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Pushbutton War

Pushbutton War

From: Pushbutton War

In one place, a descendant of the Vikings rode a ship such as Lief
never dreamed of; from another, one of the descendants of the
Caesars, and here an Apache rode a steed such as never roamed the
plains. But they were warriors all.

The hatch swung open, admitting a blast of Arctic air and a man clad in
a heavy, fur-lined parka. He quickly closed the hatch and turned to the
man in the pilot's couch.

"O.K., Harry. I'll take over now. Anything to report?"

"The heading gyro in the autopilot is still drifting. Did you write it
up for Maintenance?"

"Yeah. They said that to replace it they'd have to put the ship in the
hangar, and it's full now with ships going through periodic inspection.
I guess we'll have to wait. They can't just give us another ship,
either. With the hangar full, we must be pretty close to the absolute
minimum for ships on the line and ready to fly."

"O.K. Let me check out with the tower, and she'll be all yours." He
thumbed the intercom button and spoke into the mike: "RI 276 to tower.
Major Lightfoot going off watch."

When the tower acknowledged, he began to disconnect himself from the
ship. With smooth, experienced motions, he disconnected the mike cable,
oxygen hose, air pressure hose, cooling air hose, electrical heating
cable, and dehumidifier hose which connected his flying suit to the
ship. He donned the parka and gloves his relief had worn, and stepped
through the hatch onto the gantry crane elevator. Even through the heavy
parka, the cold air had a bite to it. As the elevator descended, he
glanced to the south, knowing as he did so that there would be nothing
to see. The sun had set on November 17th, and was not due up for three
more weeks. At noon, there would be a faint glow on the southern
horizon, as the sun gave a reminder of its existence, but now, at four
in the morning, there was nothing. As he stepped off the elevator, the
ground crew prepared to roll the gantry crane away from the ship. He
opened the door of the waiting personnel carrier and swung aboard. The
inevitable cry of "close that door" greeted him as he entered. He
brushed the parka hood back from his head, and sank into the first empty
seat. The heater struggled valiantly with the Arctic cold to keep the
interior of the personnel carrier at a tolerable temperature, but it
never seemed able to do much with the floor. He propped his feet on the
footrest of the seat ahead of him, spoke to the other occupant of the

"Hi, Mike."

"Hi, Harry. Say, what's your watch schedule now?"

"I've got four hours off, back on for four, then sixteen off. Why?"

"Well, a few of us are getting up a friendly little game before we go
back on watch. I thought you might want to join us."

"Well, I--"

"Come on, now. What's your excuse this time for not playing cards?"

"To start with, I'm scheduled for a half hour in the simulator, and
another half hour in the procedural trainer. Then if I finish the exam
in my correspondence course, I can get it on this week's mail plane. If
I don't get it in the mail now, I'll have to wait until next week."

"All right, I'll let you off this time. How's the course coming?"

"This is the final exam. If I pass, I'll have only forty-two more
credits to go before I have my degree in Animal Husbandry."

"What on earth do you want with a degree like that?"

"I keep telling you. When I retire, I'm going back to Oklahoma and raise
horses. If I got into all the card games you try to organize, I'd retire
with neither the knowledge to run a horse ranch, nor the money to start

"But why raise horses? Cabbages, I can see. Tomatoes, yes. But why

"Partly because there's always a market for them, so I'll have a fair
amount of business to keep me eating regularly. But mostly because I
like horses. I practically grew up in the saddle. By the time I was old
enough to do much riding, Dad had his own ranch, and I helped earn my
keep by working for him. Under those circumstances, I just naturally
learned to like horses."

"Guess I never thought of it like that. I was a city boy myself. The
only horses I ever saw were the ones the cops rode. I didn't get much
chance to became familiar with the beasts."

* * * * *

"Well, you don't know what you missed. It's just impossible to describe
what it's like to use a high-spirited and well-trained horse in your
daily work. The horse almost gets to sense what you want him to do next.
You don't have to direct his every move. Just a word or two, and a touch
with your heel or the pressure of your knee against his side, and he's
got the idea. A well-trained horse is perfectly capable of cutting a
particular cow out of a herd without any instructions beyond showing him
which one you want."

"It's too bad the Army did away with the cavalry. Sounds like you belong
there, not in the Air Force."

