She was barefoot. Grass tickling her toes, dirt caked to her heels. Sunlight slipping past leaves and branches, dancing across her face before settling below the horizon. A summer breeze. The taste of lemonade on her tongue. From inside, the sounds of her sister and mother gossiping and cooking in the kitchen, the TV blasting in the living room. Everything in Nebraska the same as ever, Penny feeling as unchanging.
But her father was calling her name, so she followed his voice to the living room. The president was on TV, addressing a room packed wall-to-wall with reporters and cameras. He was talking about the Federal Resources Exchange, about a planet a three century journey away.
"The opportunity of the millennium," the president said of the spaceship that would take less than four years to build, and the fog of Penny's nostalgia lifted. She wasn't the girl who called Nebraska home. There was still a layer of dirt on her heels, the zest of lemonade on her tongue, but linoleum felt cheap and the air was too sweet, and Penny had never felt less at home.
In Pasadena, the guys were probably Googling the planet, and Sheldon was probably preparing a draft of the list of things he planned to bring. Five years knowing these guys, never missing debates about Doctor Who canon or Star Trek costumes, but Penny was in Nebraska the day travelling to a far-off planet suddenly became a possibility. It was so unreal, and stranger still, she found herself all but shaking with excitement too.
The details came in pieces in the following months. The journey to the planet, nicknamed Centauri-Earth, would take exactly three hundred years. A military assembled by the Federal Resources Exchange would be cryogenically frozen during the voyage, along with a number of Earth's leading scientists. An additional five hundred men and women, mostly scientists, would live aboard the ship, conducting research over the centuries. The descendants of these men and women, along with those cryogenically frozen, would be the foundation of the new civilization on Centauri-Earth.
In short, more than a thousand people would board the ship - the Godspeed, they were calling it - in less than four years, and Penny would be little more than bones in the ground when they reached their destination.
Sheldon, naturally, decided that he would be selected to go. "The mission of this expedition is humanity's most important yet. If FREX has any sense, I will be aboard that ship."
"No," Leonard said. "The mission of the expedition is to deplete all of Centauri-Earth's natural resources after humanity exhausts Earth's."
"However much science and technology evolves on Godspeed, returning to Earth with whatever might be found there will not be an immediate possibility. The mission will be what those who land on Centauri-Earth make of it."
Penny could almost see it, Sheldon stepping off the docking bay of a massive spaceship onto strange grass under a strange sky, but then she remembered the stories of his attempts at camping. No, Sheldon was not a survivalist. He wouldn't journey halfway across the universe to a planet where he would have to live without electricity and indoor plumbing. The thought comforted her, calmed nerves she hadn't thought were on edge, though she couldn't say why.
Within a year, the Godspeed was in every nightly news broadcast, every morning newspaper. Somehow, there was something new every day: updates on the construction or the design or how FREX would choose scientists and military personnel. Everyone had opinions on everything, including Penny's customers, and living next door to Leonard and Sheldon meant she had to report every rumor she overheard so it could be meticulously investigated.
For a while, the Godspeed was intangible, felt more like an idea than a reality. Engineers across the world had theories about how the ship would be designed, including Howard, who was more than happy to remind them no one would be landing on a planet far, far away without engineers. But few people caught so much as a glimpse of the spaceship.
Then it was reported that the ship would be larger than anticipated - "larger than the island of Iwo Jima, in fact," Sheldon said, "in order to withstand a population growth over time" - and as a result, it would have to be constructed partially in space. So one February evening, Penny sat between Amy and Sheldon as CNN broadcasted the first footage of the Godspeed. Amy held Penny's hand too tight, Sheldon couldn't sit still. The spaceship was divided into three enormous sections, each one tethered to a shuttle, that would be brought to a space station to undergo the final leg of construction.
After the cameras lost sight of the shuttles and the pieces of the Godspeed, they followed half the apartment's tenants to the roof. "This is absurd," Sheldon complained, blinking against the sun, "you won't be able to see anything without a telescope." But he stood, arms crossed, and watched night fall across Pasadena's sky.
