This is a story about a ray-gun. The ray-gun will not be explained except to say, “It shoots rays.”
are dangerous rays. If they hit you in the arm, it withers. If they hit
you in the face, you go blind. If they hit you in the heart, you die.
These things must be true, or else it would not be a ray-gun. But it is.
come from space. This one came from the captain of an alien starship
passing through our solar system. The ship stopped to scoop up hydrogen
from the atmosphere of Jupiter. During this refueling process, the crew
mutinied for reasons we cannot comprehend. We will never comprehend
aliens. If someone spent a month explaining alien thoughts to us, we’d
think we understood but we wouldn’t. Our brains only know how to be
Although alien thoughts are beyond us, alien
actions may be easy to grasp. We can understand the “what” if not the
“why.” If we saw what happened inside the alien vessel, we would
recognize that the crew tried to take the captain’s ray-gun and kill
There was a fight. The ray-gun went off many times. The starship exploded.
this happened many centuries ago, before telescopes. The people of
Earth still wore animal skins. They only knew Jupiter as a dot in the
sky. When the starship exploded, the dot got a tiny bit brighter, then
returned to normal. No one on Earth noticed—not even the shamans who
thought dots in the sky were important.
survived the explosion. A ray-gun must be resilient, or else it is not
a ray-gun. The explosion hurled the ray-gun away from Jupiter and out
into open space.
After thousands of years, the ray-gun
reached Earth. It fell from the sky like a meteor; it grew hot enough
to glow, but it didn’t burn up.
The ray-gun fell at
night during a blizzard. Traveling thousands of miles an hour, the
ray-gun plunged deep into snow-covered woods. The snow melted so
quickly that it burst into steam.
The blizzard continued, unaffected. Some things can’t be harmed, even by ray-guns.
snowflakes drifted down. If they touched the ray-gun’s surface they
vaporized, stealing heat from the weapon. Heat also radiated outward,
melting snow nearby on the ground. Melt-water flowed into the shallow
crater made by the ray-gun’s impact. Water and snow cooled the weapon
until all excess temperature had dissipated. A million more snowflakes
heaped over the crater, hiding the ray-gun till spring.
March, the gun was found by a boy named Jack. He was fourteen years old
and walking through the woods after school. He walked slowly, brooding
about his lack of popularity. Jack despised popular students and had no
interest in anything they did. Even so, he envied them. They didn’t
appear to be lonely.
Jack wished he had a girlfriend.
He wished he were important. He wished he knew what to do with his
life. Instead, he walked alone in the woods on the edge of town.
woods were not wild or isolated. They were crisscrossed with trails
made by children playing hide-and-seek. But in spring, the trails were
muddy; most people stayed away. Jack soon worried more about how to
avoid shoe-sucking mud than about the unfairness of the world. He took
wide detours around mucky patches, thrashing through brush that was
crisp from winter.
Stalks broke as he passed. Burrs
stuck to his jacket. He got farther and farther from the usual paths,
hoping he’d find a way out by blundering forward rather than swallowing
his pride and retreating.
In this way, Jack reached the spot where the ray-gun had landed. He saw the crater it had made. He found the ray-gun itself.
gun seized Jack’s attention, but he didn’t know what it was. Its design
was too alien to be recognized as a weapon. Its metal was blackened but
not black, as if it had once been another color but had finished that
phase of its existence. Its pistol-butt was bulbous, the size of a
tennis ball. Its barrel, as long as Jack’s hand, was straight but its
surface had dozens of nubs like a briarwood cane. The gun’s trigger was
a protruding blister you squeezed till it popped. A hard metal cap
could slide over the blister to prevent the gun from firing
accidentally, but the safety was off; it had been off for centuries,
ever since the fight on the starship.
The alien captain
who once owned the weapon might have considered it beautiful, but to
human eyes, the gun resembled a dirty wet stick with a lump on one end.
Jack might have walked by without giving it a second look if it hadn’t
been lying in a scorched crater. But it was.
was two paces across and barren of plant life. The vegetation had
burned in the heat of the ray-gun’s fall. Soon enough, new spring
growth would sprout, making the crater less obvious. At present,
though, the ray-gun stood out on the charred earth like a snake in an
Jack picked up the gun. Though it
looked like briarwood, it was cold like metal. It felt solid: not
heavy, but substantial. It had the heft of a well-made object. Jack
turned the gun in his hands, examining it from every angle. When he
looked down the muzzle, he saw a crystal lens cut into hundreds of
facets. Jack poked it with his pinky, thinking the lens was a piece of
glass that someone had jammed inside. He had the idea this might be a
toy—perhaps a squirt-gun dropped by a careless child. If so, it had to
be the most expensive toy Jack had ever seen. The gun’s barrel and its
lens were so perfectly machined that no one could mistake the
Jack continued to poke at the weapon until the inevitable happened: he pressed the trigger blister. The ray-gun went off.
might have been fatal, but by chance Jack was holding the gun aimed
away from himself. A ray shot out of the gun’s muzzle and blasted
through a maple tree ten paces away. The ray made no sound, and
although Jack had seen it clearly, he couldn’t say what the ray’s color
had been. It had no color; it was simply a presence, like wind chill or
gravity. Yet Jack was sure he’d seen a force emanate from the muzzle
and strike the tree.
Though the ray can’t be described,
its effect was plain. A circular hole appeared in the maple tree’s
trunk where bark and wood disintegrated into sizzling plasma. The
plasma expanded at high speed and pressure, blowing apart what remained
of the surrounding trunk. The ray made no sound, but the explosion did.
