This is Kerry Valkyrie Baldock Kelly’s first story. Its called Equilibrium.
The fog had started with a simple migraine, a pulsating pain thrusting outwards from behind her eyes. Studying mathematical physics at one of the best universities in Ireland was a challenge in itself, a privilege too. John had come from a rural background, bought up wrapping silage and herding cows in the farmlands of North May, but against his father’s wishes he sought a more challenging career. His father failed to see how John could not embrace his inheritance, but the boy had a keen mind and after several discussions with the teachers at his secondary school his father grudgingly accepted that John’s aspirations lay elsewhere.
When the other teenagers stayed behind to play music John would take additional and applied mathematics classes. It was a lonely existence, but John found the challenge of each puzzle exhilarating. He would use his time on the bus to and from school reading popular physics books by Hawking, Greene and Cox. His younger sister would tease him as they ate the evening roast around the wooden kitchen table and, although he would never refuse agricultural work, for he felt a duty to his parents, he seldom spent an evening in front of the television.
Nights would be spent furiously studying for his exams, hoping and working towards a chance to leave the country and head to the academic laboratories in Galway. The endless study paid off and even his father felt a sense of elation when John received his results and a subsequent offer of a place. The first year breezed by and John was so refreshed by the experience that he volunteered to turn his father’s turf during the summer. The migraines began in the second year.
Having missed out on a social life growing up John often opted to spend time drinking and relaxing in the union bar with his peers. He could talk extensively about his creative ideas; wormholes, time travel and multiverses with academics who found him fascinating. Given his new found proclivity for drinking John naturally assumed that the first migraine was a hangover, the result of dehydration. Wednesday night was quiz night in the bar and he had stayed out late stretching his cerebral muscle. He found himself waking groggily in the halls of residence with a slight ache.
His first lecture began at 10AM and led John through the amazing ideas presented by cosmologists. Normally he would have been thoroughly attentive; however the ache had evolved into a pain. The February rain beating furiously on the windows was not helping the matter and by lunchtime flickers and dots writhed before his eyes. His second assumption was that his sugar level had dropped, so he hastily exited the lecture hall and crossed the pathway to the campus cafeteria and loaded up on donuts and sweet tea.
Unable to manage sitting through the flickering and humming lights of another lecture and with the pain increasing exponentially John returned to his dorm and hid under his blanket with the curtains pulled. Once he rose that day to partake of a large dose of Ibuprofen. He then returned to the sanctuary of his bed. His roommate returned to find John in debilitating pain and called the campus Doctor. John concurred with the Doctor that he was experiencing a migraine, but as it was only a one off he refused to take Amitriptyline.
Unfortunately it was not a one off! The headaches increased in both frequency and severity throughout February. He soldiered on using Ibuprofen as a crutch, but suffered the consequences as his stomach was often aggravated by the drug. Then the smog came. It started as a noise, a high pitched humming searing through John’s brain. He searched his room for a faulty appliance at first, but it grew louder and louder. He searched the halls and even attended the security office to complain, but the officer grew impatient with John claiming that there was no noise and suggested rather curtly that he should cut down on his alcohol intake.
Abruptly the noise ceased. It must have been midnight, the din had kept John awake and the instant it stopped he felt a sense of relief course through his veins alongside an overwhelming urge to sleep. His heavy eyes drooped closed as euphoria engulfed him. His soul drifted into the mattress and sunk deeply.
Whining, high pitched, annoying whining stung John’s ears. He woke with a start and glanced at the alarm clock; 2:39. His roommate snored, oblivious to the irritating sound. The whine scratched and scrambled causing John’s head to pound. His eyes rested again on the alarm clock. He must have set it wrong causing the radio to stir. His hands flailed as he fiddled with the buttons trying to turn it off. More scratching and scrambling, then he could hear talking. The voices were muffled and inaudible, but an improvement on the previous racket. The buttons were not responding, but his headache was improving and John decided to let the soft voices lull him to sleep.
With the migraine seemingly relieved John returned to lectures within a few days. He found himself more alert and determined to work harder. His nights out were abolished and he spent his evenings alone studying. By mid-March he had caught up and gone beyond his peers. He was no more lonely than he had been at school and was not concerned as solitude suited him. Late nights, early mornings and a great deal of caffeine drove him headlong into a massive learning curve. He felt invincible!
