As the highway narrowed after the passing lane, Clint Bergham groaned aloud and took his foot off the accelerator, resigned to another seven minutes of traffic tedium until the next opportunity to overtake. The grey BMW ahead of him had been in his sights from just outside Hamilton and he was damned if he’d let the guy reach Auckland ahead of him.
This month’s business trip had gone well, he thought. He’d been wheeling and dealing just like Michael Douglas in Wall Street, sounding smooth but going in hard on the deal to get the terms he wanted. Now he was driving home like Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder, weaving expertly around the traffic while keeping a watchful eye out for the law.
He followed the grey BMW through Huntly and came up close behind him as the road widened into an expressway. Fields and trees sped past in a blur, with flashes of water along the river as he headed towards the big city. Driving alone was so much more fun than driving with his wife who was forever complaining that he went too fast. He planted a heavy foot on the accelerator and roared past the BMW pretending he was Jason Statham in The Transporter.
His fixation on films was his mother’s fault. She’d named him after a sexy young Clint Eastwood who’d been a rising movie star in 1968 when her baby boy was born. Having the dull married name of Bergham she had been determined to give her child a glamorous Hollywood star’s Christian name. It was unfortunate Mr Eastwood was now a wrinkled prune of a man just when Clint himself was reluctant to face up to his approaching fifties. Still, the habit of behaving like a movie star had carried him through most situations in life so far.
He checked his rear-view mirror for any sign of Smokeys and sped up to twenty over the limit.
He was all set to beat his best time record for the journey, but just as he entered the southern part of Auckland, his car suddenly and inexplicably slowed down. The sound of the engine stopped and the stereo went dead. Clint pumped on the gas pedal frantically, certain he’d be hit by following traffic, but when he looked round all the other cars were slowing down as well.
His silent Toyota came to a halt. He sat for a moment in disbelief, turning his ignition key time after time with no result.
Since all the drivers around him were getting out of their stalled cars, he got out too and automatically checked his oil and water to make sure they hadn’t caused the problem. He was baffled. What script could he follow for this situation?
“What the hell’s going on?” It was the driver of the grey BMW three cars behind, florid and flustered, asking anyone who would listen.
Clint replaced the dipstick and wiped his hands.
“What the hell’s going on?” repeated the fretful BMW driver. “Why have we stopped for no apparent reason? Something in the fuel?”
Nobody had an answer.
Clint looked around. Just behind where they’d stopped, a row of power pylons loomed across the road and down the valley where they disappeared into the chilly morning mist.
“I suppose we should wait with our cars for a tow truck to come, don’t you think?” An elderly woman looked to the others for approval. But before Clint could select an appropriate role in which to answer her, a loud crackling noise burst out causing a collective gasp from among the assembled drivers and passengers. All eyes turned to the high-voltage electrical cables above their heads which were exploding violently in showers of sparks. Everyone scattered from beneath the lines, taking shelter wherever they could. Flames raced along the wires, filling the air with an acrid stench of burnt plastic and oil. Smoking debris rained down as sections of cable fell from the pylons.
“Don’t touch them,” shouted Clint. “They could be live.” He vaulted over the concrete median barrier and raced towards a stand of trees where he broke off a branch. “Stand back! I’ll take it from here.” He’d seen Steve McQueen do something similar in Towering Inferno.
Using the branch, he pushed smouldering cables away from cars while their drivers picked themselves up from the ditch where they’d dived for cover.
As the cries of fear and excitement slowly subsided, a young woman stared at her phone, baffled. She shook it doubtfully.
“Has anyone got a phone that’s working?” she called. “Only mine’s dead and I need to ring my Mum to say I’ll be late. I’m supposed to take her to a job interview in an hour and she HAS to be there.”
Those nearest to her pulled out their electronic devices but all shook their heads after tapping on screens and pressing buttons. It seemed phones as well as cars were out of action.
After half an hour of fruitless discussion and speculation about their circumstances Clint held up a hand.
“I’m going to walk into the city,” he said decisively. “There’s no point in staying here.’ He gestured towards the clogged highway. “Nobody’s going to get through that lot any time soon. We might as well go where we’re going on foot.”
Voices were raised in alarm.
