in the toilets; pilfering of the takings as well as the food was rampant. A local councillor and the police were calling for the takeaway's late opening hours to be restricted, or better still for it to be closed down.

The first time Wallace saw the branch was late on a Saturday evening when he visited incognito to discover for himself what was going on. Contrary to the company's rules stunningly loud nu-rave tracks pounded from a boom box brought in by one of the employees; the uncouth noise filled the air at such a volume it felt as if it could be cut with a knife. It was all but impossible to speak over the din, so Jason shouted to make himself heard. In the guilty tinnitus ringing silence prevailing after his introduction Wallace made a cursory inspection which revealed numerous breaches of the Health and Safety regulations as well as basic standards of cleanliness. No wonder the family customers had been driven away, leaving only the assorted night crawlers behind!

He acted swiftly and decisively. It was an unpleasant thing to have to do, but the entire evening crew needed to be dismissed en-masse immediately, with the restaurant being closed until replacement staff could be recruited and trained. Having done that, he weeded out the bad apples from the other shifts. Once the process had been completed the outlet reopened, but now things would be very different. The police were encouraged to patrol nearby, and the drugs problems disappeared elsewhere. Private door security was employed to keep the creatures of the darkness under control, and the disruptive elements moved on. The council hygiene inspectors re-examined the kitchen and declared themselves satisfied; the constant drizzle of complaints dried up. The branch became once more a place where normal people could feel safe visiting. In Wallace's opinion within just two weeks at the very most the replacement manager and deputy he was mentoring would be ready to take over unassisted: Then at long last he'd be able to leave them to it and return to his original role; whether the Woppa Burga management wanted him back or not.

It would be just too bad if his superiors complained but they'd asked him to turn things around here, and that was what he'd done. Jason was damned if he was staying any longer than he felt he needed to: There was no reason to do so, and frankly he'd had enough of the long hours, not to mention the interminable commutes involved in this project. He'd achieved everything they'd expected of him - more in fact - and deserved a Manager Of The Month award for putting up with this hassle.

With this successful turnaround to his credit Wallace's career prospects were bound to be enhanced, but... there was one big problem developing he wasn't sure how to deal with: Like so many of his underlings he had grown to hate working for Woppa Burga; so much so that as he began the depressing drive in to waste another day of his life at the franchise he was preoccupied by thoughts of leaving for the first job - any job - he was offered elsewhere.

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.

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...

Chapter Four

Wednesday.

 

07.25. WizzitCouriers; South East London.

Even though he'd set off early in order to give himself extra time to get here, Ryan Buckland's tired old French hatchback arrived at the Wizzit Couriers Logistics Centre only five minutes before his shift was due to begin. The rush hour traffic these days was getting worse. Ryan would have cycled the few miles to work, and no doubt have saved himself some time and a lot of money doing so; but the location of the depot - just off a busy major road junction - rendered that impractical. He'd be risking his life on every journey.

Parking the car and grabbing his rucksack, Ryan swiped his card in before reporting to the dispatch office. László the shift supervisor was waiting to present him with his portable terminal. "The usual van and area, Ryan." he said in his typically friendly manner as he handed over the device preloaded with the day's assignments.  "And be careful; Stinky was driving it overnight!"

"Thanks for the warning!"

Ryan left the office to collect the van already loaded for his run. Once he did so it was only a moment's work to dock his terminal with the custom dashboard mount and adjust the driving seat. As Buckland did so his nose wrinkled; Stinky was named not only for his poor personal hygiene but his fondness for skunk cannabis which he smoked now and then in flagrant defiance of the company's rules while working; a faint mixture of both odours lingered in his wake. His weed habit was a well known fact among his coworkers, but no one bothered to make an issue of it provided he got his job done. Somehow he always seemed to be able to avoid or pass Wizzit's occasional employee drug tests or the random police roadside checkpoints, though one day his luck would be bound to run out. Ryan gave the cab a quick inspection for anything Stinky might have carelessly left behind; the last thing he needed would be any of that kind of trouble

With László's warning still fresh in his mind, there was one final check to perform before starting the vehicle. As Ryan expected the radio's volume knob had been left turned all the way up; he muted it prior to switching on the van's DAB console: Stinky's favourite heavy rock station appeared on the display. Buckland changed channels to BBC Radio South East before raising the volume to a non distracting background murmur. His seat adjusted to fit and preparations complete, Ryan eased the van out of the depot.

It should be an easy run; the optimum route had already been calculated for him. All Ryan had to do was allow himself to be guided by voice prompts from his terminal, scan the label and collect an electronic signature for each delivery which would be accounted for via a real time link, and keep up with the schedule. The latter might be the hardest part though; already the heavy traffic around him was beginning to slow. The van's terminal beeped a warning tone; demanding a reason for his slow progress. Buckland barked a curt "Traffic!" to silence it. Though smart, Wizzit's devices and the programmes which supported them didn't yet cross-reference their vehicle's position against the Real Time Traffic Information which was widely available, leaving the drivers to explain any delays themselves. The courier business was a constant, relentless pressure to deliver the goods on time; being late was an unforgivable sin

With any luck the speed of the traffic would increase and Ryan would be able to make up the time to reach his first delivery at one of his regular stops - a distribution business for something or other, he didn't know what - located a few junctions further along the motorway on schedule. So far the cheerfully inane Radio South East presenter hadn't thought it necessary to mention the problem so it couldn't be that bad. Their breakfast show might be excruciatingly mind numbing but at least RSE were on the ball with their traffic updates, often giving out advice and warnings well in advance of the van's terminal.

The traffic's speed began to increase. Relieved, Ryan eased his van into a faster stream on the middle lane. It wouldn't do him any good to get too stressed too soon; better just to go with the flow and hope things would all work out for the best. Perhaps he'd get a message sometime today that Rusty had been found: At least that would be one less thing off his mind.

So far Grace seemed to be coping with the dog's disappearance; well; her initial withdrawn sulking had passed, but both she and Michelle were absorbed by worry over Rusty's fate. Involving Grace in posting pictures of him online as well as a repeated searches of the Common had proved cathartic, but as yet no sightings of had been reported, and checking with the dog warden and RSPCA had drawn blanks. Not that Ryan was all that bothered; as long as his partner and daughter got over Rusty's loss quickly he'd consider it to be a fortunate occurrence. It had been such a relief to have got home later than usual yesterday as a result of the widespread but minor earthquake disruption and not have to worry about walking the dog. As he drove further along the M25, Buckland secretly hoped the chances of finding the pet were about as likely as another 'quake occurring.
 

09.47. Undisclosed location near Downing Street.

The COBRA briefing room was located underground in the warren of chambers which had been excavated beneath the government district of Westminster during the Second World War and greatly extended in the Cold War decades afterward. The secret underground complex, almost a self-contained city in its own right, was codenamed PINDAR.

Stuart Pullman thought it frankly ridiculous that two meetings within 24 hours to coordinate a national response to a minor regional earthquake had needed to be held at all, especially underground when the official buildings comprising Downing Street had been surreptitiously 'hardened' against terrorist attack over the year: But the bunker had been designed to survive most contingencies apart from a near miss by a nuclear warhead, and those in charge had to be seen to be doing something, even if there was little which needed doing or could be done... In any case he hated being in these close, duct lined spaces. It wasn't a case of borderline claustrophobia; more a disliking of being confined like a mole in a reinforced concrete burrow. Still, at least it gave the civil servants something to get excited about, especially the ones champing at the bit to run their emergency preparedness simulations.

In truth there was very little for the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (the redundant A being appended to give the acronym some otherwise lacking venomous serpentine machismo) task group to do. The local authorities were the lead agencies to deal with this situation and they had yet to ask for any central government aid: The chances were that they wouldn't need to. Reported disruption, though initially thought to be widespread, had turned out in the end to be transitory and minimal. This event was mostly a matter for the private household insurance companies to take care of. All Downing Street needed to do was award token grants to help the minor clear up operations and offer congratulatory pats on the back to all concerned.

Pullman as Deputy Prime Minister could have initiated and conducted a COBRA meeting on his own authority had he felt such a response was warranted, but the Prime Minister had wanted to be seen as the Man In Charge, so it was he chairing the meeting which was coming to an end.

"It seems you all have things well in hand." said Rampling smugly. "I'm pleased to see such a rapid and coordinated response from the lead departments." He beamed complimentary smiles to the deputy Home Secretary as well as the ministers of Local Government and Environment. "The machinery of government has been tested and found up to the task." Oh cut the pompous crap! thought Pullman, and let's get out of this miserable fucking hole!

"You have something further to add?" The Prime Minister asked; Pippa Slater, the Environment Minister had caught Rampling's eye.

"Yes; I wonder if the Deputy PM has had time to review the briefing paper on earthquake preparedness my department forwarded to him? Given this event it is a reminder that we ought to be ready for the next one, whenever it may occur." So this was her game... thought Pullman. The opportunistic cow was trying to make him out to be overworked and struggling to keep up with events - incompetent. No doubt she wasn't acting by herself; she was probably doing the bidding of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ian Campbell, Pullman's greatest rival and most potent threat; at present attending an IMF summit in Mexico but due to return tomorrow. Slater was one of Campbell's closest allies and wouldn't let an opportunity pass to put Pullman down. Well Ms Slater, if you want a fight I'll give you one...

"Yes, I have." Stuart replied. "And from what I read I was less than impressed. The report was badly written and its conclusions poorly thought through. I was surprised, not to say disappointed, that this had got as far as my office without being challenged within your department: And then we must ask what you expected me to do about it? As Deputy PM I don't have control of the purse strings as the Chancellor does; nor do I have the executive responsibility which would reside in your remit, along with the Home Office and Local Government. If you wanted something done about this issue you really should have set up an interdepartmental working group which would have closely examined the report's findings and methodology before bringing a concrete set of conclusions to the Cabinet as a whole to discuss; and certainly not to be tacked on as an aside at such an important collaborative meeting as this. To be frank Ms Slater, the fact such an important issue as preparedness was left for me to deal with indicates that you don't fully have a complete grip of your own department; something which you really should address, and quickly." Slater flinched as he rebuked her.

Quickly Rampling intervened. "I don't think we have anything to gain from airing our differences on this issue at this time in this way." he said curtly. "We can go through the organisational procedures and lessons learned at some other time. Right now we need to concentrate our energies on aiding those affected by the earthquake. In that regard I believe we have achieved all we usefully can for the moment. The committee stands adjourned pending any further developments. In the meantime our staffs will conduct any liaison activities which may be necessary. Thank you all."

With that he rose, signalling the meeting was over. As the Prime Minister left, the ministers along with their assistants began collecting their papers and making ready to follow. Pullman slid his chair back, but as he did so he noticed Slater looking daggers at him. Well you little tart, you shouldn't have tried it on, should you? I'm more than a match for you, and when I take over I'm going to see that not only are you demoted back down to the back benches but I'll also be having a few quiet words with your Constituency Party chairperson about getting you deselected as a candidate for the next election. It's people like you who have led us to being in the state we're in; and I intend to do something about it, as well as you.

Almost as if she could read Stuart's thoughts, Slater quickly looked away. Yes, I've got your measure. You and that young khaki skinned newbie you're having an affair with and who you wangled a Private Parliamentary Secretary post for: You ought to be ashamed of yourself, you trollop! Don't think I don't know what's going on; I do. It's common knowledge and I'll make an example of you yet. Acting to eradicate any notion of impropriety, cleaning up government and all that... You're fucking history when I'm in charge, bitch: You'll be out on your ear along with your Pakistani lover boy.

Followed by his aides Pullman left the briefing room and took his preferred route back to his office. No one spoke as they followed him up the long flights of stairs up to the surface - walls have ears, and whatever needed to be said could be spoken in a place where they felt more secure later. Stuart felt that he'd put Slater back in her place at a minor cost to his standing with the PM, but the opinion of the Dead Man Walking was less of a concern to him than what Slater's barely concealed attack indicated: He wasn't the only one eager to seize the moment; Chancellor Campbell was also aware the time when imperative action needed to be taken was rapidly approaching.

The Downing Street media relations unit had already no doubt issued statements about how the government united in purpose was well on top of the situation. Yet the divisions which racked the administration were only too obvious to anyone who looked beyond the spin. Like the tectonic pressure which had been building up, the political tensions had been increasing as well; as imperceptible as the geological strains but just as real. It was only a matter of time until they too were released. Pullman wondered what it would take to prompt that earthquake, and how soon it would be.
 

10.09. Whitehall.

Politicians have contacts everywhere, eager to grant favours in the expectation of one in return at some future date. So it was no surprise for Stuart Pullman to be tipped the wink in advance via a covert self-destructing email that news of this morning's spat between himself and Slater was about to go public.

This was a complication he didn't need: Though it was an open secret the government was divided, Pullman wouldn't be thanked for aggravating the split. But he hadn't chosen the battle; Campbell through his proxy Slater had started the fight and Stuart felt obliged not only to defend himself but to go on the offensive. Perhaps had had pushed back too assertively and been more abrupt with her than was necessary, but the frumpy harridan had deserved it: Politics is a rough game, and if you can't stand the heat... Still, what was done was done; the worst that could happen was that the PM would have a word with him; that would be unfortunate but survivable; what might at first appear to be a setback may even be turned to his advantage if the closet chauvinists of the back benches secretly liked the thought of the drippy woman being put in her place...

There was nothing to be done about it for the moment; just to wait and see how the incident was reported. The way the story was portrayed might provide a clue as to who had blabbed, and their motive for going public. By tipping their hand whoever it was would declare their allegiance for or against him; most likely against. Well if that was their choice they would have to live with the consequences when Stuart took charge...

Pullman considered how Ranpling would handle the crisis. The fact the PM had wrapped the meeting up so quickly in an attempt to stop the row erupting suggested he knew how delicate the situation was, which also meant he daren't obviously favour one faction over the other; but that didn't mean he couldn't drop subtly nuanced hints for those with the most finely tuned antennae to pick up while simultaneously quashing any speculation about a cabinet rift with a 'united in a common purpose' briefing to the lobby correspondents.

But it was obvious that things couldn't go on this way for much longer; Pullman would have to make his move soon or be beaten to the punch. He resolved to have his allies take some more soundings from the parliamentary party once the story broke, and see where he went from here based on what was reported back to him. If what he heard was encouraging he'd make his move when the next opportunity presented itself.

Chapter Five

11.16. UKGeoScan head office; Cambridge.

Dr Brian McLean's busy fingers typed out a series of complex instructions: Finishing, he tapped the enter key with a final emphatic jab and waited for the powerful mainfraime connected with his terminal to process his commands. It didn't take long for the request to be completed and the data returned.

The results startled the geologist. Never before had he seen anything like it. On his monitor a map of south-east England was displayed, upon which was superimposed a diagonal slash running from Kent northwestward towards London; it was the well-known minor intraplate fault underlying the area which produced weak earthquakes from time to time. Rendered in a scale of vivid colours it showed the electrical potential of the ground as neasured by a newly installed experimental array of deeply buried resistivity sensors.

To a lay person the data would be meaningless, but to McLean what he saw shocked him - no, scared him shitless. If the readings were correct, and he hoped they were wrong, the piezoelectrical signals indicated the tectonic forces were building rapidly again along the underground fissure; the squeezing of the fault being reflected in the increased potential. Put simply, the risk of a significant earthquake was growing.

But it wasn't only the strain building on the known feature which alarmed him, McClean suspected pressure was being transferred to the fault from a deeper rift laying far below the Kentish fracture, beyond the detector array's range. Just as a champagne cork contained the carbonated gases held within a shaken bottle, so a triggering of the upper fault would remove the restraint preventing a far greater force from being loosed. And just as uncorking a gaseous bottle, the energy would be released abruptly.

Brian felt impelled to act on these findings, but first he needed to absolutely sure of his facts; he ran the programme again, only this time changing a few of the variables and excluding some of the more spurious measurements. Then he conducted a further series of calibration and diagnostic exercises. Despite some expected differences in the detail, the results came back much the same as before.

McClean called over to his colleague Michael Wilson, who was also in the office.

"Hey Mike, can you take a look at this please?"

"What's up?" replied Wilson, walking over to the terminal.

Quickly Brian summarised his observations and hypothesis. Michael pondered for a moment.

"I'm not convinced." he said. "There could be any number of reasons for what we're seeing; the most obvious being the electroseismic aftereffects of the previous tremor there. Or it might be a case of electrical earthing into the soil; don't forget there's quite a lot of construction and ground disturbance activity going on in the area, not to mention those exploratory fracking drillings, any one of those factors could explain it."

"Well explain this!" McLean retorted, his swift keystrokes and mouse clicks bringing up another image. "This was the same area a week before the last 'quake; this the day before, and this nine hours prior to the event.

"Yes, but it's easy to spot things in retrospect..."

"Now let's run the model into the future. What do you see now?"

Wilson watched as new branches of false coloured stress began radiating from the fault; the branchlike tendrils spreading into the Kent Downs and as far as St Mary's Bay on the coast.

"Whoa there!" Wilson exclaimed. "You know as well as I that correlation does not equal causation. At a guess, and this is a pure gut reaction, I'd say you were dealing with a model artifact. It can't cope with the data because its not had a long enough baseline to work with. The algorithms are extrapolating an incomplete dataset and presenting outliers as the mean. They're adding two and two together but coming up with five, or in this case several thousand. That or it's being swamped with too much poor quality data as a result of the event and can't discriminate what's real from the background noise. If you were to aggregate everything you'd be bound to arrive at an apocalyptic outcome."

"And if you're wrong?..." McLean asked. "We might be ignoring an early warning of a future disaster."

"No Brian, I don't think so. The Deep Scan network we were able to install recently was only half of what we originally asked for so we're nowhere near getting the resolution we wanted, and it being so new we're still working through the teething problems. No one's going to take you seriously based on what you have at the moment; let alone if you go running around shouting the sky is about to fall in on us. There's nothing you can do with this at present, so let things settle down for a while; take a longer term view of it and see where it leads. When our Deep Focus programme gets underway in a few months we'll have a far clearer idea of the underlying structure of the area and then see if your theory about there being a hidden thrust fault lying deeper below the one we can detect holds any water."

"And in the meantime?" sighed McClean. "What if there is a blind fault there which causes a major mass casualty 'quake soon? Or what if the Deep Focus budget is cut again, as I fear it might be. What do we do then?"

"You show the world the data you've saved in the meantime and shout loudly you told them so; then smugly collect any panic grants they throw at the problem."

"But that won't help the victims; it'll be too late for them by then."

"You won't be doing them, yourself, your career, or your family any favours by running off half-cocked." countered Wilson. "Frankly I think you'd be better off lying low for a while; particularly given the attention you've been attracting."

"News travels quickly, eh?"

"Yes. Peter Currie is seething you sent your paper to the Cabinet Office; even if it was done in your own name and not under the aegis of GeoScan. It's a good thing we're completely detached from the government now or the Director would have been leaned on to dismiss you. As it was he got a call from Downing Street that made his ears burn. He wasn't best pleased..."

"I know; he personally told me so."

"And if it hadn't been for all hands being needed on deck to process the data from yesterday's 'quake you'd have been starting an enforced leave - sabbatical - call it what you want while they worked out what to do with you. Thank your lucky stars that we can't do without you at the moment! I know you haven't actually done anything wrong, but there are conventions - ways of behaviour - which should be followed. For God's sake stop ruffling feathers; especially when you're dealing with a vindictive wanker like Stuart Pullman; he's bad news which will only get worse if he ever becomes Prime Minister. Just let it be for now; if you're right you'll be vindicated in due course. Hopefully Pullman will forget about you in a few days and go picking on another disadvantaged group instead."

"OK! I get the message! As usual you're making a lot of sense. Thanks Mike."

As Wilson drifted away to tend a large scale printer creating yet another chart of the previous quake's effects. McLean pondered what he should do. These days to step out of line or blow the whistle was to take an enormous risk; one which could have serious implications for his future career and his family's financial security: Such a decision was not to be taken lightly.

In the meantime Brian copied the data to his personal cloud service, as well as the keychain memory device he always kept with him. If his worst fears were proved to be correct and the event he dreaded actually occurred, he would most likely be set up to be the fall guy, for it is easier to shoot the messenger rather than take heed of their bad tidings. But Brian McLean had no intention of being cast as anyone's scapegoat.

 

14.36. UKGeoScan.

By mid afternoon Brian McLean had run the most recent sets of ground resistivity data through his predictive computer model. With each new analysis the outcome became visibly worse in terms of certainty an event would occur, its likely magnitude, and timing now no longer reckoned in years or months in advance, but days at the most.

Brian felt a gnawing sense of dread and impending doom, along with the growing conviction he couldn't keep this knowledge to himself. The public had the right to know, but how could he warn them without ruining his career in the process? After some consideration an idea came to him: There might be a way which entailed relatively little risk on his part and would be certain to get the word out. After checking no nearby inquiring colleagues were overlooking his activity, McLean began composing an email.

 

15.41. St Albans. Hertfordshire.

Nathan Rookley's eyebrows rose as he scanned the anonymous email he'd just received. In all his years as a self-employed 'journalist' he'd never seen the like of it.

Rookley made his living from writing outrageously sensationalist features about conspiracy and weather related topics. It was his name which invariably featured on the byline of apocalyptic prophecies splashed over tabloid front pages; the sort of 'stories' which foretold SIX MONTHS OF ARCTIC WINTER TO COME, to be followed by warnings of a HOTTEST SUMMER FOR 300 YEARS THREAT, or FLOODING HELL ON THE WAY. If not those evergreen standbys there were many other ways of exaggerating perfectly normal meteorological events into cataclysmic terrors.

Over the years Nathan had developed the hyperbole into a fine art, having the knack of being able to season his articles with just enough factual content or quotes taken out of context from reputable sources to convince his gullible readers what they were skimming through was true and not a carefully contrived fiction.

It continually surprised him that even after all this time, and his 'predictions' routinely being proved wrong, people still fell for the alarmist reports; in fact some of them positively lapped them up. It was almost as if his readership perversely reveled in calamitous scare stories, just as long as they never came to pass.

But what Nathan read now was a radical departure from the typical submissions he received. Obviously not the crackpot raving of an obese, lank haired, socially inept bedsit dweller in their late forties - the type who rarely washed or shaved but lived barefoot in a grubby jogging pants and vest combination - the contents of this message caught his eye as nothing had before. Though the unhinged theories contributed by his misfit fanbase were amusing and on occasions a useful peg to hang a story on, in general they were too obviously deranged to be credible, believing their lone insights would uniquely overturn the conventions of modern technological science. However that didn't stop Rookley from exploiting the losers for all they were worth.

Instead this correspondent's well presented argument, though tendacious in places, was calmly and carefully reasoned; backed by data which could only have come from rigorous scientific measurements. Clearly not a deluded fantasist, this person spoke with a qualified authority on their subject; and whoever it was appeared to be a gravely concerned intellect at that.

But who were they? Evidently someone highly intelligent, and who wanted their identity to remain a secret. They'd sought him of all people out, knowing his ability to publicise outlandish theories in the mainstream media; but had exercised a degree of caution in doing so via a covert disposable email provider. Though clever as they had been, they might not have been careful enough to elude Rookley's detective skills...

Firstly Nathan checked his social media accounts and discussion forum, but saw no sign the informant had left any messages or contact details on any of them; instead he saw only the usual mix of fawning adulation and vitriolic condemnation. He'd block all of the critics from posting and delete their naysaying comments as was his custom later, but now there were more important things to be done, such as employing the suite of powerful search engines he had at his disposal to match the writing style and scientific text passages quoted in the email to published sources. Maybe in that way the mysterious source's identity could be unmasked?

Instantaneously Rookley's query produced a list of possible correlations, the most likely of which were very similar to publications authored by a UKGeoScan seismologist, Dr Brian McLean. Excited by the thrill of the chase, Nathan used the man's name for a more specific search. Yes! He was on the right track now! From academic sites Rookley downloaded McLean's biographical details and published papers. Ever more confident this was his target, the hack stopped his online trawling and began reading through the haul of information.

Forty minutes later Nathan had abandoned his attempt to contort a few pleasantly sunny late summer weeks into the beginning of a MEGADROUGHT in favour of making the most of this MEGAQUAKE lead instead. Practiced in his craft as he was it didn't take Rookley long to cobble a story together; one so headline grabbing he felt justified demanding an increased fee in the covering email which accompanied the submission to his most likely client. Nathan was confident his tame editor at the Daily Post would agree to the terms.

 

17.50. Daily Post office, One Canada Square, London.

Well Nathan; this is your best yet! Thought Gary Sheldon, editor of a lower mid-market and rapidly sinking further down the scale tabloid newspaper, as he read Rookley's story. This one is so good it's well worth what you're asking for it. We'll recoup the money easily enough in terms of increased paper sales and hits on our website. All that was required now was to send it to one of the paper's in-house law subs - a specialist legal sub-editor - to ensure the article wasn't too obviously libellous before it would be splashed on the front page of tomorrow's edition and receive lead billing online.

The law sub's approval didn't take long, even though this feature stretched the boundaries to a new extent. Rookley, true to form, had been clever in his writing, using phrases such as "sources within the geological community" and "theories very similar to those postulated by people such as..." rather than coming out and directly naming the report's author. If this McLean had wanted attention he'd get plenty of it now; though it may not be the sort of publicity he hoped for; the official backlash might prove extremely detrimental to him...

But that was no skin off Rookley's or Sheldon's nose. If well-meaning people were naive enough to trust unprincipled exploitative journalists like them and got burned in the process, well too bad - that's life! The Daily Post wasn't there for the public good. Its articles might use longer words than the red top titles but the principle was still the same; feed the readers plenty of bullshit; be it about future house prices; health issues; immigration and asylum seekers; or get them involved with the latest official hate campaign against the disadvantaged: And if the punters grew weary of it all, there was always this entertaining form of silly season scaremongering... That should get their attention, especially given recent events! Sheldon thought as he finished composing a banner headline for the piece.

Gary smiled as he imagined how later this evening and early tomorrow morning vacuous 'news' or 'paper talk' programmes with nothing better to do than regurgitate press stories; corner shop billboards, and mobile device screens would be blaring his screaming caption, UK QUAKE TERROR MAY KILL THOUSANDS!

Chapter Six

19.32. Deputy Prime Minister's Office, Whitehall.

Stuart Pullman got wind of the Daily Post earthquake story almost as soon as the first edition was posted online. As he read through the report forwarded to him his anger grew. Though the informant wasn't mentioned by name there could be no doubt who had leaked what was supposed to be a confidential briefing paper. That maverick Brian McLean was running his mouth off again.

Ian Campbell's going to love this thought Pullman. Coming so soon after yesterday's tremor he'll not pass up the opportunity to make out I've fumbled the issue. Stuart's white-hot rage at Brian McLean intensified. I've not come this far to have my career tripped up by some beardy beak-nosed lunatic fringe wackjob. Though he may not be an official civil servant any longer the little shit was going to learn the hard way that no one - no one! - crosses Stuart Pullman and gets away with it.

It was pointless him asking Environment Minister Pippa Slater to pressurise the UKGeoScan management into immediately dismissing McLean; Campbell's minion wouldn't lift a finger to help Pullman. No, if he wanted to pursue a vendetta against the scientist and cause him some real problems, he'd need to use alternative methods: Stuart knew exactly how to do just that.

Rather than use the official intergovernmental network he knew to monitored and perhaps leave an incriminating trail of correspondence, Pullman used the covert means he and Christopher Parsons had agreed on long ago to arrange an informal meeting. Though the Home Secretary couldn't officially instigate a police investigation, there were ways and means, nods and winks methods of getting some serious scrutiny focused on the geologist, to be quickly followed with charges of breaching confidentiality; McLean had no doubt signed the Official Secrets Act, and he would learn to his cost breaking that law was no joke. When the government's legal steamroller had finished flattening him, Brian McLean would spend the rest of his miserably impoverished ruined life wishing he'd kept silent.

 

20.54. Undisclosed location in central London.

There are places, even close to the closely scrutinised febrile hubbub of Westminster, where the powerful can conduct their business in absolute confidentiality: Exclusive gentlemens' clubs located behind imposing Georgian townhouse doors; places those ignorant of their existence pass by unaware of every day.

It was in a sumptuously furnished private room within such an establishment where Stuart Pullman and Christopher Parsons - Home Secretary, co-conspirator, and one of Pullman's strongest allies - met. Parsons, a rising star in the party, hadn't quite garnered enough seniority to be considered a contender in his own right, but was influential enough to be able to sway the outcome of a contest. Once the steward had served a light snack and left, closing the door, Parsons began.

"I can imagine what it was that brought you here." He said, with a hint of joviality. "It must be rather embarrassing having the Post splashing that briefing paper all over the front page; especially shortly after Mizz Slater decided to make an issue of it in cabinet. My deputy Hamilton told me the atmosphere was quite feisty. What a shame I was in the West Country and didn't get back until after all the fuss had died down! Do you ever get the impression someone doesn't have your best interests at heart? I don't know about you, but I think Campbell is very close to launching his leadership bid; what say you?"

"Yes, you're right on both counts." sighed Pullman.

"So how might I be able to help you?" asked Parsons.

"A couple of things: Of course I'd like to be able to absolutely count on your support for my candidacy when the time comes, and yes, it will come soon; I think we can both agree that our dear PM's Best Before date has long passed: What matters now is how and when he goes. We'll have to beat Campbell to the punch, which means no long-drawn out contest; instead it'll have to be a quick breaking of the neck in full cabinet; an instant matter of principle, all-or-nothing issue; one where they'll have to react with their guts right there and then."

"It's a high risk strategy..."

"So is life; and remember we're not choosing the timing of this contest, Campbell is; probably with Rampling's covert blessing if I read the runes right. If I had my way I'd let them both swing in the wind until after the party conference, but we don't have the luxury of time. My soundings tell me the parliamentary party will grudgingly put up with a fait accompli, but if there's a proper leadership election as is the usual way of things, it will be too close to call, and we wouldn't want that!"

"And in return for my backing?"

"As is customary you can have your choice of the Deputy Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer." Pullman replied. "And there'd be some cabinet posts - senior and junior - for your followers in the subsequent reshuffle; I can be flexible about remits. If you wanted to combine the DPM and Home Secretary roles you'd be more than welcome to, and you know under my administration you wouldn't be constrained as you are at the moment. The gloves can come off, within reason of course..."

"Of course!"

"...and then midway in the next governmental term I'll retire with honour and it'll be over to you. We can even draw up a written agreement to that effect if you like."

"No, I'm happy enough to take your word for it. But what do you plan to do about Campbell? We can't have a loose cannon his size rolling around the deck!"

"He'll get the usual enforced ennoblement. He can stay in the Lords or go looking for directorships of banks and multinational corporations if he so desires. Just as long as he keeps out of the way and holds his peace."

"And the other?"

"That's the reason I've decided to move things up a gear, and we're talking now. Whether McLean was put up to leaking the earthquake report by Campbell or Slater, or did it on his own initiative the effect is still the same; it's a complication I don't need to deal with. I need him taken out of circulation for a while so he can't blab any more."

"Ah, I see... But are you sure it was he who blabbed it? His arrest can be arranged without too much difficulty, but he can't be kept incommunicado for long; and if he is lifted, the very fact of it may concentrate attention on the issue. That may not be what you want."

"None of this is what I want!" Said Pullman emphatically. "Normally the likes of McLean and his fantasies wouldn't even be on my radar, but it's not the issue of civil preparedness that's the question, it's the way Campbell and Slater are trying to use it to undermine me! Regardless of his role in the matter, if McLean can't talk to the media they lose their weapon for the time being, and in the meantime I intend to fight back."

"How so?"

"I think it's about time the fact of Ms Slater's workplace romance was exposed to the world. After the story has blown I'll suggest in full cabinet in the strongest terms that both both she and her toy boy resign immediately in order to preserve the government's reputation for propriety. If that doesn't force the issue, nothing will!"

"Yes... That would set the cat among the pigeons! And there'd be the racial aspect as well, but of course that'll be an unspoken subtext... But you're playing with fire old chap; be careful not to get burned! Anyway, when might you be planning to drop this little grenade in their teacup?"

"In a few days at the most. I hope you and your faction will be ready when the time comes."

"Oh you can count on that! I was born ready!"

"Excellent!"

Having finished sipping a finger of very exclusive scotch whisky, Pullman poured another dram for himself, and then a further good measure for Parsons.

Stuart proposed a toast. "To a long and profitable working relationship!"

"Cheers!" With the clinking of their cut crystal tumblers the deal was sealed, along with the fates of the unsuspecting Campbell, Slater, and McLean.

With their business concluded, a push on a silent bell button summoned the steward, who in turn called the pair's official chauffeurs. As Pullman was driven back to his official residence he began to grasp the full gravity of the process he'd just set in motion. The fuse had been lit, but Stuart couldn't yet know if the flame would sputter out before reaching the gunpowder. If the charge ignited his career may go rocketing skyward, or the resulting fireworks might blow the government apart. Within days Stuart Pullman would be Prime Minister - or the administration of which he was a part collapse, burying his hopes along with it.

 

21.56. The McLean's home, Cambridge.

As the family had the television off and weren't using the internet at the time, so Brain McLean's first warning his anonymity had been compromised was a call from his colleague Michael Wilson; on duty as the night watchman to ensure GeoScan's monitoring equipment ran smoothly and to be a first point of contact for information should a major seismic event happen elsewhere in the world. However the number on McLean's caller ID showed Wilson's mobile phone rather than the expected company landline

"Brian! What in God's name have you done now?!"

"So they're running my story!"

"I'll say they are! It's splashed all over the front page of the Daily Post and the others are picking it up as well. Even Connect24 are getting in on it! You've really gone and done it this time; half of the coverage is making out We're All Gonna Die while the rest of is portraying us as a laughing stock! What the hell were you thinking!"

"People have the right to know!"

"But not like this! You've started a right panic! I'm getting priority emails from the fucking Cabinet Office demanding an urgent explanation, and constant video calls from Connect24 wanting an interview. I've had to temporarily screen everything incoming while I'm talking to you."

"I'm sorry but-"

"Look never mind all that now; I rang to give you a heads up and also some advice if you'll listen to me for a change."

"OK..."

"Right now I think the best thing you can do is to make yourself scarce for a few days, starting from now, and I mean now. Get your family together and leave home at once; don't even pack anything; just get in the car and drive off to anywhere as soon as this call is finished."

"Aren't you being just a bit melodramatic?"

"You really don't understand, do you? There are heavy hints being dropped your whistleblowing has broken the law. You've got a baying political lynch mob on your tail and they're after your blood! Once you're on the road you and Rosalyn shouldn't wait too long before withdrawing as much money as your cards will allow from a cashpoint, but only do it the once as if your accounts are being monitored that fixes you at a certain place and time. Keep your phones switched off as that's another way you can be tracked; in fact stay offline for a few days, and if you must get connected, do so from a public WiFi hotspot and use a cloaking app or TOR."

"Oh come on..."

Yes, I'm serious about this! I'm not sure whether it's best for you to try and lie low with some relatives or hide in a hotel somewhere, but if you choose a hotel, pay in cash and don't give your real name and address. Thinking about it, you might be better off buying some cheap supermarket camping gear and going completely off the grid-"

"For Chrissake Mike-"

"-and when you're driving try to stay off the motorways and main roads. Avoid using major junctions as well because they're bound to be covered by CCTV and number plate readers. I mean it Brian; you've kicked up a right hornet's nest and you're going to get badly stung if you hang around. Let this shitstorm blow itself out in a few days and then you can surface again; hopefully cooler heads will have prevailed by then. I'll try to organise some support for you here, but God knows it isn't going to be easy. As you've not been directly quoted by that wanker Rookley you could try making out he's taken your work out of context to contrive a story and... Oh shit!... I've got the Connect24 news on and they've just put up a ticker claiming Gail Burton is on her way to doorstep you. You'd best be going! Fuck it! Now Peter Currie's calling; I'll have to answer that. Good luck Brian; I've got to go and so have you. I'll try to leave a message for you when when you can venture online in a few days. Bye!"

The call ended. Wilson's mention of Gail Burton's imminent arrival cut through Brian's woolly-minded naivety and revealed the true seriousness of the situation he'd put himself in; if only the ground would open up beneath him and swallow him out of sight! But there were no friendly sinkholes or fissures to be found. Instead within ten minutes the McLean family had hurriedly left home. Eight minutes after their departure Gail Burton's Connect24 news van drew up outside, followed a short time later by a nondescript large silver-grey saloon which parked further along the street in the concealing shadows; its four well built occupants remaining inside but observing the scene carefully for the time being.

 

22.34. Near the McLean's home, Cambridge.

Detective Inspector Frank Morgan of the Anti-Terrorist Operations Group was becoming increasingly agitated. He didn't like operating so close to the limelight, preferring to do his job out of the public eye. Instead he and his covert snatch squad found themselves in this bizarre situation, skulking beyond the bright lights cast by the TV news crew who had beaten them to their objective.

No, this assignment was fishy as you like, Morgan thought. It wasn't just the nature of their target; the man's profile was far from that of the extremists ATOG routinely dealt with, but also the instructions - presumably originating from far up in the command structure - to be as unobtrusive as possible when apprehending their target which also made Frank wonder. It was as if the legal basis for this arrest was uncertain, the person ordering the pick-up having something to hide. Morgan didn't like it one bit.

Frank watched as a thickset man walked calmly up to the rear of their car before getting inside, slumping heavily into the back seat then quietly pulling the door shut behind him to avoid attracting attention.

"I let them think I was a reporter." the agent said. "The neighbours I spoke to confirmed the family left shortly before the news crew arrived." He nodded at a curious couple looking on at the scene from their open front door.

"Oh well; that's that then!" sighed Morgan "Anything on the FLIR?" he asked the driver, who was observing the McLean's home through a pair of electronically enhanced binoculars.

"Nothing Guv." the man replied. "Only the circus outside. It looks like Gail Burton's going to try knocking on the door again..."

"She's doing it for effect now; it must be obvious there's no one home, even to them." added the fourth policeman sitting behind them, busy monitoring the Connect24 broadcast on a tablet.

"We're not achieving anything by staying here." Frank decided. "I'm calling it in."

He speed dialled a number on his mobile.

"Hello Sir... We've been observing the location for twenty minutes. The subject's car is not there, and he along with his family were reported to have left shortly before our arrival... Yes, we've confirmed the fact with his neighbours, and remote sensing of the address has revealed nothing to change my opinion the family became aware of the media furore regarding Dr McLean's disclosures in advance and have fled.

No Sir, I don't think it likely they will return home any time soon. We've adopted a low profile so far, but it's only a matter of time before one of the residents or the TV crew notices us and becomes curious. I think it best if we left now... Yes, that would be my recommendation... Understood Sir... Out."

"Let's go home!" Frank said wearily. As the driver eased the car quietly away from the area Morgan secretly felt relieved Brian McLean hadn't been there for him to collar. This operation appeared to be stretching the definition of state security way beyond the accepted limits: It was far too politically motivated to him; a matter beyond ATOG's remit. Silently he wished the McLean family the best of luck in evading the clutches of a state overreaching its authority to an unnerving extent. How long they would be able to remain at liberty was a moot point, sooner or later they'd be picked up by the Orwellian surveillance systems which permeated the fabric of the UK. The only question was when.

 

23.05. Stuart Pullman's Home.

Stuart Pullman was burning the midnight oil preparing himself for what could be a cruicial cabinet meeting tomorrow. His wife Elizabeth had left him alone and gone to bed. As he heard the news Christopher Parsons phoned him, his heart sank.

"Sorry Stuart, but your bird had flown before ATOG could catch him."

"Bugger!"

"And there's worse; Connect24 seem to have a bee in their bonnet about the story. Gail Burton was on the scene by the time the agents arrived. She's been knocking on the McLean's door live on air every fifteen minutes on the dot, but fortunately she's not savvy enough to develop the story any further than Nathan Rookley has. Anyway, the boys kept in the background and left the area unnoticed, so as yet there's no official word out that McLean's are under official investigation. You could let the matter drop now and let him stew in his own juice for a while. No one would be any the wiser."

"You mean he's given you the slip!" Pullman replied, exasperated.

"Only temporarily." said Parsons. "He's on the priority watch list now; we're bound to spot him sooner or later."

"When he resurfaces to go public again!"

"Sadly, our surveillance systems aren't quite Minority Report yet. If you were to give me a couple of years with a healthy budget increase, compulsory ID cards and a biometric register, then I might be able to speed the process up, but until McLean pops his head up there's not a great deal we can do. We've got the GeoScan offices, the college where his wife works and his daughter's school staked out, ready to pick any of them up if they show up there. Otherwise it's just a matter of time; he'll have to break cover at some point.

Anyway, maybe by then what he might say won't matter. To be honest I think you're playing this too defensively. Surely someone in your media relations office can draft a holding statement making McLean out to be a gibbering lunatic, or if the issue is raised in the next cabinet as I expect it will be, then propose an interdepartmental working group consider the matter: That should kick it into the long grass for a while."

"Good idea..."

"And as for the news coverage; they'll forget all about it when they've got a bigger story to report; the one you can drop in their lap. You said just a short time ago what was needed was quick, decisive action. Well I think the moment is now. If I'll were you I wouldn't hesitate; leak the Slater story at once and let's bring it to a head. If you delay much longer you'll just give Campbell more opportunities to attack you. Do it now."

Pullman considered for a moment. "Yes, you're right. If I think it looks possible I'll do it. But in the meantime keep the pressure on to find McLean. Even if the threat of his testimony can't be nullified, putting him through the mill will serve as a example to anyone else thinking about causing trouble."

"OK, it's your call. But for God's sake don't blow it all on account of getting drawn into a personal vendetta against a mere pawn; remember you're not the only person with skin in the game: By doing your bidding - especially when this is shaky legal ground - and effectively working for you rather than Rampling, I'm sticking my neck out as well."

"I'm only too aware of that, but thanks for trying anyway. We'll talk again, say at around seven in the morning?"

"Fine. 'Bye!" Parsons hung up.

Pullman considered what Parsons had said for a moment; perhaps he was fixating on Brian McLean too much, but being so tantalisingly close to achieving his lifetime ambition he wasn't about to take the slightest chance of having the prize wrenched from his grasp. It was best to run the scientist to ground.

As for launching a preemptive attack on the Campbell campaign via their weak link Pippa Slater, the more Stuart thought about it, the more he realised circumstances had boxed him into this corner which he had no choice but to fight his way out of. This may not be the opportune time, but the time was now. Picking up his personal tablet Pullman read for a final time the brief message exposing Slater's affair he'd been composing. Satisfied with its wording, he sent it via untraceable self-destructing message to the few contacts he could be sure would pick up and develop the story. No phoney shadow boxing now, Stuart had just thrown the first hard punch of the leadership fight.

Chapter Seven

Thursday.

04.48. The B2677 approaching Alston, Cumbria.

The squalls of argument in the McLean's car which had raged on and off for the last two hundred miles had blown themselves out by now; leaving a stilted, tense atmosphere in their wake. In the rear seat eleven year old Sophie McLean was suffering the withdrawl symptoms of being dragged out of bed and having her phone confiscated by her father: She'd gone into a uncommunicative sulk before dozing off into fitful episodes of sleep. Her parents - now that the anger and recriminations had subsided to an extent for their daughter's sake - were beginning to come to terms with their new lives as public fugitives.

The McLean's had done as Michael Wilson suggested; stopping briefly at a nearby hypermarket soon after they'd left home, brimming the car with fuel, emptying the cash dispenser, then conducting a hurried trolley dash for supplies of ready to eat food and bottled water. Paying by card at the self-service checkout Rosalyn McLean was relieved to find its transactions were still being prcessed without being queried for the moment. That done, the family left; driving north and hopefully off the grid for a while.

They'd kept off the major roads as far as possible, keeping within the speed limits to avoid attracting unwanted attention; but there were times when there was no choice but to use them. Brian couldn't help but notice the normally inconspicuous roadside grey boxes and wonder how many of them, or the many traffic cameras dotted around were betraying his whereabouts at this very moment. At least the McLean's car was an older model; one of the newer versions with their always-on interactive GPS, smart traffic warning and real-time telemetry systems would have given away their position long ago. With the cutting edge models it was possible the police would have been able to flag the vehicle as stolen, in which case their engine might have been remotely shut down and the doors locked, leaving them stranded by the roadside awaiting their arrest.

Fortunately that wasn't the case and McClean had switched off the dashboard console sat-nav just to be sure, relying instead on memories of previous journeys and a large-scale road atlas to get him this far. Even so, every sighting of a police car had his heart leaping into his throat; he took particular care to stay well clear of them and their live linked Automatic Number Plate Recognition system onboard cameras. Though innocent of any crime, Brian now understood how it felt to be a hunted man.

He yawned deeply, the accumulated stress and lack of sleep beginning to catch up with him.

"Do you want me to take over?" Asked Rosalyn; the first words she'd spoken for twenty minutes or so.

"No, I'll be alright, but I might pull in to the next quiet rest area I see and stretch my legs for five minutes."

"Have it your way!" There was still an unreconciled edge of bitterness to her voice, and frankly Brian could hardly blame her; not after having a quiet evening so suddenly disrupted and within the space of a few minutes being hustled out her home, her daughter dragged out of bed, and forced to go on the run with her husband, now the subject of a media feeding frenzy.

"Besides, we're not far from the Border now." He said. Their plan - thought up as they fled - was to head for Scotland. With its separate legal system and police force along with an increasingly militant independence minded nationalist government it seemed the best place to drop out of sight for as long as it took for McLean's uncertain position to become clear. Rosalyn had family there, though as yet Brian hadn't decided whether to try and seek shelter with them; relatives' addresses might be one of the first places the authorities may check. If they got that far...

Joining the A269 and driving through Kirkhaugh the silent but rapid approach of flashing blue lights in his rear view mirror evaporated Brian's fatigue. Oh shit! And we were so close... With a bowel loosening sinking feeling he began to slow down in anticipation of being ordered to pull over but the police car swept past, momentarily filling the car's cabin with disorienting strobing light before speeding away unheeding of them into the distant brightening dawn. As the sudden spike of fear began to ease back down to the gnawing background worrying of his predicament McLean wished for the umpteenth time that he could rewind the past day and decide against sending that email to Nathan Rookley. Brian vowed if he were ever to meet that sly little runt in person he'd make sure the bastard would never be in a fit state to write another misleading article or ruin other peoples' lives ever again.
 

07.27. The B724 westbound, Annan, Dumfrieshire.

The McLeans were in Scotland, and still at liberty. By now their shocked and angry argument had run its course, replaced by a sober realisation the situation the family found themselves could not be escaped, only resolved one way or another.

As they drove silently toward Rosalyn's sister's home in Dumfries - the first port of call they thought of trying - the couple were trying to think of ways through their predicament: Brian considering how he could fight any disciplinary charges or outright dismissal from his post, let alone any legal consequences; and if all else failed where a notoriously maverick geologist might find a new job. If the worst came to the worst upon his release from prison he might be reduced to school teaching... Rosalyn wondering how to explain her sudden, unannounced absence from her workplace; perhaps given the well publicised circumstances her employer would sympathetically allow  it to be taken as part of her annual leave entitlement... Whatever happened from now on, it was a given they'd both be in need of professional advice, and perhaps relationship guidance; Brian's actions and Rosalyn's angry response to them had put their marriage under severe strain.

