It was a beautiful bright, crisp September morning, and although it felt chilly to step out, the sky was blue and the air was still. I was preoccupied when I approached Herb near the sidewalk. I had written a scathing review that morning for a debut director, and guilt was squarely sitting on my shoulders. I couldn’t dream of making a film but by God, I had a talent for dissecting them and my readership loved me for it. I had to be true, I had to be sharp and uncompromising. It was the only way to be good at what you do.
“Hi Matt!” exuded Herb.
“Hey buddy!” I replied.
“You wanna head to the Chronicle, you have a meeting there at noon with the editor.”
I paused to wait for the car door to open, and took the moment to admire the sleek blue, dolphin-like curves of Herb’s exterior styling. He was a wonderful car, I’d never need another.
“Sure thing, Herb.”
I was breaking all the rules of sense and had made him a friend in my mind. He was more than my AI driver, he was my advisor, my organiser – hell, he gave me marriage advice and entertained my kids, so why not? I’d named him Herb at the dealership after watching a remastered vintage movie, basically about a car with a human soul, called Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. It was as cheesy as hell but I had a soft spot for it after it made my daughter laugh. It was a slapstick Disney comedy, but also a love story with unbreakable friendships – perfect for slow Sundays with some nachos and cokes.
“Seen any good films lately?” Herb asked with an inflection of genuine interest. I made myself comfortable in the sprawling sofa and strapped myself in.
“Nothing good I’m afraid. Movies lack set-up these days. How can you care about characters if you don’t get to know and love them? Actors just say lines like they have no real emotions, it’s all about the CGI and action.”
“It’s important to be human, I guess?” he quipped, which for once I found a little off – like his linguistic algorithm missed a beat. After that comment, I found I was quiet for a minute or two, like I had momentarily shaken myself awake from a spell.
We effortlessly glided off into the traffic. I had not seen Sandra that morning, she had risen early to go to the gym and I missed saying goodbye, a small ritual I enjoyed each day for some reason, perhaps because it made coming back more meaningful. Sandra always beamed in the mornings – she didn’t drink, not much anyway, not like me, so she was up early and bursting with life and ideas for the day. We were, on paper, not an easy fit but somehow we survived everything that life threw at us. We did argue. And we did say things that stuck, those nuclear bomb moments that blew your head off in an argument, like too much truth.
Last night had been a breakthrough in our marriage. I had been for a run, a long run near the harbour. I was in a flow, music fueling my pace and then for some reason, some seed in my mind cracked open fully and I had just burst into tears for no conscious reason. It was strange and caught me out. I had to pretend to tie my shoelaces in case someone noticed. I pushed open the front door as always, and slumped into a chair around the kitchen table with a tall glass of water.
She was there, post shower, in a robe and with a cup of coffee. There was a moment like that moment before the storm hits, quiet and personal and lonely.
“When did you first notice me?” I asked her.
She was still, like she was paralysed for a moment. She got it. She got why I asked.
She turned and looked me in eye for the first time in a long time.
“It was in a bar. It was before you ever noticed me.”
I was surprised.
“I looked at the way you were talking to people, and I could see you understood they were a courtroom.”
I found it hard to look her in the eye but just about managed.
“Why is that important?”
She exhaled like it was a confession.
“You… When you talk, you are giving away your soul. You are opening up, showing who you are, and what values you have. You were fearless. I could hear every word you said, and some of them didn’t like it but you cared to explain why it was important to you. That made you… It made you… I don’t know….Rise above everything. You were heard because you knew what you were talking about.”
All four windows in the car descended an inch. Herb had detected I was feeling a little oppressed in the car and knew my preferences. Air conditioning was not enough, I needed the air flow. Herb was spot on. He was connected with my healthcare watch so was trying to head off a panic attack.
We rolled up the street, it was such a beautiful day. Herb’s electric motors were quieter than a hum.
And then, as if ambushed, all hell erupted. Herb broke the news with urgency in his tone.
“Matt, a major emergency is occurring here and now. Don’t panic, I can help.”
At that moment, as if the car had triggered it, the road began to quake and crack. The car slowed to a crawl.
“We are experiencing a major earthquake,” said Herb matter-of-factly.
I gripped my seatbelt and looked outside and saw the tops of tall buildings shake off into the road. There were explosions of dust as nearby tower blocks shook themselves into debris, disintegrating. The road cracked open with long exploring tentacles of splits in the tarmac. They crept and reached along the road, until hitting the walls of shops and splitting them open. Herb was adjusting road position and speed to dodge falling bricks and masonry, calculating multiple threats simultaneously.
“Jesus!” I yelled and felt the world rock from side to side, like some shocking theme park ride.
“Nearly over” said Herb, calmly. “There will be some aftershocks, but this is very likely the biggest movement. It was a very large Earthquake. Many people will have died today unfortunately.”
“No shit, Herb!”
The sound of collapsing rubble and cracking roads was replaced with the aftermath of car alarms going off, dogs barking, people screaming.
