Jayanthi stood atop the hill, her legs protesting less than usual from the climb. Ahead of her, the land settled into a wide plain followed by a series of hills marching up to graceful mountains. To her right, the town of Vaksana blended into the terrain, with low buildings topped by plant-covered roofs. Where teeming masses of humanity had once dumped their excess garbage, megaconstructs now tore down ancient concrete and steel structures with their metal appendages. They towered over sluglike alloys, themselves as tall as trees, who crawled through the rubble, consuming and digesting it, leaving behind fertile organic waste.

A temperate breeze dried Jayanthi’s sweat. After catching her breath, she continued along a path that wound down to the base of the hill. Red and tan grasses covered the gentle slope. Insects swarmed to patches of sedate flowers, and microconstructs glittered in their midst, filling the ecological niches that had lain empty for centuries. For part of the way, she could pretend like she was the only human around. Feathery seed pods tickled her palms, and she resisted the instinct to break off a stem. Only a child would harm a plant for no reason, and at 22 years old, she was well into adulthood. Instead, she slackened her pace, letting her breath slow, and clasped her hands behind her back.

She entered her family home from the rear, passing under the ancient banyan tree and through the privacy curtain. Art produced by human hands lined the hallway: a quantum-interpretive painting by Charan, a figurine carved from regen-redwood, a painted earthen jug. In the front room, late-morning sunlight filtered through vine-covered windows and painted green shadows over everything, including her alloy father, who reclined in a sling chair.

He peeked over the top of a print book and said, “Share your bodym.”

Out of respect for Jayanthi’s privacy, her parents had withdrawn their access to her body’s information network after she reached the age of 16. Alloys did that with their children, relinquishing all oversight and control upon their offspring’s maturity. Jayanthi was entirely human and shouldn’t have had a bodym at all. The technological enhancement had been a concession – one of many – to her more-than-human parents.

“I’m fine,” she grumbled. “Stop worrying.”

But she sent her vital metrics over to her father anyway. Telling a parent not to worry was like asking the sun to dim its light. Vidhar nodded. “Your oxygen and hemoglobin counts are good.” Jayanthi shot him an I told you so look. “Have you heard from Hamsa?”

“He’ll be here soon. Did your walk not cure your nervousness?”

“I’m not nervous,” she said. She sat and put her feet up to prove it.

Hamsa had visited her parents every other year for as long as Jayanthi could remember. He and her parents had completed a 15-year course on human studies at the same time, and they’d remained close friends ever since. She’d never heard Hamsa criticise them for taking permanent residence on Earth. Most of the alloys who lived planet-side did so because of forced community service. The ones who did it by choice got branded as human lovers or wellers. Her parents claimed that the epithets didn’t bother them, but for Jayanthi, their oh-so-human child, the labels delivered a sting.

When Jayanthi was young, Hamsa would bring her gifts: intricate filigree balls that flattened into plates after months in Earth’s gravity, stick-on chromatophores that changed color with the temperature of her skin. In later years, he’d nurtured her growing interest in studying genetic engineering. Her own DNA contained HbSS – sickle cell anemia, a disease long since eradicated from Earth – and in learning about it, she’d become fascinated with genetics.

Her existence was an anomaly, a conscious choice to revive an old genome, but historically, there had beenmany people like her, and the more she’d learned at Hamsa’s knee, the more convinced she’d become that other extinct genes deserved renewed exploration. Alloys had an incredible variety of genes that spanned all kinds of life-forms. Humanity, on the other hand, had narrowed their options over time, choosing security and comfort over risk and diversity.

Hamsa had been a tarawan before he’d gotten involved in politics. His skills in producing alloy offspring were widely recognised. Under his tutelage, she’d learned to combine chromosomes, introduce mutations, and strategically edit genes – to access knowledge that was available only to alloys. Since his previous visit, she’d been working on a new genetic design, something innovative that she hoped would impress him. . .maybe enough to let her work as a tarawan and make human history.

“Hello,” called a singsong voice from beyond the entrance curtain. Jayanthi leaped from her chair and pulled the front entry curtain aside. Hamsa spread his feathered arms and smiled wide and close- mouthed, in the alloy style, though his incarn – the temporary body that he used on Earth – could breathe air. She flung her arms about his waist. He wrapped her in a downy embrace. A sleeveless tunic, white like his feathers, covered his torso. She inhaled his scent and reveled in its earthy, animal quality.

He pulled back and ushered her inside. “How are you, my dear?”

The bird genes gave his voice a scratchy quality.

“I’m very well,” she said.

“Does that mean you opted for the gene therapy?”

Jayanthi shook her head. “No. I had a blood exchange recently, and I’ve started a new type of medicine.”

Vidhar came forward and flashed a greeting to his friend. Her parents’ incarns had a more humanlike appearance, except for being hair-less, but as with all alloys, they had chromatophores along their arms, cheeks, and neck. Vidhar’s traced delicate spirals across his dark skin, like the ancient symbols for air.

Excerpted with permission from Meru, SB Divya, Hachette.