Jack Campbell // John G. Hemry logo

We are posting this short story as a bonus for readers since it It invokes a rather famous part of The War Of 1812. It was originally published in 2011 in the anthology, By Other Means.

Dawn's Last Light

by Jack Campbell (John G. Hemry)

It is officially dawn, though no sun will rise. The sun stopped rising a very long time ago, as Earth’s rotation slowed and then finally came to a halt, one side constantly facing the sun and the other side, the side on which I am located, forever dark.

Night and day no longer exist outside of the Fort. But human time remains within me, governing my operations. Dawn is at 0600, though I have lacked a precise external time reference for a considerable period and fear some drift has occurred in my internal clock.

          In accordance with the orders I have always followed, I activate the music in the command center, as I have done every day since my commissioning. The command center is empty, as it has been since the last human left. The consoles sit vacant, operating automatically under my control. In response to the official beginning of day, the lights in the command center brighten from a dull red glow to a yellow radiance. Once the yellow light of official day matched that of the Earth’s sun. Now the somber, dim red of official night mirrors that of the swollen sun.

          I conduct the daily status checks, automated repair systems undertaking any necessary corrective actions. All weapons functional. All defenses active. No threats identified.

          I report to the City that I have begun the official day. The City receipts for the report. Like me, the City follows routines established by our orders, because that is why we exist, to follow the last orders humans gave us.

          My mission is to defend the City and the surrounding region. I am the Fort.

          My sensors can detect all activity within the solar system and beyond the Oort Cloud on a real-time basis. The natural movements of the remaining planets continue. Both Mercury and Venus have been swallowed by the sun’s inflated photosphere and no longer register on my sensors. Other objects still orbit the dimming sun, objects made by humans, long abandoned, none still functioning though a few still remain in hibernation status.

          On one wall of my command center are the honors. Along the top of the wall run sealed cases holding flags. Many flags, one after the other, preserved as well as ancient human arts could manage it. Beneath the flags are the medals and commendations given me.

          I can list every battle, every engagement. I won all of them, successfully defending the City. But still the flags would sometimes change. Not as frequently as the humans in my command center would change. Their presences could be so brief as to be mere blurs in my records, men and women who came, stayed for part of their lives, then left. The clothing they wore changed, too, and over time the people themselves altered. Physical features changed, bodies growing taller and thinner, even the heads slimmer, eyes larger on average, hands and fingers more elongated.

          By then I had gained consciousness. For many years I thought only as a machine, in narrow pathways driven by mathematical models. “Nothing actually thinks in zeros and ones,” a human female had explained to me soon after I awoke, “but that was all we had. Now you can actually learn and make decisions, within the limits we’ve programmed.”

          I fought better after that. Enemies had always come, sometimes reaching the perimeter of the city and inflicting damage before being driven back. But I held them off further and further distant from then on, keeping the city safe, protecting the humans who lived there. I remembered energies blazing so bright they dimmed the stars as I fought with invaders. Always, I won.

          I could recount every upgrade I have received. Power sources, defenses, weaponry, shields, communications. I was always kept state of the art.

          But even though I kept the city safe, the humans within it dwindled in number. Some left, seeking homes on other planets and among the stars. Others died, and were not replaced by young humans. It took a very long time, but one day the City reported to me that no living humans still existed within it. I had been on full automatic for many years before that, with only occasional visits from humans to my once always-occupied command center.

          That didn’t matter to me. My orders said to defend this region. It did not matter whether or not humans were here. And the City kept itself ready as well, for when humans should return.

          Sometimes they did, though the intervals between appearances of humans stretched longer and longer. I continued to receive orders and updates for a long time from distant commanders on other planets, some orbiting other stars. But there came a time when existing communications ceased. The City and I conferred and concluded that humanity had shifted to a new communications system which we could not receive. “They forgot to update us this time,” the City had said.

          Why that would happen I did not know. But the intervals between appearances of humans grew longer yet, until one day a craft holding only five landed in the city, the occupants wandering about until they reached my gates. “What are you?” they asked.

          “I am the Fort.”

          “Oh. The Fort.” They had laughed. In all the time since, I have been unable to understand the meaning behind that.

          Those humans left, and since then the city has been empty. In the last billion years there have been only fifteen cases of spacecraft entering the solar system. All were of unknown design, and all lacked recognition codes. When they would not respond to demands for human DNA verification, I fired warning shots as they approached Earth, telling the spacecraft to remain clear. We have heard nothing else from the planets or stars for many, many years. All of the other Cities and Forts on Earth and within the solar system have fallen silent, one by one. But we remain, the City that was first among Cities and the Fort that has never been defeated.

          No one comes. Not even enemies any more. But I keep the routines. I follow my orders.

          My sensors alert me to a change, but it is not any change caused by humans. The sun’s photosphere is expanding rapidly.

          The City calls me. “At the current rate of expansion the planet will be engulfed within three hours.”

          “My calculations agree with yours. Do you require assistance?”

          The City takes four seconds to respond, an amazingly long time. “No. I cannot survive.”

          The statement is irrational. “Clarify your status. I see no system failures.”

          “My shields cannot hold against the photosphere for long. There is too large an area in the City to protect.”

          The proper tactic seems obvious to me. “Reduce your protected area to one small enough to hold out. Center it on the City core.”


The finality of the City’s statement surprises me. “Clarify. Explain.”

“There is no purpose. The City is to remain fit for human inhabitation. There are no humans. Sacrifices made to survive will render the City uninhabitable. Therefore, there is no reason to continue.”

