“A Study in Pink and Gold”
by Richard Ford Burley
He sits on the roof and takes another bite of bland, convenience store sushi, watching the massive body of a Drifter float by at eye level. He likes to come up here to eat lunch most days. On the rare occasion someone asks, he says it’s because the wind up on the thirty-story roof is fresher and cleaner than the stuffy canned air in the call center below. In truth, he just thinks the company’s better.
The Drifter’s massive bulk ripples, slowing its progress, and an eye the size of a dinner table swivels in its socket to peer at him with the same mixture of boredom and complacency with which he’s eating his lunch.
This is fine, it seems to say.
He supposes it is.
When they’d first arrived, there’d been the predictable panic. Net channels had become saturated with speculations—about where they’d come from, why they’d come here, and what (or who) they’d eat. There were two kinds, and they’d named them for the different ways they moved. “Drifters” is what they’d called the blimp-sized, tentacled doughnuts that lazily floated between the skyscrapers of the world’s larger cities, their pale, iridescent skins adorned with pink and gold frills that rippled when they moved, like wedding lace caught in a breeze. Their three gargantuan eyes, placed around their circumferences like portholes in a ship, seemed to look everywhere at once. The other kind, still frilled, but much smaller and quick as sparrows, had been dubbed “Darters.” They moved in schools like fish, or like flocks of starlings, but looking more like self-propelled umbrellas than any kind of bird—umbrellas with inflatable bladders and prehensile, whip-like tails. Nobody had figured out where they’d come from or how they’d gotten here. Hell, even now nobody’s figured out what keeps them up in the air, their buoyancy at odds with their weight, their flight as “impossible” as bumblebees’. To him, they’re more like something out of Jules Verne than H. P. Lovecraft—but people had still gone a little mad at first.
Then there’d come a moment—he’d been watching the coverage online, like most everyone else, from the cowering comfort of a neighbour’s basement—when some intrepid numbskull in the city had tried to fight them on his own prerogative, just him and some kind of machine gun, like the kind everyone used to argue about on the news. And this genius had gone up on a highrise rooftop and emptied his gun at a Drifter passing by, while a friend live-streamed the results.
The Drifter hadn’t even looked bothered; the bullets had bounced off and fallen to the ground a dozen stories below. But after a couple of repeated attempts, with concomitant shouting and swearing, the creature had finally seemed to have enough. It had whipped out two tentacles, fast as anything those watching had ever seen. The first one had held the guy, wrapped around him like the way sea monsters grapple with ships in old sailors’ tattoos, his arms pinned at his sides. You couldn’t see his face, but you didn’t have to in order to guess that he was probably starting to figure out just how much trouble he’d gotten himself into. The second tentacle had just sort-of hung there in the air for a second, as if deciding something.
The motion of the camera had been shaky, and you could hear in the background the muffled “oh my god”s of the winner who’d just realized he’d been roped into live-filming his friend’s suicide-by-sentient-alien-blimp. And the whole world watched as it panned to the creature’s giant eye, just staring at him at first, focusing on the tiny thing it had caught.
And then, it had looked around.
It had scanned left, then right, slowly checking its surroundings.
Then it had taken its second tentacle and, like something out of the Three Stooges, had smacked the would-be commando upside the head.
After that, it had unwrapped its assailant and given him enough of a shove in the chest to knock him flat, while the whole world had just stared.
And then, crowded around smartphones and laptops and TVs across the planet, the world had started laughing.
Most people watching that day had wanted to do the same thing to the guy. Hell, he thinks, popping the last of his half-stale sushi into his mouth, he wouldn’t mind doing that to his boss most days. Same for the clients.
People hadn’t been so afraid of them after that.
He takes a final swig of water from a plastic bottle before tossing his trash in the bag. The goal is to take it home for recycling. Sometimes it even makes it there.
He’s not sure exactly why he started drawing them. Maybe it was that he used to eat his lunches too fast and needed an excuse to stay up on the roof a little longer. These days he takes the full hour, including the half of it they won’t pay him for, even if they have to let him take it. His sketchbook is filling up.
The Drifters are the easy ones. They’ve got a top speed of maybe six or seven miles an hour, but he’s only ever seen one move that fast in videos. Up here on the roof, they’re almost stationary. Maybe they’re watching him watch them.
