Provocations of Light – Second Draft by Karina Thorne
A hum of machines labouring under constant use, fills the airy void. Fridge-like vibrations, stop and start somewhere between walls of twisted aluminium sheets, light-weight and durable, and red lasers, stationed like cannons around the entire circumference. Supported by polished titanium columns, the low ceiling is overrun with wires and cables, the floor below lain with grids of iron. A whiff of gas permeates the environment. Drones hover and whizz around dim lights, seemingly identifying patterns. Despite the grey, dreary, over-crowded interior, the SS is the newest craft of its kind, equipped with the latest military technology. Co-captained by humanoids, mutants and Artificial Intelligence alike, together they are engaged in deeper learning via computer algorithms.
Lieutenant. Michelle Williams is one of the few soldiers with specialist knowledge of neural networks stationed aboard the spacecraft. She was drafted in to oversee the highly-classified Cattus Gene Experiment, but had recently been demoted to a guard position, due to ‘gross irregularities’ in that last operation. Of medium height and athletic build, the shaved head atop her stocky frame manages to attract and repel in equal measure. And yet a subtle movement which draws the attention from scalp to face, rewards the viewer with two small oceans, so crystal clear and deep, that each blink seems to bring minute waves crashing and flashing in the corner of her green eyes. They dart this way and that, small nose twitching in agitation, wary of any signs of movement as she tentatively approaches the heavily-guarded prison cell just metres away.
She wears military fatigues for her night of ‘pacing’: faded, dirty and dust-laden. So worn, you cannot see where the material ends, and her skin begins – impossible to peel off. Pacing equates to school detention – what you get when you’ve done something wrong. But had she done something wrong? Had she really broken the rules? Her smooth forehead becomes crumpled with thought, as she glimpses the sweaty backs of her colleagues hurriedly disappearing down the narrow corridor into the bleak darkness. It’s clear – no-one wants to hang around at the end of the night shift. But three soldiers for one injured prisoner during the daytime was certainly odd. And a strict detail from her superiors not to open the cell’s tiny window, even though the captive was restrained, kept rumours buzzing around her head like flies. A dangerous fugitive? She waves her left hand in front of her face, silently swotting away her apprehension. Surely they would not entrust her with such a responsibility now? Despite her geographic proximity, she was no closer to ascertaining the hostage’s identity.
One final, careful inspection of the cramped corridor that leads to the prison room and Williams is sure the coast is clear. She stands at the furthest point away from the room, but directly faces it. The lights in the passage flash on and off, each time not quite making the right connection to remain ignited. With a certain precision, she unbuttons her top pocket and swiftly removes a crumpled cigarette box. A simple shake reveals one, solitary, nicotine-stick. “Merde, à la fin!” she hoarsely whispers to herself. Her voice a mythical device, short is she with words, preferring to do rather than say. Lights on. Lights off. The blinking is disorientating but just enough to reveal a tobacco butt being gently placed on her lower lip, the upper lip moving to enclose it. A V-sign is made with her fingers and she slowly mimics the action of a smoker. But there is no lighter. There is no smoke. Today she is not smoking. Today there is no struggle with addiction. For other things haunt her. Other, irregularities, cloud her mind.
It’s 3am, the air conditioning has been cranked down, and crouched on a stool facing the cell, Williams’ battle with insomnia ensues. The craft’s machinery and stuttering manoeuvres provide welcome background noise, lulling her to sleep. Lights on. Lights off. Repeat. Drowsy, tired. Eyes open. Eyes close. Eyes rest. Where is she now? Guarding? Asleep? “Williams!” a gruff, but familiar voice bellows. An image flashes into her mind. A blurry photo. A group of soldiers. “Be the best! Be the best! Be the best!” The words echo in her ears. Coming from a family of decorated soldiers, refusing to follow command underscores her naive ambition. But her guise of haunting mute is validated by successful mission executions. “Williams!”, the raspy voice persists, “Honour and serve!” Heightened spatial awareness coupled with an uncanny ability to pre-empt logistical complications, one would regard her a valuable asset were she not so aversive to cooperating with others. “Williams!”, its a shriek now, “Abort the mission!” Half-dream, half-nightmare. “Williams, we all take a beating sometime!” Wide awake in a dream she cowers on the stool, foetus-like. Where is she now? Guarding? Asleep? Following orders? Not following orders?