By Amy Stewart
Harry arrived in Shizuoka to a light drizzle. He watched the droplets in the wake of street signs, catching their neon glow, and soaking the heads of tourists rushing towards Sunpu Castle. Umbrellas marched in packs over the crossings. Harry, umbrella-less and luggage-laden, had to wrestle his way through. By the time he got to his hotel, he was irritated and damp.
At least now he could get dry. He tripped over his bag on his way to the ensuite. He’d read the hotel rooms in Japan were small, but at first he thought he must have been placed in a cupboard by mistake. The bed took up most of the room, and there was also a fold out chair and small desk, leaving only an L-shaped sliver of floor space to move around in. It didn’t help that the walls were a dingy beige, with only a tiny porthole window to let any light in.
It was fine. It wasn’t like he’d be spending much time in the room anyway. His friend, Joe, was flying out from Brisbane tomorrow to meet him and they’d have a whole week of exploring in between watching Rugby World Cup games. He just had tonight to kill.
After showering and navigating the myriad of buttons on the toilet – one of which serenaded him with nature sounds as he rushed through his business – Harry laid down on the bed. The first hints of exhaustion and jet lag settled over his body. Noon. What time would it be in the UK? 4:00 a.m.? Maybe he’d watch a bit of telly before heading out to get some food.
He jabbed randomly at the remote control until a blue light flashed next to the TV. It didn’t come from the screen, but a roundish object set into the wall beside it. Harry watched as a series of bulbs flickered quickly on and off across the glass surface before settling down into a straight horizontal line.
“Hello,” a female voice sounded, making him jump a bit. “I’m Hana, and I’m here to make your stay at Hotel Happy as pleasant as possible. From your check-in information, I’ve assumed English is your first language. You can change this at any time.”
Harry’s mum had one of these things: little voice-controlled hubs you could dot around the house and talk to. She mainly used it to play the music from Downton Abbey and convert grams to ounces when she was cooking. Harry had never liked the idea himself and had refused his dad’s offers to get one for his new flat as a house-warming gift – too paranoid about data collection and the idea that it might have access to his internet history. He jabbed at a few more buttons in an attempt to shut the machine off.
“You can ask me for recommendations, facts, weather information and much more, whenever you like,” Hana continued. “The more we chat, the more I can get to know you, and offer more personalised and helpful information during your stay. Shall we get started, Harry?”
The sound of his name gave him a jolt of surprise – the kind of warm recognition that always accompanies hearing your own name. But there was something else too: the sneaking tingle of arousal. Hana’s voice wasn’t like the one his mum’s had. There was a kind of human intonation, natural and undulating. Slightly low, with a subtle rasp, as if she’d just woken up. He found himself wondering at the kind of things he could ask her to give himself a few minutes of relief. He laughed off the urge, returning to the remote. But none of the buttons seemed to turn Hana off.
“What kind of things do you like to do, Harry?” she asked. Each time she ‘talked’, the bulbs on the glass dome flashed. Harry had left the overhead light off, so it cast the surrounding gloom in a rippling blue, as if it were underwater.
“I don’t need any recommendations, thanks,” Harry huffed, “I don’t like all that touristy stuff. We’re just going to drink some sake and watch the World Cup games. Now turn off.”
The lights oscillated, processing what he’d said. “The rugby, how wonderful,” Hana replied. “Shall I tell you the best route to the stadium?” She paused, waiting, and when Harry didn’t answer, she added, “If you don’t want to talk anymore, Harry, you just have to say: ‘Goodbye, Hana’.”
“Goodbye, Hana,” Harry repeated emphatically. The glass dome went dark. Harry blew air through his lips and gave up on the remote. He wasn’t really sure what to do with himself. He knew he should probably get up, but fat drops of rain were rolling down the window now, the drizzle having become a downpour. There was no point going out and getting drenched when he’d just dried off, was there? He’d wait for it to ease off.
Harry propped a pillow behind his head and picked up his phone. There was a message from Joe.
Hope you’re enjoying Japan so far, mate! Only 24 hours ‘til we take Shizuoka by storm.
Harry grinned. The holiday wasn’t quite what he’d imagined it would be so far, but everything was more fun with Joe around. They’d been best friends since Fresher’s Week, but Joe had moved out to Australia for a job after third year. They’d kept in touch through Fantasy Football and glitchy FaceTime calls, but it wasn’t the same, and Harry was excited to see him in person. Joe was the kind of guy who lived for a night out, who always reminded you of in-jokes, who never seemed down or tired.