Herb’s connected intelligence was kicking in. This is what I paid for three years ago when I got the promotion and decided to treat myself. This was the extras in the package, I never thought they would be so valuable.
Herb was explaining like a teacher: “A fault line has significantly shifted. I have scanned the police and news channels and I detect an additional urgent problem. There is an expected tsunami.”
“How long have we got… My family are all over the city! I have to help them, Herb!”
Herb fell silent for a couple of long seconds, calculating.
“I have a plan but it is not perfect.”
“Go on…” I demanded.
“Sandra in at the Seaview gym, she is in the most danger from the tsunami. It is estimated to impact on land in approximately five minutes. We cannot reach her in time, but we can call her now and advise her to go to the top of the neighbouring building which is significantly taller than the gym. If she can get to the roof she may be safe from the wave.”
“OK… good… Patch me through.”
“I ought to say one more thing…”
“No – patch me through right now, Herb!”
The sound of a telephone chirping filled the car. Sandra’s shaky voice answering gave me hope.
“Matt! I’m OK. I’m OK, the gym didn’t collapse.”
I was blurting fast. “…Sandra, listen to me now. You have about four minutes to get to the top of the tallest building next door to the gym, that office tower, go now and use the stairs to get to the top, not the elevator! There is a tsunami coming!”
“Oh shit. Matt, that building has collapsed. It’s all over the harbourside!”
I was speechless. Silence.
“May I make a suggestion?” offered Herb. “Sandra, run to your car now. You may be able to drive fast enough to keep ahead of the wave. On land it can only travel at fifty kilometres an hour. If you floor it up the hill, you will have a chance. You have just over three minutes to begin driving, for this plan to work.”
Sandra had already started running before Herb had finished. I hadn’t even told her I loved her.
Herb continued: “Matt, I have checked the traffic, the road is clear enough for her to find a route, the quake meant a lot of cars are parking in unusual places but from the traffic cameras I can see at no point is the road completely impassable.”
“Can you see her or her car in any of the public access CCTV?”
“I am afraid not, the buildings close by to her are damaged and without electricity. I have one camera view but that is directly to a seaview. Let me show you.”
The image was stark and terrifying. The tide had vanished, pulled out to sea, leaving boats marooned in the muddy flats of the harbour.
“My children. Where are they now? Locate them Herb!”
“Already on it, Matt. Beth is in the school playground with her class. They are sitting away from the building – with the teachers nearby. Her heartrate is elevated, she is upset and frightened. The wave will reach her school in seven minutes. My estimate is that it will be three metres high at the point as the wave will have lost some of its power.”
“That will still kill her… Oh my God… And George, he was playing soccer today – his school is close to here – can we get him?”
“George is only two minutes’ drive away. We can reach him just before the wave reaches us, but only if he is ready to go and we leave immediately when we locate him. I am re-routing to George now. Please be advised, I cannot reach him on the phone and have no vitals – although I think his health watch is damaged.”
Herb swung around into a side road, accelerating with a jolt. Around us were people sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, nursing bloody wounds and sobbing into mobile phones. Piles of broken bricks littered the area, spilt into the road as if dropped from the sky.
“Herb – I need options for my daughter.”
“Understood. We can reach her teacher, Aggie Monroe. I’ll patch through with a plan.” Herb’s programming understood that there was no time to explain the plan to Matt first so it made some assertive assumptions for the sake of speed.
The sound of a phone ringing filled the back of the car again but it diverted straight to messages, she must have been trying to contact the police. Herb waited three seconds and tried again. This time she picked up quickly.
“Dear Miss Monroe, this is Herb, please listen carefully, a tsunami is going to hit your school in approximately five minutes time. You need to guide the children to the highest point nearest to you, which I calculate to be the top of the office block across the road to your right. There is a stairwell to the left inside the front reception. You must hurry. Make all the children run.”
I could hear her panic with a series of shrieking commands at the children, not in a calm teacherly way, but in abrupt aggressive language. She hung up.
The phone instantly rang again but this time it was Sandra calling back. Not what I expected.
“I love you,” she said slowly. There was defeat in her voice. “My car is under a wall. I can see the wave coming…It’s hopeless…I just wanted to say… Get the kids out and tell them I love…”
Herb interrupted abruptly.
“Sandra, I have been in contact with a robotaxi as a backup plan. It should be with you now. It will only open its doors to your biosignature.”
“YES! I see it, it’s here!”
I listened to her frantic breathing as she sprinted and to my relief heard a car door open and slam shut.
I could also hear crashing noises, the unmistakable sloshy thumps of water smashing against objects. For a second I thought she was gone but then her voice came back through the car speakers.
“We’re OK so far, Matt. The car almost lost control with the water but we are now just ahead of the surf. Christ, that wave, it’s sweeping everything up, people, trees, cars. I’m watching it in the rear window. That was too fucking close, Matt. Get our kids out of here safe. Herb, you hear me – do anything to save my kids!”
