The Thin Rising Line

Kiran Kaur Saini

September 1, 2023

The text came just as Jani left the locker room for hockey practice. “I’m out front in the car. The inspector’s coming early. You have to come home right now.”

Jani punched at the phone with her thumbs. “I just laced up my skates!”

“Sorry, hon,” her mom texted back.

They drilled the procedure in the car. There were four in the family and each had to know not only their own role but also everyone else’s, just in case.

“Are we in trouble?” Jani asked. “Did they find out we don’t keep it mounted?”

Her mom shook her head. “It sounded like somebody dropped out of the program. We got moved up.”

“You can drop out of the program?”

“Well…” Her mother looked troubled. “I don’t think it’s a straightforward process.”

Jani mulled this over.

They had only an hour before the inspector arrived. Dad and Robbi were already lugging the weapon out of the basement. Mom started pushing the furniture to the sides and Jani rolled the dropcloth out. In the event that the inspector wanted to see the weapon discharged, the steel mesh would prevent potential carpet burns. The living room was built for this, but the rug was non-standard. Dad set the tripod down in the middle and Robbi ran the microfiber cloth over the parts so no dust would reveal their neglect. He touched the metal with the back of his hand. “It’s cold. He’ll know we had it in the basement.”

Mom checked her watch. “I think we’ll be okay.” She yanked the curtains back. “We’ll let the sun hit it.”

Soon the household was filled with nothing but the hum of concentration and the ratcheting sounds of metal components sliding into place. The family worked together like a surgical team, outstretched hands filling with needed parts or tools without a word spoken.

At the appointed time, Jani and Dad peeled off to retrieve the financial records and put them on the coffee table.

The final assembly snapped into place. Dad clicked his stopwatch. “Boo yah. We’ve still got it.”

When the doorbell rang the family was draped around the living room in relaxed poses, Dad tinkering with a broken clock, Mom and Robbi bent together over Robbi’s chessboard, Jani reading this month’s Ammo.

Mom brought the inspector into the living room. He sized up the weapon, nodded in appreciation, and rubbed his hands together. “Okay, let’s see whatcha got.”

Each of the kids had to load the weapon by themselves in the time allotted without prompting from their parents. Then they verbally walked the inspector through the weapon’s disassembly and reassembly, never letting on that they’d just reassembled the weapon for the first time in months just half an hour ago.

The inspector quizzed them on the firing statistics of the weapon, asked for suggestions of similar launchers in the event that this one were unavailable or decommissioned, and listened to their prepared speeches on the efficacy and necessity of the Family Individual Defense Act. Jani and Robbi both passed with flying colors.

The inspector relaxed into their couch and swiped through the family’s maintenance records, ammunition purchases, and range documentation. “It seems you missed a day at the practice range in June.”

“That was the opening of the summer art show.” Mom said. “Robbi had a painting accepted and we all went to the reception.” Robbi pointed to a painting on the forward wall. There was the family’s previous issue, a Gatling GshG 7.62, depicted in loose brush strokes that captured the essential nature and gestural movement of the weapon without being too literal. Spanky, the family dog, was portrayed curling around the base of the tripod as around the legs of a beloved master.

“Nice,” the inspector nodded.

Finally, he flipped through their bank accounts and income statements, his feet up on their coffee table. At the end of his survey, he snapped the computer shut and swung his feet back to the ground.

“Everything appears in good order,” he said. “Let’s just run the test, shall we?” 

Mom slid the living room window open. 

The inspector went to the weapon and spun the controls until it pointed towards the ceiling.

“Let’s have”—he consulted his notes—“Jani do it.”

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Jani stepped forward, sweat forming on her fingers. She hadn’t been asked to fire the launcher in two years, and although she and Mom had run through the coordinates in the car, she still felt the pressure of the consequences if she made a mistake. The inspector started his timer.

Hands shaking, Jani whispered the positions to herself as she made each adjustment. Was she remembering correctly? It was harder to think when the weapon was live and the inspector was watching. The test field was 7.2 miles away, tucked between two residential neighborhoods, a shopping mall, and the rival high school that Jani’s team had beat Saturday night in their last hockey match. Jani had to line the machine up without consulting any maps.

“Ten seconds,” the inspector said. Everyone stepped towards the sides of the room.

Jani twirled levers, checked angles, the smooth, oily dials resisting her grip. “Done!”

“Deploy,” the inspector said.

Jani paused.

“Deploy! Deploy!” the inspector shouted. “You have 1.5 seconds!”

Jani deployed.

Fire engulfed the back of the room and flared out, laying down another petal of the dark flower blossoming on the reinforced back wall. The missile catapulted out of the living room and sailed across the street, over the neighbor’s house where Mr. Peterson stood watering his lawn. He looked up, then gave them a wave. The family watched in silence as the projectile coasted beyond the neighborhood and out of sight.

They waited.

At last a muffled detonation rumbled through the ground and they stared out the window, waiting for the thin rising line that would appear in the distant sky over the impact.

The inspector’s phone rang. He picked it up, listened. “Understood.” He clicked it off, turned to Jani. “Good job, kid. Right on target.”

Jani exhaled. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath.

The inspector stood up and pulled a brochure out of his pocket. “The new equipment for next year. Here’s the acquisition timeline, payment plan.” He tossed it onto the coffee table. 

Jani’s dad snatched it up, flipped through. “We can’t afford this. We just finished paying off this one.”

The inspector turned back to the family, eyebrow raised, and gave a simple glance from parents to kids. “Neither of these skippers has an after school job, I saw.”

“Yes, but they’re…” Jani’s mom started, but stopped. She looked at the inspector, eyes and unspoken words filled with Jani and Robbi’s dreams.

“Actually,” Jani piped up, “we’re leaving the program.”

 “What are you talking about?” the inspector said.

Jani’s parents shook their heads, but Jani ignored them. “The program,” she repeated. “We’re dropping out.”

The inspector broke into a smile and rubbed Jani’s arm. “No, no, sweetie, you did fine.”

“What do you mean?” Jani asked.

“You passed. You hit the target. You won’t be dropped from the program.”

“I’m saying we want to leave the program,” Jani said. “If the family before us quit, we can, too.”

The inspector laughed. “Oh, honey, they didn’t quit. They missed the target. Took out a whole block of a housing development in the Southwestern District. 600 souls. They’re definitely… out. But you”—he patted her shoulder—“you guys are a genuine asset, the real deal. You got nothing to worry about.”

As the inspector drove his van out of the cul-de-sac, Jani’s mom slid the living room window shut.

“Don’t worry,” Jani’s dad said. “We’ll figure something out.”

He and Robbi were already disassembling the weapon and starting to carry its parts back to the basement where they wouldn’t have to see it for the next six months. Or maybe, with the new requirements, maybe it would just stay down there indefinitely. While the family acquired and struggled to learn the new issue, something bigger and better, this one would remain with the family’s previous issues, all seventeen of them, lined up in the basement, waiting for the danger to come.

Kiran Kaur Saini’s stories have recently appeared in Strange Horizons, the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. At the start of the pandemic, she left fifteen years in film production to care for her 89-year-old mom. In her spare time she practices Szymanowski and Mompou preludes on her family's 1927 reproducing piano. Find Kiran on Twitter at @KirSphere.

“The Thin Rising Line” is original to Bullet Points.