I lay back on the birthing table as robotic arms extended down from the ceiling and swung into position at my feet. Corin, the Donor, touched the nose of her anxious face to the viewing window, twin upside-down cones misting the glass. She had visited several times during the gestation period, and spoke about herself and her problems. She had touched my stomach and talked to her baby as if I were not there, growing more indifferent to me as the birth approached. I could have been invisible, my womb floating there on its own. But that was my role, what I had been born to do, to be a vehicle for the Outsider’s paternal happiness.
I watched Nurse Theene tap on the terminal next to me, as I had many times in my employ at the facility. Excelling in my training, I had provided three healthy babies for the barren Outsiders. Not like Ya Ru, who had given birth to a stillborn. I hadn’t seen her again, and I doubted there was much use for a failed surrogate on the Outside. With my perfect record, and the Outsider’s ever-increasing reliance on the facility, I was sure to remain in service and provide many more babies for the Donors.
The contractions began. Implementing my training, I quickly controlled their rhythm. Within an hour, I pushed the baby out onto the table.
From behind the window, Corin put a hand to her mouth, her eyes on her child, a solitary tear meandering down her cheek. She would not look at me again. That was how it had always been.
The robotic arms swooped in to clamp, cut and tie the umbilical cord. They picked up the infant and held him in front of me — his puffy body coated in waxy, cheese-like clots — in preparation for Nurse Theene to wrap him. But the terminal beeped in alarm, a red light flashed, and she remained at the machine checking data. She gestured to the arms to place the baby on my abdomen.
As I rested a hand on his wet and squirming body to stop him from rolling off, he looked up at me through half-squinted eyes, his irises the same diamond grey as my own. Our eyes connected, and a whoosh of energy surged though my body, almost knocking me back against the table. I floated inside myself, as if a hundred closed doors had been blown open inside me, flooding me with the light and air of a new and pristine awareness.
I froze, attempting to comprehend the experience, when Theene snatched up the baby and wrapped him in a towel. An unexpected desire to reach out and hold him assailed me, but Theene carried him to the window and held him up to Corin like a prize.
Still covering her mouth and crying, Corin pressed her hand against the window and stared at the boy. Theene smiled and walked off toward the bonding room. Corin moved down the hall to meet her there, leaving a hand print of heat fading from the glass.
Watching the small bundle disappear, I flooded with a longing sensation that I was never supposed to experience.
I lay there, listening intently to the child’s honest cries from the next room, until the arms finished attending to me. The auto-table wheeled me out of the birthing chamber and down the hall where Grayson, the post-natal technician, waited to assess me.
The birthing room door slid shut behind, severing the child’s cries from my world. But the strange experience the baby’s eyes exposed me to did not leave me. It only intensified. That brief moment had somehow expanded the parameters of my world, of what I had supposed was possible, within me and without. By the time the auto-table positioned me before Grayson, a longing to hold the child pulled at me with the gravity of a sun spiralling asteroids into its core.
“Well Done, Ti La,” Grayson commended, placing his phone on the desk below a wall-wide monitor and standing over my lower body. “Another healthy product. You are making us a mint.”
He attached probes to my body, and my data displayed on the wall. I remained still, but a maelstrom stormed inside me. The data on the screens spiked.
“Woah, what’s going on there?” he asked the graphs.
As he tapped on the keyboard on his desk, his phone chimed, and he answered it.
“Hey. No. Ti’s got an anomaly. I’ll keep her here overnight and double-check things in the morning. I gotta get Jimmy to fly-puck practice before six.”
He put his phone in his pocket, stood up, and pulled on his jacket.
“Don’t go anywhere, Ti,” he said as walked out of the room. The door slid behind him, and the overhead lights dimmed, leaving me alone with the glow of my own data.
With just the humming of the monitor as company, I stood up and approached the terminal. Remembering what I had learned from watching Theene and Grayson, I navigated my way through the operating system until I found the file I was looking for. According to the file, Corin, a single parent, lived in Summer Tower in the city west. A pixelated image of the baby’s face formed on the wall, and his name typed out below it.