Summer came early that year. Soon, the days were sweltering and the nights were still, but Penny was drawn to the roof most nights. The day the Godspeed was towed to the space station, Sheldon pointed to a spot between two buildings, "approximately the position in which the station and ship are in geostationary orbit with Earth."
She couldn't see the Godspeed, but she had dozens of photos of it saved to her laptop, and she could imagine it spinning out there in the stars.
Sheldon followed her there one night in August. It was a particularly muggy night, heavy with a promise of rain, and still they sat side-by-side as the moon rose high.
"Would you really go?" Penny asked later, following Sheldon into the stairwell as thunderclouds rolled in.
"I believe so," he answered. "The opportunity certainly wouldn't present itself a second time."
"And you could leave, just like that? Your friends and family, everything you've known?"
"If I could, yes. Given the choice, I would keep as much of this life as I could, but as a scientist I must be prepared to make sacrifices." At their floor, he paused. "Some sacrifices would be greater than others, Penny. I would...I hope that those I left behind would understand."
"I think they would try."
The offers came eight months later: first, Sheldon, then, Bernadette.
Penny read the letters over and over until she had them memorized, even the words whose meanings she was unsure of. But like the Godspeed itself, it didn't seem real at first.
Then Amy broke up with Sheldon.
Then Sheldon's second letter arrived, demanding a decision. "I thought you said you want to go," Penny said, reading the second letter.
"I do. I haven't written back yet because I haven't told my mother."
"You need to call your mother. Then you need to call this number."
"After all the doubt you've expressed about this expedition, I would think you would be happy I haven't yet accepted the offer."
"I just want you to decide what you want, because I don't want to hear you whine if you miss your opportunity, and I want to know if you're leaving." She stood, the letter crumpling in her fist. At the door, she said, "This decision doesn't just change your life, you know."
Summer came again. Penny kept away from the roof. Didn't look at the stars. Deleted the pictures from her computer. She pretended the Godspeed didn't exist, although Bernadette and Sheldon accepted the offers, although Howard and Bernadette eloped because she was supposed to be cryogenically frozen before their wedding date, although Sheldon fought with Leonard and Raj over every little thing.
Three months before Sheldon and Bernadette were scheduled for freezing, Penny found herself once more on the roof of the building. It was cloudy, and she couldn't see the stars, so she pulled the first letter Sheldon received about the expedition from her pocket. It was wrinkled and fragile, and there wasn't enough light to read it, but she still had it memorized anyway.
She wanted to cry or scream or fight, but mostly she wanted to know why she felt like she was losing more than her friends, why she had spent the last three years trying to believe Sheldon Cooper wouldn't leave her behind.
"Penny," Sheldon's voice startled her, and she dropped the letter. A breeze lifted it before it hit the ground, carrying it off the roof. Penny turned to him, swallowing the pleas trying to escape her mouth. "I need to ask you something."
Sheldon agreed to join the expedition under one condition, that he be allowed to bring one friend or family member along. FREX refused at first, but when Bernadette made the same demand, they consented.
"But why me? Why not Howard or your mother or sister or Amy or anyone but me?"
"Bernadette and I agreed that between the two of us we would only be able to bring one person. You were the only one we could agree on."
"So why didn't you choose Amy? Bernadette would have agreed to her."
"Because in three hundred years, I'll be standing on the first planet mankind will explore. Of all the people I could share that with, I realized I most wanted it to be you." He gestured to the city around them. "You came to California to change who you were. Why not become a pioneer?"
She looked toward the spot Sheldon had shown her two years ago. Moonlight was peaking through the clouds. Penny grinned.
She imagined sometimes that she could feel the engines thrumming or hear footsteps overhead, but those were probably dreams too.
She dreamt of lifetimes, of everything she might have done on Earth and every life she might have had.
And she dreamt of a sky with a brighter sun, of fruits no one had tasted, and a life no one else had ever had.