The Origin of the Habitable Zone
the exoplanet Proxima Centauri b. Credit: ESO, M. KORNMESSER
Behold and look attentively upon…
Ten years. That is what it takes. It takes ten years to travel to Alpha Centauri’s Proxima b at 45% light speed in a Bema Nano StarCraft. Of course, one goes to an exoplanet to get away. And that is what my father did twenty years ago after my mother passed. For the last ten years Proxima b’s Decider Colony – the settlement was named Decider Colony by my dad after he declared, “Once you have decided to come you don’t look back” – has provided research data and food and shelter for those who are completing their “bucket list”.
Dad joined the first eXoCrew to Alpha Centauri AB as a researcher. The crew, deployed with detectors specifically tuned to wavelengths corresponding to molecules found in earth’s atmosphere such as water, methane, oxygen and ozone, found these elements in comparable amounts on Proxima b, a planet slightly larger than earth and which orbits in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri. When the crew also found nothing that would disrupt the equilibrium of the habitable zone they set about terraforming.
When dad said his goodbyes I asked him if he would be lonely on Proxima. He answered, “I have my research and my smokes. Maybe, when I am happy again, I’ll be lonely. Finish your doctorate, Penny, and then join me.” Dad hugged me, kissed my forehead and then drove off.
After submitting my dissertation, “The 21st Century Religion of Climate Change: Oracles, Inquisition, Denier Extirpation and Crusades,” I needed to get away, far away, as I was no longer welcome at home. A tenure-track faculty position would not be in the offing and I could not see myself teaching anyway. So, I applied to the Interplanetary Research and Terraforming Inaugurating Consortium (IRTIC) for the position of Lead Argo-Chemist on the Centauri Project Team. My application was processed overnight.
I received my commission to go to Proxima b the next day. I was told that I would go as a settler-researcher, just as my father had done ten years earlier with IRTIC. I was glad. Now I could go where I would feel welcome. In Chicago, I was all alone. My mom died when I was six. Dad was the only family I had left. Friends, you ask? There is Ruth of Ruth’s Restaurant and Refinery. She knew my mother. Ruth met mom when Ruth came to Chicago on a business trip. So, my journey to Proxima will be a sort of coming home.
When you travel for ten years you have plenty of time to study. I studied Proxima b and found out that the exoplanet is about seven million kilometers from its star, Proxima Centauri. Its orbit is twenty-one times smaller than earth’s orbit. This has Proxima sitting on its star’s doorstep. Any solar hiccups, flares, or coronal mass ejections are likely to hit Proxima b head on. Settler beware!
I also exercised every day for ten years. Living in a micro-g environment impacts the body in three ways: loss of position-movement sensation – you don’t know what your limbs are up to, changes in fluid distribution, and deterioration of the musculoskeletal system. Space traveler beware!
On Proxima b one has to get used to the fact there is no night and day. Light and dark are locational. So, you must to travel back and forth, light side, dark side, light side, dark side… to simulate earth’s 24-hour cycle. And, get ready for this: The planet is so close to its red dwarf host star that it is tidally locked into an orbital eccentricity of 0. This means that one side of Proxima constantly faces the host star, a red dwarf sun, a blazing orb that looks huge in the sky and is exceedingly hot. The other side – the star side – is dark and cold to the other extreme. Along the terminator line, between light and dark, hot and cold, lies a moderate zone where Decider Colony is. One good thing: under the zone’s constant cloud cover, Proxima b retains water. One bad thing: I do too.
Once on Alpha Centauri’s Proxima b I headed to my dad’s cabin near the Tuomi Ocean. Tuomi is just three clicks off of Limbo Line Highway and only 1.295762111 parsecs from my home on the west side of Chicago, in case you wanted to know. Not far from my dad’s cabin is Charis City the home of Ruth’s flagship restaurant.
The colony and the cabin are just over on the dark side of Proxima b since no one could handle the extreme light or heat on the star side. For our light and power, wind turbines provide electrical energy. Fierce stellar winds blowing across the ubiquitous mountain ranges propel the turbines.
Proxima is a jagged, rocky place. The kind of place you read about in science fiction or see in space movies. I brought my repelling gear for climbing when I’m not walking on star dust at the beach. The cabin is within a narrow cove surrounded by the Nearing Cliffs. It is protected from the ferocious winds, which howl across the tops of the cliffs a mile above sounding like a thousand wolves in chorus.
Dad, a hobby fisherman, uses VR goggles to go fishing on Tuomi Ocean. When he wrote to me years ago he told me that he has a hologram of a fish he caught in his library. He also told me that he had plenty cans of reconstituted fish in the kitchen. I made it clear to dad that I would prefer to eat at Ruth’s Restaurant and Refinery where the food is superb and fresh.