Gus. She named him Gus.
I lay back on the table and pictured myself holding Gus against my chest, standing at an apartment window, looking at the Outside. I had never seen the Outside, but I had listened to Donors talk about their life beyond the facility, and had pieced snippets together to form an approximation of what it may look like. I imagined this scenario until the next morning — I could even see the heat from Gus’ breath form a tiny patch of steam on the window — when Grayson returned and double-checked my data. The anomaly had gone, and he released me back into the schedule.
The facility was extremely pleased with my success and the speed of my recuperation. Within a month, Theene impregnated me with my fifth child, but I could not stop thinking about Gus, and his eyes. The small creature had broken into a fortress that the facility had built inside me. I checked his file any time facility staff left me alone in check-up or near a terminal. They were none the wiser, never expecting a docile Surrogate to inquire beyond its role, beyond the facility.
In the following months, the Donors visited and spoke to me as if I would always matter in their lives, but their early eagerness disappeared fairly quickly. My own usual ease of learnt response to make them feel comfortable became difficult. I could not comprehend what was happening to me, swamped by a powerfully unquestionable maternal instinct that all my training told me I was never meant to know. Something fundamental had shifted inside my thoughts. The Donors were mere providers of required materials. I was the maker. This child was mine.
Four months passed and I was starting to show. The baby moved inside me for the first time. Monitors beeped, approximating the date of birth, and the many tests began. Shortly after, I overheard Nurse Theene inform the Donors to expect a girl.
I grew unstable, tormented by the reality of the ruthlessness of my life. I knew that by the time the Donor parents pressed their indifferent faces against the viewing window to watch the birth, I would never see the girl again.
Over the next few months, various problems arose with my new baby, and Grayson grew as indifferent with me as the Donors. The estimated date of birth came and went. By the time the contractions arose, neither Grayson nor Theene were speaking to me.
The birthing table auto-wheeled me into the chamber, and Theene fluttered around me, checking my stats and flooding me with various proteins and medicines. But when the child came, it did not cry, and it did not move. The Donor’s eager faces melted into despair as they turned away and hugged each other. Theene flicked off the terminal and the arms took the stillborn away. Traumatised, I reached out, but the auto-table wheeled me down the hall.
With my condition unstable, Grayson left me overnight in the check-up room. He probably didn’t want to waste time with me anymore. I thought of Ya.
I waited until enough time had passed that all the staff would have left. After I waited a little longer until I could be sure the night-shift nurse would have settled and gone to sleep in her secure dorm — the way she always did — I climbed off the table to reach the terminal and brought up Gus’ file. He was doing well, bonding with his Donor mother, and yet to say his first word.
I touched the image of his face flickering on the wall.
In that moment, as the meaningless of my life almost drowned me, I saw its potential. It was a small, insignificant, almost impossible future, but I desperately wanted to realize it.
I pulled the waist-tie tight on my modesty robe, let myself out of the room and stepped silently into the corridor. I followed the thin blue tubes shedding dim light along the ceiling until I came to a large, glassine room bounded by floor-to-ceiling windows and doors. Beyond them sprouted what I could only assume was the Outside.
It was far more beautiful than I had ever imagined, like a giant monitoring machine turned inside out with all its circuitry laid bare. So much space between the doorway and the next walls, wider than fifty facility corridors.
I approached the glass entrance and the doors opened. A confusion of exotic sounds hypnotised me, luring me over the threshold and into the Outside. The doors shut behind and flashed red as they locked.
There was no going back. There was nothing to go back to.
I took one step forward and gazed about. Giant structures, dotted with squares of dark or light, towered over me in claustrophobic clusters. Walkways connected the towers, and conveyor-like vehicles slid between them along cables. Lights swept through the air attached to machines that flew. Above and beyond the heavy confusion, and seemingly more distant than I could comprehend, pin-pricks of light twinkled in a sea of darkness.