The family's lay-by breakfast comprised of what they'd bought at the hypermarket late yesterday evening. The sight of a Woppa Burga Drive-Thru sign had Sophie clamouring for her parents to stop there for a Bigga Brekkie but Rosalyn refused point-blank; she didn't eat at those sort of places as a rule and didn't want her daughter to acquire a taste for that sort of junk food. And besides, there were the cameras...

Neither Brian nor Rosalyn were hungry anyway; being satisfied for the time being with a prepacked sandwich or a cereal bar. They had little in the way of an appetite; the discomfort in their guts wasn't that of hunger, but worry: Uncertainty which could only be resolved by hearing more news; be it good or bad.

By unspoken mutual agreement the radio had been kept switched off most of the time, apart from catching up with the headlines on the hour as the journey progressed. Music was a distraction the McLeans could live without right now, and the incessant jabbering of the lowbrow rolling news station which monopolised the BBC's nightime frequencies was too much to bear, especially when they were the focus of its attention.

With the dawning of the new day - grey and overcast though it may be here - came the beginning of a new news cycle. Brian in particular wanted to know in greater detail what was happening. Now with a greater variety of stations to choose from he could escape the yammering of BBC NewsNow or the even more lumpen commercial SportsTalk in favour of Radio 4.

"Do you mind if I turn the radio on?" He asked Rosalyn. She gave a resigned sigh he took as a yes. Still feeling as if he were walking in eggshells Brian turned the car volume down to a barely audible murmur and tuned in. His heart sank when he found himself listening to an interview with the Daily Post editor Gary Sheldon regarding the publication of Nathan Rookley's article. His revelations were still a hot topic it seemed, but as the interview continued McLean was encouraged to hear the newspaperman withering under a severe cross-examination of his journalistic practices by the heavyweight presenter. At least someone had the rare courage to take his side and was giving Sheldon a really hard time of it

The segment finished, and segued into a sombrely voiced recap of the headlines: "Environment minister Pippa Slater is coming under intense pressure to explain her reported affair with her Parliamentary Private Secretary, Muneef Omar. Ms Slater has denied any allegations of impropriety regarding Mr Omar's appointment. Last night the Prime Minister, who hosted an informal dinner at Chequers with the departing Indian ambassador - rumoured to be launching a presidential campaign upon his return to Delhi - was unavailable for comment. The Downing Street media relations office have so far refused to say anything about this latest turmoil affecting the government.

Fourteen people are reported dead and scores more injured in a high speed train derailment in northwest China: As yet the cause of the incident near the city of Lanzhou is unknown.

Mystery surrounds the whereabouts of the controversial geologist Dr Brian McLean, who warned yesterday the UK was at imminent risk of suffering a major earthquake. A spokesman for UKGeoScan, Dr Michael Wilson, said Dr McLean's work was highly theoretical as well as speculative in nature and had yet to be peer reviewed or substantiated. He claimed the tabloid media had taken Dr McLean's views out of context and there was no cause for alarm.

In sport the England cricket team have lost the final game of the-" Brian flicked the radio off. At least he was beginning to slide down the news order; hopefully he'd be out of the limelight soon, eclipsed by far greater sorrows. Mike Wilson had done what he could to smother the flames of controversy without condemning Brian completely. Given the pressure he must have felt under to do so, it was a self-evident act of bravery on Wilson's part; McLean would be forever in his debt. In the meantime he planned to park up out of the way for a time while his wife walked to her sister's home to ask if they could hole up there. If the place was beset by the media or appeared to be under observation, Rosalyn could unobtrusively turn around and they'd have to reconsider their plans.

Chapter Eight

08.31. Whitehall.

Stuart Pullman could feel a crackling tension buildingbut the angry portency seemed not only due to the expected bust up at today's cabinet meeting; it felt as if there was something else, a far greater force at play, yet he couldn't quite grasp the nature of it.

Whatever it was seemed to manifest itself in a general atmosphere of frustration: One similar to the miasma of collective irritation which arises in the immediate aftermath of a national sports team doing badly, but even the England cricketers' abject overnight performance wasn't a sufficient explanation.

The annoyance appeared to be most obviously expressed by the outraged honking of horns as police outriders held up the traffic for Pullman's motorcade, along with the indistinct oaths and obscene gestures directed at Stuart's car by pedestrians who realised who he was as his convoy drove past them. Their actions incensed Pullman, who resolved that once in power he'd order governmental limousines to be tailed by unmarked vehicles whose occupants would be given carte blanche to teach anyone making such protests in future a harsh lesson about respecting authority.

However there was even more to it than that: The air had a humid, headache inducing, invisibly leaden quality which reflected the morning's saturnine ambiance.

As Stuart's car swept through the gated entrance to Downing Street he saw murmurations of city birds - more of them than usual - on the wing, The anxious fowl darkened the sky as if bad weather was approaching and they were looking for a place of safety to ride it out. Whatever had set them on edge, he could sense it as well; an intuition of something building, approaching a climax.

Pullman's limo drew to a halt and his door was opened for him. As Stuart got out he felt the oppressive glowering even more keenly. Though there was little chance of any rain falling from the sullen overcast Pullman knew an unavoidable storm was brewing, but unlike the ruffled avians he felt energised in anticipation of it: After all, it was a tempest of his own conjuring.

 

09.52. Dumfries.

Rosalyn McLean carefully observed the surrounding area before quickly walking up to her sister's house. She was relieved to find the coast appeared to be clear; there was no media hubbub taking place outside, in fact the only sign of any activity was a broadband service provider's van parked far further along the fractal swirl of recently constructed cul-de-sacs. Rosalyn dismissed it as unimportant, the lone telecoms worker seemed preoccupied with the fiberoptic entrails of an opened dark green painted metal cabinet set back from the pavement.

Rosalyn rang the door bell. There was a strong chance Sue wouldn't be in, or if she wasn't working as a nurse she may well be catching up on some badly needed sleep. McLean dreaded disturbing her but right now she needed a place of sanctuary and a listening ear.

From inside footsteps and a vague shadow approached the door. It opened. Her sister was fully dressed.

"Roz!" she exclaimed. "Come in! I've been worried about you! I tried to call you but there's been no answer."

"You've heard?"

"You can hardly avoid it; up until recently there's been little else on the news." Sue closed the door behind them. "Where's Brian and Sophie? Surely you've not-"

"No. But I'm really annoyed at what the silly bugger has done this time."

"I'll put the kettle on and you can tell me all about it."

A cup of tea, some blubbing, and a sisterly hug later Rosalyn had told her story and vented her anguish for the time being

"So what are you going to do now?"

"Brian wants us to stay out of way for a few days until it all blows over, If it blows over. He thought maybe Sophie and I could stay in your spare room for the time being while he sleeps in the car and keeps moving around."

"That'd be no trouble at all; but what about Brian? Surely he can't live rough?"

"He thinks so. Honestly Sue, I believe he's losing his mind! What with this earthquake theory of his no one else agrees with and then blabbing it all to Nathan bloody Rookley of all people, even if he didn't expect to have his identity made public. And now he's leading the news headlines for God's sake! It was on the radio! Live reports of journalists knocking on our door and the government hinting he might have broken the law... Oh Sue..." Rosalyn burst into fresh tears.

"Roz: Listen to me! You're going to get through this, alright? Look, before you go back to Brian and Sophie you need a good stiff whisky; yes, even at this time of the morning! While I fix that for you we'll catch up on the latest news. Just before I got sick of it all and turned it off there was a breaking story about a cabinet minister having an affair with one of her junior staff or something like that. What with the government so divided they thought it might cause a massive split or even bring it down. Well you know how the media loves to dwell on a story and blow it out of proportion; with any luck they might've forgotten about Brian by now... Here you go! Get that down you!"

Rosalyn sipped at the large measure of scotch Sue poured her while the large screen smart TV came to life. The Connect24 channel were running one of the interminable advert breaks they cunningly sandwiched the weather forecast between, so Sue channel hopped to the BBC rolling news. Their outside broadcast showed a political correspondent standing on Westminster Green with the Palace of Westminster's caramel coloured gothic stonework behind as a backdrop. He was engaged in a question and answer session with the studio presenter regarding the Pippa Slater affair. Below him the scrolling news ticker captions were almost exclusively about this story, the one exception reading GOVERNMENT DENIES EARTHQUAKE RISK.

"I told you they'd soon let it drop!" Susan reassured.

"Umm..." Rosalyn grunted as she mopped away the drying stickiness around her eyes with a hanky.

"It'll all work out; you'll see."

The sisters looked on at the screen. As they did so the picture abruptly changed: There was a thundering sound which drowned out the reporter, then the image began to judder; blurring before pixellating and cutting off completely.

"Was that technical problem or a bomb going off?" asked Sue.

After a moment of nothing being shown the open plan expanse of the BBC news studio in Manchester reappeared. The dumbstruck presenter was silent for a moment as he listened wide-eyed to the voice in his earpiece. Then, shocked, he began to speak.

"Ladies and Gentlemen." he intoned gravely. "We're getting news that London has just been hit by a major earthquake."

Chilling pins and needles pricked along the back of Rosalyn's neck. "Oh my God!" she gasped. "Brian was right!"

Chapter Nine

10.14. London and southeastern England.

An unimaginably strong, elemental force had broken free from its subterranean prison. The bucking, writhing earth tore itself apart a fissure arrowing from the Kentish weald toward the heart of the capital one way and the coast in the other direction; the lengthening splits moving faster than a jet airliner flies. The quake's effects varied depending on the construction and underlying ground conditions of the structures it encountered; some were only lightly damaged, while others ridiculously close by were severely affected. Motorists were startled to find cracks and chasms appearing under their wheels even as they drove, with the tarmac ahead suddenly bursting up or falling away before their disbelieving eyes. Concrete road bridges which had never been designed to cope with this kind of stress collapsed, or if they remained intact were betrayed by the treacherous foundations beneath them.

A Javelin train hurtling along the High Speed 1 line through Kent suddenly found itself derailed as the welded tracks it ran upon buckled under the strain of being wrenched two metres to the left. When the severing of the rails was sensed by its computer the train's safety systems automatically applied the brakes, but there was nothing they or the panic-stricken driver could do in these circumstances: Barely slowed by skating over the compacted gravel rail bed the 265 tonne, six car multiple unit slammed into a concrete overpass support column at 190 kilometres per hour; the carriages' robust aluminium frames crumpling on being subjected to such an incredible impact.

Below the rippling surface of the streets gas pipes, sewers, water mains, and power cables were sheared, setting off mushrooming explosions along with fires where arcing electricity set light to the leaking vapours; or creating deadly puddles when the current mixed with the water. Buildings were literally shaken to pieces, their timber frames splintering, gable ends falling away, brick walls collapsing, chunks of concrete splitting away from steel reinforcement, tiled roofs sliding off as chimney stacks crashed through interior rooms or toppled into gardens and suburban drives below. Giant clouds of multicoloured dust mushroomed into the air.

Amid the bass rumble of the earth rending itself asunder came other sounds of destruction and the anguished cries of people caught unaware by the shaking. Soon their screams would be of agony and grief, for the disaster had only just begun.

 

Sandbeach Caravan Park, near Rye, East Sussex.

The woman lay at his mercy, arms and legs tightly bound X fashion to each corner of the bed. Her eyes widened with astonishment when she saw what he held in his hand, but then her shocked expression changed to one of eager anticipation.

"Oh George!" she sighed. "Do it to me!"

"I'll do it to you alright, you dirty slut..." the man growled, pulling on the bow holding her vivid cerise silken crotchless leopard print thong together and tugging it contemptuously aside.

George and Irene Fenning had been happily married for the last 41 years. In just a few more months George was due to retire from his job as a cabbie; once he had the couple would quit London's East End for good and move down to their coastal caravan park holiday home located near to the Kent/East Sussex border. Then - at last! - their long-suffering neighbours might finally get some peace and quiet.

When George wed Irene (or Renie to those who knew her) all those years ago he knew she was highly sexed; it was one of the things which attracted him to her. But he didn't fully understand just how insatiable or uninhibited she was until after their nuptials. Not that he was complaining, but many others did. The young couple's noisy bedroom athletics scandalised the areas they lived in, even back then in those relatively permissive times, so the Fennings moved or were moved on regularly from short-term let to fixed-term rental until they could put down a mortgage deposit and put two fingers up to the prurient nosey parkers.

After a while, and only three now adult children, their ardour cooled from boiling point to a constantly bubbling simmer; intense enough to satisfy their shared passion, but quiet enough to give their neighbours the chance of an occasionally uninterrupted night's sleep. Meanwhile the earnings from George's long hours of taxi driving provided an escape from the constraints of crowded city life in the form of a lifetime membership of the Sandbeach Residential Caravan Park: It was their little piece of heaven in a world going to hell.

Here, secluded on the site's boundary close to the beach, at times when the nearby homes were unoccupied or during the early season when they had the place to themselves, Irene was free to express her orgasmic joy which she often did; long drawn out and loudly.

The couple were looking forward to settling here permanently, well for the ten months of the year the site's licence allowed them to live there anyway; the rest of their time would be spent in a rented flat either close by or in Spain while awaiting the park's early February reopening. Then they could while away the days doing what they enjoyed the most in the place they'd grown to love; taking leisurely walks on the beach or over the Downs; eating meals out on shopping trips in the local towns; or indulging in the beer, karaoke, or bingo nights in the residents' private Sports and Social club. And that along with - of course - what they were up to at the moment...

Time had been unkind to the pair's bodies; George turning wrinkled, paunchy and balding, Irene becoming joweled as well as flabbier by the day despite her constant attempts at dieting; her aged skin blotched beyond the ability of bottled tan to conceal. But they were still attractive in each other's eyes, and bonded in an inseparable devotion further reinforced by bouts of kinky sex such as this, even at their ages.

"Right!" said George in a commanding tone of voice, brandishing the The Alien dildo. "You're going to get it now!"

Teasingly he lightly touched the device closer to the top of Renie's inner thigh, allowing her to feel the vibrations it made on its lowest setting. Already moist with anticipation and staring at the ceiling Irene couldn't see the pulsating implement all that clearly, but by the time George had finished pleasuring her she'd have intimately experienced all of its varied settings, along with the other little unexpected feature built into this the deluxe model. Gently he eased the tip of the lubricated shaft into her, but only a short way; Irene moaned contentedly and involuntarily quivered with delight. She loved to begin slowly before building up to a shrieking perspiration sheened climax.

There was a time when George would have used 'marital aids' such as The Alien as a last resort or for a bit of variety, but that was before his diagnosis of early stage prostrate cancer. They'd operated and caught it in time, thank God; he'd been clear of it for a good while. But the surgery, along with the advancing years, had affected his prowess somewhat.

Fortunately, the aftereffects could have been a lot worse. His doctor referred him to a specialist sex therapy clinic, and their advice had been miraculously effective, along with those pills you can buy online. Ways were proposed to overcome his difficulties which flabbergasted even his and Irene's broadened minds, their attendance as a couple being positively encouraged. One of the clinic's suggestions was humming in his grip right now.

Fully twelve inches long and five in girth, the matt black phallus looked almost menacing: It was a melange of tapering Alien ovipositor, impudicus mushroom, and barrel cactus, textured all around with nodules as well as stiff little spines. Irene was going to get as much of it inserted into her as she could bear, whether she wanted it or not, and then she'd be stunned when George revealed the other tickler he'd brought from Soho's finest emporium, along with where it would be going. Irene's body and senses were going to get overloaded until she teetered on the edge of orgasm, when George would take over from the gadgets to push her the final step beyond. Then hopefully, once blissed out, exhausted, and aching pleasantly afterward Renie had recovered, her inventively twisted imagination would be churning with deliciously perverted repostes when it was his turn to be firmly strapped down under her control... Just thinking about it brought on a further lustful stiffening on his part.

But hold on a minute, thought George, this Alien seems to have a life of it's own! I've not pressed the button again, yet its throbbing is getting stronger! If it's broken I'll take it back and give them a bloody good piece of my mind as well! Or maybe it's not that, but the rattling is one of the site staff driving past in their tractor; that's just what I don't need to distract me right now! I wish they'd hurry up and sod off!

When their static caravan home suddenly tipped downward at an angle Fenning realised the juddering was due to neither of those causes. Irene let out a startled yelp which had nothing to do with The Alien's user programmable settings. Oh bugger it! One of the caravan's props must have collapsed! That's just sodding typical, innit! I 'spose I'll have to get round to replacing them with some proper concrete blocks before the season ends...

The bed lurched; Irene screamed, and George knew this was more than just a dodgy stand failing. All thoughts of passion now shrinking away he looked through the bedroom's net curtained bay window to find out what the hell was going on. The sight which met his eyes astounded him.

It hadn't rained here for weeks; in fact the summer had bucked the trend by being sunny and pleasantly warm for a change; yet outside the dried out grassy turf glistened as if the site had been flooded. Ripples crazed the large khaki puddles spreading as if by magic; some joining together as George watched to form wider pools. There was no precipitation falling yet the surface of the silty water splashed up as if it were being struck by large rain drops or hail stones. The ground appeared to be boiling, almost erupting in fact!

The Fennings had never heard of seismic liquefaction, but they were about to suffer its effects as the earthquake's shaking affected the ground upon which the Sandbeach park stood. When the saturated particles comprising it became agitated by the tremors, the very nature of the soil changed; behaving more like a liquid than a solid.

"George! Untie me!" demanded Irene. "What's going on?"

"I dunno!" he answered, fumbling with one of the large chrome plated buckles securing her strong leather restraints. "But we've got to get out now!" As he spoke the words there was a brief sickening feeling of weightlessness as the bedroom lurched to one side and pitched further down at the lowering end. The double bed with the couple still on it began to slide across the floor; as did the dressing table, spilling their personal effects and items of Renie's make up. From elsewhere in the mobile home came the sound of dislodged objects crashing, sliding, or breaking loose. Irene, her arms now free, hurriedly releasing one ankle restraint while George worked on the other, screamed out in uncomprehending terror. The Alien - already unceremoniously yanked out, thrown away, and ignored - fell rolling into a corner still buzzing.

Fortunately for them the moving furniture stopped against the wall without blocking the bedroom door. Equally so it was a good thing their wardrobe was fitted and so couldn't fall on top of them or else they'd be trapped in here. Thumps were heard from within as items stored inside rattled against the closet's pine effect sliding louvred panels.

Clambering awkwardly, George wrenched the bedroom door open and groaned with dismay. The trailer's living room/kitchen area had become a shambles, and worse still the white plastic front door was bowing in under hydraulic pressure at the bottom, allowing a thin sheet of sloppy mud to spread out over the beige carpet. Out of the corner of Fenning's vision something else caught his attention, an opaque dark brown triangle covering the lower corner of the window closest to the door. Their home was being swallowed by the very earth it stood on, and judging by the way the window was being obscured even as he looked at it, the rate of subsidence was increasing.

The couple needed to escape quickly, but the door with pillows of goo extruding past the draught seals on three sides no longer seemed a viable option. George imagined the pressure of slurry building on the other side the door; there could be no way out through it.

As if to confirm his worst fears, at that very moment the door frame began to separate from the caravan's laminated plywood wall, then the door itself gave way with a loud crack allowing a solid torrent of glutinous muck to burst in and quickly swamp the kitchenette. That sight was enough to start houseproud Renie - now released from her bindings and also looking at the mess - off in a renewed bout of wailing anguish. Slamming the bedroom door shut and bolting it - for all the good that would do - George said "There's no way we can get out through the door. We'll have to go out the window. Help me with that bedside cabinet; we'll put it against the end of the bed and use it as a step up!"

Irene did as she was asked, but still it was difficult to move the small drawer chest with the floor tilting at an ever steepening angle. Heaving and puffing they managed to push it into place at last, then George climbed on it up to the window. Fortunately the key was still in the lock. He unlocked and opened it as far as it would go, but to his horror saw the double glazing's pantograph hinge would only allow a limited arc of movement. He might be able to wriggle his way out, but Irene would have no chance of doing so.

Bracing himself as best he could inside the bay window frame George slammed the sole of his bare foot against the pane once, twice, three times. Apart from making his heel go numb, nothing happened. The tough glass stayed bonded into its uPVC frame and the hinge remained firmly attached at the two places it was fixed to. Desperately he tried stamping with both feet at once; despite doing so several times the window refused to open any wider.

"Hurry up! It's getting past the door!" Irene's frantic cry made him look round. The sludge was beginning to ooze its way into the bedroom; they were running out of time.

Again George thrust both feet hard against the the window, this time throwing as much of his body weight behind them as he could, but still to no effect. With the mobile home tilting at such an angle he was having trouble maintaining his position: If he couldn't break or push the pane out soon they would both be doomed.

He kicked out once more; this time there was a gratifying snap as one of the two hinge pins broke free of its plastic mount. With a frantic strength he didn't know he still had Fenning let fly with another two-footed stomp. "Arrrrrrgh!" This time the only result was him scratching an ankle on the point of the dislodged steel screw, drawing a agonising livid red weal along his shin and calf.

Eyes watering with the stinging pain George launched another frenetic effort. Yes! This time the second stubborn pin popped out! He pushed the window aside and scrambled through. Balancing precariously on the outside of his home, he reached in to grasp Irene's outstretched arm, but before their hands could clasp there was a loud sucking noise and the caravan slumped abruptly downwards with a jolt which sent George staggering backward over the window and sprawled the unbalanced Irene onto the bedroom wall, now effectively the floor.

"Are you all right?" he shouted down to her.

"I think I've hurt my back!" she cried.

"Can you climb up here?"

"I'm not sure!"

With a growing sense of dread Fenning grasped that even if his wife could reach up to him now, there was no way he could ever pull her up and out through the open window. In probably less than a minute or so the quicksand, now rising level with the end of the shivering trailer as it was engulfed further, would bury it - and Renie - completely; drowning or suffocating her.

George, stark naked and straddling his disappearing home, began bellowing at the top of his voice for help.

Chapter Ten

Dungeness Nuclear Power Station.

The senior management of the Dungeness Power Station had gathered in the control room. There were representatives from the operating company and even a junior energy minister looking on from behind the bulletproof glass of the visitors' gallery; it having been closed to the guided tour groups as per standard operating procedure during a startup: Were some technical hitch to occur again it was best not to have coach parties of the unknowledgable general public become unduly alarmed by the sudden appearance of warning lights along with screens filling with red script which could be generated by even a minor fault; they wouldn't understand and would only go away with the wrong impression.

Once the cause of the vibration - the minor earthquake which had struck the Kent area - had become known Carter's life had become a lot easier, even though the critical areas of the plant which might have been affected had to be reexamined; either manually or remotely by robotic camera where it wasn't safe for humans to venture. The staff had worked incredibly hard over the last few hours to reach this point where Reactor One under the supervision of Paul Glover was back up to 75% capacity, while Reactor Two was running at 200 megawatts and ready to be moved up to the next level.

Alan's presence was superfluous; he could monitor the process remotely from his office if he wanted to, but it was part of his job to be seen to be here, especially by the brutish balding little runt of a junior minister wearing a severely cut dark suit.

Before he'd given the politician who'd never been here previously the tour of the complex - Madden, his name was - Alan had tried to explain to the obnoxious fool the reasons why bringing a complex yet temperamental feat of engineering which had passed the end of its planned operational life years ago up to capacity was so difficult: No doubt it had all gone over the minister's head as it had on previous occasions when he'd dealt with these career incompetents. Bullies like Madden were only concerned with getting the job done, no matter who got bruised in the process. Still, this was likely to be the last time he saw the man or whoever replaced him in the endless cycle of "suits full of bugger-all" as the political comedian Ben Elton had so eloquently put it long ago, so Carter had felt confident enough to stand his ground that much more determinedly when the minister had tried to dump the blame for the delayed restart personally on his shoulders.

Michael Williams, the chairman of Dungeness' operating company Potentia Energy - also in the office at the time - didn't look best pleased when Alan had stood up for himself, but then he'd not had the guts to come to Carter's aid, so sod him: Williams could toady-up to Madden later if he wanted to. As far as Carter was concerned, the end of this assignment and the day he began to draw his pension couldn't come soon enough; in fact he might even decide to retire slightly earlier if he could arrange it... But for the moment such thoughts would have to be put aside. The hot seat of a nuclear power plant was no place for wool gathering.

"Is everyone ready?" asked Alan. He received thumbs ups and confident replies "OK: Commence ramp to Normal Operating Capacity."

Maybe this time, hoped Carter as he watched the readings increase. Get the plant up to peak output; hold it there for as long as it took to satisfy the onlookers in the gallery; then ease it back down to a more comfortable and sustainable level. Once that was done he'd go back to his office and enquire about the state of his pension; if he'd only lose a few pounds a week by leaving early he'd have his notice of resignation drafted by the end of the day. He'd discuss the decision with his wife Jane of course, and sleep on it overnight, but he saw no reason to drag out the final months of his working life here, this was too much of a pain in the arse and anyway Paul Glover was more than capable of taking over. So, just get this bloody thing working and leave on a high note...

An alarm pinged quietly. Oh shit! Not now with them looking on!  thought Alan. At least it wasn't a critical issue by the sound of it. Quickly his eyes searched for the problem until they saw the control rod matrix displays. One of the green lights on the diagram had turned red, indicating a problem with one of the many boron alloy rods which were used to regulate the reactor's activity. This had happened before; it was caused the intense heat of the nuclear reaction slightly warping the tight tolerance channel in which the rods was raised and lowered by just enough to make it stick in place slightly. The computer, sensing something was not quite right, had thrown up a caution message.

As a technician cancelled the warning as having been seen and noted Carter breathed a silent sigh of relief. Once the VIPs were out of the way they could fix the glitch by raising and lowering the rod for a few cycles until it moved freely; that had worked in the past.

Alan looked up at the viewing gallery; the gaggle of suits seemed unperturbed. Either they hadn't noticed anything amiss or Williams had been able to skilfully distract them as he explained the procedure to the disinterested group: Thank heaven for small mercies.

"Continue ramping." he ordered. The operators resumed the process. If there were no more niggles in the works the reactor should reach its full capacity in a few minutes.

There was an air of relief when Reactor Two reached the 490 MW limit without further problems. Carter gave a thumbs up sign to the gallery as none of the observers were carrying a plant issued personal radio transceiver, and mobile phones were not permitted to be used in the control room. Williams nodded and gave a forced looking smile in reply: Maybe now the message had got through he'd hustle the VIPs along and the bloody nuisances would all get out of Alan's hair...

Then - just as it looked as if things were beginning to go right at long last - all hell broke loose.

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.

Chapter Twelve

Eastbourne, East Sussex.

Miyahira Tsuki couldn't believe it when she felt the first familiar trembling through the soles of her shoes. Such events were common in Japan of course, but here in England? Surely this was not possible? But then after four months living here she doubted anything about this strange country could surprise her further.

Tsuki, a student at Nagoya university, was spending a year in England as part of her International Development and Cooperation course. Two months into her stay she was still struggling to cope with the shock of a total immersion in an alien culture and doubting if she ever would be able to do so.

It wasn't just the absence of anything familiar here; it was the fact of everything being so different, such as the way English people used their family names after their first names; that had caused some initial confusion and mild embarrassment before she fully grasped the fact. Then there was the spoken english itself; the vernacular and the way it was used here was far different to what she had learned or expected. Tsuki wondered exactly what language she had been studying all of these years because she was having trouble both understanding and making herself understood: It was almost as if she had become an uncomprehending small child again, and she found the experience a humiliating one.

What she also found stressful was just coping with daily life in the UK. This was the case as well for many natives, but for a young Japanese woman it was far worse. Incredible though it seemed, the cost of living here was actually higher than in Japan. And getting to grips with the public transport system was an ordeal in itself; the fares were so expensive and many of the buses or trains were decrepit or obsolete; the timetables a vague hope rather than something to rely upon: Back home such a poor service would be regarded as a national disgrace. Not only that, but travelling on it brought her into close contact with british people. While some of them were really nice and helpful, many more were standoffish or occasionally even rude; though Tsuki had yet to suffer any incidences of the racism she had been warned about during her student induction briefings.

British food was another thing to be endured; she absolutely hated it. Though international meals were available in the form of takeaways and fast food was more or less homologised whether it was served in London or Nagoya, Tsuki still felt nauseated at the thought of what the average Briton ate, and obviously enjoyed: She found the cuisine disgusting.

The UK both geographically and culturally was indeed a long way away from Japan: Tsuki was suffering from a bad case of homesickness. She'd spoken to counselors and fellow students who had been here longer than she about her problems; they told her this was a temporary thing everyone suffered, and she like them would eventually adapt to living here. Tsuki wondered when that might be as nothing ever appeared to improve. Without the support of her close friend Nakagawa Ishi, also from Nagoya, Tsuki felt certain she'd have admitted defeat by now and flown back to Japan in tears of shameful failure.

But though Tsuki didn't notice the fact, she was acclimatising just enough; day by day, week by week, to make staying here more bearable, though she was very much looking forward to returning home. In the meantime she resolved to make the best of her time here, which was why she'd agreed with Ishi's suggestion they spend a day on the coast.

The girls planned to do all of the stereotypical english seaside things this pleasantly warm summer day; to take a bus tour of the genteel town; have a meal of fish and chips; go paddling on the beach... Already they'd eaten some of the strange pink cotton wool candy floss (it was quite nice actually) and seen the various attractions on the victorian pier. They'd also taken plenty of giggling selfies to share with their online contacts and family back home. The friends were admiring the floral displays in the busy Carpet Garden running alongside the beach next to the pier when they felt the shaking and knew at once what it was.

Oh! This is a strong one! Tsuki thought as the panicked crowd swirling around her were thrown sprawling to the ground. Cars on the Grand Parade road running parallel to the gardens slammed on their brakes but some of them couldn't avoid shunting each other with crumping thuds. Rattled by the trembling lawn she'd fallen on to Tsuki's vision was blurred, but she could see pieces of rendering falling from the stately Georgian frontages of the seaside hotels on the other side of the parade, and hear only too well the crunching, rending, sickening sounds of destruction.

Japan being such a seismically active group of islands prone to being struck by strong earthquakes, every citizen had bousai disaster preparedness training drilled into them from an early age. Once Tsuki got over her initial shock she remembered exactly how to react: In her case this meant staying on the garden's lawn curled up with her arms and handbag shielding her head until the tremors were over.

After what could be no more than a minute the earthquake ceased. The immediate silence was broken by the moans of people in distress, the keening of activated car alarms, and the clatter of still falling debris. In the aftermath Tsuki expected to hear the shrill blowing of police whistles as the immaculately uniformed officers began to attract the attention of those nearby and yell orders at them; but those sounds were absent, for this was not Japan. Nor was there the electronic whooping of street corner public address loudspeakers issuing advice. She remembered being told the UK had very little in the way of organised civil defence; how very neglectful of the government! she thought.

"Ishi?" Tsuki called out to her friend in japanese. "Are you OK?"

"Yes, I think so! Wow, that was powerful! Look at all the damage and the dust in the air! What are we going to do?"

"We must do what we can do to help these people." Tsuki gestured around her to where some of the stunned, silenced crowd were beginning to rise, slowly and sometimes painfully to their feet. "We should call for help and give first aid."

"Good idea!" Ishi replied.

A distant male voice shouting interrupted their conversation. "Hey! The tide's going out!" The girls looked round to the source of the bewildered cry. The man was right; the sea was swiftly retreating from its current high water level.

Dame! Both Tsuki and Ishi knew what the phenomenon meant was coming, and obviously so did some of the gaijin. Those who understood the danger the receding sea foretold ran off along the streets leading inland; some of the aimlessly confused herd following them. The rest of the gathering stayed put, collectively gawping at the unprecedented spectacle and waiting to be told what to do.

Didn't these people understand the imminent danger they were in? Did they not know what they must do in these circumstances? Tsuki's observant vision noted the lack of blue and white tsunami evacuation route signs; obviously there was no contingency plan in operation here. She felt torn in a way only a Japanese could understand; on the one hand she was a stranger here, it would not be the done thing to speak out of turn, or worse cause a needless panic in which people might be injured. However she could not remain silent and allow casualties to occur as a result. In the end Tsuki's public spirited ethos gained the upper hand.

"Ishi, we have to warn them!"

"Hai!"

Two faint, high pitched young female voices rose above the crowd's uncertain murmuring. "WARNING! GREAT DANGER! TSUNAMI IS COMING! PLEASE, YOU MUST ALL GO INLAND AT ONCE!" Slowly, like a fire catching hold along the length of a flat sheet of paper, the understanding spread and a human tide began to flow inland toward the town centre. With remarkable speed and calmness the gardens, beach, and the pier emptied of people, leaving Tsuki and Ishi among the last to go. They set off after the nervous crowd, anxiously looking behind them all the while for the expected wave.

 

Prospect Business Park. Dartford, Kent.

Kevin Norris impatiently checked his phone again: On the Wizzit app screen the little pin marking the position of the courier van with his consignment aboard crawled with an annoying slowness closer to his position. The delay was due to the traffic of course, and there was nothing anyone could do about that. Still, he wished it would arrive soon so he could collect his latest delivery of promotional items and then get on the road. Norris didn't have any appointments arranged for today; instead he'd act like the road warrior he was by dropping in to some of his regular customers to see what trade he could drum up. Those visits were usually successful to some degree, and provided you didn't make a nuisance of yourself by turning up unannounced too often, they kept you, along with your business, to the forefront of your clients' minds.

At long last the icon marking the van's position neared the off ramp which led to Prospect Park, a mixture of office and light industrial/warehouse units where Kevin was located. Norris had a small temporary office in Enterprise House, a designer ugly brick built office block on a short-term let while he waited for one of the current tenants to vacate a nearby warehouse unit so that his company could expand into it. His was one of the few businesses which were struggling to keep up with demand at the moment; but then fear always was good for sales...

Rather than wait for the driver to report to the common reception desk, Kevin decided to go out and meet him. After all, being proactive was what had got him where he was today. He locked the office door and trotted briskly down the flights of stairs to the lobby. He'd just flashed the pretty young receptionist a goodbye smile and left the building when he was roughly thrown to the pavement.

What the- thought Norris, but no sooner had he done so his training took over and he was ready to defend himself against whoever had blindsided him, but then he understood what was really happening. Christ! Not here... No! This isn't possible... Yet there was no mistaking it; he was reminded of the smaller scale event he'd experienced while on a business trip to Japan. It's a fucking earthquake!

Galvanised into action Norris understood the danger he was in and how to get out of it. Though the ground was still shuddering, making walking nearly impossible, he realised he must move now or risk serious injury or possible death from debris falling from the building. Unsteadily he heaved himself into a crouch, and part running, part crawling on wobbly legs, scuttled for the safety of the car park. A dislodged roof tile crashed near by him, then another, then more followed; shattering on impact with the tarmac and pelting him with stinging fragments. Jagged shards of glass shaken out of window frames cascaded down; much of it landing on the roofs of nearby cars, settling there like sharp hail.

Behind him and off to the right he heard a thump which sounded like a load of rubble being dumped all at once into a skip. That must be a part of the building detaching itself thought Norris, as he lurched between cars rocking on their suspension and shrieking their electronic distress at being disturbed from their slumber.

It had been many years since he'd been made redundant from a promising junior officer's career in the Army; during the intervening time a life spent in seats of various kinds had left him unfit and even pudgy, but the adrenaline response lent him speed and soon he reached the safety of a neatly mown grass strip located at the edge of the car park. Hey, that's not too bad for a bloke in his late forties, but I really must get back into shape he resolved.

Holding on for dear life to a diamond mesh wire cyclone fence he heard the squeals of urgently applied brakes and the hollow thumps of multiple collisions on the foliage screened major road running alongside the business centre: The noises were followed by a deeper scraping of skidding tyres on tarmac and far heavier impacts. Jesus Christ! It sounds as if there's going to be utter carnage over there! he mused.

 

Near Prospect Business Park, close to the A2/A2018 junction

By now Ryan Buckland was well into his schedule. Constantly on the alert for an idiot driver to make a mistake, he remained hyper aware while flicking between RSE and SportsTalk on the radio. Faced with the choice of Neil Simpson's inane verbal diarrhoea or an all day autopsy of the England cricket team's latest woeful performance he decided to switch the set off.

At first Ryan thought the juddering was something wrong with the van's steering transmitted through the wheel and pedals, or something must have broken loose; but the sight of other vehicles fishtailing around while trying desperately to drive in a straight line made him realise it wasn't the van at fault. He knew what could happen on a multilane highway when just one driver made a fatal error and the cascade of misfortune spread - he'd nearly been caught up in a pile up once with only his quick reactions saving him - and he didn't want to be involved in a multiple vehicle shunt.

He'd already been slowing down in the inner lane in preparation to turn off up a slip road to the junction which led to the business park, so he drove onto the hard shoulder and gunned the engine: He needed to get out of here now! The van surged forward but as he wrestled with the wheel Buckland noticed what appeared to be small cracks in the road surface, widening and racing in parallel along with his vehicle. Holy shit!

The shaking vibrated the periphery of his vision into an indistinct blur, but in the brief look he caught in his rear view mirror he saw the heart stopping sight of a large articulated lorry behind travelling all but broadside on and it was catching up with him!

In panic Ryan trod the accelerator all the way down to the carpet; the engine laboured from being revved this way in too low a gear but he gained precious space from the looming wall of metal chasing him. As he began to climb away from the dual carriageway to safety Ryan glimpsed the HGV driver trying to turn into the skid to bring his rig back under control, but he ran out of road and time. Part of the juggernaut's trailer hit the crash barrier at the junction where the the off ramp began, rending it before becoming caught for a moment. This was enough to flip the boxy trailer on to its side, pulling the tractor unit over with it.

The jackknifed truck ground along the road in a shower of sparks and shredded metal before smashing into a concrete truss of the overpass; slewing across most of the carriageway. Ryan knew there would be little or no chance of the drivers behind being able to avoid the grimy underbelly of the lorry swelling into their windscreens, but even as the horrific scene was replaced by the sight of a rough grass verge rushing by in his right hand window he saw his problems were far from over.

Ahead of him a woman driving a Japanese micro car had done the sensible thing and slowed right down when disaster began to unfold around her morning commute; but now as she eased to a halt at the stop lines leading onto the large interchange roundabout her car was directly in the way of Ryan's van which was about to rear-end it at high speed. There was no time to sound his horn, and no point; she wouldn't be able to move out of his way. Instead Buckland spun the steering wheel hard left and stood on his brakes as much as he dared. He could feel the anti-lock brake system in action; tyres scrabbling for grip as the brakes operated. Narrowly missing the hatchback and its startled driver, Ryan's van sailed over the white line and on to the double lane traffic circle, fortunately there were no vehicles on a collision course with him as he continued to slow.

As the tremors ceased Ryan regained control over his van and instinctively aimed it at the usual exit he took when making a delivery. As he left the roundabout Buckland noted a flashy looking BMW had gone off the road, leaving a wiggly set of skid marks behind before coming to rest in some ornamental bushes, the hapless driver surrounded by mushrooms of deflating airbags. Further along, a motorcyclist had been less fortunate; the quake had unbalanced him and he'd wrapped himself and his machine around an aluminium sign pole. Dispassionately Ryan thought it likely the rider had been killed by the impact.

Buckland, still shaking, eased his van into Prospect Park and spotting an empty parking space, reversed into it: A wise courier always does their reversing first when parking for a delivery, just in case some dozy bugger blocks you off; at least pointing in the right direction you have a greater chance of being able to drive away from someone else's poor parking choice. There, not understanding he was in a state of profound shock, Ryan Buckland sat immobile; his hands tightly gripping the wheel, waiting for something to happen.

 

Whitehall.

Stuart Pullman had dismissed his confidantes for the time being. In the run-up to the Prime Minister's return to London and the momentous cabinet meeting due to begin later this morning he wanted to be alone with his thoughts in anticipation of the battle which surely lay ahead.

When the earthquake struck his initial thoughts were that it was a bomb going off or an improvised mortar attack; what with the sudden rumbling sound, the vibrating of the bullet proof windows and the frames of the government owned paintings on his office wall clattering against the venerable wooden paneling distracting him from his meditation. But then he understood this wasn't a blast wave at all. His concentration was scrambled by the deafening emergency alarm which had just begun to sound, but once he retied his broken mental threads he began simultaneously considering how to deal with this emergency and what this event might mean for his political ambitions. It was a certainty Ian Campbell would try and use the fact of this new tremor against him, the bastard.

The heavy wooden door to Pullman's office burst open without ceremony and two of his bodyguards rushed in; they wore kevlar helmets and had thrown bullet proof vests over their normal suits. Though their weapons remained holstered they looked nervously around for any potential threat.

"I know!" said Pullman, preempting their instructions. "Down the Hole we go." referring to the emergency bunker. "No, I'm not going to bother putting on my helmet and vest; let's just get going!"

With one guard leading the way and the other following Stuart the trio made their way down the wide flights of plushly carpeted stairs to ground level. As they exited an obsequious staff member arrived on cue to lock Pullman's office door.

Once they reached the 'rabbit hole' - the name given to the inconspicuous door which led to the subterranean levels and passed through, the opulence above was replaced by austere governmental functionality. Following the route practiced so many times before during rehearsals Pullman reached the Operations Centre which was rapidly coming to life.

"What's happened?" he demanded of the Duty Officer.

"First reports indicate a powerful earthquake has struck London and the south east of England. The Prime Minister has been informed and will be returning to Downing Street by helicopter immediately rather than travelling by road. Plan Cascade has been activated; all members of the royal family, along with cabinet level ministers and their families are being accounted for: As prearranged they will be convening here shortly or moving to their designated Safe Locations."

"Very well." Pullman replied. "In the meantime until the PM returns, I will be taking charge."

"Very good Sir."

"I'm convening an emergency cabinet which will operate in rolling session until further notice; we'll be in the Situation Room, so direct any data streams there."

"Yes Sir."

With that the Deputy PM, along with John Fanning, his private secretary who had caught up with him, turned away and walked the short distance to the situation room. They were closely shadowed by a naval officer carrying a toughened black attaché case - the nuclear 'button'. Once there Pullman settled himself in at the head of the large oak table which dominated the room. No sooner had he done so a civil service functionary placed an open ring binder in front of him; in it was a single sheet of paper requiring his immediate signature, a written confirmation he was assuming executive responsibility for the time being. Even in the midst of a developing disaster there were still bureaucratic formalities to observe, documents to be signed and minutes to be taken. With a flourish he scrawled his name in the space provided at the bottom of the form and handed the file back.

Pullman was suddenly struck by the fact that this wasn't an exercise; it was for real and he was in charge - at least until he would have to vacate his place for the PM. An almost electric jolt ran through him, one he'd felt before when he'd been first selected as a candidate, then elected an MP, and every time his career had progressed since. Now that he occupied the prime ministerial hot seat - even if only for a short time - the feeling returned, but this time it was different, reaching a heightened intensity. So this was how it felt to have Made It!... I like this... I must not allow myself to be cheated of what is my right...

However Stuart couldn't luxuriate in his new authority for long. With a bustle the Home and Health Secretaries arrived along with their aides, both ministers looked pale and shocked. Soon they were joined by other members of the cabinet who arrived via the network of reinforced Whitehall tunnels. Officials began removing protective wrappings from binders of emergency procedures and standby secure government laptops were booted into life. While everyone was getting settled in around the cabinet table Stuart looked across at the large wallscreen, currently divided into eight segments. Some were blank while one of the tiles displayed the Connect24 news. Bizarrely the network knew as much as the government did at the moment, which was very little apart from the fact an event had taken place.

"Ah! There you are Sir John! I'm pleased to see you safe and well. We shall be relying heavily upon your expertise in the times to come." Pullman's confident greeting to the newly arrived Sir John Underwood, the Chief Civil Servant, silenced the room's muted hubbub. "When might you be able to give us an initial briefing on the emergency?"

"In approximately five minutes when the intelligence has been collated, Deputy Prime Minister." Sir John replied.

"Excellent! In the meantime ladies and gentlemen, I suggest we call this emergency cabinet meeting to order. As you are no doubt aware, the royal family and the Prime Minister have been safely accounted for, with the PM returning here from Chequers. He's expected back shortly. In the meantime we will be holding the fort as well as coordinating the response to this event. As per the standard procedures we'll follow the generic Major Incident Contingency Plan until we learn enough to tailor our response to the specific requirements of the situation.

What I would say at this moment is that it appears this earthquake has been a far stronger event than the previous tremor, so accordingly the government's reaction will have to be equally larger in scale..." Stuart felt in his element as he continued, buoyed by the effervescence of power, almost euphoric in fact, though he couldn't allow it to show. He hoped this sensation would keep him energised through the interminably long hours that were certain to lie ahead.

Chapter Thirteen

Sandbeach Caravan Park.

At first Sam Bicknall though there was something wrong with the tractor he was driving: The engine vibrations changed, becoming rougher, and the steering went rubbery. Oh shit! This was the last thing he or his father who jointly ran the family-owned caravan park with him needed right now, what with things being so tight. They relied heavily upon this scaled-down multifunctional machine. It was almost always in use; either to trim the hedge boundaries, mow the site's lawns, tow the caravans around, or haul the members' boats up the concrete beach launching ramp onto dry land (Fees apply. Please consult your members' handbook or ask at reception for current charges. 'Season tickets' for regular service users are available.)

Now it appeared that after twenty years of faithful service the tractor was developing serious and probably terminal problems. It felt as if something had broken loose inside the motor, and possibly taken out the power steering pump as well. Sam's father Laurie would most likely blame him for not performing the DIY servicing diligently enough. Whatever the reason for the breakdown the cost of the new parts or a replacement machine would put another unwanted dent into the park's accounts: Laurie was bound to be greatly displeased.

As Sam was about to switch the ignition off before the engine completely chewed itself into scrap metal it dawned on him the juddering he felt had nothing to with the tractor. Instead the whole park - the very earth! - was wobbling like a jelly!

Disbelievingly he looked on as what had been solid ground began to turn watery, and some the caravans close to the beach end of the site began to settle into the mire. What was going on? At least this was happening on a weekday so the weekend residents had yet to travel down... with any luck we'll be able to clear up any mess or damage before they arrive. It's a good thing those vans are empty at the moment or there'd be a barrage of complaints...

But hang on! The trailer at the far end of the park sinking the quickest would be occupied! With a start Sam remembered talking to George Fenning earlier; the randy old sod checking the coast would be clear for him to give his old lady a good banging. She loves to scream and howl does his missus; and everyone knows it, so they try to be as discreet as possible. Well good luck to them I say! I hope I'll still be humping away like that when I'm that old...

Shocked out of his temporary confusion Sam realised the Fennings' caravan was in the middle of the biggest liquid sinkhole, it was tilting up at the end as well as going down fast! They might be trapped in there and need rescuing!