"No, because if there's anything I like better than riding a good horse,
it's flying a fast and responsive airplane. I've been flying fighters
for almost seventeen years now, and I'll be quite happy to keep flying
them as long as they'll let me. When I can't fly fighters any more, then
I'll go back to horses. And much as I like horses, I hope that's going
to be a long time yet."

"You must hate this assignment, then. How come I never hear you complain
about it?"

"The only reason I don't complain about this assignment is that I
volunteered for it. And I've been kicking myself ever since. When I
heard about the Rocket Interceptors, I was really excited. Imagine a
plane fast enough to catch up with an invading ballistic missile and
shoot it down. I decided this was for me, and jumped at the assignment.
They sounded like the hot fighter planes to end all hot fighter planes.
And what do I find? They're so expensive to fly that we don't get any
training missions. I've been up in one just once, and that was my
familiarization flight, when I got into this assignment last year. And
then it was only a ride in the second seat of that two-seat version they
use for checking out new pilots. I just lay there through the whole
flight. And as far as I could see, the pilot didn't do much more. He
just watched things while the autopilot did all the work."

"Well, don't take it too hard. You might get some flights."

"That's true. They do mistake a meteor for a missile now and then. But
that happens only two or three times a year. That's not enough. I want
some regular flying. I haven't got any flying time in for more than a
year. The nearest I come to flying is my time in the procedural trainer,
to teach me what buttons to push, and in the simulator, to give me the
feel of what happens when I push the buttons."

"That's O.K. They still give you your flying pay."

"I know, but that's not what I'm after. I fly because I love flying. I
use the flying pay just to keep up the extra premiums the insurance
companies keep insisting on so long as I indulge my passion for fighter

"I guess about the only way you could get any regular flying on this job
would be for a war to come along."

"That's about it. We'd fly just as often as they could recover our ships
and send us back up here for another launch. And that would go on until
the economy on both sides broke down so far they couldn't make any more
missiles for us to chase, or boosters to send us up after them. No
thanks. I don't want to fly that badly. I like civilization."

"In the meantime, then, you ought to try to enjoy it here. Where else
can you spend most of your working hours lying flat on your back on the
most comfortable couch science can devise?"

"That's the trouble. Just lying there, where you can't read, write,
talk, or listen. It might be O.K. for a hermit, but I'd rather fly
fighter planes. Here's the trainer building. I've got to get out."

* * * * *

Seven o'clock. Harry Lightfoot licked the flap on the envelope, sealed
it shut, stuck some stamps on the front, and scrawled "AIR MAIL" under
the stamps. He dropped the letter into the "STATESIDE" slot. The exam
hadn't been so bad. What did they think he was, anyway? A city slicker
who had never seen a live cow in his life? He ambled into the off-duty
pilots' lounge. He had an hour to kill before going on watch, and this
was as good a place as any to kill it. The lounge was almost empty. Most
of the pilots must have been asleep. They couldn't all be in Mike's
game. He leaned over a low table in the center of the room and started
sorting through the stack of magazines.

"Looking for anything in particular, Harry?"

He turned to face the speaker. "No, just going through these fugitives
from a dentist's office to see if there's anything I haven't read yet. I
can't figure out where all the new magazines go. The ones in here always
seem to be exactly two months old."

"Here's this month's Western Stories. I just finished it. It had some
pretty good stories in it."

"No, thanks, the wrong side always wins in that one."

"The wrong ... oh, I forgot. I guess they don't write stories where your
side wins."

"It's not really a question of 'my side'. My tribe gave up the practice
of tribal life and tribal customs over fifty years ago. I had the same
education in a public school as any other American child. I read the
same newspapers and watch the same TV shows as anyone else. My Apache
ancestry means as little to me as the nationality of his immigrant
ancestors means to the average American. I certainly don't consider
myself to be part of a nation still at war with the 'palefaces'."

"Then what's wrong with Western stories where the United States Cavalry

"That's a different thing entirely. Some of the earliest memories I have
are of listening to my grandfather tell me about how he and his friends
fought against the horse-soldiers when he was a young man. I imagine he
put more romance than historical accuracy into his stories. After all,
he was telling an eager kid about the adventures he'd had over fifty
years before. But at any rate, he definitely fixed my emotions on the
side of the Indians and against the United States Cavalry. And the fact
that culturally I'm descended from the Cavalry rather than from the
Apache Indians doesn't change my emotions any."

"I imagine that would have a strong effect on you. These stories are
really cheering at the death of some of your grandfather's friends."

