Here’s a story I just rediscovered from Analog magazine. It’s about a man and a woman in a spaceship, although there’s no actual sex in it...this is part of a feature called “Probability Zero”, a series of very short stories based on scientific absurdities. Can you spot the scientific error in this one?

Probability Zero:
Going Home
By H.G. Stratmann
from Analog, April

Tony Phineus, commander of the first starship, grinned at his sole crewrnate on the Perseus. “Ready to go home?”

Polly Dectes, the vessel’s astrophysicist, settled into the chair beside him at the control console. “The real question is, can we go home again?”

Tony snorted. “Always the skeptic.” He pointed to a monitor showing Tau Ceti, a warm golden orb burning one-point-two AU away. “We’ve proven the Lyndore-Gradle drive works perfectly. Flip a switch, blink--and you travel as many light years as you want!”

Polly frowned. “True. But I can't help remembering all the arguments twentieth-century physicists made about why superiuminal travel and communication were impossible. The cause-and-effect and time travel paradoxes they might create. If you could transmit a signal faster than light, someone else could receive it and send an FTL reply back telling you not to send it--before you even sent the original signal! But if you decided then not to transmit the signal, how could anyone send you that reply not to transmit it?”

“Obsolete theories. Fine in their day, like phlogiston and epicycles. This is reality!”

Tony flipped a switch. Now the monitor showed the planet whirling serenely below them--a brilliant symphony of azure oceans, brown-and-green continents, and writhing serpentine clouds. “Size, gravity, temperature, atmosphere--all similar to Earth.And the mobile probes we sent down showed only Devonian-level life. No harmful bacteria or viruses.”

He gazed wistfully at the screen. “Too bad we’re not equipped to land there. The Perseus II will need landing shuttles and a team of biologists to go down and confum the planet’s safe.Then the human race will really have a ‘New World’ ready for colonization!”

“If we get back and tell them what we found.”

“Why wouldn’t we? The Perseusreturned to Earth orbit right on schedule after all eight unmanned automated flights to Tau Ceti. And the lab mice on board were perfectly healthy.”

Tony pointed to the console. “When I flip that switch, we’ll go home too...instantaneously!”

“I hope so. But nobody really explained why the computers and recorders didn’t contain any data after all of those test flights. No information at all about this star system or what was in it. It’s almost like Nature didn’t want us to know something.”

“Ed was satisfied it was a software glitch. Or maybe a problem with the sensors.”

Polly sighed. “Yes. But I suspect our illustrious boss was more interested in talking us into going and keeping his precious project funded than he was in our safety.”

Tony waved his hand at her impatiently. “This time we know our equipment collected data. Even if their electronics got fried, there’re still all the voice and video recordings we made. Plus everything we wrote in our notebooks.”

He scratched his nose. “Besides, we remember what we found here. One way or another, the people back home will learn everything we know about the Tau Ceti system too!”

“Maybe, but--”

Tony ignored tier. “Earth, here we come!” He flipped a switch--


The fluorescent light in the ceiling above him flickered on. Tony stared upward at the IV bag hanging beside his hospital bed.

Suddenly two faces hovered above him. Ed Minor, director of the FTL Project. And a middle-aged woman in a white lab coat.

“Any change, doctor?"

“I’m afraid not. We still haven’t found any medical explanation for why they’re like this. Was there anything on the ship to indicate what happened to them?”

“No. It was just like the test flights. No data in the ship’s computers. And they didn't make any audio or video recordings, or write anything in their notebooks. The only way to find out if they made it to Tau Ceti and what they found there is for them to tell us. The ironic thing is, the mice on the Perseus came back perfectly fine again. But they can’t tell us what they saw or heard.”

Ed’s voice grew desperate. “You”ve got to help them, otherwise die whole project will be shut down! Maybe if we put them on the ship and sent them back to Tau Ceti, the shock would snap them back to normal!”

Tony’s brain screamed, Yes! Send us back there, where we can’t talk to you!

The doctor sounded outraged. “That’s ridiculous! I won’t let you endanger my patients! They’ll stay right here!”

Tony tried frantically again to make his lips move. Maybe signal to them with a curling finger or toe, a fluttering eyelid. But his limbs stayed flaccid, eyes fixed and unmoving.

Ed whispered, “Can he hear what we’re saying?”

“Probably. Their condition isn’t a true coma, but resembles a “locked-in” state. I think he can hear and see normally. He just can’t move or communicate with us.”

“Isn’t there anything you can do?”

“We’ll give them the best care possible. Maybe, someday, we’ll find a treatment--or they’ll recover on their own.”

Someday. Tony imagined what Polly would say if she could speak. “Nature lets you travel, but not communicate faster than light. The Tau Ceti system is eleven-point eight light-years away. Anyone on Earth can only know what it was like there eleven-point eight years ago. If a person travels to Tau Ceti faster than light, then returns to Earth intending to tell other people what he or she saw there--”

Maybe the universe wasn’t totally heartless. Each passing second made what he and Polly knew less prescient relative to everyone else on Earth. Perhaps, when the rest of humanity eventually “caught up” to where the two of them had jumped ahead on Nature’s inflexible timeline for information, the delayed paralysis caused by gazing at that Medusa-like world orbiting Tau Ceti would suddenly disappear.

A speck of dust drifted onto Tony’s nose, leaving a terrible itch that wouldn’t go away. He stared upward, petrified, at the featureless white ceiling and steady drip of fluid from the IV bag.

It was going to be a long eleven-point-eight years.

Return to the Story Archive