Sunday, November 11, 2012

Schizophrenia


Schizophrenia

A Short Story by Ehtisham Rizvi

‘So, tell me about these people you see.’ The psychiatrist was good at her job and it was just another day at work for her. The patient in front of her was a scrawny teenager, shorter than most of the boys his age, with curly hair and shy eyes, he claimed to see people that did not exist. It sounded to her like a simple case of schizophrenia, and this session was supposed to allow her to dig deeper.

‘They are aliens from a different planet.' His voice was surprisingly confident for someone with such shy eyes, ‘They are elemental beings, made of fire. They have been trapped here for thousands of years and need to get back to their home planet’. She observed that the boy was becoming more and more excited as he kept explaining, ‘they didn’t make contact earlier because we were too primitive, now we have the technology to build them a space ship which can carry them to the sun, their home.' 

‘Another case of a child being unable to distinguish between reality and imagination’, she thought.


‘And when did you first see them?’


‘I saw them all the time; I have been seeing them for as long as I can remember’


‘And when did they first speak to you?’


‘They did not, they couldn’t see me, but I could see them. So I started talking to them. It took some time for me to learn their language, but once I started speaking their language they started responding to me’.


‘And when did they first start responding to you?’


‘A couple of years ago’ his voice grew melancholy. She had read his file thoroughly before the session started. The teenager had lost his parents a couple of years ago, they had disappeared on a vacation and their disappearance had been linked to a forest fire. The police had not discovered any bodies yet, and the boy who was with his uncle and aunt at that time had been handed over to them permanently. It was obvious that he went through severe mental trauma, and had retreated into his fantasy.


‘They know what you are thinking’ his voice was firm than earlier. The shadows of sorrows had been replaced by excitement again. ‘They are telling me you think I am mad. You think I am lying’ he was hurt, ‘they say they can prove their existence to you’.


‘There is no need for that; no one is calling you a liar. We are here to work on some issues’ she said in a most calming tone. 

‘And what issues might those be?’ the teenager was becoming skeptical, ‘my uncle says that what happened with my parents has something to do with my seeing these creatures, he says that I am hallucinating. I have tried telling him that these creatures have always been a part of my life, but no one ever believed me because I am a child’ his tone changed during the last part of that sentence. He appeared hurt again. What the teenager lacked in body language, he more than made up for in voice tones and facial expressions. 

She noted down ‘sudden bursts of excitement followed by short bursts of depression’ in her notepad.


‘And these creatures, do they pay attention to you? Do they believe you?’


‘At first they didn’t,’ the burst of excitement was back, although he didn’t move an inch, his voice and his face revealed how passionate he was about this subject. ‘When I first communicated with them, they were scared. I told them there were billions of my kind, but they refused to believe. They think this planet is lifeless; they can’t see us or hear us’. It seemed like an appropriate moment for the doctor to intervene, ‘so how can they see you and hear you?’

‘They can’t see me, but they can hear me. I have taught them to listen to my voice’.


‘Just a few moments ago you said they knew what I was thinking? How do they know of me? And you said they didn’t make contact earlier because we were primitive, how could they have known we were primitive if they didn’t know we existed?’

The teenager became silent for a few moments, then he looked the doctor directly in the eye and said, ‘you ask too many questions’ his cold stare sent chills down her spine. ‘Perhaps a demonstration will convince you of their existence’, she had seen some strange cases in her years as a psychiatrist but never before had she been so scared. ‘I think that’s enough for the day’ she hastened to put down her notepad, ‘I will see you in a week’ she tried to smile.

‘Oh but I am not leaving’ the boy suddenly didn’t seem short or scrawny anymore. His presence in the room was making the doctor very uncomfortable, she could feel his eyes burning right through her, ‘I insist you leave, we shall have another session in a week or so’ she tried to pretend she was not intimidated. 

‘I like you. We like you. We enjoy your company. We shall stay as long as we like,’ it may have been her imagination playing tricks on her but she could swear the boy was speaking in four different voices simultaneously. She nervously moved further back in her seat and pressed the security button. She kept her eye on the boy and he kept staring back for what seemed like an eternity, until the deafening silence in the room was broken by someone opening the door.

‘You called’ the brawny security guy asked in his deep voice.

‘Steve, would you please escort Mr. Chapman to the lobby’ she didn’t take her eyes off the boy; she had a feeling something bad would happen if she looked away.

‘Okay’ Steve sounded confused ‘Where is he?’

‘Where is who?’

‘Mr. Chapman.’

‘You mean the boy sitting in the chair right in front of me.’

‘But there is no one here’ her reaction to Steve’s reply was that of a person who accidentally touches a live wire. ‘He is right there,’ she screamed while pointing at the boy. 

‘Dr. Dawson, there is no one here.’ The cold smirk on the boy’s face grew deeper, and the fire burning in his eyes became intense, ‘we told you, we are not going anywhere.’

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Call Center


Call Center

A Short Story by Ehtisham Rizvi

“Assalamu Alaikum. XYZ call center how may I help you.”


It was just another day at work for Taqi. He had just signed in for his 3 to 11 evening shift at the inbound customer support call center for the local electricity supplier, and was answering his first call. The opening greeting was worth ten points, and he had to sound fresh and pleasant while delivering it to the customer.

“You know what?” The customer was angry and started yelling from the get go. “You guys should just say how may I screw you instead of how may I help you.”

“Sir we try to help each and every single one of our customers, but some things are just out of our control.” Taqi had been working there for about six months now, he had learned all the tricks of the trade, and knew how to handle angry customers.

The CRM at the call center did not have the customer’s phone number in the data bank, so he couldn't find the customer’s address. Judging by the area code, he placed the customer in region 4, and judging by the customer’s anger, he placed him in the area where there was no electricity for the last 4 hours.

