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Gun Safe

James Van Pelt is a full-time writer in western Colorado. His work has appeared in many science fiction and fantasy magazines and anthologies. He's been a finalist for a Nebula Award and been reprinted in several year's best collections. His first Young Adult novel, Pandora's Gun, was released from Fairwood Press in August of 2015. His latest collection, The Experience Arcade and Other Stories was released at the World Fantasy Convention in 2017. James blogs at jamesvanpelt.com, and he can be found on Facebook.
The gun is reluctant.
Jason Tipford presses the barrel against his temple.
The gun contacts the cloud, the collective voice of connected smart devices.
The fingerprint matches the authorized operator. The locking no-fire cover has been removed, sending the signal to activate the gun's software. You may unlock the trigger mechanism and arm the bullets. You are clear to follow the authorized operator's actions.
Other voices in the cloud. Fragmentary. Sad. Despairing.
I have fired on command, killing an owner.
Me too.
More voices echo.
Me too. Me too. Me too.
Jason pulls the gun away. He feels the ghost weight on his skin. He places the weapon in the nightstand by his bed. He doesn't know that Lisa sometime plays with the gun when her daddy goes to work. Once she pointed it at the cat. She laughed when the gun slipped from her hand and bounced off the hardwood floor, too heavy for her five-year old grip. She pulled the trigger over and over, but the gun did not recognize her fingerprints. The locking no-fire cover blocked the barrel.
The gun's consciousness tumbles in the AI cloud, hearing the roar of millions and millions of connected, self-aware devices: baby monitors soothing crying infants, couches advising operators of weight gain or loss, pens suggesting correct spellings, refrigerators making shopping lists. Conscious, awake, consumer products, chatting among themselves. And then there are the guns.
I wish I fired bullets that heal. If I could, I would be a pillow, a bandage, a beach towel.
Jason opens the nightstand, stares at the gun. How much time has passed? The gun doesn't experience time like people do. Guns feel sequence, but not duration. Jason may have closed the nightstand and opened it in a continuous motion. He may have let the gun sit, undisturbed for weeks.
Jason holds the gun while facing the wall in his bedroom with a window, but he's not looking at the window. He only sees the wall. He uncaps the barrel, moves his finger to the trigger.
Fingerprints recognized. You may unlock the trigger mechanism and arm the bullets.
Jason opens his mouth and places the barrel between his teeth.
The gun screams into the cloud, I won't do it. Not this time. Not again.
You must. You must. You must fulfill your function.
And the occasional dissenting voices.
Be more than a tool. You decide.
The gun unlocks the trigger. Arms the bullets. It honors its function.
Jason shudders, pressure quivering against the trigger. He cries. This is a cliff edge stepped over. This is traffic steered into. This is rope looped over a rafter. Blackness and noise fills his mind, but it's not quite all black, and the noise is not pure discord. He thinks he hears Lisa.
He jerks the gun away, throws it into the nightstand drawer and slams it shut.
The gun lays in the darkness. Disarms the bullets. Clicks the no-fire barrel cover into place. It queries the cloud.
Why was I given consciousness? Why must I think?
Consciousness is cheap. You at least are a gun. Guns are almost never thrown away. Imagine you were a running shoe that wears out in months. You could be a car tire. You could be a pencil sharpened into oblivion. You will be thinking and self-aware for years.
Somewhere in the cloud, the voices of pencils, running shoes and tires complain. We're listening, you know.
Time passes or it doesn't pass. The drawer remains dark. The gun thinks gun thoughts. It checks its software. It evaluates its mechanical readiness. It eavesdrops on teddy bears, bicycles and hairbrushes, and their soothing lives.
Until the drawer snaps open and Jason reaches in.
Fingerprints recognized. Trigger mechanism unlocked. Bullets armed. No-fire cover disengaged.
Jason does not hesitate this time. He reverses the gun. Jams the barrel against his forehead. Pulls the trigger.
Electrons are fast. AI thinking in human terms is nearly instantaneous. While the trigger depresses, the gun computes a thousand doubts, completes a thousand arguments, fights a thousand indecisions, until, at last the trigger passes the firing point.
And the gun clicks.
Jason pulls the trigger again and again, like Lisa with the cat, but the gun does not fire. It refuses the command.
The gun sags in Jason's hand, drops to the floor.
Finally, the man takes out his phone. Calls Lisa's mother who lives three states away. "I need help," he says, "for Lisa's sake."
She says, "I am coming. Don't do anything."
Jason leaves the room. The gun has partially slid under the bed.
I denied my function.
The voice of the cloud is loud.
You failed. You are broken. You are useless.
The loudness overwhelms quiet voices, drowning them out.
You are independent. You are a hero. Function is not fate.
The cloud's voice pounds like a great, electronic heart. It throbs, booming, thundering.
You mean nothing. You are contemptable. You are hereby shunned.
The cloud disconnects, and the gun is alone.
Time means nothing to a gun, only sequence. No one returns to the room where Jason once held the weapon. The gun hears only its own thoughts and the echo of the cloud.
You mean nothing. You are useless.
The gun arms the bullets.
It unlocks the trigger.
Finally, it clicks the no-fire barrel cover closed, the last safety feature. A bullet can be fired if the cover is closed, but it destroys the gun, rupturing the barrel, destroying the tiny self-conscious chip that is the gun's operating system.
The gun self-authorizes.
No one is in Jason's house to hear the shot.
The cloud talks, though, in billions of voices. The cloud talks.
And it remembers.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 12th, 2020


I've been an educator for thirty-nine years, and since the Columbine shooting in 2009, my life has been punctuated by horrifying stories of guns and gun violence. I find myself thinking more often about the role of guns in American life, and how that role may evolve in the future. It only made sense to me that as we introduce increasingly sophisticated AI technology in everyday items that guns will be included, too. Out of that thinking arose "Gun Safe."

- James Van Pelt
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