The suit's wrist chronometer had been shattered in the explosion, along with its radio. The only clock Vila had now was his own heartbeat,counting out the seconds until the suit ran out of air.
He had shut off the external lights to save power. He was curled into a tight little ball, back to the blackness, ostensibly to protect the controls on the suit's front from micrometeorite strikes.
He had felt the explosion as an almighty slap against the soles of his feet. He had been some miles from the main shaft. At that distance, the asteroid miners were glittering insects, crawling around the groundbreakers as the hefty robots muscled their way into the rock.
The suit was armoured, which was why he had survived the blast. He wondered if any of the miners had. Perhaps they'd been lucky. Perhaps the explosion had killed them instantly, instead of sending them tumbling alone through the blackness.
Avon had been trying to break into the mining company's database for weeks. Which meant that he had been in a bad mood for weeks. Of course, Vila had thought, Avon was always in a bad mood; this one was just slightly worse.
He had wandered out onto the flight deck in the middle of the night, to discover Avon still awake, arguing with Orac.
"If I was arranging their security," said Vila, "I wouldn't have made it so hard to break in."
"They obviously have a secret to keep," said Avon, blearily. "I intend to find out what that secret is."
"But the fact that they've surrounded their records with so much security is a dead give-away that they do have something to hide." Vila mixed himself a drink. "If it had been me, I would have created a secure set of records, one so safe that even Orac would have trouble cracking. And then I would have kept the real records somewhere unimportant. The crackers would spend all their time trying to break into the secure area."
Avon and Orac exchanged a sharp look. At least, Avon looked at Orac sharply. "One moment," said the computer irritably.
It took more than one moment. But by the morning, Orac had ferreted out the mineral survey, lightly wrapped in security programs and tucked behind a set of records on garbage reprocessing.
"It appears to be some hitherto unknown substance," explained Orac, "Created during the formation of the stellar system, and storing in a material form the tremendous energies of that formation."
"A sort of super-coal," said Dayna. "No wonder they didn't want anyone to know about it."
"You see?" smiled Vila, triumphant. "I'm more than just a pretty face."
Avon just smiled back. "In that case, I think you're the ideal choice for the next step in this operation."
"Now, wait just a minute-"
"That's only the most general report. The specific information isn't beingkept in the central computer records at all. Someone will have to go andfind it."
After a great deal of wrangling, even Vila had to agree that he was the best person for the job. Breaking, entering, and making off anything that wasn't chained down were his specialties, after all.
In the week before his arrival on the asteroid, Vila had set a new personal record for opening locks and breaching computer security. He had set up an employee record for himself, with third level clearance. He had traced reports about the new substance. Even allowed himself to be seduced by a records clerk who knew where the first level clearance information was kept. It wasn't all bruises, he thought.
As it had turned out, the company's paranoia was even more extreme than they had thought. The only place there were specific records of what the asteroid contained was on the asteroid itself.
So Vila had changed his employee record to that of a mining supervisor, and pushed his security clearance up one more level.
Not one shot had been fired, not one person had died, Vila realised, asthe company's chartered shuttle left their headquarters en route to the asteroid.
They'd offered him a tour of the site. But by then the ease with which hehad infiltrated the company was starting to make him nervous. Better get down to brass tacks, he thought.
He was taking a mineral sample on a nearby ridge when a tiny tremor had gone through the ground. He'd thought it was just the vibration from the machine he was using.
And then something slapped against his feet.
In the next second, he went completely blind as the suit's faceplate blacked out, shielding him from the flash. Suddenly the ground was gone from beneath his feet, and he was tumbling slowly in the low gravity, the sampler spinning away from him.
And then the shock wave had hit him and tossed him like a child's ball across the sky.
It was several minutes before the faceplate would allow him to see outagain. He must have been miles from the asteroid - a ball of searing light that brought tears to his eyes, even through the darkened plate. There were dark blotches floating in the light. Chunks of the tiny moon's surface.
"This," he had gasped, "was not part of the plan."
The faceplate's heads-up display was covered in squiggles. He might have been able to make more sense of it if he had been one of the mining company's workers. Each of them had a chunk of computer wired into their skulls, just enough to allow them to run their suits and talk to the company's computers.
Not enough to allow them to talk the computers into anything, like a fat bonus. The first thing Vila had done, after checking in at the asteroid base, was to convince the accounting computer to send payment for a consignment of low-gravity tractor repair kits to an obscure corporation called Liberator Supplies. The funds had gone through without a hitch.
Which meant that they knew he had arrived safely on the asteroid, and that he'd infiltrated the company.
So where the hell were they?
