1. A procedure whereby a consciousness is transferred from an organic body to an artificial server, or vice versa, using the Sontang process.
“Following her accident, a contran was carried out and she was safely uploaded.”
2. The act of digitally transferring one’s consciousness from the physical realm to a virtual environment or vice versa.
“If I had the money, I’d contran myself to the Ah! Sea.”
—Oxford English Dictionary, 5th Edition
It was a month after they’d hanged old Mendelssohn that two bodies were found in a small, grimy bedroom in Old Baku. The neighborhood then, as now, was mostly Russian-speaking, which was why I was sent to investigate along with my superior, Special Agent Alphonse Grier. I had some (admittedly rusty) Russian which I had inherited from my mother, as well as nearsightedness and a long nose. Caspian was a nation of immigrants and Grier’s family were originally German, but he spoke only a particularly clipped and irritated dialect of English. For this reason, I was useful in investigations in Old Baku, and for that reason only. At least, according to Grier.
Grier rapped on the door, which was opened by an old Russian man with a magnificent white beard and sad, rheumy eyes. He froze. He had called us, but he still froze at the sight of us. StaSec had that effect on people. ParSec had quite a different one. People did not freeze when they saw ParSec coming. They ran.
“Jakub Smolna?” Grier barked.
Smolna nodded nervously.
“I am Special Agent Alphonse Grier with State Security, this is my colleague Agent South. Where are the bodies please?”
Smolna looked at us both, his eyes darting from one to the other in silent panic.
Grier gave an exasperated sigh and elbowed me in the ribs. With a jolt, I realized what was being asked of me and searched for the necessary Russian.
“Tela,” was the best I could muster.
Smolna nodded, and gestured for us to step inside.
Grier did not like me, and was entirely within his rights. I had been a security agent in StaSec for twenty-nine years by then. I had only ever been promoted once, which Grier took to mean that I was considered politically unpopular, and I attended party meetings only the absolute minimum number of times that a person of my grade was required to, which Grier took to mean I was disloyal. For that reason, from the hour I had been assigned to him as his partner, he had regarded me like an old grenade found under his floorboards that could go off at any moment. I’ve found myself mellowing to Grier over the years. He had a family: a wife and two sons. That colors things. It’s easy to be kind, when ParSec aren’t perched on everyone’s shoulder. Everyone in Caspian had an invisible rope, tying them to someone else. If I had been pulled down for disloyalty, quite possibly he and his entire family would have been yanked along with me.
I’ve just realized that I’ve been talking about Grier as if he’s dead. But he could still be alive. Stranger things have happened, after all. All kinds of people are still alive.
The Paria twins, Yasmin and Sheena, had done their best with the room. Over the discolored patches of mold on the wall they had hung pictures of the two of them embracing and smiling big, honest, generous grins. To mask the damp scent of Smolna’s old carpet there were vases of flowers, and in the light of the many candles strewn about the mantelpiece and tables, I could imagine that the room might even have looked cozy and homelike.
The twins themselves lay on the bed, facing each other. In Russian, I asked Smolna to identify the bodies, and he pointed to Yasmin, left, and Sheena, right. He didn’t seem entirely certain, however, and I couldn’t blame him.
Yasmin’s eyes were closed, and Sheena’s were open, but other than that they were mirror images of each other. Yasmin’s face looked blissful and at peace. Sheena stared unblinkingly at a discolored patch of plaster in the wall. She had a tiny, perfectly round mole under her right eye, which I mentally filed away to distinguish her from her sister. The arrangement of their bodies suggested exactly what I imagine it was supposed to suggest, two sisters having a nap together after a long, hard day. Everything, from the way Sheena’s ankles were crossed to the way Yasmin had used her right hand as a pillow under her cheek, made it look like they were simply resting. They were both quite dead. Ascertaining the cause of death was why Grier and I were there: to see if this was murder, or something worse.
Smolna was clearly uncomfortable being in the same room as the bodies, so I took him into the corridor and asked him some questions while Grier stood motionless in the center of the room, as if attempting to absorb the room’s mysteries via osmosis. Smolna knew little, or was pretending to know little, and I did not have the energy to badger him. I told him to wait in the kitchen and returned to the bedroom, and Grier and I got to work.
Despite our mutual animosity we worked well together, in our way. Neither of us were young men, but my eyesight was better (at close range at least), so it was my job to examine the bodies while Grier rummaged through the personal effects of the sisters and tried to assemble a picture of their lives.
Grier had a deep, booming voice and in another life might have made a good actor. He had presence and a love of being the center of attention. As I examined the bodies, Grier recited a monologue of his own composition: “Sheena and Yasmin Paria. Twenty-eight. Non-party. Born in Nakchivan. Twins. Traitors to their country and all mankind question mark.”
“No signs of violence,” I murmured. “Pills perhaps? Suicide?”
“Wouldn’t that be nice?” Grier answered. “For once? How did they afford it, South? If you had the money to do it, why would you live here?”
“Perhaps they had the money because they lived here?” I offered. “Benefits of frugal living?”
“Did Smolna say where they worked?” he asked.
I shook my head as I examined Yasmin’s body, and the motion caused her limp hand to slip off her shoulder and gently land on that of her sister. Jakub Smolna was a landlord who respected the privacy of his tenants, and did not care how they made rent as long as they did.
“Hostesses?” Grier asked, using the usual euphemism. I shook my head again. Smolna had said that the Parias did very occasionally have male visitors, but nothing to suggest there was anything entrepreneurial going on. It would not have been enough to live on. Sex was appallingly cheap these days, I reminded Grier.
“You forget, South,” said Grier, in a distant sort of voice. “Twins. Well, enough of their bodies, where are their souls?”
I stopped. On the back of Yasmin’s neck was a small, neatly applied patch of makeup, less than a centimeter squared. Whoever had applied it had clearly done so with great care but the makeup they had chosen was ever so slightly too light for Yasmin’s skin tone, drawing attention to that which they wished to conceal. With my thumb I smeared the makeup away, revealing a small, jagged puncture wound. It had been made by a device, illegal even in its country of origin. This wound, I knew, was a well. Tiny in width, but so deep that it extended through her skull and right into the gray matter of her brain. And I knew that if I were to check Sheena’s neck I would find an identical wound.
Grier had asked where their souls were.
I turned to look at him and simply gave him a nod. Grier sighed, genuinely disappointed. “So,” he said. “Sheena and Yasmin Paria. Twenty-eight. Twins. Traitors to their country and all mankind. Period.”
Without another word, he wearily trod out of the room, and I heard the stairs creak under his heavy frame as he headed out to the car to radio StaSec HQ.
I turned to look at the two bodies on the bed.
“Why did you do it?” I murmured to myself.
Copyright © 2021 by Neil Sharpson