Drifters • Short Story

The steam rising from the kitchen sink told him the water was on too hot. His old human skin would have scalded but his new skin couldn’t feel the heat.

He turned down the temperature then rubbed his hands together under the stream. Dark circles had appeared a few weeks ago on the skin of his hands and then had slowly formed into recognizable scales. At his age the drifting was slower. His fingernails had narrowed noticeably and thickened. Definitely reptilian. He could probably have figured out what species if he researched. Assuming the DNA was from only one species.

He finished washing his hands and dried them on a hand towel. A nail ripped the soft cloth. He held the torn towel for a moment then hung it back.

His wife would berate him when she found it. These days she didn’t have the fire in her anger that used to send him running. It would be a gentle berating this time. A sign of affection of their history. And towels weren’t important like they used to be.
Through the kitchen window he watched her tend the garden. She was sprouting antennae. Delicate, light green stalks with little bulbs forming at the tips emerging from her temples. She said she could feel the wind through them, that it tickled.

She pulled weeds from around the tulips and piled them into a wheelbarrow at her side. She had often told him stories of gardening as a little girl. Some of the them many times but he still smiled when she told them. She’d gardened all through her life. She said she needed the contact with the earth. Years ago she could fill that wheelbarrow in half an hour. Now, it took most of the morning. The joints moved a little slower, the limbs were a little thicker.

He padded into the living room and absentmindedly picked up the remote. He turned it idly in his rough hands, then set it back down. He couldn’t feel much from his fingers but if he watched his hands he could make the most delicate motions. Working the little buttons was actually easier now.

No point in turning on the TV, though; there was only one story anymore. All of the news was about the drift. New information about the origin, or the most strange features someone had developed, or propaganda about our forces versus the Drifters.

The news had been exciting at first. Before the drift, before the war. Back then it was the opening of the universe. Every day a new world. Some days a dozen. And then the discovery of intelligent life. Not just one species – but millions. Then billions. Then too many to count.

Some seemed close to human. Some were so removed as to be difficult to accept as intelligent. Most were in the middle. Humanoid birds, sponges with a dozen eyes and two mouths, walking stones. They all made things, that’s how we could tell they were intelligent. Cities, sometimes, or art, or what was probably writing. A few had made spaceships.

And then we made spaceships, too. Most of the aliens were too far away for any form of interaction. We could look but we couldn’t talk, much less visit. There were a few, though, close enough to meet.
She was in the garage cleaning her tools when he entered. Her back was to him and so he leaned against the doorframe, stroked it lightly with his rough hand. Her stalks tilted in his direction at the sound.
“I always knew you had eyes in the back of your head,” he nudged. She ignored him but he knew she would be smiling.

He turned to his workbench and re-inspected his latest work-in-progress. He didn’t need to work, or to do anything really, but idle hands and all that. He felt pride at this piece. The little wooden ballerina looked away from him, down and to her left, admiring her own dress. So many little folds and creases. He could see in such detail now and could carve more delicately. His eyes must be drifting, too.

There had a been a story on the news about a ballerina. A controversy, as always. Something about her having drifted to having no bones and there was much debate if she should be allowed to perform since she could bend in ways the other women could not. People had been so angry about it, shouting at each other. He had turned off the TV then.

Humans are a violent species. We tried to communicate with the aliens but could find no commonality. Plant-people were the first we physically encountered. They didn’t have writing, at least nothing that we could interpret as writing. They didn’t have any form of speech, either. We tried. Some of us think they tried, too.

But then we took something of theirs, or they took something of ours, nobody is sure. And then war, just like that. The other aliens must have been their friends because we never even had a chance to talk to them. The three closest species joined in and it was humans versus the universe.

It reminded him of how he had felt as a young man. So much to do back then. So many exciting things to do. So many things to fight, to conquer. School, work. Sports. Girls. Now excitement like that held no allure. Now he carved.

He wanted the ballerina to be delighted with her dress like he was. Her expression was close but not quite there. He picked at the corners of her eyes with the tip of a claw.

The aliens had no expressions we could read. The scientists had been close to a breakthrough, they claimed, in understanding their ‘bark’ movements and translating them into language. Too late, though, to stop the war.

At first the war had been clunky. Spaceships retrofitted with rockets and lasers. Pierce the hull of the enemy and they all died. The reverse was also true. We learned quickly to fit our soldiers with space-proof suits which they always wore. The enemy did it differently. They drifted.

One day they died in vacuum and they next they didn’t. They developed tentacles, some of them, and some grew dense and impervious to bullets. We were no longer facing one enemy race, or even four. We were facing thousands. And all working together against us.

We went crazy. Creatures that changed, that held no one form couldn’t be reasoned with, couldn’t possibly understand us. How could they have beliefs, have religion, have love if they drifted? Without continuity of body how could they have continuity of mind?

We are who we are because of who we are. Who could they be if they could be one thing one day and something else the next?

So we redoubled the war. We took them as hard as we could. Until they brought the war to us.
No one noticed when the asteroid hit. It had been so small. A little town in nowhere, Mexico. Then the drifting began on Earth.

At first it wasn’t a story. The little town was too remote and there was a war on. It wasn’t until the drift disease had spread that the doctors traced it back, discovered the origin, found the asteroid.
The young drifted first. Scrambled DNA causing new features, changing bodies with no rhyme or reason. A quarantine, briefly, but it was no good. Everyone started drifting. A movement to isolate those unaffected or minimally affected. Legislation to define ‘human.’ More rights, or less rights, or preserving rights or taking them away from those who drifted too far. None of it went anywhere. Everyone was drifting.

He wandered outside into the garden. Only the humans had been affected by the drift. He was happy for that. He knew what he liked to eat and would have been disappointed if the tomatoes and peppers didn’t taste like tomatoes and peppers. Once he relished new food, travel, new cultures, new cuisines. Now the energy wasn’t there for that sort of thing. He liked just tomatoes and peppers.

His son travelled up there, in one of the war ships. He was still in the aggressive phase that a young man may have. His body mattered so much. How fast he could run, how much he could lift, how hard he could fight. The Drifters made him angry. The Drift attack, even more.

He had grown extra arms. Had them surgically removed. Twice. Then he had had the area burnt, covering it with scar tissue.

He fought so hard. Videos would come to them periodically, about how hard he was fighting, how much killing he was doing.

They watched for him and watched over his wife. The baby was due soon.

Not a single child had been born undrifted since the infection began.

When his son had been born they had counted his fingers and toes, over and over. One two three four five six seven eight nine ten. One two three four five six seven eight nine ten. One two three four five six seven eight nine ten. Few parents could do that any more.

None of the newborns died. Most were healthy, like most had been healthy before. They were just a little different on the surface.

He hoped his son would return soon. Let go of the war and the rage. It wasn’t so bad here. We needed to reminded ourselves of things that were important and let go of the things that weren’t.

He plucked a tomato, juicy and red and ripe. The undersides of his fingers were still soft and he could carry it without bruising the delicate skin. As a very young boy he had hated tomatoes. They tasted like dirt to him and he got their juice all over his hands. It was different now. But the tomatoes hadn’t changed.

How long would it take all of us to learn this lesson, to remember what we used to know? He understood – that’s what the infection was for, to help us remember what we’d forgotten. So that we could join our kin among the stars.

We too are drifters, and have been all along.