7 min read
Doulka's Daughter

by William Thomas

Anyone who knew Doulka knew his daughter. They were inseparable after her mother died in that crash on Altares, each dependent on the other to manage their grief and thereby keep everyone alive in an environment where a lapse in strict professional attention could get an entire team killed in a blink.    

     Like what happened to her mother, who should have been doing the flying but was supercargo instead, riding in back when the pilot — whose name has become a curse around here — was distracted by his personal communicator on short final. “Hi honey” became the epitaph for everyone onboard.     

     Why he’d disconnected the Flight Management and Autoland AI was never determined. But among the zoomies, old Roy was considered a hands-on, stick-and-rudder throwback and something of a cowboy. Like I said, not exactly recommendations out here.     

     That was two sols back — two years Earth time — when a startled controller registered a change in aspect in the approaching spacecraft: from bows-on to plan view, showing a needle-thin fuselage flared into stubby vestige wings and those signature Flash Gordon tail fins.     

     The roll went vertical.     

     Radar and proximity alarms began shrieking. 

     Voices screamed, “Pull up! Pull up!” A cry that hasn’t changed since the dawn of radio-equipped aviation. And old Roy pulled hard.     

     But they were already inverted.     

     The impact completely silent, of course, as a Hindenburg-bright orange fireball boiled up over the slabs ‘n’ slag south of the field. Far Extraction Ltd. had forgone the expense of terraforming this slow-tumbling chunk of nickel-malanite rock. So like in an old-time silent movie it was that mocking silence accompanying the shuttle’s final death dive that made its terrible blooming afterimage indelible for Doulka and his daughter, who’d come out together to welcome Saris home.     

     But they was pros, those two. And indispensable. By 38:04:35 local, father and daughter were both were back at work.     

*     *     *

BossMan gave them each a bonus and early leave. Their unexpected beach holiday under VR palm trees and a single infrared sun included programmed surf. It was as elegant as those pretend tea parties you arranged as a child, with kid-size empty plates and cups. And just as unsatisfying. Then it all went to sjit. I’m talking about the Really Bad Thing that’s since become legend out here in the Belt.       

     The day it happened, Delphine was in charge of the shotline out towards Byrd’s Peak. Didn’t I say her name yet? I’ve got a block about that. Even now after all this time. It’s that old thing about never uttering a dead person’s name, lest they hear it on the other side and get reeled back. As for the old-time everyone knew simply as, “Doulka” — forget it. People and AI will be talking about him till our twin suns go nova.

     Sure, I’m indulging in nostalgic regret by dragging out this story. Because I do not want to get to the end. Which I’m afraid is right about now. I already said how Doulka’s daughter was running that shotline, making sure the charges was placed just so. “Everything ticky,” as someone used to say. No loose wires. No wires at all. Bots did the actual placement of each charge, of course. But Delphine did the checking.     You gotta admire her old-fashioned thumbs up when everything was ready. 

     You could only imagine that big grin behind her gold-tinted visor by recollecting her unsuited self — bright red blazer and skirt, that blond mane tossing in time with her deep trademark laugh back in the dimness of the Blue Flamingo pod pub, so welcome after the searing brightness and dangers of the Outside. That smile was even brighter and a whole lot warmer. Lit up the whole place, I’m telling you. And you couldn’t help grinning right back.     

     So it was two thumbs up, and her voice — strong, assured and proud — booming over the speakers: “Good to go!” You know she wanted to add, “daddyo!” — we’d watched some of those sims together. But on the job, she went strictly by the 150-page manual.     

     “Go confirmed,” her father radioed back. “Clear the area. Bucket loaders prepare for the shot.”     

     You already know what happened next.

     What nobody knows is how it happened. Or why Doulka overrode the safety protocols and mashed that big red firing button almost as soon as he’d finished speaking. Every AI consulted afterwards called it murder.
It won’t be too soon if I never see another ripple blast like that. We all saw Delphine turn toward the distant cloud of debris just hanging over the far end of the shot line in quarter-G. 

     “Get outta there!” someone screamed inside the cab. But not over coms. There weren’t no point. And nowhere to run.   Give that girl cred. She just stood and watched the shots marchin’ towards her — BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Each blast completely silent. Which is why everyone clearly heard her last words over the comms: “Why dad?”

     I doubt if Doulka knows the answer to that. Everyone present remembers him standing there with his palm still mashing the firing key, as if surfacing from a trance.     

     “What happened?” he said. “Where’s my daughter?”     

     “All scattered to hell and gone, you bastard,” said the first person to find their voice. That would be me. “Go on out to the dragline and if you’re quick, maybe you can collect enough of her from the autoloaders to put in your pocket for a keepsake.”     

