Chapter 5:

The tragedy of the virtuous.


The chair was a cold piece of scrap metal, hammered into a flat shape for sitting. Wires and electrodes were pinned to her skin with medical tape, and a single red light shone into her left eye, carefully studying its every twitch.

The psychiatrist tapped her chin with the cap of her pen. It was decorative at best; all her notes were recorded via interface. Perhaps it’s just something to fidget with, Jin mused. Or perhaps it was just there to lend an air of professionalism.

“Let’s go over it again,” said the psychiatrist.

“Must we?”

“We must.”

Jin closed her eyes. “Sir Dimitri Faust was trialled and found guilty of high treason and being a traitor to humanity. He was sentenced to execution on June 4th 2086, and first rank Runner Jin Yurinhalt was assigned to escort him from the premises of Eustachia prison to the grand chambers. At 3:17 am, a yet unidentified post-war model homunculus infiltrated and– “

“There you go again,” the psychiatrist cut her off. “Ms Yurinhalt, you’re compartmentalising.”

“I…I’m sorry.”

“No no, don’t apologise. That’s what we’re here for. Just give it another go.”

Jin was silent for a while, reliving those memories. When she was ready, she began again. “I liked Faust.”


“Maybe ‘like’ is too strong a word, but it gets my feelings across. Maybe it’s the stress of being in a highly dangerous situation together, but I felt like I saw something in him by the end of it all.”

“Dimitri Faust killed millions.”

“I know. I know the weight of what he’s done and exactly why it’s irredeemable, but…when he looked into my eyes and told me he wanted to die, part of me felt relieved.”

The psychiatrist raised an eyebrow. The way her eyes flashed made it clear she was noting something on her interface. “Relieved?”

“That I wasn’t alone in the world,” Jin explained. “I’m not suicidal, I assure you, but I felt like I could relate to Faust. That he understood how I feel. He wasn’t apathetic, as much as maybe he wanted to be. He felt the compulsion in his heart, that little voice in the back of his head, forcing him to step into the fray and do what he did. He believes it’s the right thing to do, but he has no choice in it, and that drains him. Wore him out. By the end, he knew death was the only way to silence that voice. Perhaps that is the tragedy of the virtuous.”

“Is that why you wanted him to pledge the Lethe? You had a personal attachment to him?”

“I think so. He was the only person in the world to understand me, and I killed him.”

“Jin, please.”

“I killed as a soldier and I killed a Runner, but this was the first time I killed a man.”

“You didn’t kill him. Regardless of what happened that night, he would have died.”

“I know,” she confessed. “I keep thinking about the events and I know I didn’t pull the trigger, but I can’t help but feel like I did.”

“You did everything you could.”

“And I feel like I could’ve done more.”

“Futility is always better than apathy,” the psychiatrist quoted. “That’s what you always say, right?”

Jin rubbed her face, taking a deep breath. This therapy session was a formality, and a tiring one at that. The bureau couldn’t afford to lose more Runners, and if she really wanted to fake her results, she could. Her cyborg body let her control her heart rate, and both of them knew it. This whole ordeal was just another play in their grand societal theatre, another dance of etiquettes and decorum. They had their lines, and Jin always remembered hers.

“I just want to get back to work,” she said. “Please. Being out there, helping people, that feels normal to me. I want to feel normal.”

“It’s okay to not feel normal, especially after what happened.”

“I’m the Ashwalker. I’ll get over it.”

The psychiatrist eyed her for a moment. “How have you been sleeping?”

“You monitor my sleep,” said Jin. “You tell me.”

“Machines can only tell us so much. I want to hear it from you.”

“I slept fine.”

“No nightmares? No dreams?”

A good man spoke to me. A dead man. The words lingered in Jin, but she decided against it. She needed to get back to the bureau, not an asylum. If the dreams kept happening, she could always say so next time.

“I don’t remember my dreams,” she replied instead.

