At the edge of his peripheral, Zāl sees the long expanse of a tunnel. There’s no end to it, only an ever-encroaching darkness—a mouth to a greater beast. An end of a voyage, a bridge that collapsed, a path to nowhere.
Zāl pushes himself to wakefulness—
—and is met with a bleak morning.
Zāl can hear the cluttering of pans from the kitchen above, the restaurant in the throes of early lunch—three hours into opening. It’s unfortunate, as Zāl now has to slink up the stairs guiltily and pass by his landlord. She’ll remind him that he’s late, to which he’ll reply with something along the lines that he’s already paid in advance. To which she’ll kindly, albeit sternly, remind him again that the year advance had finished two months ago.
Zāl, eyes glued to his ceiling fan, mulls this over for another ten minutes. Inevitability is something he knows intimately and yet; he shrinks away when his bare feet touch the cold tiled floor.
The bathroom lights refuse to turn on and since the kitchen is running hot, the shower water runs cold. It’s through the cracks of sunlight from halved windows that Zāl finds his reflection and manages to somewhat clean up and shave—even just by muscle memory alone. Slowly, as he’s toweling off his chin, Zāl’s fingers run along the underside of his jaw, just enough to feel the raised ink slither away from him.
By the time he’s neatly—somewhat neatly—dressed, it’s well into the afternoon. He plucks his sunglasses from the nightstand and slips them up the bridge of his nose as he creaks up the stairs. His landlord is waiting for him, her face twisted into disappointment.
“You’re late,” she says.
“I’ll have it soon,” Zāl provides with a casual smile. “From donations.”
“You’re always relying on donations,” the landlord says. “What happened to the boy from last year? Paying the whole year at once.”
“That boy had a really good job,” Zāl says. “Hope he’s doin’ well now, and all.”
“Maybe if he wasn’t wasting his credits on silly tattoos,” she replies, gesturing to the exposed ink near his collar. “He’d still have that very good job.”
Zāl smiles. “These are just birthmarks, Tata.”
She looks like she doesn’t believe him but shoos him off nonetheless, deciding to focus on the customers flowing in to order their meals. Zāl exits through the front door of Haseem’s Shawarma, giving one last goodbye wave before the door closes behind him with a chime.
Zāl’s destination is the Place of Worship—a temple that sits comfortably underground in a quiet section of Melos, long since abandoned by the Metropolis and a bit a ways from Helba and Haseem’s. The roads there are cracked and concaved, and with no proper vehicle, an impossible task to travel to. Thankfully, Zāl knows other means for the journey. Crosstone is rather unique, originally built for transportation between factories. Forgotten tunnels run through the entirety of the city. It’s only a simple matter of knowing the way in and knowing the way out.
Zāl walks a few more blocks south, turning into an alley and past the boutiques that litter Helba with a quaint atmosphere. He moves deeper and deeper into the alleyways, eventually hiding away from the commotion of the district. Liam is quietly waiting at the corner of another turn, idly folding newspapers.
“You’re late,” Liam says, hardly looking up from his work. He’s managed to fold the edges around a photograph for a clean rip around Jessica Lively—a famous opera singer whose discovered affair consumes the press.
“Happens to the best of us,” Zāl humors, bending low and procuring out a small plastic red card from his pocket. Liam wordlessly lifts up a small portable device towards it, waits for two verifying beeps and hides it back under his coat. “Is the path clear?”
“Melos is. There’s been activity heading towards Lokra.”
Zāl raises an eyebrow. “Anythin’ special?”
“Nothing that I know of.”
“Splendid,” Zāl grins, hoisting himself back up and pocketing the card with a lazy groan. “I’m off!”
Liam finishes his mission with Lively’s photograph before nodding Zāl a goodbye.
The tunnels are the industrial husk of the past, barely a reminder of what Crosstone was before becoming the cultural hub of the North. They seem to stretch on forever, hollow enough to carry a tune longer than anyone could travel. It’s maze-like, criss crossing paths like veins with no warnings. Zāl had gotten lost in them before, trapped beneath the surface for three days before finally crawling out in Helba, outside Haseem’s.