“But we can’t just leave our cars on the road!”
“It’s way too far to walk! I can’t do it in these shoes!”
“I’m waiting till the authorities get here. It’s irresponsible to walk away.”
Clint, the man of action, shrugged. “You can stay here or come with me – I don’t care either way. Good luck everyone.”
He pulled his briefcase from the back seat of his car and walked away, pointing the lock button over his shoulder, but there was no answering blip from the car which rather spoiled the effect.
He set off along the motorway past the lines of stationary cars, joining others who had decided to abandon their vehicles and strike out on foot. They marched quietly. Conversation seemed pointless.
As Clint rounded the next bend in the road a view of the plains opened up to the left and a gasp rose from the walkers as they saw the vista beside them. Two more rows of power pylons stood in smoking ruins right across the plains and several grass fires had started where the smouldering cables had fallen onto dry ground. There was no sign of fire crews arriving to put them out and Clint realised with a chill that fire trucks were probably just as disabled as every other vehicle.
They stood and watched as in the distance, a fire in a paddock burned nearer and nearer to a white wooden farmhouse. They could just make out the tiny figures of the occupants as they dipped buckets into a water trough and desperately dampened around their home.
There was a groan from the watchers on the road as slowly, inevitably, the building caught alight.
They moved on.
Compared with driving, the trip seemed to take forever.
Clint passed the time by working out how long it might take him to reach the harbour bridge. Once he was through the city and onto the bridge, he’d be almost home. His mind, as always, turned to movies. Bridge on the River Kwai? No, it was far too cold to imagine he was in a tropical environment. A Bridge Too Far? Yes, that was better. He straightened his back and marched briskly, swinging his arms with near-military precision. He’d lead his men across enemy territory against all odds and take the bridge. His increased pace took him away from the group he’d been walking with so he carried on alone.
A man, walking alone through the landscape.
Off to his left, a line of pines showed at the crest of a low hill, standing like sentinels watching his progress. Injuns! His hand reached for an imaginary six-gun. At the base of the hill an old brown horse grazed, unconcerned. Clint’s eyes widened. Could he vault the fence, tame the animal and ride it bareback into the city? What an entrance that would make. He looked down regretfully at his smart grey business suit. Perhaps not. He’d really need leather chaps to make it work. Besides, his only experience on horseback had been an incident in his childhood that he preferred to forget. The toothmarks were still an embarrassment.
He walked on with an unconscious John Wayne swagger and caught up with another small set of walkers. They were plodding quietly, heads down, focused on covering the distance to their destination. Clint assessed them as a possible posse and moved to the head of the group.
Once they reached the city the enormity of the event – whatever it was – became clear. Along every stretch of highway cars were stopped in place, right across on-ramps, off-ramps, flyovers and underpasses. Hundreds of other baffled motorists were reacting in the same way – talking, waiting or walking away.
As Clint walked along the overpass through the city he saw movement high in an office building beside the road. A long white banner of some sort was fluttering from a window where he could see faces and waving hands.
“Christ, I think they’re trapped!” He grabbed the arm of the man walking beside him. “I bet the lifts are jammed or something. Look, they need help!”
The man stared back at him. “What can we do about it? I’m not a lift engineer, are you?”
“No, but there might be something we can do. Come on, those people need us.” Clint smiled like Superman, the sunlight glinting helpfully on his rather uneven teeth.
Reluctantly persuaded, the other man joined him in a jog along the overpass to the nearest off-ramp and back along the streets to the office building, where they used a length of wood to prise apart the sliding glass doors to gain access to the lobby. Clint put his briefcase inside the door and looked around.
A young woman was wringing her hands at the reception desk.
“Oh my God, please say you’ve come to help. There are four lifts stuck with people in them and I can’t call anyone to come and get them working again. All our phones are on a switchboard and none of the back-up generators are working, not one.” Her voice rose in a wail. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do!”
Clint grabbed her firmly by the upper arms and looked into her eyes.
“It’s all right, we’re here now, calm down. Take a deep breath. Better?”
“My name’s Clint and this is Pete. Show me where the lifts are and let’s see what we can do.”
She responded to his obvious authority with relief.
