Tough Mothers

Read the first part of Babysitting Earth (a selection from Tough Mothers) here

Babysitting Earth 

Tough Mothers book cover

Dr. Zena Cain clung to the handhold beside the drawer that contained her husband’s remains and wondered if she should just quit the Project. Was Earth even worth protecting anymore?

“Brandon,” she whispered to cold metal, “I’ll find a way. I promise.” She came here to Cryogenics in the weightless hub of the Space Wheel at least once a week – or what passed for a week on the Wheel – to reaffirm her vow.

The door into this hold-for-reconstruction corridor pulsated open behind her with a whoosh of air. A woman’s voice coughed.

“Ah, Dr. Cain,” said Judith, the new tech from Zena’s lab. “Here you are. You didn’t answer your call, so I followed your tracker. I thought you’d be here.”

Zena didn’t look up from the identification number stamped onto Brandon’s drawer. She didn’t dare let anyone see the pent-up moisture in her eyes. Pity would be all it would take to set the tears to flowing.

Even though Judith worked only part-time with the CARE Project, filling in since Brandon’s death, this particular tech had managed to turn their lab out on deck four into an efficient machine. “Security asked me – “

“Mma-mmm!” wailed a baby.

Zena turned loose of the handhold and bumped against the wall of drawers. “What’s Lucy doing here?”

Her seven-month-old daughter squirmed in Judith’s arms, and the shifting body nearly threw Judith off balance, in spite of her mag boots. Zena lurched to catch her child. She took Lucy in her arms, cuddled her, and patted her. Zena nuzzled Lucy’s wet cheeks, blending their tears together.

“They asked me to bring Lucy to you,” Judith said.

“Who? And where’s Ursula? I hired her to look after Lucy. Why isn’t Lucy with her? What are you doing with Lucy?” Zena glanced at the time on her personal manager, clipped to her belt. She would have to find a quick arrangement for Lucy before her meetings began with the delegation from North Hem. Lucy’s short life had become one hasty arrangement after another.

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Dr. Cain.” Judith cleared her throat, sounding uncertain how to proceed.

Zena looked up with surprise. Judith, in all her efficiency, had never shown doubt before. But then, Zena didn’t know much about her new assistant. Judith was a recent immigrant to this station of three thousand plus. There was no end to the clamor of immigrant petitions, vying for apartments in the add-on nodules, even though growth had to remain limited, not exceeding resources. Judith was one of the lucky ones to have gotten in. Too lucky, Zena thought, without some sort of inside help. But Zena didn’t dwell on that. She considered herself lucky to have capable Judith.

Frowning, Judith found her voice and continued. “Security detained Ursula at the port. She was about to board a shuttle for Earth. With Lucy.”

Zena sucked in her breath. Her spine stiffened, and she gripped Lucy tighter to her breast. A shiver rippled through her. “She tried to kidnap my daughter? And take her down there to that cesspool? But why?”

“Don’t know,” Judith said, shaking her head. “She refuses to talk to anyone except…except to her attorney.” She averted her gaze to a lock of her hair, drifting loose from her bun.

“What else, Judith? What else aren’t you telling me?”

“Well… It so happens that Ursula’s attorney… I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but he’s one of the attorneys on your father-in-law’s payroll.”

An unhappy laugh bubbled up from Zena. Her shiver wormed round her spine. Coincidence? She doubted it. Brandon’s dad had always made his position clear. He did not want his only grandchild to be raised here, on the Wheel. Away from him. Away from his influence.

“So, Ursula works for Mr. Cain?” Zena asked. “I hired her because Council referred her…” Then she understood. Brandon’s dad, who was on the board of directors of North Hem, must have a lot more control over the Wheel’s governing Council than Zena had ever realized. “But how did you know?”

Judith shrugged. “I have friends. C’mon, we’d better head out. One of the delegates has arrived already, and I left him at the food dispenser.”

Clutching Lucy, Zena aimed for the door, following Judith. “I should’ve asked more questions about Ursula, dug a little further.”

“Don’t blame yourself, Doctor.”

Leaving their mag boots behind at reception, they exited Cryogenics, then drifted through the hub, toward the lift that would take them to the outer decks.

