The victim’s head had been blown clean off, that much was obvious. The body lay on a table in the morgue, the harsh scent of antiseptic trying and failing to cover the rusty smell. I looked over at my partner, Wolf-776f6c66 and sighed. “Why am I here?”
There wasn’t much crime on Callisto Colony, and what there was tended to be pretty minor. Vandalism, drunk and disorderly, sometimes a domestic disturbance. All in a day’s work for me, the only full detective on the colony. A corpse was unusual, true, but this case? Open and shut.
Herman Aelph, biotech trillionaire, had docked his interplanetary yacht We Do It Our Way three weeks out of Mars Prime. No sooner than had it settled in, the airlock cycled open and the victim, freshly headless, had fallen out in front of the horrified dockmaster, their assistant, and two dockbot handlers. Herman still had the disintegrator torch in hand. With witnesses and a ton of physical evidence, they didn’t need me. Just someone to type up the report.
Wolf was by the book, like most investigator bots, and wasn’t one to make up an excuse to investigate. I did note its eyes glow with amusement. “You’ll see.”
The coroner’s screen beeped, and up popped Aelph’s ugly mug. I glanced at it. “That’s the perp, right?”
Wolf shook its head. “Nope. The victim. Confirmed, one hundred percent DNA match.”
I stared at Wolf, then called up the booking report for Aelph, compared the two pictures. Same guy. Wolf gave a metallic chuckle. “See?”
“Clones.” I closed my eyes and swore.
Cloning was a technically miraculous but morally tricky technology. Get ten lawyers in a room and ask if killing your own clone was murder or suicide, you’d get a lively debate that’d last weeks. At five thousand credits per billable hour.
Fortunately for me, I just needed to figure out what happened. Ten minutes later, Wolf and I knocked on We Do It‘s airlock.
“May I help you?” came the comm screen.
“Ship’s AI,” said Wolf to me. Wolf would know.
“Callisto PD,” I said. “We’ve got a warrant.” Wolf uploaded it, and thirty seconds later we stood inside the ship.
It was a wreck. Scorch marks dotted points along the passageway, and almost every square meter had broken equipment. It resembled a set from The Pirates of Saturn.
“How may I help you, detectives?” said the AI over the ship’s speakers. They sounded British, female, and a touch amused.
“We have Herman Aelph in custody for possible murder,” I said, “of another Herman Aelph. We’re trying to determine which is the original.”
“Neither,” she said.
“Both clones?” said Wolf. He glanced at me. “Clone awakening is supposed to be for body replacement only, after a fatality.”
Trickier and trickier. “We’re going to need to see the original Herman Aelph.”
“This way.” Floor lights came on, leading down a passageway.
To my surprise, instead of the medbay, it led to a sealed cargo bay. “What’s the deal?” I said.
Wolf checked the hatch controls. “It’s open to space. No atmosphere.”
“Well,” said the AI. “I had to put them somewhere.”
I activated my emergency pocket atmosphere suit, and we cycled through.
A yacht’s cargo bay tended to smaller than most working ships, but the We Do It‘s was larger than my habitat. Worse, it was half-filled with shrink-wrapped corpses.
“What the hell?” I said. A picture began to form in my head, and I didn’t like it.
“Did these clones lack self-preservation skills?” said Wolf.
“The original’s in the back somewhere,” said the AI. “They are labeled, if that helps.”
I bent over, examined the closest one. The label identified it as Herman XII, killed two days ago, asphyxiated. The next, Herman IX, yesterday. Stab wounds. A shiver went down my spine. This was bad. “Wolf,” I said.
Wolf slid to the computer access panel and engaged. A moment later, the deck began to vibrate. “Engines coming on,” said Wolf. He sounded a bit twitchy.
“Shut it down,” I yelled. As Wolf struggled with the AI, I slapped my hard knock smartkey atop the hatch controls and grabbed a handhold.
Three seconds later the smartkey blew through the security overrides and both the inner and outer hatches cycled open. My ears popped as the atmosphere rushed to fill the cargo bay’s vacuum. I pushed my way through the wind and ran down the passage to the engine room to shut it all off.
Once Wolf had the AI pinned and the ship shut down, we dug in to find the truth. Herman had a bad ticker, dropping dead within an hour’s departure from Mars. Normally no problem for a guy like Herman. Ship’s medbay had three clones on standby, they’d just load his consciousness into one, then wake him up.
Unfortunately, for Herman, there’d been a hiccup with the system. Instead of one clone prepped and awakened, all three were.
“Herman was a selfish putz,” I said. “Each clone knew there could be only one Herman. The others technically didn’t have legal standing.”
“That explains the varied ways they died.” Wolf sounded satisfied. “Weapons of opportunity.”
“While the first three clones fought it out, the AI started force growing new ones. As soon as one died, out came a replacement, as if it was the original. Must have been a running battle the whole trip here.” I shook my head. “Gonna be one for the lawyers. Do they charge Herman, the AI, both or neither? Just what happened?”
“It’s a long trip out here. Maybe he got bored, decided to make a game of it.”
“Maybe.” I paused. “Or the AI did.”
JON HANSEN (he/his) is a writer, librarian, and occasional blood donor. He lives about fifty feet from Boston with his wife, son, and three pushy cats. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a variety of places, including Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction and Apex Magazine. He enjoys tea and cheese, and like so many, is working on a novel. His website is http://www.logicalcreativity.com/jon