Shocked chunks of wood and boiling maple sap flew outward, obliterating
a cross-section of the tree. The lower part of the trunk and the roots
were still there; so were the upper part and branches. In between was a
gap, filled with hot escaping gases.
part of the maple fell. It toppled ponderously backwards. The maple
crashed onto the trees behind, its winter-bare branches snagging
theirs. To Jack, it seemed that the forest had stopped the maple’s
fall, like soldiers catching an injured companion before he hit the
Jack still held the gun. He gazed at it in wonder. His mind couldn’t grasp what had happened.
He didn’t drop the gun in fear. He didn’t try to fire it again. He simply stared.
It was a ray-gun. It would never be anything else.
wondered where the weapon had come from. Had aliens visited these
woods? Or was the gun created by a secret government project? Did the
gun’s owner want it back? Was he, she, or it searching the woods right
Jack was tempted to put the gun back into the
crater, then run before the owner showed up. But was there really an
owner nearby? The crater suggested that the gun had fallen from space.
Jack had seen photos of meteor impact craters; this wasn’t exactly the
same, but it had a similar look.
Jack turned his eyes upward. He saw a mundane after-school sky. It had no UFOs. Jack felt embarrassed for even looking.
examined the crater again. If Jack left the gun here, and the owner
never retrieved it, sooner or later the weapon would be found by
someone else—probably by children playing in the woods. They might
shoot each other by accident. If this were an ordinary gun, Jack would
never leave it lying in a place like this. He’d take the gun home, tell
his parents, and they’d turn it over to the police.
Should he do the same for this gun? No. He didn’t want to.
he didn’t know what he wanted to do instead. Questions buzzed through
his mind, starting with, “What should I do?” then moving on to, “Am I
in danger?” and, “Do aliens really exist?”
After a while, he found himself wondering, “Exactly how much can the gun blow up?” That question made him smile.
decided he wouldn’t tell anyone about the gun—not now and maybe not
ever. He would take it home and hide it where it wouldn’t be found, but
where it would be available if trouble came. What kind of trouble?
Aliens . . . spies . . . supervillains . . . who knew? If ray-guns were
real, was anything impossible?
On the walk back home,
Jack was so distracted by “What ifs?” that he nearly got hit by a car.
He had reached the road that separated the woods from neighboring
houses. Like most roads in that part of Jack’s small town, it didn’t
get much traffic. Jack stepped out from the trees and suddenly a sports
car whizzed past him, only two steps away. Jack staggered back; the
driver leaned on the horn; Jack hit his shoulder on an oak tree; then
the incident was over, except for belated adrenalin.
a full minute afterward, Jack leaned against the oak and felt his heart
pound. As close calls go, this one wasn’t too bad: Jack hadn’t really
been near enough to the road to get hit. Still, Jack needed quite a
while to calm down. How stupid would it be to die in an accident on the
day he’d found something miraculous?
Jack ought to have
been watching for trouble. What if the threat had been a bug-eyed
monster instead of a car? Jack should have been alert and prepared. In
his mind’s eye he imagined the incident again, only this time he
casually somersaulted to safety rather than stumbling into a tree.
That’s how you’re supposed to cheat death if you’re carrying a ray-gun:
with cool heroic flair.
But Jack couldn’t do somersaults. He said to himself, I’m Peter Parker, not Spider-Man.
On the other hand, Jack had
just acquired great power. And great responsibility. Like Peter Parker,
Jack had to keep his power secret, for fear of tragic consequences. In
Jack’s case, maybe aliens would come for him. Maybe spies or government
agents would kidnap him and his family. No matter how farfetched those
things seemed, the existence of a ray-gun proved the world wasn’t tame.
night, Jack debated what to do with the gun. He pictured himself
shooting terrorists and gang lords. If he rid the world of scum, pretty
girls might admire him. But as soon as Jack imagined himself storming
into a terrorist stronghold, he realized he’d get killed almost
immediately. The ray-gun provided awesome firepower, but no defense at
all. Besides, if Jack had found an ordinary gun in the forest, he never
would have dreamed of running around murdering bad guys. Why should a
ray-gun be different?
But it was different. Jack
couldn’t put the difference into words, but it was as real as the
weapon’s solid weight in his hands. The ray-gun changed everything. A
world that contained a ray-gun might also contain flying saucers,
beautiful secret agents . . . and heroes.
Heroes who could somersault away from oncoming sports cars. Heroes who would cope with any danger. Heroes who deserved to have a ray-gun.
he was young, Jack had taken for granted he’d become a hero: brave,
skilled, and important. Somehow he’d lost that belief. He’d let himself
settle for being ordinary. But now he wasn’t ordinary: he had a ray-gun.
had to live up to it. Jack had to be ready for bug-eyed monsters and
giant robots. These were no longer childish daydreams; they were real
possibilities in a world where ray-guns existed. Jack could picture
himself running through town, blasting aliens, and saving the planet.
thoughts made sense when Jack held the ray-gun in his hands—as if the
gun planted fantasies in his mind. The feel of the gun filled Jack with
All weapons have a sense of purpose.
practiced with the gun as often as he could. To avoid being seen, he
rode his bike to a tract of land in the country: twenty acres owned by
Jack’s great-uncle Ron. No one went there but Jack. Uncle Ron had once
intended to build a house on the property, but that had never happened.
Now Ron was in a nursing home. Jack’s family intended to sell the land
once the old man died, but Ron was healthy for someone in his nineties.
Until Uncle Ron’s health ran out, Jack had the place to himself.
tract was undeveloped—raw forest, not a woods where children played. In
the middle lay a pond, completely hidden by trees. Jack would float
sticks in the pond and shoot them with the gun.
missed, the water boiled. If he didn’t, the sticks were destroyed.