The Darters are different. They really are like umbrellas, but flexible, even graceful. They streak by in schools of ten or twenty, silent except for the sound of their membranes flapping in the wind. They’re so delicate-looking, with their pink and gold frills, as though some alien nature had crossed a swallow with a jellyfish and put it in the air. He finds it hard to believe they’re bulletproof—bullet-, missile-, and everything-else-proof—as some countries’ militaries had discovered early on. Is it biology or technology, he wonders, then wonders if there’s even a distinction.
Another Drifter wanders over and peers at him through the safety fence with its giant eye. It’s big like a portal you could walk through, if you could cross its glassy surface and pass into the blackness beyond. He wonders if it’s the same one that passes by the building most days, or if there are different ones. Even sketching them like this he’s never been able to tell one from another.
On a whim, he flips to one of his better drawings, a school of Darters diving past a stationary Drifter, and holds it up for the eye.
“What do you think?” he says, but of course there’s no response.
He closes the sketchbook and starts throwing his lunch things in their bag, when suddenly the end of a large pink tentacle fills his view. They’re not like octopus tentacles; they don’t have suction-cups like you’d expect. At its tip are eight little tendrils or fingers, which right now it’s spreading before him, four each way, like a child making a bird with their hands for a shadow-puppet.
He stops. He’s never been this close to one before. Each tendril has tiny striations, like tree rings or fingerprints. And the smell: like cinnamon and thyme, incongruous but not unpleasant. It opens and closes its “hands”: give, it seems to say.
He pulls the sketchbook back out and gently hands it over. Once the Drifter has it, it retracts the tentacle back over the fence and lowers the book in front of its eye. Another tentacle appears and starts flipping through the sketchbook, one page at a time.
He checks his watch and realizes he’s late. Great, that’ll be another earful. He grabs his stuff and wanders to the door. When he looks back, the Drifter doesn’t even seem to have noticed he’s moved, engrossed by the drawings.
Well at least somebody likes them, he thinks. But he’ll need to get a new sketchbook.
His first painting doesn’t sell. At least not for a while. Not until he’s filled a dozen sketchbooks and made three times that in paintings and entered his favourite two into a juried exhibition: a twilight cityscape with a distant Drifter, and a study of the pink tentacle-fingers holding his sketchbook. After that, they go fast: ten paintings sold in the first month of the show find their ways into the penthouses and law offices of pro-Drifter public figures, sparking a buying craze among the rich. The newly-opened American Center for Exobiology commissions him to do his biggest piece ever—an eight-foot by twelve-foot study in pink and gold of a Drifter and a school of Darters to hang in their reception lobby and impress donors. It takes him two months of evenings and weekends, but they fawn over it when it’s done and have a party when it’s hung.
He gets an agent just as he’s downsized from the call center. It’s not personal, his boss says, but of course it is. He tells him so, and gets walked from his desk before lunch.
His agent finds him an apartment with a studio on the roof. It used to be a pigeon coop, but with real estate being what it is in the city, they’d cleaned it and widened it and glassed it all in. He prefers to sit outside when he can. The building’s closer to the shore than his old job had been, and on the windiest days he can smell the salt from the surf that gets tossed into the air.
A summer thunderstorm rolls through the city one night, three weeks after the move. He’s fallen asleep in the studio, and is woken by the lashing of rain on the glass. The sky is black, so much blacker than when he was a child. Back then the glow from the cities lit the clouds from below, orange in the old neighbourhoods, white in the new. But since the Drifters had arrived, they’d put new rules in place. He read in the news that they’re trying to talk to them now, the scientists. It’s not going well—they say there’s a problem with “abstraction” that makes it hard to communicate—but apparently the Drifters aren’t big fans of bright night skies, and while many cities haven’t been willing to oblige, more than a few have, including his own.
A flash of lightning casts shadows on the rooftop and he sees them: maybe ten or twelve Darters huddled up in a mass against the rain. They’re backed up against one of the studio’s windowed walls, three of the largest open and gathered into a shield against the rain, protecting the smaller ones huddled beneath. The wind keeps threatening to lift away the open ones, so the others have lashed their group together with their tails, weighing them all down.