It might have been the jet lag or the rain or the miserable hotel room or maybe just the fact that Harry had never actually been in another country alone before, but at that moment a heavy loneliness pressed on his chest. His key card lay on the bed next to him – on the front was a yellow smiley face like something from an 80s punk album, the words “HAPPY HOTEL” and the address underneath. He took a selfie of the card next to his face, lips pulled into a cartoonish grin, and sent it to Joe with the caption: Hurry up, mate. This hotel’s depressing as fuck and it’s pissing down.
There was also a message from the girl he was kind of seeing, which he deleted upon glimpsing more than one heart emoji, and another from his mum.
How are you doing love? Be safe and maybe stay inside today – heard there’s a bit of a storm headed for Japan?? Call when you can, love you xxx
It took Harry a minute to piece together the message with the deluge outside. He blamed it on his jetlagged brain. His mum and dad hadn’t been keen on him coming out here alone, despite the fact that he was 21 years old and had been saving for months. That was part of the reason he’d told them he was in Tokyo staying with his cousin Laura, rather than in Shizuoka getting drunk at the rugby tournament with Joe, who they’d never met and only heard outrageous stories about. Laura had been more than willing to cover for him – she had enough going on at her teaching job to worry about babysitting. Harry was just grateful his parents had no idea how to use Find My Friends.
Don’t worry mum, he typed, all looks fine here, having a great time in Tokyo. Will call later. X
A scraping sound, followed by a panicked yelp, made Harry get up and look outside his window. He was only on the first floor, so he had a clear view of an inside out umbrella being propelled along the pavement by a powerful gust. Its owner wasn’t even bothering to follow it, her knees bent and arms out against the wind that had made her coat into a billowing cape.
“Fucking hell,” Harry murmured. He opened his phone’s browser and typed in: Shizuoka storm. He waited, but the connection timed out. Returning to WhatsApp, Harry saw that his message to his mum hadn’t been sent. There was a stubborn square clock where the tick should have been.
He tried the remote again, and this time hit the right button to make the red light on the TV turn green. But nothing appeared on the screen but a scramble of white noise. Harry didn’t need to know Japanese to guess that the characters hovering in the centre would read “no signal.”
Harry sat down on the bed. His fingers worried at the scratchy quilt. Maybe he should go to reception, see what the situation was with the storm, whether it was anything to worry about? He sniggered at himself. It was only a storm – he was in a concrete building. What’s the worst that could happen? Besides, he didn’t really fancy round two of the awkward, half-misunderstood, Google Translate-facilitated car crash of a conversation he’d attempted at check-in with the staff. And that was after waiting half an hour for anyone to even turn up at the desk. No, he’d just wait it out – kill time until Joe came.
“Hana,” he tried. His voice sounded too loud in the quiet room. The glass bulb on the wall stayed dark. “Um… hello, Hana?”
The lights blinked on, one by one. “Hello, Harry,” Hana replied jovially. Harry was surprised at the relief he felt, hearing another human voice. No, not human, he had to remind himself. “How is everything going?”
“I need an update on this storm,” Harry said. And then, because his mother had brought him up properly, he added, “please.”
The lights rippled and stilled. “Ah, yes. Typhoon Kuat. What terrible timing for your visit!”
“Kuat, Harry. It’s an Indonesian word which translates to ‘mighty’ in English.”
“Great,” Harry grumbled, listening to the rain lash the glass, the wind rattling the window in its frame. “Can you tell me when it’s expected to stop?”
The lights glittered. They paused, then started again. “I’m sorry, Harry,” the machine sounded convincingly apologetic, almost confused as it spoke, “it seems I temporarily lost signal with my main server there, but everything’s fine now. According to my latest update, Typhoon Kuat is one of the fastest typhoons ever recorded. It’s due to hit Shizuoka this evening, with wind speeds of up to 150 miles per hour and over five feet of rain expected in the next 24 hours.”
“You mean it hasn’t started yet?”
“Afraid not, Harry. This is a bit of a prelude. Once it hits, it’s likely to rage all night. The latest government advice is to hole up and wait for it to pass.”
