Gesture For The Bereaved

A furry appendage tickled Saajan’s ear.

“Nanba.” Saajan scratched his mustache. “Three seconds to get off my eyes.”

Another tickle.

“Three.” Saajan shook his blanket off. “Two.” 

Nanba moved forward, dragging his belly on Saajan’s face. The cat curled up between Saajan’s pillow and the burnished metal wall. Blue eyes blinked slowly at Saajan as the soldier sat up.

“Good morning to you too.” Saajan rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. “Bastard.”

A low chiming rang from his bedside shelf. He twisted and saw a partially transparent, pink apparition shimmer into existence on the metal surface. “You are late.” 

“For what, Avi?” Saajan hopped off the bed and began folding his blanket. Instead of placing it at the foot end of his mattress, as per regulations, he tossed it onto the cat. He meowed.

“We’ve landed on Svarga-9,” The ship’s AI said. “Colonel Rahim is waiting for you on the bridge.” 

Saajan grunted and slapped the door controls on the wall without looking. The sliding door hissed open a moment later and he stepped out of his cramped quarters. The harried soldiers in the hall looked like ants scrambling over a destroyed nest. 

“Lieutenant!” An irreverent voice chirped.

“Recruit.” Saajan nodded at the woman who had stopped. 

Ruhi Velu smoothed a wrinkle on Saajan’s shirt as he tucked it in his pants. When she stretched to comb his hair with her fingers, Saajan caught her hand. “What do you want?” 

Ruhi bit her lip to keep the affront from expressing itself in her eyes. “Colonel Rahim wants you on the bridge.” 

Saajan stepped around the squat soldier. “Sending Avi wasn’t enough for her?”

Ruhi took two steps for one of his. “You’re lucky she didn’t drag you up there by your ‘stache.”



“Lieutenant,” Saajan said. “Not Saajan. Not Saaj. Am I clear, Recruit?”

“Clear as Avi’s ass, Lieutenant Kohli,” Ruhi muttered. 

Ruhi sped her pace up, taking four steps for one of his. Her standard-issue boots stomped the floor while his remained light and lithe. The walk to the bridge was rapid enough to drive the drowsiness from Saajan’s limbs, hormones and heart rate bringing his mind to full function. 

Avi, watching from the ship’s cameras, preceded them and opened the bridge doors quickly enough for their speed to remain unbroken. The bridge was a three tiered mass of monitors and controls, split in the middle by a ramp that leveled out into a viewing platform bordering a massive window. Colonel Zoya Rahim was standing in front of it, her shoes toeing the window’s base. Her hands, likely clenched into fists, were shoved into her pockets. She turned her head slightly to the left to acknowledge their arrival but continued to watch the docking procedures being carried out by the bay drones.

Zoya cleared her throat. “Your little acts of rebellion are more annoying than effective, Lieutenant.”

Saajan joined her at the window while Ruhi remained by the ramp. A dozen bay drones were scanning the ship’s window for damages. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Colonel.” 

“Right,” Zoya said. Her glare was reigned in and her sharp features settled into a level regard. “You will greet Devi and relay to them why we’re here on such short notice.”

Saajan’s lips curled with the beginnings of a sneer.

“Take Ruhi with you.”

Saajan wondered why but didn’t voice it. “Yes, Colonel.”

“You have one hour,” Zoya said. “Shower, put on your damn uniform, and present like an officer.” 

“Yes, Colonel.”

The bay’s blast doors rumbled open, letting in Svarga-9’s unfiltered air and light. The former moon had been terraformed to mostly resemble Earth-1 in climate. Ruhi took advantage of Svarga-9’s slightly lower gravity to jump onto the truck bed. She sat down, leaning against the side. Her short fingers drummed the outside.

“Figured you’d want shotgun, Lieutenant,” Ruhi said. She had been putting unnecessary emphasis on his rank, replacing the playfulness of her irreverence with dry dismissal. 