Sometimes they erupted in fire. Sometimes they burst with a bang but no
flame. Sometimes they simply vanished. Jack couldn’t tell if he was
doing something subtly different to get each effect, or if the ray-gun
changed modes on its own. Perhaps it had a computer which analyzed the
target and chose the most lethal attack. Perhaps the attacks were
always the same, but differences in the sticks made for different
results. Jack didn’t know. But as spring led to summer, he became a
better shot. By autumn, he’d begun throwing sticks into the air and
trying to vaporize them before they reached the ground.
this time, Jack grew stronger. Long bike rides to the pond helped his
legs and his stamina. In addition, he exercised with fitness equipment
his parents had bought but never used. If monsters ever came, Jack
couldn’t afford to be weak—heroes had to climb fences and break down
doors. They had to balance on rooftops and hang by their fingers from
cliffs. They had to run fast enough to save the girl.
pumped iron and ran every day. As he did so, he imagined dodging
bullets and tentacles. When he felt like giving up, he cradled the
ray-gun in his hands. It gave him the strength to persevere.
the ray-gun, Jack had seen himself as just another teenager; his life
didn’t make sense. But the gun made Jack a hero who might be needed to
save the Earth. It clarified everything. Sore muscles didn’t matter. Watching TV was a waste. If you let down your guard, that’s when the monsters came.
he wasn’t exercising, Jack studied science. That was another part of
being a hero. He sometimes dreamed he’d analyze the ray-gun,
discovering how it worked and giving humans amazing new technology. At
other times, he didn’t want to understand the gun at all. He liked its
mystery. Besides, there was no guarantee Jack would ever understand how
the gun worked. Perhaps human science wouldn’t progress far enough in
Jack’s lifetime. Perhaps Jack himself wouldn’t have the brains to
figure it out.
But he had enough brains for high
school. He did well; he was motivated. He had to hold back to avoid
attracting attention. When his gym teacher told him he should go out
for track, Jack ran slower and pretended to get out of breath.
Spider-Man had to do the same.
years later, in geography class, a girl named Kirsten gave Jack a
daisy. She said the daisy was good luck and he should make a wish.
Even a sixteen-year-old boy couldn’t misconstrue such a hint. Despite awkwardness and foot-dragging, Jack soon had a girlfriend.
was quiet but pretty. She played guitar. She wrote poems. She’d never
had a boyfriend but she knew how to kiss. These were all good things.
Jack wondered if he should tell her about the ray-gun.
Kirsten, Jack’s only knowledge of girls came from his big sister,
Rachel. Rachel was seventeen and incapable of keeping a secret. She
talked with her friends about everything and was too slapdash to hide
private things well. Jack didn’t snoop through his sister’s
possessions, but when Rachel left her bedroom door ajar with empty
cigarette packs tumbling out of the garbage can, who wouldn’t notice?
When she gossiped on the phone about sex with her boyfriend, who
couldn’t overhear? Jack didn’t want to listen, but Rachel never lowered
her voice. The things Jack heard made him queasy—about his sister, and
girls in general.
If he showed Kirsten the ray-gun,
would she tell her friends? Jack wanted to believe she wasn’t that kind
of girl, but he didn’t know how many kinds of girl there were. He just
knew that the ray-gun was too important for him to take chances.
Changing the status quo wasn’t worth the risk.
status quo changed anyway. The more time Jack spent with Kirsten, the
less he had for shooting practice and other aspects of hero-dom. He
felt guilty for skimping on crisis preparation; but when he went to the
pond or spent a night reading science, he felt guilty for skimping on
Kirsten. Jack would tell her he couldn’t come over to do homework and
when she asked why, he’d have to make up excuses. He felt he was
treating her like an enemy spy: holding her at arm’s length as if she
were some femme fatale who was tempting him to betray state secrets. He
hated not trusting her.
Despite this wall between them,
Kirsten became Jack’s lens on the world. If anything interesting
happened, Jack didn’t experience it directly; some portion of his mind
stood back, enjoying the anticipation of having something to tell
Kirsten about the next time they met. Whatever he saw, he wanted her to
see it too. Whenever Jack heard a joke, even before he started
laughing, he pictured himself repeating it to Kirsten.
Jack asked himself what she’d think of his hero-dom. Would she be
impressed? Would she throw her arms around him and say he was even more
wonderful than she’d thought? Or would she get that look on her face,
the one when she heard bad poetry? Would she think he was an immature
geek who’d read too many comic books and was pursuing some juvenile
fantasy? How could anyone believe hostile aliens might appear in the
sky? And if aliens did show up, how delusional was it that a teenage
boy might make a difference, even if he owned a ray-gun and could do a
hundred push-ups without stopping?
For weeks, Jack
agonized: to tell or not to tell. Was Kirsten worthy, or just a copy of
Jack’s sister? Was Jack himself worthy, or just a foolish boy?
Saturday in May, Jack and Kirsten went biking. Jack led her to the pond
where he practiced with the gun. He hadn’t yet decided what he’d do
when they got there, but Jack couldn’t just tell Kirsten about
the ray-gun. She’d never believe it was real unless she saw the rays in
action. But so much could go wrong. Jack was terrified of giving away
his deepest secret. He was afraid that when he saw hero-dom through
Kirsten’s eyes, he’d realize it was silly.
At the pond,
Jack felt so nervous he could hardly speak. He babbled about the warm
weather . . . a patch of mushrooms . . . a crow cawing in a tree. He
talked about everything except what was on his mind.
misinterpreted his anxiety. She thought she knew why Jack had brought
her to this secluded spot. After a while, she decided he needed
encouragement, so she took off her shirt and her bra.
It was the wrong thing to do. Jack hadn’t meant this outing to be a test . . . but it was, and Kirsten had failed.
took off his own shirt and wrapped his arms around her, chest touching
breasts for the first time. He discovered it was possible to be excited
and disappointed at the same time.
