AUSCOM, or the ghost of America
Every single time.
Every single orbit below 300 km.
Whether you are a High Fleet combat vessel or a puny tug looking for a dead satellite. Doesn't matter.
Gaia Station sends the first warnings when you are within ten minutes of flying over the continental United States. You deploy the radiators and switch the anti-debris laser grid to maximal intensity, burst fire, which hopefully should be enough to take down their ageing ASAT missiles. You switch your primary and secondary IFF on, making sure you're broadcasting your identification to the whole world. When your orbit starts covering the continental United States, NORAD pings you once from their automated arrays. You must answer within twenty seconds and broadcast your identification and mission statement to them, otherwise they'll open fire immediately. Once this is done, you wait for the answer -- but by that point, most ship operators have resumed their usual tasks. NORAD is annoying, but it has ceased being scary a good three hundred years ago. When the USA stopped existing, I guess.
The United States of America do not exist.
Or rather: they are the only know example of a liminal state, one that exists purely through remanent inertia. As of today, the population of the continental United States is purely vestigial and estimated at around 10 to 25 million inhabitants (depending on the definition of "continental US"), mostly concentrated on the north-western shore. Five major waves of emigration in the early, mid and late Low Age have effectively emptied the continental US of their inhabitants -- culturally and linguistically speaking, the center of the American diaspora is now Mexico. The vast majority of American cities, infrastructure and agricultural areas are in a state of complete disrepair, overgrown by vegetation and ravaged by climate change-- and yet there is still something that can be considered as the sovereign United States of America, if one is willing to stretch the definition of "state" to include an autonomous defence grid.
The reason why the USA still exist -- even as an algorithmic ghost -- is one of simple arithmetic. The autonomous US command (AUSCOM) and its algorithms control about 6,000 nuclear warheads. Most of them are little more than relics of the industrial age, but USRE intelligence estimates that about 500 to 400 warheads could credibly be launched by AUSCOM in response to a perceived threat, or in preparation of an attack. High Fleet and Laniakean Space Command assets could intercept between 50 to 60% of these warheads from LEO, while ground-based interceptors could handle 30 to 35% of the threats. As far as we know, AUSCOM does not have any remaining second strike capabilities since its last ballistic submarine drone sank two decades ago in the Bering strait. Nevertheless, the possibility of a major city (probably in either Russia or China, considering how AUSCOM operates on pre-Low Age geopolitics) being destroyed by a nuclear strike is very real. For better or worse, the United States of America are still relevant, by sheer force of arms if nothing else.
(Addendum: to be extremely clear, the question is not whether or not we can win a war against AUSCOM -- we would mop the floor with them. The question, and the problem, is that we can't do it without potentially sacrificing millions).
From a technical standpoint, AUSCOM is not an AI system. It is a set of algorithms, applying logical instructions with little to no regard for the outside world. In a sense, AUSCOM is a striking example of "artificial stupidity" -- an AI would have realized that the world had changed, and instructions were not relevant anymore. AUSCOM algorithms are unable to do so. They are thus doomed to repeat the last orders given to them by the American government before it collapsed: maintain the integrity of the continental United States at all costs. And so AUSCOM did for centuries, with its network of combat drones, autonomous soldiers and WMDs. And so AUSCOM still does, even though the USA do not exist anywhere else but in its databanks. AUSCOM is hyper-focused. It cannot do anything other than defending the USA, and leveraging autonomous factories to create the means to do so. This is why the US was bled dry of its inhabitants. AUSCOM cannot build non-military infrastructure or indeed maintain a working state, but it cannot allow civilians to do so either, as any attempt at rebuilding an American state in the past was flagged as a threat to the US (a secession, in effect) and promptly squashed with cold brutality. In theory, the US President (elected or acting) could order AUSCOM to stand down, but the emergency override is DNA-coded and the line of succession forgotten in history. It is even quite likely that AUSCOM removed it entirely in its perpetual quest for self-improvement.
The "good" news, in a sense, is that AUSCOM doesn't have any drive to conquer or interfere with the world -- which comes as somewhat of a surprise for an autonomous military-industrial complex: we can just speculate that AUSCOM did not, by default, integrate instructions for foreign policy. As such, AUSCOM drones and strikes will stop at American borders, except for reconnaissance drones that sometimes fly over the continent (they often fail in flight; a few cultures have made a traditiion of carving small shrines and amulets out of drone wrecks, especially in Latin America.). AUSCOM launches rockets from time to time, but most of these launches end up in failure due to the dire state of American infrastructure. One out of ten manages to deploy satellites. We don't interfere and just make sure they're not an orbital threat -- AUSCOM would probably fire the nukes if we were to destroy these satellites.
(Addendum: AUSCOM combat drones were state-of-the-art during the Low Age, and were rightly regarded as the equivalent of eerie, invincible monsters. In the present day, they are hopelessly outdated, but it doesn't prevent them from still being a threat. A recent report estimated that, without a nuclear strike, a conventional invasion of AUSCOM territory would mobilize one third of the USRE military for a year.)
The general attitude towards AUSCOM on Earth is to live and let live. The autonomous defense grid is a thorn in the side of both Laniakea and the USRE, and keeps a looming nuclear sword over the world, but destroying it is too dangerous at present, and the non-sentient nature of the network makes negotiation effectively impossible. Considering that AUSCOM is completely isolated, without access to resources outside of the cannibalizing of American ruins, the most realistic course of action is to let entropy do its work, and let the network collapse in due time. It is, however, taking more time than anticipated, as AUSCOM was built to be incredibly resilient, and is expected to remain online for a few decades, possibly even a century. There have been numerous plans to forcefully put AUSCOM down. The High Fleet once proposed a kinetic decapitation strike carried out from orbital vessels, but it was considered as too dangerous. Likewise, while modern AIs could compromise AUSCOM in a matter of minutes and take control of it, the risk of rogue or unconnected elements enacting a retaliatory strike has been deemed to high.
AUSCOM is there to stay, one of the last remnants of the world that came before.
Illustration: Steve Jurveston, Flickr.
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