“Ms Yurinhalt. Jin.” The psychiatrist put her pen down and leaned forward in her seat. Her eyes flashed again. “I’ve worked in this field for a long time. All too often, it is the strongest Runners that have the most trouble admitting moments of weakness. If you just want the utilitarian argument, you’ll be better at helping people if you’re feeling better mentally.”

“Your job is to help me feel better. I am telling you I will feel better if I get back to work.”

The psychiatrist picked up her pen and twirled it idly in contemplation. After a deep sigh, she relented. “This is not the course I would usually recommend, but if you insist it’ll help then so be it. We’ll talk about this again for your next appointment.”

“Thank you.”

“I want you to know: you’re not alone, Jin.” She reached across the table to hold her hand. Her engagement ring caught the crimson light, colouring their hands red. “You have the bureau. You have me. You have Maria.”

“Yeah.” Jin’s hands tucked back into her lap. “Yeah, you’re right.”

The red light that shone into her eye shifted green. A window appeared on her interface. Runner Jin Yurinhalt declared fit for active duty.

The Runner’s Bureau headquarters was the crowning achievement of Brutalist architecture, a standing ovation to all things cold and uncompromising. The building itself was made up of masses of cubes, their blocky protrusions sticking out like tumours. Despite being built after the war, it seemed to be made of concrete, a material that hasn’t been in use for at least fifty years. Why it wasn’t made of carbon polymers like the rest of the city was a mystery, even amongst the most elite Runners. Most thought it was symbolic; a statement about either the importance of tradition, or perhaps to show the strength and solidarity of the organisation. Jin believed neither.

After the front steps, words were carved into the stone atop the entrance. “Omnia Subiecisti Sub Pedibus Oves Et Boves,” it read. Thou hast put all things under his feet, all Sheep and Oxen.

Inside, the headquarters smelled of stale coffee and sweat. The lights were always just a little too bright, the copper desks slightly uncomfortable, but this morning it was familiar. And for Jin Yurinhalt, after everything that had happened, it was exactly what she needed. Sitting there, in the cold, damp briefing room, listening to the morning mission report, she was content.

“We have termed the new post-war model the Palisade Model,” the Princep continued. The hologram display showed the creature’s corpse on an operating table. “From Doctor Cordis’s autopsy, we discovered that the Palisade Model contained a serous membrane underneath its skin that secreted a non-Newtonian fluid. This makes the creature not only highly resistant to firearms and explosives, but also protects the homunculus’s organs from the shockwaves.

“With this unexpected jump in homunculi genetics, the bureau has resolved to accelerate progress on a new anti-homunculi weapon: the Leveret Project.”

Jin was reading along on her interface when she felt something graze the back of her head. She found a scrunched-up piece of plastic carefully placed in her hair.

“Psst,” someone whispered. “Colonel Yurinhalt.”

Jin glanced behind. “You can call me by my first name. We’re the same rank now.”

Chang formed a toothy grin. It was a stupid look on him, with his dreadlocks and bandaged nose. He knew it too. “Oh, Colonel. You couldn’t at least wait a week to give me sass?”

“I’m serious. You worked hard for this promotion. You deserve a little respect.”

“Not as much as the Ashwalker.”


“Colonel, Colonel, Colonel.”

“Would you like it if I kept calling you cadet?”

“By all means. That sort of relationship dynamic really gets me going.”

Jin rolled her eyes, sighing. “Cadet Chang,” she yielded. “Do you have something to say, soldier?”

“Just to congratulate you on killing the new homunculus by yourself. If they don’t promote you to Elite Rank after this, I’ll personally leave the bureau.”

“One homunculus is nothing praise-worthy.”

“One homunculus ended the war.” Chang scratched his chin. “Actually, I guess they didn’t promote you for that either.”

“That was different.”