He starts to sketch them, then thinks better of it, instead walking over to the door and pinning it open with a brick reserved for the purpose.
The summer wind is still warm, despite the rain, and it sends loose pages flying about the studio as he scrambles to weigh them down. He dims the lights until everything is just a faint shadow, until the only light comes in staccato flashes from the clouds. Water begins to pool in the doorway, and he grabs a stack of sketchbooks off the floor and puts them higher up. After that he just sits back and waits, as salt-scented licks of wind make pinwheels about the room.
In the shadows, he can just make out the group moving as a whole. They remind him of Roman soldiers, locked together like a tortoise-shell, their canopies shielding them on all sides and above. Once they reach the open door, the formation dissolves, and they flip-flop one by one into the shelter of the darkened room.
For the next hour, they sit in silence. The smaller ones make faint chirping noises at one another after loud thunderclaps, but the larger ones don’t move at all. He’s not even sure they’re looking at him, though to be fair he’s never identified anything on the Darters that looks much like an eye, either. For his part, he stays at the back of the studio and leaves his guests to care for themselves.
When the twilight touches the edges of the horizon, the storm begins to subside. That’s when they set out, one by one flopping out the door and across the roof to the edge, awkward but practiced, like a pack of beached seals. The last one out the door, one of the largest, turns to point its umbrella end at him. It swells its great bladder and lets out a long, low note as it deflates, a sound like drawing a slow bow across a cello string. Then it, too, is out the door. He stands, back sore and unsteady on sleeping feet, in time to watch them dive off the edge, then soar into the lightening morning sky.
He meets her for the first time at an exhibition. Her dress, a light summer number, hangs off her sharp shoulders in a way that can’t help but catch his eye, but it’s the print that keeps his attention: it’s one of his paintings. Oh, it’s been reinterpreted and twisted to create a continuous flow, the pinks sliding into the golds with more fluidity than his work had ever really managed, but the original source is unmistakable. She’ll later say, once they’ve been dating for a while, that she’d made the print herself in the hope that he’d be there.
She studies them for a living, calls them by their scientific name—Vesicalae. She straightens her glasses, thick horn-rimmed things that dare fashion to object, and tells him it’s a mediocre portmanteau of the Latin words for ‘bladder’ and ‘wing.’ It had been rushed into by the scientific community when their guests had first arrived, and she shrugs as she explains. There had been debate at first as to where to put them in the tree of life. Did they warrant their own kingdom? They’d wondered aloud on talk shows and podcasts. Could you call them animals or plants? It was hard to say. Eventually it had been decided that, being from another world (we could only assume), they realistically deserved their entirely own tree. They didn’t even have DNA, after all.
She’s thrilled at the story of the Darters in the storm and tells him in response that they’re like crows: they never forget a face, a good deed done, or a wrong suffered. She invites him to visit her lab, an ACE-funded observatory high in the foothills, to see her subjects in nature, if not in their natural setting. She asks, at length, whether he’d like to come out with her, that night, for dinner, and he accepts.
He’s never seen so many at once.
The observatory rises up above the forest, a white spire three times the height of the trees. There are four—no, five Drifters crowding around the top, jostling in slow motion for a place near the observation deck. Each has extended a pair of pink tentacles to latch on, and he thinks for a moment of a cottage vacation his family took once, of looking up from under cold, clear water at a marina, boats all lashed to the dock.
It isn’t his first visit; she’d brought him here on their second date, close to two years before. But he can tell this time is different. All night, she’d tossed and turned in the bed she finds so comfortable she’d insisted on bringing it with her when she’d moved in with him. And this morning, she’d broken off a phone call from work to stop him going out for supplies, to ask if he’d like to come out with her. They were trying something new, she said. It was going to be exciting.
The wind whistles through the trees as they walk from the parking lot, the branches creaking and waving but still obscuring their view of the tower. The gravel path crunches beneath their feet and he wonders for a moment how she can keep her balance in high heels as she walks ahead of him. He nearly trips over his own toes trying to catch a glimpse upward through the trees.