Faced with a row of four closed elevator doors Clint drew on all the Hollywood material in his memory. He knew what to expect. He’d force open the first set of doors and be faced with a yawning chasm of emptiness as a brightly-lit steel shaft extended to infinity in either direction. He was pretty sure he could climb a lift shaft if he had to, but he really hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.
With the help of his new friend Pete and the length of wood, he prised open the first set of doors and looked up into near-darkness. The grubby bottom of the lift was just one floor above them and they could clearly hear banging on the walls and muffled cries for help.
“We’ll be there in a bit,” he yelled. “Hold on!”
“Hold on?” Pete snorted. “They’re in a metal box. What do they need to hold on for?”
“It’s just what you say when you’re rescuing someone,” muttered Clint. He’d said it without thinking, following the script in his head.
They clattered up the stairs to the next floor and found several people standing in front of the elevator doors trying to pull them apart.
“Stand back, we’ve brought a lever for that,” ordered Clint. Gratefully, they moved aside to allow the apparent experts to do their stuff.
Clint and Pete applied their baulk of timber and forced the doors open. Once the grateful occupants were released three of them disappeared in a hurry to the nearest toilets but the others stayed to shake hands and express their thanks. Only one man seemed curious.
“You don’t look like the usual lift guys. Where’s the Schindler maintenance team?”
Clint and Pete exchanged glances. These people had no idea of the current circumstances of their world.
“It’s complicated,” said Clint. “Come and look out of the window.”
He showed them the stationary cars all along the motorway and explained that nothing electrical seemed to be working.
“So that’s why none of us could get a phone signal,” said the man, frowning. “I guess the back-up generators have been knocked out as well then?”
“Looks that way, yes. God knows what the problem is but it seems pretty comprehensive.”
A flash of movement above them caught Clint’s eye, reminding him of the people he’d seen waving from an upper floor, so he gathered up Pete and their trusty piece of wood and headed for the stairs.
He saw the end of the white banner flapping five floors up.
“I knew someone would come eventually!” exclaimed an anxious plump woman, fussing towards him. “We couldn’t get anyone on the phone so I said we should flag down someone to help. It’s the lift, you see. It stopped, and the CEO is trapped in there.”
“No problem, ma’am,” intoned Clint. “We’ll soon have that sorted out for you.”
“Oh thank goodness. She’ll be frantic about getting home to her children.”
She? Another ‘Hollywood, trapped in an elevator’ thought crossed Clint’s mind.
“Um, she’s not heavily pregnant or anything is she? Not due to give birth at any moment?”
“Oh no. Definitely not.”
With relief in his heart Clint set about forcing open the lift doors.
By the time he and Pete had freed the passengers in the other two elevators, the sky outside was darkening and the sun had set, leaving an ominous blood-red glow across the western clouds.
“I didn’t know it was that late,” he said to Pete. “My wife will be wondering why I’m not home.”
With a pang of guilt he realised he hadn’t given her a second thought since he’d become caught up in the day’s adventures. She was alone in suburbia, unable to contact him.
Another thought turned his heart to lead and he knew he should have made more effort to get home sooner.
But night had fallen now, and it was utterly dark outside with no lights of any kind. Should he try to stumble onwards and risk injury, or would it be better to shelter overnight and continue the journey in the morning? His feet gave him the answer by throbbing painfully in his black leather business shoes.
“You’re welcome to sleep in our client lounge,” said the plump woman. “I can’t offer you a hot meal of course but there are biscuits and milk and comfortable couches. It’s the least we can do after all your help.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that.”
Next morning as hazy orange light shone in the windows, Clint packed his overnight things back in his briefcase, feeling wretched. How had he allowed his zest for heroics to keep him from going home to his wife who needed him?
He made his way downstairs, shivering. A security man was sitting in front of the glass doors keeping watch. He jumped to his feet as Clint approached.
“You’re the guy who did all the rescuing yesterday, right? You were quite the hero.”
“It was no big deal,” Clint began.
“Well the CEO was impressed with you, dude. She left these, said you should take them.”
He handed Clint two plastic carry-bags.
“No, look, I’m travelling on foot. I don’t need more stuff to carry, but thanks anyway.” He tried to hand them back but the security man refused.
“Look inside, man.”
