In the early days, we are young enough to think of ourselves as young. Still heartsick when we remember the acne-scarred boys and girls in the high schools we left behind. The little sisters whose hair we yanked one last time for good measure, muttering in their ears Don’t fuck this up by way of goodbye, because the distance between our grief and our fortitude would unravel if we had to hear our own stupid hearts beating.

In the early days, we still wear uniforms and stand at attention. We are still part of an us that is bigger than ourselves. This is the choice we make, our bodies for a way out of our lives. A chance at a future.

We travel to places on maps we can’t even spell. Dimashq. Beirut. Ghazni. Qom. Put your finger on a globe and spin.

We leave behind us irradiated neighbourhoods, post-apocalypses. Deserts where once there were no deserts. We go where we are told to go. We have not graduated high school, and already we have toppled buildings, laid waste to city blocks, upheaved countries, immolated hundreds of militants and the people around them – what our handlers call the bad guys and their peripherals. We smell of soot, always.

In our dormitory, we are homesick, bored, snappy. The doctors test our blood pressure. They smile when they see us looking, but we see the way they eye us, like we are wild things. Geiger counters click and spit readouts on each of us, every day, every night. We squabble over who used the bathroom and for how long. There are entire geological periods shorter than the showers that Mary Grace takes.

The rules are endless. We are not allowed to paint our nails. Or smoke cigarettes. Or eat less than three meals a day. Or stand in the sun too long. Or use lighters or matches or most kinds of microwaves. It’s for our own safety, we are told – it’s for everyone’s safety. We are unstable, and we know it not because anyone says anything, but because of the ways in which we are constrained. The way our doctors and handlers look at us and don’t look at us.

We pretend not to hear Yaya weeping into her pillow after dark and ignore Aisha gnashing her teeth in her dreams. We eat out of tin cans every day until all we can taste is the aluminum lining.

It’s Jack, wispy little white girl Jacqueline, who yanks us out of it. One day, Nabeela pauses by her bunk and says in a voice that is almost angry with incredulity, “Is that a recipe book? Are you reading a freaking recipe book?” and Jack gets kind of prickly and says, “Yeah. So what? It’s my gran’s.”

She turns the brittle pages with fingers that somehow reek of cigarettes. She reads, “Lauren’s Favourite Banana-Mango Birthday Cake. Four cups chopped mango. Three cups banana, freshly sliced.” When she lowers the book, we see that each page bleeds with spatters of sauce stains, phantom thumbprints of flour. “Vanilla ice cream, five cups. Crumbled graham crackers. Chilled butter, cut into cubes.”

We can smell sunny bananas, can taste the tart sweetness of the mangoes with an intensity that makes our cheeks hurt. We spoon up our shitty dinners and imagine we are at Lauren’s birthday party, feasting on her favourite banana-mango birthday cake.

When you live the way we live, the people around you are the world you inhabit, and they are your own private hell. We become sisters, of a sort. We borrow each other’s magazines. We let Mary Grace take her stupid, interminably long showers. We listen spellbound to Jack, reading quietly to us from her grandmother’s deteriorating recipe book. When Yaya weeps at night, one of us reaches out in the dark and holds her hand until she is quiet.

To make ourselves laugh, or when we are angry, or to show affection, or to say we’re sorry, we set each other on fire. All it takes is a touch. When one of us ignites, the others can’t help it. We hoot with laughter, we gape, we marvel at the wonder of ourselves. It snaps the tension of our waiting days clean in half. Sometimes, it sets off a chain reaction, one girl, then the next, then the next, becoming fire, burning up. In those brief, beautiful moments, we are something else. We become impossible.

It never lasts long, not like our city burning fires. We leave singe marks on the ground, on the walls. The doctors cough when they walk through our dormitory, then they wear masks. Sometimes, before we go to bed, we sing together. Wistful pop songs from our childhoods, camp ditties from when we went to camp. A chorus of girls, too young to vote, too poisonous to be anywhere else.

These are the days we will think of, forever afterwards. The days when we were youthful and useful and burned brighter than anything else. At nights, we dream of blood and fire and smoke and screaming, but in the morning we never remember.

Those were the old days. Now, it is not the days that are old, but ourselves.

In the third year of our service, a nosy journalist from a national newspaper finds out about us. Suddenly, everyone knows. They call us weapons of mass destruction, or military mad science experiments, or a new generation of suicide bombers, or just bombs. They want to know if this was how science was meant to be used. Are we even human?

Suddenly, everyone’s a philosopher. They interview scientists who drone on in endless columns about the ethics of human experiments, the tremulous line between willing participant and hoodwinked lab rat. They ponder if it is a human rights violation, chemically altering bodies to obliterate cities, to become fire. They get our names wrong.

Gina, who knows how to pronounce unpronounceable words, who reads the best, keeps us in the loop. She says, “I guess we’re victims today. Coerced by circumstance, that’s what they’re saying.” Or, “Now they think we should be in a laboratory.”

“Where do they think we live? In paradise?” Aisha asks.

They are curious, ravenous for anything about us. They print our enlistment mugshots, they profile the crumbling high-rises and rundown neighbourhoods from which we came. The newspapers unearth photos of our families. Sisters we no longer recognise. Mothers whose smiles are grainy and stilted, like they were caught unawares. The newspapers want to know: who would choose this? Why would our families let us go? We grow weepy. We bicker with our handlers. We say, “Don’t we have any rights? Don’t we get to speak?”

“They’re afraid of you,” they tell us. “Do you really want to rile them?”

In the end, our handlers relent. Not for us, but for themselves. They let a television station interview Nabeela. We watch it on the piece-of-shit lounge television. We are so proud, we are sick with envy. Nabeela is dark and lovely and crisply suited, not a hair out of place. They even let her paint her nails red. She speaks quietly and urgently. Her eyes say, What choice did we have?

The anchor does not call us women, but girls. Like we did not sign up for this. Like we did not know. Like we are still babies – maybe we are and maybe we are not. She looks into the camera, into our eyes. She is old enough and pretty enough to be every mother we never had. She says sternly, curiously, “Who are they, these poor young girls?”

Excerpted with permission from The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction: Volume 2, edited by Tarun K Saint, Hachette India.