The Loneliest Girl in the Universe – Lauren James

Early yesterday morning, NASA successfully launched the first ever manned spacecraft destined to travel to a different star system. The spacecraft, named The Infinity, is projected to reach the star system Alpha Centauri in less than fifty years, where it will enter orbit around Planet HT 3485 c. This exoplanet has a 99.999 per cent probability of being habitable, making it the highest scored planet outside our solar system. The Infinity is the result of billions of dollars of investment into solar sail technology. Space travel using this method of propulsion allows the craft to accelerate to the previously impossible velocity of 0.09 light years. Current calculations predict that The Infinity will reach Planet HT 3485 c in early 2092. Once in orbit around the planet, The Infinity will begin eighteen months of analysis to determine whether the planet’s surface can safely support human life. If Planet HT 3485 c is deemed unsuitable, The Infinity will continue onwards to the nearest star system predicted to have an above 99.99 per cent chance of habitability. The main mission of The Infinity is stated by NASA as being to “guarantee the long-term survival of the human race, by founding extra-terrestrial communities outside of planet Earth”. The crew of The Infinity were chosen in a gruelling decade-long application process which analysed every aspect of their personal and genetic history. This screening process was followed by five years of intense NASA training. The Infinity will officially pass out of our solar system at 22.

54 EST tomorrow. • Check back for live minute-by-minute updates on the launch. • Click here to learn more about the crew of The Infinity or follow their journey via the official The Infinity social media accounts. • Don’t forget to register to vote in the global referendum to name Planet HT 3485 c. • Read about the new commercial stasis service that is promising to help civilians live long enough to see The Infinity land on Planet HT 3485 c. DAYS SINCE THE INFINITY LEFT EARTH: 6817 I’m reading fanfiction in my pyjamas when I hear a nightmarish sound: the emergency alarm. Pulling an oxygen mask out of the nearest wall panel, I sprint to the helm with my heart in my throat. There’s a glowing red message on the screen, which reads: ASTEROID COLLISION IMMINENT AUTOMATIC TRAJECTORY ADJUSTMENT FAILED ENGAGE MANUAL CONTROL I’m abruptly filled with complete and utter fear. The guidance system has crashed. I need to take manual control, otherwise we’re going to be hit by an asteroid within the next few minutes. For what must be the millionth time, I wish that Dad was here to help. I try to calm down, taking slow, steady breaths as I tell myself that I’m brave and strong enough to do this – and even if that’s not true, I have no choice but to do it anyway. There’s no time to panic, no time to do anything except go. My attention narrows. This is something I’ve practised: I’ve been in simulations using force propulsion to minutely adjust the course of the ship since I could count.

Dad trained me to operate the emergency program in case there was a problem that he couldn’t take control of himself. He joked that if there was ever an emergency before 7 a.m., I would have to deal with it because he wasn’t giving up his lie-in. I do exactly what I’ve practised in the simulations, and use the joystick to line up the thrusters with the propulsion metrics on the screen. The Infinity is travelling too fast to slow down much, but a minute adjustment of direction is all that’s needed to make sure the asteroid misses us, if only by an arm’s length. I check and agree to the trajectory angle calculated by the computer and initiate the adjustment. I watch the screen, waiting. Outside the ship, precious fuel is being used to shoot nanoparticles into space. The force of the blast into the vacuum of space will turn the ship and change the trajectory – or at least, it’s supposed to. I have no idea if it’s working. If for some reason the propulsion thrusters don’t work, or they respond too slowly, we could fly right into the asteroid. I just have to hold on, and hope the ship can move in time. Minutes pass. Eventually, when I’ve long since started to brace myself for bad news or a horrific explosion, the alarm dies down and the screen clears.

COLLISION AVOIDED I sigh in relief. By the time the asteroid nears The Infinity, our course will have been adjusted just enough that we narrowly pass each other. I run to the nearest porthole to watch, hopping from foot to foot. It’s coming too close – impossibly close. Glimmers of metal catch the light in the rough, uneven surface of the rock. Its shadow reaches me first, passing over the porthole and casting me into darkness as the asteroid approaches. For a second, I think that the computer must have calculated the angles wrong. It looks like the asteroid is flying directly at The Infinity. It’s going to crash straight into the fragile hull of my ship, crushing everything in its path. It’s going to destroy me. It’s going to— Every single muscle in my body tenses in panic, a tight knot spreading from my neck down my spine as I brace for the impact. I watch, wide-eyed, as the asteroid flies past the bulkhead in a graceful swoop. There is no explosion, no crush of metal as the ship disintegrates against the rock. Instead there’s a wonderful silence as the side of the asteroid fills the porthole for two heartbeats. There’s enough time for me to see craters in the dull brown rock, marks left from millions of years of impacts.

