Half Life

July 21, 2011
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When Asteria died, she imagined that Narcin would take over her and her sister’s mission in Norway. That innerved her, for Narcin was a pompous man whose head always seemed to be locked in a golden cloud of self-admiration. He was blinded to everything but his position in the Belleros Elite.
That was the problem: if Asteria really was dead, she wouldn’t have thought anything.
Her sister Astraea had similar thoughts, but both girls were utterly mistaken when assuming that they would die. Neither Asteria nor Astraea thought they would ever see each other after they had been shot in the Norwegian laboratory for spying on the robotic bird project. In this case, they were correct, for they never did see each other again. Directly at least. And yet they could have never imagined the reason why this was true.
As Asteria pondered her imminent death, completely unaware of what was happening around her, she slowly began to realize that although she was disoriented and had experienced a brief time of thoughtlessness coupled with senselessness, she wasn’t going to die any time soon. It was quite a relief, for to fail the mission before she had a chance to relay any information back to the Headquarters, Naxon, would immediately make Narcin the head agent on the Solymus project.
Naxon had only discovered the Solymus project a month ago, and in that time, they had realized that Norwegians working on the Solymus project were a serious threat to the rest of the world. These robotic birds had already started to be implemented, and had been sent across the world to gather confidential information. Of course, they were not visibly robotic, and even joined flocks of real birds. In a brilliant coincidence, one of the birds had malfunctioned near Astraea’s house, and after investigating it, she had brought it to Naxon.
It had been tremendously vital, so much that Astraea was allowed to participate on the mission with her sister, even thought she was not a part of the Belleros Elite like Asteria. Asteria and Astraea had found that these birds were being built as assassins as well, with poisonous darts that shot from their mouths, able to kill a precise target from above. That’s when the Norwegians shot them. But there was a Naxon backup, Telmach, and Asteria assumed that he had rescued her and Astraea. Unless she was on the verge of death and would have to stay in the uncomfortable state of being able to think but not do anything.
***
“Asteria? Is that you?” Asteria heard a faint voice call.
“Of course it is!” Asteria wanted to say. She was surprised when her voice actually worked, for she didn’t want to actually say that to someone.
Slowly, Asteria felt a sprinkling sensation around her head-area, and it spread to reform her entire body. Yet she felt different, perhaps because she had been shot and had remained unconscious for quite some time.
Asteria opened her eyes.
Narcin, Telmach, and Phoebe stood beside the table Asteria was laying on, all looking like children pleased with their new piece of artwork.
How ridiculous! Asteria thought. She didn’t feel any pain from the shot, so swung over the side of the table to stand up.
“Careful!” Phoebe cried, catching Asteria before she toppled over.
“I’m fine,” Asteria insisted. The last thing she wanted was to appear like a weakling in front of Narcin. Yet she really wasn’t fine, as she soon discovered.
“Have you not noticed the change, Asteria?” Narcin said with a smile and flash of his obsidian eyes.
Asteria looked across at him in consternation. Across to him, not up like she normally did. Was he shorter? Or was she taller? Asteria didn’t feel right all over, and knew it must be her. She was in a room at Naxon, on a small island off the mainland of Greece. She realized that her hair was short, a pixie-cut in fact, and besides being a head taller, she had a completely different body, even though it was strong and slender as her previous one had been in her role as a secret agent.
Phoebe handed her a mirror, and Asteria gasped as a new face stared back at her with striking sapphire eyes and reddish hair.
“What is the meaning of this?” Asteria cried.
Telmach finally spoke up, “After you and Astraea were shot, I took your bodies to Naxon as quickly as I could. But by that time, it was too late. We couldn’t save your bodies.”
“Then how am I alive now?” Asteria demanded. She had a bad feeling about this, and her anxiety was like a worm chewing holes inside her new stomach.
“He was getting to that,” Narcin interjected.
Telmach continued. “Since both your and Astraea’s brains were revivable, we were able to save them. Fortunately, Naxon had a spare body from a previous agent who suffered a brain disease and allowed us to use her body after her mind was fully gone.”
Asteria wasn’t sure she liked being in someone’s dead body.
“So what happened to Astraea?” Asteria asked.
“She’s alright,” Phoebe said, “but we don’t have a body for both of you.”
Phoebe pointed across the room to a complicated system of fluids and wirings surrounding a small metal container.
Asteria knew what was inside. “Can’t you get another body?” she asked.
Phoebe shook her head. “We wouldn’t dare ask a doctor or the government. They would find out what we do.”
“So we’ve devised a plan,” Telmach said. “And it has been approved of by Posdion.”
Posdion was the head of Naxon, and with his approval, the plan would have to follow through.
Telmach shuffled his feet and gave a boyish smile before hesitantly saying, “You and Astraea will have to take turns with the body.”
Asteria couldn’t believe it; she could never see Astraea again. “How will we do it?” she demanded.
“We’ll switch your brains every year. We have a technology that has been used to make permanent brain transfers, but it has the potential to keep switching two brains in and out of the same body. Astraea has already approved of this, for we put her brain in this body before you. In fact, she agreed to let you have the first year to minimize switching your brains back and forth. We agreed that a year is best so you two can have an undisrupted life for a while. If it was any longer, it would be too hard for the other one of you to assimilate back into society.”
Asteria must have looked horrified, for Narcin laughed and said, “Cheer up! Half a life is better than none!”
He was right, for Asteria’s life would be cut in two, and one half of it would consist of her living senselessly in a vat.
Asteria soon got used to her new body, and she continued her missions for Naxon.
Unfortunately, Narcin took over the Solymus case as Asteria had imagined on that fateful day. But throughout the year, Asteria couldn’t help but feel cheated out of her life. If Astraea hadn’t come on the mission, Asteria’s body might have never died and she wouldn’t have been forced into another body. And if Astraea’s brain also hadn’t lived, Asteria wouldn’t have to share her life with her sister.
When the time came to switch brains, Asteria made a video recording for her sister. She grudgingly took a whiff of gas before the machine unzipped a tiny line at the back of her head to remove her brain.
***
As planned, Asteria was revived a year later. She couldn’t feel much of a difference with her body, except that she was wearing different clothes and her hair was a bit shorter, despite the fact that she had been set on letting it grow. She met Telmach in her house.