"Oh, it's worse than that. In a lot of hack-written stories, the Indians
are just convenient targets for the hero to shoot at while the author
gets on with the story. Those stories are bad enough. But the worst are
the ones where the Indians are depicted as brutal savages with no
redeeming virtues. My grandfather had an elaborate code of honor which
governed his conduct in battle. It was different from the code of the
people he fought, but it was at least as rigid, and deviations from it
were punished severely. He'd never read Clausewitz. To him, war wasn't
an 'Instrument of National Policy'. It was a chance for the individual
warrior to demonstrate his skill and bravery. His code put a high
premium on individual courage in combat, and the weakling or coward was
crushed contemptuously. I don't even attempt to justify the Indian
treatment of captured civilians and noncombatants, but nevertheless, I
absorbed quite a few of my grandfather's ideals and views about war,
and it's downright disgusting to see him so falsely represented by the
authors of the run-of-the-mill Western story or movie."

"Well, those writers have to eat, too. And maybe they can't hold an
honest job. Besides, you don't still look at war the way your
grandfather did, do you? Civilization requires plenty of other virtues
besides courage in combat, and we have plenty of better ways to display
those virtues. And the real goal of the fighting man is to be alive
after the war so he can go home to enjoy the things he was fighting

"No, I hadn't been in Korea long before I lost any notions I might have
had of war as the glorious adventure my grandfather described it to be.
It's nothing but a bloody business, and should be resorted to only if
everything else fails. But I still think the individual fighter could do
a lot worse than follow the code that my grandfather believed in."

"That's so, especially since the coward usually gets shot anyway; if not
by the enemy, then by his own side. Hey, it's getting late! I've got
some things to do before going on watch. Be seeing you."

"O.K. I'll try to find something else here I haven't read yet."

* * * * *

Eight o'clock. Still no sign of the sun. The stars didn't have the sky
to themselves, however. Two or three times a minute a meteor would be
visible, most of them appearing to come from a point about halfway
between the Pole Star and the eastern horizon. Harry Lightfoot stopped
the elevator, opened the hatch, and stepped in.

"She's all yours, Harry. I've already checked out with the tower."

"O.K. That gyro any worse?"

"No, it seems to have steadied a bit. Nothing else gone wrong, either."

"Looks like we're in luck for a change."

"Let me have the parka and I'll clear out. I'll think of you up here
while I'm relaxing. Just imagine; a whole twenty-four hours off, and not
even any training scheduled."

"Someone slipped up, I'll bet. By the way, be sure to look at the
fireworks when you go out. They're better now than I've seen them at any
time since they started."

"The meteor shower, you mean? Thanks. I'll take a look. I'll bet they're
really cluttering up the radar screens. The Launch Control Officer must
be going quietly nuts."

* * * * *

The Launch Control Officer wasn't going nuts. Anyone who went nuts under
stress simply didn't pass the psychological tests required of
prospective Launch Control Officers. However, he was decidedly unhappy.
He sat in a dimly-lighted room, facing three oscilloscope screens. On
each of them a pie-wedge section was illuminated by a white line which
swept back and forth like a windshield wiper. Unlike a windshield wiper,
however, it put little white blobs on the screen, instead of removing
them. Each blob represented something which had returned a radar echo.
The center screen was his own radar. The outer two were televised images
of the radar screens at the stations a hundred miles on either side of
him, part of a chain of stations extending from Alaska to Greenland. In
the room, behind him, and facing sets of screens similar to his, sat his
assistants. They located the incoming objects on the screen and set
automatic computers to determining velocity, trajectory, and probable
impact point.

This information appeared as coded symbols beside the tracks on the
center screen of the Launch Control Officer, as well as all duplicate
screens. The Launch Control Officer, and he alone, had the
responsibility to determine whether the parameters for a given track
were compatible with an invading Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or
whether the track represented something harmless. If he failed to launch
an interceptor at a track that turned out to be hostile, it meant the
death of an American city. However, if he made a habit of launching
interceptors at false targets, he would soon run out of interceptors.
And only under the pressure of actual war would the incredible cost of
shipping in more interceptors during the winter be paid without a second
thought. Normally, no more could be shipped in until spring. That would
mean a gap in the chain that could not be covered adequately by
interceptors from the adjacent stations.

His screens were never completely clear. And to complicate things, the
Quadrantids, which start every New Year's Day and last four days, were
giving him additional trouble. Each track had to be analyzed, and the
presence of the meteor shower greatly increased the number of tracks he
had to worry about. However, the worst was past. One more day and they
would be over. The clutter on his screens would drop back to normal.

