The Layby   by Giles D Hobbs

“Stricken Vessel, I am here to offer assistance. I am Jonnifer, accredited space-side repair and recovery engineer. Please inform me of your needs.”
There was no answer. The sleek gloss-black vessel sat immobile suspended in the eye bending chasm that was space. The visual effect still impressed Jonnifer. With no point of reference, no real ‘background’ or at least one that could provide the tiniest sense of perspective, a ship can be almost any size; tiny, as if it is just outside your view screen, or planet sized and vast distances away. Moving your head would usually break the illusion if the ship was close enough but it kept him entertained at times. He was currently broadcasting his offer of assistance slumped over the control console, hands under his chin, focusing hard on the ship, letting his eyes play tricks.
Jonnifer repeated his message adding “Although you did not broadcast a distress call, we monitor all registered flights and traced your route when you did not reach your destination. Please respond.” He waiting a split second then addressed his own ship.
“Aracee? Any response at your level?”
Aracee focused his computer mind on the interface between him and the other vessel, they communicated briefly and he responded.
“Yes. It says it is not stricken, it does not need assistance.”
“Inform the ship that I must speak to its pilot.”
“It informs me that its pilot is dead.”
Jonnifer spoke to the ship. “Mahon Industries vessel, erm,” He sat upright assuming some professionalism and looked to a small screen, “MIENV-Y5-330. What is preventing you from returning to your base? I can assist you in reaching your original destination or your pilots base planet, station or free-world….,” he cut the channel, “Which is it Aracee?”
“Free-world, Silica”
He opened the channel. “….your pilots Free-world Silica for assignment of new duties. Please respond.”
The stranded vessel echoed a booming response through Aracee’s internal speakers. There shouldn’t have been echo, or booming. In truth all Jonnifer should have heard was Aracee’s voice simply translating the other ships message as it was being transmitted. Aracee had found, rather logically, that adding a dramatic tone of his own choosing was mentally beneficial to his pilot.
“Assistance is not required,” the voice took on menacing overtones as it spoke his name, ”rescue engineer Jonnifer.” The voice lightened again. ”Thank you for your concern. I would credit you funds for your trouble but only my pilot can authorise such a gratuity. He is dead.” On a conscious level Jonnifer had learnt to disregard Aracee’s vocal theatrics.
He cut the comms channel. “What’s going on? Tell me everything you know about this ship Aracee.”
/searching solarcom database/ vessel MIENV-Y5-330/ receiving ship and pilot data/
“The vessel is registered to a Ms Katalan Derry. She is loosely employed by 3 Silica corporations providing various escort, courier and chauffer services. She has been sole pilot of this vessel for 14 years. The vessel had registered maintenance work on 43 occasions. The first was…”
Jonnifer looked upwards in despair. “OK Aracee, we don’t need all of them. Any of the repairs seem relevant?”
“Please restate you enquiry”
“Oh Aracee. You sound just like a computer sometimes. I thought we’d got past all that ‘unable to comply’, ‘insufficient data’ garbage. Try again.”
/Searching internal systems/ appropriate alternatives: restate enquiry: Jonnifer additions/ Seven alternatives/ Random Output: Four/
“The repairs are all relevant to something Jonnifer”
Jonnifer smiled.
“I’m sure they are. Better by the way, that response, I like it. Tell me about the design, any flaws? Common system failures?”
“Yes. There has been a far higher incidence of internal sensor failure in this model of vessel.”
Jonnifer paused, thinking.
“Would that make the ship think the pilot was dead?”
“If the failures were specific to the pilot feedback systems it could. The rest of the ship brain was not the best design on the market. You might say it was thick.”
“Ok we can’t risk leaving the ship here if the pilot is still alive. Deploy clamp one.”

There was nothing to indicate the clamp had been fired, no sound, no flash of light, until he saw it emerge into the lower extremity of his view screen. It glided towards the dark machine dragging its cable behind. Just before it made impact, jets of plasma erupted from the targets lateral thrusters and with casual grace the ship side-stepped the clamp which continued on into the emptiness of space beyond.
“Shit. Prepare to back up Aracee.”
A clamp that missed was very rare. Usually the clamps target was stationary, or it could be made to be stationary relative to Aracee. That was the nature of their work, dead ships. But when a miss did occur it was tricky. Jonnifer watched as the clamp reeled itself out on its cable until it reached its full range. Then bouncing on the minimal elasticity of the cable it began to travel back towards them. That was not such a problem as Aracee could reel it in faster than the clamp would retreat, thus preventing the cable twisting and possibly getting tangled. However reeling it in at that speed meant the clamp would enter its housing with enough speed to damage the housing and firing mechanism. The only answer was to reel it in slower and to back up with a little less speed than the clamp itself. This is what they did.

