Let There Be LightBy Nicola Mody
Vila stumbled onto the flight deck. “Sorry I’m late,” he said, falling into his seat.
“It’s all right, Vila,” Blake said, almost kindly.
Encouraged, Vila considered saying he didn’t feel at all well, but decided against it. He tried to ignore his headache and the churning nausea in his stomach, and sank his head in his hands.
“Have you taken your medication, Vila?” Cally asked, concerned.
“And eaten something?”
“Yeah.” A few mouthfuls of the lentil soup she had made for him, enough so that the decontaminant drugs didn’t hit an empty stomach.
“You’ll be back to normal in a week or so,” Blake said heartily.
Avon roused himself. “Somewhat debatable in his case.”
Vila didn’t bother to respond. He sighed and looked around at the other three with radiation sickness. Jenna, tired and dispirited, wilted at her station, Gan had his head back and his eyes closed, and though Avon looked much the same as usual, he was very pale and had dark rings under his eyes. The two healthy crewmembers weren’t much better. Blake looked worried, chewing away at a knuckle, and if he didn’t know better, Vila would think Cally was ill too. She said she couldn’t pick up thoughts, only send them, but maybe she got the edges of feelings. Wouldn’t be much fun, that, what with everyone ill or anxious about that new computer Orac’s prediction. Or both.
“What we need,” Vila said, “is something to cheer us up.”
“Leaving us, are you?” Avon said sourly. “That might do it.”
“Could be a good idea, given the neighbourhood’s scheduled for demolition.”
“Then may I suggest Zephron. You’d raise the average IQ of both the ship and the planet.”
“That’s an old one. Can’t the noble Lord Avon do any better than that?”
“Oh, shut up, the pair of you,” Jenna snapped. “Or you’ll both be walking the gangplank.”
“An old free-trader expression, Vila,” Blake said. “Meaning out the airlock.”
Gan stirred, grimacing. “You lot couldn’t keep it down a bit, could you? It hurts my head.” He closed his eyes again. “And there was no reason to insult my home planet.”
“And you’ve only just worked that out? I’m not surprised your head hurts.”
“Avon!” Cally frowned disapprovingly. “That does not help.”
“And what would, pray tell?”
“Something to take our minds off how we feel,” Vila said.
Jenna put her chin on her hand. “Like what?”
“Well, back on Earth, there’s the Festival of Light about now. Starts tonight, twelve days of it.”
Cally looked interested. “What is that, Vila? It sounds lovely.”
“Apart from a Delta excuse to get drunk?” Avon laughed. “It can be observed in almost all primitive cultures in mid-winter. It’s an ignorant and superstitious attempt to propitiate the gods and bring back the sun and the warmth.”
Vila glared. “Shows how much you know. It’s history. Blake, you’d like that, it’s even about freedom.”
“Mm?” Blake looked up from the star charts he was perusing on the flight couch display. “Ah, the Light Festival, yes, an amalgam of at least two ancient religious celebrations. The only reason it’s permitted in the Delta levels is because it’s almost completely secular these days and keeps them happy enough.”
“An opiate for the masses,” Avon sneered.
“If an opiate makes you feel good, what’s wrong with that?” Vila demanded. All the same, he decided to let it go. He didn’t want that lot laughing at him. Well, not any more than usual.
That evening, Vila carefully lined up nine candles in a casserole dish on the desk in his cabin and lit the middle one with a laser probe. Lucky he’d had the forethought to nick some of Meegat’s candles while he’d been down on that planet, getting himself slowly cooked.
“Blessings to you, king of the universe,” he said as he lit the leftmost candle from the first. “And bless us all, every one.” The second bit made more sense than the first. Humans—and hairy aliens for that matter—surely needed a spot of luck more than the creator of the whole shebang did. Not that he was going to let anyone know he had a sneaking belief in said being. Something must have set off the big bang after all, but it was a lot harder to believe anything that powerful had any interest in one little thief. Probably for the best really, considering one of those commandments thingies he’d read a while back.
He stared dreamily into the two little flames, and smiled, remembering happy times with his mother.
“Would anyone like some lunch?” Cally asked. Only Blake looked interested. Jenna swallowed, Gan closed his eyes, and Vila clapped his hand over his mouth.
“Don’t let us stop you,” Avon said. “But consume it elsewhere, would you?”
“Perhaps some meditation would help.”
Avon gave Cally a withering look. “Oh, yes, contorting ourselves into ridiculous positions will of course improve our digestions.”