It was so hard to judge distances, judge scale in the void. The nearest planet was just a bright star. The hot light of the explosion had long since died away. How far was he from where the asteroid had been?
From time to time, tiny pieces of the planetoid bounced off his suit with a pock. Several had embedded themselves in the thick armour during the explosion. Sometimes much larger chunks passed him. And once, a huge rock almost as large as he was thwacked him squarely in the back, making him yell.
They must know about the explosion by now. Would they give him up for dead? Or would they come searching for him? Would he be able to see them? Were Liberator's sensors powerful enough to spot him, or would he look like just another chunk of debris, drifting outwards?
He didn't even know how to turn on the suit's emergency beacon.
So he curled into a ball, and listened to his heartbeat, and waited for the sound of the oxygen pumps to stop.
He jerked awake. He was spinning, arms and legs loose. Instinctively, he tucked them back in again.
"Who is it!" he shouted. "Can anyone hear me?" Then he remembered that the radio was broken. Maybe it wasn't -
He waited five minutes, in case the voice came again. Then he breathed out, hard.
Even the tiny rocks were gone, now. Every part of the sky looked like every other part, the burning stars above and below, except for the single glittering gas giant millions of miles away, the dim sun further away still.
"I'm hearing things," he told himself. "I knew I'd start hallucinating. Why can't I hallucinate up a nice big rescue ship, or a spare oxygen tank, or something?" He imagined the consequences of trying to hook up an imaginary oxygen tank, and shuddered.
It was tempting to turn the oxygen tanks on to full. One final drunken binge, and then sudden oblivion.
Something stopped him. Vila would have liked to have said it was courage.
Blake had always made him feel safe, somehow, even when they were doing insanely dangerous things. Safe for the first time in years. But Gan changed all that. And soon after that, Blake was gone as well.
Since Gan's death, he thought about death every day, in a way he never had when he was younger. It was with them all the time, like their shadows.The way he coped was to hope he would die suddenly, unexpectedly, without even a moment's fear.
He wondered if he would even notice when he died. Perhaps death was just a long, slow drift through an empty sky.
He squeezed his eyes shut.
Whatever it was that was coming for him through the blackness, he didn't want to know.
Vila, can you hear me?
"CALLY!" he screamed. "Oh my God, Cally!"
If you can hear me, Vila, I want you to know that we're searching for you.
"Cally!" he shouted again, even though he knew she couldn't hear him.
Listen to me. Stay calm, said Cally's voice firmly. If you can hear me, you must be within a certain radius of Liberator, as well as within a certain radius of the asteroid's position when it exploded. We picked up two survivors by their beacons when we entered the system. And I- I have the sense that you're still with us, somewhere...
"Thank you," he said fervently, trying not to gulp his breaths. How long had she been telepathically broadcasting, the same messages over and over, as Liberator slowly cruised through the system?
And he had been adjusting to the situation so well.
We know that you were on the surface when the asteroid exploded, in a hostile environment suit. You must conserve your oxygen for as long as possible. Vila, I want you to turn the oxygen down to the lowest possible setting.
Vila hesitated. Trust me, insisted Cally, her voice deep inside his head.
It was almost as though she was reading his mind.
He twisted a gloved hand until it found the controls on his chest. Carefully, he slid the oxygen pump's control down to its lowest setting.
Take small, shallow breaths. Her voice was stern. Don't move. Relax as much as you can. Stay awake, Vila!
I know you can hear me.
Vila jerked awake, again. He kept drifting off into a jumble of pleasant dreams.
But Cally's voice was strong inside his head. We're entering the fourth search grid now, she said. Vila, I have the strongest feeling that you're still alive, and listening to me. You must hang on, Vila.
This wouldn't be a bad way to die, really. Better than having half a ton of wall fall on you, anyway.
We've been talking to the other survivors. We think we know the reason the asteroid exploded. That mineral isn't any use as a power source - it's incredibly unstable when exposed to heat.
"'Zat so," he muttered.
That's why it's only found on the edges of the system. But it could be used as a weapon - scattered through space to form a minefield. That's making it harder to search, because we can't get too close to the debris field. Vila -
Vila. I know you're there.
The voice was suddenly much more than a voice. It was such a strong sense of her presence that she might have been touching him, breathing the same thin air that he was breathing. For a moment there were no stars, therewas no Vila, there was only Cally.
I know you're still alive, Vila. I can sense you. We must be close by. You must hang on, Vila.
He was drowning in the voice. Or perhaps he was just drowning, breathing his own carbon dioxide as his skin turned blue and his fingers tingled and his field of vision began to melt into blackness.
NO! Don't you dare!
The voice gripped him, forced him to breathe, breathe, breathe. Forced him awake, tiny droplets of cold sweat randomly patterned across his forehead.
