Photo of a sign saying, "Underground Fire Suppression Tank Ahead."

The Last Command

My imagination sometimes causes me to make unexpected connections between things. And if presented with an unusual word or phrase, I may not immediately make the expected connection.

For example, in Howard County, on Brighton Dam Road, between the county line and Clarksville, there are several signs alerting passerby to the presence of an “Underground Fire Suppression Tank” along the road.

Now, what I think these signs are referring to is underground storage facilities for water to be used in fighting fires. An alternative to the more common fire hydrants.

But the phrase “Underground Fire Suppression Tank”… that’s just a bit awkward. The word “tank” has meanings beyond a container for liquids, in particular, it also refers to a particular type of armored vehicle used in combat. And once you make that sort of connection, the words “fire suppression” also take on a different meaning.

Is this “underground fire suppression tank” a machine intended to defend the local populace against something? And it’s underground? Perhaps so it doesn’t draw attention to itself? And it’s probably automated too, right?

That’s a rough approximation of my train of thought the first time I saw one of those signs, and it triggered a memory of another automated tank.

One of my earliest exposures to science fiction was a book titled Tales of Time and Space, I’m unsure who gave it to me or when, but over the years, it became quite worn. One story which particularly stuck with me was “The Last Command,” the story of an automated tank which is accidentally activated by a construction crew. And when the tank is unable to contact its command facility, the onboard AI concludes that it’s been attacked and must respond accordingly.

The story was originally published in 1967, but it still holds up today. Give it a read.