The breath leaves my lungs without me noticing. Then the asteroid is gone, disappearing in the wake of the ship, falling off into deep space once more. I throw my head back and spin in a circle, overwhelmed with joy. I did it. I managed to control my worrying long enough to get the job done. I knew what to do and I did it! It’s only when the asteroid is a speck in the darkness, hidden among the bright stars, that I realize I’ve developed a raging headache. By the time my headache has gone, it’s midday – and I’m starving. I sit at the helm in my dressing gown and eat a lukewarm rehydrated chicken korma, reading through the ship’s manuals. The close call with the asteroid has kick-started my anxiety. I worry endlessly about things going wrong. On some days, it’s all I can think about. I’ll lie frozen in my bunk, overwhelmed by the responsibility resting on my shoulders. I can’t run this ship, not without Dad. Not on my own. I need to be prepared for the next crisis.

I have to know the ship inside out, from the boilers to the propulsion thrusters to the telecommunications and flight mapping. My schoolwork can wait – English literature is hardly going to be useful the next time there’s a crisis. By the time I reach page 97 of 14,875 in the manual, I’m losing focus. As I scrape the last few grains of rice from my lunch into the organic waste disposal, I remember I haven’t checked my messages yet. I can’t believe I’ve forgotten. Reading the new uplink of data from Earth is usually the first thing I do. Hearing from NASA is always the best part of my day – often it’s the only part of my day. I scroll through my inbox, skimming past the files of news articles until I reach the message from Molly. From: NASA Earth Sent: 20/06/2065 To: The Infinity Received: 23/02/2067 Attachments: [8 MB]; Worksheets.txt [20 KB] Audio transcript: Hi Romy! Hope you’re well, sweetie. Have you been finishing all your schoolwork? Your last message said you were struggling with some of the maths. I hope you’ve sorted it out by now. I used to find maths really hard when I was at school too! It’ll all come together in the end. I’m sending you some more worksheets, in case you’ve completed the ones you’ve already got.

By the time you read this, I think you’ll be working on three-dimensional propulsion mechanics, so that’s what the attached exercises focus on. Let us know if there’s anything you want us to send. I’ve also attached a new episode of the podcast you like – it’s funny. Enjoy! Talk to you tomorrow. Molly is my therapist and miscellaneous pillar of support. She was assigned to me by NASA after my parents died, to help me deal with their deaths – and my unexpected promotion to commander of The Infinity. I receive messages from her every day, without fail, to make sure I don’t get too lonely. Her first message was two hours long. I think I listened to it over a hundred times – maybe more. It was my constant soundtrack for months. I’ve been alone on this spaceship since my parents died. The last time I hugged someone, smelt their shampoo, or even just spoke to them face to face, was 25 February 2062. Five years ago. Right now I’m officially further away from any other human being than anyone else has been since the evolution of the species. I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten what other people feel like.

When I dream, I dream in screens. A line of text, a voice in my ear. Nothing real. The things people take for granted, like seeing the sky, walking on soil, feeling the wind on your skin – well, I’ve never experienced any of that. I was born on The Infinity. I’ve only ever known its clean white walls; its sterilized atmosphere and artificial gravity; its grey floors, curving around the ship’s hull. I circle the same small space over and over every day, and nothing changes and nothing is different. I know I sound ungrateful to be here. But I didn’t choose this life. Just because my parents were clever and multitalented enough to be picked to run The Infinity doesn’t mean I’m anything special. I’m nothing like they were. I should feel proud that my parents were chosen to run this mission. I should be proud to be the first human to land on a planet and create a new civilization. I get to carve out a new home for humanity among the stars. But some days it’s hard to remember the exciting parts.

I get stuck in the memories. It’s hard to focus on the future when the past is so distracting. DAYS SINCE THE INFINITY LEFT EARTH: 6818 The next morning, the computer sends me an alert: HEALTH REMINDER WITHIN THE NEXT 24 HOURS PLEASE COMPLETE: 40 MINUTES OF AEROBIC EXERCISE 10 REPETITIONS OF 8 KG WEIGHT EXERCISES It’s an exercise day. I exercise on alternate days, and while it isn’t the absolute worst thing in the world, I suppose, it’s just … so boring. Mainly because of the endless running. There’s nothing to look at. I just circle the corridor around the entire circumference of the ship until I’m allowed to stop. At least while I lift weights I can watch my favourite TV show, Loch & Ness. I stretch out my calves so they don’t cramp, then begin to jog down the corridor. I could do this with my eyes closed. The ship looks like a giant wheel, rotating as it flies through space. The centrifugal force of the rotation creates a feeling of gravity inside. The helm and the living quarters are around the outer rim, where you’d find the tyre on a wheel. The stores are located in the centre of the ship. The only sign of the ship’s rotation from the inside is the portholes.