Harry rubbed his eyes then scanned the poky room. “I think I’ll go mad with boredom.”
Hana twinkled. “I can keep you company.”
There it was again – that faint glimmer of excitement below the belt. It was pathetic, really. Hana was a machine, and it wasn’t like Harry was a sex-starved teenager. But there was something so compliant in Hana’s voice, the notion that she might do – or rather, say – whatever he wanted, he just needed to ask, that it stirred him. He wasn’t going to be able to leave the room any time soon, so he might as well chat to her. He kept it light. You never know who might be listening.
“That would be nice,” he replied, feeling silly. Questions were safer territory. “The TV isn’t working, and I have no signal. Is it because of the storm?”
“Yes,” Hana replied. “Unfortunately, some of the telecom masts serving this area have been taken out. All flights to and from Tokyo have been cancelled, too.”
Harry sat up in bed. “How long for?”
“At least the day after tomorrow, to be safe.”
Harry swore under his breath. Joe’s flight would be cancelled. Would they put him on another one? How did that even work? He might not be able to come out at all. Harry snapped his head back in frustration and it hit the wooden headboard. He growled, feeling suddenly as if the whole world were working against him.
“Are you okay, Harry? Hana asked, and the concern in her tone made a tear spring shamefully to his eye.
“This is shit,” he admitted, to himself and to her.
The machine let out a quiet, almost coquettish sound. Was that a giggle? “You’re right about that, Harry. But at least we have each other.”
Harry leaned back against the headboard and closed his eyes. This was bizarre. He’d expected to bring some stories home from this holiday, but about drunken post-game antics and Japanese girls, not about being stuck in his hotel room flirting with a machine. From outside came more panicked shouts, a dog barking manically, banging doors. Fuck it – better in here than out there.
“So, what are you, exactly?” he asked Hana, arms slung lazily behind his head, angling himself to face the flashing screen of the glass dome. “A virtual assistant, a robot, what? You’re more… sophisticated than what we have at home.”
“Why, thank you,” Hana chuckled, her lights dancing. “I suppose I’m none and all of those things. I like to think of myself as a friend waiting to happen. I’m a blank slate until we start chatting – and then I start responding to your mood, your preferences – I learn what you want.”
Harry raised an eyebrow, starting to enjoy himself. “And what do I want, Hana?”
Before she could respond, another voice burst into the room. Male, speaking rapidly in Japanese. The voice came out of the same place that Hana’s had and for a moment the effect was so disorientating that Harry could only stare at the blue lights, trying to figure out what was happening. It was only when the voice spoke broken English that he began to pay attention.
“Hotel Happy guests asked to evacuate,” it insisted, before switching back to Japanese. The only other words Harry was able to pick out were, “Typhoon Kuat” and “danger.”
The voice stopped abruptly, leaving the room in darkness and silence, save for a few murmurs in the corridor outside. He made his way to open the door but Hana, seemingly herself again, asked, “What are you doing, Harry?”
He turned back to her. “The hotel has told us to evacuate, I think. I’m going to see what’s happening.”
“No, Harry. The information I have, directly from the government, mandates that everyone should stay exactly where they are. It’s too dangerous to go outside. Have you seen what it’s like out there?”
Heartbeat beginning to quicken, Harry crossed the room to the window. It was almost impossible to see the streets anymore: the glass was so scarred with rainwater. Over a cacophony of shouts, wind pummelled against shutters, and doors strained on their hinges. “Do you really want to go out there, Harry?”
He bit his lip. “Are you sure? Why would the hotel tell us to evacuate if the government is saying stay put?”
“Harry, I work for the hotel. I’m programmed for the exact purpose of keeping you safe. I’m more reliable in these situations than human staff, because I don’t panic.” Her voice was so steady, so calming and convincing, that Harry began to relax. “Now. What’s your favourite song?”
“Um…” Harry remembered a time in university when he and Joe had stayed up until 7:00 a.m. in his room in halls, drinking Buckfast and listening to Britpop. He wished he was there now, so badly his stomach ached. “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” he said. “Oasis.”
Barely a second later the opening bars flooded the room. Slip inside the eye of your mind, don’t you know you might find a better place to play.
“I love this song too, Harry,” Hana said over the music. “Why don’t you try and get some sleep? You must be exhausted.”
