QSFer Jessica Pegis has a new queer sci-fi book out: The God Painter.
In the year 2035, humanity is rescued from a lethal solar flare by seven mysterious beings and transported across the universe to the uninhabited planet Ansar. Earth’s major cities are recreated, and a stunned but thankful humanity mostly carries on with life and society.
But is everything as it appears? Just who are the semi-omniscient beings who rescued them? What do they really want? And to what secret place do they retreat every night?
With the appearance of the seven, all the old divisions concerning gender, privilege, and power re-emerge in unexpected and increasingly dangerous ways. Conspiracy theories abound. Among those searching for answers are Joy, a gay commercial artist from Toronto, and her friend Leo, a widowed theology professor and Vatican consultant. In the end, the truth may prove more costly than either imagined.
There was a take-off that felt like flying and falling at the same time, noiseless and compressed to a few seconds, followed by a brief darkening beyond the cabin windows. Eventually, a persistent glow—overly bright and unpleasant to behold—replaced the black, triggering an audio message: “For your safety and comfort, the shades have now closed. Do not attempt to open your shade.”
Some idiot will open the shade, she thought.
Several minutes passed before any of the usual cabin noises erupted, before the seat belts retracted or the baby cried or someone whispered or wept or she had the guts to inspect the surroundings more carefully. The seat next to hers was occupied by a young woman saying the rosary; they were a foot apart, separated by a transparent privacy screen that ended at the woman’s shoulder. Next to her was an elderly man in pajamas staring numbly at the closed shade. Across the aisle, a businessman in a dull shirt read The Economist as though nothing had happened. As he turned a page, he tilted his head to look at her, pausing at her orange rubber clogs.
“Hey, if the truth is out there, may as well be comfortable when it shows up.”
She forced a smile. “Any idea how big this thing is?
This time he spoke without raising his head. “Step into the aisle and look around. Blow your mind.”
Joy stared down at her hands braced against her knees. There was a smear of marine blue paint on the nail and cuticle of the third finger of her right hand and, straddling the knuckle of her left thumb, two blobs of titanium white.
Her monitor said an information program would begin shortly.
Paint was real; hands were real. For paint and hands, she got up.
“Don’t touch that.”
“Why? It says Welcome when you turn it on.”
The pubescent child and his mother seated directly in front of her had begun their standoff as soon as the belts had retreated.
“You don’t know who it’s for.”
“Who else would it be for?”
“You don’t just turn on something you find in the seat pocket.”
“Hey look, there’s stuff about the spaceship.”
“Stop calling it that.”
Joy tapped the shoulder of the gangly boy in his middle seat. He turned and she beckoned. “Check out the view from here.”
“Who are you? Don’t talk to my son,” said the boy’s mother, displaying a special genius for the imperative tense.
“I’m in the seat behind you. It’s hard to see from here.”
“It’s a stupid airplane. There’s nothing to see.”
“Why don’t you let him look for himself?”
The boy got up and slunk past his mother into the aisle.
It was the reaction she had been hoping for, the one she wanted to see on somebody else’s face so she could sketch it later. But for the Vegas lighting and airline seats, the cabin resembled a giant sports arena. There were six huge elliptical tiers, each one slightly banked and partially covering the tier below, filled with rows thirty-six seats across broken up by six aisles. The floor of the bowl was flat, with one row of seats around the perimeter. A few brave souls were already wandering around taking pictures. Only one detail proved they were no longer spectators: they were facing the wrong way.
“I betcha this is bigger than Rungrado.” The boy cranked his head around for the third time, flush with excitement and disbelief.
“What’s that?” asked Joy.
“The biggest stadium in the world. North Korea.”
“Yup, I knew it looked like a stadium.”
He nodded his head before choosing a section to count.
“The biggest stadium in the world is Strahov,” said a well-dressed woman of about fifty from across the aisle, one row back. “Only it really isn’t used anymore.”
“Where is it?” asked the boy.
“Prague. I estimate there are at least a hundred thousand people here,” the woman continued, playing with her choker of mabé pearls. “I count fourteen thousand in our tier alone and we are not the largest ring.”
Impressed, the boy sat back down without baiting his mother. Joy remained standing, trying to visualize a painting she had once seen of an ancient arena, half its seating knocked out of orbit and the ghosts of gladiators and beasts rushing through the breach while a little boy stood alone in the foreground.
“You’re talking to yourself.”
It was the Economist dude.
“Also, your monitor’s blinking,” he added.
“How did you know my name?”
He looked bored. “I don’t. It’s probably your screen.”
The program that had begun to play earlier welcomed her back. This time, a talking android with round eyes and rosebud lips said her name and insisted on asking questions.
“Hello, Joy. Do you wish to experience a virtual reality interface?”
“Please use the eyewear located in the seat pocket.”
Joy put on the glasses and sat back, wondering what soulless PowerPoint the luscious android would deliver in her news-anchor voice but the field of view remained blank. Gradually, a face and upper body began to take shape across a table with a delicate gray surface. She reached out to stroke it but withdrew at the last second.
Jessica Pegis is a writer and editor living in Toronto. Her work has appeared in the Toronto Star, the Financial Post, Xtra! (Canada’s LGTBQ news portal), NOW, and Eye Weekly. She is the mother of one daughter and keeper of a long procession of cats, none of whom fell from the sky. Of course, she could be wrong.