Even under the best of circumstances, his problem was bad. He was hemmed
in on one side by physics, and on the other by arithmetic. The most
probable direction for an attack was from over the Pole. His radar beam
bent only slightly to follow the curve of the Earth. At great range, the
lower edge of the beam was too far above the Earth's surface to detect
anything of military significance. On a minimum altitude trajectory, an
ICBM aimed for North America would not be visible until it reached 83 deg.
North Latitude on the other side of the Pole. One of his interceptors
took three hundred eighty-five seconds to match trajectories with such a
missile, and the match occurred only two degrees of latitude south of
the station. The invading missile traveled one degree of latitude in
fourteen seconds. Thus he had to launch the interceptor when the missile
was twenty-seven degrees from intercept. This turned out to be 85 deg. North
Latitude on the other side of the Pole. This left him at most thirty
seconds to decide whether or not to intercept a track crossing the
Pole. And if several tracks were present, he had to split that time
among them. If too many tracks appeared, he would have to turn over
portions of the sky to his assistants, and let them make the decisions
about launching. This would happen only if he felt an attack was in
progress, however.

Low-altitude satellites presented him with a serious problem, since
there is not a whole lot of difference between the orbit of such a
satellite and the trajectory of an ICBM. Fortunately most satellite
orbits were catalogued and available for comparison with incoming
tracks. However, once in a while an unannounced satellite was launched,
and these could cause trouble. Only the previous week, at a station down
the line, an interceptor had been launched at an unannounced satellite.
Had the pilot not realized what he was chasing and held his fire, the
international complications could have been serious. It was hard to
imagine World War III being started by an erroneous interceptor
launching, but the State Department would be hard put to soothe the
feelings of some intensely nationalistic country whose expensive new
satellite had been shot down. Such mistakes were bound to occur, but the
Launch Control Officer preferred that they be made when someone else,
not he, was on watch. For this reason he attempted to anticipate all
known satellites, so they would be recognized as soon as they appeared.

According to the notes he had made before coming on watch, one of the
UN's weather satellites was due over shortly. A blip appeared on the
screen just beyond the 83 deg. latitude line, across the Pole. He checked
the time with the satellite ephemeris. If this were the satellite, it
was ninety seconds early. That was too much error in the predicted orbit
of a well-known satellite. Symbols sprang into existence beside the
track. It was not quite high enough for the satellite, and the velocity
was too low. As the white line swept across the screen again, more
symbols appeared beside the track. Probable impact point was about 40 deg.
Latitude. It certainly wasn't the satellite. Two more blips appeared on
the screen, at velocities and altitudes similar to the first. Each swipe
of the white line left more new tracks on the screen. And the screens
for the adjacent stations were showing similar behavior. These couldn't
be meteors.

The Launch Control Officer slapped his hand down on a red push-button
set into the arm of his chair, and spoke into his mike. "Red Alert.
Attack is in progress." Then switching to another channel, he spoke to
his assistants: "Take your preassigned sectors. Launch one interceptor
at each track identified as hostile." He hadn't enough interceptors to
double up on an attack of this size, and a quick glance at the screens
for the adjacent stations showed he could expect no help from them. They
would have their hands full. In theory, one interceptor could handle a
missile all by itself. But the theory had never been tried in combat.
That lack was about to be supplied.

* * * * *

Harry Lightfoot heard the alarm over the intercom. He vaguely understood
what would happen before his launch order came. As each track was
identified as hostile, a computer would be assigned to it. It would
compute the correct time of launch, select an interceptor, and order it
off the ground at the correct time. During the climb to intercept, the
computer would radio steering signals to the interceptor, to assure that
the intercept took place in the most efficient fashion. He knew RI 276
had been selected when a green light on the instrument panel flashed on,
and a clock dial started indicating the seconds until launch. Just as
the clock reached zero, a relay closed behind the instrument panel. The
solid-fuel booster ignited with a roar. He was squashed back into his
couch under four gees' acceleration.