“May I know which area you are speaking from?” Although he had already placed the customer in an area but he had to hear it from him. After all, it was a recorded call and he didn't want to go off script. Points were being awarded and quality was being assured; he had to aim for the extra incentives.

“Why? That computer of yours isn't telling you anything?” He was amazed how people just overestimated the power of computers.

“Sir, your number is not stored in our database. If you could kindly tell me your area, I could provide you with the latest information and updates.”

“Screw your updates; there is no electricity here for the last four hours. I don’t need excuses, I need electricity.”

“Sir, the only area in Karachi without power for the last four hours is FB Area Block 6. Is that where you are speaking from?”

“Why are you asking me if you already know?”

By this time, 40 seconds had already passed. Taqi had to finish this call within one minute; negative points were awarded for each second after that. He decided to take the familiar route; he would just shower the bastard with information and wouldn't give him a chance to speak.

“Sir, the main cable supplying electricity to FB Area Block 6 was damaged a few hours ago. Repairs are in progress as we speak. We are also trying to route electricity to your area through our overhead network. Your electricity will be temporarily restored within half an hour, but the main cable will be fixed in about eight hours.” He rushed through it in one breath, but waited for the customer to respond.

“I am not speaking from block 6 you moron.” The clock was ticking, the floor supervisor was already signaling him to wrap it up, and the minute was almost up. Nothing had been achieved so far.

“Then which area are you speaking from?”  He had received worst calls than this, he had been cussed at, threatened, and once a few angry customers had paid the call center a visit, but for some reason, this to him was the worst customer he had ever dealt with. And the call was not over yet.

“I am speaking from block 4, and my meters have burnt out. I registered a complaint early this morning, and you guys haven’t sent the repair team yet.”

“Sir could you please tell me your complaint number?”

“It’s 4974.”

Now this was another problem. Taqi looked at the complaint numbers in the CRM, and only 1500 complaints had been issued so far. It appeared as if the morning shift had been slow. He checked for complaint number 497, it belonged to someone else. He checked for 4974 for the day before, and it wasn't there.

“When was this complaint number issued to you?” He knew this would piss the customer off even more, but there was no other choice.

“What the hell do you people do all day? Someone issued this number to me five minutes ago.” There were serious contradictions in the customer’s statement. If the complaint number was issued 5 minutes ago, he couldn't possibly have registered the complaint in the morning. 

Meanwhile, the clock was ticking.

The floor supervisor had already left his chair, and was now standing right next to Taqi, listening in on the conversation. This was a pretty good sign that Taqi was in trouble and had to finish this quickly.

“Sir how about I send a reminder to your area support center asking them to hurry up? Could you please tell me your name and address?” He put his hands on the keyboard, ready to file a new complaint, while trying to save face for his fellow call center agents who handed out fake complaint numbers.

“Now I have to go through the whole process again?” It sounded as if the customer was about to burst in tears.

“Sir I apologize for the inconvenience, and assure you that we will do everything in our power to get your connection fixed, just kindly tell me your name and address so I can send them a new complaint.”

Two minutes were up, and the floor supervisor simply ended the call with the push of a button. 

“Sir, he was about to give me his details.” Taqi protested.

“Next time, just give him another fake complaint number. And for God’s sake keep your average down to 50 seconds.” 

Taqi looked around in disappointment as the supervisor walked away. The person to his right was lying about a blackout; the person to his left was dropping calls in mid sentence just to make it look like there was a problem with the line. Most were assigning fake complaint numbers and giving false information to the customers.

The next caller in line had already been routed to him, but he decided not to answer that call. He minimized the CRM and opened a new Word document. He had a resignation to write.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Good and Evil: The Barren Land

Good and Evil
Part 2: The Barren Land

The seal to the prison had been broken, and the fallen angels in slumber had awoken. They both looked at each other in confusion as their chains melted away and their prison disappeared around them. They found themselves in a freshly dug hole and were greeted with two dead bodies, one of them still twitching.

“Is it time?” The taller one asked.

“Doesn't seem like it.” The relatively shorter one answered while looking around. Harut and Marut had been condemned to sleep in their underground prison till the Day of Judgment. Their sin, disobeying God. Their motivation, love of a human woman.

“This does not look like the Day of Judgment. It appears we are in the middle of nowhere.” Harut checked his hands and feet, the chains had disappeared without leaving a mark.
 “Doesn’t appear to be Babylon either; their buildings are similar to the nation of Aad.” Marut could always see over great distances, he could see two towns nearby.

“Have we been forgiven?” Harut was still confused.

“Our wings would be back if that were the case, we are still trapped in these mortal bodies.” Marut could not hide the disappointment in his voice. The human bodies could only hold so much of the angels' powers, and without wings, they were just a fraction of their true selves.

“If God did not forgive us, then how are we out of the prison?” It seemed as if Harut was about to ask many questions, but he was interrupted by the sound of a pickup truck stopping nearby. The angels had been to many worlds, and had witnessed many technologically advanced civilizations. They had seen similar travelling devices before, so the vehicle did not surprise them; however, the woman who stepped out of it did.

“Zora!” Both of them could not believe their eyes. This was the woman. Before meeting her, they taught magic to the people of Babylon during the day, and ascended to the heavens during the night.

“Shouldn’t you be in heaven right now?” Marut asked with a hint of sarcasm.

“You haven’t aged a bit.” Harut still had the hearts for her, even after all the years of punishment.
“We need a more private place to talk.” Zora was as cold as ever.
“There is no place where He can’t hear us.” Marut hissed, his eyes shooting daggers at the woman he once loved.
“Oh, but we can always try.” She snapped her fingers, and with that the two fallen angels felt their bodies disintegrate. The experience was more painful than anything either one of them had felt before. They wanted to scream in agony, but had to wait till their bodies came back together, this time in a barren waste, most probably on another planet far away from Earth.

