Jayanthi sat next to Mina on their bed and watched as three other SHWAs appeared on the wallscreen. Ekene and Jean looked to be calling from home, but Li Feng’s backdrop was a domed observatory.
“I finally got some telescope time,” Li Feng said by way of greeting. “Had to show it off. How’s everyone else?”
“Still happy taking crop samples,” Ekene said. “I’m keeping my thesis adviser satisfied, too.”
“I think I found a sponsor for my movie,” Jean said. “An alloy who’s a fan of my short films contacted me. They’re in stasis, and they said they’d be happy to start a petition to get me resources.”
“That’s great, Jean,” Jayanthi said. “I’m happy for you.”
A few years earlier, Jean had wanted to travel to Antarctica and do research there, but the Committee for Intercontinental Travel had denied his request. They said he had too little tolerance for the climate conditions. The disappointment had nearly crushed him, and he’d opted for gene therapy to help him let go of the dream. On one level, she felt bad for him, but on another, she was glad to see her friend out of pain. He wasn’t much of a SHWA anymore, but he was still a friend.
Mina waved their hand as if sweeping aside a pile of debris. “I’m glad we’re all doing well, but can we talk about the only thing that really matters right now? How do we muster enough votes to pass Hamsa’s amendment so humans can live on Meru?”
The others burst into laughter.
“You’re the one studying law,” Ekene said.
“Not the same as politics,” Mina rejoined.
“We need a good counterargument to everyone saying that we’d have to modify the planet’s atmosphere,” Li Feng said. He had always followed policy matters closely, though his passion was radio astronomy. “Pushkara’s taking that angle hard. Apparently one of his human ancestors was a lead geoengineer on Mars. He’s spouting his usual lines about having witnessed the drafting of the compact and how flawless it is.”
“So he has familial guilt to assuage,” Mina mused. “And the current legal framework is on his side. This will pose a challenge.”
“He also has a long record of conservative voting,” Li Feng said, “especially when it comes to protecting the integrity of nonliving conscious bodies, including planets. The respect for his work runs deep and wide. If he says that we shouldn’t consider having humans on Meru, people will listen. We have a year and a half to convince the majority that he’s wrong.”
“I saw a poll that said eighty percent of humans don’t think we need to leave the Earth,” Ekene said. “The alloys poll slightly better, at sixty-eight in Pushkara’s favor. They have no incentive to let us leave Earth. Not only would it require them to provide safe transport for us, it would mean fewer alloys working on the surface and less Earth resources for them to take. That’s two things the alloys don’t want. The ones who’ve curbed their AAD might vote in our favor, but the rest won’t.” She made an apologetic face. “I know Hamsa’s your friend, Jaya, but none of his proposals for human space travel have gone well. He has a lot of goodwill from his tarawan days, but he’s fighting a losing battle.
Humanity has spent generations weeding out its desire to explore. If we don’t care, how do we make them care?”
“I don’t know,” Jayanthi said. “But we have to try. If we can start fresh with a whole new planet, we’ll need a populace that’s more adventurous. We can let some of those characteristics come back into the gene pool.”
“How’s your genetics project going?” Jean asked. “Did Hamsa like it?”
Jayanthi made a sour face and filled them in on the previous day’s events.
“I bet someone could design a human with the right physiology for Meru,” Ekene said. She studied genetic engineering as well, though her work was on plants. “It shouldn’t require too many changes.”
The newly discovered planet had parameters remarkably similar to Earth’s. After alloys had established civilization in Sol-space, they’d sent probes, constructs, and alloys to other systems, searching purely for the sake of science. They’d discovered plenty of exoplanets, but very few came close to Earth’s mass, temperature, and geophysics. Many harbored rudimentary forms of life, which made them off-limits to anything but orbital observation. Some had developed protein structures that even alloys would find toxic. Meru was the first to have similar gravity, a human-breathable atmosphere, and minimally evolved life-forms that aligned with Earth’s biochemistry. The trouble with Meru was the amount of oxygen. At nearly 45 percent of the atmosphere, it would cause lung and vision disorders, along with general oxidative damage at the cellular level.
As the others delved further into political wrangling, Jayanthi slow-blinked to activate her emchannel and searched through the known methods for preventing hyperoxia. People could handle pure oxygen for short durations, and most negative effects would reverse after they resumed breathing Earth-normal air. No one knew what a lifelong overexposure to oxygen would cause, but they had discovered that some genetic variants could help mitigate the damage caused to lung tissue.
Jayanthi skimmed the list. Her gaze stumbled over a familiar term, HMOX-1. The new medication for her sickle cell disorder affected the expression of that gene, cranking it up so that it destroyed the free heme her sickled cells released into her blood. She’d incorporated it as a permanent change in the design she’d shown Hamsa. According to the information in front of her, the same enzyme would keep the alveoli in human lungs from corroding under continuous exposure to excess oxygen.
An idea began to coalesce in her mind like the first cells in an embryo. With sickling, the problem for the body was that the distorted cells didn’t bind well to oxygen. In an atmosphere like Meru’s, that would be an advantage, and a tweak to the genes regulating HMOX-1 would then prevent the associated lung damage. Someone with that combination ought to live a long and healthy life on Meru.
“I . . . might already see a genetic solution,” Jayanthi said, interrupting a heated discussion between Mina and Li Feng.
They stopped talking, and Mina turned to her. As Jayanthi explained her idea, Mina began to frown.
“An entire population with a condition like yours?” they asked.
“In Meru’s atmosphere, they wouldn’t get sick as often as I do.”
“Didn’t they eradicate sickle cell anemia from the human genome centuries ago?” Ekene said. “I thought you only exist because you have alloy parents and Hamsa went for a random combination from the Nivid’s historical records?”
Jayanthi nodded. “There must be plenty more like me in the database. If we could get tarawans to help with embryo design on Meru and implant those into the first wave of human settlers—”
Everyone interrupted her at once. Then they got into a new argument about Bantri and natural human reproduction versus the alloy method. Jayanthi said little. Politics had never interested her much, and she couldn’t shake loose the thought that her design for Hamsa had exactly the genes a person would need on Meru. If she stripped out the extra bits from the Z chromosome, she could make it a purely human genome. She had to tell Hamsa. If he could demonstrate the design’s viability, he’d have the classic counterargument to Pushkara’s objection: The evolved life-form adapts the environment to itself; the highly evolved life-form adapts itself to the environment.[Excerpted from Meru by S.B. Divya. Publisher: Hachette India.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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