Gyroscopes and acceleration-measuring instruments determined the actual
trajectory of the ship; the navigation computer compared the actual
trajectory with the trajectory set in before take-off; when a deviation
from the pre-set trajectory occurred, the autopilot steered the ship
back to the proper trajectory. As the computer on the ground obtained
better velocity and position information about the missile from the
ground radar, it sent course corrections to the ship, which were
accepted in the computer as changes to the pre-set trajectory. The
navigation computer hummed and buzzed; lights flickered on and off on
the instrument panel; relays clicked behind the panel. The ship steered
itself toward the correct intercept point. All this automatic operation
was required because no merely human pilot had reflexes fast enough to
carry out an intercept at twenty-six thousand feet per second. And even
had his reflexes been fast enough, he could not have done the precise
piloting required while being pummeled by this acceleration.

As it was, Major Harry Lightfoot, fighter pilot, lay motionless in his
acceleration couch. His face was distorted by the acceleration. His
breathing was labored. Compressed-air bladders in the legs of his
gee-suit alternately expanded and contracted, squeezing him like the
obscene embrace of some giant snake, as the gee-suit tried to keep his
blood from pooling in his legs. Without the gee-suit, he would have
blacked out, and eventually his brain would have been permanently
damaged from the lack of blood to carry oxygen to it.

A red light on the instrument panel blinked balefully at him as it
measured out the oxygen he required. Other instruments on the panel
informed him of the amount of cooling air flowing through his suit to
keep his temperature within the tolerable range, and the amount of
moisture the dehumidifier had to carry away from him so that his suit
didn't become a steam-bath. He was surrounded by hundreds of pounds of
equipment which added nothing to the performance of the ship; which
couldn't be counted as payload; which cut down on the speed and altitude
the ship might have reached without them. Their sole purpose was to keep
this magnificent high-performance, self-steering machine from killing
its load of fragile human flesh.

At one hundred twenty-eight seconds after launch, the acceleration
suddenly dropped to zero. He breathed deeply again, and swallowed
repeatedly to get the salty taste out of his throat. His stomach was
uneasy, but he wasn't spacesick. Had he been prone to spacesickness, he
would never have been accepted as a Rocket Interceptor pilot. Rocket
Interceptor pilots had to be capable of taking all the punishment their
ships could dish out.

He knew there would be fifty seconds of free-fall before the rockets
fired again. One solid-fuel stage had imparted to the ship a velocity
which would carry it to the altitude of the missile it was to intercept.
A second solid-fuel stage would match trajectories with the missile.
Final corrections would be made with the liquid-fuel rockets in the
third stage. The third stage would then become a glider which eventually
would carry him back to Earth.

Before the second stage was fired, however, the ship had to be oriented
properly. The autopilot consulted its gyros, took some star sights, and
asked the navigation computer some questions. The answers came back in
seconds, an interval which was several hours shorter than a human pilot
would have required. Using the answers, the autopilot started to swing
the ship about, using small compressed-gas jets for the purpose.
Finally, satisfied with the ship's orientation, the autopilot rested. It
patiently awaited the moment, precisely calculated by the computer on
the ground, when it would fire the second stage.

Major Harry Lightfoot, fighter pilot, waited idly for the next move of
his ship. He could only fume inwardly. This was no way for an Apache
warrior to ride into battle. What would his grandfather think of a steed
which directed itself into battle and which could kill its rider, not by
accident, but in its normal operation? He should be actively hunting for
that missile, instead of lying here, strapped into his couch so he
wouldn't hurt himself, while the ship did all the work.

As for the missile, it was far to the north and slightly above the ship.
Without purpose of its own, but obedient to the laws of Mr. Newton and
to the wishes of its makers, it came on inexorably. It was a sleek
aluminum cylinder, glinting in the sunlight it had just recently
entered. On one end was a rocket-motor, now silent but still warm with
the memory of flaming gas that had poured forth from it only minutes
ago. On the other end was a sleek aerodynamic shape, the product of
thousands of hours of design work. It was designed to enter the
atmosphere at meteoric speed, but without burning up. It was intended to
survive the passage through the air and convey its contents intact to
the ground. The contents might have been virulent bacteria or toxic gas,
according to the intentions of its makers. Among its brothers elsewhere
in the sky this morning, there were such noxious loads. This one,
however, was carrying the complex mechanism of a hydrogen bomb. Its
destination was an American city; its object to replace that city with
an expanding cloud of star-hot gas.