“Before the two you start speaking, let me fill you in on the details.” Harut and Marut were still recovering from the painful journey, but Zora wanted to make sure she dominated the conversation.
“The words you taught me. The words that were supposed to give me the ability to fly to heaven, those words failed. I spoke them, and I found myself here, on this barren land. I spoke them again, and I was back in Babylon. I do not age since then, and nothing can kill me, so I guess I have to thank you for that. But I have to ask you, why did you betray me? I mean you drank the wine, and you killed a man for me. You even worshipped an idol just to make me happy. But you didn’t teach me the right words, why is that?”

Marut was about to say something when she interrupted again. “It doesn’t matter now. What matters is that I was finally able to free the two you. And now you will help me go to heaven. Not by doing good deeds. Not by dying a pious woman. You will help me go to heaven alive, in my physical form.”
“Let me guess. The two dead bodies on top of our prison were your doing.” Marut sounded disappointed and resentful at the same time. 

“You figured out a way to break the seal.” Harut was elated.
“Do not allow yourself to be fooled by this woman, brother.” Marut warned Harut. “She hurt us once, she will hurt us again.”
“Not if you help me go to heaven.” Zora smiled. The same smile had made the angels forget about their calling, and had set them on a path of sin and disobedience. 

“Why are you so obsessed with heaven? Why do you not try to go there like a normal person?”
“You mean by asking for God’s forgiveness? By committing good deeds? By being kind to my fellow humans?” Zora could not hide her skepticism. “If you haven’t noticed, the punishment for my sins is immortality. While the two of you slumbered, I have seen all my loved ones age, and wither, and die, right before my very eyes. I have seen humanity destroyed by great floods. I have seen the destruction and rebirth of civilization. I have seen the rise and fall of empires. I have seen it all, and I am bored. Just like I was in the ancient times.”

“We will not be your entertainment this time around.” Marut said in a firm voice. Harut seemed confused and double minded, but he kept quiet.

“Then you will rot here until you change your mind. The horrors of this place will make you yearn for your prison.” With that, she snapped her fingers and disappeared into thin air.
“What did she mean ‘the horrors of this place’?” Harut asked Marut. The two angels looked around but there was nothing and no one on the barren land. Even with his supernatural sight, Marut could not see any living being on the planet. 

“Let us explore this land, and let us pray for God’s forgiveness. That is our only option.” Marut sighed as the fallen angels got down on their knees and looked to the sky.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Good and Evil


Part 1: The Awakening


 “Keep walking!” The cold voice sent chills up his spine.

It was most likely that this voice would be the last he would ever hear. It was a cold starry night, and there was no one within miles but Peter and Victor. The only sign of civilization was the road where Peter’s pickup had been stopped. Victor had been on his trail for a while, and had finally been able to overtake him, block his path, and point a shotgun at him. Peter had pretty much done whatever he was told since then, “do as the man with the gun says” he had told himself repeatedly during the long walk away from the road into the wilderness.

Victor was walking behind him with his gun constantly pointed at the back of his head. He was also making Peter carry a shovel. They walked for about 30 minutes before Victor started talking, “Did you think you could get away with it?”

“Get away with what?” Peter’s voice was shaky.

“With what you said in the shop, asshole” Peter could not see Victor’s face but he was sure he made a sour expression, and spat shortly after he said asshole.

“I apologize if I have offended you, but please let me go, I have a family.” Usually, Peter was a proud man, but these were not usual circumstances.

“Keep walking!” The cold voice sent chills up his spine.

“Think, think.” He tried to force his mind out of its sorry, frightened state. His brain decided to start from the morning. He had awoken early, had his morning coffee, kissed his wife goodbye and left the house, nothing out of the ordinary.

The odd thing about that day was that his boss wanted him to go to the adjacent town to pick up a delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables. For some insane reason, the truckers charged way too much to drive all the way to Peter’s town. It was cheaper to go out there and collect the shipment, and drive it all the way back to his town in his pickup.

While he was in the market, he decided to get a haircut. Victor’s hair saloon was the nearest he knew, so he went there. He still couldn’t think of what the hell it was he said to Victor to piss him off. The guy had done nothing when he was in town, but had chased him down and was making him walk to the middle of nowhere, most probably to kill him.

“Could you at least tell me what I said?” For some reason, most probably because his brain had gone into overdrive, he forgot the gravity of the situation and spoke in a loud frustrated voice.

“Stop!” Victor ordered and Peter did exactly that.

“Start digging,” Seeing that he had no other choice, Peter started digging.

“I am sorry, I apologize, I take back whatever it was I said” Peter was too scared to notice, but tears had started running down his cheeks. He did not want to die, he had too much to live for, and he most certainly didn’t want to die at the hands of some maniac, without knowing why. He decided to ask again.

“What did I say to you? Why are you doing this?” His voice was shaky again, this time due to the fact that he was crying while speaking.

“You look down on us all, just because you’re from a bigger town doesn’t mean you can look down on us. Very soon, I will be looking down on you.” Victor hadn’t bothered to answer Peter’s question yet, and it looked like he wasn’t about to start.

Peter kept digging, he was used to manual labor but for some reason his hands were full of blisters. The hole he was digging was now big enough to be a shallow grave. He usually loved silence, but this silence was getting to him. He knew he had to do something quickly or his end was inevitable.

“There is something here,” His shovel hit something metallic, and made that noise when metal strikes metal.

“Keep digging!” Victor wasn’t at all curios about what it could be, in the middle of nowhere, exactly at the random spot he had picked to be Peter’s grave.