Jenna ran her hands through her hair and sighed. “So tell us about this festival of yours, Vila. Omitting all mention of...”
“Food?” Vila nodded queasily. “Well, it’s all about light, see.”
Avon raised his eyebrows. “You astound me.”
Vila pulled a face at him. “First we light candles for eight days, one each day. Then we have lights everywhere for the last four days. That makes twelve days, see?”
“Why?” Jenna asked.
Vila looked disconcerted. “Dunno.” He brightened. “I do know about the first eight though. You’ll like this, Blake, it’s all about rebels and freedom. See, thousands of years ago, the land was ruled by an evil empire which made all the people worship their gods instead of the one who made everything. Some of them went along with it—”
“As you undoubtedly would, Vila,” Avon said.
Vila looked sly. “Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I’d just pretend I did.”
Avon smiled one of his rare dazzling smiles.
Vila blinked. “Um, anyway, others wouldn’t give in, and this guy Jude McAbie had a brave heart, and he and his four brothers chucked the invaders out.”
“Judas Maccabee,” Avon drawled. “And he did have an army behind him, unlike some rebels I could mention who think five assorted criminals and an alien with an open mind will suffice.”
“I note you included yourself in that,” Blake said mildly. “Go on, Vila.”
Vila hesitated, staring at Avon, then dropped his eyes to Orac beside him. “You looked it up,” he accused.
“I like to be informed, a concept unknown to you, Vila. But do go on. It’s most ... entertaining.”
“Well, the temple had to be rededicated after all those foreign gods being in it, so the priests cleaned it and relit the eternal flame—“
“Which was hardly eternal if it had gone out.”
“Oh, very clever, Avon. Well, they only had enough oil for a day, but it burned for eight.”
“Hardly the miracle you suppose. Someone probably found some more oil and topped it up.”
Vila turned to Blake. “It isn’t just the oil, it’s more than that. It’s about the good guys winning, and being free.”
Blake did not look as impressed as Vila had expected. “Free to pursue one set of superstitions over another?”
“You don’t believe in all that, do you, Vila?” Jenna asked.
“Look, what does it matter if it’s true or not?” Vila shrugged. “It’s fun, that’s all.”
Avon smiled knowingly.
“Information. Detectors indicate a meteor storm directly ahead.”
“Measurements, Zen?” Blake chewed a knuckle.
“Scale eleven, intensity six.”
“Wide area but not that bad,” Blake said. “We’ll go straight through it.”
“It is not very deep,” Cally said, looking at her screen.
“Good, it won’t drain the force wall much, then.”
“I’ll just have to avoid the biggest rocks,” Jenna said, her eyes lighting up. “This’ll be fun. Here we go.”
Avon grabbed Orac as it slid across the table and Vila gripped his console, his wide eyes glued to the main display. “Hey!” he protested, “you’re just—”
“Oh, a nice big one!”
“—aiming at them—“
“—for the practice!”
Jenna whooped, then sat back looking happier than she had for days. “We’re through.”
“Well done, Jenna,” Blake said.
“You did that on purpose,” Vila said, aggrieved. “Does flying in a straight line bore you?”
“About as much as using a key bores you,” Jenna grinned.
“And me just thinking about getting my appetite back.”
“Information,” Zen said. “Fire detected.”
“Where?” Blake came to his feet.
“In Vila Restal’s cabin.”
His nausea forgotten, Vila yelped, leaped up and ran, reaching his cabin just ahead of the others. His candles had been thrown about the cabin. Most were unlit, and the rest were guttering harmlessly, but one had landed on his red parka, one sleeve of which was well alight. Vila grabbed it, threw it to the floor, and jumped up and down on it until it smouldered.
As did Blake. “Candles on a spaceship? Damn it all, Vila, just what were you thinking?”
“Now that’s unusually accurate.” Avon leaned against the doorway, arms folded, looking highly amused.
Blake sighed. “Pick those things up, Vila, and give them to me. And put them out first.”
Mournfully, Vila gathered the candles and held them out.
“Is that all?”
“You don’t have any more?”
Vila shook his head miserably.
That evening, Vila lined up nine small bottles stolen from the medical unit in the sturdy frame he had created for them with metal off-cuts and wire. He carefully poured some cooking oil into each, and inserted wicks made of cord from the clothes room. He lit the middle ‘lamp’, then the leftmost three. Pity about the candles. Never mind—a lot more authentic, oil, wasn’t it? He rested his chin in his hands and remembered.