The lobby is all windows and white-painted steel girders that arch down to the ground like glass-webbed fingers. He squints up to see the Drifters looking tiny from so far below, but lurches back to ground level when his back starts to twinge. It’s been doing that a lot lately; maybe he needs better posture, or maybe better shoes. He’d heard it can hurt your back when you slouch as much as he does. They reach the reception desk and the young man behind it smiles and waves them past.
His ears pop twice in the elevator, which whistles as it climbs. She hasn’t said anything since they got out of the car, but it’s like she’s forcing it, holding onto an exuberance she can’t wait to share. She’s been smiling to herself since they left the apartment.
The labs that populate the massive disk at the tower’s top all look empty as they walk through the halls. It’s quiet, without even the wind to soften the sound of their footsteps on the polished floor. The tempo increases as they near the observation deck, and as they approach they can see the whole staff, three dozen scientists and workers out on the wide, high-railed plateau overlooking the forest three hundred feet below.
As they step out through the portal, the feeling hits him. Everyone is silent, the atmosphere buzzing with static. There are cameras filming, and lab techs furiously taking notes as the Drifters take turns studying a large, colourful panel.
It’s one of his paintings.
Oh, it’s a reprint, about a dozen times the size of the original, but it’s unmistakable. She flashes him a smile.
With a few knowing looks, the crowd parts and she ushers him up to stand next to his work. A large screen to one side of the deck flashes pictograms that are largely ignored by the gargantuan visitors, who are still bobbing about in the wind, their frills swaying like anemone tendrils in the air currents.
The closest Drifter stares at him with a massive eye, then extends two tentacles: one toward the large screen, the other toward him. It picks up what, judging by its size, must be a custom-made stylus, taps to open a blank window, and draws two horizontal lines like a large ‘equals’ symbol. Then it points at the painting, points at the symbol, and points at him.
“I am my painting?” he says.
“We’ve managed to explain to them ‘is’ and ‘is not,’” says one scientist, scribbling away on a tablet. “We’re still having a little trouble with ‘make’ and ‘do.’”
As they scramble to formulate a response, the Drifter wanders off, listing sideways in the breeze.
She walks up behind him and squeezes his hand, whispering an excited “thanks” in his ear.
“Don’t thank me, I’m just a painting,” he repeats, and laughs—but she pokes him in the ribs and he yields.
“I’m not marrying a painting,” she says. “I’m marrying an artist.”
It takes him a moment to realize what she’s said, but when he looks in her eyes he understands. He’ll take her shopping for a ring that week.
She’d told him he had to go to the clinic, “just to be safe.”
He was looking gaunt, she’d said. He’d said it was because he wasn’t eating, and he wasn’t eating because he wasn’t hungry. Simple as that. But the pain in his back had gotten worse and worse and when he couldn’t ignore it any more, he’d gone. They’d done tests, and then they’d had him come back for more tests. And then they’d started speaking to him in softer and softer tones.
Of course it’s cancer, he thinks. Of course it is.
He’s almost impressed with how he restrains himself all the way back from the doctor’s office, but when he gets out into the open air on the roof, he screams into the wind, voicing wordless fury for the things he won’t do and for all the time he’s wasted.
Stage four metastatic.
Two years, maybe three.
Aside from his back, he feels fine.
Damn it all to Hell.
A Darter flits by as he yells, then another. Four or five, circling, slicing through the air, disappearing around the building then slipping downward from above in a kind of off-axis orbit around the rooftop.
Then he notices the noise. They’re screaming back, humming, honking, thrumming in the same tone as his cries. He yells again and they yell back. He changes tone and they change too. He laughs into the wind and screams until his voice is hoarse and his cheeks are wet. He screams until he can’t scream anymore, and after that, they lose interest.
One by one they dart away, a single-file line of pink-gold fish fluttering into the sunset, bobbing on air currents, twisting in the breeze. He watches them until they become specks in the distance, until even the specks disappear in the city’s evening haze.
She marries him anyway; it’s her idea. To him it seems like there are only two reactions to the situation: with the immunotherapy only buying him time, she commits; others withdraw.
They get married on the observation deck. That’s his idea, a wedding gift for her coworkers. Two Drifters attend the ceremony, alongside family members, friends, and scientists. One of her colleagues tries to translate the ceremony as best she can, but gives up about halfway through their vows. They’re not watching the screen anyway.