Stomach cramps were a bother; he had missed so many meals that he was forced to go shopping. One Wednesday evening when his peers were at the bar he ventured to the local supermarket. It was busy, packed. At first he smoothly flitted from aisle to aisle throwing special offers into his trolley. Without notice everything changed. He was reaching for a loaf of bread when an overwhelming sense of suffocation fell on him. People, alien people, seemed to be everywhere, rushing by, enclosing him, strangling him and sucking away the very oxygen from the air.
John’s heart began to explode with each beat; the sound filled his ears and pulsated through his neck into his head where the throbs bellowed throughout his brain. He was hot, boiling, sweat started to bubble and his eyes filled with fog. The whining from the radio poured into the aisle like water drowning out the human ants, the whirring, the screeching and then equilibrium. A soft voice whispered into his ear urging him to leave, warning him that he was being watched, examined and prepared as his intelligence was of great use. A surreal calm fell on him and somehow he found his way home.
John was special. He had been singled out for a career in the secret services, perhaps he had been under surveillance since his glowing school results, after all physicists were in short supply and given the on-going wars, medical needs and competitive multimedia technologies the government was obliged to hunt down suitable candidates. He lay in bed unsure as to whether it was day or night, staring at his clock radio, waiting for the soft voice to advise him, and invariably it did.
David, John’s roommate had noticed a change in his friend. He had always been quirky, would sit in silence day-dreaming on their Wednesday nights out. He had watched as John struggled through his first year and barely passed the year’s finals probably, David presumed, because he wandered around campus all day in a world of his own and did not attend lectures. He had even spent the summer in digs in Galway never answering his phone or emails. When David had visited he had found John aloof and withdrawn and often wondered if he knew he had visited at all. He left his digs without notice and owing a great deal of rent, but John never seemed to worry about that. His father met some of his costs, but only when a very irate landlady called him.
This behaviour was new and more troublesome. John’s weight had dropped, he was gaunt and pale. He seldom left his bed let alone the room and during the night would be restless or would sit up and stare, nodding as if intently listening to some invisible being. David would check on John during lectures and found him either listless with eyes fixed intensively on the small watch that perched on his bedside table or scribbling furiously and muttering to himself.
It was only on seeing John’s incoherent scribbling that David sadly decided to call his father. Pages and pages of references to a political faction that had enlisted John’s help to develop a time machine that could travel across wormholes and enable the engineering of human history. There were diagrams, incorrect equations and notes on the enemy. The enemy changed his face, according to John’s notes, sometimes appearing as a monarch or leader and on other occasions as Jon’s own father. The call had to be made.
Pounding, throbbing, burning behind his eyes caused John to wake. He was in a lightly dressed and largely uncomfortable hospital bed. Gaudy yellowing curtains were drawn across the foot, to the right of him was a window overlooking the Mayo town of Castlebar and to the left another window leading into an observation office. Inside his father spoke to a small, greying doctor and John caught a few words. Schizophrenia was mentioned, treatable and Haloperidol also came up in the conversation. John closed his eyes.
The room was foggy, his father and the doctor were gone. Two tall men in immaculate and expensive dark suits stared through the glass. The older white haired man was talking; John recognised the voice from the radio. He informed his colleague that John had somehow tuned into messages meant for another man close to him and that he had failed to grasp their meaning. These failures had happened before and were normally treatable by blocking dopamine in the brain. Dopamine, thought John, Dopamine.
The Doctor shook John’s hand. He had made a good recovery after only three weeks and was ready to return home to his father’s care. His heart hung heavy in his chest, his dreams destroyed, but at least he was well again. John would be on medication for life, but the dosage would depend on his perception of reality and attuned accordingly. He would receive outpatient care and a nurse to visit him in the country. Reluctantly John followed his father out of the grotty room, whilst considering new ways to rebuild his life. John had always been a rational person and believed there would be alternative ways to achieve his dream.
David wrote to John regularly always showing concern for his well-being and giving him news. John was not surprised to learn some years later that David had been recruited by the British government to join a research team specialising in nuclear physics. It almost seemed like fate!
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