That was nearly five years ago. Things are different now.
Zāl follows winding tunnels with practiced ease, reaching the particular twist that exits into the main sewer system of Melos. When he turns the large metal wheel of the door and pushes it open, he’s greeted with the familiar smell of diesel. Like hot oil spilling into still water, fuel that just sits there and stews.
“Afternoon, Zāl! Awkward seeing you here this time of day!” Aliha calls, standing up from an old lawn chair she undoubtedly brought with her. There’s a wooden sign resting against it, GUIDE THROUGH THE TUNNELS—100 CREDITS in the same block letters that paint the entryway of the Place of Worship.
“It’s only a couple hours. Why is everyone raggin’ on me?”
Aliha grins. “I don’t mean it. It’s just odd. Wanna tour?”
Zāl frowns. “I showed you how these tunnels work, though?”
“And,” she sings, “I’m putting that newfound knowledge to good use. Aren’t you proud?”
“Yeah, great job. So, what’s my cut?”
The humor leaves Aliha’s face, her brown hair fluttering as she frantically shakes her head. “A cut?! That’s not fair, Zāl!”
“I’m kidding,” Zāl teases, hopping off the ledge and beelining for the ladder next to her. He doesn’t bother closing the metal door behind him. “But a dessert might be nice, I reckon. Heard your brother finally opened up that cake shop—”
“It’s an ice cream parlor, actually,” Aliha corrects, running up to catch up with him. “And I’ll be sure to put in a good word for you. He’s really popular now—the lines are extra long.”
“How long we talkin’?” Zāl asks, reaching up to pull the railing of the ladder down and propping himself up on the first step.
“All the way to Lokra,” she replies. She sounds proud.
“Damn, that’s long alright.” Zāl hauls himself up further.
“Fuck yeah it is!” Aliha calls. “See you later, Zāl!”
Zāl, upon reaching the top, pushes the lid off the sewer entrance and propels himself upward to crawl out. He shoots her a goodbye wave before covering the pothole once more, casting her into darkness.
Melos’ quiet streets greet him—the only sound coming from the birds that circle the junkyard not too far from where Zāl’s emerged, waiting for something dead to be thrown away.
Zāl walks a few blocks north, enjoying the silence, before reaching building 74, boarded up from a fire Zāl wasn’t around to witness. He passes by the unkept garden and swings into a sharp right to stand before the Place of Worship. The PRAYER WILL GUIDE YOU sign rests lifelessly above the door.
“I need to get you fixed,” Zāl mumbles—the sign and the radio downstairs. He’s already made the call to a repair shop; sure, it wouldn’t be that much extra to have whoever stops by examine the sign too. Two birds, one stone—money talks or whatever.
Zāl pulls the cellar door, sliding down the entrance with practiced ease and landing with a soft thud. A concrete stage awaits and Zāl hops onto it with one long stretch of his legs. He shuffles about until he finds a spot directly under the sunlight that seeps through the many large cracks in the concrete walls. When he does, Zāl scooches the radio closer to him and fiddles with the dials until he manages to find a station with the soft vocals of Lively. In honor or in mourning of her recent scandal with the doorman of her summer condo. Zāl doesn’t particularly care for her voice and the radio dial for volume control is broken, but the gentle whisper of singing fits the spring afternoon mood. Perfect to guide him to sleep.
Zāl gets comfortable—lets his shades fall up the bridge of his nose and cover his eyes. It’s now, in this afternoon, that Zāl can chase the dreams that elude him in the nights. The ones that manage to just be out of reach, down one of the endless tunnels of Crosstone. It’s dark, too dark for him to see and Zāl hasn’t learned to appreciate vast emptiness just yet. There’s a figure there, standing above him. It’s saying something to him but Zāl can’t understand it with the ringing in his ears. The small pool of water below him ripples and a pale hand reaches out—
There’s shuffling outside. Zāl’s mind wrenches itself away from the darkness, from the damp winding tunnels and back into his body, lazing on the concrete stage. He glances down at the prayer beads wrapped around his wrist, as if it were a watch, and wonders who would visit this place. The radio crackles beside him.