The wedding videos hit the net and make him a different kind of celebrity. “Dying artist and friend of Drifters.” He starts to get letters of sympathy and gifts in the mail.
His favourite is from an eight year old in Tacoma, Washington. It’s a drawing of a Drifter in pink and yellow pencil on a piece of thick white cardstock, like you’d make a box out of. On the back is a note that reads, “I’m sick too, but drawing them makes me feel better. I hope you feel better too.” He hangs it up in his studio and keeps it like a totem.
She gets pregnant at the last moment possible, just before the harsher rounds of chemo begin and render him effectively sterile. She’d said she wasn’t worried—she’d planned on having him bank a deposit of genetic material if it came to it—but he could tell she was relieved. He’d given up on trying to convince her otherwise. It wouldn’t be so hard on her own, she’d said, not with family and daycare and a good job with benefits. She’d demanded a piece of him to keep, and he couldn’t begrudge her that.
She’d stayed, after all.
His painting slows as his skin yellows and the pain in his back gnaws away. They install a portable toilet stall up on the rooftop so he doesn’t have to make the trek up and down so often. It’s an undignified thing, he thinks, the way it empties him out. He’s not honestly sure if it’s the cancer or the drugs, but he suspects it’s a little of both.
He also doesn’t go bald like he’d expected to. It’s funny. He’d asked about it and the doctors had said maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t. It was a challenge to predict who would get which side effects with the drugs, they said. It’s hard, this round, but each round buys him time for them to find something else to give him.
She sits and watches him paint sometimes. It’s weird for him, because he’s always done it alone—or alone but for the company of his subjects. He tries to tell jokes to keep her spirits up, like how surprised he is that he hasn’t developed super-powers by now, the number of things they’ve tried on him. He doesn’t even glow in the dark. She doesn’t think he’s funny, she says, but she smiles anyway.
The Drifters come to visit his studio more often now, too, hovering in place and peering in the windowed roof with a giant eye. Darters flit by in smaller groups than he’s seen before, reminding him of the visitor limit at the hospital. Sometimes they land, hop along, rifle through his things. One time, a smaller Darter placed its tail into a large bottle of white gesso and, to his alarm, began sucking it up like a kid sucking a milkshake through a straw. Even if he’d known who to call—did poison control deal with Darters? Could Darters be poisoned?—he wouldn’t have had the time. It took two hops along the rooftop, and with a honk it sneezed it out in a long white streak. Then, seemingly proud of itself, it dove off the roof and flew away.
He stops for a moment, watching his wife as she stares off the roof at their guests. He wonders for a moment if they die—no-one’s ever seen a body—or if they even understand death. When he asks, she says they haven’t found a way to explain it yet.
The oncologist pulled some strings after the latest intervention. That’s what they’ve been calling the different tactics they’ve tried to slow the progression of his armies of rebellious cells: interventions. Like if they just sat them down with all their non-cancerous friends, they could be convinced to stop the madness. But since that’s not an option, he’s been enrolled in a phase II trial of a new drug. He’s not sure if it’s fitting or ironic that it’s based on tissue samples from a Drifter.
But it works. It’s not a cure, but it slows things down. The pain in his back is even low enough some days that he can ride out in the car to the observatory. While she works in her lab, he sits in a padded deck chair on the observation deck, sketching the Drifters and Darters as they observe him in return.
A pair of Darters hang from their tails on a high rail that had been installed for the purpose not long after the scientists had started their work here. They don’t fully land except in the worst of weather, preferring instead to swing like pendulums in the breeze from anything available. If they were any smaller, he suspects they’d hang on his arm if he held it out.
When he’s alone with them, he clears his throat and lets out a long single-tone honk at them, until he sputters and coughs. They thrum back at him, then bobble at each other like it’s some grand joke—a human honking. They go back and forth a few times, until he’s out of breath, and a Drifter comes in close to examine the commotion.
It looks at him, giant eye like a hole in the universe, then looks at the Darters hanging in the breeze. Then it lets out the single loudest sound he’s ever heard, like he imagines it would be to stick his head inside the foghorns that echo along the coast in the spring. It shakes his teeth and rattles the windows of the observatory, causing half a dozen scientists to scramble out onto the deck in a panic.
