Harry

Harry was nervous. Shaun's presentation was winding up and he was next up. He wasn't worried about the slides; he'd checked and tested them many times over. They were just about perfect, he was sure. No, it was the timing that was the problem. When he'd practised by himself in an empty meeting room, the timing had been spot-on. The trouble was, yesterday he'd practised in front of his group, only three other people, but that had made all the difference. For some reason, in front of an audience Harry had raced through the slides at nearly double speed and his speech was far from clear. There had been comments from the others but he'd simply not had time to practise any more. He would just have to try to keep it slow and hope for the best.

He looked out of the window of the top floor meeting room, to distract himself and calm his nerves. He didn't really like these office blocks, though he'd put up with working in the Heath Towers for years now. Still, Exchequer Credit wasn't a bad company to work for and the perks were pretty good. Across the way, he could see people partying on the roof of the George Tower, the twin building to the one he worked in. They were obviously starting their Christmas partying early, he thought with envy. It must be cold out there in the fresh December air, though he supposed a couple of glasses of mulled wine would soon cure that. He reluctantly returned his focus to the meeting at hand.

Harry now had the attention of the meeting. He'd begun with some alarming statistics about identity theft and credit card fraud.

"So how are we as a company going to deal with this threat?" He waited for a moment in case anyone had an answer, though the question was clearly rhetorical since this was a presentation and not an open discussion. As he expected, nobody answered. "We use software," he announced. There were a few heads that nodded so he continued: "There is a smallish company that produces business software for checking individuals' identities," he told them. "They've been successful for about fifteen years now, and they have a good reputation."

"How much?" Someone asked the most obvious question.

"They're not cheap," admitted Harry. "The basic package is going to be five figures, with an annual renewal fee of thirty percent. I think it's worth..."

Harry was cut-off mid sentence by the shower of glass that imploded into the meeting room, instantly covering everything and everybody with tiny sparkling diamonds. He saw lacerations appear on his colleagues' hands and faces, as the glass that caused them ripped into their flesh. He felt the sharp stings as his own exposed skin was assaulted. He saw their wounds begin to turn red and opened his mouth in shock, but before he could utter a sound, before a single drop of blood had fully formed, a crushing wave of pressure filled the room. His eyes were pressed back into his sockets, and a terrible lancing pain entered his head, starting with his ears and penetrating inwards. All sound ceased as he was deafened.

Now he saw that blood was flowing from noses, ears and a multitude of facial wounds. He felt and tasted blood in his own nose and mouth. Apart from the terrible pain in his ears, Harry was numb and disoriented. He stumbled as a second assault, apparently silent, hit the room. A bombardment of stone chunks and other rubble flew inwards, striking everything and knocking some of the people to the ground. Stones and sand went skittering noiselessly across the table, some pieces rolling off the edges. Harry noticed that there were papers floating serenely in the air, suspended almost motionless.

The light was darkening, becoming a deeper and deeper shade of grey but with a few smoky shafts of brighter light piercing through. Then all at once the room darkened even more as a huge piece of masonry came sailing through the open window, dislodging the upper part of the frame as it entered the room. It cleared the table in the room's centre, but struck Harry full-on and pushed him into the wall behind him. He was helpless to resist. The chunk was close to double his weight and moving at a speed that was far greater than had been apparent when it approached the window. Its motion continued as it embedded itself half way into the wall, partially destroying it in the process. Huge cracks appeared and smaller masonry chunks fell to the ground. Harry was crushed behind the massive projectile. A dark pool began to ooze around the fallen chunks and across the littered floor.

He did not have time to scream.

*

Shaun regained consciousness and immediately started coughing and spluttering, as dust filled his throat and lungs. He opened his eyes but then quickly closed them again, as the fine grit got into them, irritating them and causing tears to run down his face, the salty drops stinging his skin. He put his hands to his face and found dried blood caked there. He moved his eyelids just enough to open narrow slits as he slowly raised himself to his feet, reopening cuts on his hands as he pushed against the floor. He opened his eyes a little bit more and saw the terrible destruction that had taken place in meeting room 24-A.

His joints felt stiff and his whole body ached as he slowly moved through the room, as though he'd just run a marathon. The room looked like a tornado had struck. Rubble was strewn everywhere and most of one wall was missing. There were bodies lying on the floor. Shaun was not sure if they were alive or dead. He was not sure he wanted to check. He recalled how he had seen his colleague Harry crushed by that huge rock. Glancing over to the ruined back wall, he took in the awful sight of the slowly spreading pool of dark blood. His heart beat faster and his breathing became laboured as the emotion welled up in his chest. He realised that he couldn't hear his own breathing properly. In fact, he could hardly hear anything at all.

