The director of the Global Times News Network hit the button on his intercom.
"Get Harvey Dale for me," he said to his secretary.
Presently, the door to his office opened and a pleasant-faced, smart, and intelligent looking young man sauntered in.
"Harvey Dale, ace news hound of GTNN at your service, boss."
The director looked at the young man's smiling face, a face which did not hide the uncommonly sensitive and compassionate nature of its bearer. The director was very fond of Harvey Dale, but wouldn't admit for all the gold in the world.
"Sit," said the director.
"Have you heard that there has been a dramatic rise in mental instability in the country?"
"Get your feelers on it. I want an in-depth feature within seven days."
Harvey nodded again.
Harvey Dale knew that the first step was to collect whatever documented data was available on the rising rate of insanity. To Harvey, this was always the most boring part of his assignments, so after about an hour of sifting through data, he called Catherine Dorset.
"Hey Cat! Will you marry me?"
"Get lost," Catherine said, carressingly.
That settled, Harvey turned once again to his task. He finished the data collecting and then fed his data to the computer, plotting a graph with the reported insanity cases on one axis and time on the other. The screen produced a curve that showed an exponential rise without a peak in sight.
Harvey was properly alarmed.
An hour later, he went home to his apartment (which he shared with a young medical student).
Harvey had the habit of maintaining a notebook during his assignments where he would jot down a summarized account of his experiences of the day. That night, he sat at his writing table in his room and jotted down the following words in his notebook:
A bird's eye view of the data shows that there is no exaggeration about the alarming rise in insanity in the country. It seems to have started somewhere within the last couple of weeks. Mental Institutes and hospitals are full-up and their staff are working over time. What's going on?
The next day, he gathered his camera crew and went visiting mental institutions. He interviewed experts on mental diseases. The interviews added almost nothing to his knowledge. Almost all interviews went something like this:
HD (Harvey Dale): Is it true that there has been a rise in insanity all over the country?
EMD (Expert on mental diseases): It seems so, apparently.
HD: What could be the reason?
EMD: No cause is apparent presently but we are doing our best to find out.
HD: Is this the situation only in our country or is it the same all over the world?
EMD: We cannot say for sure, but we have had reports from two or three other countries about this phenomenon.
HD: What other countries?
EMD: Sorry, I am not allowed to disclose that information.
HD: Why and by whom?
EMD: (A shrug of shoulders and an apologetic smile).
Harvey's notebook entry: Why that hint of secrecy?
Harvey Dale sat in his office deep in thought.
All the news media in the country were going ga-ga over the news of disasters: arson, rape, murder. Of course, arson, rape and murder were nothing new to the news media. The novelty was in the staggering number of cases.
Another novel thing was that this time at least, the perpetrators of arson, rape and murder had the excuse of insanity.
“Harv,” the secretary’s voice broke his reveree, “the big boss wants you.”
Harvey entered the office of the Director.
“Sit,” the Director pointed to a chair.
“How’s your project going?”
“It's going well but I'm really worried.”
“This seems much bigger and much more serious than I could ever dream.”
“Dream? What dream?”
There was something urgent in the Director’s voice. Harvey looked up. The Director’s face was flushed. There were beads of sweat on his brow.
“Tell me more about your dreams,” the Director almost shouted.
“What dreams?” Harvey had completely lost the thread of the conversation.
“Dreams! Man, what dreams I have! Dreams of decadence. Dreams of death.”
Harvey was truly alarmed now. He observed flecks of foam forming around the Director’s mouth.
“Death,” the Director gave a shout, grabbed the paper cutter from his desk and rammed it towards Harvey.
Harvey jumped back and ran out of the room, out of the office and out of the building.
Harvey’s notebook entry: What shall I do?
Chaos reigned everywhere. Schools, universities, hospitals, transport services, business, everything was affected. Just imagine the situation when insanity hits:
--a train driver while the train full of passengers is speeding along . . .
--a pilot of a plane in midflight . . .
--a surgeon while surgery is being performed . . .
Stretch your imagination a little further and think what would happen when madness overcomes: --persons working in a nuclear installation . . .
--persons with access to atomic missiles . . .
The next day Harvey found his room-mate lying on the bed, a bloodied knife in his hand and his throat half cut.
One of the news channels ran an interview with Philip Elson, a famous science fiction writer, over the insanity crisis. Harvey happened to catch that interview and was fascinated by it.
Elson looked haggard and sad. The TV interviewer presented an almost total contrast. He was immaculately dressed. His expression, when he looked at Elson or asked a question, was one of amused tolerance.
Interviewer: What do you think of the insanity crisis? Do you think it is really as serious as the news media seem to make it?
Elson: I think that this is one of the very rare times when the news media are understating the crisis. It is larger--much larger and much more terrible--than imagined so far.
Interviewer: What is it?
Elson: It is something which we have never faced so far. It is insanity which is infectious, which spreads like a disease. An epidemic.
Interviewer: What makes you think that?
Elson: Its ever-increasing, inexorable spread. And do you know what is the most horrible thing about it?
Elson: In the past, whenever crises came upon us, we were able to put up a fight, and finally beat it. This time, even this seems improbable.
