The insistent call crackled through the intercom. Ruddy's heart fell. Why him? Why today?
With a heavy sigh, he clicked the response button. “This is the Holz. What is the nature of your emergency?”
“There's someone out there? Thank God! We've been calling for hours.”
Ruddy was not surprised. This was a particularly empty part of the vast emptiness of space. It was almost blind luck that he was flying within range of the distress call.
“Please identify yourself and the nature of your problem.”
“Oh, sorry, sorry! This is the Lobo. Our engines have blown; we're just drifting.”
“We? This vessel can't take more than two people. I'm on my way to the Bedstemor outpost; I'll send a rescue team back to you.”
“How long will that take? Our life support is hanging by a thread.”
“With this cargo, it's going to take me another day or so. But I'll be within calling distance in another four hours. Bedstomer will be able to send someone out to you right away; they'll be with you before I arrive at the outpost.”
There was a moment's silence and then the voice said, “OK, if that's the best you can do...”
Ruddy swallowed his irritation. “I'm afraid it is, yes. What are your co-ordinates?” He took note of the Lobo's response, promised to be as quick as he could, and then continued his journey. True to his word, he passed the situation to Bedstomer as soon as possible and then put the whole thing out of his mind.
“Cargo vessel, come in! Cargo vessel, please identify yourself. This is the Bedstomer outpost. Please...”
“Bedstomer, this is Ruddy, pilot of the Holz. Sorry; I dropped off. Please, allow me to dock.”
“No problem, Mr Ruddy,” the voice sounded amused. “Hold on, Ruddy? Weren't you the one that sent us on a wild goose chase for a damaged ship?”
“Wild goose... I picked up a distress call...”
“Whatever. I don't have time. What cargo are you carrying?”
“Foodstuffs, luxury items, a village-worth of flat-packed houses. I'll send you a full inventory... There. I'm a delivery-man; there should be people at the outpost waiting for most of this stuff.”
“Indeed there are, Mr Ruddy. Everything is in order; you may enter the harbour. Welcome to Bedstomer!”
He went through the docking procedure almost on autopilot. Bedstomer was a small outpost but it boasted enough amenities to make the next two days very pleasant. He lowered the rear door and stepped onto the dock.
“Ah, Mr Ruddy, I presume? We meet at last.”
Directly in front of him was a young woman holding a large gun in a threatening manner.
“I'm sorry... do I know you?”
“I'm the captain of the Lobos.”
“Oh, so you do exist? I've just been given a mouthful by space traffic control...”
“There was nothing wrong with our engines. I just wanted to know where you were headed so we could get here first.”
“We? I only see... you...”
As he spoke, three rough looking men stepped out of hiding. “Yes, Ruddy, we. Now, let's go aboard and you can show us how to fly the Holz. If you're a good boy, I might give you the keys to the Lobo in exchange.”
Ruddy sighed and turned back into the Holz heading to the back of the entrance hatch. Once all four of the thieves were inside he pressed a couple of buttons and the door closed. Eventually. He led the way to the bridge, taking the long route.
As they all stepped onto the bridge, he turned to face the thieves. “Well, here she is! Oh, but where are my manners? I never introduced my first mate, Cortador.”
He pointed behind the Lobo's crew and they turned to find themselves faced by a seven foot tall android that was cracking its knuckles.
“How do you wish me to dispose of these people, Captain?” it asked.
“Just make sure they get to the authorities. I'll wait for you to get back and then I am going for some much needed R and R. And next time we pick up a distress call, remind me to ignore it!”