The repair shop Haseem had on his bulletin board, the number he had called yesterday. Zāl doesn’t bother to move from his comfortable position, assuming that whoever just arrived will eventually navigate their way down here. Instead, he turns his body to chase the last beams of light before the evening’s darkness. And just as he closes his eyes once more, a sharp chill runs along his spine, snapping him forward.
Curiously, Zāl glances towards the doorway of the basement temple. It’s unlatched and there’s an echo of someone making their way down the shabby ladder before they’re interrupted by a gasp. Soon, much to Zāl’s surprise, his guest comes tumbling down, falling inelegantly to the ground and exhaling a wheeze. The drop was only a couple of feet—not enough for serious concern—but something seizes Zāl with familiarity.
He calms himself.
“That was a helluva fall,” Zāl calls out, watching the dust settle.
The stranger eventually gets their bearings, composing themselves after a deep shuddering breath. When they glance up, Zāl is caught off guard by their appearance—hair in disarray and eyes intensely focused. They narrow in on Zāl as the only other person in the room.
A cut near their left eye, too perfect to have been from the fall. Light blood pools along their cheekbone, but the stranger, for a moment as enthralled with Zāl as he is with them, makes no move to wipe it away.
It takes a lot for Zāl to will himself once more to the present, peeling his eyes away and pushing the glasses up the bridge of his nose. He rights himself, facing the fallen stranger and smiles.
“What’s wrong?” he asks. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
The other frowns and says nothing in return, instead choosing to turn their attention back to the open doors above them, where the grey sky blocks the last remaining splinters of sun.
Zāl follows their gaze. “Whatcha lookin’ for?”
“Nothing,” the stranger replies after a minute of silence, shrugging off the dust around them as they stand up. They bring their arms up, working hard to hide a tremble, as they pull their goggles off and place it behind them in their pack. Only after do they turn their attention back to Zāl, who smiles in return immediately. “You ordered a repair ticket for a radio?”
“I did! Are ya the infamous Mike?”
“I see,” Zāl hums, watching Yeung make their way towards him and the stage. Probably a last name. “You seem a helluva lot younger than the voice on the phone.”
Yeung pays him no further mind and leans down to examine the soft singing hardware beside him.
“What’s wrong with it?” Yeung asks.
“Volume doesn’t work.”
Yeung’s frown deepens, clearly annoyed with the situation. They turn the radio around, making quick work of opening the back paneling. Despite its simple outward appearance, the machine is a complication of wires and circuits on the inside. Perhaps, Zāl jokingly thinks, a metaphor for the greater part of humanity. Yeung raises an eyebrow.
“You have more than a volume issue. The system appears to be fried. How old is this thing?”
Zāl shrugs. “Was here before I started. Can you fix it?”
“I’ll have to replace the whole system. We might have an old one at the warehouse. I’ll have to come back—”
“No need,” Zāl declares, pushing himself forward and using his momentum to stand up. He reaches past Yeung, the other immediately stepping away, and hoists the radio into his arms. The movement rides up his sleeves and Zāl catches the look Yeung casts at the exposed skin there. At the dark swirling ink. It is neither disgust nor approval—rather their expression sits firmly in the place of confused recognition.
“Like somethin’ you see?” Zāl teases, leaning forward slightly.
Yeung straightens, and much to their credit, remains professional. “What’re you doing?”
“Takin’ the radio.”
“To your warehouse,” Zāl says, feeling playful. Yeung is not amused.
“Why make two trips? It’s already gettin’ late. Lemme make your life easier. An apology for makin’ you come all this way.”
“It’s my job.”
“And I have no job, so we’ve got the time. Let’s go!”
Yeung looks unconvinced but Zāl is already at the ladder, fixing it somewhat and tucking the machine under one arm. He pulls himself up easily and turns around to see Yeung waiting below.
