The village was close. The whole journey my partner, Detective Sergeant Azra Panjabi, had been rabbiting on about what we might find there.
“I’ve been researching alien encounters, and I tell you what, some of these cases are really quite compelling. I’m not sure I believe all of them, mind, but there was this really interesting story about a husband and wife in Cornwall who stopped to get petrol in this village, and everything there was just… off. The air was super-warm even though it was February, and there was this terrible smell in the air, and everyone was behaving really strangely, and then they saw creatures in the…”
She loved to talk. I must’ve switched off because I can’t remember what she said after that.
We had the case file, sparse as it was. The salient points were that an anonymous man had called the police to tell them about a village in the English countryside called Kerb. A village no-one had ever heard of, wasn’t marked on any maps, didn’t show up on any records, but was, according to this man, inhabited by aliens plotting to take over the world.
That’s why we were involved—Division 6—the top-secret branch of the Met Police that investigated strange phenomena. The job often meant investigating claims by utter fruitcakes, so as silly as this world-conquering alien village sounded, today was a just a normal day.
Kerb was Panjabi’s first case since her transfer to Division 6, so I’d not known her long. Sweet lady. A motormouth for sure and a source of irritation for a fair few back at the office (I actually think her old boss transferred her just so Panjabi was out of her hair). But she was harmless really. Her heart was in the right place.
We’d followed the anonymous man’s coordinates inside a large tract of private land, but despite a few signs emblazoned with “private property”, “restricted area—stay out” and “no trespassing”, there was nothing stopping us going in. A mile or so down a narrow road with a thick expanse of woodland on either side, I pulled over.
“Crumbs, are we here?” said Panjabi. She’d been chin-deep in her own verbal diarrhea for nearly two hours now and had stopped paying attention to the GPS long ago.
I examined the GPS. “The exact coordinates are about a half-mile through those trees,” I said, pointing to the woodland on our right side.
“Right.” Her cheeks reddened suddenly.
“Azra, don’t be nervous. Could be nothing there. Lots of Division 6 cases wind up being hoaxes. That’s the downside of working for the department.”
“Oh, I’m not nervous, sir. I’m excited. Dana Scully’s an idol of mine. Never thought I’d one day be doing her job.”
I frowned. “Dana who?”
Panjabi sniggered. “Not an X Files fan, sir?”
“Oh. I’ve heard of it.”
“It’s a television show from like fifty years ago. I watched it growing up. Loved it, still, do. But then I’ve always preferred television to holovision, to be honest. Guess I’m a traditionalist. There’s something about the way it—”
“Shall we see if we can find this village?” I felt bad but I just had to interrupt. We would never have left the car.
“Of course, sir. Yes, let’s.”
As we got out of the car, I said warmly, “You know, you don’t have to call me ‘sir’. My name is Wayne.”
Both of her eyebrows rose. “Sir, I wouldn’t dream of first-naming you! You’re my superior and I’ve only known you for a few days.”
I gave a gentle laugh. “Alright… Sergeant.”
She was so sweet.
We headed into the trees, following the GPS. Annoyingly we had to trudge through mud thanks to the cloudburst a short while back. Half a mile into the woods, the trees diminished and a large clearing with three rows of houses was in front of us. The coordinates were spot-on and Kerb was, it seemed, real.
“Looks like your first Division 6 case might not be a hoax after all,” I said quietly to Panjabi.
Awe pervaded her features. She was—for the first time in two hours—speechless.
Kerb didn’t feel like a village. That was my first thought as we stepped onto the tarmac road that wound between the rows of houses. These weren’t the pretty stone cottages you expect to see in an English village, but boxy, terraced, red brick bungalows that were all identical and looked like they’d been hastily erected with little regard for architectural character.
Stranger still, all the windows on the houses were boarded up with white panels on the inside.
Panjabi and I glanced at each other and turned around.
A black-haired woman in her 50s in a plain grey dress was standing behind us, smiling.
“Er—hello,” I replied. “Who are—?”
