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TicTocs: A Capsule a Day Keeps Time at Bay!

1,987 words

The neon lights of the vending machine beckon from the end of the alley.

You teeter at the entrance, just outside the ring of fluorescence. Pink shifts into purple, yellow morphs into green, the colors amplified by the slick sheen of the alley walls.

An itch, an urge, and you find yourself entering the crevice, shuffling between piles of rot and waste, the laces of your beat-up sneakers soaking in the refuse. You fold your shoulders and tuck everything beneath your umbrella. Its battered canopy and broken ribs lie flat on your back like the membranous wings of a bat.

It isn’t raining. At least you don’t think it is. Not even the sun reaches the ground level of the City of Nightmares. But the corroded pipes running along and between the densely packed buildings, like a forest canopy of metal and plastic, produce a perpetual drip. Fat drops of unknown composition drum the umbrella’s surface. You shudder, make yourself even smaller.

Before the vending machine, you stop and fumble in your pockets for a coin. Your movements feel slow and cumbersome, each passing second an eternity.

A familiar jingle comes from the machine, the electronic notes reminding you of ice cream trucks and the long, hazy summers of a distant childhood. A neon sign—TicTocs: A Capsule a Day Keeps Time at Bay!—flashes above you across the front glass panel. Behind the thick glass, brightly colored pills are neatly arranged by color in vertical chutes.

Bad hangover? a tablet-sized screen asks. Hungry? High? Make it last or make it pass!

You snort at the lousy marketing, even as you drop a coin into the slot beneath the screen and hit nine on the keypad. The chute whirs, and you watch in childish anticipation as a gaudy green time capsule rolls down the dispensing ramp and into the holding tray with a soft ping.

It’s in your hands before the chute even stops spinning.

Placing the capsule in your mouth, you roll it under your tongue and close your eyes.

You feel your heart quicken, racing like a jackhammer, and the rhythm of the shifting neon lights accelerates to match. The jingle of the vending machine blends into one continuous stream, the notes reaching for a new high, as time contracts.

* * *

You have one hour before your meeting with the lawyer.

Dashing through the lobby of your apartment complex, you make your way to the two-story penthouse you call home. The door clicks open as you near, and the smart appliances within immediately welcome you with a low hum. A pocket of sound descends gently around you like a bubble, bathing your ears with your usual Thursday playlist as it follows you into the living room. A large holographic screen flickers on, and you scowl at the artificial smile and hollow eyes of the news anchor before waving the screen away.

Every night, for the past month, the news has been the same. The CEO of ChronoTech Inc., the leading manufacturer of time capsules, on trial, and his chief of research found dead.

Has it really been a whole month?

You hurry up the stairs, past the floor-to-ceiling glass windows with hardly a glance at the view. The San Gabriel Mountains squat bare and desolate in the horizon.

In the bedroom, you fall onto the hydrotherapy massage bed and deflate with a great sigh.

An hour only, but you intend to make good use of it.

Reaching towards the nightstand, you open the top drawer and retrieve a small pill bottle.

You contemplate for a moment before making your selection: a capsule, the vivid purple of nightshade.

You roll it around your mouth and close your eyes. Your thoughts begin to slow, from a downpour to a misty drizzle. You focus on the vibrations of the hydromassage. With each breath, the waves lengthen and swell, caressing your body with melodic notes and perfect intervals. You both hear and feel the gentle chimes through a series of dynamic vibrations all over your skin. As the music slows, you can hear the undertones and overtones branching, merging, oscillating. An entire symphony held within a single note.

That should do it. You have a meeting with the lawyer in an hour, but for now, time has slowed to a crawl, and even one hour is an eternity of bliss.

You idly consider the green capsule for later. No one need know.

* * *

You hazard a quick look around the corner.

Two rigid columns of troopers stomp by, their shoulders jostling against each other as they slosh mud and debris on the claustrophobic walls of the alley in their sabatons.

Why are they here?

You can’t remember the last time you’ve encountered any authorities here. After the earthquakes of 2082 untethered Los Angeles from the state’s supply lines, the whole greater area was abandoned, and the City of Angels had quickly descended into the lawless City of Nightmares. Even the state has stopped trying to rehabilitate the city with its strained resources.

Something must have triggered this visit.

You hunker down behind a discarded television set from the 20s, the quantum display screen spidered with cracks. You hold your breath as an armor-clad officer ventures into the crevice and sweeps the alley with a glowing mace. Like the others, he’s outfitted in lightweight titanium micro-lattice designed to look like medieval chain mail. High tech disguised as low tech—another stupid trend from the suburbs.

You sink your feet into the mud and press your back into the wall. Something cold and wet cuts across your ankle like the edge of a knife, and you draw in a sharp breath just as the light swings in your direction.

“Fucking hell!” A rat the size of a house cat scurries past the officer, and the startled man lashes out with his mace, hitting the rodent square in its distended stomach. Blood and entrails splatter the walls—splattering you. The rat squirms, its long tail twisting like a worm, then falls still, splayed open in the middle of the alley.