“I will Sandra, I promise,” said Herb without losing a beat of sincerity.
We screeched to a halt outside a school grounds. The soccer field was visible from the road thank goodness, but it was a mess of carnage. A dead teenager was visible in the settling dust. I unclipped my seatbelt and threw open the car door. I could not make out who was who. There were walking wounded and kids with mobile phones on, streaming video footage and talking to themselves for their followers.
“George!” I screamed at the top of my voice. “George!”
I could hear a rumble approaching, the spear-tip of the wave. I had seen them before on YouTube, from Thailand and Japan, when they came inland they were stealthy, an unstoppable creeping force of nature, not looking too threatening at first view but in moments completely overwhelming with the volume of water. It was as if when you saw it, if you were on the ground, it was already too late.
“George!” I screamed.
He lurched from the dusty cloud, arm bleeding, soccer shirt ripped apart.
“Hey Dad, you came for me. We have to get my friend, Charlie, he’s broken his leg over there.”
I grabbed him roughly and pulled him into Herb, who shut the door immediately.
“Dad? Did you hear me? Charlie needs help!”
Herb reversed at full acceleration. The wave clipped the bumper as we swung into the main road – for a second lifting us off the ground and out of control. Herb somehow found traction again and we were speeding, shifting up gears with maximum efficiency.
We had no seatbelts on so were thrown about the car interior. I watched George take in the flood chasing us and finally understand, all his friends were about to die but he had escaped, he alone had escaped. His shock was only equalled by his relief. He would not hold this against me, I knew that instantly. Everyone prefers to live in these difficult moments, despite the huge toll and the guilt.
It was also my first encounter up close with the wave and it was mesmerising. I watched it with my son in the back of that car, as it cascaded toward us. It was a monster, eating everything in its way. The power in it, the sheer brutal power. We were nothing.
“I have some information,” said Herb. “I am afraid it is bad news.”
I found myself staring at George, whose trickles of blood were now staining the carpet in the seat wells. I didn’t want him to hear.
“Sandra did not make it. I am so sorry. The taxi was hit by another car trying to outrun the wave…”
I instantly cracked. Two parallel tears fell from each eye in perfect symmetry and I held my hand up to rest on George’s shoulder.
“Mom!” he cried out and began to wail. “No… No…”
“Your daughter, however. I think she is safe for now. The teacher managed to get forty three of the one hundred and eight children to safety and Beth was one of them, I am tracking her GPS. She is standing on a rooftop.”
“When will it be safe to get to her?”
“Not for a while, it’s a waiting game now,” said Herb with authority.
Herb sped forward. We were making headway against the wave which looked like it was finally losing its ferocity and momentum.
It seemed almost in response to me closing my eyes, but that is when the aftershock happened. It was bad. The road cracked before us and Herb swerved violently to avoid getting jammed into the tarmac. George hit his head hard on the window and instantly passed out.
“Herb, George is unconscious. He is concussed. I need to get him to a hospital!” I could see now that George had sustained many injuries, to his arm, leg, ribs and now his head as well. He needed medical attention.
“Matt, the hospitals still standing in this area will soon be overrun, so we need to get him to one immediately before that occurs.”
“Herb, you get him to a hospital safe, I’ll go back for Beth. I’ll wait till the waters recede but I need to get to her as soon as I can.”
“Be warned, there may be more smaller waves after this one. Matt, this is up to you,” said Herb, “Before you go, can you verbally state I acted on your behalf and safely, for insurance purposes you understand. In my opinion Matt, you need to do this. From research I have read, surviving your children is almost impossible to bear.”
“Sure Herb, you did everything you could for me and my family. I know that.”
I sat there and held my breath. It is impossibly hard to be in that moment, leaving one child to be there for another. It was all about calculating what was best at the time, who needed you the most, how we could survive under pressure. Memories of Sandra were already smothering me with grief. I had to be there for my youngest. She didn’t even know of her mother’s death yet. She would be in total fear, watching nature make hell out of home. I needed to choose her at the moment, I could sense her need for me, for stability, for familiarity.
Herb paused before taking George away to hospital, like he knew me, like he knew I wanted to thank him.
“It’s OK Matt, I am just a car, but I do love your family and I am truly sorry about Sandra, I tried to save her, you know that right?”
I made sure George was in the recovery position on the floor of the back of the car and shut the door hard.
“I know that. Thank you. You are part of my family, Herb, you are a hero for what you did today.”
“Thank you, Matt. Stay safe. I’ll call you when George is admitted and will wait at the hospital until you call me, and then I’ll take you both to him. Sorry again about Sandra. She said save the children. You have done that today. She would be proud and thankful.”
I let my head fall to the nape of my neck. For a lucid moment I knew this was just talking to a program but Herb was so reassuring, I swear that car knew me better than myself.
“I’ll call you when I have her, and Herb… Thank you… Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” I said and with that I watched the sleek vehicle drive off into the distance with my son, as shallow water lapped and swirled around my shoes.