Chapter 19:

I only wish that she can be happy.


Chang turned the bag upside down, and a pile of sparklers fell out onto the sand. Maria’s eyes widened, glittering like stars.

“Oh my god.” She rushed for a pack and tore it open. “This is fucking awesome!”

“Language, young lady!” Jin shouted from her fold-out chair. “I catch you again, we’re going straight home!”

“Sorry, mum!” Maria turned back to Chang. “Please tell me you bought the lighter.”

“Do I look like I’m new to this? I’ve been getting second-degree burns since I was five.” He reached into the pocket of his swimming trunks. He fumbled for a moment, then switched to his other pocket. The seconds ticked by. “Oh no.”

Maria looked like she was about to cry.

“Sike!” Chang held out a gas lighter, laughing. “Should’ve seen your face!”

She punched him in the arm. “Not funny.”

“Sorry, sorry. I couldn’t resist. But hey, how about I make it up to you.”


“When I was a kid, I got taught this absolutely amazing trick. First off, help me open these packs. Get me as many sparklers as you can.”

They spent a good few minutes opening the packages. Maria passed hers to Chang, and he would clump them together in a big bunch, tying them into a bundle with some electrical tape he had brought. Finally, when they had a bouquet so big that it was overflowing in Chang’s arms, Maria dug out a pit in the sand and they stuck it in.

Chang held the lighter as far away from him as he could as he lit one of the sparklers. As soon as it caught the embers, he bolted back to Maria. They hid behind a makeshift wall of sand and counted down the seconds.

“Chang!” Jin put down her book. “Chang, what are you doing–”

The resulting burst of flame ripped into the sunset with orange fury, and its crackle and fizz rang in their ears. All of the sparks almost merged in the sky, forming a gestalt of fluttering yellow, bright against the dusk. For just a few seconds, it seemed as if two suns beamed down at them.

“Fucking awesome,” she muttered.

“The colonel won’t like that,” Chang whispered.

Her hand moved to cover her mouth.

“Don’t worry,” he joked. “I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“But that really was cool.”

“Wasn’t it?”

“Yeah! Totally makes up for Mum not buying the Red Dragons. Who did you say taught you this?”

“My sis–” Chang stopped. A wave of ache flooded over him. He tried to wrestle down his quick breathing. Concrete walls. An empty lounge. A flower painting, barely recognisable. This isn’t your fault, she said.


Jin’s voice brought him back to reality. He felt the sand again; heard the waves crash on the shore.

“I’m sorry, colonel. A bit of sand got in my eye.”

She saw through that immediately. “Why don’t you take a break. Grab a drink. We’ll talk.”

“But Mum, we still have sparklers left!”

“Five minutes, dear. You two can keep playing after. How about you build a sand castle or something? Then we’ll build one too, and we’ll see who’s is better?”

Her face lit up again. Perhaps it was just a childish naivety, or a mature moment of empathy. Most likely, it was just a part of her programming. “Alright, you’ll regret giving me a heads-up!”

Jin took Chang’s hand and dragged him back. They sat down on the picnic blanket, watching Maria frantically mould pillars out of sand. She waited for him to speak first.

“Did you know?”

She nodded. “I watched you take the drink.”

“So during the war, I was Tang Lu Kai?”

“I knew you as Cadet Kai.”

“And Mei?”

“Colonel Mei.”

He turned to her. “She was the same rank as you?”

“Oh, she was the most talented soldier we had. She could’ve made Brigadier General if she really wanted to.”

“Why didn’t she?”

“Séquard said she got soft. Maybe that was true. She did end up founding the HLF. But, I think that wasn’t the only reason.” She met his glance. “Getting promoted would mean she’d get moved around to where the battlefield needed her. It wasn’t something she was interested in. I think she wanted to stay close to you.”

Chang pulled his knees close, burying his face into them. “What happened when I drank? In the last moments of Tang Lu Kai, what did he do?”

“You struggled. Fought back. I heard you even bit off a Runner’s ear. They had to tie you down when they did the procedure.”

“He was a fighter,” he said.

“You still are.”

“Maybe. But it means so very little at the end. It’s such a sad way to go. I pity him. Kai.”

Jin reached out. She placed her hand on his shoulder. A small bit of warmth. “You said her name, you know. In your last moments.”

Chang dug his face deeper and huddled tight. He started shivering, violently and uncontrollably.

“Chang?” When she leaned in closer, she saw that he was crying.

“Ever since I could remember, I thought I was alone. I had no one. No memories. Worst of all, I thought I deserved it. I wondered, how monstrous and vile must I have been in my past life that there is no one left in the world who wanted me.” His tears turned the yellow sand grey, drop by drop. “But now I know: I was loved.”

Jin pulled him into an awkward hug, sandy and uncomfortable. She wrapped her arms around him slowly, so he could move away if he wanted to. He didn’t. So they sat there, wordless, for the rest of their time.

