In the Life Zone
By H. Danielle Crabtree
Kim tapped the capped end of her pen against the surface of her desk. One tap for every second, her fidgeting fingers kept a steady beat while she scrolled through the extra-solar data compiled during the last few years.
Of the nearly five hundred planets found since 1992, not one was remotely close to what humans needed to sustain life. Plenty of planets were in the habitable zone, but many of them surrounded brown dwarfs or had a Jupiter-size gas giant smack between them and the star—if they weren’t gas giants period.
She sighed and leaned back in her chair. She dragged her hand over her face and rubbed at her tired eyes. She had been scrolling through data and reexamining some of her latest research on neighboring stars since the announcement had been made. In addition, the scan running in the background of her computer searched the data on neighboring stars for other possibilities.
“Like finding a needle in a haystack,” she muttered.
Kim rose from her chair and headed out into the dark hallway. She had been alone in the employee building of the observatory almost as long as she had been working on her current research. Her fellow astronomers had families and lives outside of research that suddenly felt so much more important than returning to work every day.
She flipped on the light in the tiny kitchen and went straight for the coffee pot. It was still half full of the last batch she had brewed, but its temperature left much to be desired.
She dumped the contents unceremoniously into the sink, rinsed it, and then refilled it with water from the faucet. As she turned around, Kim let out a screech and dropped the pot. It hit the floor, sloshing water on the bottom of her pants and across the floor.
“Chris,” she said sharply. “You scared me to death. What are you doing here?”
“I came to check on you,” he said. He leaned a shoulder against the doorframe.
“Besides you almost giving me a heart attack,” she retorted, “I’m fine.” She bent down, brushing her damp denim, and then picked up the coffee pot.
“You still searching?” The question held a hint of amusement that chaffed the scientist entirely the wrong way.
“Yes,” she said, drawing out the ‘S’ until it sounded like the hiss of a snake. “What else would I have to do?”
Kim turned her back to Chris and filled the coffee pot once more. She didn’t bother with eye contact when she returned to make her coffee, but she could hear the shuffle of fabric as he shifted behind her.
“I don’t know,” he said a bit too sarcastically for her taste. “You could do something fun, fulfill one last wish.”
She laughed and spun around. He was now standing in the middle of the small kitchen. “Like everyone else?” she said. She waiting for a response, but all she received was a shrug. “I’m not like everyone else, Chris. I enjoy this.” She gestured to their surroundings. “And if this is what I die doing, I cannot think of a better way to go.”
“It’s useless, you know? It’s not as if you’re going to find Goldilocks before we all die, and even if you did find a suitable match, there is no way to get there or determine if it would be suitable for human life.” He crossed his arms. “Pointless.”
Kim scowled at him, but stifled the biting retort on the tip of her tongue. She let the silence pass between them while she poured a cup of coffee from the slowly filling pot, checking her temper at the same time.
“It’s not about that for me,” she finally said. She sipped the steaming liquid.
“Then why do you keep at it? You’re practically living here when you should be off living one last hurrah or at least going home to your family. There is so much more …”
Kim threw up her hand, cutting him off. “I don’t have a family,” she said tersely, albeit with a hint of sadness.
She almost envied her coworkers now. Her parents were deceased, she was an only child, and she spent too much time working to have a boyfriend. She had never missed that outside life, but now … reality was depressing when faced with death. So, she would do what she felt like she needed to in her final days. It may not be what Chris agreed with, but it was definitely her coping mechanism.
“You have a wife, a daughter, and a life outside of work. And it’s right that you should be with them, Chris. I, however, never chose to make outside attachments. Perhaps when I die, I’d at least like to know that somewhere out there, there is other life, or at least the potential. I’d like to have at least some assurance that life will continue …”
Chris frowned, an expression that mirrored Kim’s own disheartened look. “I still think you are foolhardy, Kim.”
“And I don’t see why you care?” she said.
“Because you’re my friend …” his voice trailed out.
“Then be a friend and let me work.” Kim brushed past him, heading back out into the hallway. She clutched the mug in her hand tightly enough that the heat from the coffee burned her skin.
“You’re welcome to come and stay with Melanie and me. Emily would love to have you around as well,” he called after her.
“Thank you, but no!” she said as cordially as she could. She even waved with her free hand just as she slipped into the open door of her office.
With a heavy sigh, she flopped back into her office chair, setting her coffee off to the side as she did. Her fingertip dragged across the mouse, canceling the screen saver. She moved the curser to continue scrolling through the data, but paused when she noticed a flashing icon on her taskbar. Her heart sped up as she clicked on it and read through the data. She gasped.
“Chris!” she screamed, hoping he hadn’t left yet. “Chris!”
His heavy footsteps echoed up the otherwise deserted corridor. “What? What’s wrong?” he gasped out. “Are you all right?”
Kim jumped up from her chair, pointing at the screen. “Read that. Tell me I’m not crazy.”
He moved toward the desk, scrunching his brows as he read through the data. “You have got to be kidding me,” he said.
Kim stared at his wide-eyed expression. Her hope rose. “I’m not insane, right?” she asked, her voice laced with excitement. “Goldilocks?”
He shook his head in affirmation. “I don’t believe it, but yes.”