art by Jonathan Westbrook
by Brian R. McDowell
The surrogate-bot screamed in artificial agony. If they could have traded shades, her knuckles would have been painted white, gripping the handrails on the bed.
Her knees were bent, and her feet rested at the edge of the mattress. Perspiration dripped from her brow and soaked the synthetic brunette hair matted on her cheek. The liquid fell in a steady stream from the android's temples instead of beading in a glow, but it was a common flaw in manufactured pores.
It was close to real.
It was real.
There were details that remained impossible to replicate, but the details did not matter when the parents had their crying child in the end.
"Damara," the doctor spoke at her side, "I need you to push."
She mimed the motions and flexed her back. Damara widened her internal birthing canal ten percent and grimaced. The repli-skin folded at the corners of her eyes, but her pupils continued scanning throughout the room.
The mother stood at the foot of the bed with her hands flattened on her face. She was earnest in her worry, and each fear trembled to the tips of every finger on her cheek.
There were others who chose a surrogate birth for selfish reasons. They preferred the price of convenience to keep their flattened stomachs. This mother had no other choice.
The father sat beneath a window, flipping with one finger through an electronic magazine. Each word he spoke was drenched in disinterest, and his attention was divided between the digital pages and the watch upon his wrist.
"Stolacorps is up two points today," he scoffed. "I told you that we should have gotten in when Russ did."
"This is not the time," the mother said. She flipped the back of her hand in a shushing motion and turned away from her husband.
"Two and a half points now," the father whispered to his shoulder.
"We are almost there," the doctor spoke.
The mother took one step towards the bed and wrapped a brunette curl around her finger in a nervous twirl.
Damara looked into the woman's eyes and felt each emotion coursing through her stare. She was beautiful against the room's white backdrop, even with her worried frown. The sadness triggers fired inside Damara's temporal circuits, and she wanted to hold the woman. The labor process overrode the instinct, though, and Damara shifted her view to the doctor.
The first generation of surrogate-bots had been engineered devoid of emotion. However, the parents' fears of stoicism brought about the need for change. With each new model, the empathy mainframes became more complex. Now, the androids not only shared the physical traits of human mothers, but they also felt the same emotions that paved the path of pregnancy.
"You are doing great," the doctor reassured Damara. He stood with his white coat swinging as he turned towards the mother. "Your daughter will be here soon."
Damara bit her bottom lip and arched her back against the firm mattress. Her lips quivered with every feigned inhalation of air, and the perspiration flowed steadily down her cheeks.
When the child began to crown, Damara ignored the doctor at her side and the father who now stood with his wife's hand tangled in his own. Her eyes moved towards the mother and stayed in a prolonged stare.
Damara clenched and pushed with each imitated pang but did not squint her eyes in anguish. The mother trembled with every forced sigh and stilled herself to stone in cadence with the fake contractions.
In the mother's eyes, Damara saw an emotion that she did not understand but could not disregard.
It was a sprouting seed in stony soil warming at its first glimpse of sunlight.
It was a shallow river splashing at the beginning drops of a steady rain.
In the mother's eyes, though she could not name it, Damara saw hope.
"She is beautiful," the woman said with her infant pressed against the bare skin of her breast.
"Just like her mother," the father whispered. He ran one hand through the brunette curls on the shoulder of his wife while the other caressed the child's back.
Damara turned to her side and smiled. The glow of the mother warmed her where the cold metal stood inside her chest.
"The nurse will be here shortly to escort you to the bonding suite," the doctor spoke as he and the father exchanged handshakes.
The nurse came as he said, and the new parents walked with timid steps towards the door. Underneath the pale fluorescent lights, the mother turned with her child cradled in her arms.
"Thank you," she said.
The doctor smiled and placed one hand upon her wrist while the other gestured to the hall. "It was nothing."
"No," she spoke. "It was everything." The mother peered over the doctor's shoulder and breathed one final sigh. "Damara," she said. "Thank you."