In a future that could be our own, Carole Stivers’ debut novel The Mother Code explores what truly makes us human—and the tenuous nature of the boundaries between us and the machines we create. The Mother Code publishes August 25th with Berkeley—read an excerpt below!
It’s 2049, and the survival of the human race is at risk. Earth’s inhabitants must turn to their last resort: a plan to place genetically engineered children inside the cocoons of large-scale robots—to be incubated, birthed, and raised by machines. But there is yet one hope of preserving the human order—an intelligence programmed into these machines that renders each unique in its own right—the Mother Code.
Kai is born in America’s desert southwest, his only companion his robot Mother, Rho-Z. Equipped with the knowledge and motivations of a human mother, Rho-Z raises Kai and teaches him how to survive. But as children like Kai come of age, their Mothers transform too—in ways that were never predicted. When government survivors decide that the Mothers must be destroyed, Kai must make a choice. Will he break the bond he shares with Rho-Z? Or will he fight to save the only parent he has ever known?
March 3, 2054
Their treads tucked tight to their bodies, their wings outspread, they headed north in tight formation. From above, the sun glimmered off their metallic flanks, sending their coalesced shadows adrift over the ridges and combs of the open desert. Below lay only silence—that primordial silence that lives on in the wake of all that is lost, of all that is squandered.
At their approach, the silence was broken. Every grain of sand hummed in tune with the roar of air through their ducted fans. Tiny creatures, wrested from their heated slumbers, stirred from their hiding places to sense their coming.
Then, pausing in their trajectory to map ever-larger arcs, the Mothers fanned apart, each following her own path. Rho-Z maintained altitude, checked her flight computer, homed toward her preset destination. Deep in her belly she bore a precious payload—the seed of a new generation.
Alone, she set down in the shade of an overhanging crag, sheltered from the wind. There she waited, for the viscous thrum of a heartbeat. She waited, for the tremble of a small arm, the twitch of a tiny leg. She faithfully recorded the signs of vitality, waiting for the moment when her next mission would begin.
Until, at last, it was time:
Fetal Weight 2.4 kg.
Respiration Rate 47:::Pulse Ox 99%:::BP Systolic 60 Diastolic 37:::Temperature 36.8C.
WOMB DRAINAGE: Initiate 03:50:13. Complete 04:00:13.
FEED TUBE DISCONNECT: Initiate 04:01:33. Complete 04:01:48.
Respiration Rate 39:::Pulse Ox 89%:::BP Systolic 43 Diastolic 25.
RESUSCITATION: Initiate 04:03:12. Complete 04:03:42.
Respiration Rate 63:::Pulse Ox 97%:::BP Systolic 75 Diastolic 43.
TRANSFER: Initiate 04:04:01.
The newborn nestled into the dense, fibrous interior of her cocoon. He squirmed, his arms flailing. As his lips found her soft nipple, nutrient-rich liquid filled his mouth. His body relaxed, cradled now by warm elastic fingers. His eyes opened to a soft blue light, the blurred outline of a human face.
December 20, 2049
URGENT CONFIDENTIAL. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE
Request your presence at a conference to be held at CIA Headquarters, Langley, VA.
December 20, 2049, 1100 hours. Top priority.
Transportation will be provided. Please respond ASAP.
—General Jos. Blankenship, U.S. Army
James Said removed his wrist phone ocular from his right eye, tucking it into its plastic case. He peeled his flex-phone from his wrist, then undid his belt and loaded it along with his shoes and jacket onto the conveyor. Eyes focused straight ahead toward the optical scanner, he shuffled past the cordon of airport inspection bots, their thin white arms moving efficiently over every portion of his anatomy.
Urgent. Confidential. When it came to communications from the military, he’d learned to gloss over terms that he’d once found alarming. Still, he couldn’t help but steal a glance around the security area, thoroughly expecting a man in military blues to materialize. Blankenship. Where had he heard that name?
He ran his fingers over his chin. That morning he’d shaved close, exposing the dark birthmark just below the jaw—the place where his mother told him Allah had kissed him on the day he was born. Did his looks betray him? He thought not. Born in California on the fourth of July, his every habit scrupulously secular, he was as American as he could be. He possessed his mother’s light-skinned coloring, her father’s tall stature. Yet somehow the moment he set foot in an airport, he felt like the enemy. Though the infamous 9/11 attacks had preceded his own birth by thirteen years, the London Intifada of 2030 and the suicide bombings at Reagan Airport in 2041 kept alive a healthy suspicion of anyone resembling a Muslim in the West.
As the last of the bots offered him a green light, he gathered up his belongings, then pressed his thumb to the keypad on the door leading out to the gates. In the bright light and bustle of the concourse, he slid the ocular back into his eye and secured the phone on his wrist. Blinking three times to reconnect the two devices, he pressed “reply” on the phone’s control panel and murmured into it. “Flying to California for the holidays. Must reschedule after January 5. Please provide agenda.” Head down, he hurried past colorful displays filled with beautiful faces, all calling him by name. “James,” they crooned, “have you tried our brave new ExoTea flavors? Queeze-Ease for those high-altitude jitters? The new Dormo In-Flight Iso-Helmet?” He hated the way these new phones broadcast his identity, but such was the price of connectivity in public spaces.
