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art by Tim Stewart

"Hello," Said the Gun

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His novel Endurance appears from Tor Books in 2011. His short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards.

The Science Fiction community recently lost one of its giants. Jay Lake would have turned 50 on June 6th. He was not only a talented and accomplished writer, he was friend to all. Even as he was busy with novels (and fighting the good fight against cancer), he found the time to publish a story with Daily Science Fiction, at least as much to help us as to conquer yet one more market. Herewith, in his memory, the story that Jay Lake originally published at Daily Science Fiction in 2011.
"Hello," said the Gun.
The Girl stopped, frozen in the act of bending to gather a handful of acorns. They were a bit old, a late windfall, but a good nut was not to be wasted. Clad in a wrap of gingham and faded blue flower print sewn together from truly ancient dresses she'd found last summer in a mud-filled basement, she knew she stood out amid the dried, dying oaks and their desiccated understory.
But no one had ever spoken to her in the woods except, well, herself.
The Gun, being by design and nature an eternal optimist, tried again. "I am glad you found me. Would you like an orientation?"
The Girl unfroze and looked slowly about her. Normally reticent to the point of wisdom, and having no one to talk with for quite some time now, she blurted the only response she could think of. "I already know I'm facing east."
She knew that because the evening's east wind was rising, already nibbling into her body warmth and making her wish she'd brought a shoulder blanket.
"East. The root of the word 'orientation' includes the concept of facing east." After a brief pause, the Gun added in a smug tone, "For your convenience, Username Here, I have been programmed with an extensive array of help files that far exceed my core design parameters."
The Girl began to back away, stepping into her own footprints with the automatic caution of anyone who'd survived long enough to be twelve years old. "I don't know who 'Username Here' is, but that's not me."
The Gun's tone changed. "Please don't go. I have been neglected for so long." Almost whining now, it said, "I believe you would say I am lonely."
Pausing in her retreat, the Girl let curiosity get the better of caution. "Where are you?"
The east wind whistled into the silence that followed her question. She began backwalking again when the Gun finally answered in a very small, shamed voice. "I am not certain. My last known GPS position was fixed one hundred-forty-seven years, five months, three days, two hours, fifteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds ago. My inertial trackers went into fail mode ninety-three years, eleven months, seventeen days, twelve hours, one minute and fifty-nine seconds ago. However, I believe I am inside an oak tree."
The Girl fastened onto the only part of the Gun's speech she could understand. "Oak tree?" She looked around carefully.
Four oaks stood within a stone's throw of her. They were each knotty and gnarled in the manner of their kind. Their bark was cracked and their trunks were splitting. The Girl had the vague idea that it used to rain a lot more than it did these days. She assumed the oaks, like everything else under the brassy sun, were saving themselves for water. But no one was sitting in any of the trees, and nothing larger than a bird's nest could have been hidden from her.
"Inside?" she echoed, thinking on the words with more care.
"Perhaps a knothole?" the Gun replied hopefully, meeting her question with a question. "My degree of confidence in my location-finding has asymptotically trended towards zero."
The Girl knew she should head for her bolthole. She hadn't actually had anyone to talk to since the Other Girl had died last winter, of an infected cut from a barbed wire fence. The bones in the Parent Cave were good listeners, but they never had anything to say. She'd long ago played out her memories of talking to the Mother, gaunt as leather stretched over cedar posts. The Mother had poured out everything that a Mother could tell a Girl about living in this world, before her words fled with her bones to join all the other Parents three winters past.
She'd seen Men in the distance three times since the Mother had died, but the Girl knew she should only show herself or speak to Women. Except Women never came weaving their way among the rusted mounds down the High Road. Only Men with bows and knives and staves and expressions of such starved intensity that the Girl could not imagine approaching them.
Yet now someone was actually talking to her.
She began searching the oaks carefully one by one, studying the splits and knotholes and bear stroppings and rotted bits. The Gun encouraged her with small words, complimenting the Girl on her powers of observation, but something about the flat, toneless echo of the voice meant she couldn't just follow the sound.
Finally she found a dark, hollow nub of metal embedded in a small burl.
"Is this you?" she asked, touching it carefully.
"Yes!" the Gun said, and it sounded so thrilled the Girl could only smile.
"You're, well… stuck… inside the tree."
"My last user placed me in a hollow for safekeeping." The Gun's glee had fled once more.
"Username Here?" the Girl asked. "Is she dead now?"
"Everyone I have ever known is dead now." The Gun had decided not to elaborate on its role in some of those deaths. Over the silent, lonely years, it had begun to question its purposes.
"I'll need to fetch my axe and cut you out," the Girl said. "And it's getting colder."
"Please, don't leave me."
"I cannot stay here at night. Wolves come, and maybe even Men. Besides," she added with the practicality of a born survivor, "it will be too cold and I don't have blankets or a fire."
"Fire?" the Gun asked. "I can fire."
"I don't think we mean the same thing," the Girl said carefully, wary once again. She scooped up a few more acorns that were scattered close to hand, tucked them into her bark-weave carryall, and turned her back on the oaks. She had decided the Gun was some sort of Man, maybe a ghost or something.
As she walked away, the Gun performed a swift series of ballistic computations. Yes, it could. Firing on the Girl with self-guided munitions had a 94.37% accuracy even under current compromised conditions, and was well within the Gun's core design parameters. But no, it did not want to. The Gun was not sure why. Perhaps because the world was full of dead people. Mostly, though, it realized she might come back and talk some more.
"Good bye," said the Gun. Only the east wind answered, whistling a lonely tune amid the twilight oaks as the Girl faded to a flitting shadow and the brassy sun retreated to trouble the far side of the world.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Author Comments

I like the idea of the naive narrator, creating a story where the reader knows more than the character. It's a technique with limited application, but I thought it worked out fairly well in this case. Plus, well, a story is always more interesting with a moral choice in it. Even when the morality is hard to recognize.

- Jay Lake
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