“Doesn’t seem too different to me. The Palisade Model sounds tough as hell. I mean, non-Newtonian fluid? That’s a shitload of shielding paired with all that lightweight speed. I doubt even the Princep could pin it down without at least an Esper for back-up.”

Jin nodded along. There was no point in confirming or denying Chang’s suspicions, especially when he could figure out the truth himself. She had a feeling he’d catch on quickly, but wished he’d at least not draw it out like this.

“Actually, speaking of Espers.” Chang made a particularly mischievous grin. It was the same face he always made when he thought he was being cunning. “Wasn’t Dimitri Faust an Esper? Strangely lucky, don’t you–”

“Cadet Chang.” She tried to sound as condescending as possible, not that she thought he’d care. If anything, it’d only get him more excited. “If you have something to say, please just come out with it.”

“I think Faust helped you. I don’t know if you let him or the circumstances led to it, but I think he had a hand in stopping that attack regardless. I think that’s related to why he was executed two hours earlier than scheduled.”

“All the details of the Eustachia encounter are accessible in the Runner archives.”

“Where’s your sense of imagination, Colonel?”

“You’re first rank now,” said Jin. “If you’d rather stay in your own little world, you should’ve stayed second rank.”

“C’mon, just humour me. I’m just talking hypothetically. Hypothetically, I’ve got a point. It makes sense.”

“The homunculus was there to rescue Faust. Why would he help me fight it off?”

“I won’t lie, that’s the part I’m struggling with. What kind of man wants to get fucked over by death so badly? Did he think he could get a pardon or something for good behaviour?”

“As I said, Cadet Chang, you’re making shit up.” Jin tapped the desk idly. Her eyes flickered back to the Princep, who was finishing up her presentation. “Who’s Faust to you, anyhow? You’re awfully interested in a terrorist.”

“It’s one of the few memories they let me keep, though I can’t remember the exact details. I must’ve been in grade school or something. Faust came down to speak to us, back when he was still just a scientist. He gave this big speech about how amazing homunculi are, all the amazing shit they were capable of. Must’ve been persuasive ‘cause I remember I stopped eating synthetic meat for a while.”

“You were a believer of his?”

“I guess so,” Chang laughed. “I had all his books. Even wanted to become a scientist when I grew up. Then he went batshit crazy, and the rest’s history.”

“So not anymore."

“Nah. I kept going for a while, but there’s only so much sway you have on your diet when you’re ten.” As the Princep gave her concluding words, there was a drone of Runners getting out of their seats, chatting amongst themselves. Chang raised his voice to be heard over the murmur. “Then, after I got conscripted, you kinda just have to eat what they give you. Eventually, I just…stopped caring.”

She studied him for a moment. He spoke so brazenly, with all the vigour and recklessness of youth. With such unbridled, inquisitive curiosity, it was not hard to imagine why he pledged the Lethe. The only mystery was why he kept it even after drinking from the river.

Without thinking, Jin turned off her interface. Then, the words slipped out of her. “Hypothetically, and I do mean hypothetically, if you were right, what then?”

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s say you were right. For whatever reason, Dimitri Faust assisted me in defeating the homunculus.” Her eyes dashed around. The briefing room was too empty for anyone to overhear. “For whatever reason, he threw away his chance of escape and saved my life. Would such an act not usually guarantee one the right to pledge the Lethe?”


“But Dimitri Faust died.” The words kept coming. She was barely aware of what she was saying. “He was executed. Not in the grand chambers, as was protocol and as was customary. He was executed in the halls of a prison, his blood drenching the floor and colouring the walls.”

Chang just stared back at her, wordless. That sly grin was nowhere to be seen.

“Hypothetically,” said Jin. “If this was all true, what then? What would you do? Leave the bureau? Rebel and become a fugitive?”

“I…” He had no answer. The air itself seemed to choke him, emptying him of a response. When finally he did reply, it was nothing clever or guileful. “I would do nothing.”

Jin closed her eyes. The voices around them were fading. “Nothing,” she repeated. 

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