Savita couldn't remember the time before the ships.
Of course she had seen pictures. Everyone had. In the beat-up third-hand textbooks left over from the 1990s, and in the faded magazines in the municipal library (printed on lousy paper: they'd probably looked old the day they came out) there were images of open sky. But the skies hadn't looked like that since Savita was a baby. By the time she could walk, the ships were already hovering there, giant cigar shapes over every city in the world.
People said that the ships were hives, that the aliens were incubated in tight pods of spun fibre. People said that the aliens communicated with their ships through telepathy, that the ships sang lullabies to them during interstellar travel's long sleep.
Of course, people had also said that the aliens were colonizers. But that term had become illegal by hasty vote of the United Nations Security Council once it became clear that the ships posed a threat to every nation of the world. The members were but puppets now, her baba had said bitterly over dinner, and her aayi had hushed him, as though there might be aliens listening in the walls.
By the time she was in primary school, her cousin Rajesh had joined the Special Branch. The pay was good, and there were perks; the best mobile phones, and highspeed internet, even if it was monitored. He let her try on his helmet once, curtained by the laundry her parents and their neighbors hung between one building and the next.
It was far too big for her; it sat skewed on her head. The first thing she noticed was how strange the air smelled with the helmet on. Empty. No smells of cooking from anywhere in the building, no scent of dhania or onions. The proboscis stretched in front of her like an elephant's trunk.
The lenses changed the color of the daylight. Through her left eye Savita could see a faint grid, flickering lines of green criss-crossing her field of sight, with unfamiliar symbols scrolling just beyond her peripheral vision.
And the world was eerily silent. The helmet muffled the sounds of traffic and prayer, radio and conversation, auto-rickshaws zooming noisily. Her own breathing sounded heavy in her ears.
Then there was a burst of language spoken in a nasal high voice. It was fast and abrupt, filled with consonants. Savita spoke Hindi, Marathi, and English, but this didn't sound like anything she had ever heard before.
Big hands pulled the helmet off of her head, which left her blinking.
"It's saying something," she said, unnecessarily, because Rajesh -- looking nervous -- was already fastening it back onto his own head, smoothing his black collar flat. He stood ramrod-straight, murmured something she couldn't make out, and then began to push his way through the hanging clothing, heading toward the street.
"Fine, don't say goodbye," Savita said, defensively, but he was already gone.
She was eleven the first time she met someone in the aandolan. Well: she met the niece of someone in the aandolan but it was almost as good as meeting a real member of the resistance.
And actually it was someone Savita already knew; she just hadn't known that she had a relative who was planning to fight the aliens. Abhilasha had been her classmate since they were seven.
"My uncle says they're organizing all over India," Abhilasha said. She had become tall and gangly over the summer; her uniform skirt was a bit too short, which made her legs look even longer than they were. They were walking home from school in a pack, and Abhilasha led them on a detour to the open-air chai shop at the edge of the bartan bazaar. The man stirring the pot passed them little glasses of hot sweet chai and they perched on a low wall beside the shop, watching the commerce and the people going by.
"I heard there's resistance in China too," offered Raju. He was short for twelve, but he was funny; he imitated their teachers and made even the older kids laugh. "And in Europe."
"What are they doing, then," asked Hansa. Savita had never much liked her; she was prissy. "Nothing changes." She kicked her feet against the cement blocks.
"It's going to," Abhilasha promised, downing her glass in one long gulp. Savita watched her swallow, mesmerized and not sure why. "We just need more people on the inside."
"Are you going to join up?" Raju asked, curiously. "With the aandolan?"
"Of course." Abhilasha's voice was blithe. "And then I'll join the Special Branch, and they'll never know I'm working against them."
Savita wasn't sure why she spoke up. Maybe it was the way Abhilasha's presence made her stomach do somersaults. "I'm thinking about it too. I have a cousin in the police; that means I'm automatically a level-two prospect, and if my marks are good, I can be a level-one."
Level-one applicants were always accepted. Level-two applicants, often. Level three was dicier, and if you placed into levels four through seven you would wind up working in the tantalum mines. The pay was decent, better than most Earthbound employers could offer, but the working conditions were terrible.
"You have to be fifteen before they'll process your application," Hansa said disdainfully.