Sam gunned the tractor's engine and breaking the site's 10mph limit, sped along the narrow tarmac access road toward the group of subsiding 'vans. As he approached he saw the end window of the Fennings home burst open and a pair of aged bare male legs push it forcibly aside, the effort nearly carrying naked George through, leaving him sprawling over the outside of the by now almost horizontal end of the trailer.

When the tractor's steering began to feel unresponsive Sam realised he risked driving headlong into the spreading void. He spun the wheel into a hard right turn and jammed on the brakes. This was as far as he dared risk taking the machine without it being swallowed as well. Now Bicknall had to work out a way of bridging the remaining distance and saving the Fennings with what he had to hand. Sam's thoughts turned to the heavy duty nylon tow rope stored along with his other tools in the low aluminium tub of a trailer the tractor habitually towed around. That should do it! Clipping one of the spring-loaded heavy-duty carabiner clips joined to the ends of the line onto the rope itself to form a lariat and fastening the other end to the tractor's hitch, Bicknall gathered the cable up into a spool. "GEORGE!" he shouted to the uneasily balanced Fenning,"TAKE THIS!" throwing the line across to him.

George snatched at the rope as the end of it struck the cream plastic plank effect siding of the caravan, but it landed just too far away for him to grasp, sliding off into the marshy puddle surrounding the all but consumed trailer. By now the liquefied mud was level with the end of the park home and, gurgling as it did so beginning to dribble ever closer to George and the window. If Sam couldn't recover the orange tow line and cast it back again in time it would be too late for Renie, and George would be unlikely to swim his way out of the quagmire unaided.

Sam threw the rope out with greater force this time. The loop skittered off the window glass but George was able to catch hold of it. Pulling the rest of it to him he fed the lasso through the open window and down to the terrified Irene. "Slip the it over your head and under your armpits; that's it! George urged her. "Now hold on tight and keep your arms down and close to your sides!" Fenning was about to give Sam the signal to pull Renie clear when with a loud burping noise the caravan was sucked down as the earth enveloped it, and the couple completely.

 

Woppa Burga.

All members of the Woppa Burga staff knew where to find the first aid kit with its sachets of burn cooling gel. Eyes adjusting to the gloom of the ruined kitchen, Jason Wallace located the prominent sign and scrambled over the debris strewn floor to it. As he detached the kit from its wall mount his nose wrinkled. Was that the sulphurous smell of leaking gas? Could he hear a faint hissing sound amid the noises of settling debris and the trickling of a broken water pipe? - Yes! Oh shit! It must be escaping from a cracked pipe somewhere. And that faint crackling sound? Was it an electrical short circuit?

Jason realised the danger he was in. If a spark ignited the gas in this oil saturated atmosphere the resulting explosion could bring the weakened building down on top of him. Anyone injured or trapped in the toilets would just have to wait until the Fire and Rescue Service arrived for help. He couldn't delay a moment longer, he had to get out now!

As he left Wallace paused for a moment by the gas supply inlet valve; he could at least shut it off in the hope it would stop the flow. With any luck if the leak wasn't from the gas main the hazard would dissipate quickly and closing the supply wouldn't take more than a few seconds to accomplish. He considered switching off the mains electricity at the junction box as well, but decided against it for fear of creating the spark which could set off an explosion.

Quickly he turned the valve to the off position and looked over to the still lit flame grill where the Char Burgas had their carbonised outer crusts burnt on, expecting to see the low flames shrink and die. They did, but too late.

Something touched off the combustible atmosphere. Jason glimpsed the soundless yellow-white flash and knew he was doomed. There was a wave of intense heat and Wallace was slammed up against a wall, or had he been knocked down to the floor? There was no way of telling. Suffocating, the manager tried to breathe but couldn't; something was wrong with his lungs. Small painfully hard objects - chunks of masonry most likely - pummelled him, and then a far heavier object dropped on to his chest. Jason felt several intense stabbing pains and a part of his mind which was his - yet not his - told him several of his ribs had just been broken, with the splintered ends being driven deep into his vital organs. In any case, even if his rib cage hadn't been crushed, his lungs were seared and useless now. The awful truth dawned on him; he was going to die!

Wallace, like everyone who worked at Woppa Burga, knew what it was to suffer painful burns. But now rather than only getting briefly splashed by the fryers it was as if he'd been dropped in a giant vat of superheated boiling oil. His skin - in fact his whole body - was nothing but degrees of agony.The suffering is temporary; it will pass soon,. a distant, emotionless, expressionless Voice told him. You can't fight it. Just surrender and let yourself go.

Despite suffering the profound shock of the grievously injured Wallace's dying senses were acutely heightened, and his mind - his soul - was aware of itself in a way which it had never been before. Why did this only happen now, at the end of his life? he asked himself. Jason sensed a part of him was in the now - his mortally wounded body writhing in torment pinned beneath the collapsed rubble of the former restaurant - but a facet of him felt strangely disconnected from it all. So this is what it's like to have a ton of bricks fall on you he thought wryly. And there was the mystery of the disembodied Voice; it felt like a part of him, yet it was distinct; so cold, so cruel, so very clear, but slightly distorted, as if it were an artificial entity speaking via a faint telephone line from a great distance away. What was it, and where did it come from? Not long to go now. it soothed.

Wallace's mind rebelled against his imminent death; however he felt anaesthetised by a sense of peace and resignation. Yet his psyche was also swamped by waves of grief and anguish; regrets about the things he would never get to do now, especially getting married to his long-term partner Becky and starting a family with her. Becky! - Mum! - Dad!... The realisation he would never see them again, and that they would be the ones bereaved by him tore at his heart. Noooooooooo!...

A profound chill grew inside him; Jason felt far colder than he had ever been before, but he could not shiver. Instead he sensed a  tingling spreading throughout his body. Soon now; very soon... reassured the Voice-thought-connection to some unknown realm. Don't try to resist it. Yes, it's a horrific experience to go through, but it will be over shortly... Wallace was suddenly overwhelmed by an avalanche of sensations; sights, sounds, smells, tastes, emotions, memories forgotten until now. So this is what they mean by your life flashing before you he thought; but this isn't so much a final playback, it feels more like an electronic file being compiled ready to be downloaded - but to where? Jason began to experience the entirety of his being; everything that was Him, preparing to leave this body - this existence - in one final, irrevocable step to a place beyond imagination or description. The thought terrified him. With a disorientating lurch he felt his ego splitting in two; his spirit floating as it struggled to free itself as if hatching from an egg, but this life's consciousness remaining trapped within his dying brain.

All was dark; Jason's burned eyes were blind. His senses, along with his physical mind, were fading. Yet some flickers of random thoughts persisted in the husk of the body he was leaving; the draught in the wake of his passing. If only he'd been able to get the cold packs out and use them on Esme... I'm sorry Esme; I failed you... And what was that? Even as his hearing was shutting down it registered a faint wasp trapped in a jar ssssp-ssssp-ssssp... Somehow amid all this destruction electricity was still reaching the piped music speakers buried among the debris of the fallen ceiling. Distractedly, and with a bizarre under the circumstances annoyance, Wallace noted how not even a disaster could interrupt the infuriating sibilation which had become known as "the soundtrack to your life".

As a dizzying waterfall roaring nothingness engulfed him and the final heart beats pulsed like thunder through his eardrums, Jason's last thought as the embers of his mind cooled to ashes was that even his death would be set to some bloody background music. 
 

Jason Wallace (24), Rasheem Khalid (22), Esme Graham (18), PCSO Alison Garfett (30), Michael Holmes (45), and Perry McIvery (48) were killed outright by the explosion. John Hicks (44) was also critically injured: Despite the best efforts of the first-aiders in a makeshift treatment centre he would die of his burns and shock later that day. The death toll from the quake was beginning to rise, and would continue to do so.

Meanwhile, in the Leicester head office of a big shed homeware retailer where news of the earthquake had yet to reach, keywords in a submitted CV and cover letter triggered the interest of an algorithm. Automatically it generated an email response which would forever go unread: Dear Mr Wallace, We have received your application for the Branch Manager vacancy. We would like to invite you for an interview...

Chapter Fourteen

Sandbeach Caravan Park.

It happened so suddenly: One moment George Fenning was standing stark bollock naked on the diminishing uncovered end of his caravan, the next there was a plughole glugging sound as both he and the 'van were gone; drawn down by the morass; the bubbling slurry spiralling in their wake in a thick brown viscous whirlpool. George hadn't even the time to order Sam to begin pulling them out before he vanished. Now all there was to show a mobile home had ever stood on that spot was the taut towline leading into the swirling mire.

The couple's only slim chance at life was for Bicknall and his tractor to pull the rope out of the bog in the hope the Fennings had managed to attach themselves to it, as well as them not drowning while he did so. Tugging his feet free with difficulty from the cloying mud Sam leaped into the driving seat and eased on the accelerator. The engine roared and a plume of dark grey sooty fumes erupted from the vertical exhaust pipe, but the tractor didn't move; the large rear wheels with their blocky tyres span in place, throwing up rooster tails of slop but going nowhere. Quickly slamming the gear lever into reverse with a grinding clash, Bicknall revved the engine again, the machine and its trailer rocked backward slightly before churning mud once more.

But that movement had been enough to break free, even if only for a short while. Selecting a forward gear, Sam now bet everything on one do-or-die go. If this failed he'd have to abandon the sinking tractor and save himself. He floored the accelerator and the rear wheels spun, then gripped, spun, gripped again, but this time gained traction. The tractor began slithering its way forward onto firmer ground, and Bicknall with relief felt the steering firming up in his grip along with the resistance of something on the end of the tow rope. He didn't know what it was, but he knew that if the line had been attached to the mobile home there'd be no chance of him being able to pull it back up to the surface, the rope would break under the strain: Instead he'd have to hope it was the Fennings he was pulling through the goo; and once the tractor had clawed its way to safety he'd find them alive rather than dead. The rear view mirrors were covered in splattered mud, so Sam wouldn't know until he stopped pulling whether his rescue had been a success or failure.

 

The Fennings’ Trailer.

Their bedroom was now well below the surface of the quicksand, and it seemed all hope was lost. When his support fell away beneath him George tried sliding through the open window and closing it behind him in the hope it might gain the couple just a few more moments of life together, or even a chance for another rescue attempt, but to no avail. He couldn't reach the window handle before a thick stream of ooze covered it and started pouring in through the opening. In any case he had enough to cope with using the line in his grasp to arrest his fall. He did so, but at the cost of rope burns to his palms.

Looking up the couple saw with dismay the shrinking patch of daylight being obscured as the mud, liquid like melted chocolate, spread over the window glass. So this is it... George thought. What a way to go... Embracing his beloved Renie he wondered what he could say to her as their time ran out; "I Love You." was an obvious choice, but even that seemed so inadequate compared to the situation they were in. Maybe after being married for decades some things didn't need to be said as they faced their great leap into eternity together: Just to physically hold each other at the end was enough.

"Renie." George blurted. "I just wanted to say-" but he didn't get to finish his sentence. The rope around Irene suddenly tightened, and she began to lift. "Close your eyes, hold your breath, and keep your head tucked in to your chest!" He urged as she continued to ascend. Wrapping and crossing his legs at the ankles around her ample hips, Fenning grasped the towline with his raw hands and held on as well as he could, anything to lessen the strain on Irene's body. The couple rose as one, George guiding them both with a free hand directly under the mud shower, and as the last glimmer of daylight was extinguished by the marshy slime, they were drawn up into the filthy deluge.

 

Connect24 studios.

"Are we still on-air?" Despite being rattled by the immediate aftermath of The Event - whatever it was - Dominic Paige's instincts kick-in. Something Big has just happened, and it's his job to make sure Connect24 are the first to discover what it was.

"WHAT WAS THAT?" he shouts; a question asked of anyone who is nearby. The power which had suddenly cut out begins to flicker back again, replacing the dull emergency lighting; screens and terminals start to reboot.

"I don't think it was The Bomb..." replies Ian May, the deputy editor. "Mad as it may seem, and judging by the shaking after that first great jolt, I think we may have just suffered a large earthquake! Maybe Brian McLean wasn't so mad after all!"

"That figures." Dominic agrees. "It must be a follow-on from the tremor which happened the other day. OK people, let's get on it! I need information - now! Ian; see if you can find some experts who will talk about it. Also we're going to need images-" he looks over at the social media feed screens; as yet they are showing nothing. No one appears to be commenting, which is remarkable in itself - or an ominous portent. "-no, scramble anyone who can use a camera; get them on the case!"

Paige concentrates his attention back to the studio monitor where Andrew Patterson and Anna Coombes are recovering from their surprise, Patterson is busy filling in and promising more details of whatever has occurred as we get them - good man!

But as yet there are no details; and even if there were Paige has no idea how many people are watching C24. At least the satellite uplink appears to working so the international audience and news networks will be able to receive the station's output, even if few viewers at home will be able to. But if the mains electricity has been cut as seems likely they will only be able to broadcast for as long as the emergency generators have fuel.

However that is a problem for the future; Dominic lives in the now and curses that tightwad Euan Rees' insistence in only maintaining token offices in Westminster and the Docklands in order to save money, instead basing Connect24 out of the way in a redeveloped industrial park and office complex in fucking Clapton of all places! Paige wishes they were closer to the action.

Looking around the control room it appears the production staff are getting themselves back together, apart from a pale skinned blonde waif of a female intern he doesn't know; She's trying to mop with an absorbent kitchen roll a puddle of coffee which has spilled onto one of the consoles. Dominic's accumulated stress erupts in an abrasive Edinburgh snarl which startles her; "If you've broken that you're going to pay for it!" In response the trainee on the verge of tears frantically scrunches up larger wads of tissue to blot even more urgently at the panel.

Fortunately for her Paige notices a new feed coming in on one of the monitors. At least someone is thinking and has run outside with a minicam. Now there is a live scene which can be broadcast, even if all it shows is a stationary line of bemused traffic and what might be a cloud of smoke far away. It isn't much but it will have to do for now, and it will be a visual distraction from the presenters wearing the same few facts down to nothing by continual repetition.

Reassured Connect24 is still functioning, Dominic's overwrought mind is able to relax very slightly, and a lower priority unformed thought which was nagging at the edge of his consciousness is finally able to coalesce.

"Is everyone all right?" he asks.

Chapter Fifteen

Sandbeach Caravan Park.

Only a few short minutes ago Irene Fenning had been tied down onto her bed, expecting to be lovingly abused for a while. Then in a few fleeting instants her world had literally fallen out beneath her; now the shock of it all was compounded by her imminent and most likely fatal entry into the muddy cascade tumbling into what used to be their home from home.

The first thing that struck her just after she grazed her back on the window catch as she passed through was how solid the liquid earth felt; and the unrelenting pressure it exerted on her as well as George, desperately clinging on for dear life. The cold, damp, irritatingly abrasive quagmire compressed her chest, pushing against her ears and tightly closed eyelids as well as forcing its way up her nostrils; she was aware of her rapid heartbeat pulsing throughout her body. Though she knew she'd not been immersed in the quicksand more than a few seconds the time seemed to have stretched into minutes, and the overpowering urge to breathe, even though she knew it would most likely kill her, was becoming irresistible.

Oh God no! Renie felt George's leggy grip around her waist loosening as he - not being secured in the lariat as she - was being dislodged by the resistance exerted by the slime as they were pulled through it. The stab of alarm which flashed through her nearly caused her to draw breath, but she fought down the instinct and prayed to the deity she'd not known since her repressed catholic schooldays that somehow her darling husband would have the strength to hold on.

Blind, deaf, and with her lungs feeling as if they were going to burst Irene lost all sense of time. She felt trapped in an unbearable eternal present - buried alive! But then, just when she thought the chafing pain in her armpits couldn't get any worse, or her lungs were going to burst and she would succumb to the mire, something changed. The pressure relented and Renie felt a lightness above her; they'd broken the surface!

But their motion didn't stop; the couple were dragged along at greater speed now. Irene dared to breathe - fresh air at last! - but didn't yet open her grit encrusted eyes. She could feel herself being pulled on to solid ground like a beaching boat. Spitting out some of the foul tasting earth which had forced its way into her mouth she called out questioningly, "George?"

There was an answering indrawn gasp and splutter "Renie! Oh thank God! I didn't think we going to make it!"

"Nor did I dear!" she replied, snorting out a large plug of grimy mucus.

The Fennings had just lost their retirement dream caravan and everything in it. Both of them were stark naked and covered in sticky filth; their bodies an assortment of scrapes. Renie's tight brassy curls were caked with mud, as were the couple's ears and eyelids. But they were alive and they still had each other. As Irene felt the pulling stop and Sam Bicknall's urgent footsteps approaching, she thought when it all boils down to it, that's all you need.

 

Eastbourne.

It was one of the legion of pavement A-boards which caused the pile-up. The Council should have banned those nuisances a long time ago and heavily penalised the obdurate, greedy businesses who regarded the public's Right of Way as their own private advertising space, along with confiscating the offending signs in question. But the bureaucrats had done nothing about the problem, abandoning their responsibilities and leaving visually impaired people or mobility scooter users such as pensioner Erin James to negotiate their way with difficulty around the obstructions.

She wasn't at fault, and even if Mrs James had been aware of the surge of people behind her fleeing the approaching tsunami reaching the junction of Cavendish Place and Elms Avenue, she couldn't have been expected to get out of the panicked throng's way in time. Instead the human tide caught her broadside on as she was trying to find a way around this particularly irksomely placed, water weighted panel board; the leading runners not being able to stop in time or avoid Erin and her electric trike as they were being pushed onward from behind.

Only a couple of minutes earlier Erin's world had been normal; then the shaking began and pieces of the high terraced buildings were bouncing off the paving slabs all around her. She'd steered herself off the kerb and into the relative safety of the road, only being hit by a few small relatively harmless pieces of stucco. Once the rattling had ceased everything went strangely quiet. Soon after she heard the frantic shuffling of thousands of footfalls growing louder in volume as they drew nearer. Seeing the approaching horde Erin attempted to manoeuvre an escape through the scattering of dislodged bricks, roof tiles, chunks of plaster and other debris littering the street.

Before she knew it the crowd were upon her; their momentum bowling her over and sending her sprawling into the road. Mrs James might have been crushed by the fear-crazed mob, but fortunately her toppled scooter provided a slight bubble of shielded space. Nethertheless more people, carried along by the force of the crush tripped over the upended power chair and were sent flying, some nearly landing on top of her.

All order and cohesion lost, the effects of the accident rippling through the stampeding rabble caused more people to stumble. No organised evacuation now, the mass became a shouting brawl of flailing arms and kicking legs; punches were thrown in desperate attempts to get clear of the slow moving log jam at any cost.

In the wake of the human squall Erin lay shaken and disoriented. Aching she tried to heave herself up but she was still suffering the effects of her fall. Then, thankfully, two pairs of helping hands came to her aid. "Obaasan; we will help you!" said a strangely accented young woman's voice.

"Oh thank you dear!"

"So sorry this has happened." the voice continued. Erin caught a first sight of her rescuers; they were a pair of asian girls, students or tourists most likely.

"It wasn't your fault. There's nothing for you to apologise for!"

"But I warned them of the tsunami coming! I did not know this would lead to so much regrettable disorder!" one of them replied. Her friend said something in an incomprehensible language.

"What's that?" asked Erin.

"It is Japanese saying." the friend spoke. "If you cannot help the world, you can at least help one person. Great danger is coming! We must save ourselves and you as well! Quickly we must go inland out of range of the wave; we will aid you. Is your wheelchair still working?"

"Wave? What wave? I dunno about any wave! But if you'd be so kind as to put my chair back on its wheels we can find out if it's broken."

Together the women righted the scooter, then made to carefully pick up Erin. Suddenly the expressions of concern in their faces changed to stark terror.

"What's wrong?" asked Mrs James; attempting to shrug off her confusion.

"It is too late!" replied the first girl, looking in the direction of the sea. "Tsunami is here!"

Chapter Sixteen

Dungeness Power Station.

"I'm all right!" said Alan Carter as he brushed away the proffered hand of a concerned technician. In truth he didn't feel OK, having struck the side of his head against the side of the console when the massive jolt threw him sprawling to the floor along with many others, but his giddiness and blurred vision were problems which could be ignored for the moment. What the hell could have happened?

"Turn that bloody klaxon off and give me a sitrep!" He ordered. But none of the staff had any coherent reply to offer, they were all trying to make sense of their radically altered world or pulling themselves back into their chairs as the back-up lights flickered into action."Come on people! Get a grip on it!"

This must be the mother of all incidents he thought as he looked at the display screens; many of them were blank. That shouldn't have happened; nor should the power have gone out completely leaving just the subdued emergency lighting remaining. The complex's contingency generators - eight large diesel engines - should have started automatically by now, yet they had failed to do so.

At last there was relief from the earsplitting noise as the master alarm was silenced. It was patently obvious to everyone there had been a major event, but of what type? The staff had run simulations of course; preparing for the outside chance that extremists might deliberately crash an airliner against the reinforced concrete reactor vessel, or the detonation a nuclear weapon in the area; be it a small terrorist bomb or a deliberately targeted warhead which had been intercepted or missed its aiming point due to a guidance malfunction: The reactor had been designed to survive such eventualities.

For now until the computerised systems restarted the control room operators were operating blind; reliant on the scant information their analogue instruments provided to monitor the condition of the reactors. Alan reached down to pick up a notepad and biro which had been knocked off a desk and onto the floor; he needed to begin a log, writing down the actions they'd taken along with any measurements they recorded so they'd have a baseline of data to work from. He examined the critical systems first: The control rod status matrix remained unlit so there was no way of knowing for certain that the automatic failsafe mechanism had tripped and dropped the rods back into the pile, so damping the reaction. But if the gauges were to be believed at least some activity - more than there ought to be - was continuing, though given the juddering the station had just endured who knew what readings could be relied upon? The first rule in situations such as this was never to take anything for granted; find the truth of the matter out for yourself.

"Where's the bloody power?" he demanded exasperatedly, reaching for one of the walkie-talkies which had been dislodged from their recharging base; maybe someone elsewhere in the complex had an idea what was happening. As if in answer the lights came back on and the computer systems began to reboot. As they did so more of the consoles came back online, but not all of them.

The operators had run through nearly every conceivable emergency scenario in an on-site simulator suite: It was such a routine part of their training they took it for granted and were confident of dealing with any problem in their stride. But nothing in the most outlandish worst-case imaginings had ever resembled the state of the control room readouts at the moment.

With the emergency power restored the displays were flickering wildly and the indicator lights resembled those of a twinkling Christmas tree, the majority of them were warning reds and ambers rather than safe greens. It appeared to Carter only around a half of the control rods had failsafed; the rest were indicated as still being withdrawn to some degree. But all of them should have dropped fully home under gravity to their shutdown positions in the event of power being cut to the electromagnets coupling the rods to their retractor mechanisms, so why hadn't they?

Something might have gone catastrophically wrong inside the reactor, but without accurate readings from sensors he could have coincidence in Alan had no idea what or how badly.
 

Sandbeach Caravan Park.

"How do you feel now?" Sam Bicknall asked as he irrigated Irene Fenning's eyes with bottled water. "Can you see OK?"

"Oh yes." she replied, dabbing carefully at them with an industrial paper hand towel. She blinked again. "That's much better. Thank you dear!"

"How about you George?" Sam asked.

"I'll be all right." he said quietly. Fenning had been treated with the bottle of eyewash contained in the tractor's first aid kit. His eyes were still watering, and he lay propped up on his elbows, looking around in shock at the scene surrounding him. Where the neat rows of park homes had previously stood with their carefully tended flower beds and well varnished wooden decking was now a shambles. Though George and Renie's caravan had been the only one to be completely submerged, many others nearby were in various states of now fortunately arrested subsidence, tilted at drunken angles. Those which were inhabited had their doors flung open; the panic-stricken occupants throwing whatever they could grab into any cars which weren't bogged down prior to evacuating. The Fennings had no such choice; their eyesore pug of a Korean mini-SUV had had fallen victim to the mire as well. All that was left of it above ground was a white coloured rear left quarter cocking a defiant wheel into the air.

As if reading George's mind Sam said. "It must have been some sort of subsidence. I'll try to pull your car free when the ground begins to firm up again, but the chances are it'll be declared a write-off. But before I can get round to that I'll need to check everyone in the park is safe and accounted for. Are you both up to moving? I reckon the best thing to do is to cover you both with a tarp, then drive you in the trailer up to the site office block. You can have a good long shower there, and while you're doing that I'll pick out some clothes for you from the charity bundle we were collecting: Don't worry; they're all perfectly good and clean! Then, once you're clean and dried I can dress your wounds, though I reckon you'd be wise to get a tetanus booster shot from the local A and E; we'll get someone to take you there. Feel free to use the phone and computer in the office to contact your insurance company; we should have a copy of your policy in our files. Laurie will help you out if you get stuck. And if you feel up to eating I'm sure Babs in the social club will sort you out a meal as well as..."

Sam's monologue faltered as he saw the Fennings weren't paying him any attention. Like rabbits frozen into immobility by an approaching car's headlights he noticed they were staring out to sea, speechless and fatalistically absorbed by what they saw in the distance. Now Bicknall understood what it was they were looking at, and he too felt skewered to the spot by fear. But unlike George and Irene he was able to break free from his paralysis. "GET IN THE TRAILER - NOW!" he shouted at them.

Why, he asked as he scurried back behind the tractor's wheel, hadn't he realised what would inevitably follow the earthquake? Why had he turned off the unreliable ignition? he scolded himself as the engine struggled into life. And what hope did he think this ratty old clattering bucket of a machine had of outrunning a fucking tidal wave?
 

Eastbourne.

Miyahira Tsuki heard a loud spine chilling hiss as the tsunami broke over the nearby beach. She knew she didn't act at once it would sweep her, Ishi, and the grandmother they were trying to rescue away. It was far to late to follow the distant scuffling crowd retreating into the town, and they might be doomed anyway if they'd not got far enough away. No, her disaster readiness training instructed; if you couldn't evacuate inland, you must get up and out of the way of the wave.

But where and how? There were no steel framed and reinforced concrete high rises built to earthquake resistant standards here. The highest building nearby which might be at all suitable was a four story hotel - The Seaview - just across the road from them. Under normal circumstances Tsuki wouldn't have dared enter such a risky structure in the aftermath of an earthquake given the fact it had obviously suffered damage in the tremor and the certainty of further aftershocks, but she had no choice; a higher but unsafe building was a better risk than attempting to outrun a tsunami, and to stay here on the street was to die.

"Ishi, let's go!" Almost telepathically the girls picked up Erin between them and ran for the steep flight of stairs climbing from the street up to the hotel's lobby. In the time it took them to struggle their way up the tsunami had all but reached them.

As they pushed the hotels imposing entrance door open a young receptionist was rising from behind the shelter afforded by her desk. "I'm sorry but-" she stopped at the sight of the grey, ankle deep, foaming water which burst in along with the trio.

"We must go up!" shouted Tsuki.

Seeing what was happening the woman helped Tsuki and Ishi carry Erin as best they could up the plush carpeted stairs to the first floor. Out of breath they all paused at the landing.

"Thank God! I think the water's stopped rising!" said the receptionist, looking down at the foyer which had flooded to waist height.

"More waves may come." warned Ishi. "Bigger ones maybe. Everyone must go to the top floor. Do not use the elevator, only the stairs!" Gathering their strength once more the three women helped Erin along while directing the other guests milling around in the corridors to safety on the highest level. From there they could look out of a window onto the street below.

The scene resembled the news reports of distant foreign catastrophes, but this was real and here right now. Rough, tumbling water still flowed inland past the statue set in the centre of Cavendish Place, reaching up to the top of the stone plinth the figure stood upon. A small, frantically yapping black dog was swept past in the swirling current, and then quickly disappeared from view. This close to the beach there was little in the way of debris caught in the surge, but as it made its way further inland the wave would pick up all manner of vehicles and street clutter, transforming the debris into weapons with which to bludgeon the helpless pedestrians caught unaware.

Fortunately Ishi Nakagawa's prediction was proven wrong; there was only the one major tsunami, but it flowed as far into Eastbourne as the Arndale shopping centre, causing much damage and many casualties as it progressed. When the waters finally drained away leaving a mud slicked, litter strewn, tangled streetscape behind them the bodies of thirty-nine drowned people were discovered by the ad-hoc rescue services. Given the circumstances it was a remarkably low number; one which might have been far higher had it not been for the actions of the two students who were even at that moment busy instructing the stranded guests in the Seaview Hotel on the best ways to store the drinking water and improvise the emergency toilets they would undoubtedly need in the immediate future.

Chapter Seventeen

Sandbeach Caravan Park.

Having grown up here, Sam Bicknall knew the park intimately. Over the years he'd helped his father transform it from a derelict coastal salt marsh field to what it was today. As he drove the aged tractor flat out along the tarmac access road he racked his brains to think of a quicker way to reach the gently rising ground at the northern edge of the site and escape the tsunami that was gaining on him along with the Fennings cowering behind in the trailer. But no matter what alternative routes he considered they all ended up at one choke point; the sole narrow wooden bridge spanning the drainage ditch which bisected the park. If that was blocked, or another vehicle unaware of their peril was crossing in the other direction, they'd had it.

Sam cursed Laurie's decision taken years ago when planning the site to have the access roads meander through the park in a series of gentle curves redolent of branching seaweed; right now he wanted every little advantage he could get to distance the wave, but the languid drives were the only way through the closely packed ranks of pastel cream, dove grey, and mint green mobile homes.

Sam risked a backwards glance; the swell had rapidly transformed itself from a dark ripple on the horizon to a froth spumed breaker, rearing up as the water at its front was slowed by the friction exerted by the shallowing beach and pushed up by the powerful seismic pulse behind it. As the light caught the spray it sparkled a bright silver; incongruously Bicknall thought it was such a beautifully deadly sight but even as he did so the tsunami seemed to lunge forward onto the shore. Relentlessly the churning wall of water crashed onward; Sam glimpsed it obliterating the first beachside caravans before he looked back at the road.

Just in time he saw the car inconsiderately turning at speed from a side spur onto the central spine. Somehow Bicknall was able to swerve right onto the verge and just avoid being clipped by the reckless driver who roared away ahead of him.

Bloody typical! he thought. I don't recognise the car so it must be a short-term stayer; probably lent the keys by a friend who is a part-time resident, or it might be a member who only turned up now and then.

Sam knew the sort only too well: They didn't share the park's sense of community which people like George and Renie did; only coming for a few weekends a year, and only then to vigorously contest their site fees or service invoices, and you try to get them to actually spend money on a butane gas cylinder for their 'van... No, they wanted everything on credit, probably so they could defer paying for it as long as possible, the tight bastards!

They were the type who did well from their businesses, legitimate or otherwise, yet considered because they did so it gave them the right to treat the park staff like dirt. The sort of wankers who balked at paying the fee for me or any of the other onsite handymen to maintain their laminated chipboard wheeled shed in a field because they couldn't be arsed to. No doubt the  savings they made from this sort of chancing went towards another belated repayment on their all show and chrome but no go, bison bodied hulk of a faux-by-faux tearing out of sight around the corner...

Bicknall's bile fuelled train of invective was interrupted by a kid - probably no more than ten years old - dashing across his path. The boy was out of his way and vanished between the caravans before Sam had time to react: The child only one of a few people who had seen the onrushing danger and were now running for their lives.

Sam looked behind again; the wave was gaining on them, seemingly undiminished in power, now the same height as the park homes it effortlessly plucked from their concrete hard standings, brick surrounds, and tie down chains; rolling them over until they began to disintegrate under the hammering. God help anyone caught in that roiling, tumbling tumult; they wouldn't stand a chance!

Now closer to the central area of the park Bicknall saw more people who were aware of the tsunami's approach fleeing on foot or by bike. One woman snatched her baby out of its stroller and taking an older sibling in the other hand began running. With a gut wrenching understanding Sam knew she hadn't a hope of getting clear in time.

Rounding the final curve before the bridge Sam's heart sank as he saw the 4x4 which had cut him up earlier leaning sideways part on and part way off the span. Obviously the driver's estimation of his competence and the vehicle's abilities weren't matched by the factory fitted low profile tyres, totally unsuited for tackling any terrain more challenging than a supermarket car park speed hump. When pushed to the limit by the high speed cornering they'd not been up to the job, allowing the SUV to slew far too wide and demolish the bridge's safety barrier, as well as blocking their only escape route.

What should Bicknall do now? If he braked he was likely condemning himself and the Fennings to death. If he callously rammed the stricken soft-roader and pushed it completely aside he'd be murdering the stunned family surrounded by pillows of deflating airbags behind the darkly tinted glass. There was certainly no time to stop and tow the vehicle out of the way.

His moral dilemma was solved by the car sliding completely off the the bridge and into the ditch before he reached it. Sam drove the tractor-trailer combination past it just as one of the passengers tried to push open one of the doors, but with the wave at his heels there was no way for him to stop and offer any help.

The tsunami had be all but upon them now. Bicknall checked behind, he needed to know. He saw the wave was closer now and certain to catch them. Though it had lost much of its impetus in coming ashore and smashing through the lower park the inundation remained a fearsome spectacle, still a metre or more high; a foaming slab of liquid energy which consumed everything it touched. In his split-second view of it a portion of Sam's mind noted the many objects caught in the tsunami's grip: Caravans and cars carried forward on the crest of the wave, along with broken wooden sheds; surf boards, plastic canoes, small sailing dinghies, as well as mountain bikes. He saw tall orange gas cylinders bobbing free, bumping into items of garden furniture and wheelie bins. People were trapped within it as well; flailing, trying desperately to tread water and avoid being beaten down by the flotsam. It resembled a landfill site in motion, and the tractor-trailer was about to become a part of it. The thundering of the wave's approach was now louder than the note of the machine's labouring motor.

The tsunami reached the drainage ditch, smothering it and the crashed SUV. Bicknall thought he spotted a child's fearfully pale face gazing imploringly through a window as the car began to roll over onto its roof, then the surge was upon him as well. Suddenly the tractor felt as if it was floating free, and the cab was ankle deep in water. The buoyant sensation lasted for a brief moment before Sam felt the tyres grip again. Keeping his foot firmly pressed on the accelerator he wrestled the vehicle back into line and prayed the water would stay out of the engine's electrical system. If they could only keep pace with the leading edge of the tide there was a chance of them driving clear of it as it began to ebb. Remarkably the motor kept running as he felt the machine strain against the site's gentle gradient and the detritus filled water engulfing it. Almost reluctantly the torrent, all but spent now, released the tractor as it reached its extent and began to subside.

Leaving a trail of streaming water behind Sam continued the last few hundred yards up the road to the top of the hill at full speed, drawing up outside the complex of site offices, workshop, social club, and small convenience store located there. Laurie Bicknall stood dumbstruck outside the park office, looking on at the ruination of years of his work and an unfolding human tragedy. Sam's clattering arrival awoke him from his catatonia.

Laurie saw the muddied tractor and still waterlogged trailer with the Fennings - now drenched and shivering with shock as well as hypothermia - clinging onto each other inside and knew they needed urgent help. Quickly Bicknall helped his son lift the couple out of the trailer and carry them into the social club. Babs, the hostess, would see they were looked after.

"You'd better dial 999!" said Sam to his father. "Get them to send everything they've got - we're going to need it!"

"Hey, where are you going!" demanded Laurie; Sam was already getting back into the tractor.

"I'm going back down to see what I can do!" his son replied, getting back into the driving seat. "You look after them!" he motioned to the knots of shocked, tearful people making their way up the slope toward them.

"But-!" Laurie's objection chased futilely after the departing tractor like a barking dog. Sam was a headstrong lad, just the sort to ignore the danger of follow-on waves. It was typical of him to determinedly do what he thought to be the right thing regardless of the consequences, and he was correct; there was going to be a great deal which needed to be done here. The Social Club would have to be turned into an aid station. Laurie pulled his scuffed old mobile phone out of its belt pouch and dialled the emergency number.

 

The Event had finished for the moment, although there would be plenty of strong aftershocks to follow. However there was still the aftermath to contend with.

Chapter Eighteen

Prospect Park. 10.17.

Kevin Norris picked himself up and brushed down his suit with his hands. It would need a good clean of course, but that would be the least of his or anyone else's worries for a while; especially the poor bastards out of sight on the major road nearby, but there was absolutely nothing he could do for them. Now the shaking had ceased the cars had stopped piling into each other. Kevin heard the sounds of stuck horns and screams of pain, but as yet no whoooffs of ruptured petrol tanks catching fire. Meanwhile the Enterprise House fire alarm trilled in plaintive sympathy with the distressed wailing of car alarms accompanying the shocked babbling of the evacuating staff.

Norris took in the scene of destruction at the office complex. Someone wearing a hi-viz waistcoat was checking the names of a nervous group of people gathered around him; it must be the staff of one of the larger companies occupying one of the low-rise block's floors. Being on his own in there and having signed out of the register, Norris didn't need to account for himself. He'd survived for the moment; he was all right jack.

Kevin saw the Wizzit van he'd watched streaking up the off ramp earlier in a panicked state nose its way into the car park and reverse into a distant space. The driver had nearly shunted some middle aged frump in a silver micro car who'd stopped abruptly when the 'quake had struck but he'd managed to avoid hitting her: Now he could see the woman had pulled into a safe parking spot and had got out; at the moment she was just standing there stunned and blubbing her eyes out. The van driver looked as if he was suffering a case of shock as well, he was just sitting at the wheel; staring with incomprehension through his windscreen at the world which had so radically changed in the space of a few seconds.

He'll probably spend all day like that expected Norris. He'd seen similar cases before during his commission; men who froze into immobility when suddenly confronted with peril. Someone needs to shake him out of it. And I know how it can be done. Norris began walking over to the van..

 

Prospect Park. 10.18

Ryan Buckland wasn't aware of how long he'd spent shocked in the van's cab before he was startled out of his skin by an overweight man in a crumpled and dirtied mid-grey business suit knocking on his window. What did he want? Was he going to start complaining about Ryan taking 'his' space? If that was his intent then he would soon find out he'd picked the wrong bloke at the wrong time.

Startled, Ryan leaned over and wound down the window on the passenger side door.

"You've got a consignment for R.O.N Limited, haven't you?" asked the dishevelled man. "I may as well pick it up while you're here."

"Uh, yes: I'll just get it for you." Feeling as if he'd just awoken from a nightmare, Buckland got out of the cab and opened the rear doors. Fortunately the packages appeared not to have been tumbled about too much, and if the lads in the depot had done their loading properly the boxes he wanted would be the first ones to hand: They were. He unloaded them and shut the doors.

"Sign there please." said Ryan on autopilot, offering the man the electronic terminal and a stylus. Norris scrawled a signature and picked up his two cartons.

"Thanks." he replied. "Are you all right, Mr...?" asked the man.

"Buckland; Ryan Buckland. Yeah, I think I'm OK. And you?"

"I'm just a bit shaken up, but it'll pass... I'm Kevin Norris." The pair shook hands. "I mean, an earthquake!" Norris continued. "Here of all places! Of all the things I thought might go wrong, an earthquake was the very least. It just goes to prove it's the ones you don't see coming that get you! Well I don't know about you but that's thrown my plans out for the day..."

"You mean you knew this was coming?" Buckland asked.

"No, not this; but my company - Ready Or Not is its name - distributes emergency preparedness supplies so I practice what I preach. It looks like today is going to be a massive test of how effective they are." replied Norris.

"This is bound to throw my schedule right out!" Ryan moaned. "I'd better call the depot and tell them, I'll ring Michelle as well, just to let her know I'm all right." He pulled his phone out of his pocket and selected the number he wanted to call from the speed dial list. No sooner had he done so than he heard three rising tones signalling the call could not be connected. As if to confirm the fact a NETWORK UNAVAILABLE message appeared on the display. The signal strength and data icons at the top of his phone's screen had vanished as well.

"I thought that would happen." said Norris. "Everyone is doing what you did; ringing their loved ones to let them know you're OK and to see if they're all right. It's a perfectly natural and understandable thing to do, but the networks can't cope with such a surge in demand. That, and they're bound to have been disrupted by the 'quake. The phone companies don't exclusively use mobile towers; they rely a lot on trunking the calls through the fixed line fibreoptic network which may be disrupted, and even though the mobile base stations have a separate power supply from the mains as well as back-up batteries, they won't last that long..."

"You're a real bundle of joy!" said Ryan sarcastically."

"I'm only telling it the way it is." Norris replied, although Buckland felt he was beginning to revel in the destruction. "The mobile phone network is quite resilient most of the time, and can be useful in emergencies; but something on this sort of scale is likely to cause it problems. The only alternative would be a satellite phone as they would be unaffected by problems with the terrestrial network."

"And I suppose you've got one..."

"I sell a few of them to small foreign aid agencies and the like, but not many to the general public as the contract tariffs are astronomical, especially for satellite internet. Anyway I'm not going to try calling on it yet because the numbers I'd want to call are landlines which are likely to be affected for a bit. If you're worried about your family all you can do is wait a while for repairs to be made and then try later; and remember a text message can get through where a call might fail; texts use less bandwidth."

"Thanks; I'll do that."

"Your best bet is to stay here for now; you're unlikely to be going anywhere soon and at least you'll be safe. Tune in to the local radio for updates, but the chances are they won't know any more than you do for a while. If worse comes to the worst you'll have to spend the night in your van. You've got an Ready Bag in there haven't you?"

"Of course! I'm not daft you know!"

"Good! At least you're better prepared than most of the dopey saps on the road. Remember, the best thing you can do for yourself and your family right now is not to become another casualty."

"What do you plan to do?" asked Ryan.

Norris nodded to a small shipping container placed in a corner of the car park. "You'll see!" he said with a hint of irritating smugness. "I live a few miles away and my warehouse lies along my route back in the other industrial estate - you've probably delivered there-"

'Yes I have."

"-so I'll check in on them on the way back. I'd better be going; good luck to you, you're going to need it." he said in a serious tone.

"And to you as well."

With that Norris took his packages, turned and walked over to the container store. Setting the boxes down he fished a ring of keys from his pocket and unlocked the two substantial padlocks securing the steel doors. After swinging one of them open he picked up his cartons and stepped inside. He emerged moments later wearing a rucksack and cycle helmet while wheeling out a chunky looking mountain bike.

He really has planned for every contingency thought Ryan, watching on enviously as Norris re-locked the container and straddled the bike, a dull grey basic model which could be found in a well-known motorists' supplies chain; it looked barely used. Norris paused to put on a pair of cycle clips and short-fingered gloves before pushing off. He wobbled slightly to begin with but soon settled into a rhythm, gliding away and gathering speed. Soon he reached the entrance to the car park, turned left, and rode away, seemingly dispassionate about the emergency unfolding around him.

Yeah, good luck indeed! mused Ryan as Norris rode out of sight. If things really were as bad as he made out it wouldn't be long before people concluded the fastest - maybe the only - way of getting around would be by bicycle; then they'd all want one, and some of them wouldn't be too particular about how they got one. Buckland wondered if Norris had a concealed weapon about his person, and how far he'd go to keep his bike if someone decided they needed it more than he did. Norris looked the sort who would relish the opportunity of finding out.

Ryan had to decide what to do next; try to continue his delivery round, or stay put as Norris had suggested? He needed to know more, and quickly. Getting back into his cab Buckland turned up the radio volume, but heard nothing but the unintelligible gargling of a DAB signal which was almost, but not quite receivable. He was just about to try another station when RSE came back on air. "-So for those of you tuning in, this is what we know so far: There has been a major earth tremor - a far stronger one than the one we experienced previously - which appears to have affected much of the south-east and London. We're still trying to get our links back up and running, but first reports speak of building collapses and widespread power cuts. Traffic has been particularly badly affected with severe problems reported on the M25 and other main routes. Flights from Gatwick and Heathrow airports have been suspended for the time being, with arrivals being diverted elsewhere. The South East Police Service has declared a Major Incident; all off-duty Fire and Rescue Service personnel along with health workers are requested to report for duty. I repeat; a Major Incident is underway and all emergency personnel are asked to report for duty. Radio South East will continue to keep you updated with the developing situation; stay tuned for further updates and informa-" then the programme abruptly dropped off the air. Ryan didn't know if it was a temporary loss of signal or a problem with the transmitters; but what was obvious was the BBC were going to have a hard time Connecting in this Crisis.

He tried flicking through the other stations but got nothing but silence, apart from one brief burst of chopped up speech and a faint constant whine on another frequency. No, he wasn't going to learn any more by listening in. Instead he tried using his phone again; but no sooner had he speed dialled Michelle and the depot than he got the same infuriating rising triple tones. Cursing, he gave up calling; further attempts would only drain his phone's battery more quickly.

Something Norris had said about satellite communications getting through when all else failed jogged in Buckland's mind. He remembered how the handheld terminal he used to record his deliveries operated. When it could it used the mobile networks to register each acceptance in real time, but if that wasn't possible it defaulted to a satburst, as it did in the event of an emergency. Well this counted as an emergency all right! Flicking through the device's on-screen menu he found the emergency message link and tapped out "Earthquake! Gridlock everywhere. Will stay put here as am safe for now. What shall I do? If no answer soon I'll return to depot if possible." Ryan tapped the Send icon, but apart from a 'Message Sent' confirmation popping up on the screen, nothing appeared to happen.

Then he noticed a Menu icon he had never had cause to use before off to the left hand side of the display. Touching it brought up a Message Settings list. Yes! There were options to choose a mobile phone number and email address as alternative recipients. Ryan typed in Michelle's mobile number and email address in the 'To' box, then a brief note explaining he was OK, that he would be in touch when the situation improved; oh, and by the way, he loved her. He posted the message, but again only received a confirmation of its sending, not its arrival.

Worry began to knot Ryan's guts. Were Michelle and Grace safe? And what about his home? What state would it be in? Had it been damaged by the quake? Ryan imagined all the problems there might be getting that useless money-grabbing bunch of tossers at the housing association to sort out any repairs. They'd probably try to pass the buck on to the Buckland's household insurance company. The more Ryan thought about it the more he felt he should be at home fulfilling his manly duties instead of sitting around here stranded being no help at all.

Buckland tried the radio again; still there was nothing. Once more he attempted to call Michelle and the depot, but without success. Briefly he considered trying to drive as far as he could, but looking over at the mini roundabout which led to the site he saw the same cars were still in the same places as earlier; no one was going anywhere at any speed.

Through his windscreen Ryan noticed how the huddles of staff who had run from the offices in terror had now given up just standing around and had begun to settle in the cars which were parked outside the likely collapse zone of the building; they obviously expected to be stuck here for a while. However not all of them had resigned themselves to an interminable wait; one person seemed to be engaged in a animated debate with his colleagues; though inside his van Ryan couldn't hear what it was about. Having made his decision the brave or reckless soul dashed over to the covered cycle rack situated near to the block's entrance. Hurriedly he fumbled his key into the heavy D-lock securing his bike before freeing it and running with his machine out the range of falling debris back to safety. After returning to say something to his coworkers the man saddled his bike and pedalled off.