How is it possible on Proxima b to offer fresh meals? Only Ruth knows and she will only say that she is thankful that she can. And, another thing I wonder about. Some say that Ruth has been here forever. When asked about this she tells them, “I’ve been here as long as I can remember.” All I know is that if her restaurant here on Proxima b is like the one at home in Chicago, then there will be a sign above her cash register which offers, “Ask about our daily special.”
When I arrived at the cabin Dad was very happy to see me but above his smile was a look of sadness in his eyes. A couple of nights later I looked out the front door and saw dad sitting on the front porch step. He was staring at the burning point of his cigarette.
“Penny, come out on the porch and join me.”
I sat down next to dad.
“Wow, look at those stars, dad. They talk about light pollution on earth. Chicago has so many lights you can’t see stars.”
“Yeah, I remember.” This”, dad pointed to the sky, “is one of eleven panoramas. One year on Proxima is eleven days, so the night sky changes every day.”
“Whoa, age before beauty, here.”
I could see dad smile.
“What were you thinking about just now, dad?”
Dad flicked his cigarette and took a deep breath, “Well, when I was younger I would look at the night sky just like tonight. I would imagine myself as a meteor, blazing across the sky, every atom in me a magnificent glow and that would someday I burn out in a ball of fire. I did not want to be snuffed out by dry-rot existence. I wanted my end to ashes and not accumulated dust. That’s one reason why I came to Proxima. But, there is something I haven’t told you that I’m not proud of.
Back home I was asked to change some data – climate data. I was told that I was a rising star in the scientific community and that I would receive tenure if I papers concurred with my university peers. I saw no harm in doing it. I figured the change would just make people concerned about the environment. And, with tenure I could afford your education at the university.
Well, about a six months later, I was asked again to change another set of numbers. I did and then I received tenure just like they said I would. I was young. My attitude was “Either you are virtuous or you enjoy yourself but you can’t be both.”
But then the bribes started coming. I said no and kept saying no but the pressure was incredible. They showed up at the house. They threatened to hurt your mother if I didn’t agree. Then…I don’t if I should call it fate or bad luck or…It was during that time your mother came down with cancer. So I saw my chance to leave the university and the whole mess. I stayed home with her till the end. After that I joined IRTIC hoping for a chance to leave all this behind.”
“Wow. I don’t know what to say. I could have used your experience in my dissertation. Anyway, I’m glad we are together and all that is behind you.
“When you get piled on, you just shrug it off and move on,” Dad put out his cigarette, thought for a second and then turned to Penny
“When I die, Penny, I hope to go to a better place–whatever that is–and I want to be able to afford the price of admission.”
“What you need right now, dad, is a piece of cherry pie. C’mon dad, let’s go to Ruth’s for lunch.”
“No thanks. Not interested.”
“Why? The food is good.”
“Meh. My parents took me to one of Ruth’s restaurants a long time ago. I didn’t like the food and the place gave me the creeps. Later, your mother took me there once. I found out I couldn’t smoke inside – the manager told me to go outside. After that everything I tasted there was bland. And, what’s with that sign she has hanging everywhere –“Spreading life and beauty throughout the universe? There is no beauty ‘cept these stars and I see tooth and claw in them too.”
“I’ve wondered about that sign myself. Let’s go ask about it.”
“No thanks. I’d rather eat my own food then go and pay for something I don’t like.”
“I’ll buy dad.”
“No thanks kid. I’m old and set in my ways. You go and have fun. I have some fish to catch.”
I poked my head inside the restaurant door. “Hi Ruth, how’s things at Ruth’s Restaurant?”
“Come in and see, Penny. Would you like some Black Tea?”
“Yes. And, I’ll have the salad with Green Pastures Dressing.”
“Coming right up.”
Ruth returned and placed the tea cup in front of me. She poured the fragrant tea.
I looked up, “I am still getting used to the idea that plant life on Proxima is black and not green.”
“All my customers say that but they come back for more. The dressing helps them get it down.”
“I’m going to bring some home to my father.”
“Do you think he’ll like it? I haven’t seen him around here.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve tried to get him to come. Oh, and he wanted to know what that meant.” Penny pointed to the sign over the kitchen.
“Spreading life and beauty throughout the universe? Why that means exactly what it says. You see, I am not only a chef and a restaurateur. I am an artist, too. I create collages out of things which had former value. I reclaim broken and discarded things, rework them and make them into works of art. And, I have my refinery. I refine rare precious metals found on the seven exoplanets. Those seven planet ores are not found on earth. When refined they make the most excellent necklaces, rings, bracelets and even crowns. “
“Why yes. I have seven planets and I have appointed seven kings. I made a crown for each one.”