He half laughs as he takes his hands from his ears. They’ll have had the cameras running, he thinks, so they can study that, replay it to their hearts’ content. His laughter ends, per usual these days, with a coughing fit, but this one leaves a reddened spray on his hand. He’ll call the oncologist tonight.
His final painting sells at auction for a price he can’t even understand in real terms. Small mercies, he supposes, in that it pays for palliative care at home. He won’t have to die in a hospital.
“His final painting.” He hates to call it that, but the fact is he can’t stand long enough to do another. He props himself up in a custom wheelchair on the rooftop each morning, and draws in his sketchbooks until his hands are too cold to hold the pencil and the nurse has to wheel him back down for a nap.
He won’t get to meet his child, either. Not unless she’s born a month early, which isn’t impossible, but he’s not holding his breath. He can’t hold his breath anymore, not since the mutinous cells migrated to his lungs. But it’ll be a she, a daughter. She’ll be just like her mother, he’s sure. He cried when he heard the news, and smiled.
She sits with him all the time now, while he draws, while he sleeps. She curls up in bed next to him as best she can, pillow between her knees and a hand reached out to maintain some kind of physical contact. He wants to tell her how brave she is. He tells her he loves her every chance that he gets, doesn’t want to waste his breath on saying anything else.
He tries to think of final words to write, for his fans, for his wife, for his daughter-to-be, but in the end all he can think of is his final painting, and the drawings that are his words.
The sun breaks the horizon on a crisp morning in November. It isn’t his last day, but it’s one of the last, and he knows it. He’s almost given up on drawing them, on drawing anything. He can barely keep his eyes open long enough to. But the nurse props him up in his bed and brings him some food, and he takes off the oxygen mask for long enough to spoon in some cream of wheat, rinsed down with a little contraband coffee.
She comes in, so pregnant he wonders if he’ll have two daughters, and she’s got red eyes like she’s been crying again. But it’s different from usual—somehow, she’s smiling. He has to come see, she says to the nurse. He has to get to the roof.
It’s a long process, migrating upward. The tubes and wires and the IV bag. He refuses the gowns, demands to live and die wearing trousers when he leaves the bedroom, even if they’re so loose as to be a little absurd. But it’s another five minutes to navigate his legs into them, catching his breath after each. Loose flannels over the arms, reattaching the wires, buttoning the front. By the time he’s ready to go, he’s about ready for bed again. But he persists, for her.
On to the stairs up, where he slides into a sideways chair that creaks up the stairwell wall because the elevator doesn’t go to the roof. The nurse carries his wheelchair behind him, and sets it up at the top, but out on the rooftop it’s just family, today. The nurse waits inside.
He tries not to doze as she pushes him forward, the extra oxygen misting in front of his nose mixing with the cool air. She asks him if he needs a hat for his ears, but he shakes his head no. No, he misses the wind, even in their bedroom. He’ll take what he can get.
And then they’re at the edge, the sun rising three fingers above the horizon now, only a touch of orange left as its slow daily arc begins. But where it shines is the real story, and his heart beats out of his chest as he sees it. He can’t stand, but he struggles to. He reaches up, a shaking hand grabbing hers where she’s holding the chair. Look, he wants to say. Look—even though how could anyone not look? How had she even looked away long enough to gather him, to drag him up to the roof with all the trappings of a dying man?
It’s the whole side of the next building over, the one in clearest view from the roof. Two hundred feet of smooth glass and steel have been transformed, overnight, into a single, unimaginable painting. Two Drifters float, watching, one on each side, while thirty or forty Darters soar up and down the face of the building, streaking colour right and left, caressing each curve with light and shadow, adding meticulous finishing touches to a magnum opus he knows himself unworthy of. But this can only be for him, for them, the greatest gift he’ll ever receive; the greatest gift he could ever imagine.
A painting of a family: of him, of her, of their child to be.
A study in pink and gold.
Richard Ford Burley is a New England-based speculative fiction writer and an academic editor at the journal Ledger. His first novel, Mouse, is in stores now, and his second, Displacement, is coming later this year. He has precisely one cat.