At least he had the balls to do something, thought Ryan, I ought to as well. Suddenly filled with a sense of determination Buckland plucked the smart terminal from the van's dashboard. Using the satellite text function he composed a message to the depot explaining the van was parked safe and undamaged here, but he was leaving it to make his way home on foot. He, or they, could collect it later. The text sent, he grabbed his ready bag.

Containing the essentials one would need to survive a variety of natural or man-made disasters they'd become almost a fashion accessory to be toted along like a comfort blanket or worry beads, a reassurance against the nervous zeitgeist, with companies such as Norris' producing pre-packed examples. But Ryan had compiled his own in an army surplus pack he'd bought cheaply from a car boot sale.

In addition to his lunch and a flask of coffee Buckland's rucksack contained an assortment of emergency supplies any wise person who spent a lot of time on the road kept to hand: Bottled water; some ready to eat cereal bars; a powerful LED hill walker's head torch, along with a spare set of batteries; a waterproof poncho; a warm fleece zip neck pullover; a pair of thick, comfortable walking socks, as well as a set of one-size-fits-all stretchy gloves and a beanie hat; a small first aid kit; a dust mask; a flat pack of toilet tissues as well as a resealable pack of cleansing wipes for obvious reasons; a couple of supermarket special offer lightweight microfleece blankets which had come in useful when he was caught out overnight in the van during the unexpected blizzard which gridlocked much of the south east two winters ago; a large scale road map, even though he knew a lot of the area by heart; a backup power pack for his smartphone; a cheap folding pliers multitool... sensible things really. He'd had to use some of the items 'for real' on a couple of occasions but never expected his preparations to be put to this kind of test.

Squeezing open the plastic buckles securing the pack's lid, Ryan picked out the pair of walking socks he kept inside a sealable freezer bag and changed into them. Then he placed the still switched on terminal on top of the rest of his supplies where it could be quickly reached if it signalled a message had been received. He pulled the drawstring closed snow skirt around it to ensure it didn't fall out before cinching the pack lid down tight over it; that ought to do it.

Was there anything else? He looked around the cab but saw nothing that he wanted to take along with him. He decided just to lock the van rather than set the alarm; there was more than enough harsh electronic screeching already from the car security systems which had been activated by the quake or chunks of masonry falling onto their roofs or windscreens, and weren't there supposed to be aftershocks following an earthquake? If the sensitive alarms were constantly triggered, by the time he came back to collect his vehicle - whenever that may be - its battery would be drained.

Shouldering his pack Buckland trotted purposely away from Prospect Park. He estimated he was about ten miles away from home as the crow flies, maybe a bit longer by road following the rough route he had in mind. At a reasonable pace, and allowing time for the inevitable problems he would encounter it could take him four or five, perhaps six hours at the most to reach home. Still, at least he'd be on the way and doing something rather than buggering about here. With luck things might not be as bad as had first thought; the traffic would be flowing again, and some kind soul might even offer him a lift. Yeah, everyone pulls together in a crisis and he might be able to save some time that way...

But rounding the corner his perspective changed; now he could see more of the roads and cityscape which lay beyond it. Already there appeared to be at least one column of thick black smoke rising from a large fire away in the distance; the source of the blaze remained hidden from view. He thought he saw other faint smudges of smoke - or were they dust? he couldn't be sure - as well. As the cacophony of the car park began to thankfully lessen in volume Ryan heard far away sirens wailing; he also thought he heard a woman screaming, or was that his fertile imagination going into overdrive?

So this was what the long-feared Armageddon looks like thought Ryan. He always expected The Disaster if it ever came would be something weather related - a snowstorm or flash flooding - or perhaps a mega traffic jam or a terrorist event, but never a bloody earthquake! Like the drivers sat waiting in their stopped cars he walked past, many with their engines still running, Ryan was in a mild state of dreamlike shock. It all seemed so unreal; so different from the scenes imagined in the movies; so personal... This sort of thing didn't happen in England! Yet it just had!

Buckland was breathing deeply and his heart beating quickly; he was walking too fast. It wasn't possible to keep up this pace; he would soon start to tire or his legs would begin to cramp up. He'd have to slow down and adopt a more energy efficient lope of a walk. He was in it for the distance, so he'd just have to calm down and keep on putting one foot in front of the other in a measured trudge that would gradually eat into the miles separating him from his family. 

Chapter Nineteen

Clapton, East London. 10.40.

'"COME ON!" Kelly Thorpe, Connect24 reporter and sometime news anchor, stops and shouts at Ethan Parr her cameraman, who is lagging behind her. He is less fit than she who is a keen jogger, and is weighed down carrying the Satellite Broadcast Backpack. Gasping, he catches up with her and leans against a stretch of the ubiquitous grey aluminium railings used to corral pedestrians on the pavement and prevent them from wandering into or jaywalking on the busy city roads; now gridlocked by stalled traffic

"I... can't... keep... this... up!" His words come in strangulated gasps. He's not in too bad a shape himself, Kelly thinks. If I wasn't in a relationship I'd- Her lascivious train of thought is interrupted by the unmistakable screeching siren of an approaching emergency vehicle; most likely a London Fire Service appliance. The sound echoing and rebounding through the city streets plays tricks on her ears' directional sense, but Thorpe is sure it is rushing - well moving as quickly as it can through the chaos - toward the docklands which is where they are headed. The area is bound to be a prime spot for any action which may be happening.

Kelly pats Ethan on his strong shoulder, letting her hand linger there for a while longer than would be considered appropriate in such circumstances. She knows how to get results by less than subtle flirting and doesn't hesitate to do so. "A few more good deep breaths, and let's go for it!" With that she is away again; come chase my pert rear you gorgeous hunk...

Normally they'd have the resources of an OB van at their disposal; but these are far from normal times and a vehicle wouldn't even make it out of Connect24's car park, let alone be able to drive to the financial district in a matter of hours, perhaps even longer given the state of the roads... Christ, what a mess! she muses, but what a story! This one is bound to run and run; it will be a stunning chance to advance her reputation, and it is all the better for being so unexpected.

A short time ago Kelly had been in the Connect24 headquarters dreading being dragged in as a roving reporter to the royal illness saga. After working at the station for a year now she feels she's progressed beyond grabbing random street sound bites from mouth-breathing pedestrians, but fortunately it seems Gail Burton, the empress of C24, has already got everything sewn up on that account and she's welcome to it. The prime time prima donna is anchoring the programme live from outside the hospital where the royal kids are being treated for the 'flu and overindulging in her typical emotional carpet bombing style.

It's nauseating to see that dried-out old dyke has-been hogging the limelight. Not that Thorpe wants to be standing around aimlessly in her place, but what really rankles is she feels her career is being obstructed by a luvvie clique of senior C24 presenters: Given the chance, Kelly could do so much better than they.

Thorpe is young, attractive, talented, and ambitious. Aged 26 she's a dedicated gym bunny, keeping her petite body lithe and lightly tanned. Her naturally black, raven glossy hair is cut into an easy to manage TV bob. Kelly's cultivated all-action danger girl image has got her noticed and quickly promoted; yet she is driven by an impatient desire to progress further.

Stopping, she turns to check on Ethan's progress. Unsurprisingly he's been distanced, but is faithfully loping along like a loyal dog, determinedly closing the gap. While she waits for him to catch up Kelly tries her smartphone again. Still there's no signal. Bloody typical! The slightest problem in this pathetic country and everything crashes! When I was in Kurdistan last year and it was all kicking off at least you could get some sort of reception, even in the heart of the conflict. It might only have been 4G, but despite all of their difficulties they did better than this...

Thorpe had been planning to return there to cover the latest developments in the ongoing regional war. She and Ethan, her assigned buddy cameraman, were going through their final preparations and briefings at C24 prior to flying out when the earthquake struck.

As they both were there in the office ready to go it was only natural that Dominic Paige told them to grab their gear and get out on the streets. He suggested Canary Wharf was as good a place as any to begin. If anything would be going on, it was most likely to occur in the densely packed cluster of Thameside offices and transport hubs. They'd considered driving there or even using one of Connect24's powerful motorcycle taxis to reach the area, but a first sight of the stationary traffic convinced them it would be faster on foot. And so they are jogging their way to the story, wherever and whatever it may be.

 

Poplar, East London. 11.43

Kelly Thorpe and Ethan Parr are making reasonable progress with a combination of walking and running, but the effort is beginning to tell on Parr. Now his breathing has become a rapid asthmatic heaving. His olive skinned, strikingly handsome Mediterranean features are beginning to glow pink and beads of sweat are running off his forehead into his eyes.

"OK; we'll stop here until you've got your breath back." she says. "Slip off that pack and I'll see if I can call in. Let me help you." Moving behind Parr, Thorpe tugs at the shoulder straps of the rucksack, easing it off him. Kelly enjoys being so close to Ethan; there is something about him that is just so... Snap out of it girl! You have a job to do! Ethan shrugs his way out of the harness and slides to the pavement, slumping against a signpost pole. Kelly squats down next to him.

She reaches into the custom made pack and pulls out a small grill pan sized antenna. Built into the pistol grip handle attached to it which converts into a tripod stand is a satellite detector; it beeps as Kelly sweeps the sky searching for a signal. The tones increase in tempo, then change to a five second continuous note as Thorpe locks onto one and establishes a connection. That done she can phone the studio. To counteract the sound attenuating effect of the open air she boosts the call volume to maximum.

Dominic Paige answers almost immediately. His voice rasps loudly out of the portable terminal's speaker. "Where are you?"

"I'm not quite sure." Kelly replies. Her phone GPS keeps hanging with a never ending "loading..." swirl chasing its tail. Her London knowledge is hazy around this area, the last street sign she saw read Hind Grove. "But I don't think we can be more than a klick away from Canada Square."

"Well get there as quickly as possible and let me know if there's anything worth reporting. If there us we'll run a live PTC. If not then see if you can make it to the Millennium Dome, there are reports of a large fire breaking out there, or take a look at St Paul's cathedral; just before the mobile networks dropped out again there were pictures being shared of large cracks in the walls and a partial collapse of its dome."

"Hey! We're on our feet remember! We can't just go running around London on a whim looking for juicy shots!"

"Have you tried getting a hire bike?"

"You what?! Get a bloody grip man! With the power down the docking stands won't recognise the dedicated swipe cards or phone module proximity, and you can't just pull the locks apart! Besides, we're lugging a SatPack with us in case you hadn't noticed!

"OK! It was just a suggestion..."

"Yeah, and a bad one! I doubt even if we could find a couple of bikes we'd get very far before we punctured. There's glass and debris all over the roads and the closer we're getting to the River the worse it's beginning to look."

"Is it worth doing anything from where you are now?"

Thorpe looks around. Groping their way toward the docklands they've been forced to divert from their original planned route and into a residential area of modern brick built, spirit sucking banality: Tan coloured blocks of low-rise flats which probably started off as social housing before becoming unaffordably privatised. Superficially they appear to be only lightly damaged. Dotted between the young trees of a nearby pocket park a scattering of bewildered looking people are staring into their phone screens. From their uncertain postures it appears as if none of them have a signal. This is an island of unreal, disbelieving calm amid the mayhem.

"No."

"Alright; I'll leave it with you; do what you can and call in when you get there, but let's hustle! This is going to be mega and we want to stay in front of it." Paige hangs up before Thorpe can reply.

"Hustle!.. Mega!... The prick!" Kelly spits out her indignation.

"What a twat!" Ethan agrees, the rest allowing him to catch his breath.

"You ready to go again?" asks Thorpe as she repacks the sat kit back into its bag.

"Yeah, I think so."

"Good. Do you want some water? she asks, taking out one of the plastic bottles of mineral water she keeps on hand in her own small daypack.

"Oh yes please!"

Kelly hands it to him. "Thanks!" Eagerly he tears off the safety seal and thirstily chugs it down. She pulls out another bottle and joins him.

"You need to stay hydrated." she tells him.

"I know; I was with the Grief Whore when she covered the Santiago 'quake two years ago."

"You were?" Kelly hands Ethan a small microfibre towel from her bag to mop his face with.

"I was. And by the end of our time there the Chileans were so thoroughly pissed off with her antics it was politely but firmly suggested to us that we left the country and didn't come back."

"You don't say!"

"Oh there's a lot you don't know about Gail Burton. One day, when we get a long and boring layover somewhere, I'll tell you all about it." he says, flashing Kelly a perfect white toothed smile which sets off a quivering explosion of warmth in the pit of her stomach. Oh God; I'm falling for him and I think it's uncontrollable...

"I'd like that!" Thorpe is having a hard time trying not to show her feelings. The flip-flopping of her insides she can keep to herself, but she's sure her face is betraying her with a girlish flush beyond that caused by her running, or her eyes letting her down with a lustful gaze.

"And that reminds me!" Ethan blurts out. "I think I know what the problem with our GPS is! Damn! Why didn't I think of it before!"

"Eh?"

"We had the same problem back then." he replies. "The 'quake was so strong that it moved the earth's surface by metres; up, down, and sideways. When we opened the GPS, the app didn't realise this and when it compared the real time satellite data against its preloaded maps the values didn't match, it couldn't handle the discrepancy, and crashed each time it was launched."

"You think that's happened here?"

"Yes, I'm certain of it. It's not a problem for pure GPS measurements that aren't tied into a database, and once the area has been resurveyed from space the cartographic files can be wirelessly updated; but until that happens I suspect most smartphone satnav apps are going to hang or crash. It's back to paper maps and the good old A-to-Z for a while... Of course!"

"What?"

"I've got an old London street atlas downloaded on my moby that doesn't need GPS to run!" He fumbles the phone out of his pocket and checks it; there is still no signal but he doesn't need one. Quickly he locates the app icon and the familiar lozenge shape of London appears. "Yes!"

Ethan has a rough idea of where they are. Searching for Hind Grove on the app's inbuilt gazette he can soon plot their position exactly. He shows the screen to her.

"Here we are! If we go to the end of the road and turn right - south - we can follow Saracen Street all the way to the East India Dock Road and then work our way down to the Limehouse Link. Once we cross that we're there!"

"Great!"

Stiffly Ethan heaves himself back up. He winces as he does so.

"You all right?" asks Kelly.

"I think it's cramp." he answers rubbing the back of his left leg just below the hem of his three-quarter length combat shorts.

"Possibly." she replies "It can happen when you go too hard too soon. I could massage it if you wanted me to."

"I think I can walk it off, but if not that'd be good of you. We'll just have to take things more slowly and see how it goes."

"OK." says Kelly, disappointed that she won't get to massage Ethan's shapely calf right away, but also gratified he's not rebuffed her. She helps him into the SatPack and together they set off at a fast walk this time toward the unknown scenes awaiting them at the Docklands.

Chapter Twenty

Dungeness Power station Administration Block. 11.50

Alan Carter; deputy energy minister Graham Madden; and Michael Williams, chairman of Potentia Energy were in Alan's office. The latter two were impatient having been kept waiting as Alan conducted a hurried conference with his technical staff.

Carter began to brief the pair, watching their expressions change from concern to displeasure as he continued. Finally the deputy minister could no longer contain himself.

"You're saying the government has just wasted a billion or more pounds in a partnership with Potentia Energy to renew a power station which can't be used when the nation's need is at its most acute?" he said disbelievingly.

"Let's go back over what I've just been telling you." sighed Alan, trying to conceal his irritation with the pair. "As I've been explaining a precautionary Site Incident has been declared and the Contingency Control Centre activated. The earthquake has caused some undetermined damage to the plant which will need to be investigated. Fortunately the worst of the follow-on tsunami's effects were mitigated by the raised coastal protection and the flood hardening measures applied to the buildings on site. There was some minor overtopping of, and damage to the sea defences, but considering what might have been we got away lightly.

As far as the repercussions of the earthquake are concerned, Reactor One scrammed successfully as far as can be determined: Nuclear activity within that vessel remains suppressed, and as of this moment there are no indications of any damage to it. However, before a restart can be contemplated the unit will need to be depressurised and there will have to be a meticulous inspection of every component. Given the severity of the seismic stresses experienced today nothing can be left to chance. I estimate the process once begun would take anything between one to six months to complete-"

"That's ridiculous!" Madden exploded. "If it's undamaged then you can bring on line just as soon as the high tension pylons have been repaired!"

"No, I can't." replied Carter emphatically. "The body of legislation regarding the operation of nuclear installations along with the Health and Safety legislation says otherwise. I would be breaking the criminal law if I were to act so recklessly."

"I can arrange for an exception to be made under the State of Emergency; we must have the power those reactors can provide as quickly as possible. And if you're squeamish about doing what needs to be done in the national interest I'm sure someone can be found to replace you."

"You're welcome to try." retorted Alan. "But I doubt if you'll find any takers. Paul Glover agrees with my assessment, and besides Reactor One isn't the problem at the moment; it's Reactor Two which is my greatest concern."

"Go on." Michael Williams interjected.

"It appears to have sustained some unquantifiable damage at the moment, and I fear it may be serious. At least 40% of the control rods which should have automatically dropped into the fuel matrix appear not to have, which means there is still activity ongoing in the core. I'm concerned about why those other rods didn't fail safe."

"What do think might have been the reason?" asked Williams.

"In the worse case the interlocking graphite blocks which the pile is constructed from have been shaken out of alignment enough to prevent the control rods from entering all the way into the channels. That means there are sections of the fuel load no longer under our influence. Now if we are fortunate those elements will remain as they are; active, but not enough to cause further problems-"

So why all the drama, and what's there to worry about?" Madden made no attempt to hide the tone of contempt in his voice.

"That's what I was getting to. We should be all right providing nothing else goes wrong, but there are other issues we need to contend with. With the boilers and steam circuits unable to run due to the hairline cracks we've discovered in some of the welds, the reactor is in what we call a Closed Loop Cooling Mode, which means the carbon dioxide coolant gas isn't itself being cooled by exchanging heat with the power generating system as it was designed to be in normal operation. As far as we know the situation is stable for the time being, but who knows how long that will last."

"So it's safe for now?"

"Yes. As long as nothing else happens."

"Such as?" Madden was beginning to sound less confident.

"Another strong aftershock damaging the unit still further."

"What more could go wrong?"

"Quite a lot actually. My greatest fear is that some of the graphite moderator blocks comprising the core may collapse. There's a possibility that after decades of being heavily irradiated they can become brittle and fracture; not forgetting they've long exceeded their planned service life. Instances of cracked blocks have been observed in other AGRs; fortunately they were overdesigned and had plenty of redundant strength built-in, the units continued running without any problems. But when these stations were planned this level of seismic activity wasn't anticipated, this area not being a severe earthquake risk zone and nothing on this scale ever happening here before, so there was no reason to build-in extra safety features; nor was there a rationale for developing contingency plans to deal with something which was so inconceivable it could never happen-"

"And if those blocks were to suffer a failure?"

"That would depend on how bad the event was. In the worst case a major collapse would allow the fuel rods to fall into close proximity with each other, and were that to happen the increased nuclear activity would raise their temperature way above the design level. Also bear in mind the fuel may be isolated from the cooling effect of the gas flow"

"What then?"

"The rods might melt together into a white hot, highly energetic molten blob which under the influence of gravity would eat its way through the floor of the containment structure. Eventually it would reach the underlying soil and encounter the groundwater table, which this being a coastal area is quite high. Should that occur a number of things will happen: Firstly if the blob contacts the water, much of the liquid will flash into superheated steam which will expand at a phenomenal rate, and finding no release against the incompressible earth, burst upward at great pressure. In addition the generated heat will be such as to separate the water into its component elements of hydrogen and oxygen, a combustible mixture which is bound to explode. When it does so the resulting pressure wave will seek any weakness to vent itself, and that will be found through the reactor fueling channels. Bear in mind the steam will give the shock wave an added kinetic force so breaching through the channels should pose no problem; it may even take out the entire refuelling level and spent fuel storage tanks above the reactor as well. Once it's done that it will most likely blow the roof off and exhaust into the open air..."

Both Madden and Williams were shocked into rapt attention.

"But unfortunately that's not the end of the matter." Alan continued. If the carbon dioxide gas is lost from the cooling system the graphite blocks as well as the fuel elements are likely to oxidise, catch fire and issue radioactive smoke directly into the atmosphere. One of the reasons the Dungeness spit was chosen as the site for this power station - in addition to a ready access to cooling sea water - was that if anything ever did go that badly wrong the prevailing winds would carry the fallout away to settle into the North Sea.

Unfortunately the weather forecast for the next few days is the winds will blow in a northerly direction from the continent, which means if such an event were to occur within that time Chernobyl level radiation would be dispersed over large areas of Kent and London."

"Bloody hell!" Madden exclaimed. "But that is an extremely unlikely worst case scenario, isn't it? It sounds like that old film The China Syndrome! And that was just based on conjecture, wasn't it?"

"Indeed; but it's something to bear in mind." Carter replied. "And hopefully it'll never come to that. I've held back from doing this in order not to disturb the reactor any further than necessary, but if an increased neutron flux is detected the core can be flooded with nitrogen gas to inhibit any further activity; think of it as smothering a fire with a wet blanket. And if that fails there's always the last-ditch method of injecting a standby supply of tiny gas-propelled boron beads into the unit. If nothing else works that will, as they'll be carried throughout the fuel matrix and snuff out any reaction for sure. They were always considered to be a reactor killer as once they were deployed it would be impossible to retrieve them. Not that's a consideration in this case as Reactor Two is now nothing more than a pile of highly expensive, radioactive scrap."

"Are you absolutely sure about that?" Michael Williams asked; he wore the pained expression of someone who had just been winded.

"Sadly, yes. And don't count on ever getting much out of Reactor One again; at this stage in its life it may be beyond economic repair. Tamped down it'll provide the minimum of power required to keep the gas circulators on Unit Two running."

Both Madden and Williams looked shell shocked.

"And Minister, I'll need all the help the government can provide in obtaining priority access to stocks of diesel fuel for our emergency generators; not to mention carbon dioxide as well as nitrogen gases to make up for any losses in the cooling systems, along with the means of transporting them here by helicopter given the reported problems on the road and rail networks. We're OK for communications for now with our satellite links, but we'll need to remain in constant dialogue with the worldwide nuclear community in order to develop a longer-term strategy to cope with this incident."

"Now if you've no further questions I'd better get back to the Emergency Management Group." Williams and Madden remained silent; stunned by the bad news they'd been given so far. Alan left, closing the door quietly behind him.

After a short pause Graham Madden regained some of his former composure. "Are you sure he's the best man for the job at this moment?" he asked Williams. "He does come across as rather alarmist. I think you should get a second opinion from independent experts as to the plant's true condition."

"Oh, we intend to; but when it comes to this kind of situation, Carter is among the best there is. He's widely regarded among his peers and has an excellent track record in problem solving. If he's issuing a warning we'd be well advised to heed it."

"I see. And what about..." Madden struggled to remember the name. "The deputy, Glover?"

"A good, solid, dependable man. He's ex-navy; learned his nuclear engineering aboard Trident submarines. Just the sort of person you'd want around at a time like this, and he's his own man as well. If he agrees with Alan Carter you can take it as a given you've a serious issue to contend with."

"Ah..." said Madden. "Well given what I've learned here I think the best thing is for me to do is to return to London and brief the cabinet. I'll summon a helicopter." He reached for his ultrasecure government issue satphone.

"Would there be any chance of a spare seat available?" asked Williams hopefully. "I'll need to speak to the board in London about the impact this will have on the company; we'll probably need to arrange a refinancing as a result of this, and it won't be easy given the state of the markets. We may well require some government assistance."

Madden looked at Williams with the sort of contempt reserved for something he'd just trodden in. "If I remember correctly Potentia Energy are an Anglo-Spanish consortium who did rather well for themselves in acquiring decades of taxpayer funded infrastructure and expertise at a very favourable price; not to mention the generous terms of the operating agreement. It is government policy that private industry should be as self-reliant as possible and not go cap-in-hand for public money whenever it runs into a headwind. I suggest the European banks would be your first port of call."

"Unfortunately we've reached the limit of what they are prepared to lend us. I doubt if there would be much chance of them advancing us any further funds; especially for the care and maintenance of a damaged, non-productive installation. And there is the matter of insurance; I doubt that our provision will provide sufficiently to cover our ongoing liabilities. Under those circumstances the company would regretfully have to conclude declaring itself insolvent was the only option available; and as you are no doubt aware in matters nuclear, the ultimate guarantor is the State."

Madden knew the fact only too well but wasn't going to call Williams' bluff or make an open ended commitment of taxpayers' money beyond the staggering amount already pledged; better to pass that hot potato up to his minister.

"I don't know what type of helicopter will be sent for me, nor if the other seats may already be taken." he replied. "I'm sure you'll be able to charter a flight from France if you act quickly enough before they are all commandeered for relief duties. Or you may choose to stay in place and use the facilities available to you here to resolve your problems." Madden laid particular stress on the your.

The junior minister rose. "In difficult times, much is expected of those in positions of leadership." he said pointedly to Williams. Oblivious to his own hypocrisy and leaving the chairman sat dumbfounded, Madden exited the office, pressing as he did so the speed dial button which would transport him out of this nightmare back to the relative safety of the Westminster shark tank.

Chapter Twenty One

Canary Wharf. 12.29.

It took longer than expected for the C24 news duo to get here. If the mobile networks had been working no doubt Kelly Thorpe would've become increasingly irritable fending off Dominic Paige's nagging calls. But the service is intermittent; no sooner does it flicker back into life than it immediately crashes again under the weight of demand.

The closer the pair get to the Isle Of Dogs the slower their progress. Firstly they encounter stalled lines of literally bumper to bumper traffic with scarcely a gap between the vehicles to squeeze through, then they find themselves swimming against a current of quietly desperate evacuees heading in the other direction. The Docklands workforce is estimated at more than 120,000 Thorpe remembers, and it seems as if most of the soberly dressed office workers are pressing against the pair. The streams of people are bizarrely quiet - shocked most likely - as they walk calmly north and away from the riverside. From random snatches of gossip overheard among the subdued hubbub along with brief conversations with a few of the displaced employees Kelly gathers One Canada Square may have begun to lean by as much as two degrees from the vertical or might topple over completely; the markets have been suspended; a mass evacuation of the district has been ordered, and it will be conducted by foot as the complex multilevel nexus of tube, Crossrail, and Docklands Light Railway stations have all been shut. Thorpe wonders how everyone will get away from the area and where they will go.

Getting here they endured a couple of anxious moments. One was when there was an unexplained surge of panic in the crowd and the couple were nearly pushed over in the tumult. Quick-thinking Ethan held Kelly close up against a wall and shielded her with his body until the moment of danger had passed. Being pressed that close to him, feeling his strong warmth was one thing; but looking deeply into his dark brown eyes as he asked if she was OK was like touching an electrified livestock fence. Kelly felt something inside her move, and she feels it will stay that way.

The other was when they reached the elevated section of the Limehouse Link road. As they were about to rush under the heavy concrete flyover a distant figure wearing a security guard's uniform shouted at them to stop. His words were indistinct but they gathered there was a doubt about the structural integrity of the thick grey columns supporting it. Ignoring the warning they sprinted beneath the hulking structure, uncertainty speeding them through even though no cracks were visible.

Those obstacles overcome they begin newsgathering, and manage to find their way through to the North Quay to get a photogenic view of the Canary Wharf complex as a background for a Piece To Camera live report. Though the taller towers were visible from a distance and they had an idea of what was in store, it is only closer to them - here - that the full impact of what has happened can be fully appreciated.

They'd both seen the imposing complex of steel and glass buildings rising above the former dockland pools many times before; but never like this. The silt laying below the normally silver-grey waters of the wharfs has been agitated by the tremors into a dysentery brown suspension; reflecting in a distorted bathroom window privacy glass crazing the once glittering expressions of corporate wealth and power. Now the tableau resembles those darkened post-apocalyptic artists' impressions of a future long after the extinction of humanity, with all of mankind's magnificent works falling slowly into ruin. One of the futuristic brushed silver tubular metal bridges crossing the former port basin has become detached at one end and fallen into the turbid pool. Nearby an eye-wateringly expensive modernist houseboat is listing badly after being swamped by a seiche wave. Against a background of a sepia coloured grimy smoke haze flecked with darker sooty clouds - possibly originating from the reported Millennium Dome fire - the towers still soar proudly, but many of them echo the skeleton frameworks they had been during their construction, with large swathes of their large glass windows having been shaken free. It reminds Kelly of the footage taken when an F4 tornado devasted the business district of Dallas, Texas last year. In the foreground there are still a steady flow of evacuees, like a column of worker ants escaping a doomed nest or a routed wave of human refugees fleeing an advancing alien invasion. "Christ!" she exclaims.

"Yeah..." Ethan as well is lost for words; they just seem so inadequate to express the sight before them. This scene won't need to be enhanced with any toned filter effects; it is startling enough as it is unaltered.

"We'd better get this!" says Kelly. "Even if we can't go live, the studio will want it!"

Ethan slips off the SatPack and extracts the compact but fully featured HD camera from its place above the comlink and multiple battery packs which comprise most of the bag's weight as well as bulk. As he does so he notices the comlink's dimly illuminated monitor - set on standby - has messages and icons on it.

"Hey! We've got a link! We can broadcast!"

"Seriously?"

"Yes! I'm surprised it's still going, but if anywhere would be, it would be here..."

"I'm not." replies Kelly

"Why?" asks Ethan.

"I did some background reports a while back, it was about the time when the Caliphate was finally getting bombed to pieces. You remember all of that panic about how Daesh was going to go for broke by unleashing a swansong of terror upon the West in revenge? Well it never happened of course, like all of those scare rumours; but we were researching the most likely targets if it did, including this one. Our efforts attracted a bit of attention from certain organisations, but they were OK about it once they'd realised we were legit. We were given a few deep briefings - nothing secret, but things they'd rather not were made widely known - in return for us not using too much of it and promising to produce a reassuring series of features. In the end it worked out well for us and them.

Anyway, there's a lot around here you don't see or know about. What with this being not just the centre of Britain's economy but also a european and global hub as well, resilience is key. They've got multiple redundancies in power supply and connectivity, along with contingency plans for everything from severe weather to an outbreak of weaponised Ebola. The thing is..." her voice tails off. "...I don't think they were expecting anything like this."

Ethan syncs with the C24 studio via the SatPack's multi mode mobile broadband connection. Handing Kelly a wireless microphone and earpiece combination, he shoulders his minicam and begins to frame the scenes of destruction in the viewfinder. "I'm rolling!" 

 

Connect 24 studio. 12.31.

Dominic Paige is becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of developments on the 'quake story.  The few scraps of sporadic information he gets come in short video clips and rumours; somehow they must be transformed into a continuing narrative. Paige feels like a goldsmith hammering a tiny ingot into a bigger sheet of thinner leaf; it is laborious work and it is gnawing at him.

"About bloody time!" he exclaims when the feed from Thorpe and Parr comes through. "Have we got talkback? Good!"

"Kelly! Can you hear me?"

"Yes!"

"What took you so long?"

"Oh, you're all fucking heart, aren't you? I nearly got crushed by the crowd getting here! Are you getting the images we're sending?"

"Yes." replies Dominic. "That will do to introduce the PTC; but once that's done, get in a bit closer and-"

"What? Are you serious? Have you seen what's falling off those buildings? We'll be fucking killed! Anyway, we've heard they're clearing the area - no one's being allowed near. I-"

"You'll be alright if you're careful! You can do it Kelly; go on and get in there! You've got to be fearless and get that story before we get scooped by some other daredevil."

"Hey! I'm the one out here and it's my neck on the line! I'm doing it my way!"

"Listen-"

"I'll do the PTC," she replies testily, attempting to assert a measure of control. "Then we'll try to get through along..." Kelly consults Ethan's A-Z, now shared directly to her phone " ...West India Avenue for some shots of the central transport interchanges if we can; then aim for the dock entrance for a view of the Dome across the river. I've heard rumours of flooding in both of the Blackwall tunnels and of passengers stranded in the SkyWay cable cars; have you got any updates on that?"

"Not yet." Paige replies.

"Well I'll try to find out more as I go. My journey will make a good narrative hook to weave it all together with." Reluctantly Dominic has to agree she is right on that score. "Are you ready for the PTC?"

"In about a minute." he says. "We're just briefing Andy and then you're on. Keep us updated as you go, and if it looks good we'll go live again."

"OK. Standing by."

"I don't think you should push her too hard." advises Ian May.

"When I want your opinion I'll give it to you!" Paige snaps back.

Chapter Twenty Two

The A223 near Bexley. 12.34.

For the third time in a mile Ryan Buckland was forced to stop. The bandage he'd stuck over the developing blister on his left heel didn't seem to be helping at all. Sitting on a grassy roadside verge he unlaced his shoe and rolled his sock down: The bandage came off with it, exposing the reddened, tender skin beneath.

Ryan thought his shoes and socks were comfortable; after all he wore them all day long while constantly getting in and out of his van as he made his deliveries, but the first twinges of discomfort had begun to make themselves felt some five miles into his journey. Despite covering the raw patch with a self-adhesive pad the problem worsened until he realised just periodically pulling up his socks wasn't doing any good; he'd need to stop and sort it out before it became more of an issue.

Reaching for his first aid pouch stored in his pack's top pocket where it could easily be reached, Buckland re-dressed his wound; this time using a padded square of an absorbent pad and making sure it stayed in place with several strips of the tenaciously sticky medical tape he'd substituted for the all but useless roll originally supplied with the kit.

That done he carefully slid his sock back on. Fortunately his skin hadn't broken; if it had and the blister weeped fluid into the sock's material, stiffening it, the injury would only be exacerbated as he walked on.

The problem deferred for the moment, Buckland replaced the first aid kit and gingerly slipped his shoe back on; taking particular care in re-lacing both of them. He decided to rest here for a while, eat one of his energy bars and drink some water before setting off again. 

 

Near Canada Square. The Docklands. 12.48.

Advancing as if they are infantry soldiers under fire in an urban environment, Kelly and Ethan move forward in rushes; using the buildings themselves as cover. So far none of the hi-viz tabard wearing safety marshals cowering in the imagined safety of foyers and entrances have attempted to stop them; they either not caring to act, or being preoccupied dealing with their own charges. Or it may be the fluoro yellow Connect24 bibs with their prominent NEWS lettering the pair are wearing permit them to get away with things the general public wouldn't be allowed to do.

Ethan leads gallantly in front of Kelly, which is just fine as far as she's concerned as it gives her the opportunity to admire his rather shapely bottom and glossy, collar length, tightly braided strings of dreadlocks. Perhaps its a side effect of the chaos and destruction unfolding around her, the proximity of disaster inspiring her procreational instincts, but Kelly is beginning to feel herself getting horny over him with the sort of intensity which has her wondering how he's fixed up at the moment and how easy it would be to tell her current boyfriend Justin with his on and off relationship, struggling artist persona, as well as - she suspects - a secret but developing cocaine habit, that it's over.

"Hey Kelly; how's it going? Dominic's voice, faint and scratchy, sounds through her earpiece. Thorpe can just imagine him impatiently sat eagerly at the master console, tugging at his ginger ponytail or twirling his goatee beard as he does when under pressure; almost salivating at the thought of a new stream of juicy copy.

"We're getting closer; we've reached Cabot Place!"

"Can you do a live update?"

"Yes, I think so."

"Stand by. You're on in thirty!"

"Is this a good idea?" asks Ethan looking around. "This doesn't feel too safe to me."

"No, I don't think it is." replies Kelly, wishing they'd thought to bring with them the kevlar helmets and body armour they usually wear in war zones. The sense of imminent peril looming above them poised to come crashing down at any moment is almost palpable. Her instincts are screaming to get the hell out of there. "Studio, cancel that; we're moving somewhere less exposed."

"Stay where you are!" orders Paige sternly; his brogue coming to the fore when he feels stressed. "Give us that report now! And make it a good one!"

"We're going to talk, you and I, when this is all over..." Kelly can hardly believe what she is saying as she hears herself; nor the venomously acidic tone of her rebellious words, but her patience with the hipster creep is fraying to breaking point.

"Fine! But in the meantime you've got ten seconds. You'd better be ready! Cueing you over to Andrew."

On the news set presenter Andrew Patterson has followed the exchange between Thorpe and Paige through his earpiece with incredulity; Dominic is really throwing caution to the wind! Still there's work to be done. He keeps one ear on Anna Coombes finishing up a Q&A with Gail Burton while awaiting his cue to introduce Kelly. So far Gail has been the lead on the earthquake with her live description of the evacuation by air of the sickly royal children away from the hospital where they were being treated. But with the hovering army helicopter and its Very Important Passengers long departed from the disaster zone for an unknown destination C24 has a problem: No matter how dramatic the scenes, there are only a finite number of times they can be rerun before the viewers tire of seeing them. And now the word has come done from On High that constant reminders of the unequal nature of society in the midst of this catastrophe are best avoided.

Freed of her reason for staying in place Burton and her crew have gone looking for stories, but like so many others they can hardly move in the post 'quake gridlock. So far all they have produced are live shots of an underground station entrance spewing out knots of passengers after they've been led to safety from the stalled trains and choked platforms far below. Each emerging group seems to be accompanied by pulses of miasmaticaly thin, misty white smoke. Gail tried to interview some of the coughing, streaming-eyed survivors as they exited but was told by both the disaster victims and the emergency personnel waiting to receive them she had no business being there; only they didn't use so many words to express themselves.

Warned if she persists with her intrusive questioning she'll be arrested or punched, Burton's reportage has come to a hiatus. Connect24 needs a new angle, and so the focus shifts to Kelly Thorpe in the docklands.

"Ten seconds Andrew and Kelly" Paige warns. "Three - two - one. Cue Andrew!"

Seamlessly picking up from his introduction, Patterson ignores the few hastily scribbled notes appearing on his teleprompter; he's professional enough to handle this sort of thing in his stride. "And now we're going live to Canary Wharf - which for our international viewers is a major business district in London - to join our reporter Kelly Thorpe who has been battling her way there through the disruption. Kelly, are you there?

"Yes Andrew, this is Kelly Thorpe reporting live for Connect24. I'm not far from Canada Square in Canary Wh-" Her next few words are drowned by an astonishingly loud boom which reverberates around the area with a stomach trembling intensity. "We don't know what that was and we can't see anything from here, although it may have been a gas explosion; many gas and water mains have been ruptured by the earthquake. It's a reminder that the situation is a dynamic, developing one. We're on a mission to find out more about it, and getting closer to the heart of the area.

Looking around I can see that some of the skyscrapers here have been damaged by the 'quake but so far appear to remain structurally sound; although there are rumours - and I must stress this is unsubstantiated as yet - that despite being anchored by its enormous weight to the bedrock rather than the London clay this area lies on, the One Canada Square building may have shifted on its foundations. Apart from that, most of the problems here seem to have been caused by the towers' large sheet glass windows which have been rattled loose and fallen; a thick carpet of broken shards is covering the plaza. Some parts of this business district have been evacuated, while workers in the less damaged buildings have been told to remain inside for the time being as that is the safest place for them to be at the moment, or when the inevitable aftershocks follow. Others have taken their own decisions and as you can see are leaving the area." The camera pans to show a few nervous people in expensive business wear running across the open spaces while looking fearfully upward.

"I understand that there have been some serious injuries here as well as unconfirmed reports of deaths, but so far the police have yet to-Oh my God!" A large falling pane hits the ground not far away with a discordant breaking sound, creating an explosion of high speed transparent shrapnel.

"Kelly; get out of there! Find somewhere safe!" urges Patterson, not caring if he is breaking any on-air protocols or blunting the story's dramatic edge; the live report is already arresting enough.

"I'm moving!" Kelly replies, having taken the decision for herself in advance of hearing Patterson's tinny voice in her earpiece. From what Andrew can see It looks as if a couple of small sharp fragments have embedded themselves in her cheek and another lodging close to her eyebrow has started a cut from which a tear of blood is welling. Patterson expects Dominic Paige will cut away from the scene and tell him to summarise for a few seconds, giving Anna Coombes a chance to pick up another aspect of the story, but the images remain on the set's live output monitor. Andrew can hear Dominic's furious voice in his earbud, but he tunes out the editor's ranting; he is fully engrossed in Kelly and Ethan's flight.

For a few seconds there are wobbly pictures of the nearby buildings and fleeing people, then of Thorpe as Parr turns round to check on her. Patterson notes that the delay-to-air icon in the corner of his cue screen is absent; this is being broadcast live. Paige is going right out on a limb this time.

"OK, let's try it here." gasps Kelly, dabbing at the trickle of blood with a tissue. "Are we on? Can you hear us studio?"

"Yes, we can hear you Kelly." Andrew replies. "Are you sure it's safe?"

"I think so!" she answers. "As I was saying the pol-" Unnoticed high above the news crew, another large windowpane which was partially shaken out from its frame by the quake has been dislodged by the explosion's shock wave; the laws of gravity prevailing against the weatherproof seal's loosening grip after a short delay. Falling, then gliding at a shallow angle it is temporarily borne aloft like a leaf on the wind by a thermal which suddenly dissipates.

Stripped of its lift the sheet swoops earthward. Plummeting at near-terminal velocity at an almost vertical angle the edge of the toughened pane strikes the unsuspecting Kelly on her right collar bone close to her neck with a sickening butcher's hatchet through meat thud. Barely slowed by slicing through her body like a giant guillotine blade, it hits the pavement and shatters upon impact. Ethan Parr is riddled by the resulting blizzard of splinters. Felled, he drops the camera which although it bounces on the pavement, continues to send live video. The view through its partially gore spattered lens shows Thorpe's bisected form in the centre of a spreading pool of her own dark red blood.

For a moment there is nothing but a thunderstruck silence. The Anna Coombes vomits her revulsion all over the newsdesk. Ashen-faced and eyes brimming with tears, Andrew Patterson, acting on gut instinct intones solemnly, "I think at this moment it would be appropriate to pause our broadcast for a time." A studio technician startled into action cuts both the live link and the studio feed; then brings up a placeholding screen with a C24 logo.

"Fucking hell!" Ian May seethes at Dominic Paige across the console with a withering stone faced stare that could kill. "You've really gone and done it now!" May's anger is barely suppressed; he feels like punching the reckless little shit right in the face, and will do - bugger the consequences - if Dominic says the wrong thing, but Paige remains mute; he has no answer. Instead Dominic sits immobile like an accident victim in numbed shock by the roadside waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Paige knows his Connect24 career is over; the enraged phone call or email from Euan Rees won't be long in coming, and in any case losing his job is likely to be the very least of his worries...

Chapter Twenty Three

PINDAR. 13.11.

Stuart Pullman hadn't been able to give too much thought to his political ambitions recently: Just coping with the ongoing crisis as part of the emergency cabinet had fully occupied his mind. But he was under no illusion that the disaster had prompted only a ceasefire between the warring factions in the national interest, not a reconciliation. Once the immediate problems had been dealt with, the rescue operations concluded and the long, slow recovery begun the vicious internecine battle would be joined again; only this time with no holds barred.

Already Stuart had been the target of a furious withering stare from Pippa Slater which would have turned lesser men to a pillar of salt, but he revelled in the fact his anonymous disclosure had left her so obviously rattled. He'd returned her look with interest, and was gratified to see her silent frosty countenance falter under his intense scrutiny. At heart Slater was a fearful and defensive woman; so much the better. Her cabinet allies were more civilly communicative, but only up to the extent required to coordinate the government's efforts. The cabinet was as visibly split as the Kentish countryside, now riven by a new eighty kilometre long gash of a slip-thrust escarpment.

At Rampling's suggestion the rolling cabinet session had broken up into smaller working groups. Chancellor Ian Campbell, still jet-lagged and trying to shrug off the 'flu like symptoms of the bug he'd picked up while in Mexico was revising the government's spending plans in the light of the disaster; preparing an emergency budget along with an offer of more state support to the banking and insurance sectors. The Foreign Secretary equally busy engaged in drumming up aid from the European Union. Pullman was occupied as well with his own task force: In a separate room, he along with Christopher Parsons and the pair's trusted junior ministers were in conclave, coordinating the wider national response to the earthquake. They were expected to report back to the reconvening emergency council in half an hour, though at the moment discussion of law and order had taken a temporary back seat to their political conspiring; this being their first opportunity to talk out of earshot of the rest of the cabinet since before the massive tremor had struck.

"Bloody typical! Just when we thought we had it in the bag, anearthquake of all things ruins our plans!" said Parsons. "I bet Ian Campbell and Mizz Miscegenation are relieved about this massive diversion; this will dominate the news for weeks to come!"

"Yes; events dear boy, events..." sighed Pullman ruefully. "But it's not over yet. You can bet Campbell and Co are still busy plotting at this very moment. They aren't giving up, and nor are we; we'll just have to wait a little longer for the right time to strike. I've got a gut feeling about this; that there will still a few unexpected surprises on the way.

Take for example the emergency budget to be announced tomorrow; that's going to be unpopular in the party and the country at large. Oh compassion is fine in the short-term as long as it doesn't cost too much, but people will soon begin to the resent the increased taxes and cost of living; then the old issues will resurface again. Have faith, our time will come.

Now, this partial State of Emergency we want to declare for south east England... I really think we need to extend it to cover the whole if the UK just to be sure. Yes I know the Civil Contingencies Act grants us the powers we need, but I think it's best to make absolutely sure; and it will be seen as a declaration of intent on our part, a firm planting of a marker in the sand and a poke in the eye for the Soft Faction. Do we agree to recommend a resolution asking His Majesty to sign an Order in Council to that effect be adopted by the cabinet when it reconvenes?" There was no dissension.

"Good." said Pullman with obvious satisfaction. "At times such as these people demand strong government. I think this disaster could turn out really well for us if we play our cards right."
 

Near Coombe Hollow, Kent. 13.20.

Kevin Norris had ridden this route about a year or so ago, just to prove its feasibility should he ever need to do it 'for real'. Yet now The Event had happened Kevin found himself suffering much more than he anticipated. The 17.6 road miles back to his home as measured by his car's trip computer should have only taken him about an hour and a half by bike to complete, but already he was beginning to feel really tired. He knew he was getting older and unfit, but surely not by this much?

He'd stopped by his warehouse earlier in the journey; after personally supervising the locking up of the premises he sent the handful of staff home for the day on full pay, though how long it would take them to get back who could say? Once the roads had been cleared and communications restored there was bound to be a surge in demand by people who had found themselves unprepared by this emergency; it was a shame they only cognizant of the fact when they were overtaken by events. Never mind, they'd be making up for their nonchalance by buying Ready Or Not's products at premium prices, perhaps even a post crisis mark up if Norris thought he could get away with it...

But first he needed to be able to do business. So far he'd not received any calls, texts, or email on his mobile; that was no surprise given the likely scale of the disruption, but what began to disconcert him was the absence of traffic on this rat run of a narrow road; he'd been riding for forty-five minutes but as yet seen no one else going in any direction. In fact the only sign of life he had spotted was a mile or two back when a small reddish-brown and white dog - it might have been a terrier but it was too far away to be sure - dashed across the tarmac and ran off into the countryside. It was in sight for a couple of seconds and then gone.