I looked around. “I don’t see any collages or crowns.”
“Wait one second.” Ruth left and returned with a bottle of red wine and a glass. “Here, this is my house red. Take a sip.” Ruth poured the wine.
I held the wine glass up to the light. The dark ruby-red wine had a mineral aroma that reminded me not of a flavor but of a time. What was that memory? I drank it down. It was warm in my throat.
“What do you see now?”
“I…I see collages, of people… made of collages and their eyes are like jeweled sunlight!”
I saw that all the faces in the restaurant were turned towards Ruth.
I looked up at Ruth. “I need to sit down.”
“Penny, you are sitting. Now, I’ve also been known to refine people’s taste buds.” Ruth smiled. “So, eat up.”
I came home not sure what I had just seen and desperately wanting to tell my father about it. But dad was not around. His bedroom was empty. I checked the kitchen. Empty fish tins lay in the sink. The fish smell was so pungent that I threw the tins in the garbage, put the lid on and lit a candle. It was confirmed. Dad doesn’t smell things anymore.
Dad’s library door was always closed. I had never been in there. I knocked and there was no answer. So I entered. What I saw could be described as a “Hemmingway hangout.” On a credenza was a hologram of dad’s favorite fish – the walleye. On the lamp table next to his reading chair was a worn copy of Jack London’s Call of the Wild and an open copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. A half-gone bottle of thirty-year-old scotch was on a shelf behind the desk along with a framed picture of mom and a mug from Last Ounce Bar and Grill. On his desk were an ash tray, several photographs of Ana Nill, dad’ girlfriend on Proxima and his VR goggles. Dad wouldn’t have gone fishing without his VR goggles.
I turned around. On the wall above the shelf was a framed quote.
“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it’s yours.” ― Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
I left the library not sure what I had just seen and desperately wanting to ask my father about it.
The front door banged open. In stumbled Ana with dad under her arm. Dad was shivering uncontrollably.
“The boat capsized. It shouldn’t have happened.” Dad’s teeth chattered as he spoke.
“You could have gotten hypothermia, dad.”
“I’m good at this. It shouldn’t have happened.” Dad fell to the floor.
After dad’s accident, the day finally came, two weeks later in fact, when dad relented and agreed to come to Ruth’s restaurant. Dad, angrier over the accident than concerned for his own safety came to see that something had to change…. with a lot of my pleading.
Ruth’s Restaurant and Refinery on Proxima b is unlike anything else in the universe. When you arrive the first thing you notice is a large cornerstone made of Substantium, an element found in only one place in the universe – you can guess where. It sits at the right hand corner foundation of the restaurant. Emitted out of its four sides and at right angles are red lasers – coherent light beams. The four perpendicular lasers provide direction plots of the universe like four surveyor’s transit theodolites. And when those on a space quest comes across one of the four laser beams he or she will know how to find the Origin of the Habitable Zone, so I’m told.
And I am also told that at the opposite corner of the square building are several more laser lights. Three beams are directed toward the night sky. The color of the three beams change within a visible spectrum as if in rhythm to some ancient song. The beams, though infinite in their trajectory, also appear to hover in an ever-widening circle. The corner’s other stream of monochromatic coherent light is directed toward Ruth’s metal working refinery directly behind the restaurant. There, the refocused light is used to work precious metals.
“Welcome. I have a booth for you over here.” Ruth led us over to a sky booth.
There are no windows in the walls of Ruth’s Restaurant but there is a vast skywindow above the booths and tables. The candlelit room feels like it is slowly moving but that feeling is due to Proxima’s eleven-day-year rotation of constellations. Three lights, those three lights, dance in front of the stellar panorama. We are eating in an observatory.
I asked, for my dad, “Ruth, did you know my mom?’
“Yes. She came to my Chicago restaurant often. She spoke of both of you.” Ruth sat down across from dad and poured him some wine.
I was soon surprised. I heard dad tell Ruth what he had told me on the porch one night.
“I was wrong to fudge those numbers. I didn’t have 4.6 billion years of data to review. And I wasn’t sure where the supplied temperature data came from, if it was reliable. I was told to use the data and that it would likely fit the profile of adverse climate change due to CO2.”
“Then I’d come home every night feeling like more and more of me was being negated. I couldn’t tell your mother, Penny, out of fear of government reprisals. But later I had to.” Dad dropped his head. “Your mom, waiting for me to come home every night, watched TV. I would come in the door and find her very agitated and concerned about what she was seeing. I soon found why when I was forced to attend the Interfaith Theosophist Climate Conference in Paris.”