When you look through them, the stars spiral around themselves, over and over and over. It makes me dizzy to look at them, especially when I’m running. I jog past the kitchen and the bathroom and the bedroom and the lounge area and the helm and dozens of other rooms, until eventually I find I’ve circled back to the kitchen. Then I do it again. On good days, which don’t come often, I love my ship and everything it represents. I thrill at the thought of seeing Earth II. There are going to be so many things there that have never been seen by human eyes before. I’ll get to study the planet using priceless, brand-new equipment that’s just waiting to be unpacked. I’ll discover things that might change the fate of humanity for ever. The Infinity is the biggest, most expensive scientific mission in history. I get to be the very first person to see the results. I’m so lucky. On bad days, I worry about my responsibilities until my gut cramps and my head feels full of knives. On my very worst days, I think of nothing but how vulnerable I am out here. I’m balanced on the edge of oblivion with only a fragile skin of metal separating me from the void of space.

My only choice is to carry on into nothing, until the day that The Infinity reaches a new star system and glides into orbit around a rocky planet. If the planet turns out to be hostile – if there’s scorching radiation from its two suns, or an atmosphere fierce enough to turn my lungs black – then I’ll be lost. I’d have to make the decision to keep going to the next hospitable planet, which might be many years’ extra travel away. There’d be nothing to do but wait and hope that the ship reaches a safe haven before I starve to death. If I never find a habitable planet, I’ll be trapped on this ship until the metal grows old enough to weaken and crack. The oxygen would be sucked from my delicate home, and when that finally happened, maybe it would be a relief; an end to the pointless existence of waiting for death from the day I was born. Who thought it was a good idea? A life of never seeing a horizon or standing on solid ground? This whole journey is a balancing act based on faith. We’re all just hoping that The Infinity will eventually be able to reach somewhere safe. And for what? To satisfy the great human spirit of exploration? My life is a gambling chip thrown carelessly across the universe in the hope it’ll land somewhere my descendants can survive. I represent the culmination of centuries of human achievement and exploration. But who cares if my name goes down in history, if no one remembers who I really am? After forty minutes of circling the ship, I stop at the bathroom to have a shower. Then I check my inbox. I’ve been hoping that Molly will send me the latest novel from one of my favourite writers. Maybe today will be the day. An eBook arrived from Molly last week by another author I like, but it’s set in space, so I don’t really fancy it.

I used to read loads of science fiction, looking for characters like me, but it was all so wrong that it just made me feel more alone. Now I read a lot of romance novels. I like the simple ones, set on Earth. Stories that revolve around coffee-shop dates and walks in the countryside. My fanfics are always set on Earth too. Museums and thunderstorms are so much more exciting than rocket ships and supernovas. When I play Molly’s new message, she sounds excited, in a way I’ve never heard before. From: NASA Earth Sent: 21/06/2065 To: The Infinity Received: 24/02/2067 Audio transcript: Romy, I have some big news for you today. We didn’t want to tell you until it was all confirmed, in case something went wrong and we got your hopes up for nothing, but … I’ve had permission from the team here at NASA to tell you that a new spacecraft has just been launched from Earth! Ever since the tragic accident on board The Infinity, NASA has been building a second interstellar spacecraft to follow The Infinity to the new home of humanity on Earth II. If we could have built and launched this ship any sooner, we would have. It’s a huge regret to everyone involved that you’ve been alone for as long as you have. As propulsion technology has significantly developed since your ship left Earth nineteen years ago, The Eternity can travel at much faster speeds. The Eternity launched successfully three days ago, and after a gravity assist around Jupiter it is now travelling at over 0.72 light years, which is eight times faster than The Infinity. Romy, by the time you get this message, The Eternity is calculated to be only one year away from The Infinity.

Once in situ alongside your ship, the two ships will combine and continue together at the increased velocity of 0.72 light years. You will arrive on Earth II on 15/07/71 as opposed to the original estimate of 02/04/92 – a difference of over twenty years. To be clear, The Eternity is a support for The Infinity. I don’t want you to feel like you’re being replaced. The spacecraft contains a significant gene bank for many species, elemental stocks for 3D technological printing, and a large supply of vacuum-packed food for use on-planet while agriculture is still being developed. However, your mission to establish a settlement on Earth II will still be orchestrated primarily using The Infinity’s equipment and operating systems. I know this is a huge change, and it might take time for you to come to terms with the news. I hope eventually you will be as excited about The Eternity as we are. Take today to process the idea, and tomorrow I’ll send some exercises that will help you to work through your feelings in more detail. I want to make sure that you don’t let this affect the excellent emotional progress you’ve been making recently.


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Updated: 21 July 2021 — 08:32

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