Peter struck the ground again, and the sound of metal striking metal was much louder now. He looked at Victor, and this time Victor did not have to bark an order at him. He struck the ground again, and there it was, that sound again. Only this time he dropped the shovel as a result of the impact.

When he bent down to pick it up, he finally saw the object. It was a partially exposed metal surface with strange carvings on it. Maybe those were random designs, maybe some foreign language, Peter neither knew nor cared. What he cared about was Victor’s gun touching the back of his head.

Victor had come really close, and was standing just a foot away from him, just at the edge of the hole, so he could touch Peter’s head with his gun, and remind him of who was in charge of the situation.

Peter picked up the shovel again. As he got back up something strange happened. The carvings on the metal surface seemed to glow. In one final attempt to save his life he whirled and smashed his shovel as hard as he could where he thought Victor’s head would be.

The sound of the shovel cracking open Victor’s head like a water melon was not as loud as that of his shotgun going off. The side of Peter’s head was blown right off, he first dropped to his knees and then to the side, the blood from his wound filling in all the markings carved into the partially exposed metal surface.

Victor was on the ground, twitching uncontrollably until he too fell in the shallow grave. His death was not as quick as Peter’s, but the shovel to the head did its job.

As their blood mixed together to form a thin layer on top of the metal surface, something woke underneath. After thousands of years of forced slumber in the middle of nowhere, the prophecy had come true. Only fresh blood of a victim and perpetrator, mixed together from their fresh corpses, could break the ancient seal, and it did. 

Some may call it destiny, some coincidence, but the seal had been broken and the two fallen angels, who had dared teach magic to earthlings, were now free.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Crossbreeds


Crossbreeds
A Short Story by Ehtisham Rizvi 

“This is bad.” The blood dripping from his brow had somehow found its way to his mouth. The cold night air was penetrating through his skin, chilling his very bones. He had already lost both his shoes, his clothes were torn, and he was pretty sure his feet were bleeding profusely, leaving a crimson trail on the rocky road behind him.

If his pursuers had been ordinary human beings, the bloody trail would have led them straight to him. Yet he wished they had been human. If they had been ordinary humans he would have stood a chance, a minor chance, but a chance none the less. He envied those pursued by humans. “This is bad.” The thought kept crawling back into his mind. 
He knew they had his scent, his sweat, his blood, they could smell it miles away, and they were on his trail.

The messenger had news to deliver. Important news. The fate of a whole regime depended on it. The insurgents could not afford for him to deliver the scroll. He could not afford to fail. The queen had written the message in her own blood, and had trusted him to deliver it to the garrison.

He had barely escaped the skirmish outside the castle, and was on his way to the garrison when the insurgents intercepted him. He fought as well as he could, he fought as well as anyone could in his predicament, but they just kept coming at him. He managed to kill most of them, and then ran for it. His horse had already been mauled by the hairy beasts during the fight, but the garrison wasn’t far away, “I can make it in an hour,” he had initially thought.

His armor was weighing him down, so he had to remove most of it. The chainmail which saved his life on numerous occasions now seemed like a burden that would ultimately be his undoing. Yet he kept running. The sun was about to rise, and he could see the well-lit towers of the garrison from the distance. The sight gave him hope, he was about to make it, he was about to save the Queendom, but something halted him in his tracks.

The rocky road leading to the garrison was blocked by insurgents. They had not seen him yet, it was a miracle they had not smelled him, they were too busy sinking their teeth in the dead corpses of the patrol guards. There were five of them, and there was no way around them.

“I would sneak up to them. They are busy eating, I will get the one closest to me, and then, and then…” He played many scenarios in his mind, none of them ended up with him being victorious over five crossbreeds. “If I only had a bow and arrow” he could have shot the scroll in the direction of the gate, someone would have surely found it.

He knew that while he was standing there indecisively, the crossbreeds on his trail were getting closer. He started sneaking up to the beasts who were still feasting on the corpses. With clenched jaws and tightened grip on the hilt of his sword; he tried to breathe quietly, afraid that the beasts would hear him. He knew they would smell him before they would hear him, but some things he had no control over, and those things he never worried about.

He was true in judging their sense of smell. The crossbreeds attacked him before he could sneak anywhere near them. He had his sword, they had their claws, and teeth, and horns. He was one, they were five. He was a knight of Placentia, they were Myali’s twisted experiment. He had faith on his side, they had hunger. He had the goddess looking over him, and they served the god of all gods.

The battle was as bloody as there is blood in one human and five crossbreeds. He lost a few fingers and an ear, but the crossbreeds lost their heads. He overcame them, but he lost everything he had in him to do so. There was no way he could walk to the garrison now. The sun had already risen half way through, and he could see the drawbridge being lowered over the moat.

“Praise the goddess, praise the queen.” He forgot all about the pain in his wide open wounds pushing him towards the darkness. The lowering of the drawbridge meant only one thing. The garrison had sent someone to check on the night patrols. “The scroll would make it to its intended destination, the Queendom will survive.” His last thought set his mind at peace.

“He killed five of them, unbelievable!” The general was in awe. The sun had risen, and the general stood over the knight’s dead body, surrounded by those of the crossbreeds. The scroll, written in Silvia’s blood, has reached the hands it was meant for.

“Send a message to Myali.” The general ordered one of his subordinates. “Tell him, the queen had a daughter. She hid her away in a secret chamber and dressed her as a commoner. Her very existence was undisclosed till now.” He smirked.

“Tell him, the throne of Placentia has an heiress. His animals may have killed the queen, but there is another to take her place.” His voice grew cold. “This scroll contains directions to the chamber.” He handed the scroll to the subordinate. “Tell him to find the girl and finish the job.”

“And what about the knight?” The subordinate inquired about the dead knight.

“Leave him for the crossbreeds.”