Jack and Kirsten
made out on a patch of hard dirt. It was the first time they’d been
alone with no risk of interruption. They kept their pants on, but they
knew they could go farther: as far as there was. No one in the world
would stop them from whatever they chose to do. Jack and Kirsten felt
light in their skins—open and dizzy with possibilities.
for Jack, it was all a mistake: one that couldn’t be reversed. Now he’d
never tell Kirsten about the ray-gun. He’d missed his chance because
she’d acted the way Jack’s sister would have acted. Kirsten had been
thinking like a girl and she’d ruined things forever.
hated the way he felt: all angry and resentful. He really liked
Kirsten. He liked making out, and couldn’t wait till the next time. He
refused to be a guy who dumped a girl as soon as she let him touch her
breasts. But he was now shut off from her and he had no idea how to get
In the following months, Jack grew guiltier:
he was treating Kirsten as if she were good enough for sex but not good
enough to be told about the most important thing in his life. As for
Kirsten, every day made her more unhappy: she felt Jack blaming her for
something but she didn’t know what she’d done. When they got together,
they went straight to fondling and more as soon as possible. If they
tried to talk, they didn’t know what to say.
Kirsten left to spend three weeks with her grandparents on Vancouver
Island. Neither she nor Jack missed each other. They didn’t even miss
the sex. It was a relief to be apart. When Kirsten got back, they went
for a walk and a confused conversation. Both produced excuses for why
they couldn’t stay together. The excuses didn’t make sense, but neither
Jack nor Kirsten noticed—they were too ashamed to pay attention to what
they were saying. They both felt like failures. They’d thought their
love would last forever, and now it was ending sordidly.
When the lying was over, Jack went for a run. He ran in a mental blur. His mind didn’t clear until he found himself at the pond.
was drawing in. He thought of all the things he’d done with Kirsten on
the shore and in the water. After that first time, they’d come here a
lot; it was private. Because of Kirsten, this wasn’t the same pond as
when Jack had first begun to practice with the ray-gun. Jack wasn’t the
same boy. He and the pond now carried histories.
could feel himself balanced on the edge of quitting. He’d turned
seventeen. One more year of high school, then he’d go away to
university. He realized he no longer believed in the imminent arrival
of aliens, nor could he see himself as some great hero saving the world.
Jack knew he wasn’t a hero. He’d used a nice girl for sex, then lied to get rid of her.
felt like crap. But blasting the shit out of sticks made him feel a
little better. The ray-gun still had its uses, even if shooting aliens
wasn’t one of them.
The next day Jack did more
blasting. He pumped iron. He got science books out of the library.
Without Kirsten at his side several hours a day, he had time to fill,
and emptiness. By the first day of the new school year, Jack was back
to his full hero-dom program. He no longer deceived himself that he was
preparing for battle, but the program gave him something to do: a
purpose, a release, and a penance.
So that was Jack’s passage into manhood. He was dishonest with the girl he loved.
Manhood means learning who you are.
his last year of high school, Jack went out with other girls but he was
past the all-or-nothingness of First Love. He could have casual fun; he
could approach sex with perspective. “Monumental and life-changing” had
been tempered to “pleasant and exciting.” Jack didn’t take his
girlfriends for granted, but they were people, not objects of worship.
He was never tempted to tell any of them about the gun.
he left town for university, Jack majored in Engineering Physics. He
hadn’t decided whether he’d ever analyze the ray-gun’s inner workings,
but he couldn’t imagine taking courses that were irrelevant to the
weapon. The ray-gun was the central fact of Jack’s life. Even if he
wasn’t a hero, he was set apart from other people by this evidence that
During freshman year, Jack lived in an
on-campus dormitory. Hiding the ray-gun from his roommate would have
been impossible. Jack left the weapon at home, hidden near the pond. In
sophomore year, Jack rented an apartment off campus. Now he could keep
the ray-gun with him. He didn’t like leaving it unattended.
persuaded a lab assistant to let him borrow a Geiger counter. The
ray-gun emitted no radioactivity at all. Objects blasted by the gun
showed no significant radioactivity either. Over time, Jack borrowed
other equipment, or took blast debris to the lab so he could conduct
tests when no one was around. He found nothing that explained how the
The winter before Jack graduated,
Great-Uncle Ron finally died. In his will, the old man left his twenty
acres of forest to Jack. Uncle Ron had found out that Jack liked to
visit the pond. “I told him,” said big sister Rachel. “Do you think I
didn’t know where you and Kirsten went?”
Jack had to laugh—uncomfortably. He was embarrassed to discover he couldn’t keep secrets any better than his sister.
father offered to help him sell the land to pay for his education. The
offer was polite, not pressing. Uncle Ron had doled out so much cash in
his will that Jack’s family was now well-off. When Jack said he’d
rather hold on to the property “until the market improves,” no one
After getting his
bachelor’s degree, Jack continued on to grad school: first his
master’s, then his Ph.D. In one of his courses, he met Deana, working
toward her own doctorate—in Electrical Engineering rather than
The two programs shared several
seminars, but considered themselves rivals. Engineering Physics
students pretended that Electrical Engineers weren’t smart enough to
understand abstract principles. Electrical Engineers pretended that
Engineering Physics students were pie-in-the-sky dreamers whose
theories were always wrong until real Engineers fixed them. Choosing to
sit side by side, Jack and Deana teased each other every class. Within
months, Deana moved into Jack’s apartment.
small but physical. She told Jack she’d been drawn to him because he
was the only man in their class who lifted weights. When Deana was
young, she’d been a competitive swimmer—“Very competitive,” she
said—but her adolescent growth spurt had never arrived and she was
eventually outmatched by girls with longer limbs. Deana had quit the
competition circuit, but she hadn’t quit swimming, nor had she lost the
drive to be one up on those around her. She saw most things as
contests, including her relationship with Jack. Deana was not beyond
cheating if it gave her an edge.