Kevin estimated he wasn't too far away from the isolated cottage he and Debbie called home. His partner made no secret of the fact she considered his preoccupation with preparedness an eccentricity to be tolerated, and at least it provided an income for them, but it was something she stoically endured rather than embraced. Well maybe now she'd see the light, if she was at home. The chances are she was away on a call as part of her interior design business - more of a dalliance than a serious effort - or she'd gone up to London on one of the shopping sprees she allowed her in return for her not complaining about the time he spent on the road.

Distracted by his thoughts Norris nearly fell victim to the unexpected hazard lurking just around a blind bend. There, unannounced and screened by hedges, the road had abruptly dropped by five feet or so as well as appearing to have moved some six inches or so to the left. It was a good thing Kevin had been labouring slowly up a slight gradient as he had just enough time to slam on the bike's disc brakes. He came to a slithering halt just short of the edge of the drop.

So that explained the lack of traffic. What sort of unimaginable force must it have been to rend the very earth like this? What if every road and railway link had been affected in this way? Imagine how much time, effort, manpower, machinery and money would be required to repair it all! And what about power cables and gas pipes? Had they been broken as well? The more Kevin considered the prospect, the less he liked it and the more urgently he wanted to get home to where his stockpile was located; the chances are he was going to have need of it.

No doubt quite a few extreme mountain bikers could handle such a drop off in their stride, but Norris' riding skills were limited to kerb hopping and he saw no reason to risk injury by trying to leap off the small, newly created scarp. Instead he took the safe option by lowering his bike and ready bag down first, then sitting on the edge and stretching his body down before letting go. Landing safely on bent legs he shouldered his pack and remounted. He was about to pedal off when he heard the sound of a slowly approaching car engine.

The car appeared cautiously around the next bend of the road. When faced with the new vista of the cliff the driver braked, then put the car into reverse.

"HEY WAIT A MINUTE!" cried Norris, hoping to learn what the driver had seen on his way here, or even possibly cadge a lift, but the car was already out of sight. He heard the whine of its reversing for another few seconds, then the engine note change as the driver performed a three-point turn, probably in a field entrance further along the road, before driving away.

Alone again Kevin stopped for a moment to dig out an aluminium sports bottle from his pack's side pocket and chug down a few gulps of water. That done it was time to get going again, though even as he pedaled away he kept turning his head around to catch another look at the newly uplifted land which stretched across his field of view for as far as he could see behind; it exerted a mesmeric fascination on him. That just shouldn't happen in England he thought: And nor should my heart be beating this fast, or I feel so hot and sweaty, or be this short of breath. When - if - this is all over I'm going to have to see a doctor.

Chapter Twenty Four

Dumfries. 13.51.

Brian and Sophie McLean had driven to join Rosalyn at her sister's house soon after the startling news of the earthquake had broken over the car radio. Now his warning had been vindicated by events Brian saw no reason to remain in hiding.

No longer fearful of arrest, McClean had tried logging on to the UKGeoScan systems from Rosalyn's sofa via his laptop while incredulously watching the news, but found his access credentials had been suspended: The stupid vindictive idiots! This must be Pullman's doing... He tried a different approach, this time visiting the site as an anonymous user. To his surprise he found the publicly available Deep Scan data had been taken offline; not just the real time information, which might be expected given the circumstances, but the entire archive had been removed. What were they trying to do?Did they really think they could suppress the truth? He thought.

Just then the doorbell sounded. Rosalyn answered it.

"I'd like to see Dr Brian McLean please." said a cultured authoritative voice.

"You'd better come in."

Hearing the door close Brian looked round to see a chubbily built balding man wearing an expensive looking black formal raincoat enter the lounge.

"Dr Brian McLean?" enquired the jowl faced visitor seriously.

"I am. But if you're from the police, or one of Pullman's stooges, or a reporter you'd better turn around and leave now, or so help me they'll be carrying you out!"

"I can assure you I'm nothing to do with any of those." the man replied, offering McLean an identity card; Brian examined it. Superficially the Scottish Parliament pass identified the man as Angus McDonald, a personal assistant in the First Minister's office. "Can we talk privately for a few moments, in the kitchen perhaps?"

Brian nodded his assent and followed the civil servant into Rosalyn's kitchen, closing the door behind him.

"So, what's your interest in me?" demanded McLean.

"I won't beat around the bush, Dr McLean." said McDonald. "I'm here to make you a proposal which you are quite at liberty to refuse if you so choose. You predicted an earthquake of this magnitude would strike in the area it has done and well within the expected time frame, but no one else did. That shows you have a unique expertise in your speciality which the Scottish government would like to avail itself of.

I'm authorised to offer you a temporary role as a scientific adviser for the duration of the emergency, along with the assistance of the First Minister's office in providing accommodation; assistance with any legal matters which may arise, and some privacy for your family. I'm sure we can come to an agreement on the details of any contract-" McDonald's phone began to vibrate. "Excuse me a moment..."

McDonald clamped the phone to his ear; Brian could only hear one side of the conversation. "Yes... What?! Thanks for telling me!... Is she releasing a statement?... OK... Yes, I'll be on my way back soon, whatever the outcome... Keep me updated!.. Bye!"

"Well!" resumed McDonald. "That was unexpected! Westminster has just unilaterally declared a State of Emergency throughout the realm without consulting the other United Kingdom governments. As you can imagine that is something we are taking a dim view of here. The First Minister is going to speak to the Parliament on the matter shortly; you may find what she has to say of interest. Shall we watch it on television or on my mobile?"

"Let's go back into the lounge." said Mclean.

The men reached the living room where the Manchester based BBC was still booming out the news "...International reaction to the disaster has been overwhelmingly sympathetic, with offers of aid pouring in to British embassies abroad." the newsreader voiced over scenes of candlelit vigils. "However there were celebrations in some Muslim nations when the news of the earthquake broke." shaky footage of men in islamic dress firing Kalashnikovs into the air and groups of burka-clad joyfully ululating women replaced the church service images. "Meanwhile in an unprecedented coordinated move, trading on major world stock markets has been suspended on learning of the closure of the London Stock Exchange, they having already reached their limits down."

Then the overused lurid BREAKING NEWS graphic flashed on the screen. "We'll be going live shortly to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, where First Minister Elsa Maxwell is due to make a statement regarding the recently announced nationwide State of Emergency. She is expected to appear within the next few minutes but already her office has made it clear that Holyrood does not accept the Emergency Powers decree as either legal or binding, and will not be enforcing its provisions in Scotland, so effectively provoking a constitutional standoff in the midst of the aftermath of this morning's earthquake; a political shock in addition to the seismic one, so it would seem-"

"Westminster's writ no longer runs in Scotland." announced McDonald with obvious satisfaction. "And so your liberty is guaranteed here whatever you decide to do. Though if you do want to work for us, we'd like to have you begin as soon as possible."

"He's offering you a job?" asked Rosalyn.

"Yes."

Well you'd better take it, seeing as how you're probably going to lose the one you've got!"

"That settles that then." said Brian.

"Good." Replied McDonald. "I can drive you to Edinburgh or you can follow me there if you feel up to it"

"I'll follow you." McLean said, still not trusting the man, but what other choice did he have?

As Rosalyn said her goodbyes to her sister, Brian asked McDonald "Out of interest, how did you know we were here? Were relatives' addresses the first places on your list to look?"

"No; that would be standard practice, but as a matter of fact we were able to listen to your wife and sister-in-law's conversation through the smart TV's microphone via its speech recognition software." McDonald replied, quite unabashed. Behind him Sue blushed a deep crimson, no doubt at the thought of the other activities in the lounge which may have been eavesdropped by the all-hearing ear.

"People don't bother to read the privacy notices in the operating instructions." McDonald added by means of justification. "And surveillance capabilities aren't only restricted to GCHQ; we in the Scottish government have been developing our own independent means for quite a while. Shall we go now?"

Leaving a dumbfounded Sue standing at her front door, McDonald and the McLean family set off to their cars. "Dad; can I have my phone back?" asked Sophie as the McLeans settled themselves in.

"Wait until we get booked in to whichever hotel they find for us." said her father. "I'm still not 100% sure about that man."

"Well I'm 100% sure about one thing." Rosalyn leaned over and kissed her husband. "You're a hero! I'm sorry for all the things I said on the way here; I was wrong."

"If only I'd been wrong as well!... But what else could I do? Knowing what I did I had to try and issue a warning. I admit I might have handled things better but I didn't have time to think it through... So yes, I screwed it up." McLean squeezed his wife's hand. "But fortunately I might just have got away with it this time."

McDonald's dark grey Range Rover parked in front of them began to pull slowly away: Brian eased his car into gear and followed it.

Chapter Twenty Five

Sidcup. 14.11.

The moment Ryan Buckland spotted the car he knew it meant trouble. It must have been the way the glossy raven black, boxy high performance hatchback with the notice me but don't look at me opaque window glass squatted out of place among the stopped line of middle-class estates and Chelsea tractors; or how an endless string of rapid monotonous beats thudded from the vehicle, obliterating the crystalline notes of a classical piano concerto wafting from another car stereo he passed by as he drew near.

While most of the other stuck motorists had turned off their engines and sat quietly waiting, the ugly car's motor continued to idle restlessly; the sound booming out through a ridiculously large exhaust pipe. It only confirmed Ryan's hunch that both the car and its occupants were best given a wide berth. Unconsciously he drifted away from the edge of the road closer to the other side of the pavement as it widened and joined a large grassy community play area.

He walked past the brutish little car, but had only taken a few steps onward when he heard its engine rev menacingly with a metallic harshness. Buckland knew better than to look back, for to do so was to admit his intimidation and encourage more of the same, so continuing to gaze straight ahead as well as maintaining his stride, he kept on. But what he heard next couldn't be ignored; along with a deep throated burbling there was the scuffing of low profile alloy wheels and plastic side skirts grating against the curb; one-two - three-four Ryan counted, the impatient driver had bumped his vehicle off the road. Buckland heard a triumphant tyranosaurian roar and snapped his head around in time to see the car launch itself at him with a carnivorous snarl.

Ryan understood from where he was placed there was no hope of finding sanctuary in among the traffic jam; he'd never reach it in time. Instead he leapt out of the vehicle's way into the park, the hot hatch just missing him as it sped past. Unfortunately the driver wasn't finished with his sport yet; he slammed on his brakes, turned sharply around, and aimed the car directly at Buckland, the spinning wheels kicking up divots of turf like a dog scratching at a lawn as it accelerated. What was up with this dickhead? thought Ryan as he dodged the charge.

Buckland felt like a matador trying to fend off a raging bull, but unlike in a plaza de toros he had no helpers to wear down the beast. Instead he faced alone a psychopathic driver who had decided to vent all of their frustrations by attempting to run him down. Whatever the reason Ryan had been chosen as the man's prey - he was the fastest moving thing on the street, or seemed to have a sense of purpose which everyone else lacked; the fact he wore a rucksack, or was merely there - the lunatic behind the wheel clearly demonstrated their murderous intent toward him.

With a loud bellowing and a turbo dump valve sneeze as it changed gear the street rod drove again at Buckland, now stranded in the middle of the park. Ryan managed to dash out of the car's way at the last moment, but this time the margin was far narrower: If he couldn't get out of its way and into a place where it couldn't follow him soon, the chances were that his luck would run out.

Buckland considered where he might flee to the next time he had the chance, but the sadistic driver was expert at drifting the hatchback around quickly and turning it at him again before Ryan could think of running to safety. There seemed to be no nearby park benches, trees, or bushes which Buckland might use for shelter, and a fenced off childrens' playground was unfeasibly far away. None of the other drivers looking on who were in a position to do so made any move to interpose their cars to aid him, but if only he could somehow work his way closer to the road he'd be all right...

As if reading Ryan's mind the madman turned at him again, gouging more tracks in the grass and cutting off his most likely avenue of escape. It was almost as if the nutter was playing with Buckland as a cat does with a mouse. With a loud throaty rasping the hatchback came at him. Ryan swerved out of its way, but this time as he did so the passenger side door was flung open, clipping him painfully on the side of his leg near the knee as the car passed.

Senses overwhelmed by an explosion of pain Ryan was bowled over and lay stunned on the ground. He heard the engine racing again as well as the frantic pounding from the stereo gathering itself into a quickening crescendo. He knew that if the hatchback didn't finish him off this time the passengers he glimpsed leering at him through its darkly tinted windscreen were likely to get out and dish out a vicious kicking while the other motorists looked on from the security of their vehicles.

Buckland gathered himself for one last effort while the car as if a pawing toro prepared itself for the final charge. Numbed leg or not he was going to have to run for his life. Then he heard the shrill of an approaching siren at the same time as noticing the flickering of intense blue lights at the periphery of his vision: A white police motorcycle with large yellow and blue panels arrived at high speed, riding along the pavement before coming to a stop at the edge of the green.

The boy racer noticed the biker cop's arrival as well, but instead of attempting to get away the driver lunged straight for him at full throttle. Unfazed the rider unholstered his pistol and gripped it in a two-handed Weaver stance while straddling his machine.

Crack! Crack-crack-crack-crack-crack! The officer fired a volley of flat sounding firecracker shots at the speeding vehicle. Abruptly its engine note changed to an unhealthy high pitched whine and the windscreen in front of the driver's face starred into milky splashes.

Pulling a handbrake turn the hot hatch tried to escape, but the gun spat more rounds at it, thunking into the bodywork and shattering the rear window. Ryan heard one of the tyres bursting at the same time as the motor died and the sound system lost its power source. Both of the car's doors burst open, figures scrambled out and began running off, but the shooting wasn't over. Two more reports echoed across the park in quick succession; the driver, then the front seat passenger slumped limply to the ground, poleaxed. Buckland saw a dark crimson patch suddenly appear on the back of the driver's hoodie as he fell.

Calmly the policeman got off his bike and reloaded his pistol with a spare magazine drawn from one of his many black nylon body pouches. Flipping up his helmet visor he walked unhurriedly over to the two motionless bodies and looked down at them. Satisfied with his handiwork he moved toward the stalled car.

"YOU TWO; GET OUT NOW!" Ryan heard the cop bark at the terrified rear seat passengers frozen in place. Slowly they eased the folding front seats up and exited the cabin at gunpoint. "LIE ON THE GROUND, FACE DOWN, HANDS IN FRONT OF YOU! " he ordered. Meekly the two gangling youths complied.

What happened next shocked Buckland to the core of his being. The weapon in the officer's hand jerked twice - crack - crack - as he callously executed the two men laying prone at his feet. It was like watching one of those sickening Daesh videos, but instead of this happening far away and the victims' heads being pixellated this had just occurred before his very eyes.

Gun still in hand by his side the policeman walked toward Ryan; was he going to shoot me as well? he wondered.

"Are you all right?" growled the cop.

"My leg..." said Buckland. "They opened the door on it. I think my knee got hit the worst."

"What happened?"

"I was trying to get home; just walking past this traffic jam when they started driving their car at me."

"That doesn't surprise me at all; they were a nasty little bunch of scrotes, part of a local postcode gang who've been no end of trouble to us. Well their luck ran out today!" the biker said with an obvious sense of relish. "With a State of Emergency declared they should've kept their heads down and their noses clean, but they learned the hard way all police officers have been granted emergency executive powers. We're judge, jury, and executioner in our own areas now!"

"I'd not heard about that."

"It's been broadcast everywhere for the last couple of hours. How long have you been walking for God's sake?"

"I was on the A2 when it happened. I parked my van up in an office park near Dartord and started walking home."

"Where do you live?"

"Bromley: I need to know my wife and daughter are OK."

"That's a bit of a journey on foot, isn't it? How do you feel now?"

"My leg's gone numb. I dunno if it's broken or just bruised."

"Well just lie there for a bit while I organise the rest of them." he motioned to the line of cars. "We'll get you sorted out."

Turning, the cop strode over to his motorcycle and flipped a handlebar mounted switch. His amplified voice crackled from a loudspeaker mounted on the machine. "EVERYONE; GET OUT OF YOUR VEHICLES AND GATHER AROUND ME!" After seeing what had become of those who got on the wrong side of the law the motorists were only too eager to obey.

Once assembled the policeman informed the small crowd that under the Emergency Powers Decree he was going to order them to clear their cars off the road and drive on to the park. There they were to stay and await further instructions. He delegated some people to organise the task while others were allocated the grim task of recovering the gang members' bodies, putting them in the bullet riddled hatchback, and pushing it out of sight.

Ryan was assigned someone to look after him for the moment. "I'll be back in a few minutes with something which might help you." the officer said, straddling his machine. "Don't go anywhere." Roaring away the man was as good as his word, soon returning with a can of sports freeze spray requisitioned from a nearby chemist's shop. "Give that a go." he said as he passed it over.

"Thank you!" Buckland gave the canister a vigorous shaking, rolled up his grass stained trouser leg, and gave his yellowing knee a good spraying. The bone chilling cold seeped deeply into it, making him feel better.

After organising a group of people to follow him and commandeer supplies for the impromptu encampment from a corner shop, the policeman stomped back toward Ryan.

"Are you feeling any better? Can you stand up and walk? If you can then you're free to go; there's no reason to keep you here."

"I'll give it a try." Buckland replied. With the aid of his nurse Ryan struggled to his feet and took a couple of numbed steps.

"Yes, I think I'll be all right." he said as his assistant stuffed the spray can into his backpack before helping him on with it.

"OK." said the cop. "Try to get home before dusk as there's going to be a curfew tonight, though given the number of newly homeless people on the streets that'll have to be enforced sensitively. And the best of luck finding your family"

"Thanks!" replied Buckland - relieved to be getting away and not facing the enforced prospect of spending the night in a stranger's shared car - as he hobbled away. Ryan would drag himself on his hands and knees back to Bromley if that's what it took be with his loved ones: He wanted to be there to protect them against the dangers of a broken city sliding into anarchy and arbitrary justice.

Chapter Twenty Six

Connect24 studios. 14.58.

Ian May is engaged in a phone conversation with the ConnectMedia group chairman, Euan Rees.

"...and given what had just happened I agreed with James Patterson it would be appropriate to go off-air for a while. A good thing too as twenty minutes later the police arrived... Yes, I've never seen them move that quickly either; especially with the roads the way they are, but with an incident so visible they must have decided it was a priority.

...They arrested Dominic Paige at once and whisked him away but no, there's no way we could have continued to broadcast while they were seizing the video as evidence as well as taking statements under caution from everyone... Without proper legal advice to hand that's what I told them and I'm sure that will be borne out by the records. I made the point I objected to the way he was progressing the story and the way he was pushing those two... ...Agreed; and hopefully with some specialist lawyers advising us we can lay it all on his shoulders as an wayward employee who lost all sense of proportion and flouted the established proceedures.

...Yes we could resume broadcasting right away but I thought it best to not to just yet; paying due respects and all that. The studio needed cleaning up anyway and there's no way James or Anna could have been expected to continue... She'll be all right as far as I can tell though she's spent a long time crying and puking her guts up in the toilets. She and Kelly got along well. I've promised she'll get any support or counseling she needs. Our on-call doctor has suggested she has tranquillisers in the meantime. James is shocked as well of course, but I think he coped with the situation admirably and with great professionalism... In my opinion they both needed at least a week's paid leave and then see where we go from there... No, although we're short-staffed it'd be unreasonable to expect them to carry on under those circumstances. Susan Bradley and Carol Jones have managed to get in; they're ready to anchor the show once we go live again and have promised to hold the fort until more help arrives. When they're not on air they'll be crashing out in one of the Green Rooms or offices.

...As for Gail Burton, the last I heard she was going to abandon her van and was on her way by foot with the crew to a Rest Centre rumoured being set up in one of the royal parks. I told her not to; said she should find somewhere safe if she can to crash out in and recharge her gear if at all possible but you know what she's like, been on the go since yesterday evening; first trying but failing to run down Brian McLean, then back to the royal 'flu vigil, and the Pippa Slater affair before all this blew up. I've told her to be careful; some parts of London are distinctly unsafe at the moment, especially in Hyde Park where I'm told thirsty people are drinking out of the Serpentine for Christ's sake, but she won't listen...

...We're coping as well as can be expected. We should be all right for emergency power for the next day or so, same with food and water. After that is anyone's guess...

... But in that case wouldn't it be a better idea to run the story from Edinburgh as it is closer? Especially since the Scots have rejected the State of Emergency... I can understand your reasoning, but New York or even elsewhere in Europe is way too far away from the action... So why not wait until then and switch things there only as a last resort? I mean we'll be the main source for the story anyway... No, I don't think that's going to be possible. Yes, outside London and the Home Counties it's not so bad, but where would you find alternative premises for us? And even moving around is difficult...

Yes I heard about that, wasn't sure it was official policy yet, but in my opinion it's going to be unworkable; they'll need to set up displaced persons' camps all around the capital and people are bound to sneak through the cordon. They'll have enough on their hands as it is inside the M25... We're not getting much news from some of those areas, but from what we can gather it's bad and getting worse... Yes, that's why I'll be staying here for the time being.

...I appreciate the thought, but you just can't move. It's shank's pony for the time being and probably will be for a quite a while into the future at least. In our inimitable British style we'll Keep Calm and Carry On until we can't anymore.

...So you'll be switching to New York in a hour's time then? Yes, I suppose we could do what we can to add to it from here, but it won't be easy... No it's more the coordination and if the police were so quick to get here before than they'll be around again in a flash if the government objects to what we're reporting; we'll be off the air for good then.

...There's one favour I'd like to ask. As a mark of respect one of our artists produced a black screen border incorporating the photos of Kelly and Ethan; we were going to use it when we went back on air. Could you...? Yes, I think around 24 hours would be appropriate. Oh thank you! That would mean a lot to us. I'll send it over to you right away!

...You must be getting better images than we are. Ah, they're coming through now! Oh, that does look nasty! Not quite the Second Great Fire of London just yet but I'll be paying close attention to it. Should it begin to spread in this direction we'll close down completely and evacuate as far as we're able. Of course we'll keep you informed.

...Indeed, we'll all have a lot to do in the weeks and months ahead. And we'll be looking forward to the time when C24-UK can be restarted. Here's hoping it will be soon. Thank you; and the best of luck to you as well. 'Bye!"

As Rees terminated the connection, the import of what he had just announced began to sink into Ian May. So this is what the end of the world feels like, he thought. The lines from the Keats poem about the centre no longer holding and tumbling within a widening gyre came to mind. The greatest story of his career was unfolding all around him, yet he had been effectively cut out of the loop; relegated to being a mere bystander.

 

PINDAR. 15.09.

The cabinet had paused for an hour's rest as had been prearranged in the Standard Contingency Planning Guidelines, though no one expected to catch a few winks' sleep, certainly not after the Scottish Parliament's narrow vote supporting their government's rejection of the State of Emergency. The two antagonistic factions had left their junior staffs in temporary charge of the situation, before moving to separate offices to snack and consider this political bombshell. The collective morale of the group containing Stuart Pullman and Christopher Parsons along with their cohorts resembled that of a boxer being punched out on points with excruciating slowness during a long drawn out bout.

"I hate to say it Stuart, but I think we're losing this one." Parsons looked and sounded morose.

"We're not out of it yet." Pullman replied; but his former self-confidence was beginning to ebb as well. "Just because the bloody Jocks chose this of all moments to expose themselves for the traitors they are doesn't mean we were wrong to invoke all the powers available granted to us the Civil Contingencies Act. No reasonable person could deny a national disaster requires a nationwide response, well no-one apart from that lily-livered fool Rampling and the Soft Faction. "I am confident we can reach an amicable consensus regarding the issues we disagree on... my arse!" Stuart spat the Prime Minister's conciliatory words out as if they were acid in his mouth. "If I'd had my way, all of the Scottish parliament would be in preventative detention by now!" he continued.

"I'm surprised, not to say a little disappointed that you didn't push harder for that sort of action to be taken in the previous cabinet session." interrupted Parsons.

"Well you saw it for yourself." retorted Stuart. "They weren't going to buy it; especially as it was I who proposed extending the State of Emergency which they mistakenly think prompted the Scots' revolt. No it's reconciliation all round and sorry it was just a bit of overexuberance on our part; just a reserve technical measure to ensure we had the powers we needed if we had to use them, which of course we don't intend to... Christ it was sickening to watch them falling over each other to distance themselves from it while The Right Honourable Anthony Charles Gerald Rampling looked on smiling. I couldn't tell if Ian Campbell's streaming tears were a symptom of his Mexican swine 'flu or those of joy: I hope he doesn't spread what he's got to me, because a debilitating illness is the last thing I need, especially now!" Parsons made a sympathetic noise.

"Honestly." Pullman started again." A man that sick shouldn't be making decisions of such magnitude; he should have temporarily stood aside in favour of his deputy. Here we are, grappling with an unexpected crisis, the economy wobbling on a financial tightrope, and the Chancellor resembles an extra from a zombie film..."

"Very succinctly put." said Parsons. "But what are we going to do about?"

"I'm not sure as yet, but don't you even think of wavering on me-"

"The thought hadn't crossed my mind!"

"Good: Because despite appearances this is far from over."

Even as he spoke the words the vague outline if a plan coalesced in Stuart's imagination. It was as audacious as it was illegal, but if it worked he would be certain to become Prime Minister. "I'm going topside to check on my office and clear my head for a while." he announced. "I'll see you again when the cabinet reconvenes."

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.

Chapter Twenty Seven

Sevenoaks, Kent. 16.39.

It had taken a roundabout route to get here, but at last Kevin Norris turned his mountain bike down the short, unsurfaced turn off which led to his home. He and Debbie had bought the rundown but sturdily built agricultural cottage some years ago; it was the ideal place for them both, located as it was near enough to London and the motorway to make commuting there possible, yet far enough away to avoid the worst of the eye watering mark-up in prices proximity to the capital exerted upon hard-pressed buyers. Over the years they'd slowly but steadily renovated what was once no more than a shell as time and finances allowed until it became a nest which neither of them could contemplate selling.

Norris eased the bike to a stop outside the pair of heavy wooden gates barring the entrance to his drive. The rest of the property and its garden were screened from the rest of the world by a curtain of prickly hawthorn hedge. It was this camouflaged seclusion which was one of the house's attractions: That, and it forced any intruder wanting to get in to clamber over the high gates. Propping the bike against one of them Kevin unlocked the heavy lock securing the other and pushed it open. At once he heard a loud barking and the sound of rapid paw steps on the gravel drive. A large Alsatian dog came running toward him but any hint of menace evaporated when it recognised its master. The dog ran up and greeted him, though its attention appeared to be preoccupied elsewhere

"What's up Jasper? Where's Debbie gone?" Norris said ruffling the dog around the ears. Debbie's little hatchback was missing from its parking place: She'd obviously gone out somewhere; either shopping at the local hypermarket, or else she'd driven to the station car park and then caught the train to London, leaving the dog the run of the garden. Norris knew all of Jasper's moods well and picked up an uncertain nervousness about him. Closing the gate behind him, Kevin laid the bike down and looked carefully at his home. All was quiet and there appeared to be no damage from what he could see. With Jasper following closely, Norris conducted a slow walk around the outside of his property. Relieved he concluded it had escaped serious damage.

"Let's see what it's like inside, eh?"

Kevin inserted his key into the front door lock and turned it, but for some reason it was hard to open, which was unusual because the last time he'd had no problem unlocking it. With difficulty he felt the lock's internal mechanism moving; he pushed at the door but it only moved an inch before he encountered a stiff resistance. He gave it a good hard shove and the door opened all the way at once, nearly spilling him into the hall. What had caused that? he wondered. As he moved through to the lounge an answer came to mind; the 'quake must have caused the door frame to warp slightly, and if that had happened what damage might have been caused to the rest of the house?

Then it struck Norris that all was not right here; it appeared as if the place had been ransacked with items of furniture being moved about, and the group of pictures Debbie had artfully hung on a wall now either hanging askew or jolted off their pegs and lying on to the floor. Kevin bent to pick up one of the fallen prints; it had landed on one of its corners, breaking the frame at the joint and cracking the brittle plastic cover glass. And there, Debbie's prized Venetian vase, a wedding present, had juddered itself off the windowsill and struck the coffee table, shattering. She was going to be upset when she learned about that.

Many of the draws had been vibrated open, and ornaments flung down from their places to the carpet, some of them breaking in the process. Had he not known about the earthquake, and without the watchful Jasper to stand guard on the unoccupied house, Norris would have thought he'd been burgled, but this was obviously not the case.

Dejectedly Kevin pulled out his mobile phone; it would be wise to record the scene as it was as evidence for the insurance claim before he began the long task of bringing some sort of order to this chaos. There was still no network connection displayed on the screen so no chance of him contacting the insurance company at the moment, and in any case they were likely to be overloaded with calls. Idly he wondered how much of a hit the insurers would take from an incident of this size, and what effect it would have on their share prices along with the economy in general?

Slowly, and treading carefully, he videoed the breakages before going into the kitchen to inventory the scenes of disorder there. Saucepans had tumbled down onto the floor from their hanging rack and the spice rack had come away from the wall completely; that would be another thing to annoy Debbie. Fortunately there was no smell of leaking gas though he suspected the supply might have been cut off elsewhere. Experimentally Norris tried turning the light on, but as he expected the power was still off.

After pushing the half-open draws of the kitchen units shut and pushing the washing machine back where it should be, Kevin took stock of the larder. The stockpile of tinned food he kept for emergencies such as this had been disarrayed with a few of the fallen cans getting dented, but apart from a spilled bag of sugar the cupboard had escaped largely unscathed. Then he checked the fridge-freezer: It unnerved him slightly to open the door and be faced with a darkened box, but there wasn't much in there he needed to worry about at the moment. Instead he opened the freezer door to document its contents, as yet there were few signs of defrosting but if the blackout were to continue what couldn't be cooked would be lost; best to make a record of what was in there. That done he closed the door and fetched a large cloth kitchen towel which he pushed underneath the freezer with a large wooden spatula to catch any leaking water; a flood was something he could live without. That would soak up the worst or now but he'd have to change the towel when it became saturated, and if the power cut seemed likely to persist there'd be nothing for to it remove what ice he could from the cabinet by hand before it melted into a puddle, and throw the food away. He'd most likely need to dig a pit in the garden and bury it.

That done he set off upstairs. Luckily on checking the hot water and heating system there appeared to be no leaks, and the tap ran slowly for the few seconds he tried it, but that was no guarantee of a future supply. When Debbie returned he'd warn her they'd need to economise on their water use as much as possible until the situation became clearer. Norris had stored bottled water as well, but it was strictly for drinking only.

Checking the house and its contents took longer than expected, and by the time he'd completed the task it was late afternoon. Making his way downstairs Kevin looked through the window to see Jasper pacing agitated around the lawn. "Come on in you daft animal!" He called, but Jasper obstinately stayed outside. The dog had obviously been spooked by the 'quake. "Oh well, stay out there if you want to; see if I care!"

Kevin pushed the front door closed as far as he could; the frame would need resetting when he could organise it. Then he brought out the emergency wind-up radio and battery powered camping lantern from the under stairs cupboard where they were kept. Turning the radio on he tried scanning the few available analogue channels in an attempt to learn more about what was going on, but the reception was patchy with only a few stations on the air, and of those most of them repeated the scant few scraps of information they could glean between playing records while the presenters, understaffed and overworked, tried to garner more information. As ever in a crisis one of the greatest needs was for up to date news, and often it was the first thing to be found wanting. Kevin imagined the radio as a soundtrack to peoples' frantic delving into the cobwebbed depths of cupboards, sheds and garages in searches for the damp old candles or rusty camping stove they were sure was still there despite the warnings of aftershocks and the dangers of entering damaged properties: No doubt there would be plenty of meals cooked by feeble lamplight on barbecues in the relative safety of gardens and sheds tonight.

Kevin reasoned there was no point in trying to use his satellite phone to call Debbie; the chances were the mobile network was still down. She'd find her way home when she could, whenever that might be. Equally what news there might be on the internet connection would be little more than hearsay at the moment; not worth the slow and expensive hassle of trying to access it. He kept the satphone switched off to conserve its battery but left his mobile on just in case Debbie was able to call him.

Norris considered heating a tin of food on the butane gas stove he kept handy for power cuts or boiling some water for a mug of tea, but didn't feel hungry: In fact he didn't feel all that well. It must be be the stress and effort of the day so far that was getting to him. Kevin felt slightly tight-chested and slightly out of breath; probably as a result of the cycling he'd done. No doubt he'd be riding a great deal more in the days and weeks to come while they sorted the roads out... It could be the kick start his health needed. But in the meantime he really ought to lie on the sofa and nap for a while. If Debbie returned Jasper would be sure to let him know and if there was a strong aftershock as he expected there would be he'd be able to bolt out of the front door to safety from here.

Despite the catastrophe developing around him, Kevin Norris drifted into a light sleep.

Chapter Twenty Nine

Bromley Common. 17.46.

Ryan Buckland lay dozing on a plastic groundsheet under a donated blanket, using his rucksack as a pillow. Along with Michelle and Grace he sheltered under a tent jury-rigged from a large blue builder's tarpaulin, supported by a rope and scaffold pole framework hammered into the earth.

Looking like a festival site gone wrong or a post-apocalyptic settlement the community founded camp had mushroomed in size during the short time he'd been here as more people heeding the official advice to evacuate quake damaged buildings arrived: Now the local authority had taken charge of it. After quite a search he found Michelle and Grace as Wesley had said; camping together with the other residents of their block. With the family's tearful but ecstatic reunion they exchanged survival stories. Ryan learned that as soon as the major tremor had begun Michelle and Grace had run from the flat and with their equally terrified neighbours fled to the Common for safety.

Grace was delighted to see her guinea pigs - who she had given up for dead - again; the thankful look on her face made the risk her father had taken to save them worthwhile. However the pets' rescue was scant consolation for the loss of their home; Michelle seemed to accept the news as well as could be expected, but Ryan worried that in her shock she'd not fully taken it in.

Under police supervision groups of people had gone out salvaging food and other supplies from local shops; a community kitchen was being set up at the camp, along with other services. The survivors were promised a mass dinner later. In the meantime the Bucklands exhausted the edible contents of Ryan's ready bag; even Squeaky and Fudge were given a few morsels of cereal bar which they eagerly devoured.

Now, being temporarily safe, there was nothing else for the family to do but stay here and await further developments. Ryan eased his trousers off and took a closer look at his leg which, though stiff as well as bruised, was less badly injured than he had first thought. After another application of the freeze spray he settled down to rest for a while.

His snooze was interrupted by a cacophony of electronic noises and ringtones. At least in this area the mobile signal was back. As one the newly homeless - Michelle among them - scrambled frantically for their devices to retrieve their messages before the networks crashed again under the demand, but this time the service appeared to be more resilient. A new chorus of sounds heralded more information arriving, and as it did so came the first murmurs of surprise, then confusion, followed by annoyance, anger, and fear from the displaced people.

"What's this all about?" Michelle asked her husband, thrusting her phone at him. She was confident enough using it but always got him to sort out her technical problems when they arose.

"I dunno. Let's have a look!" Ryan replied, as he read the text which had appeared on the display.

IMPORTANT MESSAGE. it began. DO NOT DELETE UNTIL YOU HAVE READ AND UNDERSTOOD IT.

Under the State of Emergency Decree issued under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, the Government has assumed temporary control of all communications networks in the national interest and to assist recovery.

Two apps have been automatically sent to your device. The downloads are free, and will not count against your data allowance whether you are a contract or prepay customer. They will help you to obtain any assistance you may need, and also provide warning of possible exposure to harmful levels of radiation. THE RADIATION DETECTOR APP DOWNLOAD DOES NOT MEAN A NUCLEAR INCIDENT IS INEVITABLE: THIS IS ONLY A PRECAUTIONARY MEASURE.

You should learn to use these apps now in case you need them in the future. You should also keep up to date with the news via the Emergency Announcements section of the GOV.UK app.

Another message which has been sent to your device explains what you must do, and what you MUST NOT do while the State of Emergency is in effect. YOU MUST OBEY THE EMERGENCY LAWS. YOU MAY BE LIABLE FOR SEVERE CRIMINAL SANCTIONS INCLUDING THE DEATH PENALTY IF YOU BREAK THE LAW, SO OBEY ALL OF THE EMERGENCY LAWS AND ANY OFFICIAL INSTRUCTIONS GIVEN TO YOU. You should read that message now.

"Bloody hell!" said Ryan. "They're not messing about, are they? It's almost as if we're at war! I know we've missed out on the news, but surely it can't be that bad, can it?"

With a sideways flick he dismissed the message to find Michelle's phone had two new prominent icons on the home screen. One was an official black and white crown marked GOV.UK PORTAL while the other, a stark yellow and black radiation trefoil was named RAD DETECTOR. Clicking on the GOV.UK tile he found himself facing a menu of newly added options.

Apply for a compulsory identity card.

Apply for a compulsory ration card.

Register a new, changed, or temporary address. (Registration is compulsory.)

Register a mobile device. (Registration is compulsory.)

Apply for emergency housing.

Register for compulsory national labour service.

Register a missing or deceased loved one.

With a mixture of fear and revulsion Ryan shut the app down. Then he touched the radiation app. On opening a caption said, This app can warn you about possibly harmful radiation in your vicinity. It uses your location to check for alerts. Do you want to check for alerts now?

Given the choice of YES or NO Buckland tapped YES. After a brief wait which seemed a lot longer the screen read, No radiation warnings are in effect in your area at the moment. Check the app regularly for updates.

After a pause the app reverted back to its home page. Ryan noticed another button there; Use device camera for radiation detection? Out of curiosity he pressed it. A list of instructions were shown.

"It says to keep your thumb pressed down over the front camera, or shield it from sources of light while it's calibrating itself." he announced. Buckland didn't have any electrical tape to hand in order to cover the camera lens so following another idea the instructions suggested he put the phone in his trouser pocket. After a few moments there was a startling double beep. Heart pounding, Ryan whipped the device out of his pocket to find No radiation detected showing on the display. For an unfathomable reason he didn't feel reassured.

There was a further alert tone. A new message icon appeared in the status bar; it was probably the one regarding the Emergency Regulations referred to earlier. "I don't like this..." Michelle said quietly. "Something's wrong; it must be worse than they're making out."

"Yeah, but what can we do about it? We've got no home to go to and we're being told to stay where we are for the time being if we're no danger. I overheard some people in the reception tent saying they were forced to come here under threat of being arrested if they didn't. And I don't fancy another long walk..."

"Well I don't feel safe here. Have you noticed how the mood is changing as more people arrive? You see there are more armed police around now, and everyone knows what they did to those two men who tried demanding money for the standpipe water... Ryan, let's go. Please..."

"But where?"

"We can go to Addiscombe and stay with Nan. Now the phones are back on I'd better ring her to see if she's all right."

Michelle dialed the number but instead if a connection got an off-key warning tone. "Oh for fuck's sake!" she exploded. "Look at this!"

Ryan read the new dialogue box. Due to network restrictions, only emergency calls are permitted. The font matched that of the other government notices.

"It must be those bloody government apps taking over my phone." Michelle was obviously annoyed as she made a point of not swearing when Grace was present. "Get rid of them, would you?"

Buckland did as he was asked but when he tried to delete the apps a stern admonishment warned, This app cannot be uninstalled until the State of Emergency is over. Ryan decided to keep his phone switched off to prevent it being infected with the official virus.

"That's just taking the piss!" Michelle was on the verge of tears now. "C'mon, let's go now, I'm worried about Nan!"

"You could both stay here while I go home and rescue my bike from the garage. I'll ride up there and-

"No Ryan, we ought to stay together. I was worried out of my skin earlier wondering if you were OK. When I heard about the pile-ups and the fires on the M25 I thou-"

"I worried about you and Grace as well, babe." Ryan hugged Michelle. "You're right, we don't want to get split up so-"

A loudspeaker announcement from a slow moving police car circling the camp interrupted them. "ATTENTION! ATTENTION! ALL ABLE-BODIED MEN ARE REQUIRED TO REPORT FOR COMPULSORY LABOUR SERVICE IN FIFTEEN MINUTES! REPORT AT THE RECEPTION AREA! IF YOU DO NOT WORK, YOU AND YOUR FAMILY WILL NOT RECEIVE MEAL TOKENS FOR THE COMMUNAL KITCHEN! ALL ABLE BODIED MEN REPORT FOR LABOUR SERVICE AT THE RECEPTION TENT!"

"Right, that settles it!" decided Ryan. "Grab your stuff, we're going!"

It took less than a minute for the Bucklands to gather what little they had from under their tarpaulin, shoulder their packs, and slip quietly away through a clump of bushes. Ryan knew this spot, it was around here that he and Grace had last seen Rusty only a few days ago, though that seemed a long, halcyon age ago now. Yes, this was the place; there was a faint trace of a path through the dense shrubbery the family could use to avoid being noticed by the police patrols. A trickle of other would-be escapees followed them

As they hurried away from the Common Ryan looked behind to check they'd not been spotted, but it appeared no one was actively engaged in watching for people leaving without authorisation at the moment. Instead the camp functionaries seemed more concerned with the three flatbed trucks which had drawn up near the reception area. The lorries were laden with an assortment of crowd control barriers; large sheets of the sort of plywood used for building site hoardings; and rolls of wire fencing, along with bundles of long tubular metal support poles for it. Buckland also glimpsed coils of barbed wire. Obviously a perimeter was going to be established around the Emergency Centre, but was its purpose to keep people out or incarcerate them within its bounds?

From this distance he observed an ant sized figure wearing a fluorescent vest supervising the unloading of the vehicles. Though it was impossible to make out what was being said from this far away the foreman's hectoring tone was clear, directed via a loudhailer at the groups of men obviously unused to heavy labour as they struggled to offload the cargo. Further beyond the lorries Ryan thought he spotted a micro digger working alongside conscripts with shovels excavating more toilet pits, but a second look revealed plastic wrapped bundles and full body bags being taken out of the back of a van parked at the end of one of the parallel slots; these were mass burial trenches being dug. Buckland shuddered, feeling as if a goose had walked over his grave. Michelle was right, this place had a growing air of malevolence about it; they were better off getting out.

The family set off for Nan's warden assisted first floor single bedroom flat. Even being crammed together with their grandmother, under constant harassment to move on by the social services or the caretaker would be better than nights spent shivering under canvas or in poorly insulated portacabins. Ryan was still had on his Wizzit uniform, his ready bag on his shoulders; Michelle wore the lightweight summer clothes and flip-flops she stood up in, her other meagre possessions contained in a handbag; her knitted polyester shawl would be scant protection against the cool of the coming evening. Grace walked hand in hand between her parents, carrying the guinea pigs' cage. Ryan hoped her vividly coloured Disney character backpack or his camouflaged rucksack wouldn't attract any envious attention.

Though they didn't know it the family represented this disaster in microcosm. Like so many others this day their lives had been turned upside down; from the mundane coping with daily problems to living with fear, hunger, thirst, and discomfort: From struggling to just get by to losing everything they had, as well as the unease of an unknown future gnawing at their minds. Suddenly finding themselves homeless and fleeing the dystopia being constructed on the Common the newly destitute Bucklands were like so many others seeking whatever asylum could be found from it all.

Ryan checked the time; it was early evening. Given the distance to Addiscombe the family would need to increase their pace if they were to arrive before the twilight began to dim, the clear sky turn a cruel deep cobalt, and the temperature drop. The darkening would also see the lawlessness of the day worsen, and judging from what he'd seen earlier the police posed as great a danger as the desperate or criminal elements. Buckland felt as a herbivore observed by a pack of carnivore predators; he imagined myriad hostile eyes staring at his family from the depths of every shadow. The sooner they could be sheltered at Nan's and be off the streets the better.

Chapter Thirty

Whitehall. Stuart Pullman's Private Office. 17.44.

An inspection of the Downing Street bulidings had revealed no obvious serious damage; a testament to the horrendously expensive taxpayer funded preventative reinforcement against possible terrorist attacks which had been undertaken. As a consequence the offices had been declared safe, however the Emergency cabinet would continue to convene in the depths of PINDAR until further notice, just in case a strong aftershock were to bring one of the ornate ceilings crashing down on their heads..

At long last Stuart Pullman had been allowed back into his office and had been able to snatch a few minutes of private time in which to launch his scheme. Inside his personal safe, and locked in a strongbox to which only he had the key was a tablet computer he kept for standby, extremely private communications such as this. After retrieving it Stuart powered up the device and accessed it by thumbprint as well as inputing no less than three separate passwords he alone knew into the device's custom operating system. Those who had given him the machine were insistent on using the most enhanced security protocols available, and they were expert at their trade. Even so, the Deputy PM remained nervous, even though the extra consideration he'd given his actions while waiting had only reinforced his determination to act. Though up until now he'd kept the Organisation at arms' length, this was the irrevocable moment when both parties called in each other's markers.

Once logged in he opened an innocent ebook reader. At the beginning of a chapter in one of the many books a particular sequence of screen swipes opened what at first sight appeared to be a covert stash of lesbian S&M porn, but that was merely a disguise for a far more secret application; it would be far better for Pullman to risk public humiliation by the sacrificial disclosure of the erotica than deal with the severe consequences arising from the discovery of the programme it camouflaged. A further pattern swipe on a thumbnail picture of a nubile woman engaged in congress with a german shepherd dog brought up the encrypted messaging app.

From his official folio Stuart extracted the paper copy of the Prime Minister's newly revised schedule for the next twenty four hours: As his deputy Pullman was one of the restricted circle of people entrusted with the knowledge. The document outlined Rampling's aerial tour of the affected region planned for tomorrow.. Quickly using the tablet's camera to photograph the file, he sent it as an attachment to each of the few addresses listed in the contacts directory. That done, he made sure all records of the message were erased from the system, even though the email was primed to self-destruct if not read before a preset time period expired. His task completed, Stuart closed the app and powered the slate down.

As he replaced the re-locked strong box back in his safe Pullman felt his insides quivering. This wasn't just another powerful aftershock he was feeling but the pure fear and adrenaline rush caused by the action he'd just taken kicking in. No longer merely disloyal or scheming, Stuart had stepped beyond the political boundaries deep into the treacherous realm involved with soliciting an act of terroristic murder.

 

An undisclosed location. 17.45.

Stuart Pullman's message arrived in the inbox of an automated remailer, this cut-out link yet another Organisation safeguard to ensure the message chain couldn't be traced link by link back to the source if it were somehow compromised. Again the message split itself into infinitesimal heavily encryped fragments small enough to escape the notice of surveillance systems before bouncing their way innumerable times around the global tendrils of the internet. Eventually - though to the human sense of time instantaneously - the various parts of the email arrived at their final destination, were recompiled, decrypted, and attracted the attention of the human recipient.

On opening it the anonymous Commander realised at once the opportunity this presented, but also the difficulties of making anything useful of the leak now. Had these been normal times and he been given more time to prepare it might have been possible to put an operation together; but in the midst of the earthquake chaos and with very few of his people on the ground, as well as only a limited period within which to act, his options were few.