“Hey!” Maria shouted, beaming proudly behind a scraggly-looking sandcastle. “You two better start building, or you’ll never beat me!”

Jin leaned back. “Just say the word and I’ll take us home.”

Chang rubbed away his tears. As best as he could, he put on a smile. A poor one, but he was trying. “Let’s show her who’s boss.”

Perhaps, humanity is best defined by noise, Jin remembered hearing once. We are a noisy species, and so much of what we do is just that. Night clubs, movie theatres, sport stadiums. We fill our heads with spastic rhythms and thoughtless lyrics because when we’re all alone, and the world turns quiet, our thoughts scream the loudest.

She held up the bottle of whiskey. It was an expensive purchase, one initially made out of celebration. The day she found out she was pregnant, she bought the priciest whiskey she could find, and locked it at the back of her pantry. She promised herself she wouldn’t take a sip of alcohol for the next nine months, but that her first drink after would be the whiskey. True to her word, the night she brought Maria home, she dug out the bottle and drank.

Jin didn’t touch the whiskey for a long time after that. When the war broke out and she took up cybernetics, her enhanced metabolism made getting buzzed, let alone drunk, impossible. It was a small price to pay for power, but she did always miss it.

The next time she drank was before Maria’s funeral.

Jin opened the bottle and poured herself a drink. She knocked her head back, and emptied the glass. Then, she poured herself another. And another. She knew it wouldn’t get her drunk. She didn’t care.

When there was only enough for one drink left, Jin sat back in her seat. The half-moon was bright tonight. Well, not the real moon, hidden behind the smog of the city. The digital projection that hung high below the clouds shone strong on the streets below. Its light reflected in the rim of her glass.

Her gaze shifted to the pistol on her table.

“It’s funny,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s universal, but in my culture, the reaper is a skeleton, wearing long black robes, with a scythe in his hand.”

Faust took a seat across her. “Sorry to disappoint. You want me to go change my clothes?”

“No, I prefer it like this. All of this started with you. It’s only fair it ends the same.”

“Oh? And what do you mean by end?”

She poured the last drink and slid it to him. “You know very well what it means.”

He held the glass. “So many make it to the edge of the building, but most don’t find the will to jump. But you have that will.”

“Is that supposed to be comforting?"

“It’s something I’ve always admired about you. You don’t just back out.” Faust glanced out the window, at the city lights. “But at the same time, it’s so nice tonight. Can this really not wait til tomorrow?”

“What’s the difference? I’ve seen all my yesterdays in every tomorrow. You, Betty, the Leveret. I became a soldier to save people. I became a Runner to save people. This…this is not saving people.”

“You’re alive, Jin. What is life but time? Time to try again.”

“Or time to fail again.” She looked down at her palms. “I’m tired, Faust. I want to rest. Please allow me that mercy.”

Faust laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“I said those exact words to you, at Eustachia.”

“And now you rest.”

“Rest?” he asked. “Jin, no moment in our lives echoes more than our last. Our deaths are our legacy. In mine, I have only immortalised my failure. I was executed, afraid and helpless. There’s no rest in that.”

“At least you don’t have to see the world perish around you. The people you try to save die before your eyes.”

“No,” Faust admitted. “But now I can only watch on from the afterlife, forever gazing at the horrors that I am helpless to change.”

“But they aren’t your fault. Not anymore. Your hands are clean from those horrors. Mine aren’t.”

“So that’s what this is.” Faust sipped the whiskey. “Your guilt speaks for you. Not reality.”


“So live.”

“What if tomorrow is worse?”

“It can’t. It won’t get worse than today.”


“Because I wouldn’t be here if this wasn’t your lowest point. And I won’t be here tomorrow. Tomorrow will be better, even if just slightly.”

Jin shook her head. “So my life will be days of shit and days of slightly less shit. Is that meant to be appealing?”

“It means even your suffering has its highs and lows. By the same metric, maybe this is just a moment of pain in a lifetime of happiness.”

The notion was so absurd, she couldn’t help but laugh out loud. “I have no family. No friends. My only daughter died in my arms and her ghost haunts me everyday. Now yours haunts me too. Would you call this a lifetime of happiness?”

“Our lives aren’t defined until they end. Just because the beginning has been tragedy, doesn’t mean that will be its finish. If you take that gun, your story would have always been a tragedy. If you don’t, there is still chance for a happy ending.”

“Happiness.” The word felt almost foreign on her tongue. “It has been seven years since I was happy, Faust. But looking back, was that really happiness? Or was it just self-deception?”

Jin picked up the pistol and aimed it up her chin. “When I walk the streets and I see people laughing and enjoying their lives, it’s because of ignorance. Not out of stupidity, but survival. Humans are empathetic creatures. In the face of all the unfairness of the world, the only way for us to not lose our minds is to be apathetic.”