“It’s just that…” Zena couldn’t bear it if she lost Lucy, too. “I thought I could trust her. I was out of options when I hired Ursula,” Zena explained, feeling compelled to explain, to rationalize away the guilt that consumed her core. “The child care center has no openings, and I’m sixteenth on their waiting list. I’ve tried everything, gone through dozens of sitters, baby-sitting swaps, and nothing’s worked out so far. I’ve even been forced to use the baby bots occasionally, much to my dislike.”

“One would think the Council would make you a priority on account of your job,” Judith said.

“Yes, one would, wouldn’t one? They sent me Ursula.” A traitor, who tried to steal Zena’s child. A traitor, working for Brandon’s dad. Zena clutched Lucy tighter.

Mr. Cain had sent Ursula up here to fetch his granddaughter for him, Zena thought, shivering with certainty. She knew that if her father-in-law ever succeeded in reeling Lucy in, under the umbrella of his corporate control, she’d never see her daughter again.

“Maybe I should’ve resigned, after…”

The pain of losing Brandon was sharp enough. Sharper still, that he died needlessly when debris punctured his suit while he loaded the missiles to protect Earth.

“Don’t resign, Doctor!”

The outward-bound lift was waiting for them as they reached the platform. Zena breathed heavily as she caught up to Judith and strapped in. “You can’t know what it’s like.”

The ongoing search for a babysitter was a constant reminder of Zena’s grief for losing Brandon. He’d been the one who’d gone through the application process to have Lucy. He’d been Lucy’s principal care-giver. Sure, Zena loved Lucy too, and she only wanted the best for her child, but Brandon had been so much more competent at child care than she. His work hours had been more flexible than hers, since he’d been a tech with regular shifts. Not for Zena. She was the principal scientist with Comet and Asteroid Research Enterprise – the CARE Project. CARE watched over Earth’s safety. Earth’s care. Earth scare, she preferred to think.

“I’ll help you find someone, Doctor.” Judith’s eyes sparkled, reflecting the lights of passing decks. “I might have a friend who could help out.”

“Thank you, Judith. I need someone on call both day and night.” Like Earth’s sitter, Zena was always on call to work out whatever problems that came up round the clock.

“Don’t worry about it, Doctor, I’ll take care of it. And I’ll fill in until then.”

“But you’re already working two jobs,” Zena said. “At least, that’s what your records say. I don’t know how you do it, but you keep my lab running better than ever.”

“Because I really believe in the Project, Doctor. We’re going to make it long-term up here on the Wheel, I know we are. Because of you.”

Zena sighed. She hadn’t asked for the responsibility of being counted on with such fervor. But it was true that she – and Brandon – had perfected the instruments that spotted the problem objects far enough out to give Brandon’s missiles enough time to reach them. She understood better than anyone how to get the data they needed out of those instruments. CARE would fall apart if she walked out now. She’d have to devote hours and hours toward training a replacement before she could leave. But where would that time come from? It was just easier to do the job herself.

The simple truth was that she liked her job. She didn’t want to quit.

“It’s too bad,” Judith said, “that Council couldn’t expand our services.”

“Council is useless. They only do what North Hem wants them to do.” Whatever Brandon’s dad wants, Zena thought.

“It’s because the North Hemisphere Nations built the Wheel,” Judith said, flaring her nostrils with typical pride on the part of an immigrant.

“That doesn’t give them the right to treat us like their own private possession,” Zena said. “We’re here for the good of all humanity, not just for North Hem. I signed on to be a part of that effort, to make a difference.” Not to be someone’s puppet, she thought, as Mr. Cain tried to make her. “But now…I don’t know… How is it possible to go on?”

“With Lucy, you mean?” Judith asked, stroking Lucy’s back. As the lift moved outward, returning partial weight to them, the baby settled down into Zena’s arms.

Zena gulped back a sob. What she’d really meant, what she didn’t have the courage to confess was: without Brandon. Brandon had given her the freedom to be all. Wife, mother, scientist.

She was supposed to think of Lucy first, not her dead husband.

The lift braked at deck four’s platform, where they unstrapped. Heading out into the curving hall, they walked in silence except for the rapid clicking of their heels.

At the door to the CARE lab, Judith stopped. “At least, let me take the baby for you now, while you meet with the delegation.”

Zena agreed. “That’s very helpful.” She kissed Lucy, passed her over, and listened with a heavy heart to her daughter’s whimpers of protest.

The entire collection is available in ebook format from:

Also available for most other ereaders