Clint opened a bag and peered in. It was full of slim cardboard boxes that appeared to be a variety of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.
“She’s a nice lady, that CEO. She’s given you a heap of our stock samples as like, a thank-you gift.”
“Oh! Right. I guess they’re not too heavy. Tell her I’m grateful, would you?”
The leaden feeling in his heart deepened. There was a sick person in his life but he had a strong foreboding that in today’s circumstances no amount of pills would be any use.
He walked all the way back to the motorway and followed its sweeping concrete curves across the rest of the silent city towards the sea. A straggle of walkers headed in the same direction, northwards away from the city. He thought about marching, but his heart wasn’t in it. This was more like some zombie apocalypse movie, and he wasn’t really the hero.
Two hours later he crossed the Auckland harbour bridge, walking past the lined-up cars, ignoring the spectacular view of the city. He didn’t even notice the scattering of power boats drifting past beneath him on the outgoing tide.
Smoke tainted the fresh sea breeze.
As he reached the far end of the bridge he saw a line of orange and white plastic barriers across the road, with a narrow gap guarded by a young and worried policeman. He was allowing refugees out of the city but stopping any from going in the other direction. As Clint approached, the officer was directing a middle-aged woman away from the bridge. She seemed annoyed at being prevented from crossing over to the city.
Clint trudged on, head down. The young cop waved him through the barrier without question. Clint kept walking.
“Hi, can you tell me anything about what’s happening?”
He raised tired eyes to meet the middle-aged woman’s bright gaze and came over to where she was standing. He leaned against the barrier with a wince.
“The city’s buggered,” he stated flatly. “I’ve had to walk all the way from the south and the whole place is blacked out.”
“Really? It’s not just here on the North Shore then. It must be a hell of a power cut.”
“The main transmission lines were exploding left right and centre with flames and smoke everywhere. As far as I could see across the plains, pylons were all bent and twisted, dripping fire from the wires.” He shuddered. “Freaked me right out. One thing I can tell you, there’ll be no electricity coming into the city from the south for a hell of a long time. It’ll take them months to fix that lot.”
“But…” she stammered. “That’s impossible.”
He had no answer to that. It was impossible, and yet, it had happened.
Clint walked on, leaving her talking to the empty air.
Half an hour later he wearily stumbled up his own front path and opened the door. It was tempting to call out ‘Honey, I’m home,’ as he usually did, but this wasn’t a time for joking. He had to face a situation there was no script for.
His wife heard the door and ran out to greet him. Relief lit her bright blue eyes.
“Darling! I’m so glad you’re home – I’ve been worried sick about you wondering where you were. I knew you couldn’t call because all the phones are down – it must be some kind of power outage right through the city. It’s a pain, isn’t it, but I’m sure they’ll fix it soon.”
He couldn’t bring himself to interrupt her cheerful babble with bad news.
“Where did you sleep last night, sweetie? Where’s the car? Only we should pop down to the hospital and see that Mum’s OK, shouldn’t we? I know they have generators to keep everything going so I wasn’t worried about that, but I still want to go and check on her and make sure she’s all right. They were saying last time I went that she might be off the machine soon and able to come home in a few more weeks.”
There was a pause when she realised he wasn’t responding. Her eyes widened at his expression.
“Oh my God, what’s happened? Why are you looking at me like that? Tell me – whatever it is, just tell me.”
Clint, playing himself at last, took his wife by the hand and groped for the right words.
“Darling, I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry. You’re going to have to be very brave.”
He took her into the bedroom, speaking quietly into her ear, supporting her as she slumped against him.
Moments later her wail of grief rang out across the silent suburb.
Starstruck Hero is a short spin-off story from the novel Sunstrike, where the heroine is the middle-aged woman Clint met on the harbour bridge. Her name is Averie, and Sunstrike tells her story as she learns to survive in a world where technology has been wiped out by a massive solar storm.
The worst effect on her life is that she is separated from her son Bradley who’s stranded overseas, working as a dive instructor in Bali. His story of making his way home to Auckland is told in Sunstrike in Paradise.
Several readers have asked if I could make Clint’s story longer, perhaps even into a novel or novella. If you’d like to see more of our action hero too, perhaps you could post a quick review on and mention it?