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