In line at the coffee stand, he refreshed his phone feed. He smiled at the sight of his mother’s name.
The harvest is in. We are ready for the New Year. When will you arrive?
Swiping the phone’s small screen with a long index finger, he located his airline reservation and tacked it onto a reply.
“See attached,” he dictated. “Tell Dad not to worry about picking me up. I’ll catch an autocab. Can’t wait to see you.”
He scrolled through his mail, filing his engagements in the online calendar:
- Faculty Luncheon Jan. 8.
- Graduate Seminar, Dept. of Cell & Developmental Biology. Topics due Jan. 15.
- Annual Conference on Genetic Engineering: New Frontiers, New Regulations. Jan. 25.
James frowned. He didn’t always attend the annual conference, but this year it would be in Atlanta, just a few blocks from his Emory laboratory. He’d been invited to talk about his work engineering genes within the human body, this time with the goal of curing cystic fibrosis in the unborn fetus. But these government-sponsored conferences tended to focus less on the science than on the policy—including the ever-shifting landscape of government control over the novel material that made his work possible.
Over a decade before, scientists at the University of Illinois had developed a type of nanoparticulate DNA called nucleic acid nanostructures—NANs, for short. Unlike native, linear DNA, these small spherical forms of synthetic DNA could easily penetrate a human cell membrane on their own. Once inside the cell, they could insert themselves into the host DNA to modify targeted genes. The possibilities seemed endless— cures not only for genetic abnormalities but also for a whole host of previously intractable cancers. From the moment that James, then a graduate student in cell biology at Berkeley, had first learned about NANs, he’d been bent on getting his hands on the material that might make his dreams a reality.
Genetic engineering of human embryos prior to implantation had become a mature science—carefully regulated, the tools well characterized and virtually free of the off-target effects so often encountered in the early days. Likewise, tests for diagnosing fetal defects later in development, after implantation in the womb, had been available for decades. But once a defect was detected, there was still no way to safely alter a fetus in the womb. James was convinced that by using NANs, faulty genes could be reengineered in utero. Gene-treatable diseases like cystic fibrosis could be eradicated.
But there were hurdles to overcome, both technical and political. This was a technology that might prove dangerous in the wrong hands; the University of Illinois had soon been forced to hand over all license to the federal government, and Fort Detrick, a Maryland facility northeast of D.C., held the bulk of it in strict confidence.
He missed California. He missed Berkeley. Every day, he had to remind himself that coming to Atlanta had been the right thing to do. The Center for Gene Therapy at Emory was the only public institution that had been allowed access to NANs.
In the waiting room, he slouched into a seat near the boarding gate. He’d once been a spry, athletic farm boy, the captain of his high school baseball team. But he’d let himself go—his straight spine curved forward from years of hovering over laboratory benches, his keen eyes weakened from staring into microscopes and computer screens. His mother would fret over his health, he knew, plying him with plates of spiced lentils and rice. He could taste them already.
James looked around. At this early hour, most of the seats were empty. In front of him a young mother, her baby asleep in a carrier on the floor, cradled a small GameGirl remote console in her lap. Ignoring her own child, she seemed to be playing at feeding the alien baby whose wide green face appeared openmouthed on her screen. By the window an elderly man sat munching a ProteoBar.
James jumped at the feel of a buzz at his wrist—a return message from DOD.
No reschedule. Someone will meet you.
—General Jos. Blankenship, U.S. Army
He looked up to see a man in a plain gray suit stationed by the gate. The man’s thick neck rose out of his collar, his chin tilting upward in an almost imperceptible nod. Removing his ocular, James glanced to his right. His arm flinched reflexively from a light tap on his shoulder.
James’s mind went blank. “Yes?” he croaked.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Said. But the Pentagon requires your presence.” “What?” James stared at the young man, his crisp dark uniform
and glossy black shoes.
“I’ll need you to accompany me to Langley, ASAP. I’m sorry. We’ll have your airline tickets reimbursed.”
“Don’t worry, sir. We’ll get you there in no time.” Latching a white-gloved hand around James’s arm, the officer guided him to a security exit and down a set of stairs, through a door and out into daylight. A few steps away, the man in the gray suit was already waiting, holding open the back door of a black limousine, ushering James inside.
“Taken care of.”
His heart forming a fist in his chest, James wedged his body deep into the leather seat. He placed his right hand protectively over his left wrist, guarding the phone—his one remaining link to the world outside the limo. At least they hadn’t confiscated it. “What’s going on? Why are you detaining me?”
The young officer offered him a wry grin as he climbed into the front seat. “They’ll fill you in at Langley, sir.” He pushed a few buttons on the dash, and James could feel the pressure of a smooth acceleration. “Just sit back and relax.”
The young man reached out to activate a transceiver on the car’s center console. “Subject en route,” he assured someone on the other end. “Expect arrival ten hundred hours.”
“We’ve got a jet lined up. Just sit tight.”
Outside the tinted window, the black tarmac sped by. James held up his wrist, punched on his phone, and whispered a short message: “Amani Said. Message: Sorry, Mom. Won’t be home. Something came up. Tell Dad not to worry. Send.”
His voice shaking, he added a second thought. “If you don’t hear from me in two days, call Mr. Wheelan.” Silently, he prayed that his message would go through.
Excerpted from The Mother Code, copyright 2020 by Carole Stivers.