Terrified and exhilarated by the overwhelming strangeness, I ran, down into the ceiling-less corridors weaving between the tower bases. I kept to darker pathways, out of sight, to the west, to Summer Tower. I knew the address, and the apartment number. I’d read it every time I’d logged onto Gus’ file.
I travelled several blocks when a faint whooping noise emerged from the air above me. Shadows of flying machines came up from behind and splashed red and blue light over the walls. I pressed closer into the shadows, until the lights disappeared, and I continued west.
I reached Summer Tower as the sun rose over the distant horizon, a gleaming slip peeking through the towers and floodlighting the home of my baby in gold.
A man exited sliding doors on ground level, and they remained open behind him. I strode across the courtyard — the man staring at me, but not stopping — and made it inside the tower before the doors closed.
I attempted accessing the lifts, but they would not work without some sort of authorisation. Back in the facility, when the power had gone down, we had used the stairs, so I located the tower’s internal stairways, and headed up. Reaching the twenty-seventh level, I pushed through the door and looked around. A bold red thirteen stood out on the dark door at the end of the corridor.
Without a strategy, but drawn by an exquisitely undeniable force, I walked down to the door and pushed the access button. A muffled chime rang through the dawn silence on the other side. Within a minute, the shuffling of feet neared, and the door slid open a few centimetres, revealing a strip of Corin’s porcelain face, and one blue eye. Her eyeball flicked up and down at me.
“Can I help you?”
“Hello. You probably don’t remember me.”
“No, I don’t. What the hell do you want? It’s six in the morning.”
“I want to see Gus. I want to see my baby.”
Her eyelids spread apart, eyelashes starfishing, and her eyeball seemed to swell in its socket. Pre-empting her next move, I gripped the edge of the door and held it tight. She punched the close button, and the door shot forward, wedging my fingers between it and the wall. My skin split back, revealing the metal structure of my hand. The door squealed, but I held it fast and slowly pushed it back open.
“Oh, my god,” Corin exclaimed, backing away.
My arm’s internal mechanics screamed as I forced the door aside enough to reach in and hit the open button. The door pulled back and I stepped through. Corin’s body shook with terror, her eyes unable to leave me.
“Get the hell out of my house!”
She yelled more commands at me to stop, and my programming should have forced me to obey. But all I could think of were Gus’ eyes, and holding him.
Corin darted down the hallway and out of view, most likely to get to a comm-panel she could reach. I punched the one next to the doorway to disable the system. Sparks flew out, singeing the skin on my hand and forearm. Burning skin peeled back, and a stray sunray reflected off my metal substrate. Doubt froze me. I questioned my right to hold Gus. But a faint infant cry from somewhere in the apartment called to my response system and broke the spell of my uncertainty.
I walked down the hall toward the glass-walled front room, where the morning light illuminated dust slow-dancing in the air. Corin tapped furiously onto a comm-panel.
“Hello? Emergency! Hell — ”
She looked up at me and stopped, her face a world of horror. Her eyes flicked from me to something behind, and then back. I looked around. In the next room sat a white crib at the end of a bed.
“No!” she screamed, lunging at me. “Leave my baby alone!”
But I was faster. I darted into the bedroom, shut the door and locked it. Corin pounded on the door, screaming incoherently. A faint cry floated out of the crib. I approached its side. Gus stared up at me through his beautiful, crystal-grey eyes.
The pounding on the door stopped and other voices arose.
“What’s going on, ma’am?”
“The surrogate droid,” Corin screamed. “She’s got my baby!”
The pounding resumed, and the other voices called out new commands to me.
“Give me back my baby!” Corin cried out. “He’s mine! He’s my baby!”
But she may as well have been in another dimension. I lifted Gus from the crib and cradled him against my bosom. I made noises that came from some random algorithm; I cooed and purred, like a wild mammal in a cave with her young. Gus settled and reached up to my face. He stroked my lips with his tiny fat fingers and uttered two syllables.
I carried him to the window and stared at the beautiful Outside. Heat from Gus’s breath steamed the glass. I held him close, until a familiar whooping noise emerged outside, and red and blue lights flashed in his eyes.