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I was originally tracked as a Breeder. I still have the mark—that’s the only reason I know. They tried to remove it, but whoever was on shift at the laser shop that day didn’t do a fabulous job. Even though it was done when I was very young, you can still see a part of the B underneath the H they tattooed on over it; the skin there is pale, taut scar tissue. I don’t know what went wrong—whether they just found out my initial results were skewed or whether I didn’t do well on the next level of Breeder tests. I just know that when I was still a toddler, they removed all my Breeder parts, and sent me to train as a Helper. Baby Helper12, WQ Ward, Complex 9C. That’s my full title. But they just call me Helper12.
I don’t mind being a Helper; not really. It’s not terribly hard work, and at least when you’re a Helper you don’t have to do some of the things the others do. If I was a Breeder, I’d have to go through nine months of pregnancy every other year; always on a special diet, someone always checking to see if I did my exercises or if I had enough iron in my blood. And that would be my life, until I couldn’t bear their babies anymore. Breeders don’t even get to see the babies; they take them while they’re still sewing up the incision.
I could have got a lot worse assignments. I could have been a Leisure Doll, or a Laborer, or Donor. None of those are too good. If I’d shown enough promise, I could have been forced to be a Thinker. I cannot imagine anything worse than that, really. Sitting all day in a room with the rest of the Thinkers, examining problems from various angles. I’ve heard that if you don’t come up with your quotient of solutions, you’re as bad off as a Donor is by the end.
I’m lucky. I got a pretty sweet deal as a Helper. The testing showed a strong maternal instinct and so I work at the Central Nursery for the Western Quadrant, in the Pre Ward, as a Baby Helper. I’m right back where I started from, eighteen years ago. I can picture myself as one of the babies I clean and feed, crying and stretching my wrinkled hands toward some sky. I can picture myself pushing toward the warmth, the voice, of whomever it was who picked me up back then, my Helper.
Pre Ward is for babies from one to four months old. It’s called Pre Ward because the babies are pre, well, pre-anything. They go from Delivery to us here in Pre Ward, and then on to Tracking, where they get most of their testing done, to see what designation they’ll get. Then a brief stint at Conditioning, where they have whatever procedures they need, like hysterectomies or vasectomies, or lobal injections or whatever. Then on to Training, for varying lengths of time. Thank the godz that Helpers don’t have to train long; for me it was only six months, though some, like Surgical Helpers, go longer. Breeders have a six-month stint too, learning how to take proper care of their bodies in pregnancy. For Laborers it all depends on what job they’ve pulled. Thinkers, they never really get done with Training.
I enjoy the babies. They don’t have any prejudices—they don’t care that I’m just a Baby Helper. They don’t mind about my stained uniform tops (Supply won’t ever give us new ones; they claim we’ll just get more formula or shit stains on them) or the fact that I am usually coming off a twenty hour shift and I look it. You should see the stares I get, even from some of the Domestic Helpers, on my ride to the dorms some mornings after my shift. They act like taking care of babies is easy work. I mean, who picked mint green for Baby Helpers anyway? Seems to me that some dark color would have been better planning. Black is taken by the Mourners, of course. But mint green? With all the puke and poop babies make? Seems to me we should have got black.
I have two hours to go on my shift tonight. We only have three babies in the wing. That is not a lot of babies; the norm would be around twenty, with six Helpers on shift. Tonight, it’s just me and the babies. Two boys and one girl. I don’t know why the numbers are so low lately. Nobody says anything about it, which makes it even stranger. But I try hard not to think about that sort of thing. Thinking too hard about things you can’t change can make you go crazy.
So far, there are no colored tags on the cribs. I look every time I start a shift, to see if any pre-tracking cuts have been made. I don’t think there will be; all three of them are strong, and they seem to be appropriately reactive. I’m glad, because the cuts are always hard for me. Helper97 always tells me I need to toughen up, and I know she’s right, but I hate it when I come to work and there’s a red tag on one of my cribs. It’s hard not to get a little attached.
Helper97 is tough, that’s for sure. She doesn’t blink when she has to cut one of hers. Just gets the hypo and does what has to be done. Not that she’s cruel or anything. I mean, you don’t get tracked to be a Baby Helper if you aren’t gentle. She’s careful and calm—I’ve even seen her coo at a baby as she injected the solution into the IV line. She just doesn’t seem to mind the way I do when it has to be done. She’s been a Baby Helper for a long time. Maybe it gets easier after you do it for years. But I don’t think it will.
Helper97 is a mystery to me. I don’t know much about her. We work a lot of shifts together and she’s never once missed one. I wonder what she’s doing with her free time tonight, since there were too few babies to justify another Helper on shift. I don’t know what section of the complex she lives in, though it must not be far from my section; all the lower designations live in roughly the same area. We ride the same train home sometimes, but she never sits with me or offers to walk with me when we get off. I don’t know her baby name, and I bet she never uses it even with her friends, if she has any.
