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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Hope, Shattered

Brian R. McDowell currently resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a new author trying to find time to write between his nine-to-five. In most other hours, Brian can be found with a Shih Tzu on his lap and his loving wife by his side. He would not have it any other way.

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."
The doctor closed the door behind her as the woman exited the room. He shuffled his feet towards the bed and came to stand bent over Damara's fragile frame.
"You did well today," he said.
Damara nodded and pushed the features of her face into a grin.
"Can you turn over?" he asked.
Damara rolled onto her now-empty stomach, and the doctor removed the intravenous lines from the cavity beneath her shoulders.
"The baby," Damara said in a whisper.
"She's healthy," the doctor interrupted.
"Yes," Damara said. "I know." The vitals had said as much throughout the past forty-two weeks. "Do you think," she said with her neck craned over her left shoulder.
"Do I think what?" the doctor asked.
"Do you think?" Damara spoke the words as if they were stuck upon her lips. "Do you think that I could hold her?"
The doctor paused, and the silence left room for an emotion Damara did not know. It was the same sentiment that she had seen within the mother's eyes, though it was somehow wholly different. In that second of serenity, Damara felt a feeling she could not describe.
It was a toppling vase at a table's edge, falling between flailing hands.
It was a dried red leaf still clinging in the cold wind to an autumn branch.
In that moment, Damara felt hope.
"You know that you cannot," the doctor said.
The unknown feeling crumbled at his words, and Damara turned to her side. She bent her knees to her chest and placed her hands upon her face. The absence of the child's warmth was noticeable within her belly then, and she choked back the system's involuntary tears.
"I just thought," she said into the pillow. "I thought maybe if I asked." She closed her eyes and felt the fabric on her cheek. "I've never asked before," she whimpered.
The doctor leaned closer towards the android and pressed his lips onto her temple. He placed one hand in her hair and sifted through the synthetic strands.
"You have asked every time," he said.
The doctor placed his index finger on the system shut-off nestled in the center of Damara's neck. The tip of his finger whitened as it depressed against the button, and the audible click of plastic rang throughout the silent room.
It was the sound of darkness.
It was the sound of a dying dream.
It was the sound of shattering hope.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Author Comments

This story was difficult for me to write because I was born into a culture of happy endings. To this point, each story I had written had ended with at least a glimmer of hope; however, this piece is built around the absence of it. I struggled to write words that would evoke unhappy emotions, but I have always hoped to write something that would evoke any emotion at all.

- Brian R. McDowell
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