“Welcome to our village,” said the woman cheerfully. “Now, it might be that you’ve found yourself here accidentally. In any case, on behalf of the mayor of this village, I must ask you to leave.”
I explained, “Ma’am, we’re from the Metropolitan Police and we’re here as part of an investigation.”
“The people in this village have chosen to live their lives in seclusion, isolated from the rest of the world, and we ask that you respect that.”
“Er, I’m sorry, but there are a few things we need to—”
I was quickly interrupted: “We also ask that you tell no one about this village, in order to allow the people living here to continue to do so in peace, without unwanted attention.”
She wasn’t listening to me; I now knew why.
“She’s a hologram,” I whispered to Panjabi. “This is an automated message.”
“Oh crumbs, really?” Panjabi whispered back. “That never even occurred t—”
“Thank you for listening,” said the hologram. “Please make your departure now.”
We waited. I looked at Panjabi. We both said nothing.
The actions of visitors obviously triggered particular pre-programmed responses. A few moments later, the hologram said, “I notice that you are still here. Please leave the village now.”
We didn’t move.
“Please note that this village is protected by a legal decree. If you do not leave immediately, the authorities will be notified.”
“Now what?” Panjabi murmured.
I said nothing. I stared into the blank eyes of our holographic greeter. Even if this had been a more sophisticated program capable of interaction, I would’ve guessed soon enough that she was a hologram. Holographers never got the eyes quite right.
“The authorities have been notified.”
The hologram dematerialized. “This could be interesting,” I said to Panjabi.
“Hello?” said a small voice from behind us.
We turned. The voice belonged to a much older lady with short, grey hair, wearing a plain, white, featureless costume and stood in the doorway of one of the bungalows, the door open behind her. Another hologram?
“My name is Detective Inspector Wayne Mara,” I said. “This is my partner, Detective Sergeant Azra Panjabi. We’re from a special branch of the Metropolitan Police.”
“Police? I don’t understand.”
“Why don’t you start by telling us your name.”
“Ruth. Ruth Capshaw. I’m the mayor of this village. I just received a notification of your presence.”
“So you’re the ‘authorities’?” said Panjabi.
“Unfortunately, yes. Most people, when they see ‘private land—no trespassing’ signs, they turn around and go the other way. On the very rare occasion that someone gets lost in the woods and wanders into the village, our hologram manages to persuade them to leave. But that’s the only protection we’ve been given. If that fails, I’m the only thing that stands in the way of intruders. So here I am, standing in your way.”
“And why are the people of Kerb so determined to stay hidden?”
“Kerb… How do you kn—?”
“We received an anonymous tip. Officially, Kerb doesn’t exist and we’re here to find out why.”
“Am I obliged to answer your questions?”
“No. But we’ll arrest you if you don’t.”
“Section 27 of the Foreign Elements Act.”
“Foreign elements? What does that mean?”
“It means we have a reasonable suspicion that you might be… an alien.”
“Do I look like an alien, Detective?”
She was pretty hideous—face more wrinkled than a prune, crooked teeth and what looked like unnatural growths underneath her eyes—but alien was a bit of a stretch.
“No, but you could be a shapeshifter.” Why you’d choose that body, though, I don’t know.
“I’m not, I promise you.”
“Well, that’s what we’re here to find out. I suggest we all go inside so we can get to the bottom of this—shall we?”
“I suppose I don’t really have a choice.”
She was right—she didn’t.
She took us inside her bungalow. As we went inside, I hung back a bit, behind Panjabi, just so I could thumb a quick, surreptitious text to First: It’s confirmed. They’re here.
Inside, Ruth’s house did not look anything like someone’s home. It was just one large room. Everything was white: the walls, floor, ceiling, bed, furniture, work surfaces, appliances, even the treadmill near the bed. All the furniture was plain, square, boxy—not a single pattern for the eye to trace. And every surface had a matt finish that devoured the light rather than reflecting it, adding another layer of spiritlessness to the stark and muted space.
