Captain Baird stood at the window of the laboratory where the thousand parts of the strange rocket lay strewn in careful order. Small groups worked slowly over the dismantled parts. The captain wanted to ask but something stopped him. Behind him Doctor Johannsen sat at his desk, his gnarled old hand tight about a whiskey bottle, the bottle the doctor always had in his desk but never brought out except when he was alone, and waited for Captain Baird to ask his question. Captain Baird turned at last.
“They are our markings?” Captain Baird asked. It was not the question. Captain Baird knew the markings of the Rocket Testing Station as well as the doctor did.
“Yes,” the doctor said, “they are our markings. Identical. But not our paint.”
Captain Baird turned back to the window. Six months ago it had happened. Ten minutes after launching, the giant test rocket had been only a speck on the observation screen. Captain Baird had turned away in disgust.
“A mouse!” the captain had said, “unfortunate a mouse can’t observe, build, report. My men are getting restless, Johannsen.”
“When we are ready, Captain,” the doctor had said.
It was twelve hours before the urgent call from Central Control brought the captain running back to the laboratory. The doctor was there before him. Professor Schultz wasted no time, he pointed to the instrument panel. “A sudden shift, see for yourself. We’ll miss Mars by a million and a quarter at least.”
Two hours later the shift in course of the test rocket was apparent to all of them and so was their disappointment.
“According to the instruments the steering shifted a quarter of an inch. No reason shows up,” Professor Schultz said.
“Flaw in the metal?” Doctor Johannsen said.
“How far can it go?” Captain Baird asked.
Professor Schultz shrugged. “Until the fuel runs out, which is probably as good as never, or until the landing mechanism is activated by a planet-sized body.”
“Course? Did you plot it?” The doctor asked.
“Of course I did,” Professor Schultz said, “as close as I can calculate it is headed for Alpha Centauri.”
Captain Baird turned away. The doctor watched him.
“Perhaps you will not be quite so hasty with your men’s lives in the future, Captain?” the doctor said.
Professor Schultz was spinning dials. “No contact,” the professor said, “No contact at all.”
That had been six months ago. Three more test rockets had been fired successfully before the urgent report came through from Alaskan Observation Post No. 4. A rocket was coming across the Pole.
The strange rocket was tracked and escorted by atomic armed fighters all the way to the Rocket Testing Station where it cut its own motors and gently landed. In the center of a division of atomic-armed infantry the captain, the doctor, and everyone else, waited impatiently. There was an air of uneasiness.