Before he could go before a global audience of two billion, they wanted to fix his eyebrows. He sat before a light-ringed mirror, on a chair that went up and down at the whim of a woman with silver lips, and tried to keep still.
"The left is fine," she said. "The right concerns me."
He'd been in the chair for two hours. There had been a makeup person, a hairdresser, a stylist, and now this second makeup person. His face felt like a plaster model, ready to crack and fall to pieces if he smiled.
"Smile," she said. It did not crack. "Can I get some three-base paste for Gilligan?"
"Gilly," he said reflexively. He didn't like Gilligan.
"I'm so nervous, I could barf," said the person to his left. "That blueberry yogurt is definitely starting to feel like a mistake."
Three others were in chairs alongside him; the speaker was Talia Beanfield, the Life Officer. Gilly glanced at her but she was recording herself on her phone. He was supposed to be recording clips, too. Service wanted to stitch them together into a behind-the-scenes feed of the launch ceremony.
She caught his eye and smiled. For most of the last half hour, Beanfield had been immersed in towels and clips. She looked good now, though. Her hair was artful and honey brown and glimmered as she moved. "Did you try the yogurt, Gilly?"
"Smart," she said to her phone. "This is why Gilly's Intel and I'm Life."
"I'm sorry," said the makeup woman. "I need to get in there." She stood between them and resumed her attack on Gilly's face.
"Stop giving the makeup people a hard time, Gilly," Beanfield said. "You and your unruly eyebrows."
"Eyebrow," said the woman. "It's only the right."
"A deviant," said Beanfield.
"Len's here," called a woman by the door. "Last looks, please!"
Gilly took the opportunity to check out the others. Jackson, the captain, was reclining with a white bib tucked around her neck, eyes closed, possibly asleep. She hadn't recorded any clips, either, as far as Gilly had noticed. Between her and Beanfield was Anders, the Weapons Officer. He had a shock of dark hair and light stubble and was probably the most handsome man Gilly had ever met. On the occasions Gilly hadn't been able to avoid seeing his own press, he was always struck by how out of place he looked, like a fan who'd won a contest to meet celebrities. Jackson, the war hero; Anders, the tortured dreamboat; Beanfield, the effortlessly charming social butterfly . . . and Gilly, a permanently startled-looking AI guy who couldn't find a good place to put his hands.
The door opened. A man in fatigues entered and clapped his hands. This was Len, their handler from Service: thirtyish and upbeat, carrying a little extra weight. "It's time. How's everybody feeling?"
"Like a painted whore," said Anders.
"That's perfect," said Len. "We're good to move, then, yes?"
"Yes," said Jackson, awake after all. She peeled off her bib and was at the door before the rest of them had managed to extract themselves from their makeup thrones. The silver-lipped woman stepped back and, for the first time in a while, looked into Gilly's eyes instead of around them.
"Good luck out there," she said.
The vanÕs windows were heavily tinted. But as they crossed the tarmac, Gilly caught sight of the shuttle gantry: a towering metal lattice that would launch them into the upper atmosphere. From there, they would rendezvous with the ship, which had recently finished its two-year construction in high orbit. They would then perform a monthlong burn, followed by a hard skip to join four other Providence-class battleships that were fighting an alien race farther away than anyone could imagine. Before any of that, though, was the part he was anxious about.
"Here's the rundown," said Len. "Your families will be seated to the right of the stage, all together. Feel free to give them a wave, blow them a kiss, whatever you like. You can do that at any point. But especially at the end, as you're leaving for the shuttle."
"I did my good-byes this morning," Gilly said.
There was a half second while Len tried to figure out whether he was joking. "Well, this is the one people see. So, you know, give them a wave."
"Yep, okay," he said.
"Like you mean it," said Len. "Like you're about to embark on a harrowing four-year mission to save the world and you might not see them again. You know what I mean?"
"Yes," Gilly said.
Len eyed him another moment, then turned to Anders. "Paul, there will be two empty seats beside your uncle."
Those would be for Anders's brothers, who had been lost in an earlier engagement of the war. There was a third brother who'd taken his own life, Gilly knew, as well as a father who had drunk himself to death. The only member of Anders's family to attend the launch was an uncle, who, when they'd been allowed to mingle this morning, had repeatedly squeezed Gilly's shoulder and entreated him to invest in his mattress store.