* * * * *

Suddenly the sleek cylinder disappeared in a puff of smoke, which
quickly dissipated in the surrounding vacuum. What had been a
precisely-built rocket had been reduced, by carefully-placed charges of
explosive, to a collection of chunks of metal. Some were plates from the
skin and fuel tanks. Others were large lumps from the computer-banks,
gyro platform, fuel pumps, and other more massive components. This was
not wanton destruction, however. It was more careful planning by the
same brains which had devised the missile itself. To a radar set on the
ground near the target, each fragment was indistinguishable from the
nose cone carrying the warhead. In fact, since the fragments were
separating only very slowly, they never would appear as distinct
objects. By the time the cloud of decoys entered the atmosphere, its
more than two dozen members would appear to the finest radar available
on the ground as a single echo twenty-five miles across. It would be a
giant haystack in the sky, concealing the most deadly needle of all
time. No ground-controlled intercept scheme had any hope of selecting
the warhead from among that deceptive cloud and destroying it.

The cloud of fragments possessed the same trajectory as the missile
originally had. At the rate it was overtaking RI 276, it would soon pass
the ship by. The autopilot of RI 276 had no intention of letting this
happen, of course. At the correct instant, stage two thundered into
life, and Harry Lightfoot was again smashed back into his acceleration
couch. Almost absentmindedly, the ship continued to minister to his
needs. Its attention was focused on its mission. After a while, the
ground computer sent some instructions to the ship. The navigation
computer converted these into a direction, and pointed a radar antenna
in that direction. The antenna sent forth a stream of questing pulses,
which quickly returned, confirming the direction and distance to the
oncoming cloud of missile fragments. A little while later, fuel pumps
began to whine somewhere in the tail of the ship. Then the acceleration
dropped to zero as the second-stage thrust was terminated. There was a
series of thumps as explosive bolts released the second stage. The whine
of the pumps dropped in pitch as fuel gushed through them, and
acceleration returned in a rush. The acceleration lasted for a few
seconds, tapered off quickly, and ended. A light winked on on the
instrument panel as the ship announced its mission was accomplished.

Major Harry Lightfoot, fighter pilot, felt a glow of satisfaction as he
saw the light come on. He might not have reflexes fast enough to pilot
the ship up here; he might not be able to survive the climb to intercept
without the help of a lot of fancy equipment; but he was still
necessary. He saw still one step ahead of this complex robot which had
carried him up here. It was his human judgment and his ability to react
correctly in an unpredictable situation which were needed to locate the
warhead from among the cluster of decoys and destroy it. This was a job
no merely logical machine could do. When all was said and done, the only
purpose for the existence of this magnificent machine was to put him
where he was now; in the same trajectory as the missile, and slightly
behind it.

Harry Lightfoot reached for a red-handled toggle switch at the top of
the instrument panel, clicked it from AUTO to MANUAL, and changed his
status from passenger to pilot. He had little enough time to work. He
could not follow the missile down into the atmosphere; his ship would
burn up. He must begin his pull-out at not less than two hundred miles
altitude. That left him one hundred eighty-three seconds in which to
locate and destroy the warhead. The screen in the center of his
instrument panel could show a composite image of the space in front of
his ship, based on data from a number of sensing elements and detectors.
He switched on an infrared scanner. A collection of spots appeared on
the screen, each spot indicating by its color the temperature of the
object it represented. The infrared detector gave him no range
information, of course. But if the autopilot had done its job well, the
nearest fragment would be about ten miles away. Thus even if he set off
the enemy warhead, he would be safe. At that range the ship would not
suffer any structural damage from the heat, and he could be down on the
ground and in a hospital before any radiation effects could become

He reflected quickly on the possible temperature range of the missile
components. The missile had been launched from Central Asia, at night,
in January. There was no reason to suppose that the warhead had been
temperature-controlled during the pre-launch countdown. Thus it probably
was at the ambient temperature of the launch site. If it had been fired
in the open, that might be as low as minus 70 deg. F. Had it been fired from
a shelter, that might be as high as 70 deg. F. To leave a safety margin, he
decided to reject only those objects outside the range plus or minus
100 deg. F. There were two fragments at 500 deg. F. He rejected these as
probably fragments of the engine. Six more exhibited a temperature of
near minus 320 deg. F. These probably came from the liquid oxygen tanks.
They could be rejected. That eliminated eight of the objects on the
screen. He had nineteen to go. It would be a lot slower for the rest,