“I don’t get it, Vila. Why did you want to do such a stupid thing?” Jenna asked. “It’s just an old story. What’s it got to do with you?”
Vila shrugged as he sat down.
“Surely you don’t believe in that religious claptrap, Vila,” Blake said. “An interest in history is one thing, but to enact ancient rituals...”
“Perhaps he’s superstitious.” Avon said, giving Vila a snide look. “If he doesn’t do the right thing, he’ll have bad luck the next year. An understandable belief in one not evolved sufficiently to walk erect.”
“Shut up, Avon.” Vila snapped. “It’s none of those things.” He stared at his screen with pretended interest. No, it was warmth and love and affection and hope and fun and belonging and he couldn’t begin to explain that.
Almost as if she heard him, Cally’s eyes unfocussed and she said softly, “Family, friends, connections.”
Vila looked up at her sharply, and she smiled sympathetically. “Sort of,” he muttered, wishing he hadn’t started the whole thing.
“We celebrate our kinship on Auron once a year, in a week of feasting and celebrations. It would have been about four months ago.” Her eyes looked into Vila’s as if she understood.
“You must miss that,” he said.
“I do. But you are all my kin now.”
“Oh spare me the sentiment,” Avon put down his probe. “On top of radiation sick—”
“We have a Green Festival in midwinter,” Gan said suddenly. “It’s a time for family too.”
Vila grinned at him gratefully. “What’s it like, Gan?”
“Ah, now...” Gan leaned back with his hands behind his head. “Well, it’s green of course.” He shot an almost mischievous glance at Avon. “We decorate our houses with conifer branches and red berries, and have blazing fires to warm us, and eat...ah, we eat till we can’t anymore. Meat, vegetables, spiced cake, dried fruit and nuts...”
Avon turned his attention to him, as Vila suspected Gan had intended. “Oh, this is too perfect. Absolutely classic. Greenery to seduce the growing season back, fire to represent the sun—”
Vila rolled his eyes. Couldn’t just be for warmth, could it, oh no.
“—and the preserved harvest from the previous season, fruit and nuts and so forth. Tell me, Gan,” Avon purred, “does it speed the return of summer?”
“No,” Gan said mildly, “but it makes us feel damned good.”
“There, you see?” Vila said.
Three pairs of cool Alpha eyes made it obvious they didn’t.
“Information. Three Federation pursuit ships detected.”
“Standard by seven, Zen,” Blake ordered.
“Three hundred spacials and closing,” Cally said.
“Force wall up!”
“Two plasma bolts launched,” Vila called, and clutched at his console as they hit the force wall and the Liberator rolled with the impact.
“Evasive action, Jenna. Vila, fire!”
Vila’s hands raced over the controls, dropping the force wall just long enough to fire the neutron blasters. “Got one!”
“Lose them, Jenna.”
“They’re firing again.” Vila was almost thrown from his seat as Jenna wrenched them out of the bolts’ path. He readied himself to fire back, but the second ship had disappeared from the scanners.
“They’re lost.” Jenna grinned, tossing her hair back.
Vila, still riding high on adrenaline, laughed. “They really want that plastic box back, don’t they? No chance! Best getaway ship in the galaxy, this.”
“Eh?” Vila’s hand automatically went to the weapons controls before he realised it was Zen who had spoken.
The same conclusion hit the others, but Vila was well in the lead in the dash to his cabin, grabbing a fire extinguisher on the way.
“Bloody hell,” Blake said from behind him as he sprayed the small pools of burning oil on his desk and floor.
“That,” Avon said, “is not a menorah. It is a bank of molotov cocktails.” He waited till Vila had finished, then stepped forward and almost lifted him off the floor as he shook him. “Orac predicted the destruction of this ship, and we all know why now, don’t we?”
“Let him go, Avon.” Blake brought his face right up to Vila’s. “Vila,” he said, speaking slowly and clearly. “No more naked flames on this ship. Do you understand?”
“No candles. No lamps. No incendiary devices. No bombs. Nothing.”
Vila shook his head.
“Do you promise me?”
That evening, Vila attached nine small LEDs to a small jury-rugged control board. He had spent two hours making it with its very clever eight-way switch in front of the middle light, successfully distracting him from the lingering symptoms of radiation sickness. He turned on the power, lighting the middle LED, then manipulated the switch to light the four on the left, one by one, then the first of the right-hand ones.