He was, he realised. He lay back on the bed, letting his head sink into the pillow. When the song was finished, Hana proceeded to play the album, and a mixture of its familiarity and the effects of the long flight meant that Harry was nodding off in a couple of minutes.
It was only when a knock sounded on his door that his heart rate spiked again. Or at least he thought it was a knock; he could barely hear anything over Oasis. Frenzied words followed in Japanese, but Harry couldn’t make them out. Someone tried the door, pushing against the lock. Harry stared at the quivering latch, unsure what to do. “Can you turn that down, Hana?”
“Don’t answer it Harry,” Hana soothed. The volume stayed the same. “It’s nothing – people are just panicking. The staff are new and poorly trained. I’ve sent a message to the internal system to say you’re safe and have left. It’s the easiest way. What could possibly happen to you here?”
She was right, of course. She was a machine, programmed to be right, receiving information directly from the Japanese government. “Ok, ok. But could you at least turn the music off? It’s starting to give me a headache.”
“Of course. Sorry, Harry.” Oasis faded to nothing and Harry immediately wished them back, because the silence that the music left was unexpectedly eerie. Whoever had been in the hallway was gone. He thought of his mum suddenly, and what she might be doing now. It was 4:00 p.m. Japan time – 8:00 a.m. in Hampshire. She’d be making tea and toast probably. Pottering around the kitchen to Downton Abbey. Asking her virtual assistant for the news.
“Hana, is there any way to let my mum know I’m safe?” He was aware of how childlike he sounded, but he didn’t particularly care about impressing Hana anymore.
In turn, her voice seemed to grow older, more caring and motherly, all flirtatious traces erased. “The telecom towers are still down. But maybe if you give me your Facebook login, I could mark you as safe in the typhoon, and it’ll upload as soon as there is a signal? That way, you could let everyone know at the same time without waiting for messages to go through.”
Harry pictured his mum at home in her dressing gown. Scrolling through her phone at the kitchen island, desperately checking his Facebook for pictures of him having fun. Wanting to be proven wrong that he wouldn’t be safe.
“Ok. Let’s do that.” He gave Hana the password.
“Righty-o, that’s all done now.”
The thought gave Harry a brief sense of calm. He laughed at himself – he was being ridiculous, really, getting so worked up about a storm. It was his scrambled brain doing it. He hadn’t slept properly in about 24 hours now, what did he expect?
“I’m going to try and get some sleep,” he said decisively, peeling his socks off and slipping under the covers. “Goodbye, Hana.”
“Sweet dreams, Harry.”
Harry fell into a sleep so deep that the typhoon, in all its mighty noise and battering fists, couldn’t reach him.
When Harry woke, he was aware of the sensation that something had woken him. The room was dark, and for a moment or two, he thought he was in his flat back home, until he spotted the round globe on the wall, glass glinting. He rolled over, still waking up – and that’s when he saw the window. It had been hit by something, something big and heavy, the cracks splintering out into a fractious spider’s web. He was on the first floor but could no longer see the pavement outside. Instead, a river seemed to have swallowed the street, the colour of dishwater, teeming with debris like bacteria. The water writhed as the rain continued to hammer into the surface. Harry felt strangely detached, as if he were watching news coverage on TV – until a barrelling gust of wind, furious and loud, pushed against the window. There was a silvery sound as the fragile shards of glass scraped against each other, inches from his face. If it cracked…
“Holy shit,” Harry hissed, scrambling over to the other side of the room, as far from the window as he could get – which, due to the tiny size of the space, wasn’t very far. He checked his phone, but there was still no signal. He reached a hand up the wall for the light switch, wanting to eliminate the room’s spiking shadows – but the switch didn’t work, even when he flipped it furiously two, three, four times.
“Hana,” he yelled into the empty room, his voice high and tight. “Hello, Hana?” The blue bulbs flickered on, and Harry swore in relief.
“Hello, Harry. How did you sleep?”
He crawled towards her, wanting to be close to another voice. He didn’t take his eyes from the window. “Hana, what the fuck is going on?”
“It’s ok, Harry. The government…” Hana’s voice stopped suddenly. Instead, there was a beeping noise, loud and incessant, like the punching in of Morse code. It was all mixed up with fragments of Hana’s voice – distorted giggles, his own name, broken into pieces. Then, one unmistakeable word, repeated again and again in a robotic voice that wasn’t Hana’s.