* * * * *

He switched on a radar transmitter. The screen blanked out almost
completely. The missile had included a micro-wave transmitter, to act as
a jammer. It must have been triggered on by his approach. It obviously
hadn't been operating while the ship was maneuvering into position. Had
it been transmitting then, the autopilot would simply have homed on it.
He switched the radar to a different frequency. That didn't work. The
screen was still blank, indicating that the jammer was sweeping in
frequency. He next tried to synchronize his radar pulses with the
jammer, in order to be looking when it was quiet. The enemy,
anticipating him, had given the jammer a variable pulse repetition rate.
He switched off the transmitter, and scanned the radar antenna manually.
He slowly swung it back and forth, attempting to fix the direction of
the jammer by finding the direction of maximum signal strength. He found
that the enemy had anticipated him again, and the jammer's signal
strength varied. However, he finally stopped the antenna, satisfied that
he had it pointed at the jammer. The infrared detector confirmed that
there was something in the direction the antenna pointed, but it
appeared too small to be the warhead.

He then activated the manual piloting controls. He started the fuel
pumps winding up, and swung the ship to point normal to the
line-of-sight to the jammer. A quick blast from the rockets sent the
image of the jammer moving sideways across the screen. But, of greater
importance, two other objects moved across the screen faster than the
jammer, indicating they were nearer the ship than was the jammer. He
picked the one which appeared the nearest to him, and with a series of
maneuvers and blasts from the rockets placed the object between himself
and the jammer. He switched the radar on again. Some of the jammer
signal was still leaking through, but the object, whatever it was, made
an effective shield. The radar images were quite sharp and clear.

He glanced at the clock. Nullifying the jammer had cost him seventy-five
seconds. He'd have to hurry, in order to make up for that time. The
infrared detector showed two targets which the radar insisted weren't
there. He shifted radar frequency. They still weren't there. He decided
they were small fragments which didn't reflect much radar energy, and
rejected them. He set the radar to a linearly polarized mode. Eight of
the targets showed a definite amplitude modulation on the echo. That
meant they were rotating slowly. He switched to circular polarization,
to see if they presented a constant area to the radar beam. He compared
the echoes for both modes of polarization. Five of the targets were skin
fragments, spinning about an axis skewed with respect to the radar beam.
These he rejected. Two more were structural spars. They couldn't conceal
a warhead. He rejected them. After careful examination of the fine
structure of the echo from the last object, he was able to classify it
as a large irregular mass, probably a section of computer, waving some
cables about. Its irregularity weighed against its containing the
warhead. Even if it didn't burn up in the atmosphere, its trajectory
would be too unpredictable.

He turned to the rest of the targets. Time was getting short. He
extracted every conceivable bit of information out of what his detectors
told him. He checked each fragment for resonant frequencies, getting an
idea of the size and shape of each. He checked the radiated infrared
spectrum. He checked the decrement of the reflected radar pulse. Each
scrap of information was an indication about the identity of the
fragments. With frequent glances at the clock, constantly reminding him
of how rapidly his time was running out, he checked and cross-checked
the data coming in to him. Fighting to keep his mind calm and his
thoughts clear, he deduced, inferred, and decided. One fragment after
another, he sorted, discarded, rejected, eliminated, excluded. Until the
screen was empty.

Now what? Had the enemy camouflaged the warhead so that it looked like a
section of the missile's skin? Not likely. Had he made a mistake in his
identification of the fragments? Possibly, but there wasn't time to
recheck every fragment. He decided that the most likely event was that
the warhead was hidden by one of the other fragments. He swung the ship;
headed it straight for the object shielding him from the jammer, which
had turned out to be a section from the fuel tank. A short blast from
the rockets sent him drifting toward the object. One image on the screen
broadened; split in two. A hidden fragment emerged from behind one of
the ones he had examined. He rejected it immediately. Its temperature
was too low. He was almost upon the fragment shielding him from the
jammer. If he turned to avoid it, the jammer would blank-out his radar
again. He thought back to his first look at the cloud of fragments.
There had been nothing between his shield and the jammer. The only
remaining possibility, then, was that the warhead was being hidden from
him by the jammer itself. He would have to look on the other side of the
jammer, using the ship itself as a shield.