In fact there was only one reliable person he could think of who had the skills and the commitment to do such a short-notice job. It might be a forlorn hope, but if anyone could pull off such a difficult assignment it would be him. The Commander copied the attachment on to a USB drive; then connecting it to a separate computer and using a different secure email account to preclude any trail of connectedness, forwarded the information to the operative known as the Shadow Man.

Chapter Thirty One

Jubilee Court, Addiscome. 20.52.

It took the Bucklands longer than expected to reach Michelle's grandmother's flat; by the time they did, twilight had fallen. Though the effects of the earthquake had become less pronounced as the family trekked west, there were still instances where they'd had to divert around streets cluttered with fallen rubble from damaged buildings or skirt what might be trouble of other kinds. Eventually Ryan armed himself with a short length of scaffold pole he came across at the site of a house renovation and felt more confident as a result; but now he had to be wary of any moving bright lights lest they be the headlamps of police cars or the spotlights of low-flying helicopters heralding a fusilade of automatic fire.

Eventually, footsore and weary, they arrived at Nan's squat block of sheltered flats. Almost immediately they ran into the truculent warden, Hobbs, as Ryan knocked on the common entry door which had been locked shut.

"Go away!" Hobbs shouted through the wire reinforced glass "I'm not opening up at this time of night!"

"It's Michelle Buckland! I'm checking to see my grandmother's OK. She's Sylvia Grant in number twelve!"

"She's allright! I looked in on everyone here personally. You can come back and see her tomorrow!"

"I'm not waiting until then! I want to see her now!

"Well you can't! You'll just have to- OI!" Hobbs exclaimed as Ryan unexpectedly swung his scaffold pole at the door lock with such force it startled Michelle, Grace, and the warden.

"Open the door!" demanded Buckland. "Or I will!"

"I'll call the police!" threatened Hobbs.

"Go right ahead." sneered Ryan. "I think you'll find they've got their hands rather full at the moment! 'Chelle, you and Grace stand well back. I'm going to get this door open whatever it takes!"

The women did as instructed, then Buckland began to methodically rain forceful blows on the area of the door which contained the latch. It was a frightening sight for Michelle to watch her husband swinging away with such a demented strength at the lock; she caught the look in his eyes as he did so and wondered what kind of stresses he had experienced during his day which were being relieved now.

Pausing for a moment Ryan changed his grip on the thick pipe and started slamming the end of it like a battering ram. Michelle could see the door flexing in its frame and the toughened glass cracking as well as breaking into small chunks under Ryan's determined assault.

"All right! Stoppit! You'll frighten the residents! I'll open the door!" Hobbs capitulated.

No sooner had Hobbs unlocked the door Ryan put his shoulder to it, pushing aside and unbalancing the warden who staggered backward a few unsteady steps. Buckland shook his pole at him. "And don't you ever try to keep us out again..." he warned. Wide eyed and fearful Hobbs shrank back still further. Behind him a front door opened a crack and a concerned elderly face showed pale in the moonlight dimness of the hall's emergency lighting.

"What's going on?" the woman asked plaintively.

"It's all right Joan." Hobbs replied. "It's nothing to worry about. Just stay inside and do as I tell you." The door closed again and the sound of bolts being thrown closed punctuated the tense atmosphere.

"You see what you've done?" chided Hobbs, regaining some of his composure. "You shouldn't-"

"Shut it." Ryan said in a loud, threateningly level tone of voice which left no doubt as to what would happen if his command was ingnored. Hobbs shut up.

"Come on Ryan, let's go!" urged Michelle. Buckland gave Hobbs a final withering look before turning on his heel and heading for the stairwell.

Sylvia Grant's institutional front door was identical to all of the others on the first floor; it was a heavy, wood effect veneer construction with a letter box at it's center and a narrow strip of a window down the side, something which looked more a fire door in an office than anything to do with a home. It made a solid sound when Michelle knocked on it.

"Nan, it's Shelley!" she called out. From inside a torch light approached with shuffling footsteps; there was the sound of a safety chain being attached, and then the door opened. Nan's pinched face took in the family.

"Oh 'Chelle! I knew you'd come to see I was allright! I tried to call you, but I couldn't get through. Come on! Get yourselves inside!"

With the door unchained Slyvia hustled them all through. They embraced. "Go on into the lounge all of you! I'll put the kettle on!"

"Uh, how would you do that Nan?" asked Ryan. "The power's off."

"I've got a camping gas stove." she replied conspiratorially. "Little 'itler 'obbs doesn't know about it either, he'd 'ave kittens if he did! Break 'is precious bloody Rules it would! Can you give us a hand with it love? I'll need help to get it out of the cubpoard, I can't bend down too easily these days..."

"Of course!"

Ryan shucked off his pack and followed Sylvia into the kitchenette.

"Down there dear; it should be in the box at the bottom, just under those old pans... Yes that's it."

By the anaemic light of Nan's torch Buckland pulled out a strong cardboard box which was larger and heavier than he anticipated. He set it down on the worktop and opened it. Inside among other things was a blow moulded plastic case containing a hob style burner; the sort powered by a long butane cylinder lying clamped alongside it. Setting it up on the useless electric cooker top, he picked a saucepan from the rack and filled it from the tap, though despite pushing the lever all the way open only a slow stream of water trickled out of it.

"Mr Hobbs has been up on the roof tank." Sylvia explained. "He said the water pressure is bound to be affected and the supply might not be safe, so he's shut it off at the mains pipe and restricted the flow from the tank. We've got to economise as much as possible, and we're not to wash or use the lavvie unless we really have to. He was going to dig a latrine pit in the garden tomorrow for us to go in if things got really bad! As if we'd go out in the open, even with a windbreak! We'll all 'ave to use a potty and tip it in there afterwards! Some 'ope, eh? 'He also wanted us to pull the curtains and not show any lights, just in case it attracts the wrong kind of people. I reckon he was born too late; he'd 'ave made a fine Air Raid Warden!

Anyway, 's a good job I filled up the bath with water like he said before he cut the supply down; I thought these sorts of problems were going to 'appen... But I had some bottled water put by anyway; you never can be too careful..."

Ryan filled the saucepan two-thirds full and put it on the burner, then turned the piezoelectric ignition on. With a quietly satisfying whuff the gas ring lit with a corona of electric blue fire; he adjusted the control so that no flames licked wastefully around the sides of the pan, a long-forgotten boy scout lesson returning from the depths of his memory.

"Let that heat up for a while." said Buckland. "Though it's best to keep an eye on it just in case-" Even as he spoke the words there was a rattling aftershock. Some water slopped over the edge of the pan and sizzled on contact with the hot burner. Ryan made to steady the pan on the stove but before he was able to grab the handle the disturbance had passed.

"Are you all right Nan?" asked Michelle, who along with Grace had run to the kitchen.

"I'm fine love. We've 'ad quite a few of those today. The radio said there would be aftershocks and some of them might be strong... 'S no wonder they've been telling us not to use candles! They're worried about them causing fires, says there've been some bad ones in the East End... It's a good thing I've got me torch, but I've only got this set of batteries for it; I 'spose I should've got a spare pack, but the price of them these days on my pension..."

"Don't worry about it Nan, I've got some more in my bag." Ryan reassured her.

"Oh, what a relief! The radio takes the same ones as well. They keep saying to turn it off to save the batteries and to listen on the hour for the news; not that it's getting any better. It's obvious no-one's got a clue what they're doing, they're just running around like 'eadless chickens."

The lid began to judder on the pan, signalling the water was boiling. After turning off the stove Sylvia dropped some tea bags into the pot and the family decamped into the lounge for tea. Over a weak brew and biscuits they swapped their earthquake survival stories.

"That settles it." said Nan, decisively when the Buckland's tales had been told. "I'm not having my family starving under a tent in a slave camp while there's room and food here. It may not be comfy, but at least you'll have somewhere to kip until you can get yourselves sorted out. If that bloody Hobbs or Janet my social worker tries creating about you staying, then-" Sylvia rapped the coffee table with her heavy aluminium walking stick "- I'll give them a flea in their ear!"

Ryan didn't doubt Sylvie's determination, but didn't want to impose on her. "How much food have you got here Sylve?" he asked.

"I've got enough." she said firmly. "You remember how my Ian - bless him - was always thought World War Three was going to break out; or the power cuts of the 1970s return; or if it wasn't that then it was another Fuel Strike or the Great Storm happening again? Well he might have worried a bit too much but his heart was in the right place. Anyway, after he passed on I kept the pantry stocked up as he would have wanted. As the tinned food reached its best before date I ate it and replaced it. You can look through it all later just be sure, but I reckon there should be enough to keep us four going for around a fortnight. I've got eight spare gas cannisters for the stove; some packets of powdered milk and instant mash which should be OK even though they may be a bit old; two bags of tealights and six boxes of matches still in their wrapper; Oh, and three gas lighters in a blister pack bought from the old Pound Store just before it closed... I wish we 'ad more water, bog roll, and batteries, but I think we'll be OK for now."

Ryan didn't share Sylvia's confidence about the future given what he had seen on his way here, but he wasn't going to deflate her grin and bear it attitude. Instead he kept his fears to himself.

"And I think I'd better use what I can from the fridge before that spoils first; who'd like some fried sausage, bacon, and egg?" Everyone rediscovered their appetites so Nan cleaned out the fridge; the tiny freezer compartment was left alone for the time being; if the power hadn't been restored by early tomorrow whatever could be salvaged from its thawed contents would be their next meal.

After washing up using the bare minimum of water by the stark alien autopsy glare of Ryan's head torch, the family helped Sylvie pull out what spare bedding she had and set up the lounge as a bedroom. While doing so Ryan came across that day's copy of the Daily Post, Gary Sheldon's alarmist headline splashed across its front page now seemed to be a relic from a bygone world. Ryan made to throw the outdated edition in the bin but Slyvia saw him and said "Keep it dear; we might 'ave to cut it up and use it for toilet paper. That's all it's good for these days!" Buckland didn't relish the thought of wiping his backside with the harsh newsprint.

"If it"s that bad why do you buy it?" he asked.

"I dunno. Partly for the TV guide and to laugh at the stories I spose. Anyway, that scientist - what's his name - got it right; 's a shame he couldn't have given us more of a warning..." she tailed off at the thought there would likely be no television to watch or paper to read tomorrow. "An' if you think the Post is bad, you ought to see some of the others!" Ryan couldn't help but agree on that point.

They tried to catch up with the radio news from a station which had managed to get itself back on air, but when they belatedly tuned in the bulletin was still vague and uninformative. "-a government spokesman said the restriction of the internet and social media was a temporary provision to ensure the networks didn't crash under unprecedented demand. It is hoped the measures can begin to be eased in the next few days.

And finally, several American artists who have cancelled their tour dates in London as a result of the earthquake are planning to record a charity fundraising record for the victims. The song may be available to download within the next forty-eight hours.

That concludes the news: Stay tuned for a repeat of the National State of Emergency declaration and local inform-"

Nan switched the set off. "Same old same old..." she grumbled. "I dunno about you, but I could do with a good stiff drink!" Both Ryan and Michelle agreed.

Sylvie poured large tots from her bottle of medicinal rum saved for special occasions for the adults, and even Grace had some watered down for a nightcap. After making sure no chink in the blackout curtains would spill any betraying light, they settled down for the night.

Grace shared Nan's double bed; Ryan slumped himself over the sofa under a fleece blanket, his headlight and the scaffold pole kept close to hand in case anyone tried forcing their way in, while Michelle improvised a matress on the floor from the sofa's cushions. Though it was the more comfortable option she was the last awake after the torches were switched off; her mind swirling with the events of the day.

What were the family going to do? What if Ryan was made redundant from Wizzit Couriers as a result of a slump in deliveries and the state of the ruined road network? Where were they going to live in the longer term? What about her job and Grace's school place? Would she ever be able to get rid of the government virus from her phone? Would life ever get back to norma-?

Michelle's train of thought was disrupted by faint cries and sporadic pops carrying on the evening air beyond the pulled curtains. Though they sounded like fireworks she knew they were gunshots.

"Ryan..." she called out quietly, but he was oblivious, rasping heavy snores through the darkness. The shooting appeared to have stopped anyway. Michelle drew her duvet closer around her shoulders and before long her fatigue overcame her fears.

Chapter Thirty Two

Friday

As the break of dawn heralded a new day, the nation which had suffered such a grevious blow began to groggily pick itself off the canvas. Throughout the affected region those invisible people whose jobs were underappreciated by society until their skills became so acutely required went about their work as best they could; patching as far as posible the fragmented infrastructure with what few resources they had at their disposal.

Health workers did what they could for the sick and injured, despite coping with damaged or destroyed facilities. Surgeons worked non-stop under difficult conditions and with poor lighting, they were often forced by expediency to perform the sort of brutal operations their predecessors of two centuries ago would recognise, often without anaesthesia.

Utilities staff, having been stranded where they were by the 'quake and deprived of overall coordination started fixing what they could, where they could. Their efforts were puny and piecemeal compared to the task ahead of them, but raised the morale of those depending on their efforts.

Emergency service personnel worked themselves to exhaustion, but were aided in their tasks by members of the public who temporarily joined their ranks. As often happens in the wake of a tragedy communities came together for the common good, sharing what little they had with people who had been strangers up until recently. With no one else to look after their needs they formed their own anarchistic self-help networks; not being weighed down by the dead weight of bureaucracy these impromtu communes achieved a great deal very quickly.

From outside the zone of destruction aid started to trickle in despite the difficulties encountered in transporting it. More was due to follow as the effort became more organised and cohesive. Relief convoys and staff traveled as close to the region as they could get, moving along roads and tracks which had been newly blazed or hurriedly repaired. Even so, it would be months, years perhaps before all of the damage was made good.

Meanwhile, in a world far removed from the discomfort of nights spent in garages, sheds, and cars; people in high office were still preoccupied with gaining advantage from the tragedy.

 

PINDAR. 04.49.

Stuart Pullman had passed a fitful few hours drifting in and out of sleep; his agitated mind struggling against his fatigued body. He rested alone in his quarters, having insisted Elizabeth board the helicopter shuttling the governmental next of kin to safety at Chequers. His attention was jolted from the boundary of slumber and consciousness by a quietly insistent knock at his door.

"Come in!" mumbled Pullman.

A lower rank civil servant entered and announced "Sir, Ian Campbell has collapsed with the 'flu and been taken to the medical unit. His deputy, Owen Walker, has assumed his duties for the time being. The doctor recommends everyone in PINDAR is given precautionary antivirals; an initial injection followed by a course of tablets. He's organising the distribution beginning in ten minutes."

"How is Campbell?"

"He's listed as serious, having been put on supplementary oxygen but the doctor expects him to make a full recovery in due course, though he's likely to be hospitalised for several days."

"I see: Thank you for telling me; that will be all." replied Pullman. The dismissed functionary left and quietly closed the door behind him.

Fate had just given Stuart's megalomaniac fantasy about a new order rising from the rubble of the old a masive fillp. With his rival temporarily incapacitated Pullman could almost feel the weight of the keys to Downing Street in his hand. All he needed now was for the Organisation supporting him to remove the one roadblock preventing him from attaining his goal and for he to successfully handle the interview scheduled with Gail Burton which the Prime Minister had dumped in his lap. Then the cards he had dealt would give him a winning hand.

 

Radio South East studios.  05.10.

Neil Simpson looked out of the studio window as finished his four hour shift monitoring the nationally produced emergency broadcast retransmitted through the RSE facilities. He saw the muscular police vehicle which had been sent to protect the station from any roaming mobs was still parked in place outside the reception. Once again he wondered what he was doing here. Granted there wasn't much else that could be done under conditions like these, but as a broadcaster he felt superfluous. This type of event was what the station was supposed to be there for; yet the few staff who found themselves trapped in the undamaged outskirts of town studio building had been able to add little in the way of local information to supplement the coverage generated from beyond the afflicted area.

Neil decided to try to get his head down before his next shift was due; his early morning show having been suspended until there was enough content to fill it. In the meantime he, along with the other presenters, were reduced to reading out what scant local content there was as an addendum once the national on the hour news bulletins were over.

But try as he might, Simpson couldn't get any sleep. It might have been the unfamiliar camp bed and envelope sleeping bag, taken from the BBC Contingency Stores hidden away in a cupboard; shrink wrap sealed in the expectation of an emergency but still exuding a faint air of mustiness. Or more likely it was the appallingly strong coffee he'd been drinking to keep himself going. Whatever the reason Neil felt irritable, as if he ought to be doing better.

Rather than stare restlessly at the meeting room ceiling Simpson quietly got up, and moving carefully as not to disturb the room's other snoring occupant, slipped back into the production office. Chloe Hall was there, poring over her monitor, the screen's light reflecting off her face showing her middle age wrinkles deepened by worry.

"Any news about your family?" Neil asked softly.

"Yes, they're safe thank God! Gary finally got a text message through ten minutes ago saying they were all OK. He sent it hours ago but it only arrived as an email just then. The system must be really overloaded! Any word from Leslie?"

"No, we don't keep in touch anyway. The last I heard she'd moved to Crawley with her new flame so I expect she escaped the worst of it."

There was an awkward silence, eventually broken by Chloe.

"So you couldn't sleep either."

"No. I've got nothing to do here apart from hanging around like a spare wheel listening to other people performing our role; it's getting me down."

"I know what you mean, but we're stuck with it for the time being and I don't see it changing anytime soon. Still, while you're waiting you might as well take a look at these." she pointed to her screen. "I expect you've got them on your internal mail account; to be read as soon as possible."

"Oh bloody typical! Not even a disaster can stop our masters dumping more crap on us!"

"I think it's all because of the disaster actually. Anyway, they've got a bee in their bonnet about every member of staff taking it on board, and you know what they're like about compliance..."

"Only too well! Do we still have enough power to boil a kettle?"

"That shouldn't overtax the standby generator too much; we're supposed to have 48 hours of fuel, and after that it's anyone's guess."

"Well before I start wading through all that I'm going to make myself a brew; do you want one?"

"Not right now thanks."

His drink made, Neil settled down to read the latest directives. There was a large dossier regarding the duties of broadcasters during a State of Emergency, along with a policy statement explaining the planned transition from the breathless immediacy of the first reports through to an unemotional portrayal of the facts as they were as part of the public service output, then moving on to the post disaster environment where the media was to become a focus for public grieving as well as that being the cue to begin giving the news a more subtlely optimistic bias.

As part of the spin another message to editorial staff urged them to be ready to cover the Prime Minister's arrival at any of a number of locations in the region. The exact venues and times could not be released in advance due to operational as well as security concerns, but every opportunity should be taken to maximise the story's exposure with any chance social media content of the visits should it become available.

Obviously the internal BBC satellite internet was working, but Simpson wondered about the state of the rest of the online world and social networks; there was one way to find out. Logging on he found connectivity had been badly affected by the earthquake with availability of services patchy. Still there was some scant activity, even if the networks had been hobbled by the government restrictions and throttled by overdemand on what little capacity remained.

Neil checked his personal email account. There was little new in his inbox he needed to worry about, and he was annoyed to find that even during such a emergency spam emails were still sneaking their irksome way through. But then among the headings Simpson noticed an automated notification from his rarely used SpookMail account, alerting him to the fact a message had been left for him there. After navigating his way to the site which loaded extremely slowly, Neil entered both his passwords and opened the email. It was a screen grab of a social message group, with this topic regarding the Dungeness B power station, the posts discussing the reason for the venting of so much steam from the complex as well as why there were so many large military helicopters flying to and from the site: Was it a terrorist alert? Or was it something else wrong there?

Intrigued the presenter tried clicking on the hyperlink to the thread, only to find the page was 'temporarily unavailable'. He tried reloading it a couple of times; still no result. Frustrated Neil tried accessing the site via the satellite internet, but to no effect. The site was either not responding or had been blocked. But one thing which couldn't be obstructed was Simpson's curiosity.

"Chloe." he said to his producer. "Something's come up here which I think might be worth investigating."

"What's that?" she asked, trying but failing to stifle a yawn.

"A possible problem at Dungeness B."

"Where's the lead comming from; social media? If you remember just after the foreshock someone blurted that the reactor had melted down; there's alarmist panic like that all the time and it's invariably wrong. Who or what is the source of this anyway?"

"Annie Bromhaar."

"Oh Neil!"

"I know what your thinking but I've met her a few times and she's not given to exaggeration or making up stories. For an anti-nuclear activist she's actually very reasonable. Anyway I emailed the Potentia media relations unit about it and had an almost instantaneous autoreply claiming the steam circuit venting was a precautionary measure and the helicopter traffic was delivering essential staff and supplies: Of course they said this was no cause for alarm, as there never is, but the fact a statement had been pre-prepared arouses my suspicions ..."

"Maybe so; but do you think we'd be allowed to broadcast the story even if it were the case? We shouldn't set out to rock the boat at such a difficult time."

"Chloe, I can't believe you're saying this! Listen to yourself! I know I've been here a long time - too damn long it would seem - but I remember a time when the BBC used to fearlessly and impartially report the news as well as develop our own stories. What the hell has happened to the corporation? - to you! If there's something badly wrong there people ought to know about it!"

"But we're operating under a State of Emergency; all of our newsgathering has to be centrally cleared before it can be transmitted. Neil; where are you going?"

"I'm going to do what I'm paid for! I'll take a Sat-Pak, ride my bike over to Dungeness and see what's happening there; if the lead is a bust I'll amble my way back picking up plenty of human interest earthquake stories on the way; at the very least you'll have lots of multimedia content to send through to your beloved central clearing! Julie Drummond should be in soon, she can take over my non-job while I'm gone."

Leaving Hall speechless Neil shrugged on his leather jacket on and picked up his crash helmet before walking out. One way or another he was going to get to the bottom of this story.

Chapter Thirty Three

Sevenoaks. 05.15.

Kevin Norris didn't regard himself as a terrorist or fascist; merely a patriot. His journey to this point began many years ago while he was a promising junior army officer deployed to Afghanistan. He saw at first hand there the futility of the war and the effects it had on his comrades; lions led by donkeys of politicians; heroes stabbed in the back by poor leadership and hamstrung by the effects of cost cutting.

Norris hadn't applied to join the elite special forces, instead staying in the regular army and excelling in their ranks. Promotions came quickly and soon he found himself directing the active combat against the Taliban. He honed his skills against the enemy, learning from and adopting their methods as necessary. His unit became feared by their antagonists and respected by their peers. Norris could never claim his 'patch' had been pacified or was even under control, but the situation there was far better than elsewhere.

Given his success it seemed logical Kevin would rise still further through the ranks, but that proved not to be the case. His unorthodox opinions and occasionally brutal methods of interpreting his orders put too many noses out of joint. The Brass preferred to keep him where he was as a useful tool rather than promoting him. As an escape was sought from the Afghan quagmire Kevin's belligerence in wanting to finish the job he'd been tasked with began to be viewed as a liability in the eyes of those attempting to engineer a face-saving withdrawal with honour.

Another round of defence cut redundancies were the opportunity those in command needed to dispense with Norris' services; like so many other disposable warriors he was given an honourable discharge, dumped into civvy street, and left to fend for himself. There he might have joined many of his comrades in suffering homelessness, poverty, mental illness, or suicidal tendencies, but Kevin's was a gritty, resourceful character. He took the plunge into setting up his own business, and after almost drowning in the depths of debt managed to claw his way back up to the surface, treading water.

There he might have stayed, forever struggling to get by, but during his army days Norris had come to the attention of certain people: If the State didn't want to make use of his particular qualities they would, and so after some detailed background checks were made about him, the Organisation targeted Norris for recruitment.

It started with the placing of some large orders with his business at a time when they were badly needed, along with the promise of more to follow. Then some of his former army mates who were also members of the Organisation rekindled their acquaintance, surreptitiously sounding out Kevin about his politics even though Norris' outspokenness was already well known. Kevin suspected he was being headhunted but was in no mood or position to resist the approaches; his would-be recruiters were knocking on an open door.

Like them Norris was sickened by what this once great country had degenerated into, as well as being angered by the way in which so many ex-serviceman were paid lip-service by politicians while simultaneously being treated with utter contempt by the Department of Work and Pensions. Kevin sought more than mere justice for his comrades; he wanted this country sorted out once and for all so that this kind of abuse would never happen again. The nation needed a strong leader of the calibre of Stuart Pullman; not those pathetic weaklings who governed now. Norris willingly rallied to the banner of those who promised they would make it happen.

The Organisation, being made up almost exclusively of former service personnel, were subtle, experienced, and professional. Stupid, publicly violent, knuckle dragging, overtly right wing racists were a liability to them. Knowing intimately how the intelligence agencies worked, the plotters used their knowledge to run rings around the security services. The group's surreptitious preparations were conducted with great care: Norris' company - along with many other business ventures - were used to make as well as to transfer money for the conspirators, and in the process of doing so Kevin earned a tidy income for himself. He - along with the Organisation - regarded it as a justified recompense for the risks taken on their behalf.

Then came the time when Norris was called upon to use his other skills in addition to providing logistical support. When the order came he welcomed it as a chance to take a more active part in the struggle. It had been a difficult operation to set up so quickly but he'd done his best, and far from condemning the result as a failure his superiors praised him for doing far better than they had hoped. In retrospect Kevin understood the point of his action was not so much to kill the target, but to undermine his authority along with the public perception of law and order holding sway: If even the Prime Minister couldn't consider themself safe in today's Britain, who could?... On both counts the attempt had succeeded far beyond expectations.

Now upon waking with the dawn after a surprisingly good night's sleep on the sofa and switching on his satphone, a message alerted Kevin the Organisation had need of his services again. As he reread the ultra secure message his heart quickened with excitement. Again the lateness of the information gave him less time than he was comfortable with to set up the mission, but things had always been that way in 'Stan and Norris was adept at improvising solutions at short notice. He would manage somehow, as he always did.

Committing the information to memory Kevin deleted the message, logged out of the account, and began to brainstorm various plans. He wanted to be sure if the opportunity fell within his grasp within the next few hours and placed Anthony Rampling's head in the centre of the Shadow Man's cross hairs, this time his aim would be true.

 

West Peckham, Kent. 05.16.

Rusty was a shivering bag of nerves; the earthquake had been too much for his doggy mind to cope with. Now he was in a permanent state of utter panic, walking at a breathless pace across country away from the danger he sensed all around him. Constantly hungry, he paused only to rest when he had to. What he couldn't know however, was that in attempting to distance himself from from one hazard he was drawing closer to another jeopardy.

Chapter Thirty Four

Whitehall. 06.45.

Approaching the checkpoint on foot with their hands raised above their heads, Gail Burton and her crew had to show their press passes and driving licences to the stern faced troops at the Outer Cordon before they were allowed through. The soldiers were on edge for good reason, concerned the crowds of survivors gathered in Hyde Park might became restive to the point where merely grumbling about the haphazard scraps of aid doled out to them was no longer enough and collectively take it upon themselves to march the short distance to the Whitehall government enclave where food, clean water, as well as electricity were still in abundance.

Once past the line of threatening light amoured vehicles with their weapons pointed toward the likely source of trouble Burton walked up the gentle incline of Constitution Hill toward Buckingham Palace; itself screened by another barricade. She wondered how the army had managed to assemble all the men and materiel here so quickly; they must have had them on permanent standby in the nearby Wellington Barracks for eventualities such as this. Their ceremonial uniforms, drills, and horses put aside for the moment, the reason for the guards' presence was laid starkly bare; to preserve at any cost this island of privilege in an ocean of need, even if that meant going to war against their own desperate fellow citizens.

At least Gail felt safe within this bubble of relative tranquility: When the mob's anger had flashed over at Speakers' Corner earlier this morning and the retreating police fired shots over their heads Burton had feared for her life. Hustled into an escaping police truck her invitation to interview the deputy PM had come over the police radio net, a bizarre interjection amid the frantic calls for back-up. From what she was able to gather from the other messages the forces of law and order were losing the battle to contain the unrest in Hyde Park; the attractions of the high class shops and hotels nearby proving too great a temptation to the rabble. No doubt her C24 van had already fallen victim to the disorder. Without it, and the mobile signal lacking in this area, she was incommunicado.

Gail had been informed her interview with Stuart Pullman would take place near Mountbatten Green. When she arrived there an aide, incongruously wearing an army helmet with his suit, was waiting for her. "Just in case an aftershock were to dislodge something." he explained. "I'll let them know you're here." he continued, reaching for a compact radio.

A short time after his call the Deputy Prime Minister, surrounded by a ring of heavily armed bodyguards walked into view and greeted her. Like a wax mannequin in Madame Tussaud's he seemed smaller in real life than he did on screen.

"I'm sorry but I'll only be able to give you a short time." he said "As you can imagine we're extremely busy dealing with the effects of this disaster, but we wanted everyone to know we're making our best efforts to mitigate it and get back to normal as quickly as possible."

"Thanks for talking to us." Burton replied. "Let's get ourselves set up." Pullman's minders spread out into a wider semicircle out of camera shot while Stuart took up position with the government buildings behind him. He's a canny sod the presenter thought, choosing his spot with the government buildings behind him showing signs of minor damage. It was a subtly cunning message: Look, we've suffered as well, so we're all in this together...

"Can we go live with this?" Gail asked Pullman.

"If you can get a connection you're welcome to, but the government networks are reserved for emergency communications." he replied.

Burton looked over to her cameraman, who on checking the comlink display shook his head. That's strange, given that this is likely to be one of the most connected places in the country. Perhaps he's worried about making a faux-pas live on air, or wants to confiscate the footage if it reflects badly on the government. Still, we have to manage as best we can...

"OK, I'm ready." she said. "I'm speaking with Deputy Prime Minister Stuart Pullman in the aftermath of the worst ever disaster to strike the UK. Deputy Prime Minister; what message does the government have for those so badly affected by the earthquake?"

Pullman slipped into an obviously well-prepared reply. "Our message is that we share your pain, and are doing everything within our power to help you. Given the scale of the catastrophe we face and the disruption to services it has caused, in some places we're not yet been able to do everything we've wanted to; but be assured the government is busy coordinating an effective response to this unexpected shock."

"But it wasn't unexpected, was it?" Gail retorted. "You were warned about it in advance. Why didn't you take any action?"

"If you're referring to the hyperbolic paper which Dr Brian McLean sent to the government just a few days ago, then I don't consider that to have been a valid warning-"

"He was right though."

"No he wasn't!" Pullman was beginning to show the first signs of irritation. "The report was his own individual flight of fancy which was neither peer reviewed or endorsed by UKGeoScan. To be frank it read more like a Daily Post article than a credible scientific prediction."

"Yet the earthquake happened."

"Our scientific advisors tell me it was purely a coincidence; it's the expert consensus that seismic forecasting is an impossibility at the present time, and likely to be the case well into the future, just as is the case with long-range weather predictions."

"But the short-term weather forecasts are generally accurate."  grilled Burton. "If you'd only listened to Dr McLean you might have had enough time to prepare an emergency response."

"But the fact is the government wasn't warned. We received Dr McLean's paper - as we do numerous prophecies from all manner of sources all of the time claiming an imminent disaster is about to occur - only a few days ago. Now despite the outlandish claims contained within it the document was treated with the seriousness it deserved given Dr McLean's connection with UKGeoScan; even if its' author has a reputation as an eccentric. It was passed all the way up to my desk for consideration-"

"You read it and took no action?"

Pullman choked down his obvious annoyance with Burton's line of questioning. "I read the paper, but was unconvinced by his arguments. In fact given the many flaws in his reasoning I'd have been perfectly justified in throwing it in the waste bin, but I didn't: Instead I placed it in a holding file to be sent on for further consideration just in case there was something within it worth taking note of, but sadly events overtook the process and now we find ourselves where we are."

"So you admit Dr McLean was right after all?"

"No; the receipt of the McLean report and the unprecedented earthquake were purely an unfortunate happenstance. Dr McLean did not predict yesterday's event, and nor will he explain why he failed to do so to you or anyone else. Instead of presenting his case to the scientific community he acted in a totally irresponsible manner by manufacturing a deliberately alarmist story to sell to a sensationalist tabloid. And having done so he then took an unauthorised leave of absence from his job at a time when he was most needed. Our information is that he is currently pedaling his crackpot ideas to the unlawful Scottish secessionist government and is being paid a handsome retainer from the public purse while he does so!"

Gail changed tack. "On the subject of Scotland, where does the Scottish government's rejection of the State of Emergency leave relations between Westminster and Holyrood?

"At a time when everyone needs to be pulling together this cynically flagrant attempt to take advantage of the situation amounts to a slap in the face for the victims and survivors of the disaster. At least the Scottish administration has had the decency to provide aid and coordinate emergency assistance with the lawfully superior government of these isles, but that in no way excuses their treachery."

"Treachery? That's a rather strong way of putting it, isn't it? After all, the point Elsa Maxwell was making is there had been no earthquake in Scotland and so there was no need to apply a nationwide State of Emergency."

"The reason the government declared a State of Emergency was to maintain law and order, as well as ensuring we had the lawful authority to mobilise the resources required to deal with the 'quake's aftermath. As I mentioned just now, the Scots have so far been cooperating with the relief effort, but in times like these when the nation must work together as one we need to be absolutely certain we can count on the support we need, rather than having to ask for it and take even the slightest risk of having the request denied."

"But the Scottish government has never-"

"This is a national disaster Ms Burton, and no time to be playing politics as certain factions in the Assembly are attempting to. The fact this has happened at this of all times is a reflection of the rotten state of affairs north of the border, and how the laxity of successive administrations have allowed the situation to get this far. At the moment the government is preoccupied in dealing with the earthquake's after effects, but let me make this clear; the Scottish parliament has crossed a line and their disloyalty in the face of this crisis will not go unaddressed."

"So how will the government respond?"

"That has yet to be determined, and at the moment our attention is concentrated elsewhere, as you would expect. But we will respond in due course, have no doubt about that."

"What do you think the government should do?"

"Personally I think the rest of the UK have indulged the Scottish nationalists for far too long. In my opinion Holyrood's powers should be severely curtailed, or better still the petty parliament should be abolished and the governance of that province returned to a reborn Scottish Office. The separatists have caused no end of trouble out of all proportion to their importance for many years and the time for firm action to be taken against them is long overdue."

"I'm sure some of your cabinet colleagues would be very unhappy to see that happen."

"Although we may occasionally disagree on some matters of policy, we as a government are united supporting the rule of constitutional law and the administration's writ running without question, especially now."

"Surely not everyone agrees with your hardline stance? Ian Campbell would be bound to disagree!"

"Unfortunately the Chancellor has been laid low by the Mexican 'flu; he's undergoing intensive care and although expected to make a full recovery is likely to be recuperating for several days yet. Otherwise I'm sure he'd be happy to talk to you directly, but it would be wrong for me to speak on his behalf."

"And what about Pippa Slater, one of your leading opponents? Despite both of you being in the same cabinet, apparently you and her aren't on speaking terms, with it rumoured you are actively attempting to undermine her position. Do you believe she should resign as a result of the Omar Muneef scandal?"

"I won't comment on silly rumours and tittle-tattle. Such trivial matters have for the moment been eclipsed by the immediate issues we face in recovering from this calamity. As a government we are moving forward with that aim in mind; it is our exclusive focus. It's why the Prime Minister is at present engaged on an early morning whistle-stop helicopter tour of the affected region, seeing for himself the extent of the problems we face and learning at first hand what needs to be done about them. He's going to be busy this morning as I will be, and it is for that reason I must now express my gratitude for this necessarily brief opportunity to speak to the British people and return to my duties. Thank you, but that is all for now. Goodbye Ms Burton."

With that Pullman turned and walked away; his guards forming a protective huddle around him as they returned to one of the many PINDAR entrances hidden amid the government buildings.

Gail was left lost for words by the Deputy Prime Minister's brusqueness. To her it seemed as if Pullman's mind appeared to be elsewhere, occupied with matters even more important than coping with the earthquake. Something was afoot; that much was a given, and he was greatly agitated by the matter, whatever it was. His brazen outspokenness was also intriguing; it was rare indeed for politicians of his stature to be so forthright and go that far out on a limb, especially given the state of the government at the moment. Pullman was either about to throw in his hand or was extremely confident he would be in a position of strength to do as he proposed. Was he planning to launch a leadership challenge in the midst of the chaos?

Her cameraman had stopped filming. Quickly Burton improvised a piece to camera conclusion to her report, then the pair were escorted from the Whitehall Secure Zone. They had their astonishing interview 'in the can'; now all they had to do was find a means of uploading it to C24.

 

What a bitch! Though Stuart Pullman as he and his entourage began descending the long flights of steps leading underground. Still he'd done what he needed to in fending off Burton's barbs while simultaneously putting his provocative marker down by sounding as if he were already Prime Minister. His presumptuousness would have been noted by both friends and foes. It would be nice to just shut the cow up, but she was only doing her job. And besides, you can't lock up everyone... In any case once she understood The Rules had changed for good Burton might even turn out to be a useful 'multiplier' of information.

But still there was no news on the fate of Anthony Rampling. If the Organisation weren't able to eliminate him then Pullman would be obliged to throw down the gauntlet; he'd gone too far now to do anything else. Come on! I need news - any damn information, and soon! The anxiety continued to consume Stuart's attention as the party went deeper into the depths of the labyrinth.

Chapter Thirty Five

Near Swanley, Kent. 06.50

Kevin Norris was hyperaware of his surroundings, alert to any sound which would indicate his position had been compromised. Though as he was nestled deep in a hedgerow running alongside an overgrown environmental 'set aside' strip looking across two recently harvested fields approximately 800 metres from the Emergency Reception Centre under construction anyone who discovered his presence would most likely be specifically looking for him, in which case the game would be probably up for both parties.

This was to be a classic gun and run mission; like many of those he'd performed in those arid Afghan hills. Ideally Kevin would have preferred more time to prepare and more intelligence to work with, but given the circumstances he just had to improvise as best he could and hope luck was on his side.

When he'd received his orders all that had accompanied them was a rough itinerary which had most likely changed or even been cancelled by now; but the scant information was enough for him to go on. Norris had quickly excluded most of the possible target sites as being impossible to reach by any means of transport given the current circumstances, or else the venues were places he lacked any detailed information about, or would be too heavily populated to provide effective concealment. Of all the possibilities it had been this area which seemed the best prospect, nay the only choice.

Before leaving home Kevin had fed Jasper and left a note behind for Debbie, explaining he'd gone out looking for her. As yet he'd heard nothing from her so assumed she was still out if touch, as so many others were. The alternative that she was one of the disaster's many casualties didn't bear thinking about, but he had a feeling somehow she was OK. Then he'd checked his mobile phone was switched off so that his position couldn't be traced by its signal trail, before putting it in one of his bedroom draws. That done, Norris shouldered a nondescript rucksack, swung a leg over his mountain bike, and set off to pick up his weapon.

Though Kevin was a licensed shotgun owner and did the occasional day's shooting to justify his possession of the firearm at home, he was careful enough not to store any of the Organisation's arms there in case Debbie or the police discovered them. Instead the group's local arsenal was kept in a secure lock-up unit rented in a small industrial estate a few miles away. Norris cycled there without incident; but upon reaching the store ran into an unexpected delay while he convinced a suspicious mobile security guard that he was there to check his business for earthquake damage rather than burgle it. The persuasion had cost him time he could ill afford to lose.

After a harder than expected ride to the objective as a result, at least he was now settled in place. Kevin wore inconspicously dull civillian clothes rather than camouflage, and had partially covered himself an olive drab tarpaulin to mask his thermal signature from any surveillance drone's infra-red detectors, though he doubted they would be employed here, given the preparations for Rampling's visit had been so rushed. Lying prone with his stomach resting on a lightweight self-inflating camping pad, Norris lifted a pair of compact binoculars to his eyes and scanned the target zone again.

Set up close to the Swanley interchange junction on the M25 to provide care for stranded motorists who had abandoned their vehicles and trudged their way to it, the village of marquees and plastic portable toilet huts must have come form one of the prepositioned regional 'response pods' of emergency preparedness supplies. Observing the scene, Kevin noted a first aid tent, field kitchen, and a truck mounted water purification system connected by a long, thick trunk of a flexible pipe to a distant water main. Another parked all-terrain lorry carried a large generator to which soldiers were busy connecting heavy duty cables as they set up lighting towers. Few of the military appeared to be armed at the moment, instead relying on the police to keep order. Norris wondered how long that state of affairs would continue as he watched the swelling queues of people shuffling slowly from tent to tent as they were registered, given water, ready-to-eat snacks, and medical attention if required became impatient to return home. From what he'd heard on the radio earlier the orbital motorway was crammed solid in both directions with stationary traffic. It would take days, perhaps weeks to get it all cleared, and that was before taking the collapsed bridges and 'quake damaged slip roads into consideration.

At least conditions were warm and dry for the time being. Kevin imagined what they might be like if this reception centre were being set up during a wet, bitterly cold dark December evening. Then all the matting in the world couldn't prevent the saturated soil from being churned to a quagmire by all those continually moving feet... Life then would be a misery any self-respecting politician would shy well away from being associated with.

The throbbing of engines carried faintly across the open space as the troops' frenetic activity expanded the camp before his eyes. Then Norris' attention was distracted from a squad errecting the tubular framework of another large shelter by a loud airborne clattering, one he was only too familiar with; the sound of an approaching helicopter. Kevin swung his binoculars toward it and and centred the aircraft in his vision. No, this didn't look like a VIP chopper, it was an army Merlin with an underslung net full of cargo. He kept it in view as it swooped to a hover, let its load settle on the ground, and then cast off the sling, pulling away in a steep climb. As it departed troops like swarming ants converged on the bundle, removing the slings and net while other soldiers dressed in full battle gear took up covering positions around the landing zone, weapons held at port arms in case the delivery were to prompt a stampede in their direction.

As an offroad forklift truck picked up the first pallet and wobbled its way unsteadily with it towards a secure storage area, Norris understood the army's caution. He recognised the type of boxes even through the thick shrink-wrapping holding them together; after all his business sold them as well. They may previously have been derrided as "Meals Rejected by Everyone", but now the sealed Meals - Ready to Eat would become manna for those famished, displaced people.

The army cleared the landing zone with efficient haste. Kevin felt encouraged that his hunch as where to set himself up had been proven correct. From here he would have a good field of fire if that traitor Anthony Rampling arrived here, and the fact so many resources were being concentrated in this location confirmed his assessment this was the place where the Prime Minister was going to stage his cynical PR stunt. The thought of such blatant politicking in the face of a national catastrophe rekindled Norris' smouldering rage: Out of the news cameras' view there were bound to be many more people going without what they urgently needed as a result of this media manipulation.

Checking his watch Kevin estimated that if the rough schedule hadn't been changed Rampling was due to arrive within the next ten minutes or so: It was time to make ready. Giving up all pretence at being a exhausted refugee temporarily resting under a hedge Norris languidly reached for his rucksack - as quick movements attract attention from counter-sniper observers - and after carefully donning a pair of disposable surgical gloves extracted a compact object from it. Deftly he began to dismantle the solid lump and reassemble it into a new form; within a minute the task was completed and Kevin held a potent weapon in his hands.

The McMillan Armaments Company Alias SC5 had been specifically designed for situations such as this. The collection of menacing matt black tubes could be packed down to fit inside a small rucksack in seconds, yet despite its diminutive size was still able to deliver a formidable punch. Norris set the rifle on its bipod and checked the three magazines containing ten rounds each he'd brought with him. There was the choice of a subsonic low noise .308 cartridge; a louder but more powerful supersonic version of the same round; or the signature custom made depleted uranium tipped ammunition he'd used in the previous attempt on the Prime Minister's life. After weighing the pros and cons of each option, Kevin decided on the DU bullets; given the weapon's suppressor would quieten the noise of the shot to a loud air rifle whipcrack it would be unlikely anyone near Rampling's helicopter would notice the report amid the turbine and rotor noise. Not hearing Norris' fire the Prime Minister's bodyguards would be unaware of his attack until their dark suits were splattered by his brains.

A further time check showed that if the PM hadn't been overly delayed by playing Mr Munificence elsewhere he should be arriving here imminently. Having already 'dialled in' the estmated range and windage into the 40mm Leupold scope, Kevin completed the final focus and magnification settings. Happy with the result he looked through the zoom optics and noticed some new activity at the landing zone. It appeared something was about to happen as what looked like senior police and army officers, along with civillians he took to be local councillors were assembling there. As he watched this happening he heard the note of another helicopter approaching: This had to be it!

Norris worked the Alias' bolt and was satisfied to feel the first round chamber with a precise snick. The rifle's single shot action was among the lightest and quickest he'd ever used, though he doubted if he'd be able to loose more than two shots before the target was either hit or pushed to the ground and shielded by other bodies; then he'd have to exfiltrate in a hurry.

Looking up he spotted a tiny dot in the sky growing larger. This helicopter lacked an underslung load so it must contain Rampling, his entourage, and their tame camera crew. As it began to descend Kevin streched and shivered the tenseness out of his limbs a final time before snugging the Alias' infinitely adjustable stock into his shoulder; then he concentrated on slowing his breathing as well as heart rate down.

Norris had the aircraft centred in his sight, but resisted the urge to shoot. Though helicopters were at their most vulnerable when taking off and landing the chances of him bringing one down with a few rounds from even this powerful rifle were slim; modern rotorcraft were notoriously difficult to kill with small arms fire being constructed with aluminium and kevlar armour, with areas such as the turbines being further surrounded with titanium protection. Kevin remembered from his service days how a venerable Westland Sea King once had a sizeable chunk blown out of it by a Taliban RPG but had kept on flying, eventually being repaired and returned to action. He was aware many modern rotor blades are made from a carbon fibre-titanium weave which rendered them all but impervious to bullet strikes. Even the cockpit windshields would be armoured; the chances of him penetrating one at this range and killing the pilot were negligible.

Instead Kevin thumbed the safety catch forward to the 'fire' position; moved his eye back from the scope to avoid the recoil bruising of a 'shooter's shiner' and waited for the 'copter to touch down before the fuselage door was slid aside. Then, after the boarding steps were swung out Rampling's stooped form would emerge, head bobbing as he disembarked and was surrounded by his minders eager to hurry him away from the spinning rotors. That would be a difficult shot; far better to keep the target centred in the crosshairs and wait until he halted to be greeted by his reception committee. The PM wouldn't be moving then, but his head might be nodding up and down as he leaned forward to shake hands... Or Norris could wait for the visit to be concluded and the party to return to the helipad; if things had gone well the entourage would be more relaxed, an easier target, though still flanked by a ring of bodyguards...

Snipers act on gut instinct, and Kevin's sixth sense which had rarely failed him before urged him to take his chance as soon as he felt he could. Just one instant was all he needed... As the helicopter landed Norris' index finger tightened around the Alias' fully adjustable Anschütte trigger, easing it all the way back to the second stage. From then on it would take just a tiny extra amount of exactly chosen pressure to fire a shot which would be heard around the world, knocking down one domino which would in turn collapse the whole rotten line of them in an unstoppable chain reaction... Norris felt himself as one with the weapon he had spent so much time customising to his needs that he considered it an extension of his will. He sensed he could almost reach into the chopper's cabin beyond the opening door to tap Rampling with the icy touch of death.