One of the babies starts to cry—one of the boys, of course.
"Shhhh, shush Jobee." I press my lips on the soft spot on the top of the baby's head. I named this one Jobee for no special reason--I just liked the sound of the word. It's always struck me as odd that the lowly Baby Helpers are the ones who give the babies their baby names, but Helper97 straightened me out on that.
"We don't matter, but they matter even less," she said, nodding toward the babies. They might still fail, so it doesn't matter what they're called. If they make it through and get tracked, they get their designation, so our names go by the wayside. Nobody cares what they’re called while they’re still temps."
She's right. "Fail" is what they say when they mean die, and many of the babies do. Even if they make it past the Pre Ward to Tracking, some of them just don’t have what it takes. I’ve seen a few leave here that I knew in my heart would fail. They just didn’t seem to . . . care. They didn’t really want to live. When they’re like that, I know they go to Tracking and fail, and that’s that for them.
“Not you though, right Jobee?” I nuzzle the nape of Jobee’s neck and jounce him softly. He calms down, and I put him back in his crib. It’s almost time to make the final chart notes and then get ready for the next Helper. There’s always something that needs to be done last minute—usually a diaper change or a crying baby that makes the shift change rushed, so I like to have really clear notes. That way if I forget to mention something it’s there in the charts. Tonight, Jobee’s the only baby who has really been awake much. The other two have been sleeping most of my shift. I need to make sure that Helper29 knows to keep them up some, so they don’t just fade away.
The door to the Pre Ward swings open. I expect to see Helper29, but it’s not her. It’s some older woman, being escorted by one of the Directors. From the looks of her she’s Society. No uniform. The colors of her clothing are mixed and matched in some order that signifies something only to her, not something about her designation. Or maybe that is what they signify: her designation as Society. She looks around the room with a cold eye, taking me in that same way she takes in the steel examining tables and acrylic cribs. Only when she sees the babies do her eyes warm.
“Oh!” She makes a sound like a bird, moving toward the cribs.
“Madame, we need to wait.” The Director seems cowed by her, and he’s not one of the nice ones; he doesn’t hesitate to raise his voice to Helpers. I wonder who she is, to make him talk so nice.
“Nonsense!” She keeps moving toward the cribs. I put my charts on the table and rise from my seat; the babies haven’t had all of their inoculations. This woman is in street clothes; she isn’t even gloved up. I can’t let her touch them. I move to the front of the cribs without thinking it through, putting myself between them and her.
She glares at me, but doesn’t address me. Instead, she turns to the Director, arching an eyebrow at him as if to ask why some mess hasn’t been cleaned up.
That’s when I see him.
He’s been there the whole time, but he’s standing behind the two of them, and right now he’s watching the woman with something in his eyes—pity? When the Director doesn’t shove me out of her way, she starts to, and that’s when he moves. In a moment he is at her side, holding her arm gently, restraining her from coming closer.
“Mother.” He speaks very softly to her. “The girl’s just doing her job. She’s protecting them. Let’s wait for Dad to get here.”
It’s a real live family unit, right here in my ward.
That they're rich goes without saying. All family units are rich; it costs a lot to live that way. Luxury taxes are a killer, and most people can't afford even a simple companion animal tax. Family units run forty percent of gross at least. Pretty much only Society members can afford that.
I've never seen a family unit up close. You see them on the ads sometimes, sipping the latest beverage or applying some fancy lotion to their smooth faces, but they don't walk around in the real world. At least not my real world. I wonder what it's like to call somebody mother, to know who your mother is, like this boy does. I can see that he has her eyes; the shape is the same, though his aren't cold. What would it be like to look at another person and recognize your eyes there, in their face?
“I hardly think that I pose a threat, Thomas.”
“The babies aren't through all their inoculations—they are not fully protected yet.” The Director couldn’t sound more uncertain.
Despite the Director’s words, she advances. I don't flinch when she takes another step toward the crib. She won't be touching any of my babies without a gown and gloves.
Finally the Director speaks up. They’re worth nothing, these Directors. They don't do any work, and this one seems so scared of the Society lady that he can't speak above a whisper.
“We really should observe protocol in terms of the possibility of disease—”
“Disease?" The Society lady sneers. "Are you suggesting that I—”
“Calm down, Anna.” A man enters the room. He's Society, too. Must be Dad.
“Sir," the Director stutters. I—”
“Never mind." The man exchanges a look with the boy—Thomas—and places his own hand on the woman's arm. The boy steps back, looking relieved.
"I'm sure Anna is just excited. It's been a long time, getting to this step.” He looks at the woman.