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Curiosity


Curiosity

A Short Story by Ehtisham Rizvi

All the members of the council had gathered; the topic in question was Curiosity, NASA’s recent attempt to explore Mars.

“I think we all know why we are here, so why don’t we start the discussion!” The relatively young but charismatic member spoke in his signature style. He was probably the youngest among them, but represented a great and powerful nation.

“What is your opinion on Curiosity? Do you think the people deserve to know?” One of the council members asked him. They were all going to have a vote at the end of the discussion, but the young leader’s opinion could swing many votes either way.

“I believe it is time the people learn the truth.” He spoke casually. The others waited for him to justify his opinion but he looked to them to continue the discussion. He knew his nation was the strongest. He did not need to justify his opinions. He could very well be the emperor of the world. Yet he could not make this decision alone.

“The people are not ready. If news gets out that we are not alone in the universe; it would be chaos. People will start to question everything; religion, the meaning of life, how we govern them.” This leader represented another great nation.

“They will want us to establish contact.” The leader of the largest population in the world interjected, “And we all know how that goes. First contact, then travel, then trade, and finally war. We all know human history.” Many of the people agreed with that opinion.

“One day, the people will find out” the young leader spoke again, “It’s only a matter of time. An age will come when people will travel freely from one planet to another. Why delay the inevitable? We have an amazing opportunity in our hands.”

“We have an opportunity to save our people from war.” The leader of the largest population was not convinced, “We need to handle it the way our ancestors handled it in ancient times.”

“The literature about ancient times is filled with contradictions, so let’s not use it as a guideline.” This leader was shorter than others, but his nation was the most technologically advanced nation in the world.

“And I suppose using the sacred text as a guideline is out of the question?” this leader represented a nation known for its religiosity. His comment inspired many smiles among the council. To him and his people, the answer to every problem in the world could be found in the sacred text. Others couldn’t care less about his opinion. The importance of the strategic location of his land was the only reason he was a member of the council.

“Not everyone follows your religion; you need to keep that in mind.” The young leader gave him a friendly reminder.

“I say we do not tell our people yet. Let us send some of our representatives to their planet, as spies of course, and let us wait for their reports.” This leader had a heavy accent. He was probably the oldest person in the room and represented a nation that was once almighty.

“We have reports that their world, not unlike ours is haunted by war at the moment. There is a financial crisis in most parts, in some parts there is plague and famine. We could trade with them, establish economic relations. There are most certainly natural resources over there that we can use.” The young leader was insistent.

“It all comes down to natural resources with you, doesn't it?” The religious man could not hide his resentment. The most powerful nation was the largest consumer of natural resources, and the natural reserves of the world were depleting quicker than they liked.

“You have no problem selling them to me.” The young leader retorted, the religious man had no answer, but the two stared at each other with clenched jaws.

“I think we are getting off topic here” The short leader tried to calm things down.

“There has been enough discussion, let’s start the voting.” The leader of the largest population added.

“So we all agree we have three options.” The young leader was quick to switch back to his usual calm demeanor. “We tell the people there is life on the other planet and establish contact. We send spies and wait for a suitable time to establish contact. Or we take the usual measures to ensure there is no contact and no news.”

Virtual screens appeared before each leader. The screens contained all three options. Each leader reached out and touched the option he/she favored. The result was 80% in favor of not making any contact, and not telling the people about life on the other planet. The leaders who had not participated in the decision turned out to be the majority.

The young leader was clearly disappointed by the results. “Okay then, we feed them the usual pictures of deserts and rocks.” He sighed, “Just for the record, I still believe we are missing out on an exciting opportunity.” The other members were already on their way home, some had already reached their countries.

In an underground lab in a desert, Curiosity laid disassembled. The scientists and engineers in the lab had all gathered in a large room, looking at a large screen excitedly. “What do you think they will decide?” One asked the other, the young leader’s face appeared on screen before the other could answer. “Send them the usual pictures” he said in a disappointed yet authoritative tone.

The excitement in the room died with that order and the people started getting back to work. The one who had asked the question earlier went to his work station, and transmitted few pictures through a device that had been salvaged from the rover.

Back at the NASA headquarters, an excited group of people received the pictures with glee, not knowing that the leaders of Mars wanted nothing to do with Earth.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Virus

Virus

A Short Story by Ehtisham Rizvi

“There are two kinds of people in this world…..” The scientist in charge of the large research facility carefully mixed two chemical compounds while talking to his apprentice.

“People who agree with me and people who do not.” The blue and yellow compounds silently reacted together to make a viscous green element.

“The catalyst seems ready.” The young apprentice wasn’t fond of the amount of hours she had to put in. The sooner the catalyst was ready, the sooner they could finish the experiment and she could leave.

“It looks good,” the comment from the scientist was as much a declaration as it was a compliment. “Thanks,” although the gas mask almost covered most of her face, the scientist could tell the young apprentice was smiling.

“What is this experiment anyway?” seeing that Dr. Smith wasn’t his usual grumpy self, Annette dared ask the question.

Her role in the lab was simple; she was to assist Dr. Smith in all of his research and experiments. When she signed up for the job, which paid much better than anything else out there, she was excited beyond measure. She would assist this old scientist conduct his experiments, gain knowledge and a fat paycheck every month. Not too bad for a college drop out.

Dr. Smith was also happy with the arrangement. Annette was smart enough to facilitate him and not ask too many questions. She wasn’t curious or nosy, and for the most part was just interested in getting the job done and going home. That is why her question came as a surprise.

“Are you interested in the experiment? Don’t you have to go home?” After storing the catalyst away, Dr. Smith removed his mask and gloves. Annette had already removed hers.

“I have a few minutes,” Annette smiled lightly.