Saajan quietly got into the passenger seat of the truck and nodded to the driver. They set off, squinting against the bright light of the sun until they grew used to it. Acres of land surrounding the docking bay was nothing but concrete and asphalt. Then, it transformed into farms with homes. The houses resembled the architecture of Pre-Diaspora Indian homes of various time periods. Whatever time period the owner wished for. It often clashed with the chosen crops of the farms surrounding the homes. But it didn’t matter. None of the crops were used for anything more than aesthetics.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

“Not this one,” Saajan said as the driver slowed. A dirt path led off the paved road and ended at the base of a banyan tree.

“Next one is in the city, sir.”

“That’s fine.” Saajan stared at all the empty homes and their stupid crops. “Keep going.”

Tap. Tappity. Tap.

“Yes, sir.” 

The homes began to pop up closer and closer together, looking simpler and simpler, as they entered the shadows of the city. Towering apartments of austere concrete, differentiated only by the numbers and letters above their doors.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

The city was as silent as the surrounding farms. All of Svarga-9 was. Even when it had visitors paying respect to their families, the moon only knew the choked murmur of a funeral home. 

Tap. Tappity. Tap.

Saajan slid the partition open with a ferocity that caused the plastic to clatter. “What?!”

“Just wanted you to open this, Lieutenant.” Ruhi grinned. “It’s lonely back here, Lieutenant.” 

“We’re almost there.” The driver glanced at the rearview mirror. “Another ten minutes. Devi’s banyans are all over the place. Even in the parts of the moon that don’t have buildings yet. Devi-”

“Mala.” Saajan spat.


“They’re called Mala,” Saajan said. “Not Devi. They’re a damn sentry AI with mecha they can puppet. Not a goddess.”

“Respectfully, sir,” The driver said tensely. “They’re more than that. They watch over us.”

“You just described a sentry,” Saajan said.

“No he didn’t.” Ruhi had her face against the gap now. “Watching over us isn’t the same as guarding us. Ones more benevolent, Lieutenant.” 

Saajan didn’t respond, choosing to stare at the silent buildings instead. Unmindful of benevolence, just like their tenants.

They arrived at a park lush with grass, flowers, and benches to sit on and bask. In the middle of it, was a banyan tree. It was more wide than tall, its full branches stretching over and covering the majority of the park. The tree’s aerial roots pulsed with a soft green light that banished darkness and shadows from under the tree.

Before Saajan entered the park, he was stopped by a shout from the driver. “What now?”

“Shoes off, Lieutenant.” 

“They stay on.” Saajan continued into the light.

Ruhi left her boots and socks in the truck bed.

They stopped a few feet from the trunk. A naked six-armed figure, arms crossed over its pecs and stomach, was embedded into the tree. Its groin was smooth. Its skin was a shade darker than the banyan’s grayish brown bark. It wore gold cuff bracelets on its arms, three each, and on its head was a cone shaped, silver crown that seemed to grow out of its thick black hair. Its eyes were large and shut above round cheeks and astride a proud aquiline nose. Its left nostril was pierced with an emerald stud.

The figure’s full lips parted and it smiled with the opening of its eyes. They were a dark, homely brown.

“Welcome to Svarga-9. I am the columbarium’s warden, Mala.” Their voice resonated with warmth.

“I’m Lieutenant Saajan Kohli,” Saajan said. “She’s Ruhi Velu. A recruit.”

Ruhi pressed her palms together reverently.

Mala stepped out of their slot in the banyan tree and dropped their arms. The roots switched to a pale blue glow. Standing at their full height, Mala’s head came to Saajan’s chin. “It is not often that I am towered over, Lieutenant.”

“Get used to it,” Saajan said.

“I look forward to that.” Mala smiled. “Now. Please tell me why this moon has been closed to visitors. I do not like seeing people being kept from their families.”

“Three sepulcher satellites and the mausoleum Hamayi-2 were attacked in the neighboring system,” Saajan answered. “We have received word that one ship, the one that took the satellites, is coming here.” 

“Attacked, Lieutenant?” Mala cocked their head. “For what purpose? Resources?”

“We don’t know,” Saajan said. “Only that they were all desecrated. Usable resources, such as Hamayi-2’s vast quarries, were left untouched. Only the tombs.”