He jumped in surprise as the door opened and two uniformed fire-fighters entered the room, wearing breathing apparatus. One came over to Shaun, while the other one began to check the people who were lying down. The first one put his hands on Shaun's shoulders and looked at his face. Through the mask, Shaun could see that his mouth was moving but he had no idea what he was saying to him. He tried to reply but this just resulted in coughing and spluttering. Shaun pointed helplessly at his ears and shrugged. The fireman made a circle with his thumb and forefinger, then firmly lead Shaun out of the room. The second man followed, carrying someone over his shoulder.

It seemed surreal, like a dream, as Shaun walked down the endless stairs to the ground floor. The fireman was behind him with a supporting hand still on Shaun's shoulder. The lack of sound was eerie, adding to the dream-like effect. The air was dusty and moving in lazy draughts as they descended. Every so often Shaun would glance behind him and the fireman would give a reassuring smile. He couldn't help noticing that the second fireman was carrying the still-inert figure of one of his colleagues. It was Louise and her clothing was soaked in blood. It looked bad.

One of his ears cleared all of a sudden and Shaun could hear the fireman's radio chattering to itself. He could also hear sirens approaching, getting louder. Police or more fire engines, he assumed. He paused and turned to face the two firemen. Addressing the first one he said: "What on Earth happened here? Was there an explosion?"

"Yes mate." The man's voice was hoarse. From shouting perhaps? Or from the smoke. "There's been a big explosion. Possibly a bomb or a gas leak, but we're having to clear this building as well."

What the hell was the man talking about: as well? Surely it was this building where the explosion had taken place. Shaun turned to the second man. "How's Louise? Is she...?"

"She's alive," came the reassuring reply. "She's unconscious and she'll need to be taken to hospital."

"Come on mate," the first man cut in. "We need to get moving. The building may not be safe."

Shaun nodded and continued his descent. He hadn't realised there were so many stairs. Obviously, using the lift would have been a bad idea. At the bottom of the stairwell was a fire door. The first fireman pushed the bar to open it but then took a step backwards. He shrugged out of his backpack and produced a compact breathing kit. He handed it to Shaun.

"You'd better put this on," he said. "There's a lot of dust out there."

Shaun strapped himself in and pulled the mask over his face. The fireman opened a valve and cool air flowed into the mask. Shaun took in a breath but spluttered at the sharpness in his throat.

"Try not to gulp it. Just breath slowly and normally," advised the fireman. The second man fitted another mask onto Louise's inert face. Following the lead of the first man, they exited the building.

It was dark outside. Not dark like night time or dusk, but an eerie kind of dark. Shaun had once witnessed a partial eclipse of the sun and this reminded him of that occasion. The fireman had been right about the dust. It swirled around them and reduced their visibility to less than twenty metres. It was like being in a fog bank.

The fire door had been below ground level, so they were in a small access route underneath a metal grill forming a walkway. There were a couple of bicycles on the walkway, chained to a handrail. The walkway itself was covered with chunks of brick, plaster and other rubble. They made their way to some metal steps and climbed up to street level. When they got there they entered a nightmare.

It was like a war zone. There was dust swirling everywhere. There were larger pieces of grit still falling from above, bombarding the parked cars. Shaun could hear the intermittent sounds of the impacts, as the debris hit the metal shells of the vehicles. Some of the cars were badly crushed. Their skins were folded inwards and many of their windows shattered. He could hear the clacking sounds of small stones on his face-mask. He felt material settling in his hair.

He looked up at his building and was surprised to see that it looked almost normal. The top part had some damage including broken windows, small gouges in the masonry and one or two chunks eaten out. One of the larger holes was where his meeting room was situated, he recognised. He swallowed and tried not to think of the mess inside.

It did not make sense. The amount of rubble and the violence of the blast he'd experienced, suggested a massive explosion. The tower was almost intact though. The damage to its top section could not account for the carnage on the ground below. He turned around to look at the George Tower, the twin of the one he'd just emerged from, then understood what the fireman had been telling him.

The George Tower bore no resemblance to its partner. There was little left of it; just a twisted, mangled shell that reached only half of its former height. Thick black smoke was billowing from the open hole at the top. Huge chunks of broken structure were piled up on all sides, in a roughly conical pattern, making the burning building look like a small volcano. The illusion was supported by dark lava that was emanating from the gaps in the devastated building. There were no flames though. The fire-fighters' hoses had presumably seen to that.

A wave of dizziness hit Shaun and his knees started to buckle. He realised the significance of the dark flowing substance. It was not lava. He doubled over and threw up into his mask, ripping it off too late. He felt a reassuring hand on his back but couldn't stop himself as he began to sob uncontrollably. The fireman put his hands under Shaun's armpits and lifted him to his feet. He allowed himself to be guided away from the hellish arena, to where several ambulances were waiting.