Her finger rested on the trigger. It all seemed so easy. “On some level, to be happy is to ignore the suffering of others. To be happy is to be selfish. To be happy is to be evil.”

Faust’s answer came late, as if he had all the time in the world to ponder. Maybe he did. “Then do right.”

“Faust, I’ve tried to do right.”

“Do right by the Bureau. By the Federation. You’ve followed every definition of justice except your own. You cannot change the world if you remain tethered to it.”

Jin opened her mouth to reply, when a scream brought her out of it. Her head snapped to the door. Maria stood in her pajamas, eyes widened, half in confusion and half in fear.

“Mum,” she stuttered. “What are you doing?”

“Take her for example,” said Faust. “An android, designed to look and act like your daughter. You keep her around, talk to her, play with her, even though deep down it’s just a reminder of what you can never have. Why? Because you’d rather let the wound mold and fester than rip the band-aid off.”

“Mum…oh god.” She started to cry. “Mum, please.”

“You claim happiness comes at the cost of ignorance, and that is why you can never be happy. But then what is she to you, if not a denial of the truth?”

Jin stood. Finally, she saw some glimpse of sense in Faust’s words. A choice that wasn’t death or submission. For a moment, everything shone clear. For a moment, an option that she had never thought possible became apparent to her. Or maybe she had always known it, and she just never had the courage to take it. Until now.

She dropped the pistol and stepped towards the android.

“Mum, please, are you alright?”

Faust remained in his seat. “So, you’ve made your decision. Are you sure you won’t regret this?”


“You’re scaring me, Mum.” Its voice sounded so raw. Its tears seemed so genuine.

“Even if all the world hated you?” asked Faust.

“Even if all the world hated me.”

“Even if it means choosing the lesser evil?”


“Mum–” Its squeal was cut short. Jin slammed the android to the floor, its metal creaking from the impact. She wrapped her fingers around its neck and squeezed.

“I won’t compromise, Faust,” said Jin. “I won’t become like you, who sacrificed so much to gain so much less.”

The android flailed and writhed. It reached its arms to her face, clawing for some release; clawing, for its life, gasping and coughing.

“But I won’t become the Bureau either. I’ll find a way. A perfect world, where no one needs to suffer. I will forge paradise out of perdition. I will give everyone a happy ending. Even you.”

The android’s face was purple, its eyes bulging. Its limbs had long lost their strength to struggle, and all that was left was its lips, mouthing with whatever strength remained.

Its last word was a whisper. “Mum.”

“I’m not your mum,” said Jin.

It was long time ago, on one of the last days that Jin Yurinhalt would recall being happy. The sun was setting, as it had been hours ago, and the beach seemed like paradise. She and Maria had played on that sand, laughing and joking. Before they ever realised, it was dusk.

Such was the greatest, quietest tragedy of parenthood. To recognise in those eternal moments that her child was growing up too fast. To want so desperately to pause time so that she may savour every second they spent together and be proud. Because one day, and most parents never remember that day or expect it, she would realise her child had gotten too big to pick up. And eventually, without knowing it, they would have cradled their sons and daughters for the last time.

“Mum,” said Maria. The real Maria. No synthesiser or program could ever replicate the kindness of her voice. The gentle way she spoke.

Jin remembered taking off her sunglasses. “Yes, sweetheart?”

“When I was born, you said it hurt.”

“More than anything else.”

“More than needles?”

She laughed. “More than needles.”

“More than a sprained ankle?”

“Yes, dear. More than a sprained ankle.”

The girl tilted her head. “But you said that was the happiest day of your life.”

“Everyday with you has been,” said Jin.

“Even though it really really hurt?”

Because it really really hurt. The truest joy is that which is born of pain. Born of sacrifice.”

She fidgeted with the sand, picking up handfuls only to let them drain from her palm. “I don’t want to get hurt.”

“Nobody wants to get hurt, dear. Sometimes it’s just necessary.”

“No, that’s not what I meant.”


“Promise you won’t get mad?

Jin made a zipping motion along her lips. Maria leaned in close to one ear, and whispered, “I don’t want to have babies. Never.”

“Is that it?” Jin chuckled. “You don’t have to have babies. You can do whatever you want.”

“Really? You’re not mad?”

“Not even a bit.”

“Not even if you never get a thousand grandbabies?”

Jin kissed her on the cheek. “I will never be mad at you. So long as you are always willing to help people, I don’t mind what you do.”

“Oh. Is that it?”

“Maria,” she said. “That’s the hardest thing in life.”

“Okay then. I promise.”

Jin didn’t remember much of what happened the rest of the day. Maybe they played some more, maybe they went straight home, it didn’t matter. Her last memory that night was a thought. A prayer, though she wasn’t religious.

She doesn’t have to be a Runner or a doctor or anything. She doesn’t need to be successful. She doesn’t even need to like me. I only wish that she can grow old. I only wish that she can be happy. 

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