Five of Mala’s fists clenched while their upper left hand covered their mouth. “The dead? What happened to the dead?”

“Most are gone.”

“Gone,” Mala repeated flatly. They took a deep breath that did nothing for their inorganic body. “I am glad you have all come to help, Lieutenant. I would not be enough. How large is the incoming army?” 

“We don’t know.” Sajaan frowned at the warden’s humanity. “Scouts were killed. We only know the Desecrator ship is the same size as ours.”

“Then let me revise my question,” Mala said. “How large is our army?”

“We are a single regiment.” 

“I hope 2,000 soldiers can protect the whole moon,” Mala said. “I only number 50 in this city.” 

“Svarga-9 is new,” Saajan said. “If the Desecrators are after the dead, they don’t have much to choose from here. This sector is the most populated. This is where they’re coming.”

“Your colonel will begin preparing the area for battle? When will the enemy arrive?” 

“She’s likely started. We don’t know when they’re coming but we will detect them in time.”

“I am grateful.” Mala bowed their head. “As is my flock.”

Saajan scoffed. “That’s all then? We’ll head back to the ship.”

“Hold on, Lieutenant.” Mala placed a hand on Saajan’s arm. “Ms. Velu may wish to pay respect to her family. My index indicates multiple families with the surname Velu.”

“They…” Ruhi glanced at Saajan. “Yeah.” 

“I shall escort you.”

“Thank you.” Ruhi nodded. “Uhm…Saaj- Lieutenant. Do you. Maybe-”

Saajan’s eyebrows furrowed and he went rigid. “No.”

“Okay!” Ruhi flinched.

“Have your driver return to this banyan, Lieutenant,” Mala said. “Ms. Velu will come here after her visit.”

Saajan left with hunched shoulders.

Mala motioned their three right hands to the corresponding direction. “Only two blocks down from here.”

Ruhi cried out as her foot touched the pavement. “Oh shit!” 

“What’s wrong?” 

“I left my boots in the truck.”

Mala smiled, amused. “I can carry you. Or I can retrieve your boots from the truck. I am quite fast.”

Ruhi laughed and jiggled her stomach with a clenched hand. “Strong enough to carry me?” 

“You would weigh as nothing to me.”

“It’s fine.” Ruhi shook her head. “I have to be barefoot to say hi to my parents anyway. And these streets are unreal.”

“My drones keep everything clean, yes.” Mala resumed walking, leading the way while remaining at Ruhi’s side.

Aside from the street and sidewalk being clean enough to eat off of, the city looked completely normal. It did not feel, sound, or smell normal. There were no rumbling transports that shook the ground, jostling limbs that jabbed into places, hawkers yelling about their completely legitimate wares, jumbled conversations, drunk exhales, waste mixing with seductive smells of restaurants… Nothing. Just the shell.

Mala stopped at a building that looked no different from the others. “This is it.”

Ruhi looked past her reflection in the glass door, into the sterile lobby. Two hallways branched off it, to the left and to the right. The far wall was a bank of elevators. Mala unlocked the door and Ruhi paused with her hand on the handle.

“What is wrong, Ms. Velu?”

“I wanted to get them a better place,” Ruhi said softly, eyes averted in shame. “Nothing extravagant. Saajan and I didn’t have the money. But we could have gotten them a plot of land and a small house. And then when Saaj and I… Nevermind.” Ruhi shoved the door open and headed for the elevators. “What floor?”

“Third floor. Left once you exit the elevator. Their homes will be glowing a warm yellow in anticipation.”

Ruhi stepped into an elevator, keeping it open with her hand. “Aren’t you coming?”

“Visitors often like to be alone with their families.”

“I want company,” Ruhi said. “Please?”

Mala entered the elevator. “There is no need to say please, Ms. Velu.”

“Call me Ruhi.”


On the third floor, they went left. They passed multiple hallways before they got to one that was glowing. They turned into that one and the yellow light dimmed into a standard white. A spot at the end began glowing instead.

This hallway, like the others, had square cubbies in its walls. Most had urns in them. Empty cubbies bordering one with an urn had been reserved for family that hadn’t arrived yet.