“Anna, let's see what we need to do to be safe. After all, we don't want to take any chances with his health.”
The woman softens. She shakes her head and smiles.
“I guess I was being a bit pushy." She looks at the Director. "I'm sorry. I'm just excited.” She doesn't look at me.
“Understandable, Ms. Sloane. Completely understandable.” The Director beams at her. “We'll just get you a gown and some gloves and we'll be all set.” He turns to me.
“Helper . . .” he scans my badge. “Helper12, get some gowns and gloves for the Sloanes. They're visiting Baby4 today.”
Baby4 is Jobee.
I go to the wall cabinet and take out gowns. I get three pairs of gloves from the box. I feel a buzzy sensation on the crown of my head. It’s like my scalp is vibrating in a strange way. I cannot bring myself to look at the faces when I hand out the gowns and gloves; I just hold out the packets and watch the sets of hands grabbing them. Hers seem like greedy monkey hands, snatching at the gown, clutching at the gloves. I turn away and look at the babies, listening to the rustling behind me.
Soon enough, the rustling stops, and when I turn, I see two of them are outfitted in the sterile coverings. The boy hangs back, his gown and gloves still in their packages. The woman is front and center, eager to get past me.
“Helper12, hand Ms. Sloane Baby4.” The Director doesn’t pretend that it’s a request—it’s an order, loud and clear.
I turn back to the cribs, wondering what is going on. The Pre Ward never has visitors like this. What are they doing here? I lean over Jobee’s crib and scoop him up. I whisper to him as I circle back toward them, sounds that don’t form words. I hope he knows what I mean.
She’s reaching, grasping for him. She’s so quick to take him his head wobbles unsupported for a moment. I take her hand and place it beneath his head, holding it there with my own until she seems to get it. I don’t care how she glares.
“I have raised a baby.” She nods toward her son.
I just smile, though behind my lips, my teeth are gritted tight.
She forgets me quick, looking down at Jobee. He is sweet, a sweet boy, when he’s not fitful. Right now he’s calm, but I wonder what she would think of his tantrums. I smile a real smile, just thinking of how strong he can be.
“Oh Robert. Look at him.” The woman clucks some more, and holds Jobee up toward the father. I notice the son stays back from all of this.
“He’s a fine specimen.” The man is watching the woman’s face, not Jobee’s. He looks hopeful. I sneak a glance at the boy. He looks skeptical. He catches me looking and his expression goes blank.
“When can we have him?’ The woman looks at the Director. She sounds like she’s ordering a new sofa.
“Well, he’ll have to have all of his inoculations, and we’ll have to do some . . . we’ll have to make some arrangements.” The Director looks at me. After a few seconds I remember to shut my mouth.
I think this is one of those illegal adoptions.
I’ve heard of them. There are whispers now and then around the ward, but I always thought people were just making things up. It would cost so much to buy everyone involved off. And regulations are so tight surrounding the babies. Or at least, that’s what I thought.
“How long?” The woman’s mouth gets thin, like she’s not used to having to ask the same question twice.
The Director looks at me. “When is the last set of shots for this one?”
I wish I didn’t have to answer. “He’s due to have them in two days.”
“That works perfectly!” The woman smiles. “He’s so close, you can just give them to him tonight.” She gazes up at the man. “Darling, won’t it be perfect?”
Mr. Sloane smiles down at her. “Are you sure you want to move that fast dear?’
She frowns. “Of course.”
“I only meant that we have that trip planned.” Mr. Sloane tilts his head at her. “Our anniversary trip. Only two weeks away. Who will watch over this little one while we’re gone? Thomas will be off on his school trip, and it would be too much for him even if he wasn’t.”
“Oh!” The woman sounds perplexed. But then she smiles again. “We’ll have to have a Nanny Helper, of course, like we did with Thomas! We’ll just be sure to hire one before then.”
The Director looks uncomfortable. He sniffs and studies the toes of his shiny black shoes. Mr. Sloane frowns at the woman.
“But dear,” he says. “We can’t go through an agency for that kind of help. Not without . . . triggering some alarms.”
The woman furrows her brow at him. “Whatever do you mean?”
After a moment of silence, she seems to understand. “Ah. Still, I’ll need some sort of help, certainly, darling.” She sighs, but then her face lightens. We’ll just hire her!” She lifts her chin toward me, and then buries her nose in Jobee’s neck.
“She’s designated a Baby Helper, Ma’am, not a Private Nanny.” The Director sniffs.
“So?” The woman doesn’t even look his way. She looks up at Mr. Sloane. “Take care of it, won’t you dear?” She smiles, and then goes back to inhaling Jobee.
Mr. Sloane snorts. He shakes his head indulgently, and takes the Director’s arm. They walk away from the rest of us, speaking in low tones.
I have no idea what’s going on.
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