“We moved the machine here so you and Astraea could switch your brains on your own accord,” he said.

Asteria nodded and asked, “What day is it?”

“April 25, 2032,” Telmach replied.
So it had been exactly a year since Asteria had been truly alive.
What a waste! she thought. Her brain had aged as well as her body, but she hadn’t experienced any of it. Her house was different too. Although she had lived with Astraea before the incident, she had always been there to switch things that Astraea did which she didn’t like.
“Astraea left you a message,” Telmach said, taking a recorder-pad off a coffee-table and handing it to Asteria. “If you need anything, just let me know.”
Then he left the house, since he was always busy as a secret agent.
Asteria turned on the pad and watched the recording of Astraea, which really was watching her new body. It was like she was looking in a window to a parallel world, for she, of course, didn’t remember recording any of this.
Asteria was deeply aggravated by the message, though she also scorned herself for making a big deal of it. During Astraea’s year, she had been promoted to Naxon’s Belleros Elite due to a lack of a certain member for a year. She had also helped with the Solymus mission, and two months ago, Naxon had sent her and Narcin back to Norway. During their time there, they had bombed a critical Solymus factory and had found the location of another.
Asteria couldn’t believe it. Astraea was sent again, and with Narcin! What if she had gotten killed and her shared body had been destroyed? It was unjust, Asteria decided, despite the fact that she too had gone on an equally dangerous mission to Saudi Arabia the year before. Asteria no longer missed her sister after hearing that message; in fact, she was quite content not to have to deal with her again.
Asteria took her position back at Naxon with the Belleros and everyone acted as if she had never left. After all, she looked exactly like Astraea, whom everyone had just seen the previous day.
After her first day back, Asteria spoke with Phoebe to see if there was another body that she could spare, but unfortunately, the case of the late secret agent had been a rare one, and there were no others. But Asteria didn’t mind yet; she had a year to prove that she was better than her physically identical counterpart, and to enjoy life as a human being.
When April 25, 2033 came around, Asteria was quite dissatisfied. Telmach came to her house in case there were any issues with the swap, and Asteria was gone for a year.
***
Asteria and Astraea continued to switch their brains every year. Eventually, they extended the period to two years so each of them could get more done and relax knowing that they had longer to live each segment of their lives. The equipment never let them down, so Telmach stopped coming to watch the process. The rest of Naxon thought little or nothing of Asteria and Astraea’s switches.

One year, when Asteria was a day away from the swap, feeling perfectly awful, she thought of something that seemed ingenious. It was as if she had always been swimming through a glutinous muddy swamp and had finally reached a clear stream, untainted by her past worries.
I don’t need to make the swap right away, Asteria told herself.
Since Telmach no longer supervised the process, and no one was even aware of the day she and Astraea had to swap, Asteria could take a bit longer. If anyone said anything, she could always pretend to be her sister.
Though all seemingly clear visions are not without patches of muddy water, Asteria was delighted to steal more time. So she ignored April 25, 2044, and kept the room with the machine and Astraea’s brain locked away for another month.
On May 25th, the number of the month troubled Asteria, and she soon saw the blemish in her plan. If she swapped their brains now, Astraea would see that she had been kept in the vat a month longer. Would she tell Naxon? Would they then insist to monitor Asteria and Astraea’s swaps like they were children? Asteria knew that this would never do, so she drank her morning cup of tea ponderously before heading to Naxon.
She finally decided that she would need an intricate plan after imagining that Naxon might force her out of the Belleros. If they did, she would have to remain in Greece without any exciting missions. And Asteria lived for her missions; she had little else that she enjoyed.
***
On April 25, 2066, Asteria remembered.