“Hi, Amma. Hi, Mom,” Ruhi said to the two glowing urns that had two empty cubbies between them. “Just visiting right now. Not moving in yet.” She laughed awkwardly. “Uhm… Saaj is busy. That’s why he didn’t come. I promise he wanted to! Some alien freaks are going to attack this place so he’s working to protect you. And everyone else. So please don’t be hurt. He’s busy.”

Ruhi fidgeted with her thumbs.

“Visitors often give their families updates,” Mala said softly. “New loves. Changes in life goals and dreams.”

“Okay. Uhm.” Ruhi scratched her head. “I enlisted. As you can probably tell by my hair and uniform. After you two died. I… didn’t have anywhere else to go. Saaj wasn’t too thrilled by it when he found out. I’d been lying until I got put in his regiment. The face he made when he saw me…” Ruhi faltered for a moment before continuing with a poorly contained quiver in her tone. “Don’t be upset with him. He’s having a really hard time right now. Banu, his husband you never met, died. On Hamayi-2. Or we think he’s dead. We don’t know. He’s a soldier too. Was one. Is. I– Anyway, Saajan is upset. And he’s being a real dick.” Ruhi choked from laughing and sobbing at once. “I’ll be patient, Amma. Like you’d tell me to. But if he takes too long I’m gonna smack him. As hard as you would, Mom. Then I… Oh… I don’t know. I don’t know. What are we gonna…”

Ruhi sat down, hard, and wrapped her arms around her knees. Hot tears blotted her pants.

After a moment, Mala spoke, “Would you like me to hold you, Ruhi?” 

She nodded into her arms.

The warden of ashes knelt and wrapped all six of their arms around the weeping soldier.

Three days later, after sunset, Ruhi came to the banyan closest to the docking bay. She was holding a crate that occasionally purred. “Mala?”

The warden left the trunk and stood amidst a pile of fruits, garlands, bouquets, and photographs. Mala looked at the offerings and smiled, taking care to not step on any of them as they approached Ruhi. 

“You wish to see your parents? It would be easier to meet me at the other banyan.”

Ruhi blushed, grateful for her dark cheeks. “I came to see you.”

“How wonderful.” Mala’s smile widened. “Do you have an offering for me as well?”

“Sort of.” Ruhi held up the meowing crate. “But first. What are you going to do with all this?”

“I keep all offerings that do not naturally decay. The rest is composted.”


“I am honored that visitors think so highly of me.”

“Ah. I see. Well I brought you something that you can have a little fun with. You can’t keep him though!” Ruhi set the crate down and opened it. A brown cat stuck his head out. He sped out after noticing Ruhi, curling in and around her legs. “This is Nanba! Saajan’s cat.”

“He is beautiful.” Mala knelt and patted their lap with two of their hands. “Does Lieutenant Kohli know that Nanba is here?” 

“No and he doesn’t have to.”

“I can keep a secret,” Mala said. Nanba sniffed one of Mala’s hands and hopped onto the warden’s lap. He promptly curled up against Mala’s long torso and shut his eyes. “That was fast.”

“He’s a friend to everyone. Hence his name.” Ruhi sat beside Mala. She watched them slowly stroke Nanba’s back.

Both ignored the clamor of the city’s defenses being set up. Turrets, mines coded to human biometrics for their safety, barricades, triages… a lot. It was a lot of noise and a lot of information and Ruhi wanted nothing to do with it. She pitied Saajan for not having the option to run away like her, even momentarily.

“I have been Svarga-9’s warden since its creation ten years ago. Not once has someone brought me a friend to hold.”

“I wanted to stand out.”

Mala’s eyes widened curiously. “Why?”

“N-No special reason. Just did,” Ruhi stammered. “Are you different from the first columbarium’s Mala?”

Mala frowned at the topic change but decided to humor the question. “I used to be the same. I was their copy, after all. But we were created to change with experience. As life does.”

“You’re different then”

“Lankai Mala and Svarga-9 Mala can be thought of as twins,” Mala said, stroking Nanba while looking at him. “Start the same. Blossom differently.”