Not really the same as candles or lamps, but he’d done something similar for the front door at home when he was a kid, while his mum was alive. Silly really, doing it now, hadn’t bothered for years, even though the festival was the best time of the year. He’d preferred to spend it out in the street, immersed in that infectious fizzing intoxicating joy.
But this year, seeing Meegat’s candles had reminded him of evenings with his mum, and lying in his cabin on the way to Aristo, hoping he wasn’t going to... well, he’d thought a lot about things, that’s all.
“You know,” Gan said, making up a sandwich the size of a doorstep, “I’m starting to get my appetite back, especially thinking about festival food. I could go for a nice mince pie to finish up with.”
Vila pulled a face.
“Fruit mince. You’d like it, Vila. It’s soaked in liquor for a week.”
“One of his ambitions, no doubt,” Avon fastidiously spread some tapenade on a thin slice of bread.
“Do you eat special food at your festival, Vila?” Cally asked.
“Yeah, it works up to a blow-out meal on the ninth day, veges, potatoes, a nice nut-roast. Or some chicken if you eat that sort of thing.” His mum always shaped her roast into a bird in flight, and made it into a joke—would you like a wing, Vila darling?
“A bit small for our family,” Gan said. “We always had a whole cow on a spit.”
Vila blanched, and tried to think of something else. “And there’s special stuff in the first eight days. I was famous for my latkes and doughnuts.”
“I’ll bet you were.” Jenna got up from the table. “We were talking about food.”
“Fried potato pancakes and little sweet cakes with jam,” Vila said with dignity. “I was very good at them.”
“Oh. Well, I don’t think I’m quite ready to think about fried food yet,” Jenna said reflectively. “I’ll be on the flight deck with Blake.”
Vila gave Gan a knowing look as she left. Fat chance. Jenna would have to dress herself in a revolutionary flag to get Blake to take a second look. It was an idea though. One shoulder and one leg bare right up to the hip...
“What else did you do?” Cally asked.
“She means as opposed to trying to burn down the Delta levels and eating yourself to bursting point,” Avon said.
Vila gave him a speculative look. “There’s the turny-top game. Wouldn’t take me long to make one. It’s got four sides with different marks on, and you play for the pot.”
“Ah, a cut-down version of roulette suitable for the limited Delta intellect?”
“Gambling, then,” Shaking her head disapprovingly, Cally got up.
“We played for points or sweets,” Vila told her. “Little chocolate credits.” His eyes narrowed as he turned back to Avon. “We could make it more interesting if you like.”
“Indeed? What do you suggest?”
Vila watched Cally leave, then leaned forward. “You got into that treasure room before you got to Cygnus Alpha, didn’t you?”
“And you’re suggesting you haven’t?”
“Blake made me promise not to.”
“More fool you. So I’m expected to provide the pot, am I?” Avon stood up. “No dice, Vila. So to speak.” He went out.
Vila turned to Gan, looking hopeful. “What about you, then?”
“I don’t like gambling.”
“Just for points, then? Just a bit of fun?”
Gan’s eyes crinkled. “All right, Vila. But no cheating.”
Vila’s face lit up.
Avon reached out from under the console he was working on for a spare LED, and cursed when his groping fingers found only an empty compartment. He slid out and looked into his toolbox. He had only used three, and the last time he’d checked there had been a round dozen. Where were the other nine?
That evening, Vila went straight to bed as he had nothing left to light. He curled up, imagining the streets of the Delta levels with their carnival atmosphere, brightly-lit food stalls open half the night, laughing excited children, and their parents with the lines of care on their faces erased for a few days. Vila had submerged himself in that sea of happiness, moving through it with delight, entertaining passers-by with his juggling and magic tricks.
He’d never see any of that again, not with a million-credit bounty on his head. The lights he hadn’t lit for years were just a symbol of it, but he didn’t really need them. He closed his eyes and pretended he could hear laughter and music in the distance.
“Lit any more fires overnight, Vila?” Jenna asked as he appeared on the flight deck.
“I daresay he’s holding off for the finale, as shown by Orac,” Avon said. “It all culminates in a blaze of light, doesn’t it, Vila?”
Jenna sniggered. “Perhaps the temple burned down.”
Vila, who had been trying to maintain a dignified silence, glared at her. “No, it didn’t. That’s another story.”
“Yes, it was the Romans. Much later,” Blake said absently.
“Didn’t mean that, I mean the light at the end is to celebrate the coming of the light.”
Gan looked puzzled. “The sun?”