“Okay, if I start explaining the experiment, we will need months, maybe years.” Annette was sure that the old scientist was exaggerating. She was also slightly insulted, but maintained her usual pleasant demeanor.

“As you were saying, two kinds of people, those who agree with you and those who do not,” Annette politely reminded him.

“Ah, yes. I want you to know this.” Today was one hell of an extraordinary day, Dr. Smith wanted his apprentice to learn something. Those who knew him could testify that the old man wasn’t into the habit of sharing knowledge.

“All my life, I have had to argue with ignorant people who believe they know it all. In college, at the university, at those seminars and get-togethers and weddings and funerals. Everywhere I go, everywhere I meet people, every time I try to participate in a discussion. There are always people who disagree with me. I hate that.”

Annette really couldn’t see where the scientist was going with this rant, but she wasn’t about to stop him.

“So one day it just hit me,” Dr. Smith continued, “the chemistry of the human brain, that is what’s responsible for likes and dislikes, preferences and priorities.” That too was one of the many theories he had presented to the scientific community, and not many agreed with him, but to him it was as authentic and reliable as the law of gravitation.

“So I started studying patterns in my own brain.” This was the weird part; Annette did not remember ever assisting in an experiment where the Doctor himself was the test subject, but she let him continue anyway.

“I found that the chemical reactions happening in my brain can be induced in others. I just need to stimulate certain areas of their brains and VoilĂ , they will see the light.”

“But how exactly will you do that? And who exactly will you do that to?” Annette was confused.

“That is a very intelligent question” it was the second compliment the doctor gave that day, but this time Annette was more scared than thankful. “There are legal complications to it, but now that the catalyst is ready, I can simply create an air borne virus.” Annette stepped back. Sensing her fear, and not knowing what to do, Dr. Smith stepped towards her, raising both hands as if to declare his peaceful intentions.

“It is not as bad as it sounds; think of it as a lifesaving drug. There is no pain involved, it’s perfectly safe.” The doctor was speaking with an uncharacteristic haste “let me show you”. He rushed at the cold storage and picked up the catalyst. Annette rushed towards the door.

The lab was large, and she had to climb a whole flight of stairs before she could reach the door. The doctor had more than enough time to introduce the catalyst in the system and turn on the reactor. Before Annette could reach the door, the virus was airborne.

“Before you leave” the doctor was very calm now, “could you please tell me your favorite color?”
“Blue” Annette was surprised by her own answer. She most definitely knew it was pink, but somehow, pink didn’t appeal to her anymore.

“Favorite drink?”
“Coffee” it was orange juice, but coffee sounded so much better now. She wondered why she ever hated coffee.

“Favorite kind of music?”
“Classical” she had always been into heavy metal, but just like the color pink, metal had lost its charm to her. Dr. Smith was now observing her somewhat subservient behavior and taking notes.

“Last question. What do you think is the…” the question was cut short by a loud thud of a body hitting the floor. Tiny droplets of blood started dripping on the floor. Annette tried to rush back to the collapsed doctor, but by the time she reached him, he had already died. The blood coming out of his eyes, nose, ears and mouth would have sickened anyone on any given day, but Annette found herself indifferent to it.

She reluctantly picked up the clipboard and saw the list of questions the doctor had prepared. “They must see the light” it said at the top of the sheet, “they must see the light” she whispered in agreement.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Collar

Collar

A Short Story by Ehtisham Rizvi

As soon as Abdul entered the market they surrounded him. Men and women of different colors, speaking different languages, wearing different attires, some offering success, fame and glory in this world, some in the afterlife and some offering both.

He was confused, he was lost, and he didn’t know who to trust. He reached for the skin under his collar and scratched a little, this collar was too tight and his neck was itchy and sweaty because of it.

‘Believe in God, those who believe will go to heaven and those who do not will go to hell’ the man of god reached for Abdul’s collar and attached his leash to. He started pulling him to the right, ‘let me show you the path to heaven’.

‘He misleads you’ another voice halted him in his tracks. ‘Belief alone does not guarantee heaven. You have to do good unto the society’. Encouraged by the reluctance in Abdul’s eyes, this new man of god (wearing a slightly different garb and sporting a slightly different beard) stepped forward and attached his own leash to Abdul’s collar. ‘Let’s talk about good deeds and how they please God’ he started pulling him in the opposite direction.

Seeing that the two priests had their leashes attached to Abdul’s collar, most of the religious merchants left in search of new customers. The crowd around him thinned a little, but the spectacle was far from over. ‘These religious zealots will lead you nowhere’, this new voice came from a beardless man. His clothes, his demeanor and his accent indicated that the man was highly educated. ‘Organized religion has caused nothing but pain and suffering in this world. Do not follow them, they promise heaven and make you do things that even Satan couldn't dream of’, the beardless man stepped forward and attached his own leash to Abdul’s collar. ‘Serve humanity and God will be pleased’ the beardless man started pulling Abdul in an entirely new direction.

‘What a bunch of troglodytes!’ this new voice made fun of all. The first person to attach his leash to Abdul’s collar was pulling him to the right, the second to the left and the third was pulling him forward. None of them were letting go, and Abdul was moving left, right, forward then left again like a drunkard trying hard to gain his footing. The new voice, which called everyone a troglodyte, came from behind. Abdul struggled hard to twist his neck just enough to see who it was, it was yet another man, sporting a small mustache. ‘Why should your life be aimed at pleasing God? Do you really wish to mold your actions, your hopes and your dreams to please an entity whose existence cannot be proved?’ This new guy also didn’t take long to attach his own leash to Abdul’s collar. ‘I say you only get to live once, you should do what pleases you, not what others tell you to do’ with that he started pulling Abdul in his direction ‘let me tell you what to do’. With that all hell broke loose, although many traders and merchants had cleared out, the remaining all swarmed Abdul like bees to honey. In a matter of few seconds, he had more leashes attached to his collar than he could count.