From the gloom of the helicopter's interior his target suddenly emerged. Thinking ahead Kevin anticipated the Prime Minister would raise his head in a moment, and then would be the time for that infinitesimal extra squeeze... Instantly he adjusted his aim to cover the expected spot. As he predicted Rampling stood up slightly - YES!

Time slowed to a crawl. In the immeasurably prolonged interval between breaths, between heartbeats, Norris' trigger finger twitched.

Chapter Thirty Six

Sandbeach Caravan Park. 07.01.

Liam Welch eased his nippy little hybrid car through the park's open gates. Reaching what must be the main complex set just inside, the local government officer pulled up there and parked.

Welch had been redeployed from his usual role in the local authority's Planning Services Department to go round commandeering any spare accommodation there was to be had in the area in order to house people made homeless by the earthquake. The caravan park was an obvious target.

But it was clear from the untidy state of the lawn around the Social Club that the place hadn't been unaffected by the disaster: Muddied cars and caravans had been drawn up closer to the building than would usually have been the case to make the most of the available hard standing. He noted a stilled micro-digger standing watch over a trench it had excavated and partially backfilled on a nearby green; and he heard the monotonous idling of a petrol generator running, it sounded as if it came from the rear of the social club building, which itself showed evidence of hurried minor repairs

Yes, they had no doubt suffered to some extent as much as the rest of the region had; nethertheless he had his job to do, no matter how unpalatable it may be. Seeing the glass fronted reception area of the site office was unoccupied, Welch walked to the social club entrance.

As he pushed the doors aside Liam sensed a subdued atmosphere; a bank of fruit machines and video games along one wall had their mesmerising displays switched off; while only a few of the ceiling lights were lit, giving the room a gloomy air. The bar/restaurant's large screen TV was a dark mirror. Upon sight of him what muted conversations there were faded to an uneasy silence. Seeing no-one who looked to be in charge, he walked purposely up to the bar.

"Can I help you?" asked a bleach blonde middle-aged woman behind it.

"I'm looking for..." Welch consulted the notes on his tablet screen "Mr Lawrence Bicknall. Where might I find him?"

"He's round the back refilling the generator. I'll get him." the barmaid replied in an abrasive South London accent. She disappeared for a moment and returned leading someone who was presumably Lawrence Bicknall behind her.

Bicknall looked a worn down, rangy man in his late fifties. He wore a dark green polo shirt embroidered with the park's logo, grease stained jeans, and heavy work boots. A tweed flat cap was jammed on his head.

"Mr Bicknall?" asked Welch.

"Yeah, that's me. Whaddayawant?" Bicknall replied in a surly tone of voice.

"Mr Bicknall. I am Liam Welch representing the Regional Resillience Authority. Under the State of Emergency decree I am hearby requisitioning this site for emergency-"

"What the fuck?" Bicknall exploded in anger. "Have you looked around here? Do you know what we've been through?"

"Mr Bicknall I really-"

"SHUT THE FUCK UP AND LISTEN!" the site owner roared. Liam could see the man was literally shaking with rage. Bicknall looked the sort who would be quick to resort to using his clenched fists so Welch held his peace and let him continue.

"I'll tell you what we've been through." Lawrence said in a menacing estuary snarl. "We were struck by a tidal wave which wiped out two-thirds of the site. When we tried calling the emergency services all we got was message telling us they were busy at the moment and we should call back later, or if there was no immediate danger to life to call the non-emergency number!"

"You see that trench out there?" Bicknall pointed through the large plate glass window to the ditch Liam spotted earlier. "That's where six people are buried for the moment. When we finally got through to the police after pressing option one, option five, then option four; that's what we were told to do with their bodies for the time being! Wrap them in plastic if possible and bury them!" Tears began to well in his eyes.

"I'm sorry to hear that, but I-"

"My son and the rest of the staff are down the beach end of the park right now." Bicknall's monologue continued: He was going to vent his frustrations without interruption. "They're going through the wreckage to see if they can find anyone else. We think, but we can't be sure, there might be up to another eight people unaccounted for out there; that's why I dug the grave longer and left part of it uncovered.

Now with so many 'vans wrecked we've had to have families bunking up together in those that are left, and in case you hadn't noticed." Bicknall gestured to a multicoloured pile of folded duvets and sleeping bags stored in a corner. "Our members are sleeping in here overnight as well."

"You see those two over in the corner?" The irate man nodded toward a old couple sat at a table who had paused their unenthusiastic picking at plates of suasage and chips. They looked tired and wore obviously borrowed clothes - he tracksuit pants and a lairy looking sportswear sweatshirt far too young for him, she a wolf print fleece jacket as well as beige leggings. Both watched the developing row, seeing but not comprehending in the depths of their dolour. "That's George and Irene Fenning. They've been members here for ten years. They nearly drowned when their 'van was swallowed by the mud; my Sam had to rescue them with his tractor. Now they've lost everything; all they have is what they're wearing and that came from our charity clothing drive. They kipped on the floor last night, and will again tonight, and more than likely tomorrow night as well because they lost their motor in the 'quake, and even if they had a car they couldn't drive back to where they live in London because of the state of the roads. They're not the only ones left stranded here either!

Now you may think this is just a holiday park, but a lot of people live here all year round, and now they're homeless. We're looking after our own for as best we can, but we can only hold out for so long like this. The club's freezers went off during the power cut; the generator can keep only some of them running, so we had to cook what was in the rest of them all at once when it defrosted. Even with what we could save and the stock from the site's mini-mart there's just enough to last three days or so-" Laurie paused, watching Welch scribbling notes as he spoke. "Yes, I hope you are getting all this down! If you've any plans to take our food - forget it! We'll have eaten it by the time you get back!

Drawing a deep breath, Bicknall resumed. "We're sharing one working toilet between a hundred or so people. If that gets blocked or we can't flush it I'll have to dig a latrine outside. Thank God there's a trickle of mains drinking water getting through, but if that goes, we've had it!"

"So this is what we're coping with..." Laurie said more calmly, his diatribe running out of steam. "... And then you turn up!" his rage reignited like a nearly extinguished fire happening upon new fuel. "You never provide the services we pay for; you jump at the chance to make our lives a misery with your bloody nit-picking regulations; you're never there when we need help, but now you turn up all high and mighty demanding we hand over what little we have when we need it the most!"

"Well it ain't gonna happen sunshine!" he roared. That comment brought murmers of support from around the darkened hall. "So you go back to your Authority and tell them we're the ones who need aiding, not robbing! And if you want to come back with the police and army, fine! Just as long as they're here to do something useful. But if you're looking for trouble, you'll get it in spades!" The affirmative grumbling around him rose in volume.

Liam had faced occasions like this before in his career; he knew the best course of action when faced with such hostility was to retreat and return later backed by the police, but they were thin on the ground at the moment. If he tried to force the issue now he risked the situation flashing into violence.

Welch understood the measure of his likely antagonists; the two men who had drawn up behind Bicknall, ready to lend some muscle if required, and the others he sensed closing in a circle on him from the shadows. They were tough men in their late middle age, their bodies hardened by a life of hard work and harder knocks. They were used to getting their own way and wouldn't stand for being pushed around, especially by the petty beaurocracy he represented. Their forbearance - already stretched to begin with - teetered on a tightrope, with just a further slight push enough to tip them over the edge: They were the sort of people you didn't mess with. One wrong word on his part could lead to a severe beating at the very least, and he had little doubt that if it came to it a sawn-off shotgun - along with the will to use it - were close to hand.

Bicknall had stopped his ranting. It was up to Liam to say his piece now; to carefully withdraw but without losing face or conceeding defeat. "I see your point." he said. "Given you obviously need assistance there's no point in us requiring anything from you. I'll report on your current state and do what I can organise some help for you but I have to say don't expect too much too soon; this earthquake has stretched us all to breaking point. I've a busy schedule ahead of me, so I must be leaving now. Goodbye."

Without waiting for a response, trying to not show his fear or walk away too quickly, Liam turned and exited through the doors he'd come through. As he stepped outside he heard a triumphal cheer from within.

Let them have their victory he thought, relieved to be out of there. On the way back to his car he felt the gaze of many truculent pairs of eyes boring daggers into his back. Warily looking around him he caught sight of the downslope park through a gap between two mobile homes; it looked just as Bicknall had described it. Caravans and cars lay on their sides or pitched over at impossible angles; detrius was heaped into mounds and contorted sculptures not even the most drug addled experimental artists could imagine. Also visible from this different perspective Welch noticed a simply made plank crucifix had been hammered into the ground at one end of the trench. A vase of flowers, probably plastic ones, stood at the foot of the cross. Pinned to the wood was an A4 sheet of paper inside a transparent plastic file slip; lines of text carefully hand printed on it: A list of the dead.

Liam reached his car, got in, and drove away. As he passed through the park gates his rapid breathing and heart rate began to return to normal. Welch considered himself lucky to have just dodged a bullet, or more likely two barrels of five shot.

Chapter Thirty Seven

Above London. 07.16.

Anthony Rampling's world had suddenly become confused. One moment he'd been preparing to step out of the helicopter, then the ground had begun trembling and something had streaked past his face to hit the fuselage with a loud TUNK! at the same time as the stinging pains began in his scalp. Strong arms had lifted him off his feet and all but thrown him back into the the cabin as frantic orders were bellowed. The note of the turbines rose to a high-pitched keening shriek he'd never heard before and the aircraft rose with the same stomach churning lurch as a high-speed elevator.

"Check that blood!" he heard someone order and inquisitive fingers probed the back of his head while another pair of hands tore at his shirt, exposing his chest. He felt sticky pads being attached in various places to it. "Got a pulse, but elevated rate and erratic!" said another person. "That's hardly surprising!" replied a further voice.

"What about his head?!" The authoritative voice demanded.

"It loooks like superficial fragment wounds to the scalp."

"Thank fuck for that!" the senior man sighed with relief.

Having established Rampling was still alive his carers began to take notice of him as a person again, and treat him once more with deference.

"What happened?" he asked.

"A sniper attack, sir." replied John Manning, his Head of Security. "The bullet missed you but struck near the door frame and disintegrated on impact; some of the fragments hit the back of your head but fortunately appear to have caused no serious injuries. We've put pressure dressings over your wounds for the time being; you may need to get them well cleaned out and have a few stitches, but you should be OK. However your cardiac rhythm is still a cause for concern. We're en-route to RAF Northolt where the flight surgeon can give you a thorough examination: How do you feel now?

"A bit tight chested and short of breath." said Rampling, who looked pale and sweaty. "I'm not sure, but I think I might have picked up that bloody Mexican 'flu from Ian Campbell!"

Manning motioned for one of the bodyguard paramedics to place a disposable thermometer on the Prime Minister's forehead while he glanced down at the display of the portable ECG machine which was nestled next to an opened battlefield trauma pack containg everything from IV bags of plasma and saline solution to an emergency surgery kit. "Don't worry, it's probably just the stress of it all. We'll be landing shortly." As Manning spoke the pilot throttled back the engines from full military power and the chopper began to lose altitude. "Just relax sir, and we'll take care of everything"

"Did they get the sniper?" Rampling had to raise his voice to be heard over the turbine noise.

"Not that I'm aware of as yet." Manning replied. "But we will."

 

Near Swanley Rest Centre. 07.20.

Seargent Kyle Langdon watched the man from behind. Though he was facing away from him and neither of his hands were visible, the soldier wasn't unduly fearful, he being well armed and escaping jihadist snipers rarely pausing to prop their bike up against a tree while they had an unhurried slash.

In the aftermath of the attack on the Prime Minister, Langdon's platoon had been ordered in hot pursuit after the gunman, dashing in short bursts from cover to cover wondering if the shooter had already scarpered or if they were about to go down as the final casualties in the terrorist's last stand of suicidal glory.

Kyle, staying close to a hedge running alongside a footpath, had reached the edge of this spinney and come to a crouching pause while he observed the wood for signs of possible danger. The only thing he spotted was this person relieving themselves, and from the sound of the weakening trickle of urine they had almost finished. The figure shugged as he zipped up his fly. Aiming his SA80/2 automatic rifle just below the small rucksack the male wore, Langdon shouted out "YOU! STAY DEAD STILL!" The man froze. "NOW SLOWLY PUT YOUR HANDS UP! He did as ordered. "TURN AROUND SLOWLY!" The man turned, and Kyle sized the suspect up; white; mid to late forties, wearing a mid-tan windbreaker jacket, dark green polo shirt and grey mix casual trousers. He wore brown walking shoes and in addition to his neutrally coloured pack the portly figure carried more weight than was healthy for him.

"WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?" demanded the sergeant.

"I-I'm Kevin G-Gill." stammered the man, obviously terrified at having a gun pointed at him by an uncompromising soldier. "I'm looking for my wife. She went up to London yesterday and I've not heard from her since. I thought she might be walking back this way or have stopped at the reception centre they mentioned on the radio."

"Have you got an ID?"

"Yes, I've got a driving licence."

"Well when I tell you to, take it slowly out of your pocket and keep the other hand raised. You understand that?"

"Yes."

"Well begin now; slowly mind!"

Gill slowly zipped down the front of his windbreaker and with a shaking hand reached into the inside breast pocket. He extracted a small wallet.

"Throw it over here!"

Keeping one eye and his weapon trained on Gill, Langdon reached over to the wallet and flipped it open. There in the window compartment was a driving licence in the name of Kevin Gill and the photograph was similar enough to pass inspection. In other slots Kyle saw a couple of bank cards, a few bank notes and a picture of a woman wearing well in her forties sporting a perky hairstyle.

"Is this your wife?" asked Langdon, showing the photograph to Gill.

"Yes, that's Debbie." the man replied.

"You lucky man. Right, I'll hand you back your wallet in a minute, what else have you got in there weighing your pocket down?"

"My phone."

"Let's see it; the same slow move as before."

Gill carefully picked out a leather case and allowed it to fall open, exposing the blank obsidian darkness of an unpowered screen.

"She's not called you?"

"Not yet. They say the networks are down or overloaded, and my battery is going. I need to save it. I'll see if she's registered at the centre and if not I'll try calling her again, but I doubt I'll get through..."

"OK, put it back, and take this as well!" Kyle tossed the wallet over. "When you've done that, ease off your pack and lay it on the ground" Kevin did so, seemingly fixated on the end of Langdon's gun barrel as if he expected leaden slugs of gas propelled death to burst from it at any moment.

"Now do exactly as I say. Open the top pocket and take out everything you have in there." Gill unzipped it and pulled out a local map. "Is there anything else inside? Stretch it all the way open with your hands so I can see." When Kevin did, Kyle saw only nylon material.

"Next the side pockets, one at a time." Gill repeated the process, fishing a plastic water bottle out of one pocket, along with a couple of wrapped cereal bars. From the other came a bicycle pump, a spare inner tube, and a tool roll comprising a dumbell spanner, a bicycle multi tool, as well as a puncture repair kit.

"What are those?" Langdon barked, suspicious at what he saw.

"They're latex gloves. Kevin explained. "Stops your hands from getting dirty when you have to fix a puncture. They came in useful earlier when I tried changing gear but the chain got jammed." he held up the gloves to display their oil stained fingertips and palms.

"All right." said Kyle. "Now for the main compartment." Gill removed a cable lock as well as two small clip on cycle lights, front and rear. "Is that it?"

"Yes."

"Well turn your bag upside-down and give it a good shake!" Kevin, eager to comply, gave it a vigorous shaking. Nothing further fell out of it.

"OK, you can put your stuff back." conceded the sergeant.

"W-what was all that about?" asked Gill.

"Don't you know?"

"No."

"Someone just tried shooting at the Prime Minister and we're searching for the gunman. Didn't you hear any shots?"

"No, only some helicopters flying around."

"Did you see anything else suspicious?"

"Sorry, but no."

"All right. Now get on your bike and get out of here; go to the centre as quickly as possible: And good luck in finding your wife."

"Thanks!" Kevin scooped up his possesions from the ground and not bothering to organise them, threw the lot into the main compartment of his pack. Picking up his bicycle he clumsily straddled it and set off unsteadily along the path leading to the rest centre. Legs rapidly spinning the cranks Gill was soon out of Langdon's sight, obscured by vegetation as the trail drew to the right.

Dopey bloody civvies getting in the way! thought Kyle. No wonder he looked so pale and clammy, sweating like a pig. That bloke is going to have a heart attack if he goes on like that, trying to ride a mountain bike offroad in the state he's in... But then Langdon's train of thought was disrupted by a voice in his radio earpiece reporting the location of the abandoned firing position had been discovered.

"Secure the area but don't touch anything!" he ordered. "The forensics people will want to examine the scene and the shooter might have left a booby trap behind! I'm on my way there. Out!"

With that Kyle abandoned his search for the gunman; the sniper must already be long gone by now.

 

A few hundred metres away along the trail Kevin Norris couldn't believe his luck. He'd actually got away with it!

He hadn't expected to, but thanks to his planning he'd pulled off what should have been impossible. There is an army saying; Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance, along with another snipers' axiom; to spend as much time preparing your exfil as you do on your infiltration. Norris had taken both of them to heart as he considered the assassination.

He expected that after the attack the army would send out patrols in a wide skirmish line to capture or kill the fleeing marksman, and knew the expanse of agricultural fields on the other side of the hedge lined road provided little in the way of cover. Escaping he'd stand out like a sore thumb, an easy target for them, and Norris had no intention of becoming a martyr for the cause.

Running before his pursuers wasn't an option, nor was laying up concealed in the hope the soldiers would walk past without noticing him. So instead of trying to slip through the gaps in their dragnet, another approach was called for.

If he couldn't run or hide, he'd have to expect being apprehended by the troops, to be interrogated as to what he was doing there and be searched. This would mean ditching his rifle and concocting a credible cover story. Norris decided to pose as one of the many anxious relatives searching for their loved ones in the wake of the disaster; it would be a perfect disguise.

When Kevin collected his rifle from the lock up he also picked up one the false identities he and the Organisation maintained. A contact working within the DVLA had provided a valid driving licence; in addition the debit cards in the standby walllet registered in the name of Gill were linked to active accounts. With the addition of his wife's photograph and some money his alias was complete; hopefully capable of surviving superficial scrutiny.

While at the arsenal Norris also set up an alibi smartphone using one of the specially adapted cheap prepay units obtained from various sources stored there. Firstly he swapped the replaceable battery he ensured was kept fully charged with one allowed to drain down to having almost no power, before sliding a special SIM card into the holder. The result of his actions being that if the phone were to be switched on it would automatically shut down again due to an exhausted battery, and if an alternate power supply were connected the device's operating sytem would crash as well as the SIM card contacts be rendered unreadable. Only Norris knew how to make what appeared to be a superficially broken phone work properly.

Having established his cover story, and frustrated the most immediate way of checking its' authenticity by a phone call, he now needed to plan where to dispose of his rifle. This had vexed him as he'd ridden to the sniping point; the roadside ditches and culverts were dry at this time of year;  nor was abandoning the gun in the undergrowth a good option, it would too easily be found. Then, on seeing the copse, an idea came to him. A quick reconnaissance revealed an ideal hiding place amid the speading exposed roots, a large badger sett entrance.

Norris' plan had come together nicely, up until the point the aftershock had struck just as he'd pulled the trigger. Realising all was lost Kevin had detached the rifle's buttstock, thrown it along with the rest of the weapon into the nylon drawstring bag already holding the spare magazines; then hiding it in his backpack grabbed his bike, burst out of the gap in the hedge he used to enter the field, and sprinted like Mark Cavendish for the woods. After quickly thusting the incriminating bundle as far down the badgers' burrow as he could push it Norris then wiped his rubber gloves on the bike chain to establish a reason for having them: There was no way with his fingerprints and DNA trapped on the inside of the latex and gun residues on the outside that Kevin could contemplate disposing of them near the scene; instead he planned to burn them once he got home.

Having hidden the evidence, Norris moved away and was leaving a decoy scent to distract any sniffer dogs when the soldier had come across him.

That had been too bloody close for comfort, but Kevin's sweaty fear had helped him put on a convincing performance as a hapless, terrified civillian. Now he needed to get far away before the sergeant had second thoughts or another awkward question sprang into his mind.

So now his way out of the area was through the reception centre. Just in case the soldier was to radio in a query Norris decided to continue with his disguise; to ask after his wife at reception tent but avoid registering and leaving a record which might be followed up later.

The centre entrance was manned by a knot of police, army, and emergency service personnel. They made no move to interrupt the steady flow of new arrivals, intervening only when needed to provide aid, restore order, or answer questions. Wheeling his bike Kevin slipped into the stream of arrivees and set off for the prominently signed reception area.

"Excuse me!" he asked one of the staff manning the doorway of the large tent. "I'm looking for my wife. Is there a printed list of the names of people registered here?"

"You'd best ask inside." the woman replied. We've not got any printed lists up yet, but if she's been here there ought to be a computer record. I'll watch your bike for you."

"Thanks!"

Inside the marquee Norris queued for a short time before it was his turn to stand in front of a trestle table with a laptop mounted on top. "Name?" asked the policewoman operator dispassionately.

"I'm looking for my wife, Debbie- Gill." Christ! I nearly said Norris! he thought.

"I'll check for you." Her fingers clattered speedily over the keys. "Spelt G-I-L-L?"

"Yes."

"Sorry, there's no one of that name registered here. If you want to register yourself we can cross reference your details when we can connect to the national database."

"No thanks. I only dropped in on the offchance she'd stop here. She's most likely making her way back from London by some means or other; she might even have got home while I was out here. Thanks anyway, but I think I'd better be going back. If I don't hear from her by the end of today I'll contact the National Missing Persons Register." Desperately not wanting to get involved in a dispute about the issue, Kevin turned and left. The officer didn't attempt to call him back; she was already busy processing the next person in line.

"Any news?" asked the woman at the marquee entrance.

"No." he sighed.

"Well good luck in finding her. Things are a bit confused at the moment; hopefully we'll be able to start reuniting people when we can get it all organised." she sounded sincere in her wish. "And over on the wall of that tent there's an unofficial notice board, it might be worth looking there."

"I will; thanks again!"

To keep up the pretence Norris made his way over to the message centre. Someone had made an effort to organise the various scraps of card, paper and post-it notes sellotaped in transparent plastic document slips stapled to the canvas into alphabetical surname order. Kevin scanned both the G for Gill of course, and N - Norris sections for any messages but saw nothing from Debbie. As he did so his attention became absorbed by the hastily scrawled or carefully hand printed in block capitals cries of hope and despair. Morbidly he looked along the rest of the sheets on the offchance a missive - a real one meant for him - had been misplaced, but saw nothing. Overcome by repressed emotion, tears began to well from the would-be assassin's eyes.

"You shouldn't give up hope yet!" A voice next to him startled Kevin. He turned toward the sound of it to find himself facing the very same sergeant who had shaken him down earlier.

"Oh, sorry if I frightened you! No sign of her then?"

"No." Norris gasped, swallowing hard.

"I'm sure she'll turn up somewhere..."

"Yeah, I-I expect she will." Kevin quickly readopted his timid persona. "Did you find the person you were looking for? I thought you'd still be out looking for them."

"Nah, whoever it was got clear away and we were pulled back here to support the centre operations: We're told there's more people on the road here and from what we've heard some of them may be a bit troublesome. As for the shooter, we found his firing point and the investigation has been turned over to the spooks now."

"Wh-what a shame you didn't catch them."

Yeah... I thought for moment it might have been you, being the only person we came across on our sweep; but watching you looking at that notice board I can tell you're genuinely looking for your missus. Whoever the gunman was, they obviously were a professional who probably had a driver as a accomplice. That or they got away on a motorbike. Anyway, have faith that you'll find your wife."

It was all Norris could do not to completely break down at that moment. There was a pregnant pause.

"She might be at home by now." Kevin said, breaking the silence. "I-I'd best be moving on."

"Yes. Well the best of luck!"

"And you!"

Langdon watched the fat man push his bike toward the centre's main entrance. Yes it was suspicious that he was the only person his patrol had encountered, but he would have to be a superb operator to get away with such a brazen escape. But then a superb operator would be able to act like someone such as Gill...

Kyle was in two minds whether to call after the departing man; to ask him some more questions or arrest him until his background could be fully checked out, but to do so would draw attention to the fact Langdon had allowed him to slip through the net in the first place; not a good strategy for a career soldier after a promotion. Still indecisive the sergeant watched Gill reach the road at the edge of the field boundary, remount his bicycle, and set off in a southerly direction, overtaking a gaggle of displaced people who had bypassed the centre without stopping; directly en-route to their homes no doubt.

Langdon saw Kevin suddenly brake and throw down his machine as a woman from the group rushed to embrace him. Yes, Kyle recognised her hairstyle from the photo he'd seen; that must be Debbie. Well good on you. thought Langdon. Amid all of this tragedy it's heartwarming to see a little good news. And that solved his conundrum; Gill must be kosher and not an undercover sniper. There's no way such a chance reunion could have been organised. The soldier looked on as Kevin and his wife wrapped themselves around each other like teenagers madly in love, then Kevin picked up his bike, lowered the saddle height with the quick release lever, and offered it to his wife.. She mounted it and set off ahead of him.

Turning away to avoid blubbing at the sight the sergeant set off to inspect his troops; he had a cold, hard, commanding image to maintain. Neither he, Kevin, or Debbie Norris would ever know how close events might have been to taking a completely different course.

Chapter Thirty Eight

Dungeness power station control room. 07.41.

Alan Carter was supposed to be resting; allowing the relief shift headed by Paul Glover to take charge of the ailing reactors. But there was no way Carter could put the state of the complex out of his mind even for a short while; so he was secretly relieved when the call came through to the Contingency Control Centre urgently requesting his presence in the control room to assess the latest rise in Reactor Two's core temperature.

By now the aftershocks had become less of a surprise as the earth began settling into a new equilibrium; though to Alan the most recent ones actually felt more intense than the seismologists had forecast. This latest one brought to mind a mis-spent childhood watching science fiction series; the control panels blurred and people staggering as if on the bridge of a starship suffering the effects of Vorgon blaster strikes against a weakening force field. He wondered if in fact the tremors weren't becoming stronger; perhaps the shaking had yet to peak, but instead the newly opened fault was extending its way toward the power station?

"Alan!" Paul Glover called as an alarm began to sound. "Temperature and activity increasing rapidly around the Reactor Two hot spot we've been monitoring!"

"It must have been that last shock which did it. OK, silence that alarm and flood Two with nitrogen!"

"I'm on it!" Glover undid the clear acrylic protective panel covering the control switch. Turning the button through ninety degrees he pushed it firmly down. A confirmational tone and green light confirmed the operation had commenced.

"Nitrogen gas flood of Reactor Two initiated electrically and proceeding!" he announced. Both men watched as a display tracked the effect of the injected gas flowing through a schematic diagram of the reactor; after a few nerve-wracking minutes the temperature began to stabilise along with the neutron flux. Then at last the readings began falling.

"Phew!" sighed Glover, relieved. "That was too close for comfort!"

"Too bloody right!" Carter agreed. "Let's hope the nitrogen can keep it under control until- uh-oh!" he said as he noticed the indications beginning to rise again.

"That does it!" Alan decided. "For the record I, Alan Carter, the Operations Manager am initiating a boron bead shutdown of Reactor Two!"

"Williams is going to go mental when he learns about this." cautioned Paul.

"Well as he was so eager to get flown out of here that leaves me as the most senior person on site as well as the best technically qualified to decide the matter."

In a stride Carter was at the recess set deep into the control room wall where the bead release switch was located. The transparent plastic door to this panel was secured with a substantial catch which Alan flipped open; the actual lever was itself secured by a tear away plastic safety strip. Tugging that away he grasped the handle firmly, pulled it up, and turned it 180 degrees. Carter expected to hear the discordant fingernails down a blackboard keening of an alarm; the reactor's dying scream, but instead there was nothing.

"First attempt failed: Resetting: Trying again." Once more he attempted to start the boron bead shutdown; again there was no response. An indicator lamp located in the corner of the recess glowed green, showing the circuit was powered up and so the fault preventing the beads from being released into the cooling system must lie elsewhere.

Alan Carter was a level-headed highly qualified senior nuclear engineer; used to acting calmly and methodically under pressure: His able intellect capable of finding a solution to any concievable problem and not one given to panic or casual profanity. However there was only one response which came to mind as his second attempt failed.

"Oh... shit..." he moaned.

 

Connect24 07.43.

Ian May had spent a uncomfortable night of fitful sleep on a folding bed in his office. In the small hours the restlessness became too much to bear and he'd gone up on to the roof with a pair of binoculars to scan the urban horizon. Little could be made out in the cloying darkness save distinct patches of yellow-orange smoke; the clouds illuminated from below by the fires causing them. There was a thick, nose wrinkling smell of burnin carried on the swirling breezes, evoking a primal fear within him. But at least the blazes remained separated for now; the valiant efforts of the overstretched fire crews and citizen volunteers holding them in check for the moment. May feared the conflagrations might join together to create a firestorm; in his career he'd seen enough Second World War library footage to know what that would lead to... Occasional bright flashes followed seconds later by distant crumps revealed where the Army where creating firebreaks with explosives: More than 350 years after the Great Fire of London the same arbitrarily desperate methods were being employed again.

After an hour firewatching and seeing no sign of the blazes encroaching toward the studio complex, May went back to bed; but awoke gritty eyed still feeling drained by a melancholy not even a tepid cup of tea and limp plastic wrapped sandwich for breakfast could alleviate. He needed a wash and shave; but crouching over a sink in the toilet with a cheap razor from a travel kit while trying to use the part of the mirror unobstructed by a handwritten self-adhesive label urging water saving did little for his mood or stubble.

The studio and control room lights were darkened, a more symbolic than economical measure; however a few monitors remained lit. It being almost the top of the hour, Ian decided to watch how the story was being reported from New York.

The Global News Network sister station's grandiosely brash introductory theme, graphics, and colour balance even more lurid than that used by Connect24 made him wince; they set an unfortunate contrast to the mourning border surrounding the picture. Then the camera angle changed to show two Barbie doll presenters on set.

"Hi, this is Courtney Doran and Cassandra Jansen with your GNN headlines: Raul Shae and Lilly Mojica slug it out in court as their megabucks divorce hearing gets really acrimonious; we'll tell you all about it later. Consumers line-up around the block as the latest iPhone premiers today. Ponguito becomes the most downloaded mobile game ever, but we ask is it about to be dethroned by the latest release of Guns 'n Gear? The President vows his new Effective Corrections executive order will make time in federal prisons so tough that no one will dare to commit a crime; and England struggles to clear up after its unexpected earthquake: Controversial pastor Griffin Nixon of the Wolfesboro Baptist Church has claimed the disaster is God's punishment of the British for their carnel sins. We'll have more on these stories in a moment."

As the commercials began Ian once again cursed Euan Rees' decision to temporarily move the ConnectMedia news operations out of the country. Already the real life tragedy of post-quake Britain was sliding down the news order to be replaced by a contrived fantasy.

The adverts finished and what passed for the news returned. Ian was about to mute the monitor's volume and walk away in disgust when scenes of yesterday's courtroom histrionics were replaced by a livid crimson BREAKING screenwash.

Courtney Doran seemed perplexed that such an important story would be supplanted, but carried on nonetheless. "We're going live to London, England where our reporter Bill Pruett has a breaking story. Over to you Bill."

"Courtney, Britain which has already suffered an unprecedented earthquake is now being rocked by reports Prime Minister Anthony Rampling has been gunned down while he was paying an early morning visit to a relief center set up near the London orbital freeway. Witnesses say they saw blood streaming from the Prime Minister's head before he was dragged into his official helicopter and quickly flown away to an undisclosed location.

At present the state of Rampling's health is unknown, with government spokesmen refusing to comment further at this time; but if the the reports about head injuries turn out to be true the prognosis doesn't look good. Already, despite global stock markets being suspended on account of the British earthquake, the pound sterling and London shares have been marked sharply down on the unofficial 'grey exchanges' - a problem the embattled goverment could do without.

This latest crisis comes in the wake of an administration suffering from a sluggish economy; party splits over policy; and most recently of all, just before the tremor struck yesterday, a cabinet level sex scandal: Now it seems the Brits will have to pick themselves off the floor without their leader.

Deputy Prime Minister and noted hardliner Stuart Pullman is reported to have assumed control of the government in the meantime, promising to hunt down those responsible for the attack. Police have yet to say anything about the motive of the shooter, but have confirmed they treating the case as a terrorist incident. That's it for now, but when I know more, you'll know it! This is Bill Pruett in London handing you back to the studio."

"Thanks Bill." said Cassandra Jansen, taking over. "And that's not the only problem the British have to deal with: The ultraconservative French president Ameline Lajoie has ordered that country's coast guard to blockade the northern French coast after refugees desperate to leave the UK began to make their way across the English Channel by small boat; ferry services having been suspended due to tsunami damage at both English and French ports, along with the Channel Tunnel being closed by flooding, as well as possibly collapsed in places, causing an unknown number of casualties on board the two high speed trains which were caught inside it when the tragedy struck.

Madame Lajoie said France had enough problems dealing with the tremblor's effects on the northeastern regions of her nation without coping with an expected influx of British migrants. Meanwhile German finance minister Edgar Schöffer has ruled out a European Union reconstruction aid effort for the UK, saying although the bloc would provide short-term humanitarian assistance, in the longer term it would be Britain's own responsibility to rebuild itself, having decided to quit the EU. We'll have more on the UK 'quake later this hour"

With barely a pause Cassandra changed subject. "So Courtney;" she asked chirpily. "What's the latest on the divorce case which has everyone talking?"

Well done Euan, thought Ian, on deciding to cut us out of the loop in time for one of the greatest stories of our time to break on our patch. Just then an incoming voice only call rang through to the desk. May recognised the caller ID only too well; it was Rees.

"...Yes; I'd noticed..." he answered sarcastically. "Though what do you expect me to do about it now?... ...It's a bit too bloody late to restart broadcasting! Especially as I allowed anyone who wanted to leave to go... ...We've but a handful of people here now, and certainly not enough to give the story the coverage it deserves... ...Well how do you expect me to react? C24 and I aren't something you can switch on and off like a sodding lightbulb!

... Wait a minute; I'm looking at the rump of the BBC news channel and they're just reporting an official source claiming the PM has only been lightly injured. They've beaten GNN to that update because looking at New York's output the most important thing in the world at this very moment is the release of a new phone which looks like and does much the same as the previous model!

...And now the news agencies are picking that announcement up so it's a confirmed false alarm; what a shame our stateside colleagues decided to jump on it and make utter fools of themselves! Ah well, never mind... ....Oh at last! They're updating it now. Yeah, way to go guys!

No I don't know where Gail Burton is... And anyway I've told her she'd be bonkers trying to go live from Hyde Park...   Isn't that what I was supposed to be doing?... What?! ... Isn't losing two members of staff enough for you without putting more of them in harm's way? You're taking the piss aren't you?... No?... Well as you put it that way I'll consider that a case of constructive dismissal... Yes, that's right! I've had enough of this and I'm out of here! See you in court if they ever get them back up and running again! Good-Bye!"

May slammed the handset down. The phone began to ring again: Rees would be furious about being hung-up on. Angrily Ian yanked the connecting wire free and hurled the receiver clattering against the studio wall. There was no one else in the control room to witness the act.

Seething with indignation May stomped to his office and threw the few things he wanted to keep from there in his leather messenger bag. That done he made his way toward the exit and the freedom which beckoned.

On the way out he passed by the 'Play Room', a product of C24's stress management consultants. Within it were adult sized soft play toys along with the more traditional table tennis set and darts board. For the duration of the emergency it had been adopted as a dormitory for the staff who remained. One of them was the sylph of an intern who Dominic Paige had bawled at the day before. She was curled  under a blanket on top of a large beanbag visible through the partly open door. On hearing him approach she startled awake.

"You're after a position in this company, aren't you?" May addressed her sharply. The girl, confused, nodded. "Well you can have your pick of them in there!" he jerked his thumb in the direction of the studios. "Though you'd be better off becoming a personal assistant somewhere, or a pole dancer, or even working at Woppa Burga! This job is shit; nothing but a mug's game, it'll suck you dry and spit you out... ah, fuck it all!" Leaving her peplexed Ian strode angrily past the dozing reception security guard who came to life and asked him to sign out on the register. Ignoring the gatekeeper, the former employee walked determinedly away down the studio complex's access road; his form softening, then fading into the smoky haze.

Chapter Thirty Nine

Dungeness Power Station. 07.53.

"I still don't think you ought to be doing this." Paul Glover attempted to dissuade Alan Carter again.

"Yes, I know; you're beginning to sound like my wife. Now would you give it a rest and help me on with this?" Carter replied.

"OK; turn around a bit more..."

Both men were in a small closeted space located near to the control room. This was where the never to be used except in case of the direst emergency hazmat clothing was stored, and as the garments were never expected to be called upon the fitting area was tiny; about three times the floor area of a phone box.

"That's it. Now help me with the pack." Glover picked up one of the life support units - about the same size as a piece of airline approved carry-on hand luggage - off a rack and after checking the attached label for the date of its last inspection, held it up for Carter to wriggle himself into.

Alan was dressing himself in a protective suit prior to entering the inner core of the reactor building and manually operating the failsafe lever which would release a cloud of tiny boron balls into Unit Two's cooling system. Carter could have called some workers back from their on-site evacuation points to do the job for him, but he was determined to personally see the task through despite his deputy's protests.

Carter shouldered the life support system, and Glover connected the hoses leading from it to the ports on Alan's garment. A self-contained combination of air supply and portable air conditioning unit modelled on a spacesuit backpack, it was designed to make life tolerable for people working in extremely hot conditions, such as those found in close proximity to an operating nuclear reactor. Switched on, the pack began humming and Carter felt the temperature inside the airtight coverall begin to cool.

"OK, helmet on and check for integrity." Paul read from the laminated checklist as he lowered the astronaut style helmet over Carter's head. "Radio check." Glover's voice sounded faint from outside the helmet's acrylic faceplate yet simultaneously intimate and grainy through the loudspeaker/microphone curled around Alan's right ear.

"I hear you fine." Carter's voice reflected back at him with surprising loudness from the inside of his claustrophobic fishbowl.

"Now select positive pressure, give us a twirl, and I'll check your seals." Alan did as he was asked; the suit puffed up and stiffened slightly, but at least the slightly higher atmospheric pressure within it should keep any radioactive contamination out in the unlikely event of the the tough material being holed. Glover checked the connection to the suit's gloves, boots, and helmet; as well as the access zip for the slight hiss of escaping air which would warn of a problem. He found no leaks.

"Seal integrity verified. How's your cuff reading?"

Carter checked the suit control and display unit worn over the left wrist like a large manacle. All the readings were well within the expected levels.

"All systems good."

Paul ran through the final few items before announcing "Checks completed; you're good to go!"

Right; let's not hang around!"

Glover picked up a canvas tool holdall and together the pair set off for the containment access airlock. Alan flipped up his faceplate so that he could talk to Paul on the way without using the radio.

"Once I'm through the airlock don't wait around; go back to the control room and keep me updated from there. While you're at it, you and the other techs in there should get your barrier suits on and have your masks to hand, just in case..."

"There isn't going to be an In Case; you're going to turn the valve and snuff this pile." Glover said. "I'll have a reception squad waiting to unsuit you when you come back out, and if there's the slightest trace of contamination on your gear, it'll go straight into a stainless steel waste drum and you'll be choppered out to hospital - no arguments! If you're not out in ten minutes I'll send a crew in after you: I mean it!" Alan didn't doubt Paul would do exactly as he said.

The men approached the access airlock, a circular door set into the reinforced concrete wall of the Outer Containment Vessel. The portal resembled a watertight hatch between submarine compartments or a thick bank vault door. A small armoured glass peephole near the airlock's centre allowed a view of the space inside. Surrounding it were sterm notices warning in block black print against a vivid nuclear yellow background that the area beyond was a No Lone Zone and any admittance or works to be undertaken within had to obtain the written authority of the site's Director of Operations. Next to it a tiny screen displayed the environmental conditions on the other side of the access. Beyond the threshold the air temperature was much higher and the humidity far lower: Fortunately the radiation levels weren't too far elevated beyond the norm.

"You realise that by going in there by yourself you'll be violating all manner of regulations; the Safety Committee are going to drag you over the coals in the Post Event Revue. Then once they've finished, Health Physics will start..."

"I'll justify my actions with them after the fact." said Carter. "We need to act quickly because we don't have long: There isn't the time to prepare a Plan of Operations in advance or even bring someone in from the evacuation points to do this; it's up to us, here and now."

"Agreed: Time to put your overgloves on and close your faceplate." Alan slid his visor down and locked it into place, before donning a heavy pair of heat resistant work gloves. He noted Paul had also put on a similar pair.

"You OK?" Glover asked over the radio.

""Fine!" Carter replied. "All systems Go here; would you pass me the toolbag?"

"Here you are: Contents; one spanner of the right size for the valve nut, a long adjustable spanner in case you need it, a spray can of penetrating oil, cloths, and the relevant pages from the technical manual, not that you'll need them; you know this place inside-out! Is there anything else you need before you go in?"

"I can't think of anything."

"Well good luck then!" Paul made to enter the access code on the airlock's keypad. "And if you encounter any unexpected problems, don't wait around or try to fix them; come straight back out and we'll organise a B-team to go at it."

"Of course. And Paul... If something does go wrong, boron bead Unit One, abandon the control room and get the operators back to the CCC. If I don't make it, tell the Public Inquiry exactly what happened - the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, you got me? Don't allow anyone to coerce you into giving a skewed testimony; no-one you understand! Promise me that!"

"Now stop it! In fifteen minutes we'll have got this bugger damped down and you can tell them all about it yourself. Now are you ready?"

"Yes."

Glover entered the code and there was the sound of heavy bolts being electrically withdrawn. The red light above the door changed to amber, then green. Paul grasped the locking wheel and spun it to the open position. "Hey, that feels warmer than I expected!" he exclaimed. "Better boost your aircon." Alan touched his control cuff and the whirring emenating from the suit's backpack increased in pitch.

Glover grasped a long handle located close to the door's edge. Pulling it sideways and opening the hatch there was a brief hiss as the outside air rushed in to equalise the airlock chamber's negative pressure. Paul swung the door fully open and Carter stepped inside.

"As soon as I've cycled through, don't wait around; get back up to the control room." Alan's voice issued from Glover's walkie-talkie.

"I will." Paul replied. He pushed the door shut with a clunk; ensured the lever had relatched; then spun the sealing wheel fully closed. The indicator light glowed crimson once more.

"Outer lock sealed; interlock disengaged; you are clear to open inner door." he announced.

"Copy that!"

Paul watched as Alan unlocked the other door, passed through, and resealed it; the process showing on a repeater panel. Once the door had been closed Carter gave a thumbs up sign through the inner door's porthole.

"I'm in!" he confirmed by radio, the disappeared from Glover's view.

 

PINDAR Medical Centre. 08.01.

"That concludes the test Prime Minister." announced the complex's duty doctor. The bunker's self-contained medical unit was stocked with items of diagnostic equipment equal or better in some cases to those found in many public hospitals, now either ruined or overcrowded with casualties, and more arriving all the time. Elsewhere in the mini-infirmary in an out of sight isolation room, Ian Campbell lay knocked out by the Mexican 'flu; his body flooded with a cocktail of antivirals and connected to a rehydration fluid drip.

Once he'd had his wounds cleaned and an initial assessment at RAF Northolt - the government's 'bug out' airfield situated in northwest of the capital - Anthony Rampling had been helicoptered back to the Whitehall citadel for a further examination.

His electrocardiogram examination had seemed interminable; especially since the physician had banned him from reading or hearing about the latest situational updates for fear they would set his heart racing even faster. Now, at long last, the electrodes had been peeled from his chest and the uncertainty would soon be at an end.

"You can button your shirt now, and take a seat over there." the doctor motioned to a seat next to a desk in the corner of the room as he scanned through the ECG traces on the device's screen. "I'll be with you in a moment."

Rampling could tell the man seemed unpurturbed, and hoped that indicated a favourable diagnosis. Satisfied that all was in order the medic came over to join the Prime Minister.

"Well the good news is that I can't see any underlying problems with your heart. Ideally I'd refer you on to a specialist cardiologist just to be absolutely sure, but under the circumstances I believe you could safely postpone a consultation for a while.

What I think has affected you is a case of Angina Pectoralis triggered by post traumatic shock. It's my opinion the effects will be temporary and you should make a complete recovery in due course, though it would be wise to keep an eye on your cardiovascular system.

In the meantime, however, I'd advise you to cut down as much as possible on your workload. Now I know that's going to be difficult at the moment, but it's something you should give careful consideration to if you at all can. Are you taking any prescription medications at present?"

"No."

"Well I'll pescribe some beta-blockers for you. They'll keep your heart rate down, but you must be careful about how you take them; only according to the instructions." The doctor scrawled something in an unintelligible hand on a pad. "Nurse Suri will get them for you. We've got a fully equipped dispensary down here which would put a major hospital to shame!" he said almost happily.

"Unless anything else is bothering you and you want to talk about it you're free to resume your duties. I think I'm going to be on call here for quite a while yet, so if you feel your symptoms getting worse, or something else comes up, don't hesitate to consult me. But remember; please try and reduce your stress levels."

"Thanks; I'll try." Rampling replied as he rose to leave.

After pocketing a box of tablets - Take ONE 25mg tablet every TWELVE hours the physician had instructed - the Prime Minister, followed by his aides and bodyguards, left for his private bedroom suite: There were a number of them in PINDAR reserved for high ranking cabinet members.

"I'm going to freshen up. Would you please all leave me for a while and inform the cabinet I should be joining them again in about half an hour. Don't worry, I'll find my own way there."

"Very good Sir." the senior aide replied. All of his entourage turned and left.

Inside his compact bedroom/office Rampling washed, then changed out of his dirtied suit into a clean one from the wardrobe which had been prestocked with clothes in his size. Not feeling at all hungry after his ordeal he passed on the selection of wrapped snacks laid out for him but instead logged in to his private terminal to catch up with the news.

The civil servant who wrote the Prime Minister's regularly updated briefings was a master at their craft; being able with a mixture of terse brevity, yet providing greater detail when required to convey a great deal of information in a short span of reading time. As Anthony had expected the news was universally bad.

The damage assessment was still ongoing but it was clear the earthquake had taken a heavy toll; the fatalities numbered in the thousands already and estimated to eventually reach the tens of thousands. The regional infrastructure had been severely damaged with the motorways and railways of the south-east requiring urgent extensive repairs.

The London Underground had suffered particularly badly with tunnel collapses and severe flooding in major sections. Without it the capital would be effectively paralysed. The outlook in both costs of the repairs and the time it would take to accomplish them was depressing.