You stare at its glassy eyes, and bizarrely, the TicTocs jingle plays in your head. You half expect the rat to get up and dance, zombie-like. A triumphant shout comes from further down the road, and you hear the muted tramping of boots in sludge, and a trooper calls out from the entrance, “Chief, we found one.”

As the officer’s footsteps retreat, your legs give out and you slide to the ground with a wet thump. Found what? You shouldn’t follow, you know better than that, but something tells you the troopers might be after the same thing you are.

The next moment finds you leaving the safety of your crevice and creeping from one corner to the next, following the troopers down what used to be Main Street, until they stop at the end of a shadowy alley.

There’s the all-too-familiar neon lights and that cursed, beloved jingle, and your heart sings and beats to the rhythm. But then the troopers lift their maces, and your heart stops, time stops, and everything shatters.

* * *

It’s been months since you’ve slept without nightmares. When you’re woken up in the dark by yet another zombie rat, you simply give up and reach for the familiar curve of the pill bottle on your nightstand. Make it pass or make it last, right? You find that every decision these days can be reduced to that question.

But as your fingers brush against the cylinder, you hesitate. What else had the news anchor claimed? Hallucinations, dissociation, instability—all supposed side effects according to the investigations. Of course, the defense lawyer claimed that no one at ChronoTech Inc. had known the true extent. Negligent perhaps, but certainly not fraudulent. You remember how ChronoTech Inc. had reassured the public over and over that their time capsules were safe. After all, one’s perception of time was all that changed. You had believed it then, believed in your father’s research.

You wonder if your father had known the truth, not just about the capsules, but about you. Your fingers close around the pill bottle. Does it even matter?

He had put a pistol to his head a week after the investigations began, and since then, time capsules have been eliminated from the suburbs. The City of Nightmares is the only place where you can find them now.

The pill bottle in your hand is empty. You’ll need to visit the city again.

* * *

Hidden under the drapes of your broken umbrella, you search the alleys.

Several vending machine corpses later, your palms are ice cold with anxiety. Towering blocks of concrete loom on every side, threatening to collapse as they did once before. Your hands tremble. You need a capsule, but the troopers were much more thorough than you thought.

Then, as though from a dream, neon lights beckon to you from the darkness. A phantasmagoric kaleidoscope of ever-changing colors. Behind the machine’s glass walls, a single time capsule, poison-green, remains.

Triumphant, you hurry down the trashed walkway, but someone is there before you. The vending machine whirs and empties its final ware into the man’s hands.

No, no. You slosh forward, dread constricting your lungs. It can’t be. You saw wrong, you must have. You reach the machine, palms slamming into the glass as you scan the empty chutes. You dump all of your coins in the slot, hit every number on the keypad, kick the machine until the chutes rattle, but nothing happens. You slump against the glass, panting and shivering.

Behind you, someone giggles. The man who’d taken the capsule grins when you turn. He beckons to you, arms open in invitation, and bends awkwardly at the waist. His limbs move all at once, as though possessed by a manic energy. He twists when he leaps and almost falls, his arms raised high in the air. It takes you a moment to realize; he’s dancing. You glare at him, envious of the music that only he can hear. His eyes are vacant, his features contorted by a euphoric smile. He pirouettes, he jumps—

“Life is but a fleeting memory,” he sings.

—and he slips on an empty beer bottle. His head hits the broken pavement with a loud crack. You stare, stupefied, as the body twitches on the ground. Green liquid froths at his mouth, and you stumble toward him.

“Turn over. Shit. Turn over.” You try to heave him onto his side, but you stop when you see the blood pooling under his head. He moans and giggles, then falls still with a sputtering cough.

You back away unsteadily and sink to the ground, the world around you spinning. You cradle yourself, shaking uncontrollably. The jingle of the vending machine is an infinite loop that makes your chest ache. The pool of blood expands, and under the shifting neon lights, becomes momentarily blue. You gasp. The dead man reclines, and suddenly, his content face becomes your father’s.

You slam your hands over your ears and squeeze your eyes shut, but the memory comes anyway: a lazy summer evening by the pool, your father, home for once, turning to you and asking with a smile, “Wouldn’t it be nice to make this last forever?”

Yes. You had said yes, not knowing what he was creating.

Something wild and raging rips through you, and you stand up shakily. There is a stray metal pipe in the alley, a broken branch from the corroded canopy. You pick it up and level it at the glass of the vending machine. For a moment, you don’t see the empty chutes. You see your father. You see ChronoTech Inc. You see the lawyer mouthing to you, stay quiet. An incoherent bellow drowns out the jingle as you step forward.

No, make it pass, make it all pass. You swing.

Lilia Zhang (she/her) is a storyteller who loves all things animal- and brain-related. She has a degree in psychology and neuroscience from Princeton University and possesses the uncanny ability to read a person’s favorite color. Aside from writing, Lilia is an avid fan of glutinous desserts, land clouds, and Jellycats. You can follow her on Twitter @linesbylilia for more writing updates.

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