“Cool. Cool cool,” Ruhi said. “Do you two talk?”

“They are in a different system, making communication expensive. It is not always permitted.” Mala’s content smile faded. “Also Lankai Mala is quite busy. Their flock is vast compared to mine.”

Ruhi covered one of Mala’s hands with one of her own. “Do you miss them? You sound lonely.”

Mala lowered an arm and enclosed Ruhi’s hand. “I do. I am.”

“I can’t believe how human you sound..” Ruhi breathed. “Not like a goddess at all. Not that you ever were. But we treat you like… whatever. You know what I’m getting at.”

“We were made in your image. The worship came after.” 

“Our image? Mala, the folds you see when I sit down is my fat. Not arms I’m hiding away.” 

“A reflection of your minds, hearts, and souls,” Mala amended with a chuckle.

“But not the worst of us.” 

“In theory, it’s possible for experiences to change me. However, there are safeguards to prevent me from becoming…”

“A serial killer?”


“Well. If you’re ever so lonely you want to kill the next human you see and keep their corpse for company,” Ruhi said. “Give me a call. I’m not as busy as a warden. I’m posted to this system so you’ll be able to reach me easily. Without expense.”

“I would like that.” Mala squeezed Ruhi’s hand. “Ms. Velu.”

“I told you to call me Ruhi!”

“I was struck with the urge to mildly upset you. Strange.”

Ruhi blushed. Again. “Weird.”

Saajan stood just inside his tent. When Ruhi didn’t seem to notice him, he slapped his hand against the tent’s flap. She jumped and dropped the crate. Nanba sprinted away from her and crouched in a corner.

“Stealing my cat four other times wasn’t enough for you?” Saajan asked.

“You knew?”

Saajan rolled his eyes. “He’s chipped!”

“Smart idea, Lieutenant.”

Saajan sat on his cot. “You going to see Mala again?”


“Ruhi…” Saajan pinched the bridge of his nose. “Mala is a hyper-intelligent AI with hundreds of physical bodies it can manifest in. At once, if it has the ener-”


“They.” Saajan acquiesced. “They’re not meant for anything but being a sentry.”

“And you’re the expert, Saajan?” Ruhi snapped. “Sorry. Lieutenant Kohli.

“I don’t want you getting hurt!”

Ruhi stared at him. Shocked.

“Really? Are you really sure of that?!” Ruhi eventually screamed. She picked up the crate and threw it at him. 

Saajan caught it. “What the hell, Ruhi?!”

“You don’t want me to get hurt?” Ruhi asked. “Why? So you can be the only one that does it? Fuck you, Lieutenant.”

She stormed out of the tent. Saajan went after her, shoving aside anyone in his way. “Ruhi!”

He had almost caught up to her when alarms began blaring. He grabbed her by the elbow and jerked her around to face him.

“Go to your unit and await orders,” Saajan roared over the blaring. “Now!”

She smothered her anger and listened. Saajan watched Ruhi for a brief second before sprinting to the command tent. Avi was standing on top of the table, speaking with Colonel Zoya’s voice as she casted from the ship.

“Our rearguard have spotted the Desecrator ship but we still have time!” Colonel Zoya yelled to her officers. “It’s the Thryll.”

The tent was silent save for the panting of Saajan and other officers that had come running. The Thryll were humanity’s first enemy when they made it to the stars. One they had defeated. 

“Scans indicate that the ship’s fuel consumption puts their fighting force at four thousand,” Zoya continued. “But hardly any life forms. I’ve commanded the rearguard to board the Thryll ship once they receive my command. If the Thryll only number in the dozens, the rearguard and I will be enough.”

“We could be facing war machines. They don’t show up on scans,” Saajan said. 

“We’re ready for the alien fucks regardless of what they bring,” Lieutenant Swami said.

“We’re all alien fucks,” Zoya said. “Protect this columbar-Oh Narayana they’re here! Where the fuck did they come from?! Drop ships, soldiers! Prepare for-”

Avi disappeared as the link was cut.

