Pushbutton War

by Joseph Paul Martino

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: 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.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

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 seat.

“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 one.”

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

“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 planes.”

“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 wins?”

“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 for.”

“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° 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° 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° 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° 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.

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