This article first appeared in the fall 2020 issue of Augur Magazine.
Every night, before I went to sleep, my mother would recite “My People” to me. She’d whisper that poem like it was a lullaby. Like Langston Hughes himself sat on the other side of my bed, leaning in to hear if she did his words justice. And after a while, when I’d memorized the words too, my mother and I would chant them together in a soft duet.
Those are my happiest memories—among the scattering I know are truly my own. I have few other memories of my mother. I know she worked for the government. My father told me she was a neuroscientist and had been working on consciousness transfer technology long before things went bad. But she saw the early signs. She made the connections. And even though her warnings fell mostly on closed ears, the ones who did listen took her away.
I especially cherished that nighttime ritual with my mother in those empty years between her disappearance and when I was put into service. I kept my room as she’d last seen it, hoping one day she’d return to sit on my comic book comforter. She’d place my stuffed bunny next to me as I wrapped my hands in her braids and we’d cuddle, forehead to forehead, and say those words together.
I knew better, even before the linens had grown shabby and the doll decrepit. By then, I was old enough to recognize our special time for what it was. A safeguard, of sorts. To help me remember who I am. Because even in those early days, my mother knew that soon it would be too late to hold onto what made us real.
Soon, it would be the beginning of the end for us.
The night is beautiful
Always read the fine print. Isn’t that how that old saying goes? Oh, the great irony that the fine print of the United States Reparations Act of 2119 essentially sold the recipients and descendants of those payments back into bondage. Five hundred years after the first slaves were brought to the U.S., the Act was hailed as the official beginning of a post-racial America. Proven descendants of slaves were offered payments stemming from a complex formula of passage, labor, land, psychological suffering, and systemic discrimination.
Like the lottery, recipients could receive their funds in one lump sum or paid out over the course of their or their children’s lifetimes. In return, there was a clause requiring unwavering loyalty to the principles and administrative actions deemed necessary by the government. At the time, of course, the clause was just a symbolic show of fealty. So, my grandfather claimed his share. And the bill didn’t come due for another two generations.
No reasonable person could have predicted everything to follow. Apparently “duty to the greater good of the country” meant giving up ownership of your body when it was deemed “vital to the survival of the republic.” My mother’s conjectures lived outside of the world of politics. She had merely connected some dots between what we’d done to the world environmentally, and our efforts to escape the repercussions. Some legislative wonk had discovered how to use USRA2119 to conscript Black Americans into playing experimental hosts and, when that experiment panned out, The Reparations Act put the final nail in our coffin.
What held true for centuries past still held true—where the U.S. led, other nations followed. Those that had the resources, but had no significant Black population of their own to harvest (or legal means to do so), turned the African continent into a tacitly sanctioned source for human trafficking.
As James Baldwin once said, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”
So the faces of my people
As I stood over his grave, they told me I looked like my father. The aunties and uncles who at some point must have meant something to me, but in my grief were just extras murmuring meaningless condolences. I wasn’t grieving him—he died the day the government took my mother away. I was grieving the lost opportunity to one day break through his wall and get him to tell me more about her. And them. And us.
I thought I found her once. In my head, outside of that bedtime routine. A warm memory of a familiar silhouette in a dress with an apron, arms spread wide on the porch of a yellow farmhouse with a bright red door. And me, running across a newly shorn grass field until I pull up short at the bottom of the steps.
Because I’ve never been to a farm. I spent my entire childhood in a second-floor walkup in the city. This woman is not the comforting color of hot chocolate—no milk—with strong hugging arms and the lingering scent of sandalwood soap. This woman has auburn hair—no braids—and looks delicate, like straw. She is not my mother. This is not my memory.
Yet I can’t help feeling sad, somehow knowing only a few years stand between this woman and the smell of hospital disinfectant drowning out the country perfume of honeysuckle and manure and the sweet sweat of a loving son.
The stars are beautiful
The one time I know that I—the real me—fell in love, was when I was nineteen. I had a summer job on ISS3 and that’s where I met Galina. I’m not sure why she chose to sit with me during a lunch break one day, and I’m not sure why normally-awkward me felt so comfortable talking to her.
She tried explaining the physics work she was doing for Roscosmos, and I rambled on about the human biology research I was doing for NASA, and we laughed our way into being friends. We were soon inseparable. And much more than friends.
Our universe at the time was such that it didn’t matter that a Black boy from Anacostia and a white girl from Vologda had found themselves in each other. We were literally above all the politics and the problems of the real world as we orbited in our personal bubble.
Galina had never been to the U.S., so I told her about places I had seen. I showed her images of where I lived in D.C. and the street art I created when I wasn’t working or in school. Since I hadn’t spent time outside the U.S. (we agreed the launch from Baikonur didn’t count), she shared tales of her travels around Asia and Europe and recited the spiel she gave tourists for her part-time job as a tour guide in The World of Forgotten Things museum.
She once suggested we read the Great Romances together and decide which famous couple we were. I countered that we should live our own love story, that someday someone would write it down for others to read and emulate. Through the oversized windows in one section of the station we held hands and looked down on Earth and out into the great darkness, daring to dream what the future might hold for the two of us.