The only non-white objects—the only objects full stop—were the clocks, which had black faces and white numbers and hands, and were everywhere. Four on every wall, along with mantle clocks on the worksurfaces in the kitchenette, on the dining table and on the bedside table. There were no pictures, ornaments, books, computers or holovision. No character, no life. Whiteboards covered the windows and the room was illuminated by a bright ceiling panel light.
Ruth noticed us gawping. “Will this take long?” she murmured.
“Are you in a hurry?” I said.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
Ruth synthesized us some hot drinks and we all sat down at her dining table. I went to ask a question, but Panjabi beat me to it: “I don’t mean to be rude, Ms. Capshaw, but what’s the deal with this place? Do you… do you actually live here?”
“Yes,” replied Ruth flatly.
“Why are the windows boarded up?”
“So I am not tempted to leave.”
“You never leave?”
“No. I never need to. I synthesize all my food. I keep fit with my trusty treadmill over there.”
“But… how can you live like this?”
“You’ll think I’m crazy if I tell you.”
I stepped in, “At the moment I think you’re an alien. What would you rather be? Crazy or an alien?”
Ruth gave me a frosty glare, unamused by my flippancy. She hesitated, sighed, her steely expression and pursed lips softened reluctantly, and she leaned forwards, folding her hands together on the dining table. The demeanour of dignified defeat.
“Okay, fine,” she said. “I live like this to… save time.”
“What do you mean, ‘save time’?” I said.
“I mean literally that. I live this way to save my time. We all do.”
“I don’t understand.”
As Ruth began to explain, I felt my phone vibrate and checked it inconspicuously. A text from First, replying to mine: Excellent. We’re on our way.
Ruth said, “Have you ever thought about why people talk about ‘losing track of time’? Why people say that ‘time flies when you’re having fun’, but ‘a watched pot never boils’?”
“I hadn’t given it much thought,” I replied.
“Well, that is why we live like this. All the houses in Kerb are designed to sustain a state of boredom to slow the passage of time.”
“You do realise that the perception that time moves faster when we’re occupied is just an illusion?”
“That’s where you’re wrong. The people here in Kerb know that when we’re aware of time when we’re concentrating on it, it actually goes slower. But when we’re enjoying ourselves, when we’re busy, when we’re ignoring time, it goes quicker. That’s because it’s being stolen from us, from all of us. Just like any possession that gets stolen when we’re not looking. But if we never turn away, if we stay focused on the passage of time, it can’t be stolen.”
“So that’s the reason for all the clocks?” said Panjabi.
“Wait a minute,” I interjected. “You say time is being stolen… By who?”
“We don’t know their real name. Chronoticks, we call them. They come from the Chronosphere.”
Panjabi and I looked at each other. There wasn’t even a hint of skepticism in my partner’s expression, just wide-eyed curiosity. Okay, so I’d only known her a few days—she might’ve been sporting an excellent poker face. If not, she was one of the most open-minded people I’d ever met.
“What and what?” I asked.
Ruth explained, “Chronoticks are tiny parasites that feed on time. The Chronosphere is where they live, or where they used to live. It’s a place where every moment of the past, present, and future co-exist. When someone travels in time, they pass through the Chronosphere.”
“Travels in time?”
“Yes. Time travel is real. It’s a secret, but it was invented many years ago by the people that I—and everyone else in Kerb—used to work for. They caused this. They caused the Chronoticks to spread to our universe. By spreading to the bodies of time travelers going through the Chronosphere, the Chronoticks were able to bleed over time—the past, present and the future. Now everyone’s infected. We lose track of time because of them. Because they’re speeding up our lives, feeding on our time when we’re not paying attention.”
“How do you know? Have you seen them?”
“No. They’re invisible.”
Convenient, one might think.
“But they’re the reason we itch,” Ruth continued.
Panjabi broke her silence, “What?”
“That’s right. When humans feel an itch, that’s the Chronoticks crawling about inside them. That’s how we know they’re there.”
I saw Panjabi scratch the side of her leg.
“And what it is your boredom-laden routines are supposed to achieve?” I asked.