"The governor will deliver the opening address," said Len. "Six minutes. For this part, you just need to stand still and look attentive. We then have a two-minute spiritual but strictly nondenominational blessing, during which you may look down or skyward. Alternate between the two as your heart tells you. But please do not, repeat, not, make eye contact with families, wave at anyone, or give off the impression of being bored or distracted." He eyed Gilly. "Understood?"
"There are times when your bumbling obliviousness to protocol is seen as endearing," Len said. "I just want to make it clear: This would not be one of those times."
"I've got it," he said.
"I believe in you," Len said, and looked at Gilly a moment longer, which, Gilly felt, undermined the message. "After this, we get into the politicians and corporates." He rattled off a few names, only some of which Gilly recognized. He'd spent the last year being trained by Service but was still technically a civilian: an employee of Surplex, the company that had built the ship. Of the crew of four, he was the only one who didn't have a military background. He was also the youngest, at twenty-six, beating out Beanfield by six months.
"At one point, the admiral will refer to your husband," Len said to Jackson, who was gazing out the window at the gantry. She'd put on dark sunglasses, which made Gilly wonder how much she could see. The van's weak interior light carved lines into her face. Jackson had a decade over any of them, coming up on forty. "He may ask him to stand up, or may just call attention to him. Neither of you need to do anything. I just want you to know there will be this moment of acknowledgment."
"That's fine," said Jackson.
"Then the admiral will face you and say something like 'So are you up to the job?' And you'll say . . ." He pointed at Gilly.
"Well, our job is pretty simple," Gilly said. "When the ship detects salamanders, we attend station. Beanfield goes to Life, Anders to Weapons, Jackson to Command. I attend Intel, back where you can feel the engines. Then we pound everything in a thousand-mile radius into bite-size pieces."
"Rousing," Len said. "If, however, we want to sound a more upbeat note . . ."
Beanfield said, "We're going to spend every day working to repay the faith that nine billion people across two hundred countries have placed in us. If we're not up to it, we're sure going to try."
"Better. Maybe lose the part about two hundred countries."
"I always say that. Shouldn't I be inclusive?"
"As a rule, yes," said Len. "However, some of our international allies are yet to fully discharge their funding commitments for Providence Five, or, just between us, to begin discharging them at all, and the negotiations are ongoing. I'd like to steer clear of that whole area."
"Also there aren't two hundred countries," Gilly said. "I think it's one ninety-six."
Beanfield looked at him.
"I guess you were approximating," Gilly said.
"Also a fair point," said Len. "Let's not accidentally grant statehood to any unrecognized nations. Every flag on that stage has been carefully positioned so we can get an angle of the four of you with the Stars and Stripes behind and the ship visible above."
"Visible?" Gilly said. It was a popular idea that you could see the ships being built from Earth. But they were the tiniest of dots, little pinpricks distinguishable only at night.
"Sure," said Len, "after a few filters and adjustments."
"Oh," he said.
"And that's it," said Len. "Then it's a direct walk to the shuttle gantry and you don't have to worry about any of this bullshit anymore."
"There's always more bullshit," Anders said.
"That's true," Len said, "but this is the worst of it. Any questions?"
The van slowed and turned down a path marked by glowing orange cones. There was a rising white noise, which Gilly hoped was from the shuttle's engines but probably wasn't. Earlier today, during the family meet-and-greet, when tiny frilly nieces and nephews in dark suits were running around the legs of politicians and generals, one of his cousins had asked, Do you know how many people they say will be there? and Gilly had a rough idea, because the send-off crowds had been huge for every Providence launch, but before he could insist that he didn't want to know, the cousin had said, SEVENTY-FIVE THOUSAND. Gilly couldn't stop thinking about that. He might be able to pretend the broadcast audience didn't exist, but he was going to have trouble ignoring that many faces.
"Hey," Beanfield said, kicking his shin. "You'll be fine." She was smiling, and it did make him feel better, not just the smile, but the reminder that Beanfield made crew because she had preternatural people skills, to the point where she occasionally seemed to read his mind. They were all here because they were among the best in their fields. They'd been chosen by a sophisticated and demanding software-guided selection process. His presence wasn't an accident. He was where he was supposed to be.