In the apartment they
now shared, Jack thought he’d hidden the ray-gun so well that Deana
wouldn’t find it. He didn’t suspect that when he wasn’t home, she went
through his things. She couldn’t stand the thought that Jack might have
secrets from her.
He returned one day to find the gun
on the kitchen table. Deana was poking at it. Jack wanted to yell,
“Leave it alone!” but he was so choked with anger he couldn’t speak.
hand was close to the trigger. The safety was off and the muzzle
pointed in Jack’s direction. He threw himself to the floor.
happened. Deana was so surprised by Jack’s sudden move that she jerked
her hand away from the gun. “What the hell are you doing?”
Jack got to his feet. “I could ask you the same question.”
“I found this. I wondered what it was.”
knew she didn’t “find” the gun. It had been buried under old notebooks
inside a box at the back of a closet. Jack expected that Deana would
invent some excuse for why she’d been digging into Jack’s private
possessions, but the excuse wouldn’t be worth believing.
infuriated Jack most was that he’d actually been thinking of showing
Deana the gun. She was a very very good engineer; Jack had dreamed that
together, he and she might discover how the gun worked. Of all the
women Jack had known, Deana was the first he’d asked to move in with
him. She was strong and she was smart. She might understand the gun.
The time had never been right to tell her the truth—Jack was still
getting to know her and he needed to be absolutely sure—but Jack had
dreamed . . .
And now, like Kirsten at the pond, Deana
had ruined everything. Jack felt so violated he could barely stand to
look at the woman. He wanted to throw her out of the apartment . . .
but that would draw too much attention to the gun. He couldn’t let
Deana think the gun was important.
She was still
staring at him, waiting for an explanation. “That’s just something from
my Great-Uncle Ron,” Jack said. “An African good-luck charm. Or
Indonesian. I forget. Uncle Ron traveled a lot.” Actually, Ron sold
insurance and seldom left the town where he was born. Jack picked up
the gun from the table, trying to do so calmly rather than
protectively. “I wish you hadn’t touched this. It’s old and fragile.”
“It felt pretty solid to me.”
“Solid but still breakable.”
“Why did you dive to the floor?”
silly superstition. It’s bad luck to have this end point toward you.”
Jack gestured toward the muzzle. “And it’s good luck to be on this
end.” He gestured toward the butt, then tried to make a joke. “Like
there’s a Maxwell demon in the middle, batting bad luck one way and
good luck the other.”
“You believe that crap?” Deana asked. She was an engineer. She went out of her way to disbelieve crap.
“Of course I don’t believe it,” Jack said. “But why ask for trouble?”
took the gun back to the closet. Deana followed. As Jack returned the
gun to its box, Deana said she’d been going through Jack’s notes in
search of anything he had on partial differential equations. Jack
nearly let her get away with the lie; he usually let the women in his
life get away with almost anything. But he realized he didn’t want
Deana in his life anymore. Whatever connection she and he had once
felt, it was cut off the moment he saw her with the ray-gun.
accused her of invading his privacy. Deana said he was paranoid. The
argument grew heated. Out of habit, Jack almost backed down several
times, but he stopped himself. He didn’t want Deana under the same roof
as the ray-gun. His feelings were partly irrational possessiveness, but
also justifiable caution. If Deana got the gun and accidentally fired
it, the results might be disastrous.
Jack and Deana
continued to argue: right there in the closet within inches of the
ray-gun. The gun lay in its box, like a child at the feet of parents
fighting over custody. The ray-gun did nothing, as if it didn’t care
Eventually, unforgivable words were spoken.
Deana said she’d move out as soon as possible. She left to stay the
night with a friend.
The moment she was gone, Jack
moved the gun. Deana still had a key to the apartment—she needed it
until she could pack her things—and Jack was certain she’d try to grab
the weapon as soon as he was busy elsewhere. The ray-gun was now a
prize in a contest, and Deana never backed down.
took the weapon to the university. He worked as an assistant for his
Ph.D. supervisor, and he’d been given a locker in the supervisor’s lab.
The locker wasn’t Fort Knox but leaving the gun there was better than
leaving it in the apartment. The more Jack thought about Deana, the
more he saw her as prying and obsessive, grasping for dominance. He
didn’t know what he’d ever seen in her.
morning, he wondered if he had overreacted. Was he demonizing his ex
like a sitcom cliché? If she was so egotistic, why hadn’t he noticed
before? Jack had no good answer. He decided he didn’t need one. Unlike
when he broke up with Kirsten, Jack felt no guilt this time. The sooner
Deana was gone, the happier he’d be.
In a few days,
Deana called to say she’d found a new place to live. She and Jack
arranged a time for her to pick up her belongings. Jack didn’t want to
be there while she moved out; he couldn’t stand seeing her in the
apartment again. Instead, Jack went back to his home town for a long
weekend with his family.
It was lucky he did. Jack left
Friday afternoon and didn’t get back to the university until Monday
night. The police were waiting for him. Deana had disappeared late
She’d talked to friends on Saturday
afternoon. She’d made arrangements for Sunday brunch but hadn’t shown
up. No one had seen her since.
As the ex-boyfriend,
Jack was a prime suspect. But his alibi was solid: his hometown was
hundreds of miles from the university, and his family could testify
he’d been there the whole time. Jack couldn’t possibly have sneaked
back to the university, made Deana disappear, and raced back home.
the police let Jack off the hook. They decided Deana must have been
depressed by the break-up of the relationship. She might have run off
so she wouldn’t have to see Jack around the university. She might even
have committed suicide.