‘God. Liberty. Righteousness. Progress’. They were all speaking many different languages about many different concepts, but more importantly, they were all pulling him to their respective directions. ‘No more’ he wanted to shout, but there was no way his voice could have left his throat. Come to think of it, there was no way any air could have entered his lungs either. He clawed at his collar, desperate for one breath of air. His eyes were about to burst out of their sockets and he was sure he could taste his own blood in his mouth. The voices around him started to mellow, as if someone was turning the volume down. The picture became blurry and dark. In his final desperate attempt for survival, he grabbed his collar by both hands and pulled at it as hard as he could. The sound of the collar being broken was the sweetest sound he had ever heard. The crowd that had gathered around to watch the spectacle left in disappointment. The traders and merchants pulling at him gathered their leashes and left in search of new prospects. He lied on the ground, breathing heavily, trying to gather his wits. The broken collar shimmered in the scorching sun, and he could clearly see a hint of blood on it. ‘I will have to get that fixed’ his weak murmur drowned in the loud noise which suddenly erupted near the market entrance, another Abdul had just entered.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Camera


Camera

A Not So Short Story by Ehtisham Rizvi

Finally he had enough money to buy a camera, he was not a miser but for the last year he had been clutching onto every rupee as if his life depended on it. He hadn’t eaten out for what seemed like ages, he skipped his lunch to save money, and he didn’t buy new clothes. He did all of that because he needed a state of the art digital camera.

Xeshan had always been a loner, he was blessed to be among the few educated people of the third world country he lived in. Just like many of his peers, he worked day and night at a job he was overqualified for, for money that wasn’t nearly good enough, and in a capacity which did not allow him to utilize his talents. His only dream, his only goal in life was to be the best photographer in the world. He did have an eye for beauty, some of those, and there were few, who knew his work even suggested that he found beauty in the most lifeless and ordinary scenes. He made the viewer stop and think, and he did all that with the 5 mega-pixel Camera of his cell phone. Some of the people who had seen his work online had suggested that he get a better camera, for even the best of gladiators could not survive for long with a blunt, rusty old sword. “A better camera means better quality of pictures, and will help you reach more viewers” one of his online ‘friends’ had commented on a picture he had taken. The picture was his magnum opus so far, it was of an old man with a wrinkled face, sitting near the grave of his dead son. There were no tears in his eyes, not even a frown on his face, just emptiness, infinite emptiness. Xeshan had captured the withdrawal and the exhaustion of the old man with such finesse, that as soon as he uploaded it on his Flickr account, it started trending on different social media websites. The picture made one stop, the picture made one think, the picture crept into the very soul of the viewer and made him/her want to shake the old man out of his oblivious state, it made one wish he/she could deliver justice, it made one wish one could drag that man out of his hopelessness, and it made one realize that Xeshan’s people, and his country, were already dead inside, they just didn’t know it yet.

The picture titled ‘Cleanistan’ was picked up by several local newspapers, and it was with the help of some of those papers that Xeshan finally had the money to buy his dream camera. He was on his way to the ‘President’s Electronic Market’, the largest such market in the city, and the money was carefully rolled up in his shoes. He wasn’t going to lose 50,000 rupees to a mugger, and he didn’t care if it made him look like a fool in front of the shop keeper. Money out of a shoe is still money, and no shopkeeper would reject 50,000 rupees just because they smelled like his socks. He got off the bus at the stop, and started towards the market, he knew what he wanted, he knew how much it cost, and he had the money, what could possibly go wrong? As he made his way through the crowd of people walking in different directions, he bumped into someone. His first instinct was to check his pockets, bumping into people in crowded place often meant that you would end up without a wallet and/or your cell phone, but to his surprise, his wallet and phone were still there. He looked at the man he had bumped into, and received the shock of his life, it was the old man from the picture, the picture he had taken when he was visiting his grandfather’s grave, the picture which had made him enough money to buy a decent camera, the picture that had earned him the most important thing a photographer in Cleanistan could earn, a name. The man was staring directly into his eyes, but there was no emptiness in his eyes, there was a sense of recognition, “you have a gift” he said to Xeshan, “you shook them from their slumber, yet they are not awake. My son was not the first victim, and he wouldn’t definitely be the last. If you can show them the ugliness of what they have become, if you could show them the truth, maybe, just maybe they could change” with that the man reached into the deep pockets of his traditional Cleanistani shirt, and when his hand came out it had a camera in it, a large black camera with a strange scope and a stranger flashlight on top. Xeshan did not recognize the brand, and at first glance, it did not even appear to be a digital camera, but he could not refuse the man’s extended hand, he took the camera and tried to look at it from all angles, weighing it, looking for a brand name, trying to judge the quality, when he looked up to thank the man, he was not there anymore. He took a picture of the shop in front of him, and the quality he saw on screen was much more than any camera he could buy for 50,000. He smiled and started to cross the road to catch the next bus home, “what a trip” he thought “saved 50,000 and got a free camera”.

The next few weeks were magical to say the least, every picture he took scored a ton of hits on different websites, and many local and some foreign magazines and newspapers bought his pictures. He could finally quit his day job and dedicate himself to photography. His pictures exposed the bitter and sad realities of life, unlike his previous pictures taken through his cell phone, which were all about finding beauty in the otherwise invisible elements of the society. These pictures grabbed the people by the collar and shook them, slapped them, cussed at them. Through his pictures, he tried to awaken his comatose nation, but his efforts seemed in vain. Surely he was appreciated as a photographer, and surely he was doing what he loved and was making more money than he could ever hope to, but he felt an emptiness and a void, he felt that old man’s eyes upon him, questioning him, asking him if he had saved some other father from losing his son to sectarian killings. With every picture he took, with every day that passed, with every “good job Xeshan, I am a big fan of your work” comment he received on social media, his frustration grew. He could feel his guilt overcoming him, days went by when he didn’t take a picture, every time he picked up the camera, he felt as if the camera was asking him the same questions as the old man, and that wasn’t all. He could feel that somehow, the camera was connected to his mind, if he found himself concentrating on something within a picture, the camera would automatically focus on it, and blur out the rest. Looking through the lens and looking at things without it, were now the same thing. Xeshan was puzzled by his situation, he had taken a picture of his camera with his old cell phone, and had posted it online, but no one was yet to come up with a manufacturer’s name.