“No, it was when this man was born, see, and he was called the light of the universe. Not literally—” Vila added quickly to forestall Avon, “—he was a teacher.”
“Ah,” Avon said. “Light from enlightenment. And you of course celebrate with philosophical discussions.”
Vila gave him a hard look, then shrugged. He might take Avon on, but not Avon and Orac both.
“How did you celebrate, Vila?” Cally asked.
“Well, for one thing, we gave each other presents.”
Something that was needed, like the gift of light. Vila could still remember being so excited about the new tunic his mother had promised him when he was seven that he could hardly sleep for wondering what colour it would be. After he began to work with Serrin though, they’d changed to giving each other something handmade, because his mother said it was better than stolen. So from then on it had been small, silly things, but special because of the time taken to make them. And when Vila had come back after escaping from CF1 to find his mother had died, he’d found all the gifts he’d given her, the hand-drawn cards, paper flowers, scented candles half burned down, the pottery plate he’d made—months, that had taken to dry hidden behind the radiator—and his little clay top, all packed in a box as if they were treasures.
Blake chuckled. “Ah, now we come to it. So that’s why you wanted this festival, Vila?”
“You greedy little sod,” Jenna said. “I might have known there’d be something in it for you. Well, you won’t get anything out of me.”
“I haven’t had a present since I was a kid,” Vila said, outraged. “That’s not it at all. You’ve never seen it, so you don’t know. They put the curfew back till midnight for the whole twelve days—”
“Hmm,” Blake said thoughtfully. “That might be an excellent time to stage an uprising, using that for cover.”
“Here, you can’t ruin people’s fun,” Vila said, alarmed. “It’s the highlight of the year! The streets are full of lights, there’s food stalls and music and dancing and people spend all evening just being happy together, and there’s this spirit of—”
“Of course there is.” Avon said, amused. “You’re probably pickled to the gills.”
“No, no,” Blake held up a finger. “He’d have to stay sober to steal all those watches and wallets.”
Vila went white and stood up. “I don’t get drunk and I don’t rob anyone who can’t afford it. And you just don’t get it at all, do you? It’s not the light or the food or the presents. It’s...it’s what that man taught, that every single person matters, whether they’re Alphas or Deltas or bond-slaves or aliens, and no matter how bad things are, it’s not that bad.” Go on, Avon, laugh, I know that came out wrong. “It’s about friends and giving a damn for each other and hope...”
He stopped, appalled, realising that he had gone too far, turned and ran from the room.
There was an embarrassed silence, then Cally rose. “I’d better see how he is.”
“No.” Gan shook his head. “He won’t thank you for it. Let him be, and I’ll take him some food in a while and play a game with him.”
The others said nothing, avoiding each other’s eyes.
What the hell had possessed him? Vila pulled the covers over his head. He’d lost it back there. He’d almost said too much, and they’d have laughed at that too, made it all look cheap and tawdry and it wasn’t. They’d taken his lights and jeered at his festival, but he still had his hope. Because the old story said that when that man died, there’d been a thief with him, and he went to paradise too.
Vila liked to joke about living for ever, but part of him believed it.
“Come on, Vila, hurry it up,” Blake’s voice came over the intercom in his cabin. “You’re wanted on the flight deck.”
Vila sighed. “Coming.”
He’d been delaying, unwilling to face them all after the day before. He trudged along, head down, feeling resentful. Cally and Gan had been kind, but snide remarks from snotty Alphas were all he needed, especially today.
He stopped at the top of the steps, stunned.
The flight deck was ablaze with light. There were lamps on the walls, nine-branched candlesticks on the consoles and tables, strings of tiny lights draped around Zen. There was an open fire in front of the flight couch, and green branches with clusters of red berries between each lamp on the wall, and traditional gold and silver six-pointed stars.
Vila gasped and ran down the steps and around the room, pausing to put a hand out to a lamp or a star, then, laughing with delight, he spun, arms out, hands passing through the unsubstantial candles, and stopped in front of the others. They were all smiling, their faces bright with reflected light, even Avon.
Surely only Avon had the skill to do this. Vila looked at him, almost overcome. “Thanks.”
Avon’s eyes lit with rare warmth. “They’re only holograms, Vila. It’s not real.”
Vila looked around at Blake’s twinkling eyes, the laughter on Gan’s face and the serenity on Cally’s, and the way Jenna was smiling almost fondly at Avon—not something you saw every year, that—and Avon himself.
“Yes it is,” he said.
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