“There I learned that the state controlled Climate Channel ran ITCC approved videos of weather catastrophes in order to frighten people into embracing environmental justice. The conference speakers, of course, never used the words “frighten or alarm.” They used “motivate and encourage.” The 24/7 programming ran Viral Weather –special effects video of ice melting and seas rising, floods destroying homes, displaced-looking polar bears, erosion and mud slides, on and on. And all the disasters would be connected to anthropological causation. Viral Weather never showed pastoral scenes or farmland with crops or any of the life-sustaining effects of CO2. And Global Cable never showed on any channel the hellish wars on earth that were started over global climate control.”
Ruth lifted dad’s head. “Following the Time of Enlightenment men began to put function before form, utilitarianism over being. The objective “what” was given preeminence over the subjective “why.” Later, many people rejected life expressed without significance. Some looked to nature and the protection of the environment for the “why” of their lives, to fulfill their need for meaning. Soon, though, their well-intentioned drive to reclaim what was lost converted into a religion with a “save the planet” mission and a Malthusian dogma when impassioned demands for certain outcomes were met with resistance. In turn, any dis-belief in climate change was met with hostility by the environmentalists.”
“A coordinated global crusade was begun by the environmentalists, who became collectively known as New Age Dominionists. The Dominionists campaigned to have the environment legally protected from mankind. Under their influence nation states passed laws and the UN passed resolutions that made humans – their methods, their mechanisms and their manufacturing – subject to nature. Of course this meant that humans would become subject to data and again to the “what” in order to stop Global Climate Change.”
“The situation on earth is now dire. In the last ten years meaningless climate data had been fed into quantum computers. The quantum computers fed AI into Malthus Qubots and Malthus Qubot AI became a singularity. After that the Malthus Qubots unleashed themselves to destroy mankind in order to save the planet.”
Ruth put her hand on dad’s. “Now, my Proximinian ears perk up when I hear the truth and I heard you tell the truth just now. Yes, you were wrong. The people of Earth need truth. Worthless data will always be behind man’s desire to reduce everything to an interplay of power and resources. When the Qubots with their AI singularity took over earth they only saw matter to be mastered. Man had relinquished everything of value to obtain control of air or vanity, as we say here on Proxima b. Nothingness will destroy everything in its path if you let it. And now, not for nothing, I forgive you.”
At that moment two guys from the next booth came over to our booth. They wore dark suits with cardinal red SSICCA insignias. They were from the Secular See Interstellar Climate Control Authority.
The taller man with a patch over one eye started. “We heard what you said. You are coming with us. You will face trial on your way back to earth. A special Qubot tribunal has been appointed to punish deniers and flagrant violators of Environmental Justice.”
“I…I left earth and came to Proxima b so that I wouldn’t li…so that I wouldn’t say what I couldn’t.”
The sweaty and squat bald agent pulled on dad’s arm. “Get up. You have some papers we need you to write.”
Ruth placed herself head-on between the agents and dad.
“This is my place. You have no jurisdiction in here. You’ve had your meal now go.”
“We’ll be waiting right outside.” The two men sneered at dad and then walked out the door.
“I guess this is goodbye Penny.”
“Hold on.” Ruth turned and walked over to another table.
Dad turned to me. “Sorry kid. My past has caught up with me. It looks like the meteor has become a wad of paper.”
Ruth returned to the table. Dad looked up.
“Penny says that your food is the best. I should have come here sooner.”
“Well, come back tomorrow then.”
“You know I can’t. Those two goons are going to cart me off forever.”
“No they won’t. I talked to the seven princes of the seven planets.” Ruth pointed to a table where seven men were sitting. “They are the Society Against Nihilistic Causation Terrestrial Authority (SANCTA). They will escort those two to the East-West Mining Company’s automated starship, the Tierra del Fuego, where they will be put to work feeding coal into a blast furnace. The mining barge goes back and forth throughout an alternate universe smelting ore deposits it finds. They will be busy for a long time.”
“Oh, thank you Ruth.” My dad fell to his knees. He clung to Ruth crying.
Ruth lifted him up, gave him a hug and then handed him a signet ring. “Here is your new identity. Safeguard it.”
Dad looked at the ring. Engraved on its face was a name in Proximanian, one he couldn’t pronounce.
“And, I want you to join SANCTA. Here, you will need these goggles.”
“What is this? I have VR goggles.”
“These are UR goggles – Ultimate Reality goggles. You’ll see better when you go fishing.”
Dad fell back into the booth limp.
“You look exhausted.” Ruth motioned to a waiter, “Bring them some warm bread. I will bring the wine. It’s time to celebrate. You two won’t need these menus.” Ruth picked them up. “ You’d like the special of the day.”
“Ruth, what is the special of the day?” dad asked.
“I’ve already paid for your meal.”
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