“It’s easier to pull you up than using the ladder, considering—well, we both know how that went for ya,” Zāl says, reaching a hand out. Yeung reaches back reflexively before stopping just shy of their fingers brushing. Instead, they shake their head and climb up on their own, brushing past Zāl when they reach the top. They don’t hesitate, pushing forward and making their way towards the road.
Zāl hurriedly picks up the radio and follows them along the beaten path, passing the boarded windows of 74 and towards what Zāl assumes is their bike. It’s red, faded in a way that feels loved, and hovering in place. Hot air releases from under it, causing the rubble under it to skip away.
“There’s not enough room,” Yeung says once they get close enough.
“Sure there is,” Zāl croons. “C’mon, don’t be shy.”
Yeung rubs their temple, brushing past the cut on their cheek for the first time. It seems to startle them, their fingers tracing it briefly and wincing.
“It’s been rather chilly lately, huh?” Zāl asks. A test.
Yeung doesn’t reply, settling themselves onto the red vehicle. They gesture for Zāl to follow them.
Zāl wastes no time, scrambling onto what’s left of the seat behind Yeung and tucking the radio between his chest and their back. Yeung rolls their shoulders—Zāl marks it as a nervous habit.
“Alright. Take us away, cap’n.”
“Your enthusiasm is draining. Settle down.”
“Shut up,” Yeung says, dropping any pretense of professionalism and revving the engine. It takes a few clicks to get the motors to hum but eventually they’re zipping down the streets of Melos. The fishing district of Arklo waits.
Lokra’s crowded evening streets interrupt their journey, and the police punctuate their screeching halt.
The cruiser is hovering behind them, stopping them in their tracks and dragging Zāl away from the beautiful daydream of dinner possibilities.
“This blows,” he mutters. “We weren’t even speedin’.” Zāl leans back to get a look at Yeung through the sideview mirrors of the bike. “You don’t look surprised.”
Yeung shrugs. “This happens an embarrassing amount.”
“I’m sensin’ a story.”
“Keep your mouth shut.”
“Kwong,” a man calls, stepping out of the police vehicle via small protruding steps. Zāl watches him closely, fascinated with how the cruiser recalls the stairs the moment the officer’s feet touch the ground. Though, the stranger doesn’t look like any police officer that Zāl has run into. He’s dressed in clean slacks and a beige coat that hung to their knees. No tie, just more beige under it.
“Kwong?” Zāl whispers, unable to stop the small smirk blooming. “Is that your name? Did you tell me your last name before?”
“I don’t even know your name at all,” Kwong harshly whispers back, turning their attention to the approaching officer. There’s another sense of familiarity in the air now, this time one that doesn’t include Zāl.
“Johan,” Yeung calls.
“Oh,” Zāl says. “Dramatic.”
Johan gleams right past him, eyes drawn squarely to Yeung and only them. He looks tired, shoulders hunched forward and hair in mild disarray.
“Kwong. I’ve been trying to reach you.”
“You know where I live,” Yeung replies, leaning back and falling into the radio and Zāl a bit, clearly having forgotten he was there. They quickly fix their posture.
“You’re never there. And you haven’t come in to pay any of the tickets.”
“I have plenty of time.”
“We need to talk.”
“We have nothing to say to each other.”
Johan looks uncertain, shifting their gaze questionably towards Zāl before continuing.
“What happened with Quinton—I know there’s something you’re not telling me. You need to come in—”
“Enough,” Yeung grunts, a harsh sound that even startles Zāl. They’re frustrated, their neck is red with anger.
“Kwong—” Johan starts.
“Is this a legal stop or somethin’? We’re workin’ here, dude,'' Zāl interrupts.
Johan startles, wide eyes turning to Yeung to respond rather than acknowledge the backseat driver.
After a moment, Yeung speaks. “He’s right. I’m on the clock. You’re holding me up.”
The officer’s expression falls before he takes a step back, seemingly accepting this is a lost cause.