Jack suspected otherwise. As
soon as the police let him go, he went to his supervisor’s lab. His
locker had been pried open. The ray-gun lay on a nearby lab bench.
could easily envision what happened. While moving out her things, Deana
searched for the ray-gun. She hadn’t found it in the apartment. She
knew Jack had a locker in the lab and she’d guessed he’d stashed the
weapon there. She broke open the locker to get the gun. She’d examined
it and perhaps tried to take it apart. The gun went off.
Deana was gone. Not even a smudge on the floor. The ray-gun lay on the
lab bench as guiltless as a stone. Jack was the only one with a
He suffered for weeks. Jack wondered how he
could feel so bad about a woman who’d made him furious. But he knew the
source of his guilt: while he and Deana were arguing in the closet,
Jack had imagined vaporizing her with the gun. He was far too decent to
shoot her for real, but the thought had crossed his mind. If Deana
simply vanished, Jack wouldn’t have to worry about what she might do.
The ray-gun had made that thought come true, as if it had read Jack’s
Jack told himself the notion was ridiculous. The
gun wasn’t some genie who granted Jack’s unspoken wishes. What happened
to Deana came purely from her own bad luck and inquisitiveness.
Jack felt like a murderer. After all this time, Jack realized the
ray-gun was too dangerous to keep. As long as Jack had it, he’d be
forced to live alone: never marrying, never having children, never
trusting the gun around other people. And even if Jack became a
recluse, accidents could happen. Someone else might die. It would be
He wondered why he’d never had this
thought before. Jack suddenly saw himself as one of those people who
own a vicious attack dog. People like that always claimed they could
keep the dog under control. How often did they end up on the evening
news? How often did children get bitten, maimed, or killed?
dogs are tragedies waiting to happen. The ray-gun was too. It would
keep slipping off its leash until it was destroyed. Twelve years after
finding the gun, Jack realized he finally had a heroic mission: to get
rid of the weapon that made him a hero in the first place.
I’m not Spider-Man, he thought, I’m Frodo.
how could Jack destroy something that had survived so much? The gun
hadn’t frozen in the cold of outer space; it hadn’t burned up as it
plunged through Earth’s atmosphere; it hadn’t broken when it hit the
ground at terminal velocity. If the gun could endure such punishment,
extreme measures would be needed to lay it to rest.
imagined putting the gun into a blast furnace. But what if the weapon
went off ? What if it shot out the side of the furnace? The furnace
itself could explode. That would be a disaster. Other means of
destruction had similar problems. Crushing the gun in a hydraulic press
. . . what if the gun shot a hole in the press, sending pieces of
equipment flying in all directions? Immersing the gun in acid . . .
what if the gun went off and splashed acid over everything? Slicing
into the gun with a laser . . . Jack didn’t know what powered the gun,
but obviously it contained vast energy. Destabilizing that energy might
cause an explosion, a radiation leak, or some even greater catastrophe.
Who knew what might happen if you tampered with alien technology?
what if the gun could protect itself ? Over the years, Jack had read
every ray-gun story he could find. In some stories, such weapons had
built-in computers. They had enough artificial intelligence to assess
their situations. If they didn’t like what was happening, they took
action. What if Jack’s gun was similar? What if attempts to destroy the
weapon induced it to fight back? What if the ray-gun got mad?
decided the only safe plan was to drop the gun into an ocean—the deeper
the better. Even then, Jack feared the gun would somehow make its way
back to shore. He hoped that the weapon would take years or even
centuries to return, by which time humanity might be scientifically
equipped to deal with the ray-gun’s power.
had one weakness: both the university and Jack’s home town were far
from the sea. Jack didn’t know anyone with an ocean-going boat suitable
for dumping objects into deep water. He’d just have to drive to the
coast and see if he could rent something.
But not until
summer. Jack was in the final stages of his Ph.D. and didn’t have time
to leave the university for an extended trip. As a temporary measure,
Jack moved the ray-gun back to the pond. He buried the weapon several
feet underground, hoping that would keep it safe from animals and
anyone else who happened by.
(Jack imagined a new
generation of lovesick teenagers discovering the pond. If that
happened, he wanted them safe. Like a real hero, Jack cared about
people he didn’t know.)
longer practiced with the gun, but he maintained his physical regimen.
He tried to exhaust himself so he wouldn’t have the energy to brood. It
didn’t work. Lying sleepless in bed, he kept wondering what would have
happened if he’d told Deana the truth. She wouldn’t have killed herself
if she’d been warned to be cautious. But Jack had cared more about his
precious secret than Deana’s life.
In the dark, Jack muttered, “It was her own damned fault.” His words were true, but not true enough.
Jack wasn’t at the gym, he cloistered himself with schoolwork and
research. (His doctoral thesis was about common properties of different
types of high-energy beams.) Jack didn’t socialize. He seldom phoned
home. He took days to answer email messages from his sister. Even so,
he told himself he was doing an excellent job of acting “normal.”
had underestimated his sister’s perceptiveness. One weekend, Rachel
showed up on his doorstep to see why he’d “gone weird.” She spent two
days digging under his skin. By the end of the weekend, she could tell
that Deana’s disappearance had disturbed Jack profoundly. Rachel
couldn’t guess the full truth, but as a big sister, she felt entitled
to meddle in Jack’s life. She resolved to snap her brother out of his
The next weekend Rachel showed up on Jack’s doorstep again. This time, she brought Kirsten.
years had passed since Kirsten and Jack had seen each other: the day
they both graduated from high school. In the intervening time, when
Jack had thought of Kirsten, he always pictured her as a high-school
girl. It was strange to see her as a woman. At twenty-seven, she was
not greatly changed from eighteen—new glasses and a better haircut—but
despite similarities to her teenage self, Kirsten wore her life
differently. She’d grown up.
So had Jack. Meeting
Kirsten by surprise made Jack feel ambushed, but he soon got over it.
