• A ship is intelligent.
  • It plays tricks on its crew to keep them alert. Sometimes they think it goes too far.
  • The crew shut it down for a period of time as punishment.
  • Space pirates then chase and board the ship.
  • Comedy ensues.

Note: There is a story listed on ISFDB with the title "Durance Vile" by Michael Cobley. However, it is listed as "unpublished" and therefore has no date, which leaves me gnashing my teeth in useless despair.

  • 1
    It's a moderately common phrase, unfortunately; google.com/…
    – Valorum
    Jun 6, 2019 at 6:14
  • The Michael Cobley story was published in an anthology called Frontier Worlds in 2017, so probably not that one.
    – ssav
    Jun 6, 2019 at 9:09
  • Valorum - Yep. Used as a title in 1889 and 1903, too. ssav - That would explain the "unpublished" classification, if ISFDB just hasn't caught up yet.
    – Alveric
    Jun 6, 2019 at 17:40

1 Answer 1


“Call Me Maelzel” by Don Trotter checks all the boxes.

It’s a comedic space opera short story published in the Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, August 1976, and contains the expression '(in) durance vile.'

  • Intelligent ship

The story is told in the shipboard's computer point of view.

You can call me Maelzel. Or Mazey for short. That’s not my real acronym, its my social, or programming one. My real acronym looks like the name of a Czech mathematician and sounds like a garbage can trying to sneeze. So Dr. Turkell dubbed me “Maelzel,” after the character in the Poe story. His idea of a joke. It also shows the limits of his intellect, since “Maelzel” was the name of the owner of the mechanical chess player, not the man inside. To be consistent, he should have called me “Schlumberger.” I’m just as glad he didn’t.

  • Plays tricks on its crew to keep them alert

She seems to do it as much for their mental benefit as for her own.

And when you’ve got that kind of cash to play around with, you don’t pinch pennies on the computer. Oh, no. Only the best will do, the biggest, fastest, most chrome-encrusted computer made. Me. Poor little Mazey. Never mind the fact that I was built to talk physics with Einstein, write poetry with Eliot, play duets with Rubenstein. Pretend you don’t know that I’m gigabytes smarter and decades faster than the computer who runs the Library of the Assembly. Disregard the truth that I can run this ship with both neuristors tied behind me. Act as if my being stuck here running this little carbon-crystal cruiser isn’t as much waste of talent as Toscanini conducting a kazoo chorus. Just be godawful sure you don’t look as if you’re cutting corners.

So here I sit, staring off into hyperspace (which is about as exciting as being buried in Cream of Wheat), while my subconscious flushes the toilets and steers around singularities. About all I’ve got to do is keep tabs on a half-dozen humans, keep them safe from ghosties and ghoulies and the common cold. And from time to time I try to enrich an otherwise deficient psychological environment. When they’ll let me play with them. But right now, I have no thumbs, and I must twiddle.

  • They think it goes too far

They sure don’t appreciate the pranks psychological workout.

“Our own resident gremlin,” Clarisse said disapprovingly. They were starting to gang up on me now. Also as anticipated. She apported up out of the pool in one easy motion and started to squeeze water from the skirt of her bathing dress.

“The bitch glitch,” Sash agreed with her. “And with one hell of a short memory, considering.”

“Sash!” Tilly reproved her husband.

He looked unrepentant. “‘Bitch’ is standard usage for a female glitch, darling, just like for a female dog.”

“Possibly. But ‘glitchette’ conveys the same information and is less offensive. I wish you’d remember that next time... but I hope there won’t be one. That was a very naughty thing for her to do.”

  • Computer is shut down as punishment

‘Durance Vile’ being actually the shut down command.

“I agree,” said Juan, “and suggest that Durance Vile is appropriate. Lloyd?”

“Yes! A whole day.”

“Too much,” Chyme said. “Three hours.”

“A day.” Lloyd was insistent.

A day was a lot more than I’d bargained for. I blinked Jehovah’s eye at them to get their attention. “Now just a minute, folks,” I said. “That’s hardly fair.”

Juan ignored me. “Your choice, Lloyd.” He addressed me: “Mazey, Priority Command Durance Vile. One day. Run.”

  • Space pirates board the ship

Then, before my recalcitrant charges could regain their feet, we had more company. I didn’t have an alarm for “repel boarders,” but that was what I needed. At each of the four cardinal points of the lounge a tall skinny character appeared, back to the bulkhead, little round shield and big swash-buckling cutlass poised, ready to slay dragons or die trying. At the sight of my crew strewn all over the carpet they relaxed their defensive attitudes, and a couple of them started laughing. The one over by the aquarium, apparently the leader, swaggered over to where Sash was lying, half stunned, against the bar. He poked him with his cutlass.

  • Comedy ensues

Let's say even the pirates get pranked hard.

Like everything else in Fellow from Kent, the toilets were special, don’t-spare-the-cash designs. They flushed like five hearts, and the throats were big enough to stuff an overcoat thru without spoiling its press. And with good reason; a stopped-up toilet on a starship is a major disaster. In hyperspace, you really can’t get a plumber to come out on the weekends. But nothing is perfect; so, just in case, there was an emergency unclogging procedure. The life-support system was designed to be able to deliver huge quantities of air very rapidly to any compartment, to maintain a breathable atmosphere even in the face of a fair-sized hole. And, as some bright boy pointed out, that same system could put enough high-pressure air into a cabin to shove a stoppage in a toilet or drain on down the line. Schloop, gurgle gurgle!

  • That's it! You have my eternal gratitude, Durandana. The story is more full of puns than I remembered. Notice for example the name "Chyme." I looked up Fellow from Kent and found the following: There was a young fellow of Kent Whose prick was so long it was bent, So to save himself trouble He put it in double, And instead of coming he went.
    – Alveric
    Nov 1, 2019 at 12:45

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