Can and Should by George Burdick
"Silicon-based life is theoretical. I'm talking about something tangible," said Llewel.
"This is tangible. This ... thing," said Rathgar, indicating the dish on the workstation among the flasks, vials, flames and electronics.
Before them, in a glass saucer, a luminescent blob lolled with languid, pulsing shimmers, looking like little more than a radioactive pudding gone wrong. The pudding called itself Flox.
Not that these two would ever know my name, thought Flox.
Flox pondered the argument between the two scientists, which she understood explicitly since her pressure-sensitive skin passed for ears as she interpreted the air vibrations of their voices, their evolving language passed down to her through thousands of years of inconspicuous, off-world observation.
Llewel waved a hand emphatically, and said to his companion, "Look, if the bloody species was worth anything then we wouldn't have been able to terraform right over them."
Ooooo, that I could participate, except I have no mouth.
"That's a bit arrogant, don't you think?" Rathgar raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms. Flox supposed she would have smiled at this.
Flox was young for her species. She was small too, smaller than a human's hand, having separated in a sort of mitosis from her host only a few days ago. Actually, the host had become snagged in a fence-line, squeezed through and scraped off a speck which would grow to become Flox. Her kind didn't consciously reproduce. They simply were, and after a certain amount of time, there were...more. But this was balanced by the fact that others would become old, or get re-assigned off-planet, or just strike out on their own after several thousand years of boredom.
Llewel began to pace about the lab. "Is it arrogant to do something that we are clearly capable of? Arguably, that we were designed to do by means of evolution?"
"What, conquer inferior species, world after world?" Rathgar's eyes followed him across the fluorescent-lit room. "You can't tell a species to adapt or die. Instead, that which happens to adapt, survives. There is a difference. Evolution takes dozens or hundreds of generations. Terraforming takes an afternoon." He took a deep breath and crossed his arms.
Llewel saw an opportunity to pounce. "That is such crap. If the species were going to do something it would have done it already. It served no purpose. Look, if you have a planet full of life and a variety of fauna, and you take a closer look at the...fleffenhuffers, let's say. Maybe they're bi-pedal ungulates."
Rathgar's brow furrowed at this. Llewel ignored him. "You notice that over time, half randomly have a greater resistance to solar radiation as an unimportant variation in their genetic makeup. Interesting, but useless. Until suddenly their sun has a storm of solar winds that rips off the ionosphere. Then half of the species dies of cancer within months--the ones without the variation."
Rathgar shrugged, hands out. "What does that prove? Terraforming kills millions of species dead. No adaptation possible. And, I might add, your remaining, fleffenfuckers, or whatever they are, they're not done. They will produce subsequent generations some of which do not have the required mutation. Among those, the ones without sufficient protection will die off before they can reproduce. The environmental pressure therefore favors that which adapts. It takes time. This is genetics 101, you're not proving shit."
"You acquire the foulest of mouths when you become aware of your erring logic, friend. Furthermore, you're missing the only point that is relevant," Llewel taunted. "The species is all but dead. That's the last one." He stretched a thin finger in the direction of the bench.
I am hardly the last, Flox thought.
Rathgar placed his hand on the work bench next to Flox's dish and leaned in to pick at a flake from the worn edge. He murmured, "You cannot kill this species."
This apparent parallel sentiment interested Flox.
In disgust, Llewel flicked his stylus at Flox but missed. "Can't and shouldn't are two different things. Don't be a sloppy bleeding heart." On the way out of the lab, his heavy heels clicked and echoed.
Without terraforming right over them, it was almost impossible to kill creatures like Flox. She knew that explorers all through the system had variously encountered and then attempted to murder her kind, and all had failed. This she drew from the shared memory inherited from her parent. There is not much to be done about something that repairs itself or absorbs projectiles and piercing weapons. Flox's myriad redundant systems and insulating interstitial fluid made her long-lasting and rather attractively mysterious. At least she thought so.
But she could tell this is not what Rathgar meant. Flox bunched up on the side of the dish closest to Rathgar. She extended tiny protuberances outward to Rathgar and found him cool to the touch. Rathgar regarded the dish and lowered his head to the desk to get a better look. He rested his chin on one fist and let his other hand play across her newly created translucent digits.
Flox found Rathgar very easy to read and the tentative contact improved it. If Rathgar was cool to the touch she knew that the scientist found her warm, dry and pliable in return. Flox sensed that his heart and breathing slowed. His demeanor produced a shimmer across her skin.
Perhaps he'll feed me now.
Rathgar murmured, "I should feed you." He smiled faintly as if remembering something.
Silica, Sodium Oxide, Calcium Oxide.
Rathgar murmured, "Glass..." and wrinkled his forehead, considering.
All at once Flox reflected on the collective battle memories that were passed down to her. There isn't malice in two species competing for the same space, she knew. One race may even become ubiquitous through genocide, but she simply didn't give that much weight to the ethics of it. Her sensibilities didn't extend from empathy to sympathy. She understood but didn't care, since she would persist either way.
He sat up straight. "Oh my."
Flox's color variegation deepened, her texture fluttered and she began to digest her glass container.
© 2014 George Burdick
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George P Burdick lives in Gatlinburg, Tennessee at the foot of the Smokey Mountains, riding an aerial tram through a forest to work every day.