“You have to come in eventually, Kwong.”
“Get a court order.”
“Ciao!” Zāl shouts and that signals Yeung to rev the engine once more, jolting them back above ground, hot air brushing against Zāl’s ankles. “Pleasure chattin’ with ya, copper!”
Yeung takes off, leaving Johan and his cruiser on the busy intersection of Lokra. Through the side view mirror, Zāl notices Yeung’s smiling.
They arrive at Mike’s Repairs just as someone’s closing up the warehouse. An older gentleman, dressed in a similar jumpsuit to Yeung, glances up from their place by the metal fence. Zāl notices the cigarette butts that litter the ground and the one hanging precariously from the man’s lips, nearly to the filter.
“There you fucking are,” he says to them as the bike touches the ground. “I was hoping you’d get back before we closed. I got shit to do too, you know.”
“Sorry, Mike,” Yeung says. “I was held up.”
Mike, as in Mike from Mike’s Repairs, shoots Zāl an unimpressed look as he slides off the bike behind Yeung. “We’re not hiring strays, Kwong.”
“He’s not here for a job. He’s here for his radio.”
Zāl lifts up the machine above his head sheepishly, giving Mike a dashing smile. Or he hopes it’s dashing. Mike spits the end of his smoke to the ground and stomps it out.
“Don’t care. Lock up when you’re done.”
“Thanks,” Yeung says, following Zāl off the bike, sliding smoothly to the ground. Yeung heads towards the side entrance of the warehouse, leaving a sliver of the door open for Zāl to slither through.
The Repair’s warehouse is huge. Having once been home to massive boats, now it’s littered with machinery and other modes of transportation. There’re large cruisers, parts to airships, a handful of motorcycles, all at a glance. It’s overwhelming and also incredibly boring, as Zāl has never developed an appreciation for the ever-advancing technology of Crosstone.
“How do you find anything in here?” Zāl asks after Yeung, following them deep within, until they reach a small wooden workbench.
“Everything is in its place. There’s a system,” Yeung provides. They gesture to put the radio down on the table beside them. Zāl does, careful not to throw any of the tools out of place that hang against the wall.
When he finishes, he looks to find that Yeung has already vanished into the clutter, leaving him stranded. “How do you know if anything’s missin’?” Zāl calls out, closing his eyes and listening. He takes a step forward, and then another, before turning left at the wingless aircraft.
“Mike will know,” Yeung replies, voice echoing. Zāl takes another left. “He has a knack for these things.”
“And you don’t?”
“I do too. It’s why I work here. Though, now I am starting to think he might have sold the radio.”
Zāl turns right, and then right again at the blue cruiser, its sunroof missing. “I’m sure you’ve got talent.”
“I wouldn’t jump that far.”
Right. Left. Straight ahead.
“A sense for things around you?”
“What are you implying?”
Zāl stops and waits. Yeung turns a corner and nearly runs into him, stumbling back and blinking owlishly. It’s obvious, he thinks. Yeung’s expression is clear, shocked that Zāl has managed to find them in this elaborate maze of a warehouse.
Zāl grins, baring his teeth.
“How long was its knife?”
Yeung takes a step back. “What?”
“The spirit huntin’ you,” Zāl says, like it makes perfect sense. Surprise turns into fear as Yeung begins to recognize what Zāl is alluding to. “How long was the knife?”
“How do you know that?”
Zāl rubs the beads wrapped around his wrist. He bends his head low so his shades slide down the bridge of his nose. Pale blue eyes meet Yeung’s brown ones and Zāl’s grin increases tenfold.
“Have you ever tried shawarma?"
Haseem, the husband of Zāl’s landlord, is unhappy to see him.
The restaurant is emptying out for the night, the moon hanging high in the starless sky. The crowd has moved from the diners and coffeehouses of Helba to the bars and nightlife of Melos. The majority of the staff have gone home for the evening. Zāl is sure his landlord is tucked into bed.
Haseem, on the other hand, despite his disgruntled mood, insists on feeding him and his guest.