“Freedom. Freedom from the Chronoticks. It’s how we fight them. If they can’t feed on our time, they’ll go hungry. If they go hungry, perhaps they’ll leave us alone and go back to the Chronosphere. Then, who knows what could happen? Maybe our whole perception of time would change.”
“And what if you’re wrong?” Panjabi asked. “What if there are no Chronoticks and you’re just wasting your lives being bored and lonely?”
“They exist, trust me. Time is not what it appears to be. Stay blissfully ignorant if you wish, but we’re done letting them feed on us.”
It was time to wrap this up. “Is there anything else you can tell me about these Chronoticks?” I asked.
“Nothing that will help,” Ruth said. “To be honest, we don’t think they’re intelligent, or even sentient. They’re like bacteria. We don’t blame them for forcing us to live like this. Time travel—and the people who invented it—are responsible for this.”
“Alright, Ms. Capshaw, thank you for your—”
A shrill scream outside the house stopped my sentence short. A scream followed by thuds and crashes, the whir of vehicles and the jangle of agitated voices. Ruth stood. “What’s going on?”
Panjabi and I stood as well, following Ruth to the front door and out into the street.
Previously silent and empty, Kerb was now heaving with military trucks, a sprawling juggernaut, and legions of military personnel in burgundy uniforms and helmets, brandishing guns. They were forcing their way into people’s homes and dragging them out into the street, handcuffed and protesting.
“CTB?” said Panjabi. “What are they doing here? And how did they know…?”
Ruth spun to face me and said accusingly, “What is the meaning of this? We haven’t done anything wrong! We’re just trying to live in peace!”
CTB stood for ‘Counter Terrorist Branch’. I replied to Ruth, “Their unit is independent of ours. You’ll have to take it up with them.”
A CTB lieutenant approached Ruth. “Are you the mayor?” he asked, stern-faced.
“Yes. And I demand to know—”
The lieutenant grabbed both of Ruth’s arms, pulled them semi-roughly behind her back and cuffed her wrists. “What are you doing?” she yelled.
“You’re under arrest on suspicion of treason and terrorism offences,” said the lieutenant.
“You cannot be serious!”
“This is very serious, ma’am. Come with me, please.”
Ruth continued to argue and struggle against her restraints as the lieutenant pulled her towards one of the CTB trucks, shoving her inside.
“So you knew nothing about this, sir?” Panjabi asked me.
“Nothing,” I fibbed.
“Well, so much for our investigation.” Panjabi was disappointed. She’d been looking forward to getting her teeth into this case, but the CTB always took precedence over Division 6 cases, as you’d expect.
Panjabi and I watched as the troops removed every Kerb resident from their houses and piled them inside the rear section of the juggernaut.
General Sharon Bozeman, in charge of the task force, nodded at me.
“Wait here,” I said to Panjabi. “I’m going to speak with the general.”
I walked over to General Bozeman—or First as I knew her. ‘Sharon Bozeman’ was just her human designation.
“Did you find out how much they know about us?” said First, keeping her voice low so that no one on her task force could hear.
“They know a lot more than I expected,” I replied, equally quietly. “But they’re completely ignorant of our true nature.”
“What do you mean?”
“They think we’re like bacteria. They think we’re unintelligent.”
“That does not surprise me,” said First. “They are humans. Their narrow-mindedness is our advantage.” She glanced over at the juggernaut, bustling with distressed and incensed residents demanding to know what on earth was going on, and whispered, “I am looking forward to this feed.”
– C.R. Berry
C.R. Berry is a British author with a penchant for mystery and conspiracy and a big hard-on for time travel. His forthcoming novel, Million Eyes, is The Da Vinci Code meets Doctor Who meets 24.
Berry has been published in Phantaxis, Suspense Magazine, Storgy, Tigershark, Scribble and Metamorphose. He won second prize in the To Hull and Back Humorous Short Story Competition 2014, was shortlisted in the Aeon Award Contest 2015, and was highly commended by Writers’ Forum in 2016.
You can follow C.R. Berry at crberryauthor.wordpress.com, or find him on Twitter and Facebook (@CRBerry1).