“Drop ships?” Lieutenant Swami frowned. “Those haven’t been used in decades. Fatalities are too high-”

Explosions and their subsequent concussive waves shook the tent and deafened them. Some of the officers fell to the floor; Saajan bruised his stomach by stumbling against the corner of the table.

“Posts! Now!” Saajan screamed as he unstrapped his pulse rifle. “Go!”

The city had four entry points that had been blockaded. As Saajan ran to the closest blockade, he saw flaming pods plummeting to the moon, puncturing the blue sky with smoke and flame. Most were landing in the farmland outside the city, but some were demolishing buildings with their arrival. Saajan tripped as a building a block away was hit and he cursed the enemy inside to a painful death.

“Some of the mines have been destroyed by pods, sir!” Corporal Reddy bellowed over the onslaught as Saajan ascended the blockade. “But it’ll start raining Thryll blood the second the lizards step out of those pods!”

“Those tiny pods couldn’t hold two Thryll.” Saajan frowned. Wanting to get a closer look, he flicked his rifle’s scope up and squinted through it. “Or even three war machines. What the hell is in…”

The pod doors began hissing open. 

“Sights!” Saajan commanded. “Fire on my call.”

It was impossible to see amidst the flames, smoke, and disturbed dust but Saajan didn’t relent. Eventually, as his heart beat in his ears, he caught sight of a shape slump out of a pod. It fell to the ground, looking like it was missing an arm. Then it lurched up into a standing position, revealing that it was wearing standard issue armor.

“Shiva save us…” A soldier hissed. “That’s a human!” 

“A human wouldn’t be standing after losing an arm.” A different soldier argued. “It just looks like a-”

“Quiet!” Saajan rasped. “Watch!”

The soldiers waited with bated breath as it, and many of its brethren, began shambling out of pods and over the farmland. Over burnt grass, flowers, razed crops, and mines.

“The mines aren’t going off! Humans! They’re god-damned humans!”


“Not traitors!” Corporal Reddy raised her voice. “Look at how many of them are injured! They’re missing arms and legs!”

The tombs. The Thryll raided the tombs. Saajan shivered with fury at humanity’s naivete. Their stupidity. “The Thryll have found a way to bring the dead back.” Saajan took the second safety off. “Corporal Reddy!”


“Emergency broadcast to high command. The Thryll have reanimated human corpses. We’re fighting our own here,” Saajan said. “Other graveplanets need to be warned. Go! Now! We can send updates as we get them but they need this now!”

Reddy ran to do as she was ordered.

“They’re in range, Lieutenant!”


Ruhi, her rifle forgotten where it had been dropped, dragged two people toward a triage. Her foot caught on one of their arms and she fell, scraping a knee. She stood again, sobbing from the pain and terror, and continued to pull the deadweights.

“One’s dead!” A soldier guarding the entrance shouted. “Drop it now!”

“Wha…” Ruhi looked down at her charges. One was moaning. The other was missing half its body. “How?”

“Drop it and get inside!” The soldier ordered. “GO!”

Ruhi dropped the mangled corpse. She quickly made it into the building, boots sticking to the drying blood and vomit on the floor. Two Malas arrived. One took the dying soldier from Ruhi and the other wrapped three arms around her. They led her to an empty cot to sit on.

“No…” Ruhi whimpered. “There’s…More…”

“You are injured, Ruhi,” Mala said. “Nothing serious. Simple cuts that I can bandage.”

“Gun…” Ruhi patted her sidearm’s holster. “Where?”

“You must have dropped it along with your rifle, Ruhi.” Mala stretched Ruhi’s eyes open to check them while their other hands busied themselves with putting bandages on her. “You’re a little dazed but you’re not in shock.”

“Shock…?” Ruhi looked at Mala. The kind face that had quickly grown familiar. “No shock. Can’t join if you can’t handle a little firefight. A little death.” 

“You’re fighting the dead, Ruhi,” Mala said. “It’s okay if you’re upset.”

“I didn’t say I’m not!” Ruhi snapped. “No. Sorry. I… Sorry.”

“It’s fine. You’re angry.”