Don't you dare die, Vila, not when we're this close.
... Dayna says hello, and says to remind you that you still owe her five credits from your last game of chess. Oh, Orac's just saying something... we thought so. Vila, this isn't the first time this has happened.
I think I'd remember if I'd been marooned in space before.
He's found records which suggest that this substance has been "discovered" at least twice before. And each time, the Federation has suppressed it.
Presumably not out of a concern for the safety of the spacelines.
They didn't even try to steal it. And there's no evidence that they tried to use it as a weapon.
Vila wasn't listening. He was watching a point of light falling slowly across the sky.
It might be a large chunk of the asteroid, of course. It might be another asteroid, or a comet too far from the sun to have a tail. It might, just possibly, be Liberator. Or it might be -
We're under attack!
He felt the adrenalin slam through her body, felt her urgency as she ran to her station. He even imagined he could see the computer readout as she read it. It's just a single ship, she thought, but now she wasn't talking to him. They don't dare risk a squadron in the debris field.
If there'd been enough air, Vila would have gasped. He could see them, see the second point of light. The two ships moved in a slow, spiralling dance, and there, a blast of light as the Federationship fired on Liberator - why weren't they firing back?
This had better work, Cally thought.
Liberator broke away from the other ship. Vila imagined he could see the point of light growing larger as they hared towards him.
The second point followed, closing on them. And then Liberator veered suddenly away -
There was a huge flash of light. "What happened?" Vila's voice sounded loud in his ears.
And then Cally said, You saw that, didn't you, Vila? I know you saw that.
"Yes!" he shouted, involuntarily.
We lured the Federation scout into the debris field. Its exhaust ignited some of the remaining stuff. What's that? She was listening to someone. Vila, there are more ships on the way.
Don't leave me!
We can't break off now. He's out there, I know he is.
Liberator was coming towards him. He could just make out the shape of the ship, see the green glow of the engines, but he still didn't know how far away they were. He wanted to scream, Don't stop now! You're so close!
Vila, I know you would have switched on your suit's emergency beacon if you could. If there's anything you can do to help us find you, now's the time.
He fumbled with the suit's radio controls. His hands felt like lumps of metal at the ends of his arms, fingers clumsy and cold. He couldn't speak, just slammed the gain up all the way and hoped that there might be somevestige of function, they might hear his breathing.
Oh, he could see the ship now, larger than his outstretched hand.
Just a few more minutes, Cally was shouting at someone. Just let us keep searching for a few more minutes.
There was nothing clever he could do. No locks to pick, no security to fool. He couldn't do anything.
I won't leave you alone, said Cally. No matter what happens.
On the flight deck Cally was watching the main viewscreen, and everyone else was watching Cally.
She stood ramrod straight, hands touching the console in front of her. She was pale, her breath coming in slow gulps. Dayna and Tarrant exchanged glances. They were wearing rescue suits, but Cally was the only one still convinced that there was anything to rescue.
"Cally," said Avon.
She didn't answer. Her lips were moving, as though she was speaking to someone far away.
"Cally. We are going to have to break the search pattern and run."
She didn't even hear him. He grabbed her, and she overbalanced. "Let him go, Cally. He isn't worth risking the entire ship."
Cally's eyes were glazed. She raised a shaking hand. Avon grabbed her wrist.
"Look," said Dayna.
Avon realised Cally was pointing at the viewscreen.
There was a bright flare, a flash of light amongst the stars. Then another.
"Zen, can you get a fix on that energy source?" Dayna was already at a console.
"It's probably just the substance self-igniting," said Avon. "Zen, plot a course-"
"No," said Dayna. "Look."
Zen obligingly zoomed. in. "It's him!" Dayna said.
"Let's go," said Tarrant.
"Am I alright, then?"
"With long term oxygen deprivation," said Tarrant, "there's always the danger of brain damage."
"Which, in your case, isn't something we need to be seriously worried about," said Avon.
Vila lay back on the infirmary bed. "Wonderful. Welcome back, Vila. Rest, that's what I need. No strenuous activity for a while."
"No change to your usual schedule, then."
"Do you think," Vila wondered aloud, "that we could ever have a conversation in which no-one insulted me?"
Avon and Tarrant exchanged glances. They wandered back to the flight deck, insulting each other instead.
Cally was still holding his hand. The last few hours were a blur, but he had the impression that she had been holding it all the time. "How did you signal us?" she asked.
"I pried some of the substance loose from the suit's armour and ignited it with the attitude jets. I'm just glad someone was looking in the right direction."
"Thanks," said Vila "If our situations are ever reversed, I hope that..."
She didn't say anything. She didn't need to, really.