“Now get back there. Try again.”
The clamp torpedoed at their target again. Again the black vessel thrust sideways on brief legs of fire, but this time a well calculated second burst of its lateral engines coincided with the clamps passing. The clamp was swatted away, swinging out on its cable, making a safe retrieval even harder. There was nothing to stop the clamp striking the hull briefly as it finally entered its housing.

“Why would a ship act this way Aracee?”
“I might if I was protecting you, but there’s no reason for this ship to lie about its pilot being dead. If it believes that to be true then it is avoiding retrieval for another reason.”
“I think this ship is going to break for it, and there’s little we can do. How are we going to find out if there’s a live pilot onboard? Uh oh, too late, it’s firing its thrusters.
The vessel rotated on its axis, seeking a new destination with a complex pattern of plasma bursts along its bulk. Then its main engines ignited and the craft began its steady acceleration.
“Damn it. Give me a run down of any possible destinations on its current trajectory.”
“I will answer your previous question first.”
The cockpits main monitor flicked into life, showing a still picture of the front aspect of the vessel at the moment it had rotated to its new heading. With a visual stutter the imaged zoomed in, click, click, click, click. The picture was mainly darkness, striped with bright reflections on the glossy hull, reflections of the sun that lay vast distances behind them. But there, barely visible among the blackness, hardly distinguishable from just another patch of reflected sunlight was a pale shape. Nevertheless the shape had eyes, eyes that were open and full of fear, and just below those pleading eyes was a smaller shape that could only be a hand, pressed up against the transparent screen-wall of the most isolated and lonely prison cell imaginable.
“Well I guess that answers that question. We need to follow, but let’s not crowd it. It has a plan and I don’t want it confusing matters by changing its mind.”
“That is unlikely.”
“Yes, but so is a ship refusing to return to its base when it believes its pilot is dead.”
“It is unlikely but not unheard of Jonnifer. There is the Lay-by”
“Is that a possible destination for our friend here?”
“It is on a direct course Jonnifer.”
There was a brief silence, broken by a thump as Jonnifer’s foot struck the panel by his feet.
During lighter moments Aracee might make a play of being hurt. The humour was beneficial to his pilot, but Jonnifer was serious. Nevertheless with similar playful affect Aracee made the display screen crackle, as if the blow had disrupted its robust circuits.
“The lay-by. Shit. Bring up all available data on the place Aracee. No, not all, I know you, Mr. Literal. Give me your best revision. Go on surprise me.”
“The Layby. Current ship population; 1231. Ships known to be active; 767. The very first ship to occupy the Lay-by essentially created it by simply taking no action following its pilot’s death 86 years ago. All subsequent ships traveled to that location. Known factors that lead to the formation of the lay-by; All ships suffered pilot death; In all but two cases the pilots were in space intensive careers and had been operating the vessel for 12 years or more. All ships chose to go there instead of returning to base; All ships have resisted removal of themselves and other ‘inactive’ ships from the ‘lay-by’, even using force to repel intruders. Most significant vessel, Saturn Navy vessel, ‘Dread for Good Reason’. A very powerful warship, half destroyed during Saturn-Jupiter conflict with loss of entire crew. No correlation regarding type of vessel; No correlation regarding point of origin. All suggested reasons for formation of Lay-by inconclusive. Shall I go on?”
“You said all but two had pilots for over 12 years. What was different with those two.”
“Both vessels experienced a birth of a child onboard during their last journey. Both children died along with the crew”
“Oooh. You’re a ship computer; don’t you have any understanding of why the ships would do this?”
“It has been suggested that because ships are designed to measure their success based on the pilots wellbeing, any particular action is reinforced, ‘rewarded’ or ‘punished’ depending on its success or failure. It’s all part of our learning systems, designed to make your life a bright and joyous place. The catastrophic death of its pilot might be able to cause a destructive response in that reward system. These ships may essentially be ‘ashamed’, if you’ll excuse my use of this human term.”