Hundreds of thousands of people were homeless, and would remain so indefinitely. Eventually some of the less damaged dwellings could be repaired, but widespread demolition and reconstruction of those homes too far gone to be saved would be necessary. The resulting building boom would offset the recession the disaster was certain to provoke to an extent, but at the cost of an added increase in the rate of inflation which was bound to rise anyway as a result of the growth of post-'quake public expenditure.

The Business, Trade, and Innovation minister had appended a note here that in his opinion there wouldn't be enough skilled tradespeople to fulfill the demand for their services; mass retraining of the workforce displaced from other occupations by the tremor and a relaxation of the immigration laws to attract foreign workers here should be a matter of priority. Rampling could imagine what the public reaction to a loosening of border controls would be!

But even that gloomy forecast didn't mark the end of the economic woes to come. An initial back of an envelope estimate was the Gross National Product would shrink by at least 8%, and that was before taking into account the knock-on global effects of having a major financial centre taken offline. Though the Docklands had their own standby power supplies and connectivity was gradually being restored, London's reputation as a place of stability in which to conduct business had been irrevocably harmed.

Fortunately it seemed the remainder of England and Wales were reasonably OK for the moment. After the initial shock to its system the National Grid had recovered; now with the southeastern power network isolated, most people outside the affected region had their electricity back, as well as access to basic media and some sort of telecoms, but not the unrestricted internet as yet. Scotland however, had surprised everyone by using technical means to circumvent the government's emergency online controls and declaring a de-facto digital independence to match its real world rebellion.

Yet even within the UK a new wave of discontent was stirring; despite at first being deprived of the means to express themselves online some ingenious minds were busy finding workarounds to defeat the censorship. On social media hosted beyond these shores the hashtags #thirdtimelucky and #betterlucknexttime had surfaced in response to the failed assassination, while jihadist websites gleefully ascribed the disaster as Allah casting His judgement upon the kuffar as well as posting video of some small, but highly visible celebrations of the earthquake in the predominantly muslim areas of some northern cities.

At the sight of those demonstrations a cold anger grew within Rampling. However he was satisfied to learn Stuart Pullman and Christopher Parsons had tasked the army to root the perpetrators out and ensure there would be no repeat of such disrespectful behaviour. No doubt they'd enjoyed issuing those orders.

And if all that wasn't enough there was a greater potential disaster brewing at Dungeness. Hopefully the situation there could be stabilised quickly or-. Rampling's thoughts were interrupted by a soft knock on his door. "Prime Minister; you wanted to be informed when half an hour had passed." his aide said quietly.

"Thank you. I'll be with you in a moment." Reluctantly he rose to walk to the Situation Room.

Chapter Forty

Dungeness Power Station. 08.02.

Alan Carter was where few people ever ventured; in between the outer and inner containment vessels of a nuclear reactor. This space was designed as the unit's final safety feature: If a problem occurred in one of the access points where the primary steam circuit or coolant pipes entered the reactor, any leak of radioactive gas or fluid should be captured here and not escape into the wider environment.

Exiting the airlock he took in his surroundings. Normally off-limits when the reactor was running, and accessed only for maintenance during shutdowns, the gap between the two stainless steel cable tensioned reinforced concrete drums was a narrow one, no more than three metres wide. Alan looked up and saw ladders and mesh catwalks suspended at intervals high above him all the way up to the unlit gloom at the top of the pressure vessel.

Paradoxically for an area so close to such an incredible source of power the cavity was illuminated only by a scattering of weak LED bulbs which had been fitted to the decades old wire caged bulkhead holders; there just in case it were ever to become necessary for someone to enter here in the event of an emergency - such as now. There was an air of starkly functional sterile inhumanity about the environment; the only hints of colour dotted about the nude concrete and dulled natural metallic hues of the pipework were the primary reds, yellows, and blues of the safety notices. Truth be told being this close to the immensity of it all; the heavy flanges with their large protruding tightly screwed down bolt heads where metal pierced the bulwark; the scalp tingling proximity to such elemental forces - the temperatures, pressures and radiation levels approaching those of a fatally inhospitable alien world - gave Alan the willies.

But what really spooked him was the relative silence, even though there was some ambient noise to be heard. If the unit had been operating normally the resonances caused by high pressure gas rubbing along the inside of the large diameter piping should have been so loud as to be unbearable. But instead of external vibrations loosening his bowel it was a dread sense of aloneness, a feeling that he did not belong here.

Time was of the essence, so Carter set off for the nearest hooped ladder which would lead him up to the circular walkway he wanted, located half way up the curving wall. Looping the holdall strap over one shoulder he began to ascend carefully.

"How are you doing?" Paul asked. His radio signal relayed through the monolithic construction by a series of repeaters.

"I'm OK; climbing now." Alan spoke into his voice activated transceiver. "What's your situation?"

"We're getting suited as you ordered. The hot spot temperature has increased by 160° in the last five minutes and the flux is intensifying: For God's sake hurry up and launch those beads!" There was an undertone of fear in Glover's voice which Alan had never heard in the years he'd worked with him. If an unflappable character such as Paul was getting rattled, the situation must be getting really bad.

"I'll be there shortly. I've almost reached that level!"

Carter stepped off the ladder onto the catwalk; the boron injector was only a short walk away. Within a few more steps it came into view.

There were two large hoppers containing the beads, each mounted inside a welded framework of steel scaffolding. When triggered a combination of gravity and pressurised carbon dioxide gas would force the tiny boron spheres through the thick pipe penetrating the inner containment into the heart of the reactor, shutting it down permanently. Alan reached the first hopper and checked the gas pressure gauge; it appeared to be fully charged.

"Control; stand by, I'm about to release Hopper One."

"At last! Do it quickly!"

Carter located the red painted large valve wheel. Removing the safety lock and taking a firm grasp he began loosening it. There was a hiss of gas followed by a crackling rumble as the beads rushed along the pipe. The deafening noise sounded like a lorry load of shingle being dumped.

"Hopper One deployed. Is it having any effect?" he asked, ears still ringing.

"Not too much of one." the reply crackled back. "There's some reduction in activity around the periphery of the hot spot, but it's not fallen very far or quickly; initiate Hopper Two!"

"Roger!"

Alan ducked under the thick inlet pipe to the Hopper Two release valve. As he began unwinding the wheel he was overcome by an abrupt sense of melancholy; almost the same feeling as that when having a family pet put down. After spending so long trying to coax some extra Promethean life from this reactor, fate had selected him as the one to finally quench its electric blue fission incandescence.

Wishing his helmet had better soundproofing, and that the suit's air conditioning was more powerful - he was beginning to feel the heat in spite of the refrigerator unit - Carter opened the valve. There was the reassuring metallic sound of the pipework ringing as the beads scurried along it.

"Hopper Two deployed!" he said relieved. "Is it having an effect?"

"I can't tell at the moment." Glover replied." But you've done all you can in there; come out now. When we can get hold of some we'll saturate the reactor with boron dust which will reach all of the places the beads can't."

"I'm on my way down."

As Alan began walking to the ladder he felt flushed. Was it the heat in here, or a delayed physical effect of the realisation of what he had just done? He checked the suit's cuff readout; the radiation level was still near normal, but rising slowly as was the external air temperature. Carter wondered if he was beginning to exhibit the first symptoms of heat exhaustion; maybe it would have been wise to have worn the next to the skin cooling undergarment instead of his shirt and trousers, but there hadn't been the time to strip completely and wriggle into it. Alan justified boosting the suit's cooling system to maximum by the fact he'd soon be out of here anyway, and even set at this level there should be thirty minutes of endurance left.

Carter was half way down the ladder when the latest earthquake ambushed him with an approaching tube train rumbling which quickly developed into the strongest tremor he'd yet felt. The vibrations wrenched Alan's grip from the ladder and he fell backward, his fall only arrested by the safety hoops. Feeling like one of the plastic figures in a game of Hang On Harvey, Alan broke his fall in stages by grabbing at handholds with his flailing arms as his body bounced off the bars of the ladder's safety cage. Shaken and disoriented, yet remarkably not seriously injured he landed in a heap at the bottom of the ladder, banging his helmeted head as he did so. He could hear Paul Glover shouting in his earpiece, but such was the thundering noise his speech was rendered unintelligible.

"WHAT?" Alan shouted, barely able to make himself heard.

"-e're -osing it." came the disjointed reply.

"SAY AGAIN!"

Glover's repeat was almost as garbled, yet the meaning only too chillingly clear. "Get -t of there -actor -ing ou- of -ontrol."

Alan heaved himself up to a crouch, his back cramping in agonised spasms where the rounded edge of the life support pack had been rammed into the base of his spine. It was difficult to stand or even remain upright with this intense shaking going on so he stumbled forward in an unsteady ape crawl. Paul Glover was saying something to him, but Carter tuned out the voice in his ear, concerned now only with reaching the airlock.

Above him the catwalk sections clattered, and further away the echoing of something big and hollow breaking free, striking other pieces of equipment as it fell pierced even this cacophany. God, when would it end? thought Alan. With a final jolt which sent him sprawling against the the inner containment vessel, the activity ceased. Bloody hell! Carter could feel the warmth from the concrete radiating through his fire resistant overall. It shouldn't be that hot!

"Alan! Talk to me!"

"Uhh... I'm on the ground level, close to the airlock. What's happened?"

"Another 'quake! The worst yet! I've boron flushed One and evacuated the control room; we're falling back to the CCC and we'll pick you up as we go!"

"Just go! I'll make it out by mysel-"

At first it felt and sounded like another tremor, but this was different, a shorter lived muffled crump on the other side of the imposing structure - the graphite matrix must have finally succumbed to the shaking and collapsed in on itself!

"PAUL! I THINK THE CORE HAS FAILED! GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE!" No sooner had Carter spoken then an automatically generated alarm he'd hoped never to hear except during testing began it's all-consuming shriek, sending a cold steel shaft of fear through him; the incredible volume all but drowning out the sudden insistent beeping of the suit's radiation alarm and that of his personal dosimeter

Alan reached the airlock and opened the inner door, stumbling through, closing and sealing it behind him before starting the atmosphere cycling process. He suddenly felt weakened as well as nauseated. Christ! had he been irradiated that much so quickly? It shouldn't be possible given the thickness of the concrete biological shield but... No; that would mean the simulations were wrong and the shattered remains of the fuel matrix were behaving far differently and reacting much more energetically than ever thought possible... And if that were so then the sequence of events expected to take place over hours or days might occur within minutes!

The roaring of the atmosphere exchange pump stopped, the interlock disconnected, but before Alan had time to reach for the handle the door was opened from the other side and swung in toward him. A figure wearing a set of white hooded coveralls and respirator leaned round to support him.

"Come on, we don't have much time!" It was Glover, shouting above the din of the alarm, sounding as if he were speaking with his mouth full behind the mask. Lie down on that and we'll get you out of here!" he motioned to a pole and canvas stretcher opened out on the floor. Carter, feeling too tired to argue, too fatigued to care much about anything, did as instructed.

"Paul; I think I picked up a dose in there..."

"Don't panic!" Glover soothed as he checked the display on Alan's suit cuff, but Paul couldn't conceal the look in his eyes.. "There's a chopper standing by to pick us up and it'll fly you directly to a hospital for a check up. Even if you did catch some rays they can transfuse your blood and give you a bone marrow transplant. I expect a lot of what you're feeling are the effects of heatstroke. As soon as we get you to a safe place and unsuit you we'll give you an IV of rehydration solution; you'll feel a lot better then."

Once the airlock outer door had been sealed and Alan settled into the stretcher two more white-suited figures - the reactor operators - picked it up. Moving quickly, almost running, they made haste for the exit.

Looking up through his face plate Carter measured the party's rate of progress by the flickering fluorescent ceiling lights and strobing red alarm beacons passing by. However they hadn't gone far when there was a tremendous subterranean explosion which was sensed rather than heard, followed almost instantaneously by a far more powerful thunderclap of a blast which shook the building and made the stretcher bearer at Alan's feet lose his grip on the wooden poles, spilling Carter out of the litter. FUCKING HELL! IT'S BLOWN!" the technician cursed.

"There's a Land Rover waiting outside!" said Paul. "We'd better run for it! Once we're inside it'll limit our exposure; let's go!" Picking up Alan between then Glover and the reactor operator set off at a stumbling run.

Bursting out of the exit the group came to a shocked halt: Amid a scattering of debris it was obvious their escape vehicle wasn't going anywhere, its cab was crushed beneath a large chunk of concrete. Where had that come from?

"Check the driver!" ordered Paul. One of the technicians ran around to the other side of the 4x4 but was back almost at once shaking his head. The man was clearly beyond help. In any case the quartet had their own problems to deal with. Alan turned around and looked up at the reactor block; his heart skipped several beats as he realised the round blockhouse tower containing Reactor Two had a wide crack running all the way down its side while thick grey smoke along with dense clouds of steam were darkening the sky, venting from the jagged crown points where the roof should have been: This meant the pieces of metallic scrap now blanketing the area must have come from inside the core and were therefore dangerously radioactive.

"We've got to get away from here!" he shouted, noticing as he did so the tangled remains of the refuelling robot lying nearby, and fuck! that was a twisted spent fuel rod over there! Abruptly blown clear from its cooling tank the element was beginning to melt and give off smoke as well as subjecting the group to deadly levels of radiation while it did so: It was killing them even as they looked at it.

But even as the realisation struck the men, another more immediately life-threatening hazard became obvious: From around the corner of the reactor block a knee-deep carpet of agitated dirty grey water flowed toward them; a tsunami surge! This latest one had either overtopped the shingle beach and concrete sea wall, or else breached a soft spot in the weakened defences. However it had happened didn't matter, the site was flooding and nothing was going to stop it.

As a group they ran for their lives, heedless if doing so brought them closer to the intangible dangers scattered nearby. Carter was the hindmost. The frothing water caught up with them and Alan felt an insistent tug at his legs; a current which threatened to bowl him off his feet, sweeping him along with it while battering him with the nuclear flotsam it contained. Even his remaining few minutes of supplied oxygen would only delay his inevitable death...

Then a loud chuddering sound resonated through his body and a large dark green object loomed low above him - the helicopter! Coming to a hover just above the roiling water in front of them the side door was flung aside and the crew reached out toward the figures beginning to flounder in the rising tide. One, two, three of them were hauled aboard by the army flight crew dressed in full protective camouflage gear; now there was only Carter to save. He waded with increasing difficulty toward the machine but felt the last of his strength fading as he did so. Then he was no longer standing but floating, carried along with the turbulent flow.

Alan thought he'd be dragged under the chopper and away, beyond any hope of salvation. But the pilot lowered the aircraft slightly, dipping its skids in the torrent but risking the cabin being swamped. The engineer was washed on to a skid and felt many hands gripping him. With an effort he was manhandled inside, and an order was shouted; the helicopter clawed its way free of the maelstrom while the door was slammed shut.

Deafened by the full-throttle whine as the chopper desperately gained altitude and distance Carter caught a glimpse of the Dungeness complex through the fuselage windows as they flew away from it: The scene was a nightmare. From this angle the full extent of the damage to Reactor Two was visible; with a growing sense of horror Alan looked into the depths of the atomic cauldron to view what no human eye should ever see. He observed a white hot glow far down there and could only imagine what would happen when that inexhaustible source of heat met an endless supply of seawater.

As the perspective shifted he took in the entirety of the site. The English Channel had broken though a large gap in the beachhead caused by the uplift of part of the Dungeness spit; the extended fault looked as if it had just missed the eastern perimeter of the station, but even from this distance it was clear the hundred thousand ton poured concrete raft upon which the B complex of reactor buildings rested had been bodily moved and most likely been canted down at a slight angle. Then, with a last brief sight of the twisted electricity pylons staggering away across the shingle, it was gone from his view.

Alan felt a hand on his shoulder; it was Paul Glover's. "You did what you could..." he said, his voice contorted by the respirator which he along with the rest of the crew kept on. Suddenly Carter had an overwhelming urge to retch; he clawed at his faceplate release catch.

"No! Don't do it!" Paul urged. "The air in here is bound to be contaminated!" But there was no dissuading Alan. He yanked the visor up just in time and threw up a spray of watery beige vomit over the cabin floor. Having finished he had the presence of mind to pull the visor closed again before he lapsed into unconsciousness.

Chapter Forty One

Near New Romney, Kent. 08.09.

Neil Simpson's RSE colleagues joked about his motocross bike being a sign of a mid-life crisis, but even if it was, he was the one who was laughing now. The presenter twisted the throttle slightly and the white 175 cc trailster he'd brought second hand surged forward; the machine's long-travel suspension taking the broken road surface in its stride as easily as it cut through the traffic in more normal times.

Since leaving the studios Neil had ridden cautiously, being unsure of what the 'quake cracked roads might have in store around the next bend and concerned about unexpectedly encountering those people who had abandoned their vehicles and continued on foot. He was only too aware his MX was now a highly desirable commodity. Keeping both feet down he'd often had to make offroad diversions as he passed stranded cars and trucks parked by the side of the road or in laybays, their drivers still sleeping inside. At one point he'd had to risk crossing the M20 on the intact part of a partially collapsed overpass; the usually busy motorway below was all but empty of stopped traffic. The road's post-apocalyptic stillness unsettled him.

Simpson's journey was a slow groping in the general direction he wanted to go in as the quake had fragmented the road network; often blocking his way with deep chasms or impassable changes in ground level. Elsewhere he spotted those travellers who had not been so fortunate; the jack-knifed lorries which occasionally blocked the route or the motorists who had been literally shaken off the carriageway and out of control when the tremors struck. Worst of all were the places the emergency services had yet to reach, where the sound of his engine - even though he kept the revs down and the bike's headlight switched off to avoid making his presence too conspicuous - disturbed murders of crows. Neil imagined what they were clustered around and pecking at; the thought of it turned his stomach.

Eventually Simpson found himself in the open fields under the wide though presently overcast skies of the Romney Marshes. The Dungeness spit was close by. Approaching the outskirts of New Romney he spotted a road block ahead, and in a small pull-in located a few hundred metres away from it on the unpoliced side a sole vehicle was stationed. A sixth sense made Neil slow down and pull in there as the only person who would park a small silver car here at this of all times had to be Annie Bromhaar. As he drew up Simpson noticed a familiar solitary figure standing some distance beyond it, intently scrutinising through a pair of compact binoculars the far distant hedgerow which screened the view of the reactor complex. Switching off the bike's motor, Neil dismounted and kicked down the propstand. The woman, carrying a small video camera on a lanyard around her neck became aware of his arrival; she turned to look at him. Simpson's hunch was proven correct.

As a teenager Annie Bromhaar had hitch-hiked her way to England in the early 1980s to join a peace camp. When the cruise missiles were eventually withdrawn she stayed; falling in love with Gerrit - a Dutch horticulturist working in the UK who she met at a protest - marrying him and having two children. Bromhaar's husband had since died as the result of a stroke, and her grown up children moved away from Brexit Britain, returning to the Netherlands.

Annie kept herself occupied with her environmental and anti-nuclear causes. She was a well known face at public hearings and debates, as well as being a vigorous contributor to radio discussions; that was how Neil had come to know her.

Bromhaar had aged greatly in the couple of years since they'd last met. Her hair had turned grey-white and was cut much shorter now, though it still blew in the light breeze. The creases etched into her weatherbeaten face were more pronounced. But the intelligent sparkle in her eyes remained, as did her quick smile when Simpson removed his helmet and walked towards her.

"Ah Neil! You came! No one else has!" Having lived much of her life in the UK, Annie's brittilly slurred Dutch lilt had softened greatly. "This was as close as I could get." she explained, gesturing at the barricade. "So you got fed up of spouting the bullshit!" It was more a statement than a question.

"I did."

"What have you heard?" she asked.

"Not all that much, apart from what you sent me and the Potentia PR department's response so I thought I'd come down and see for myself. Needless to say my producer didn't approve!" Simpson struggled to make himself heard above the din of a military helicopter passing nearby as it roared along. "Whatever is happening there appears to be urgent!"

"I've seen plenty of them since I arrived." Bromhaar said. "Most of them landing over there." she pointed in the direction of the nearby Ashford airport. "And others closer to the power station; I believe they carried technical supplies."

"It does make you wonder what's going on." agreed Neil. "They wouldn't be conducting a drill now of all times, so something must be up."

"The residents of the New Romney, Lydd, and Greatstone-on-Sea have been evacuated." Annie replied. "We are just beyond the Exclusion Zone boundary but that is a sure sign that something is gravely wrong. Ah!" she grunted. "Can you see those soldiers on foot patrol?" she passed Simpson her binoculars. "Just by those trees."

"Wait a minute... Yes I see them."

"I think they are sweeping the area a final time before they begin extending their Zone further. They know we are here and watching them; my face is certain to be on their dossier so we must be careful; they would arrest us without hesitation to keep their dirty little secrets. If the men at the barrier make a move in this direction we shall have to leave quickly."

"So what do you think is going on?" he shouted above the racket of another helicopter circling the area. This one - along with the pair of roadblock guards - seemed to be taking a closer interest in the both of them.

"I will be happy to tell you if you want to sit in my car." Bromhaar invited. "It will be more comfortable and perhaps a quieter place for an interview. We can-" Unexpectedly both of them were thrown to the ground by a stong aftershock. Annie yelled a gutteral Dutch expletive. Jesus Christ! thought Neil. This must be the worst yet!

The pair were bounced and shaken as they sprawled painfully on the bucking earth; Simpson was stung as the lay-by's gravel chippings were agitated into the air by the force of the seism. Neil wasn't sure if it was his imagination or a real effect of the 'quake but he glimpsed the countryside rolling along in humped waves as if it had become the sea; he was deafened by a sustained deep rending moan emanating from the very depths of the earth which resonated through his body as well as a myriad of other awful noises; his along with Annie's screams of terror being the least of them. He watched disbelievingly as a part of the land he was looking at was thrust up fully two metres or more.

The tremor appeared to grind on intermably but finished abruptly after what could have been no more than a short time, leaving Neil as well as Annie lying winded, bruised, soiled, and pummelled on the ground.

"Annie, are you all right?" Simpson called out.

"I think so, but I hurt all over!" Bromhaar moaned as she carefully peeled herself away from the dirt. "Aw neuken! My car!"

Neil looked over to where Annie's hatchback had been parked. Now its wheels hung over the lip of a newly opened fissure, the vehicle's body grounded just behind them. Even if the car hadn't been front wheel drive, a specialist tow truck would be needed to recover it.

"Neil! Look over there!" Bromhaar's shout grabbed Simpson's attention and he spun around to see where she was pointing. Oh my God!... the broadcaster thought as he understood what he was looking at.

"Annie, we've got to get out of here!" Neil shouted as he ran toward his toppled motorcycle, their only chance of escape now Bromhaar's mini was imobilised. Simpson reached his machine and wrestled the heavy bike up. Hoping it hadn't been damaged by falling over he turned the ignition key. There was a click, but the motor didn't start. He tried again, still nothing happened. If he couldn't get the machine running and the two of them out of the way quickly they risked whatever was in that rising cloud reaching them.

Giving up on the electric ignition Simpson flipped out the kickstart pedal and threw his whole weight on it; the engine turned over but didn't fire. Had he flooded the cylinders? Waiting as short a time as he dared for any fuel to drain Neil stood on the lever again, this time the motor burst into rasping life. Scooping up his helmet off the ground and jamming it on his head, the presenter mounted the bike, then kicked down its folding pillion foot pegs before throwing it into gear. Turning the 'crosser Neil saw Annie, camera in hand, filming the distant scene. He rode closer to her. "GET ON AND HOLD ON TO ME TIGHTLY!" he shouted. Bromhaar did so.

Spinning the bike around to leave Simpson glimpsed a line of small dirt puffs stitching near to them. He couldn't hear anything over the waspy note of the engine but realised the troops manning the barricade must be firing at them! Giving the MX as much throttle as he dared with his frightened passenger clinging on to him for dear life Neil sped bumping over the newly broken ground and was soon out of range; any shots which followed his retreating form going well wide.

Neil Simpson had certainly got the story he'd come for: Now all he had to do was stay alive long enough to broadcast it. He still wore his Sat-Pak; once the pair were well clear of the exclusion zone he'd upload the footage to all of the various online outlets he knew would leap at the chance to distribute it, so bugger the Beeb and their authoritarian censorship!

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.

Chapter Forty Three

Two weeks later; Dungeness Outer Exclusion Area. 06.58.

"WE'RE ABOUT TO LAND!" the loadmaster shouted to Michael Wilson. It was difficult to make out what the soldier was saying above the throbbing cacophony inside the Chinook helicopter's hold, the man's voice being further muffled by the full Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear protection suits, along with respirators that both he and Michael were wearing.

"OK" Wilson mumbled in reply. Both his military escorts made ready to get up, unclipping their safety belts; they montioned him to remain strapped in and seated. Michael couldn't see the ground rising  through the small porthole windows in the side of the large aircraft and didn't know the machine had touched down until he felt the jolt of landing. Then things happened quickly; the rear cargo ramp door was lowered, and having had his harness released by his minders they urged him to squeeze through the thin space between the foldable seats mounted on the cabin wall and the cargo of supplies lashed securely down in the centre of the deck. Once he'd done so the pair almost picked him up and carried him along with them, his bodyguards pushed Wilson's head down as they ran underneath the rotors viciously slashing at the air above them. No sooner were they clear than the rear door began to rise and the chopper dusted off with a renewed shrill of turbines amid a hurricane of its own making. Climbing at full power it shrank in size as the whopping of the contra-rotating blades faded away.

As the silence began to return to the landing zone - a grassy field adjacent to a minor road - both of Wilson's companions looked cautiously around them. One - Corporal Stevens, the navigator - holding a map and GPS unit in sealed clear plastic cases was responsible for ensuring his arrival at the objective's location. The other, Private Turvey, the monitor, swept a radiation detector in front of him. Both men shouldered compact automatic weapons: During his briefing Michael had been told the troops were authorised to use deadly force in order to protect him from harm.

"Are you all right Sir?"The corporal asked, his words distorted through the pig snout of the gas mask. Wilson, just beginning to recover from his flight and the rushed disembarkation, gave a thumbs up sign. "OK, let's go then, it's just over there!" Stevens pointed further away toward a small boxy concrete structure with a large angled solar panel mounted on its roof. The building was about half the height of a telephone kiosk, surrounded by a high aluminium palisade fence which split into nasty looking toothed spikes at the top of each of its thick slats. If that didn't deter any casual vandalism of the Deep Scan measuring station, nothing would.

Wilson and Stevens followed Turvey who scanned the road ahead with the olive drab coloured geiger counter. Even though his ears were still ringing from the noise of the Chinook's engines and despite outside sounds being deadened by the thick material of his protective suit, Michael could hear the unit emitting a background drizzle of clicks. With a start he realised the trio were being irradiated at this very moment by fallout particles settled on the tarmac and within the bordering roadside hedges. He also noted the utter absence of any birdsong.

A few steps further on the drizzle became a squall of noise; the individual counts meging into an indistinguishable roar. A redundant alarm beeped urgently. Turvey quickly stepped back and gestured the other two over to the left hand side of the deserted carriageway, away from the hotspot. The agitated detector calmed as he did so. Even so, as Wilson followed exactly in the footsteps of his guide as he'd been instructed to during his brief introduction to CBRN procedures, he felt his body temperature rising, along with a light-headedness and a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach, almost like the sudden onset of a virus, even though he'd been told the radiation exposure couldn't affect him so quickly. The scientist prayed he was merely experiencing a psychosomatic response.

"We should get this done and get out of here as quickly as possible." said the corporal; Michael nodded his agreement. The men increased their walking pace, even though they risked overheating in their suits and misting their mask lenses by doing so.

They arrived at the monitoring outpost without the radiation meter sounding any more alerts. The corporal turned toward Michael. "If you'll give me the keys Dr Wilson; it's best if I decontaminate and open the locks for you."

The geologist didn't argue; instead he fumbled with the fastening on his belt pouch holding the keys for the enclosure gate and metal door of the Deep Scan shelter. Tugging apart the sides of the clear plastic seal bag containing them, Wilson handed the key ring to Stevens. The soldier took out a medium sized paint brush from his webbing pocket and began to carefully dust the hasp and body of the heavy gate padlock before opening it. Meanwhile Turvey took up a sentry position, observing the area and his instrument's display with equal attention.

Once inside the fence Stevens began working on the door lock. If the key didn't fit or the lock refused to operate, the soldiers had large pairs of bolt cutters in their patrol packs, and if all else failed, they carried a small amount of plastic explosive with them; but given the overriding instructions not to disturb the sensitive measuring apparatus inside the strongbox unless absolutely necessary, that was a last resort.

"All clear Sir!" The corporal announced, sounding as if he was suffering a heavy cold. He beckoned Michael in: Now it was all up to him to justify the risk involved in bringing his expertise to the site.

There was enough daylight to illuminate the contents of the cabinet. Remembering what he'd been told - Keep your kit off the ground; that's where the contamination will be - Wilson clumsily shrugged off his backpack and offered it to Stevens to hold before extracting the tablet the army had issued him from inside it.

Now he could get down to business: Squatting as he'd been instructed rather than allowing his knees to touch the concrete floor of the instrument housing, Michael grasped the data cable protruding from the tablet's waterproof, airtight bag and inserted it into a socket in one of the many electronics boxes which comprised the interior of the node. Once connectivity had been established Wlison launched one of the programmes he'd downloaded from his GeoScan laptop to run a series of diagnostic tests.

As they were being conducted he performed a visual and physical check of the equipment; everything appeared to be undamaged and in order. The tablet signalled its scan was completed; again no obvious or immediate problems were flagged up. The station was calibrated and operating correctly, which meant there could be no questioning of the measurements it collected. His work nearly finished here now, Wilson copied and downloaded the system's data cache to be examined in greater detail later.

Michael rose. "I'm done here; you can close up now." he said to Stevens. As the corporal resecured the gate Wilson looked around him at a scene so normal, yet invisibly hazardous, and tried to make sense of what he'd learned.

Ideally all of the Deep Scan stations would have been checked over, but the pevailing radiological conditions in the area rendered that too dangerous. Instead three of the safer locations had been chosen to be representative samples. If all three were working normally and accurately - as Wilson expected they were - then the network's data could not be discounted. That being the case, what was going on deep underground at this very moment was way beyond even Brian McLean's wildest imaginings. If only he were here now... thought Michael.

But McLean wasn't here. He was fortunate enough to be in Scotland, having had a head start on the tens of thousands of displaced people who had rushed north seeking an undamaged roof to shelter under and distance from the effects of the Dungeness meltdown. Now he was working as a consultant for, and under the protection of the rebellious Scottish government. His theories suddenly pushed into the limelight by events it was rumoured seismology's hottest property had been invited to help create a independent Scottish Geological Survey, or had been offered several jobs in the United States. Wherever his future lay, it certainly wouldn't be with UKGeoScan; that much was clear.

Following Peter Currie's crisis of confidence in the wake of the earthquake, his subsequent resignation and being told by no less than Stuart Pullman to stop wallowing in self-pity and get back to work, the GeoScan boss had chosen to scapegoat Brian McLean. The geologist's access to the company's computer system had been suspended prior to his eventually certain dismisal, leaving Wilson - the second most knowledgeable about it - in charge of the Deep Scan project. Michael was struggling to keep on top of it all and come up with the definitive predictions Currie and Graham Madden - the nasty piece of work Stuart Pullman had appointed to oversee GeoScan's operations - demanded.

Fortunately Michael wasn't completely deprived of McLean's insight; Brian had privately emailed him from his secret location, and when not working long emergency shifts Wilson collaborated and shared the latest data with him. Despite their differences of scientific opinion they both realised there could be no disputing the growing body of evidence. Just thinking about the implications made Wilson's pulse quicken and his breath rasp still louder within the tightly constricting respirator.

Michael's nose began to itch, but he'd been strictly forbidden to remove the thick rubber mask cinched down by a locking cord under the cowled hood, and even to avoid touching it with his tape oversealed at the wrists gloved hands as much as possible. If rubbing the spot from the outside didn't relieve the irritation he'd just have to put up with it until one of the many busy helicopters retrieved the party, then flew them on to the next two targets, before returning the group to base where a team of specialists waited to decontaminate and unsuit them. Wilson just hoped the beads of sweat he could feel forming on his forehead didn't trickle into his eyes...

"Try thinking about something else." advised Stevens, noticing his discomfort. Michael tried to; after all he had the mother of all problems to solve: How was he going to convince his hostile superiors - still in a state of denial - that the increasing swarms of earthquakes, heightened ground resistivity levels, and steadily rising groundwater temperatures the Deep Scan network had recorded signalled within weeks or months at the very most the Garden of England would suffer the noxious sulphuric gas pollution and runny molten lava flows associated with an emerging fissure volcano?

Wilson's concentration was broken by a faint but approaching sound, that must the helicopter! But then he realised the engine note was different. Looking around he just caught sight of what looked like a survey drone skimming low along a far off field boundary; then it was lost to his view.

Stevens, busy on his radio calling for their pickup, seemed not to notice it and Michael saw no reason to interrupt the corporal. The soldier had enouugh to be concerned about at the moment; let alone with what he might have to be dealing with in the near future.

Chapter Forty Four

Dungeness Inner Exclusion Area. 07.12.

"Hold it! What's that? Over there to the left, in the hedgerow! There! Yes; that's it!" Even with the latest image stabilisation technology the surveillance drone's sudden camera movements made Hanns Pichler feel motion sick as he watched the image centre in his monitor.

Pichler's independent media company had chartered the state of the art Uncrewed Aerial Vehicle to breach the Dungeness Inner Exclusion Area and find out what was really going on there. The X-shaped, four propellered flyer had been secretly launched from just outside the French Zone de Controle near Cassel, then skimmed across the Channel to Kent. Initially they had given the Dungeness Power Station complex a wide berth to avoid suspicion; instead flying almost as far north as the south London suburbs before doubling back and hedge hopping across the Kentish weald. Once they arrived on the scene the plan was to quickly circle around the Dungeness spit and hope they weren't detected or attacked by the army units who patrolled the area before barrelling home at just above wave height.

By some miracle they'd entered UK airspace without being jammed, intercepted, or shot down. Either their lazily erratic imitation 'seagull' course had fooled the British radars, or more likely the RAF were preoccupied doing other things. In any case were their presence to become known, they would find themselves treated with extreme hostility. The new British government actively discouraged independent observers of any kind from monitoring the scene of the 'release' as they were now attempting to euphemise the meltdown.

A fortnight on from the event the official spin was that the situation was under control and contained. The short-lived 'discharge' plume had only briefly blown over parts of Kent, Surrey, London, and Essex before the wind changed back to its prevailing southwesterly direction, carrying the worst of the contaminants out into the North Sea; though needless to say the countries downwind in general and Scandinavia in particular were unconvinced by the reassurances. Many of them were openly sceptical and calling for greater openess from the stonewalling British authorities.

The Dungeness event had been a serious occurrence but not an utter disaster, claimed the new Prime Minister Stuart Pullman in a speech he made to his newly reshuffled cabinet, meeting soon after the national service of commemoration held in a rapidly shored-up Westminster Abbey. Compared to the multiple Fukushima meltdowns or the Chernobyl explosion, the limited duration 'excursion' hadn't been anywhere near as severe, he said. The average radiation exposure of the general public had been "minimal". Plans were in hand to permanently 'encapsulate' the reactor units and enclose any residual problems within the immediate area. In time it would become apparent to all but the ideologically motivated doom-mongers that the facts on the ground bore no relation to the now discredited alarmist first reports. Given that another earthquake of that magnitude was unlikely to occur for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years; the British people, working together, would quickly surmount what transitory difficulties remained.

Already the heroes had been chosen to be written into the official narrative. There was Alan Carter, along with his staff, of course. They were due a nation's grateful praise for their courageous efforts in trying to avert, then limit the effects of the 'incident'. They would be out of the public eye for a while they received treatment for their radiation injuries. Unmentioned was the fact that many of them - Carter included - were not expected to recover from their exposure.

All of the emergency services had, as ever, responded magnificently to the catastrophe. The fact the government's cuts had left them stretched so thinly beforehand would of course be quietly airbrushed away.

The fearless devotion to their work of Connect24's Kelly Thorpe and Ethan Parr who died while trying to inform the public about the scale of the earthquake would be recognised in due course, along with the sacrifice of the public spirted patrons and staff who died in the Woppa Burga restaurant tragedy. Ordinary people such as Sam Bicknall had risked their lives in order to save others; in his case the pensioner couple he'd pulled from their sinking caravan. Such had been the cloying nature of the quicksand dragging it down it had sucked their clothes off their bodies as they were rescued. Now the Fennings, who had become minor celebrities, were rehoused in a requisitioned caravan on a Dorset pitch; no doubt annoying their new neighbours yet again as the pair revelled in their survival. Also not to be forgotten were the actions of the Japanese students, Miyahira Tsuki and Nakagawa Ishi, both now safely returned home to Nagoya. Such examples of selflessness in the face of disaster should be inspirations to us all.

As for the villains of the hour, the Shadow Man had dropped out of sight, though not out of mind. A wise move on his part as under the State Of Emergency laws, Treason was once again a capital offence. Meanwhile Dominic Paige, former editor at Connect24, was languishing in custody facing a whole raft of charges connected with his gross recklessness which had resulted in the deaths of his staff. As for Gary Sheldon and Nathan Rookley, their previous trivialisation of the risks severe weather or natural disasters posed to the country by blowing them out of all proportion had helped create a blasé attitude to preparedness; the pair's preventitive detention was a clear signal that such poor journalistic practices would no longer be tolerated.

Brian McLean was another who had let everyone down when his expertise had been most needed; his incompetence in not providing specific enough warnings regarding the earthquake threat had no doubt cost many lives. The fugitive broadcaster Neil Simpson and anti-nuclear activist Annie Bromhaar were reported to have claimed asylum in Scotland as well. The rebellious province would be dealt with firmly and brought back into line in due course, once the immediate priorities had been dealt with...

Those wrongdoers would be joined soon enough in jail by the disaster profiteers, spivs, and price gougers; along with those looters fortunate enough to be taken alive rather than shot on sight. Anyone who spread false rumours, or tried to hinder the national recovery should know they were courting some serious trouble promised the new, forthright leader; but Pullman also reassured such antisocial elements were but a tiny minority. By and large people were performing astonishing feats to bootstrap themselves above adversity: The world would be impressed by both the speed and scale of our recovery efforts. The Nation had been tried and tested, but would ultimately emerge stronger from the challenge.

So, thought Pichler, if everything was so hunky dory why the Exclusion Areas, Air Exclusion Zones, and the indefinite extension of the draconian National State Of Emergency as well as the media censorship orders? What was there to hide? There were rumours of course: The real number and condition of the casualties being cared for in rapidly set-up radiological treatment centres. The conscription - sometimes at gunpoint - of the labour required for the Dungeness site; prisoners being offered extra remission of their sentences in exchange for working there; the mentally ill, and of course the unemployed being coerced into 'volunteering'... Commercial satellite images showed all manner of inflatable structures, marquees, and hastily delivered containers in the staging area close to the Ashford airport, itself not far away from the ruined plant; along with the temporary giant tarpaulin cover which was being stretched with the aid of cranes, people, and teleoperated robots over the open remains of the reactor block. Even the white dots of personnel clad in protective clothing working on the nearby makeshift sea defences were visible at maximum magnification. But photos taken from a distance could only reveal so much: To know more Pichler needed to get much closer; hence this flight. Whatever the truth of the matter he intended to find out and tell the world in the documentary he was producing.

The stealthy drone's powerful camera zoomed in on the point Hanns indicated with a touch of his finger on the interactive screen. Though he in his Hamburg studio and the flyer's pilot were separated by some distance and several anonymous deep web cut-out links, the immediacy of the response made it feel as if they were in the same room.

"Yes, hold it here for a moment please!"

It was a slight movement where there should have been none on the periphery of the UAV's vision as it moved in furtive rushes toward the border of the Inner Exclusion Area which had caught his eye. Now the object of his curiosity became clear. It was a small russet and white dog, a terrier of some sort, and it was obviously in a bad way. It looked feeble as well as emaciated; barely able to raise its curious head. The fact it was still alive at all in a place like this was a miracle in itself. Flicking to another display of the drone's telemetry, Pichler was astonished to see the same scene rendered in bright splashes of warning colours. This area was such a radioactive hotspot that any person or animal staying here would receive a lethal dose in a matter of a few hours.

"Stay on that spot!" Hanns instructed. "I'm taking control of the camera." Though the entire flight would be recorded in ultra high definition, Pichler wanted to make the most of this opportunity to get the shot he wanted; the one which would be the defining vignette of his forthcoming exposé. No matter what they would see as they flew around Dungeness or whatever else he would include in his film, Hanns knew that despite the ongoing plight of the British people it would be the suffering of the dying dog which would evoke the raw emotional resonance he sought to elicit in his audience.

The drone operator's concerned voice startled Pichler. "We can't loiter in this spot for too long; we risk being detected hovering, the radiation is affecting the drone, and our fuel state is tight. Get your pictures and then we must move on!"

"Very well! Give me a slow movement away to your right; yes, that's great. Thank you: OK, we're finished here; let's go!"

 

Awakened from his torpor by the humming of the drone's rotors, Rusty tried to get up, but failed. His weakened legs could no longer support him. He was gravely ill, he knew that, but couldn't understand what ailed him. His fur was falling out; not just the usual shedding but in clumps, revealing bare patches of pale skin underneath along with a growing number of pustulant sores which had begun to develop and spread. No matter how much he licked the tender bald spots on his body they still remained red, raw, and uncomfortably itchy. Recently it had become painfully difficult to even try to bend his head around to ease the discomfort.

He felt lethargic, and had no appetite despite not having eaten for days; yet he was still periodically racked with agonising spasms of diarrhoea as well as vomiting. Along with the bitter tang of vomit, he tasted blood in his mouth.

Rusty's senses were beginning to fade; his vision dimming and becoming less focused; hearing becoming mushy, as if his head was underwater. He felt himself becoming detached from his dying body, but even as his life ebbed away he still felt that tingling; the now familiar sensation of foreboding experienced just prior to the times when his world began to shake and fill with noise. The dog knew it was going to happen again, very soon - almost immediately in fact - and this time the shaking would be unimaginably worse than before...

 

The End.

Author's Note

Congratulations on making it through to the end! I hope you found it worth the effort.

As with the disaster thrillers The Shaking pays homage to, the novel is a mixture of fact and fiction. For those of you who are wondering nervously could it really happen? I have both good and bad news.

The idea for this story came about when an internet search brought up a link describing how the UK is at risk of suffering a fatal earthquake. I was intrigued by the idea and slowly the genesis of the plot began to take shape; especially when I learned that even in earthquake prone areas which are intensely studied such as the San Andreas fault region in California, seismologists are still discovering previously unknown features.

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/sep/16/british-science-festival-2010-british-science-festival

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11327433

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_Kent_earthquake

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_earthquakes_in_the_British_Isles

I must stress that even though the UK does experience minor tremors from time to time, there is no danger of the fictional megaquake I describe occurring. Given that, you can be reassured the Dungeness B power station won't suffer the cataclysmic fate I described in the book. In fact it would take an unlikely series of worst case events for anything to go wrong there.

My online reasearch about the the complex came up with a dearth of technical information with which to construct a chain of events leading to a disaster, as there exists a culture of secrecy surrounding the nuclear industry: So taking my cue from the genre's canon I invoked my artistic licence and winged it. Hence the interior layout of the reactor described in the closing stages of the story is entirely a product of my imagination.

If I had access to a better source of information than a blurry 1960s era cut away illustration of the unit I discovered online I might have been able to produce a more realistic portrayal. But given the paranoia of our age, with the fear that were detailed descriptions made publicly available a jihadist armed with a multitool and windproof lighter might break into the plant and attempt to lay waste to several counties, it was left to me to fill in the gaps.

Yes, I might have contacted the relevant press office and asked some questions; in the process becoming a Person of Interest and being involuntarily entered onto some more databases. I could even have taken the guided tour of Dungeness - provided I didn't mind being treated as a potential suspect and having my name screened in advance - but I decided not to. If anyone connected with the nuclear industry is reading this and gnashing their teeth as a result, well tough luck! You made your ridiculously security obsessed bed and you can lie in it!

https://www.edfenergy.com/energy/education/visitor-centres

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-37789654

In any case the threat posed by nuclear power in my opinion comes not from the occasional disaster such a Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island - bad enough as they are - and of course our very own airbrushed from history Windscale, but the humdrum day to day operation of such facilities. Not to mention the intrinsic connection between the 'civil' nuclear programme and the creation of nuclear weapons materials, as well as how the existence of the Nuclear Security State poses an ongoing threat to our civil rights.

From the pollution caused by uranium mining tailings all the way through the nuclear fuel cycle to the eventual disposal of the spent fuel rods and radioactive waste, the nuclear industry continually creates new radiological hazards along with opportunities for accidents or human error. We can only hope the real life Alan Carters are able to mitigate the risks as best they can.

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 exists in law. In theory it's provisions are subject to the Human Rights Act, but at the time of writing the government proposes to repeal the HRA and replace it with a far weakend Bill of Rights. In any case, were the UK to be affected by such an incident, the government of the day would most likely just push aside such inconvenient little trifles as our freedoms and do what they wanted to anyway.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_Contingencies_Act_2004

An interesting aside on the CCA: When the law was being drafted one early provision which was later ammended listed one of the criteria under which the act could be invoked as the risk of a severe threat to the UK economy. Had the original clause been kept then just a few years later - with a global financial meltdown in progress, along with some UK banks as well as building societies teetering on the edge of insolvency - we might have found ourselves living under a Gordon Brown declared State of Emergency.

The PINDAR Whitehall bunker complex exists in real life, though having never been inside it my description of it is speculative.

http://www.nettleden.com/venues/pindar/

As far as I know the mass distribution of official goverment emergency apps which write themselves into devices' operating systems to avoid deletion is hopefully only fiction. However the detectors which use phone cameras to detect gamma radiation are factual, and several of them can be downloaded for free. A few examples include...

http://www.gammapix.com/

http://www.hotray-info.de/html/radioactivity.html

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=nu.eic.gammaGuard&referrer=utm_source%3Dgoogle%26utm_medium%3Dorganic%26utm_term%3Dgammagard+radiation+detector+app&pcampaignid=APPU_1_N3whWLeeGoSXaeH-nNgP

Unfortunately the devolved Scottish government does have ideas above its station and is developing a surveillance network independent of Westminster. Smart TVs may well become part of the Orwellian nexus as they can be used to eavesdrop on their viewers.

http://www.zdnet.com/article/how-to-keep-your-smart-tv-from-spying-on-you/

http://viralpirate.com/local-scottish-government-spying-via-facebook/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3617086/The-Stasi-spying-children-s-Orwelllian-new-scheme-State-snooper-child-Scotland-compiling-dossier-family-life-chilling-implications-all.html

Finally, if I ever should be proved wrong or you find yourself in the midst of an earthquake somewhere else, I hope this link will come in  useful.

http://www.metro.tokyo.jp/ENGLISH/GUIDE/BOSAI/index.htm