Rachel helped by talking loud and fast through the initial awkwardness.
She took Jack and Kirsten for coffee, and acted as emcee as they got
Kirsten had followed a path close to
Jack’s: university and graduate work. She told him, “No one makes a
living as a poet. Most of us find jobs as English professors—teaching
poetry to others who won’t make a living at it either.”
had earned her doctorate a month earlier. Now she was living back home.
She currently had no man in her life—her last relationship had fizzled
out months ago, and she’d decided to avoid new involvements until she
knew where she would end up teaching. She’d sent her résumé to English
departments all over the continent and was optimistic about her chances
of success; to Jack’s surprise, Kirsten had published dozens of poems
in literary magazines. She’d even sold two to The New Yorker. Her publishing record would be enough to interest many English departments.
coffee, Rachel dragged Jack to a mall where she and Kirsten made him
buy new clothes. Rachel bullied Jack while Kirsten made apologetic
suggestions. Jack did his best to be a good sport; as they left the
mall, Jack was surprised to find that he’d actually had a good time.
evening, there was wine and more conversation. Rachel took Jack’s bed,
leaving him and Kirsten to make whatever arrangements they chose. The
two of them joked about Rachel trying to pair them up again. Eventually
Kirsten took the couch in the living room while Jack crawled into a
sleeping bag on the kitchen floor . . . but that was only after talking
till three in the morning.
Rachel and Kirsten left the
next afternoon, but Jack felt cleansed by their visit. He stayed in
touch with Kirsten by email. It was casual: not romance, but a knowing
In the next few months, Kirsten got job
interviews with several colleges and universities. She accepted a
position on the Oregon coast. She sent Jack pictures of the school. It
was directly on the ocean; it even had a beach. Kirsten said she’d
always liked the water. She teasingly reminded him of their times at
But when Jack saw Kirsten’s pictures of the
Pacific, all he could think of was dumping the ray-gun into the sea. He
could drive out to visit her . . . rent a boat . . . sail out to deep
water . . .
No. Jack knew nothing about sailing, and he
didn’t have enough money to rent a boat that could venture far
offshore. “How many years have I been preparing?” he asked himself.
“Didn’t I intend to be ready for any emergency? Now I have an
honest-to-god mission, and I’m useless.”
Then Kirsten sent him an emailed invitation to go sailing with her.
had access to a sea-going yacht. It belonged to her grandparents—the
ones she’d visited on Vancouver Island just before she and Jack broke
up. During her trip to the island, Kirsten had gone boating with her
grandparents every day. At the start, she’d done it to take her mind
off Jack; then she’d discovered she enjoyed being out on the waves.
spent time with her grandparents every summer since, learning the ins
and outs of yachting. She’d taken courses. She’d earned the necessary
licenses. Now Kirsten was fully qualified for deep-water excursions . .
. and as a gift to wish her well on her new job, Kirsten’s grandparents
were lending her their boat for a month. They intended to sail down to
Oregon, spend a few days there, then fly off to tour Australia. When
they were done, they’d return and sail back home; but in the meantime,
Kirsten would have the use of their yacht. She asked Jack if he’d like
to be her crew.
When Jack got this invitation, he
couldn’t help being disturbed. Kirsten had never mentioned boating
before. Because she was living in their hometown, most of her email to
Jack had been about old high-school friends. Jack had even started to
picture her as a teenager again; he’d spent a weekend with the grown-up
Kirsten, but all her talk of high-school people and places had muddled
Jack’s mental image of her. The thought of a bookish teenage girl
captaining a yacht was absurd.
But that was a lesser
problem compared to the suspicious convenience of her invitation. Jack
needed a boat; all of a sudden, Kirsten had one. The coincidence was
almost impossible to swallow.
He thought of the unknown aliens who made the ray-gun. Could they be influencing events? If the ray-gun was intelligent, could it be responsible for the coincidence?
had often spent time near the gun. On their first visit to the pond,
she and Jack had lain half-naked with the gun in Jack’s backpack beside
He thought of Kirsten that day. So open. So
vulnerable. The gun had been within inches. Had it nurtured Kirsten’s
interest in yachting . . . her decision to get a job in Oregon . . .
even her grandparents’ offer of their boat? Had it molded Kirsten’s
life so she was ready when Jack needed her? And if the gun could do
that, what had it done to Jack himself ?
This is ridiculous, Jack thought. The gun is just a gun. It doesn’t control people. It just kills them.
Jack couldn’t shake off his sense of eeriness—about Kirsten as well as
the ray-gun. All these years, while Jack had been preparing himself to
be a hero, Kirsten had somehow done the same. Her self-improvement
program had worked better than Jack’s. She had a boat; he didn’t.
or not, Jack couldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. He told Kirsten
he’d be delighted to go sailing with her. Only later did he realize
that their time on the yacht would have a sexual subtext. He broke out
laughing. “I’m such an idiot. We’ve done it again.” Like that day at
the pond, Jack had only been thinking about the gun. Kirsten had been
thinking about Jack. Her invitation wasn’t a carte-blanche come-on but
it had a strong hint of, “Let’s get together and see what develops.”
Where Kirsten was concerned, Jack had always been slow to catch the signals. He thought, Obviously, the ray-gun keeps dulling my senses. This time, Jack meant it as a joke.
came. Jack drove west with the ray-gun in the trunk of his car. The
gun’s safety was on, but Jack still drove as if he were carrying
nuclear waste. He’d taken the gun back and forth between his hometown
and university many times, but this trip was longer, on unfamiliar
roads. It was also the last trip Jack ever intended to make with the
gun; if the gun didn’t want to be thrown into the sea, perhaps it would
cause trouble. But it didn’t.