Interviewer: What do you mean?
Elson: We used our brains to fight those crises. But how do you fight a crisis that is affecting our brains?
Interviewer: What is your opinion about its likely cause?
Elson: I have no opinion whatsoever about the cause. It could be a side effect of one of many things: of the various testings of the nuclear weapons; of the chemical and biological weapons being tested, and even used in various parts of the world. It could be a mutated virus gone out of hand. It could even be some unforetold effect of the destruction of the ozone layer. It could be due to all those factors put together. Or it could be the wrath of God.
Interviewer: You think this--'epidemic' as you call it--will spread all over the world unchecked?
Elson: I devoutly hope not, but I don't know. Don't think of me as an alarmist if I say that it could be the end of the world.
Elson: Did I shock you?
Interviewer: Yes. Don't you think you are being brutal in saying that this could be the end of the world?
Elson: May be. And while I am in that mood, let me be a little more brutal and say that perhaps we deserve this ignominious end. In fact, it could be a very apt end. For years, humanity had been treading the path of insanity.
Interviewer: I don't follow you.
Elson: Suppose you are standing atop a wall of, say, 30 feet. There is hard concrete below. You know that if you jump off the wall, you will probably break your legs. Knowing this, would it be rational to jump off the wall voluntarily?
Interviewer: I guess not.
Elson: Knowing that drinking and smoking are injurious to health, is it rational to continue to do so? Running campaigns to protect wild animals and doing nothing about the human carnage of a Vietnam or a Bosnia ... Is this rational behavior? Destroying tons and tons of foods in the name of economy while at another place people die of hunger ... Is this sanity? (Then, as if talking to himself, Elson continued in a small voice) In my time I have imagined quite a few scenarios for the end of the world. There was the hot death. There was the cold death. But mad death?
Interviewer: (with a condescending smile) Don’t you think, Mr. Elson, that you are being overly dramatic and emotional. This is the real world, you know. Not the plot of one of your best sellers. (Turning to the camera) I advise our viewers not to be too alarmed. You all know how imaginative sci-fi writers are, don’t you?
Harvey felt his ire rising at the idiotically grinning face of the interviewer. “I would kill you if I were in place of Philip Elson,” he shook his fist at the TV screen then suddenly froze when a thought hit him: Am I going mad too?
That night, Harvey Dale had a disturbing dream.
In the dream, he saw the whole world through a multi-layered vision. He was standing on a small mound of earth in the semi-light of the approaching dawn. There was the morning star overhead. He was barefoot and there was velvety green, dew-covered grass beneath his feet. Cool morning air was blowing gently across his face.
Standing on the mound, he could see all the world lie before him. There, near the horizon, were the pyramids of Egypt. A little closer was the Taj Mahal. A beautiful girl and a handsome man were standing close to each other near the Taj, while two children played in the grass near them.
To one side of the Harvey was a forest full of deer, antelope, and lions.
To the other side was a city in which there were many familiar and unfamiliar streets. In one street was the house of his childhood. In another street was a bookshop full of novels and comic books. In another street were the school and the college where he had studied. In yet another street was an art gallery displaying many originals of the Masters. Standing in the street nearest to him was Catherine Dorset, looking achingly cute.
He turned his head to look behind him and he saw an immense air-field where the space shuttle was ready to take off.
And then dusk fell and the sky turned bloody.
"There will be no tomorrow," a voice said inside Harvey's head and Harvey started sobbing. He woke up from his dream still sobbing.
The phone rang and Harvey picked up the receiver.
“Harvey, Harvey, Harvey,” it was Catherine.
“Howdy, Cat” You sound so happy. What’s the good news?”
“Don’t you know, Harv?” her voice was a soft purr.
“I have turned into a dragon princess. And guess what? I can fly.”
“What?” Harvey’s heart seemed to bounce out of his chest and lodge itself in his throat.
“I will marry you, Harv. I am coming there. I am coming there flying. Here I go, out of my window.”
“No,” he shouted, but the line had gone dead.
Catherine’s apartment was on the 9th floor of a high rise building.
On the seventh day, the program on the insanity epidemic, prepared and presented by Harvey Dale, was televised by GTNN with the help of a skeletal crew--those who had escaped madness so far. The show ran for half an hour. It ended with Harvey Dale speaking on the camera.
"Is this the end of the world? I don't know. But to be on the safe side, let us have some emergency instructions. All you transient folks living in a transient world! Most of you have heard about the instructions in case of nuclear war: sit on the ground, put your head between your knees ... and kiss your ass goodbye.
"I have a better suggestion for the present situation. All you specimens of the human species who can still think! First, apologize to each other for the atrocities you have committed against each other... THEN kiss your ass goodbye!
"Harvey Dale wishes you well."
The image on the screen faded and was gone. But just before the screen darkened, the viewers glimpsed tiny flecks of foam forming at the corners of Harvey’s mouth.
x x x
The chilling premise in this story works so well because of Ahmed's fine story-telling. What would you do if the world suddenly went gonzo-bonkers? I think I'd curl up with a collection of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror stories to get a little sanity back in my life. Some of those stories, no doubt, would bear Ahmed's byline. Comments to our BBS, please. - GM