He swung out from behind the shielding fragment, and saw his radar
images blotted out. He switched off the radar, and aimed the ship
slightly to one side of the infrared image of the jammer. Another blast
from the rockets sent him towards the jammer. Without range information
from the radar, he would have to guess its distance by noting the rate
at which it swept across the screen. The image of the jammer started to
expand as he approached it. Then it became dumbbell shaped and split in

As he passed by the jammer, he switched the radar back on. That second
image was something which had been hidden by the jammer. He looked
around. No other new objects appeared on the screen. This had to be the
warhead. He checked it anyway. Temperature was minus 40 deg. F. A smile
flickered on his lips as he caught the significance of the temperature.
He hoped the launching crew had gotten their fingers frozen off while
they were going through the countdown. The object showed no anomalous
radar behavior. Beyond doubt, it was the warhead.

Then he noted the range. A mere thirteen hundred yards! His own missile
carried a small atomic warhead. At that range it would present no danger
to him. But what if it triggered the enemy warhead? He and the ship
would be converted into vapor within microseconds. Even a partial,
low-efficiency explosion might leave the ship so weakened that it could
not stand the stresses of return through the atmosphere. Firing on the
enemy warhead at this range was not much different from playing Russian
Roulette with a fully-loaded revolver.

Could he move out of range of the explosion and then fire? No. There
were only twelve seconds left before he had to start the pull-out. It
would take him longer than that to get to a safe range, get into
position, and fire. He'd be dead anyway, as the ship plunged into the
atmosphere and burned up. And to pull out without firing would be saving
his own life at the cost of the lives he was under oath to defend. That
would be sheer cowardice.

* * * * *

He hesitated briefly, shrugged his shoulders as well as he could inside
his flying suit, and snapped a switch on the instrument panel. A set of
cross hairs sprang into existence on the screen. He gripped a small
lever which projected up from his right armrest; curled his thumb over
the firing button on top of it. Moving the lever, he caused the cross
hairs to center on the warhead. He flicked the firing button, to tell
the fire control system that this was the target. A red light blinked
on, informing him that the missile guidance system was tracking the
indicated target.

He hesitated again. His body tautened against the straps holding it in
the acceleration couch. His right arm became rigid; his fingers
petrified. Then, with a convulsive twitch of his thumb, he closed the
firing circuit. He stared at the screen, unable to tear his eyes from
the streak of light that leaped away from his ship and toward the
target. The missile reached the target, and there was a small flare of
light. His radiation counter burped briefly. The target vanished from
the radar, but the infrared detector insisted there was a nebulous fog
of hot gas, shot through with a rain of molten droplets, where the
target had been. That was all. He had destroyed the enemy warhead
without setting it off. He stabbed the MISSION ACCOMPLISHED button, and
flicked the red-handled toggle switch, resigning his status as pilot.
Then he collapsed, nerveless, into the couch.

The autopilot returned to control. It signaled the Air Defense network
that this hostile track was no longer dangerous. It received
instructions about a safe corridor to return to the ground, where it
would not be shot at. As soon as the air was thick enough for the
control surfaces to bite, the autopilot steered into the safe corridor.
It began the slow, tedious process of landing safely. The ground was
still a long way down. The kinetic and potential energy of the ship, if
instantly transformed into heat, was enough to flash the entire ship
into vapor. This tremendous store of energy had to be dissipated without
harm to the ship and its occupant.

Major Harry Lightfoot, fighter pilot, lay collapsed in his couch,
exhibiting somewhat less ambition than a sack of meal. He relaxed to the
gentle massage of his gee-suit. The oxygen control winked reassuringly
at him as it maintained a steady flow. The cabin temperature soared, but
he was aware of it only from a glance at a thermometer; the air
conditioning in his suit automatically stepped up its pace to keep him
comfortable. He reflected that this might not be so bad after all.
Certainly none of his ancestors had ever had this comfortable a ride
home from battle.

After a while, the ship had reduced its speed and altitude to reasonable
values. The autopilot requested, and received, clearance to land at its
preassigned base. It lined itself up with the runway, precisely followed
the correct glide-path, and flared out just over the end of the runway.
The smoothness of the touchdown was broken only by the jerk of the drag
parachute popping open. The ship came to a halt near the other end of
the runway. Harry Lightfoot disconnected himself from the ship and
opened the hatch. Carefully avoiding contact with the still-hot metal
skin of the ship, he jumped the short distance to the ground. The low
purr of a motor behind him announced the arrival of a tractor to tow the
ship off the runway.

"You'll have to ride the tractor back with me, sir. We're a bit short of
transportation now."

"O.K., sergeant. Be careful hooking up. She's still hot."

"How was the flight, sir?"

"No sweat. She flies herself most of the time."

Next: Mother America

Previous: A Place In The Sun

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