“Angry doesn’t cover it.” Ruhi shook. “These were people. With lives and dreams and they were finally at peace! And now they’re… they’re puppets! Puppets we have to destroy beyond recognition if we want to stop them!” Ruhi covered her face. “I saw one. Legs missing below the knees. Bullet holes everywhere. Dragging itself with one arm. I watched its head get chopped off and a second later it tried biting the person that did it. It couldn’t move. But the head was biting. Chomping the air until… Narayana I beg Your forgiveness, they bludgeoned the Reanimate’s head into a paste.”

Mala hugged her until Ruhi stopped crying.

“You can let go now,” Ruhi murmured. “I should go out again.”

“You can requisition a rifle and sidearm replacement on the second floor. We must take the stairs.”

They began climbing as the next round of pods began dropping. Ruhi had lost count.

Saajan caught sight of Ruhi entering one a triage as he ran from ten Reanimates. With one eye swollen shut, he could only see that she was well enough to walk. 

“Come here, Lieutenant!” Mala shouted from the end of the block. “Hurry!”

Saajan, lungs seconds from bursting, sprinted the last few yards. He was immediately taken into Mala’s arms. They lifted him and threw him over their shoulder.

“Where we going?” Saajan’s voice shook as he was jostled by Mala. He unclipped his sidearm and took shots at the Reanimates whenever the rhythm of Mala’s running allowed it. “Ruhi! Tell me how Ruhi is!”

“To your soldiers. Ruhi is fine. She is currently being informed of the incoming reinforcements.”

“They’re a fucking day away!”

“Hope is vital.”

“Why aren’t you fighting?!”

“I cannot fight humans.”

Mala pivoted into a street where bodies lined both sidewalks. They sprinted to the end of it and set Saajan down.

The Reanimates arrived, increasing their speed when they saw that Saajan was no longer running. When they were halfway to him, some of the bodies on the sidewalks leaped to their feet. The Reanimates were shot to pieces by the ensuing enfilade. The soldiers didn’t waste a second. They each ran in and began pummeling the heads with the butts of their rifles.

Mala averted their eyes. 

“Thank fuck for Corporal Reddy’s terror,” Saajan said dryly. The Reanimates’ only weakness had been discovered by chance when the corporal had dropped a cinder block on one out of desperation. “Good work, soldiers.”

Only one of them acknowledged it. The rest continued to stare at what they had done.

“Let’s keep moving!” Saajan clapped. “Trauma tomorrow! Action now!”

“Lieutenant Kohli-” Mala began.

“No, Mala,” Saajan said. “We have to keep moving. We can’t get caught up in what’s happening.”

“I urge you to look where I’m pointing.”

All of them followed Mala’s fingers. The dead soldiers on the sidewalks, the ones the living had been hiding amongst, were moving.

Saajan swore and ripped a communicator off a soldier’s belt and began shouting into it. “Our soldiers can be reanimated! I repeat, our soldiers can be reanimated!” Saajan shoved the communicator back to its owner. “Start hammering. All of you.”


“NOW!” Saajan bellowed. A pod landed a block away. “Ruhi!”

“It didn’t hit Ruhi’s build…” Mala started. But it was too late. Saajan was running. After all, she was in a triage.

“I’m sorry.” A soldier said as he swung. “I’m sorry.” He swung again. “I’m sorry.”


Except Ruhi, all the capable soldiers had descended upon their former companions upon hearing Saajan’s warning. The dead hadn’t started moving yet. 

“Narayana forgive us,” a different soldier said.

“Would that I could take this burden from you all,” Mala murmured. “But I cannot harm even dead humans.”

“Bless the one who decided we should burn our dead, eh?” A soldier, face flecked pink and red, attempted a joke.“No corpses here!” He cackled. “Just the ones we made today!”

As he grew more manic, he was led away. 

Ruhi watched him go.


She jolted into awareness and turned. “Saajan!”

“You’re okay,” Saajan shielded her from the rest of the room. He gripped her shoulders and looked her up and down, scanning for any major injuries. “We’re leaving.”


Saajan began dragging her.  “Docking bay. Less corpses.” 

Mala followed. “Your eye.”

“Shrapnel. I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll tend to it when we reach safety.”