"So?" Savita retorted. "We'll be fifteen eventually."
Abhilasha looked at her, Savita thought, with new eyes. "We will," Abhilasha agreed. It sounded like a promise.
"I'm going to do it, I don't care what my parents say." Savita took the cone of bhelpuri, handed her coins to the vendor, and they walked on.
"I'm not so sure." Abhilasha reached for a pinch, deftly grabbing the a bite of snack without breaking stride.
"I am," Savita insisted. "Why doesn't anyone believe me? Just because I've always followed the rules--"
Abhilasha stopped walking, and Savita stopped beside her. "I mean," Abhilasha clarified, "I'm not sure I'm still going to do it."
"Oh," Savita said faintly. It had never occurred to her that they might not be doing this together. Not since the day she had first voiced her intention to enlist and to subvert the aliens' control from within. The day her real friendship with Abhilasha had begun.
"I might have a chance to go abroad," Abhilasha confided. "Just for a while; the National Chemical Library might be posting my baba in Britain for a year or two." There was a pause. "I could try to join the Special Branch at sixteen or seventeen when we get back, though. Sometimes they take older recruits--"
Savita was already shaking her head. "Not worth it," she said. "If you're going abroad, there are so many better ways you can help."
Abhilasha started walking again, and Savita matched her pace. "I know. But I always wanted to join up together, with you."
"Me too," Savita admitted. "When would you be going?"
"Next summer." Abhilasha's voice was surprisingly flat given how exciting this prospect ought to have been.
"So you'd still be here in February, then," Savita said, unaccountably relieved. Her birthday was in February; if all went according to plan, she would enter the Special Branch within a week of turning fifteen. But there was time between February and the end of term. Months would remain during which she could still walk with Abhilasha all over the city, and in the safe anonymity of neighborhoods where nobody knew them, she could tell Abhilasha about Special Branch, whatever the training -- indoctrination? -- might entail. "I could still tell you about it."
More: she could watch Abhilasha walk and laugh and move, could let her eyes drink their fill, and no one would notice or care.
"If you wind up in Special Branch." Abhilasha cast her a sideways glance through her lashes, grinning.
Savita couldn't help smiling back. "I'm going to! I'm telling you. I'm going to do it."
"I know you are," Abhilasha agreed. Did she look just the slightest bit sad? Savita couldn't tell.
"You won't be able to get this in Britain," Savita pointed out, a bit archly, brandishing the paper cone.
"Better enjoy it now, then!" Abhilasha crowed, and grabbed it away from her. That broke the momentary sadness; soon they were giggling and bumping shoulders again as they walked, sharing bites of bhelpuri, talking about lighter things.
"Nervous?" Abhilasha lounged on her bed, Savita sitting cross-legged beside her.
Abhilasha's parents, and her ammachi who lived with them, were traveling for the day. As a result, the girls were skipping school; Abhilasha had offered to apply mehndi to Savita's hands in honour of her entry tomorrow into training for the Special Branch. They weren't supposed to wear any kind of decorations to school, mehndi or dangling earrings, but Savita would be out for two weeks. By the time she returned, having been trained and inducted, the patterns would have faded into memory.
"A little," Savita admitted. "About the inking."
All the recruits received mandatory tattoos on their necks. It was a way of ensuring that no one could leave the aliens' service. Who would harbour a fugitive so blatantly and permanently marked?
But that wasn't what scared Savita. Her ears had been pierced when she was a baby; surely needles were bearable. What frightened her was the telepathy. People whispered that the tattooing was done by an alien who could read fearful thoughts. If it read treason in the recruit's mind, the tattooing ink turned deadly. The recruit never came home.
People whispered too that the tattoos involved nanites. That the nanites, once implanted, could change the shape of the marking, from the sigil of the alien regime to the capacitor which denoted allegiance to the andolaan.
How would she get through the tattooing without thinking, even once, about the resistance to which she had pledged fealty? Her parents would mourn her without ever knowing why.
Abhilasha grinned. "We'll just have to give you something else to think about while you're under the needle."