With each blast of noise, a time flashed up on the globe in red. 12:35 p.m. 12:55 p.m. 1:30 p.m. On and on, until they reached 9:30 p.m. and abruptly stopped. Harry looked at his phone. That was over an hour ago. The flashing finally ceased, leaving silence.
“Hana?” His voice was hysterical now, and he hit the globe with his palm. The blue lights scattered like fireflies in response. The windowpane groaned. Rain was leaking through, pooling on the sill. He imagined the water rising outside, the churning weight of it. “Hello, Hana? Hana, talk to me, please…”
When her voice finally came, its tone made Harry’s skin prickle with dread. “Oh, Harry,” she whispered. So fragile, so human. “I’m so sorry, Harry.”
He stared into the glass dome, searching for something beyond it. Eyes, perhaps? A face? He found only plastic casing, the faint outline of wires.
“Sorry? What? Can you just tell me what the fuck I should do? You told me not to evacuate, you told me…” something in the window crunched and Harry covered his eyes – though the glass continued to hold.
“My updates didn’t come through,” Hana said slowly. “Because of the storm. I went off the latest information that I had, which was that the storm was getting worse – but you should stay put. You needed reassurance, so I gave it to you. But these updates…” she trailed off. When she spoke again, her voice was like a child’s. “You should have evacuated, ten hours ago.”
Harry put one hand on his heart to steady it and the other on his face, finding it wet. He was crying, great shuddering sobs that made his chest hurt. “Tell me what to do, Hana. Please.”
“I’m so sorry, Harry.” She was almost robotic now. It made Harry’s skin prickle. For the first time, he felt alone in the room. “I’ve put out a rescue alert, but I think it’ll be too late.”
Harry struggled to his feet, needing to move, though his shaking legs barely supported him. “Too late? For what?”
But the dome had gone dark.
With a mighty punch, the window exploded inward. Millions of shards of glass showered into the room, followed by the wind-whipped downpour. It sounded like screaming.
Harry threw himself to the floor, but not before many of the spikes found their mark. The room became a swirling nightmare, the bedcovers lifted and torn, the desk pulled, as if by a mighty hand, and hurled from the window and into the street below.
There was blood on him. Everywhere. So much, it was impossible to tell where it was coming from, but Harry forced himself up and to the door. With hands that barely obeyed him, he unlocked it and forced it open, staggering into the hallway beyond.
Just find someone, he told himself. Anyone–
But the hotel corridor was empty, lined with open doors which revealed ruined rooms like his own. He headed instead for the emergency staircase, fighting against the wind and the objects it sent hurtling towards his face.
When he wrenched open the fire escape, it was to a swirling grey mass, thick and choking with broken wood, lapping at his feet.
It’s 8:30 a.m. in Hampshire. Harry’s mum checks her phone for the twenty-second time in an hour.
“I still haven’t heard from him,” she says to Harry’s dad, whose face is hidden behind a newspaper. “Are you sure I shouldn’t just call him?”
Harry’s dad chuckles. “You know he’d hate that. Let the boy relax and have a good time.”
“But this storm…”
“He’s away from the worst of it,” Harry’s father says, lowering the paper, peering over his glasses. “It’s hit the coast – somewhere called Shizuoka – the worst. A city like Tokyo would never flood. Lauren’s sensible. She’ll keep him right.”
“Hmm,” Harry’s mother says. She puts the phone under a cushion to stop herself checking it and returns to Antiques Roadshow, but she can’t stop thinking about what she’s seen on the news. Record-breaking winds. Horrible flooding, all along the east coast. One hotel brought down completely by the surging tide.
A couple of minutes later, her phone pings. She scrambles to retrieve it.
“Harry’s updated his Facebook status,” she says breathlessly. Harry’s dad makes a non-committal sound. “Harry Black marked himself as safe during Typhoon Kuat.”
“What did I tell you?” Harry’s father says, licking his thumb to turn the page.
“Oh,” Harry’s mum says lightly, a hand on her chest. “Thank goodness for that. Fancy a cuppa?”
In the kitchen, she asks the virtual assistant to play the Downton Abbey theme tune. Once she’s finished her tea, she puts her dirty mug in the sink. She turns on the tap to fill it with water, not noticing when it overflows.
© 2020 Amy Stewart