The van stopped. The doors were pulled open. He stepped out into a light wind and a high sky and hundreds of people scurrying about in black caps and headsets. Between huge trucks were stacked crates and heavy equipment. A short distance away rose the back of the stage, fifty feet high and twice as long in either direction. Even so, he could see the crowd spilling around its edges, an indistinct mass like a single creature. The noise was like the rolling of an ocean.
"Flight crew have arrived at stage rear," said a woman in a black cap.
"How many people?" asked Beanfield.
"Latest estimate is eighty-five thousand," said Len. "We've had to open up the overflow areas."
"Oh, God," Gilly said.
"Don't sweat it. There'll be so many lights in your face, you won't be able to see a thing."
A drone buzzed over Len's shoulder and hung there, watching. Beanfield gave it a thumbs-up. Gilly turned away and peered skyward, trying to approximate the ship's location.
"Can you see it?" Beanfield said.
He shook his head. "Too bright."
"But it's there." She smiled.
The crowd gave a roar. Something must be happening onstage. A moment later, he heard a booming voice, echoing weirdly because all the speakers were facing the other way.
"All right," said Len. "This is where I leave you." He eyed them.
"Don't make it sappy," Anders said.
"I want you to know, you're the best troop of performing monkeys I've ever had," Len said. "In all seriousness, I've been nothing but impressed with the way you've carried yourselves through pre-launch. I know you didn't sign up for the media circus. It makes me very happy that we've reached the point where you can finally start doing your real jobs. I know you'll make every one of us you're leaving behind very proud."
"Don't make me cry," said Beanfield. "This makeup took hours."
"Jackson," said the woman in the cap, pointing where she wanted her to stand. "Then Beanfield. Anders. Gilligan."
"Gilly," he said. The announcer said something at the same time and the crowd roared and he didn't know if she heard him.
Len straightened into a salute. They returned it, even Gilly, who had never quite gotten the hang of it. The woman began to lead them toward the stage steps. When Gilly glanced back, Len was still holding the salute.
"There's one more step than you expect at the top," Len said. "Don't trip."
When it was over and he was strapped into a force-absorbing harness, his knees pointed skyward, blood draining toward the back of his head, he watched a wedge of blue sky turn black through thick polymer glass. The shuttle shook like an old carnival ride and roared like a waterfall but all of that was normal. It was actually comforting. He knew what to expect here.
"Look at Gilly," said Beanfield, her voice crackling through his earpiece. "He's more relaxed than he was onstage."
Jackson said, "Clearing the K‡rm‡n line. We're officially in space."
"This is the closest you'll be to home for four years," Gilly said. "And now this is. Now this is."
"This'll be a boring mission if you do that the whole time," said Anders. "How much longer to the ship?"
Gilly knew, but Jackson answered. "Three minutes until we reach synchronous orbit. Ten until we can pull alongside."
"Look," Beanfield said. "Stars."
"There have been stars for a while," Gilly said.
"But so many." She was right: The glass was full of them. It wasn't like home, where you gazed up at a sky scattered with a few bright pinpricks. Here was a city of endless lights. "And they don't twinkle."
"Deceleration burn," Jackson said. "Brace yourselves."
The shuttle clunked and whined. An invisible hand curled around Gilly's body and pulled him forward. The harness creaked.
"Shit," said Anders suddenly.
"What?" said Jackson.
"I think I left my phone back there," he said. They laughed.
They established synchronous orbit ahead of the ship, so it was coming up behind them, drawing closer in a way they couldnÕt see. The shuttle had no artificial gravity; they would have to remain strapped in until they docked. Jackson called out distances until at last something white began to slide across the polymer glass, which Gilly recognized as a section of the ship dedicated to Materials Fabrication. Then came more, section after section, some stenciled with flags, some with designations. He knew the shipÕs design intimately but hadnÕt seen it firsthand since early in its construction, and felt surprise at its size. It was one thing to know it was three miles long and a touch over one million tons, another to see it.
Copyright © 2020 by Max Barry. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.