Eight months later, Galina was dead. Like tens of millions of others, she had fallen victim to the hyper-virulent disease people were calling CCC. Caused by the combination of the sun’s radiation and our damaged atmosphere, this climate-change cancer had been around for some time. A sudden increase in cases was one of the triggers for my mother’s concerns years earlier.
The winter after I met Galina was the CCC spike that started it all—the conscriptions, the kidnappings, the involuntary transfers of the consciousnesses of privileged white powerhouses into less influential people of color.
Because it didn’t take long for folks to realize that the melanin-blessed rarely contracted the disease.
So the eyes of my people
I found out I was sterile by accident. The global fertility rate had plummeted, and it was a matter of the source material, not the process of fertilization itself. Without an obvious tech solution to the problem, the science around it had stalled. Which is why it took a while for them to make the next connection: Consciousness transfers were more successful long-term when the host was sterile.
I was given the news as if it was some gold star on my latest report card. At twenty-two, I had already been a host for three years and had “cohabited” with two separate officials before they’d been transferred to more age-appropriate hosts. They’d both had lives with children and, for one of them, grandchildren. So, in the moments I was still just me, I mourned what would never be. I thought a lot about Galina. Then I wondered if this was a worthwhile existence, or if it would have been better if my mother had been infertile.
You never know how low someone will go until they’re desperate. First, they kidnapped Blacks and smaller populations of Indigenous and Asian peoples to serve as vessels for others. Then, when word got out about the fertility factor, there was a resurgence of practices not seen since the eugenics horrors of the early- and mid-twentieth century. Often, the (twenty-second century “practitioners” didn’t waste time finding out if their subjects were fertile or not. And in the end, all that terror and mutilation only served to further eliminate scant opportunities for new generations.
Since only “naturally” occurring sterility had any measurable effect on the success of the transfers.
Beautiful, also, is the sun
They said cohabitation was painless. It was the technology my mother had helped perfect, back when the goal was to use it to prolong the lives of the terminally ill. Incredible, yes, that it was possible to move one person’s consciousness from their body and place it into another
person’s mind and body. So, they tried to dress up the procedure in soft words that suggested a partnership and mutual sharing of the space.
And it might not have hurt physically, but it was still an invasion. An icy presence in a part of you that you never knew could feel temperature. A tumor without substance that your body couldn’t fight with soldier cells or the welcome segregation of scar tissue.
They said cohabitation was safe. The first time I woke up as someone else we were confused. I should have still been sleeping, I suppose. Instead I found myself behind the wheel of a car that was not mine. We/he had been drinking and did not yet understand how that affected this one body with two minds.
It was sporadic for a while until we adjusted, and most days when it was my time I still felt I was just me in my mind. But eventually the lines between us began to blur, and it took more moments to figure out if I was once again center stage or standing in the wings.
There are times we slip through each other’s lives, like finding myself in a strange house cozied up to a strange woman sliding food across her shiny lips and not really knowing if it’s a dream or a memory or if our/his/my anger and confusion is real and in the moment. Or thinking I was close to completing a task, but days later finding it in the same unfinished state. At one point, I even thought I kept a journal, but the number of blank pages rarely decreased and the words within became increasingly unfamiliar. So unfamiliar, in fact, that I’ve resigned myself to the certainty of lost memories, and the ones we still have I can’t always be sure are fully mine.
They said cohabitation was temporary. A stopgap until they could create reliable artificial bodies, or perfect the tech to find a new world to populate. There’s always one consciousness assigned as dominant, and it’s rarely the host. In the beginning, with the others, I took tentative steps to know something about them, to make the situation less…awkward. But I’ve been sharing myself with this man for more years than I lived as just myself. And he is a cruel, cowardly, and corrupt malignancy that will not move on to another host. He would gladly rid us of me if he could, and soon he may get his way.
Because each day there’s a little less of me and a little more of him, and I’ve grown tired of trying to keep finding the me in us.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people
My people have always been storytellers. So, I tell you my story for what it’s worth. I tell you the fragments I remember, in the order I remember them. Doubtless the edges of those fragments have worn smooth. I have rolled them around and around in my small corner of existence, like the precious found things they are. Perhaps they still entertain or enlighten or inspire. Although it might not matter. Because essentially this story is for you, future generations. Which means it’s likely a story for no one.
There are things, I believe, that we humans are not supposed to know. We can argue about the right or wrong of our discoveries, but in the end, I think we will answer to God or Mother Nature or whoever is the master of the plan for everything. Whether we are still part of that plan remains to be seen. Successful births continue to decline and suicides among the cohabited are on the rise. I can’t help but wonder what happens when I die—will my name even appear above the grave that holds this body?
The evolution we have wrought forces us to ask new questions about our humanity and what it means. Perhaps one day we will look in the mirror without a poignant sense of regret. Perhaps one day we will have found the balance that lets two live in one mind without sacrificing either. Perhaps one day there will be no need to wonder if we know our own thoughts and feelings and fears. Perhaps one day there will be no need to ask:
Are we ourselves?
Michelle Mellon has been published in more than two dozen speculative fiction anthologies and magazines and is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association. Her first story collection, Down by the Sea and Other Tales of Dark Destiny, was published in 2018. She is currently completing her second collection. For updates on her work, visit www.mpmellon.com and/or follow her on Twitter: @mpmellon.
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