Before Savita could process that, Abhilasha was sitting up and reaching for her, pulling her into a kiss. Savita gasped and Abhilasha deepened the kiss. They twined together, kneeling up on the bed, Savita's thigh sliding between Abhilasha's. Savita burned with wanting. This was what she had yearned for since they were eleven, what she had never quite allowed herself to think about or name.
"You think you can focus on this tomorrow?" Abhilasha murmured against Savita's lips. Her hair had fallen loose around them; Savita breathed in the scent of her shampoo.
Savita felt like a soldier about to head off to war, emboldened by the cusp of change. "You might have to give me a little more to remember."
In response, Abhilasha skimmed her mouth down to Savita's neck, to the spot where the tattoo would throb, and gently bit, working her mouth against the skin. Savita gasped and tilted her head, allowing better access. Saying yes. Yes, beloved, now, yes.
It was too soon. Savita had just returned from training; her neck was still bandaged. It wasn't supposed to happen this way.
But the higher-ups at the NCL had changed their timetable; Abhilasha's parents had departed last week with most of their worldly goods, and Abhilasha and her ammachi were leaving today.
The girls clung to each other, partially shielded by the fall of their hair. The crowd at the railway station seemed mostly to be ignoring them, though Savita suspected at least one person in the crowd had been assigned by her superiors to keep an eye on her. Ordinarily during the first few weeks after indoctrination, one spent time only with one's new unit, but Savita had begged for permission to say farewell to her oldest friend, and the aliens had -- however grudgingly -- granted it.
"I'm going to miss you so!" Tears streaked kajal down Abhilasha's cheeks.
Savita pressed her close, smelled soap and that same shampoo. "Our guns are microchipped," she whispered. "Anyone carrying a Special Branch-issued weapon is trackable, I don't know how to disable it."
"I wish we weren't going so soon," Abhilasha wailed. It was a cover for Savita's hasty attempt to spill secrets, but surely it was also true.
"It's true, the tattoo can change its shape. And if one of the aliens is touching you, it can read your thoughts," Savita whispered into the shell of Abhilasha's ear. "Don't let them--"
"Girls, I am sorry," said aunty, her voice chagrined. "The train will be leaving soon; we must board."
They pulled apart, fingertips still touching.
"Don't forget me." Savita's voice quivered.
"I couldn't," Abhilasha promised, and then her mother was herding her onto the train.
Savita stood on the sidewalk and watched the train slowly fill with travelers, the hawkers handing snacks up through the partially-opened windows, until suddenly she couldn't bear it; she walked away.
On her day off, Savita went to the railway station bright and early. Only a handful of people were waiting for the train. She sat on a bench and wrapped her purple scarf more snugly around her neck.
She bought chai from the ten-year-old chaiwalla, which came in a small clay cup -- though she couldn't bring herself to dash it against the tracks when it was empty. Most sellers now offered either glass or flimsy white plastic. There was something poignant, human, about the hand-formed clay; she couldn't bear to shatter it. Instead she shook it until no drops remained and then tucked it inside her bag.
The train arrived on time. She was traveling on a third-class ticket; the benches were hard but clean. She spent a while on an upper berth, reading.
Then she changed bogeys at random, scanning the other travelers for anyone who looked like they might be Special Branch in plain clothes. Rumour had it that some agents, recruited from high-placed families, were spared the tattoo in order to be able to remain incognito.
Upon exiting the train she followed the directions she'd memorized to the cybercafé behind the bhaajiwalla. As she ducked behind the curtain, the man behind the desk nodded to her, as though he were expecting her. Perhaps he was. She was never certain who was part of the aandolan; it was safer for everyone that way. Only one terminal was in use, by an adolescent boy who was typing avidly into a gmail window. She chose a machine on the other side of the partition, facing the boy and facing the door.
She logged into Tor, then waited for the slow proxy server to connect her untraceably with her email. The messages she received were worth the wait. The aandolan in Bangalore had succeeded in smuggling a complete set of chips to Mumbai. In Amsterdam the weerstand was now able to communicate openly, and as long as the chips were implanted properly in their mobile phones or their helmets the aliens couldn't hear them at all. There was even a rumour that the chips had made their way to America and that the American resistance -- they called themselves "rebels" -- were working on duplicating them.