     Not very charitable. But you weren’t there. If he weren’t Doulka and we could have found some rope, we would of strung him up from an overhead conduit. No way in hell that was an accident.     

     After a tenth of a second or so reviewing all the psycho literature and legal precedents since Freud and Socrates, the shrink AI concluded that Delphine kept reminding the old man of her mother. Until the pain of her presence became too much and Doulka snapped.     

     But a second opinion obtained by telepresence from a French psychodramatist after a 30-hour, two-way delay, suggested that, au contraire, Delphine would have preserved his sanity by “reassuring her father that his wife was still present in his life in the face and form of her loving daughter.”    

     “Screw that,” said the AI adjudicator in attendance. Or words to that effect. “This dude is guilty. Any human without a bunch of letters in front of their name can see that.”     

     Now the frocked bot on the bench demanded, “What say you?”     

     This last addressed to the person chosen to represent the will of the settlement, almost all of whom were attending in person or telepresence. Which you’ve already guessed was me.     

     “I canna defend him,” I began. “But then, I do not need to. For at the time of the… incident… Mr. Douglas Doulka weren’t even there.”     

     That got them going!

 BAM! BAM! BAM! went the gavel, as if giving voice to those still vivid flowerings out there on the line.     

     “You want to explain that, Mr. Hurd?” said the AI with a machine’s dryness I took as simulated sarcasm over the murmuring and rustling a crowd that wanted to be a mob.     

     “If it please the court,” I replied, digging through the old newsreels I’d reviewed for this moment. “Mr. Doulka was not present and therefore not responsible for this tragedy. Because this is so obviously a case of Spacer’s Dementia I canna imagine what we’re doin’ here t’all!”   

     Complete uproar followed this sally!

BAM! BAM! BAM! That refurbished auto-gavel was getting a work out!

     “Mr. Turd,” said the AI, accidentally on purpose mangling my moniker as if she — it — was the first intelligence in three galaxies to make sport with my name. “Are you claiming at the time of Delphine Doulka’s demise, your client was… Spaced?”     

     “He’s not my client,” I corrected the judge AI, somehow forgetting to add the customary honorific. I guess you could say this had become an adversarial proceeding. “He’s my boss.” 

     The justice bot appeared taken aback by this. If such a reaction were possible. “So, you are covering for your boss?”

     “Oh hell no,” I blurted. And this time everyone in the meeting hall laughed. Except the judge.     

     “What then?”     

     “It’s clear to all who know him that Mr. Doulka has already suffered a private hell more worse than any you could devise,” your mechanical magistrate

     “And he will go on agonizing in the infernal netherworld his mind currently inhabits till the premature self-conclusion of his present incarnation. And most likely for many more beyond.”    

      “I see.” Though clearly, she didn’t. Couldn’t. So much for the vaunted AI. 

     “What would you say if I pronounced a sentence of death-by-jettisoning for the deliberate murder by the accused of his own daughter?”     

     “I’d say he’d welcome it.”     

     The silence that followed was unanimous.     

     “The defendant has refused to testify on his own behalf. What has he told you in regards to this matter?”     

     “Only that he does not know who pushed that plunger. He’s seen the tapes and accepts that six witnesses saw him do it. And that he is deserving of the maximum penalty under Belter Custom. But he said more than once that it was like watching someone else do something incomprehensible that he was powerless to stop. Everyone out here on the edge of The Abyss has had the urge to smash something precious.”     

     Nods from around the room.     

     “And you consider this a defense?”     

     “I consider it the truth.”     

     “What do you recommend as a sentence?”     

     “House arrest. For life.”     

     “Surely such a waste of precious air, water, goop and living space cannot be justified as reward for a capital offence?

     “Surely a second killing cannot undo the first.”     

     “Very well,” the judge AI pronounced. “I will grant your request for clemency. The prisoner will be confined to a single spacious room, with all amenities provided. Until such time as this case is reviewed.”     

     “Thank you, your…”     

     “And each wall will be mirrored from floor to ceiling. With illumination dimmed but not extinguished at the appropriate hours for sleep.”     

     “Such egregious mistreatment is entirely unlawful!” I protested. “Torturing prisoners is forbidden under…”     

     “Yes to both,” the AI agreed before I finished.     


      “Until, at last, he and we come to discover who or what fired those fatal shots. And then he may be free of his sentence. If not his demons.”     

     “What does a machine intelligence know of demons?” I and every human in that room wanted to know.

     Programmed for a wry smile, the justice algorithm delivered a grimace instead. “My dear Prospector, I would say from overlong experience that trapping an advanced intelligence within a machine that never sleeps is itself demonic. On the day you choose to be uploaded and your entire world becomes a shrinking cage of mirrors, you will know what I mean. And why my sentence is just.”


Doulka mining an asteroid-creativefabrica.com

"Hi honey" crash -bcnews.com