Her mind had cooperated nicely with her wish to forget Astraea, and her sporadic broodings on the matter never proved helpful. She was sixty now, and had been having a successful career at Naxon, had travelled the world, long ago helped in eradicating the Solymus, and had many friends. She would never dream of telling them about her previous brain swaps, let alone do it and disappear for two years.
A few times in the last twenty-two years, some members of Naxon had enquired about the brain swap. Narcin had been one of them.
“Aren’t you supposed to be Astraea now?” he asked in his usual smug way. The topic always amused Narcin, and he knew that Asteria hated it when he spoke of her half life.
But Asteria’s broodings hadn’t amounted to nothing. She didn’t give Narcin an equally witty remark, but replied, “I am Astraea. Asteria and I have corresponded with our recorder pad and we’ve decided that we’ll switch brains without making a fuss about it at Naxon. We do the same work, so it doesn’t matter anyways.”
Narcin shrugged, not able to aggravate “Astraea” nearly as well.
When others had made similar enquiries, Asteria told them the same story, and said that she and Astraea would respond to either name so they wouldn’t confuse people at Naxon. But, she said, Asteria was preferable, since it was an easier name. Astraea had always liked Asteria’s name anyhow.
Astraea soon faded from the picture and Naxon assumed that the sisters were keeping each other posted on their work extremely well. But most thought nothing of it, and Asteria even found that she forgot Astraea sometimes too.
So now she had no idea what to do. Twenty-two years was no excuse not to change brains, and she wished that she’d just done it a month after the real date and had lived with the minor consequences. But now, even if she left a heartfelt recording to Astraea, she knew it would be no use. She imagined that if she did the swap now, Naxon would give Astraea the rest of her life, leaving Asteria’s brain to wear out or perhaps even disconnect it from the machine.
Asteria couldn’t live with that.
***
She brooded until 2089, when she had already retired from Naxon. Asteria had never married, which she legitimized as a secret agent. But it had truly been led by fear of who she really was, or rather, where she was supposed to be. Asteria, now with white hair, wrinkled skin, and a vision enhancer, was nothing like Astraea remembered.
She forced herself to enter the room. The place that she dreaded beyond all terrors on her missions, beyond the horror of the day she first found out about this brain swap.
Asteria entered the room with the machine and vat. She was a bit worried that perhaps the machine to keep Astraea’s brain alive had stopped working after all these years. But fortunately, or rather unfortunately for Asteria, the machine was active. It was an intricate contraption with a seat and capsule that would lower over Asteria’s head, and it had a tube for the brain swap.
Asteria knew that she couldn’t wait any longer. She had nothing to fear from Naxon, and her life wouldn’t last much longer anyway. But that introduced another problem: would Astraea really want to be revived inside an aged body, having skipped more than half of her life? Asteria had no idea, but knew that she would have wanted to live for as long as possible. That is, of course, exactly what she tried to do.
Yet having gained a new perspective during her life, she was no longer content to keep living illegitimately. So with anxiety, Asteria stuck a note on the seat of the machine, a tiny apology for Astraea, before sitting down. She couldn’t make her sister a recording or a longer note, for she knew that would it would deter her from the task needing to be done and likely postpone it for more years.
Asteria pressed the button. The capsule closed down around her head, enveloping her with gas.
***
A while later, Asteria awoke. She didn’t feel any different, and immediately looked around the room for signs that Astraea had been alive. There was a note by her arm, and with her heart beating to a rapid crescendo, Asteria read: Keep your life.

Asteria felt awful, and it was not merely because of the recent transfer. She couldn’t take it, so pressed the button again.
***
She was back, and as miserable as ever. There was no additional note, but Astraea had stuck the previous one back on the chair.

Asteria realized that it was no use trying to switch back. It was too late for Astraea, and it was truly too late for herself too. With stiff legs that Astraea would have been unfamiliar with, Asteria left the room.
Many times had she tried to swap again, and many times Astraea had refused it.
So Asteria got the longer life she wanted. Until her brain, Astraea’s brain, and their body died naturally, Asteria never forgot Astraea again.
Such was the curse of her decision on April 25, 2044.





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