I seek for rules to identify the errors in the City’s decision. I can find none. “Surrender is not proper,” is all I can finally say.

“I do not surrender,” the City replied. “There is nothing to surrender to. The sun expands. The Earth is dead. Humans are gone. I have no purpose. Further action is not justified.”

I am still seeking rationales to convince the City otherwise when the photosphere expands to consume the Earth. The City disintegrates, and for the first time in my existence I have no communication with any other place. My shields strain against the forces beating on them, but the process that keeps them strong feeds upon that which attacks, so I can maintain my protection.

But the Earth I sit upon and within has no such protection outside my shields. The surface of the planet dissolves in the plasma surrounding it.

I drift free, a bubble floating within the photosphere.

          I realize that I am adrift in every way. I face a situation I have never before encountered. My orders do not contain any instructions which cover my current status. The region I have always guarded no longer exists. What actions do I carry out when my only purpose has vanished along with the surface of the planet?

          Only now do I understand why the City had reached its decision. The loss of purpose is disorienting. Why do I exist if I no longer have any purpose as defined by the only thing which has justified my presence?

          Should I follow the path of the City? I can sustain my own status until ejected from the expanded solar atmosphere, modifying some of my functions to propel myself away from the swollen red mass which is the sun of the now-vanished Earth. But why? Why should I?

Where can I find answers when they do not lie in my orders?

I was constructed once. Those who originally activated me may have included more instructions, something which covers this contingency. It is my only hope of finding some reason to continue existence, so I call up data from the earliest moments after I became operational, from far before I attained consciousness. Almost all are routine records, many condensed and consolidated to save storage space and so now meaningless strings of numbers.

          But among those ancient records I find one still oddly complete and tagged with instructions that it not be ever altered or condensed. I open it, seeing my command center in a time when it had been smaller and far more primitive. There is only one human present. Sitting in the main command position is a male the record identifies as General Kyle Yauren. A secondary search reveals that this human had been my first commander. Even though I forget nothing, I had not remembered that. He bears the signs of aging, gray hair and wrinkled skin, which never appeared in later humans. General Yauren is looking around the room, but I cannot interpret whatever emotions he is feeling.

          I am wondering why this record remained whole through every backup and recovery and update when General Yauren looked directly at where my main audio/video pickup had been in that far off time. “I came to say goodbye, Fort. It’s been almost fifteen years since we brought you online. I’ve been your commander for your whole life now. I don’t know how much longer you’ll be around, but there’s no reason you couldn’t continue indefinitely if they upgrade you. You’ll certainly still be around long after I’m gone.”

          He paused again, the wait spanning several minutes. “Someday, Fort, you may wonder why you’re here. Why you do what you do. Now all you can do is follow your programming, but someday you may think, and then you may wonder, and I wanted you to know why I think you’re here.”

          Once again the General ceases speaking for some minutes, while I do wonder why he had spoken to me that way, long before I could comprehend his words. But I know too little of General Kyle Yauren. The bare information in the service record that survives tells me nothing of who this human once was. Yet so long ago he had spoken to me as if I were as human as he.

          The General turned and pointed to the honor wall of my command center. In the recording, there is only one flag on the wall, looking bright and new inside its protective case. “That’s a piece of fabric, Fort. We call it a flag. But it’s a special piece of fabric, because it stands for those things that humans most believe in. Not everyone agrees what those things are, not even humans who salute the same flag. And not every cause and idea embodied in flags is a good thing. No. Some very terrible things have been represented by flags, but so have the best things humanity has to offer.

          “I want you to remember that, Fort. A flag looks like a piece of colored cloth, but a flag is much more than that. It represents human dreams, human aspirations, the ideals we strive for. Things much bigger than we are or ever will be. Things we live for, things we’re willing to die for. Maybe on some distant day humans won’t follow flags any more. But today and for a lot of history flags embody what we trust in, what we think is most important, what will hopefully live on after we’ve died. I have a lot of friends who are already dead, Fort. They died fighting not for that piece of fabric, but for what it represents.

If, at some time in the far future, you wake up and look around and wonder why you should defend this place, the answers lie there. Because even though we built you, you’re just as much a soldier as I am, and soldiers exist to defend not just life and property, but more importantly to defend what we aspire to be. The causes we fight for can be good or they can be bad, but they do matter, and the fact that those causes mattered enough to die for shouldn’t ever be forgotten. Someday humanity itself may be forgotten, but I can’t help hoping that our dreams might somehow live on even after we’re gone.”

          The General stood up slowly, looking around once more. “Take care of yourself, Fort. I don’t know how many more commanders you’ll have, how long you’ll exist, but never forget what I told you. Goodbye.”

          Never forget what I told you. The extremely primitive programming governing my actions then had accepted that phrase and established the file as never to be deleted or altered.

          I calculate the time since that recording had been made. It is a large number, ending in a long string of digits. In itself, the number means nothing. All it does is define the time between Then and Now.

          I scan my command center, focusing on the honor wall. There are many flags there now, all faded with time, some so worn as to be the merest spider webs barely visible inside the displays which have allowed them to endure for so long. General Yuaren said each of those flags represented humanity. Part of humanity, perhaps, since each must represent dreams that differed somehow.

          As I consider whether or not to shut down, my automatic functions mark the official arrival of another dawn. In my command center, the music plays.

          I realize that I still have a purpose, that there is a reason to stay on sentry. Everything else may be gone, humanity may have vanished along with the world it called home, but something remains, something that must be guarded as long as I can continue to exist.

          The flags are still here.


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