For much of the drive,
Jack debated how to tell Kirsten about the gun. He’d considered
smuggling it onto the boat and throwing the weapon overboard when she
wasn’t looking, but Jack felt that he owed her the truth. It was
overdue. Besides, this cruise could be the beginning of a new
relationship. Jack didn’t want to start by sneaking behind Kirsten’s
So he had to reveal his deepest secret. Every
other secret would follow: what happened to Deana; what had really been
on Jack’s mind that day at the pond; what made First Love go sour. Jack
would expose his guilt to the woman who’d suffered from the fallout.
He thought, She’ll probably throw me overboard with the gun.
But he would open up anyway, even if it made Kirsten hate him. When he
tossed the ray-gun into the sea, he wanted to unburden himself of
The first day on the
boat, Jack said nothing about the ray-gun. Instead, he talked
compulsively about trivia. So did Kirsten. It was strange being
together, looking so much the way they did in high school but being
entirely different people.
Fortunately, they had
practical matters to fill their time. Jack needed a crash course in
seamanship. He learned quickly. Kirsten was a good teacher. Besides,
Jack’s longstanding program of hero-dom had prepared his mind and
muscles. Kirsten was impressed that he knew Morse code and had
extensive knowledge of knots. She asked, “Were you a Boy Scout?”
“No. When I was a kid, I wanted to be able to untie myself if I ever got captured by spies.”
Kirsten laughed. She thought he was joking.
first day, they stayed close to shore. They never had to deal with
being alone; there were always other yachts in sight, and sailboats,
and people on shore. When night came, they put in to harbor. They ate
in an ocean-view restaurant. Jack asked, “So where will we go tomorrow?”
“Where would you like? Up the coast, down the coast, or straight out to sea?”
“Why not straight out?” said Jack.
on the yacht, he and Kirsten talked long past midnight. There was only
one cabin, but two separate fold-away beds. Without discussion, they
each chose a bed. Both usually slept in the nude, but for this trip
they’d both brought makeshift “pajamas” consisting of a T-shirt and
track pants. They laughed at the clothes, the coincidence, and
They didn’t kiss good night. Jack silently
wished they had. He hoped Kirsten was wishing the same thing. They
talked for an hour after they’d turned out the lights, becoming nothing
but voices in the dark.
day they sailed due west. Both waited to see if the other would suggest
turning back before dark. Neither did. The farther they got from shore,
the fewer other boats remained in sight. By sunset, Jack and Kirsten
knew they were once more alone with each other. No one in the world
would stop them from whatever they chose to do.
asked Kirsten to stay on deck. He went below and got the ray-gun from
his luggage. He brought it up into the twilight. Before he could speak,
Kirsten said, “I’ve seen that before.”
Jack stared at her in shock. “What? Where?”
saw it years ago, in the woods back home. I was out for a walk. I
noticed it lying in a little crater, as if it had fallen from the sky.”
“Really? You found it too?”
I didn’t touch it,” Kirsten said. “I don’t know why. Then I heard
someone coming and I ran away. But the memory stayed vivid in my head.
A mysterious object in a crater in the woods. I can’t tell you how
often I’ve tried to write poems about it, but they never work out.” She
looked at the gun in Jack’s hands. “What is it?”
ray-gun,” he said. In the fading light, he could see a clump of seaweed
floating a short distance from the boat. He raised the gun and fired.
The seaweed exploded in a blaze of fire, burning brightly against the
“A ray-gun,” said Kirsten. “Can I try it?”
Some time later, holding hands, they let the gun fall into the water. It sank without protest.
after that, they talked in each other’s arms. Jack said the gun had
made him who he was. Kirsten said she was the same. “Until I saw the
gun, I just wrote poems about myself—overwritten self-absorbed pap,
like every teenage girl. But the gun gave me something else to write
about. I’d only seen it for a minute, but it was one of those
burned-into-your-memory moments. I felt driven to find words to express
what I’d seen. I kept refining my poems, trying to make them better.
That’s what made the difference.”
“I felt driven too,”
Jack said. “Sometimes I’ve wondered if the gun can affect human minds.
Maybe it brainwashed us into becoming who we are.”
maybe it’s just Stone Soup,” Kirsten said. “You know the story? Someone
claims he can make soup from a stone, but what he really does is trick
people into adding their own food to the pot. Maybe the ray-gun is like
that. It did nothing but sit there like a stone. You and I did
everything—made ourselves who we are—and the ray-gun is only an excuse.”
“Maybe,” Jack said. “But so many coincidences brought us here. . . .”
“You think the gun manipulated us because it wanted to be thrown into the Pacific? Why?”
even a ray-gun gets tired of killing.” Jack shivered, thinking of
Deana. “Maybe the gun feels guilty for the deaths it’s caused; it
wanted to go someplace where it would never have to kill again.”
death wasn’t your fault,” Kirsten said. “Really, Jack. It was awful,
but it wasn’t your fault.” She shivered too, then made her voice
brighter. “Maybe the ray-gun orchestrated all this because it’s an
incurable romantic. It wanted to bring us together: our own personal
matchmaker from the stars.”
Jack kissed Kirsten on the nose. “If that’s true, I don’t object.”
“Neither do I.” She kissed him back.
Not on the nose.
below, the ray-gun drifted through the cold black depths. Beneath it,
on the bottom of the sea, lay wreckage from the starship that had
exploded centuries before. The wreckage had traveled all the way from
Jupiter. Because of tiny differences in trajectory, the wreckage had
splashed down thousands of miles from where the ray-gun landed.
ray-gun sank straight toward the wreckage . . . but what the wreckage
held or why the ray-gun wanted to rejoin it, we will never know.
We will never comprehend aliens. If someone spent a month explaining alien thoughts to us, we’d think we understood.
But we wouldn’t.