“Never, then.”

“Do not abandon hope. Rescue is com-”

“Shut it, sentry.”

They ran in silence, Saajan keeping a grip on Ruhi’s arm the entire time. They altered their route whenever they spotted too many Reanimates. Sometimes they stumbled upon them accidentally – due to the Reanimates’ preternatural silence – and Saajan was forced to disable enough for the three to get away. But one group was too large.

“Shoot or die, recruit.”

Ruhi’s mind was far enough away for her body to listen to orders.

Kohli and Velu shot like war machines and smashed skulls like humans. Over and over. Until there were two left. 

Ruhi’s finger left the trigger. “Saajan.” 

“Almost done, Ruhi!”

“Saaj look.”

He did.

And saw his husband.

His disbelief smothered his grief. “Kill.”

Ruhi wept. “But-”

Saajan snarled and mauled the Reanimate he had been fighting. Then, he riddled the last with bullets. Then he bludgeoned his husband.

His ferocity terrified Ruhi and she screamed. “How could you do that?! That was-”

“A corpse! The dead don’t care, Ruhi! They don’t hate either! They can’t. They’re gone! All this? All this bullshit?! It’s not for them! It’s for the stupid, sentimental humans. We hold onto them and we don’t let go and we ruin ourselves because we think the dead still care. We bring false goddesses to life and worship them for guarding beings – no. Things. They guard things. Things that don’t care! Things that are now being used against us. Of course they are! Why wouldn’t they be?! Things are meant to be used! The Thryll don’t care for their dead. They’re right.

Ruhi sobbed, turning to Mala.

“You don’t mean that,” Mala said.


You shut it. You’re not like the Desecrators. Your apathy is fake. It’s a shield you hide behind so that you don’t grieve and feel anguish. You’re right, Lieutenant. The dead don’t care. But the living do. And I won’t allow you to disdain the love of billions due to your cowardice.” Mala held Ruhi and stretched their other arms to Saajan. “Be brave. Free your grief.”

The Lieutenant was silent for a long time, glaring at Mala while his rifle shook in his hands. Mala’s patient regard broke his control. Saajan fell to his knees, his husband’s name on his lips.

Unlike Hamayi-2 or the sepulcher satellites, the Reanimate numbers could not be quickly on Svarga-9. Ashes became the Desecrators’ defeat on the columbarium. 

Colonel Rahim’s regiment, now numbering 252, won the battle shortly before reinforcements arrived.

From the park banyan, Zoya watched Saajan bark orders. “His promotion separated him from Banu.”

Ruhi nodded.

Zoya sighed heavily. “After the doctors examine and clear us in a few months. We’re all being offered an honorable discharge.”

Ruhi’s jaw dropped. “Colonel?”

“Take the offer. Both of you.”

“But what about the other graveplanets?”

“A dire concern for humanity and our allies,” Zoya said. “But not one that two siblings will make a difference in. You’ve done enough.”

“And you haven’t?”

“How kind.” Zoya smiled crookedly around her new scar. “But I only fought Desecrators.”

“Oh…” Ruhi nodded. Her eyes hardened. “Make them pay, Colonel.”

“I plan to,” Zoya murmured. She limped away.

Mala approached after Zoya left the banyan’s light. “I was eavesdropping.”

Ruhi laughed. “I noticed.” 

“Where will you go?”

“Then I have a suggestion. Stay.” Mala smiled. “All three of you.”


“You, Nanba, and Saajan.”


“I like you and Nanba,” Mala said. “And you two like Saajan.”

“Is it even permitted?”

“I can make demands.”

Ruhi bit her lip. “I don’t know if Saaj will agree.”

“He’s acutely aware of how convincing I can be.”

As she had been doing often for the past two days, Ruhi recalled Saajan’s heaving sobs.

“Svarga-9’s silence will be good for him, Ruhi.”

Ruhi eventually nodded.“I’ll help you talk to him.”

“I have already begun.”

A second Mala was speaking to Saajan. The warden had Nanba in their arms. Saajan was scowling, his fists clenched.

Ruhi ran to stop him from punching a goddess.