“So,” Yeung says after a while, the food rapidly cooling in front of them. All the lights have been switched off except for the neon menus that litter their windows and the streetlights bleeding in. It provides enough for them to see one another in their booth and Zāl finds the darkness to be in his element. “Shawarma is just a thin piece of meat? It looks like ribbons.”
“You usually eat it in a sandwich but Haseem’s outta bread.”
“It’s not bad.”
“I’m glad. If you didn’t like it, it woulda made workin’ together real awkward around lunch time.”
Yeung pauses, mid-bite, and stares at Zāl, slowly placing their chopstick down against their plate.
“Don’t look so uneasy,” Zāl continues. “You’re seein’ things, right? Beasts and other such things no one seems to notice.”
“I daydream at most.”
“Not today,” Zāl counters eagerly. He pushes his food to the side of the table to lean in. “Today, you saw somethin’ comin’ for ya. Felt it in the air, and all.”
“Get to the point. Do you see things?”
“Not anymore,” Zāl answers, somewhat honestly. “But I know what you’re seein’. The thing that’s huntin’ you, it had a blade.”
“Now we’re gettin’ somewhere! How long was it?”
“What does it matter?”
“Certainly you noticed it! I bet everythin’ before this didn’t have any kinda weapon.”
Yeung doesn’t answer, neglecting their food as well to focus on Zāl. Their eyes absorb the neon lights and reflect something else back at him. He sees the vague shape of himself.
“It means you’re gettin’ stronger. Which means the blades are gonna start gettin’ longer, and sharper. And the spirits chasin’ you are gonna get meaner.”
“What is actually chasing me?” Yeung asks.
“A being that exists between the ripples of our world,” Zāl explains, leaning in even further. “And the otherworld.”
“Otherworld? Like the spirit world? As in ghosts?”
Zāl shakes his head. “Too easy to be that simple. It’s more than that.” Zāl reaches out and grabs a handful of forks, knives and chopsticks sitting in the cup between them on the table. He scatters them in front of them both and lays the chopsticks in a neat line.
“Listen carefully,” Zāl says. “Cause I’m bad at this part. The chopsticks represent our world.”
Yeung looks uncertain but follows along. “Okay.”
“And these knives,” Zāl continues, stacking the blades perpendicular on top of the chopsticks. ‘Act as the otherworld. It sits directly on top of us.”
“The spirit world or heaven or whatever holy place you think the dead go to when they die, that…”
“...rests above that.”
“So,” Yeung says, staring at the small formation Zāl has formed between them. Their face is unreadable. “The otherworld is some sort of limbo? A transitional period?”
“Kinda. It’s more than that too, but that’s not really important right now. What is important is that a ripple has caused somethin’ to slip through.”
“And what causes a ripple?”
Zāl smiles, picking up a fork and pointing it to himself.
“You?” Yeung says, following as Zāl turns the fork to point at Yeung. “And me?”
“When our skills awaken—I know, I know, I’ll explain that too—we cause a ripple effect. So, yeah. It’s you, Yeung. You’re the ripple.”
“This is fucking ridiculous,” Yeung says, pushing the fork away from them and standing up. The movement racks the table and Zāl moves fast enough to catch Yeung’s plate before it falls to the ground. “Thanks for the food. I’m leaving.”
“It’s gonna keep comin’.” Zāl stands up as well, albeit more quietly. “Especially when I’m not around.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Mike will ship you your radio. No need to come all the way back.”
“It’ll be dangerous for everyone,” Zāl calls out to Yeung’s fleeting form. “Not just for you.”
He doesn’t get an answer, and Yeung’s exiting the restaurant with a familiar chime. It takes a moment, but Zāl hears the familiar start of an old engine and soon, there’s nothing but silence around him.
“Well,” Zāl says, sitting back down and pulling Yeung’s unfinished plate towards him as he gets settled.
“That coulda gone better.”
EPISODE TWO: THE MECHANIC
SON M. & CATHY KWAN