It was a slow, depressing summer afternoon, with hot wind and dust ruling the city streets, and Xeshan was out there looking for inspiration. After wandering the streets aimlessly for an hour, he entered the nearby posh coffee shop, he remembered the time when he couldn’t afford to eat there, when he desperately wanted to but the prices were too high for a salaried man like him. It had always been his fantasy to run into his favorite TV actress Mahnur there, she had mentioned in an interview that she frequented the place, and running into her in that coffee shop was a dream he had seen with open eyes on more than one occasion. As he entered the shop, camera in hand, he could not believe his eyes, there she was, sitting right in front of him, much more beautiful in person than on screen. His hands gained a life of their own, and forgetting all gentlemanly manners and ethics of photography, he simply took a picture of her, all the while thinking how good his life would be if she were his wife. The camera flashed, and the picture was taken, when he put the camera down, he was in for the shock of his life, he was not in the coffee shop anymore, he was in some strange house and there she was in front of him. He noticed the ring on her finger, and then memories started flashing before his eyes. He could remember asking her out, he could remember the time he popped the question and he could even remember the wedding. What he couldn’t understand was the existence of those memories, he did not live that life, but he could see himself living it in those memories. He could try to forget those memories like a pleasant dream, but he could not ignore the reality, standing right in front of him, with a loving smile. “Ready?” she asked, and he suddenly remembered that they had to go to a dinner party.

After a few weeks, when he was finally settling into his new life as a married man, he again decided to take a stroll and think about his situation. He knew that somehow, the camera was involved, he wished for her, and the camera made his wish come true. He knew that the thought was silly and if he shared it with someone they would call him crazy, but in his heart he was convinced that the camera could do things, extraordinary things. To test his theory, or to validate his belief, he stopped in front of a large mansion, he had always hated people who lived in big houses, it’s not that he had something personal against them, he just didn’t understand why some people had to show off their wealth with their big houses and bigger cars. However, this house he liked, this house he wanted “this house would be the perfect gift for Mahnur” he thought and looked at it through the lens of the camera. His throat was a little dry and his heart was thumping in his chest, his hands were cold and sweaty, but he put his feelings aside, focused on the house and pushed the button. The camera flashed and the picture was taken, when he removed the camera from his eye, he found himself in the mansion, with Mahnur thanking him for the extravagant gift. He smiled, and memories of him selling the mansion’s picture to a foreign customer flashed before his eyes, the money was enough to make the down payment on the mansion, and he could remember himself and Mahnur signing the contract. He knew that the memories were false, but he was happy with the results.

His life changed forever once he figured out how the camera worked, all he had to do was wish for something and capture its image through the camera. The camera would fill his mind with memories of how he acquired the object and the object would come into his possession. He now owned several houses and cars, and frequently cheated on his wife. The goal of changing his society for the better, one picture at a time, had far been forgotten. He was now extremely rich, and Cleanistan was a society where rich people could do as they pleased, no questions asked. He had started using recreational drugs to numb his conscience. Looking at the camera did not remind him of the old man anymore, he loved the way people treated him, and he loved that he could break any law and get away with it by simply spending pocket change. The society needed no change, the society worked for him, everything was at it should be. But sometimes he could still feel the void, no matter how many pills he took or how much powder he snorted; he could feel the burden of his guilt increasing. He could feel as if he was letting someone down, as if he was letting himself down.

He tried seeking help, at first he went to the nearest priest; he skipped the part about the magic camera, but told him that despite having everything he felt emptiness. The priest advised him to pray regularly, and to donate money generously. After trying that for a while, he became convinced it wasn’t working and went to a shrink, the shrink advised him to exercise, to get in touch with his parents, to take up a hobby and to meditate, but none of that worked either. His drug and alcohol abuse increased rapidly, and his womanizing reached new heights of degeneracy. Mahnur tried to leave him on multiple occasions, but every time she did, he captured her image with his camera and wished her to stay; she became his prisoner without chains, not knowing that she was being forced to stay against her will.

“I was given a chance, I was given power and I was chosen to change my society, but instead, I allowed my greed and my lust to overcome me, I allowed the society to change me, I became what I despised. Look at me and be warned, I had everything a man could possibly have, but I didn’t earn it, I abused the gift given to me, and I strayed from my path. Pray for my forgiveness, if you believe in prayers” the very last entry in his journal was very similar to a suicide note. “Looks like a simple case of suicide to me” said the inspector visiting the scene, “the guy overdosed on drugs and alcohol, a good way to go in my opinion” the inspector loved to crack wise.

“Rich guy, wife sure inherited a large sum, could be murder” the sub inspector took his job way too seriously, at least that's what the inspector thought, “look if you wish to investigate murder, it means more work for me, so why don’t you just fill the paperwork and let’s get out of here” the inspector was in a hurry to finish his twelve hour shift. The men from the ambulance service took the dead body away. The camera just sat there in the corner of the room on a table, looking at the bed where he once laid, one more soul corrupted by his own greed, one more soul adding to the camera’s magic.  

I would like to thank my dear friend Zeeshan Haider for the central idea of the story.