She sent what paltry report she could to her aandolan supervisor -- whoever she or he might be; Savita knew only the email address, a string of letters and numbers which meant nothing to her -- and logged out, wiping the browser history. Then she checked in to Facebook and posted a meaningless status update about the book she had been reading on the train, so that if anyone had seen her here, there would be evidence that she had done something innocuous with her online time.
All the way back to Pune she focused fiercely on the emails she had received, reliving how it had felt to read them. She would not lose hope.
"The chips do not concern us," Commander 4 said. Its words rippled into Savita's ears, a burst of percussive sounds and trills. She still had recurring dreams about the days of hypnosis, the foggy theta-state during which the aliens' language had become intelligible to her battalion. In her dreams, the alien tattoo became new and raw again, still seeping.
"If anyone asks you...?" Commander 4 stood directly in front of a young man Savita didn't really know.
"We will tell them that you are not concerned," the young man replied promptly. The recruits still spoke English -- the aliens could understand them perfectly well -- but the aliens only spoke their own tongue, their mouths ill-suited for forming most Terran sounds.
"Good," the Commander clicked approvingly, and glided on. "See that you remember."
You're protesting a bit too much, Savita thought, but she stood at attention and kept the thought tamped down low. In a room full of humans, the aliens had to work hard to scan any individual set of brain waves; they generally had to be touching you in order to isolate your thoughts from the hubbub of the room. But Savita didn't want to be the exception that proved the rule. At least the helmet hid her neck from view; if her focus wavered and her tattoo flickered, no one would see.
Because the chips were made and customized by individual artisans, there was no central facility the aliens could shut down. But they were conducting an increasing number of market raids, sending the Special Branch to thrust their hands into baskets of spices, to rifle through the supplies at snack stands, to open endless dvd cases in the stalls which sold pirated dvds. Savita was certain they were searching for the nameless men who etched the flimsy slips which might add up to change.
Just you wait, Savita thought, and then -- with the habit of long practice -- pulled out her favorite obfuscating memories to keep her mind buzzing safely. Her aaji threading bright marigolds onto her needle with deft fingers. Savita's first train journey, the excitement of feeling the train pull out of the station. That one night with Abhilasha, before Savita had begun her training. Abhilasha's mouth and fingers, Savita's cravings made flesh.
Abhilasha posted to Facebook sometimes. Bristol agreed with her; she didn't think she would return to India any time soon. But it was impossible to tell from her status updates whether she were still part of the movement -- or, for that matter, how much control the aliens maintained over Britain these days; reports varied, and of course the official news media were useless. Facebook still listed her as "single," at least, though she flirted visibly there with a boy who had an English name.
Savita thought about boys from time to time, too. Clean-shaven boys with ready smiles and clever hands. There was no shortage of those, even in the Special Branch, though the aliens didn't like human smiles. One learnt early on not to smile on duty.
But she wouldn't let herself form an attachment to anyone in her unit -- it was too dangerous, for her and for them -- and she had rebuffed her parents' timid offers of arranging a meeting with an appropriate young man from a good family. They suspected her involvement in the aandolan, she knew, but they would never ask. She hoped that they were proud.
"Market sweep this morning," Commander 4 said, and Savita had to prevent herself from flinching; it was standing directly in front of her, its proboscis -- real, not synthetic like the ones the recruits wore -- bobbing slightly with each breath. Her own breathing, muffled by her helmet, echoed in her ears.
"An off-duty member of Special Branch battalion seventeen is rumoured to be in Pune trafficking in illegal technology," the Commander continued in a staccato burst of trills and clicks. "You will find him, you will apprehend him, you will destroy the chip."
A sudden thrill ran through Savita. This could be it. Her chance to make a difference. She probably couldn't save her compatriot, but maybe she could save the chip.
And Commander 4 was standing right there, almost near enough to touch. Which meant that if she weren't careful, it would overhear her right now.
Market sweep, she thought furiously, pushing everything else out of her mind. She knew the geography of this market like the back of her hand: here the spice merchants, there the sellers of pots and pans. She was thinking about the market. Only about the market.
"Aye, sir," answered the rank and file, as one, and Commander 4 spun sharply on its heel and walked away. Savita tightened her helmet, checked her stun gun for a charge, and followed her unit down the gangway to whatever was coming next.