They Can’t Tell Time, Chapter One

A story about aliens and time travel


“Workin’ late, boys?”

George looked up and lifted his safety goggles. “That’s right, Sheriff. Don’t worry. You won’t get a noise complaint this time. We’ll head home before nine, like you said. Besides this thing just about exploded earlier.”

“Don’t tell him that!,” Earl said.

“Exploded, huh?,” the Sheriff said, shaking his head.

Earl figured it was too late to pretend George meant anything else. “It just started sparking and shaking when we turned it on. George and I have felt kinda funny since then.”

The Sheriff wasn’t too worried. George and Earl had only started one fire that he knew of, and they put it out before the fire department showed up. “Well, explosions aside, I wouldn’t worry too much about any noise this week, boys. Old lady Gwinn is out of town, visiting her sister in law or some such. No one else is close enough to make a complaint. That’s what I came out to tell you. Feel free to take the time.”

Earl smiled wide, “Hey thanks, Sheriff! Appreciate knowin’ that.”

“No trouble. Just what is this supposed to be?”

George put his goggles in place and went back to work. Earl said, “Well, when it works it’s a new kind of electrical transformer.”

“When it works?”

“Well, we can get it to work sometimes. Sometimes not. We can’t figure that part out.”

The Sheriff nodded, “I got an old Chevy like that. Well, remember me when you get rich and famous. I got to be off. Mary’s not feelin’ well.” With a wave he left them. The Sheriff wasn’t certain what to make of George and Earl. They were a pair of lunks, no question, but sometimes they were brilliant lunks. They could fix just about anything. And the Sheriff figured that since they were such good natured lunks, they could be eccentric if they wanted to be.

The Sheriff got to his car and looked up at the beautiful, evening Shoesole sky. On this night, the Sheriff saw more than he wanted to. “What in tarnation?” For a split second he regretted saying that. The kids in town made fun of him for using words like tarnation. That momentary distraction didn’t fix his vision though. He could still see the low hanging dark object. He wanted it to be a cloud, but it wasn’t. It had moved, and now it was holding still. It wasn’t any helicopter. “What am I seeing? Oh damn!” With a sharp burst of light, the silhouette spun away. The Sheriff looked around to see if anyone else was there to tell him that had really happened. But he was alone. “Okay. What do I do about that? I can’t do anything, don’t be ridiculous. No. I’d better call someone. Who do you call about a UFO? You know, I think it’s best if I just forget it.”

He was shaken by it. Sheriff Bentley was a reasonable man. It couldn’t have been anything like what he imagined. But he knew what he saw. He wouldn’t forget it. If it became important he would have to admit he saw it. That wouldn’t matter if the flying thing did what UFOs were supposed to do, never show up again.

It was hard being the Sheriff in a place like Plakerton though. A lot of citizens had his home phone number. He got three calls from people who all saw objects in the sky, all wanting answers. He would have loved to file it away under local nonsense, but he knew that something unexpected was happening.

*       *       *       *

The passenger door opened and someone slipped into the car. Nickel fumbled for his gun, grateful in the next moment that his reflexes weren’t up to shooting his superior. Quarter didn’t even seem to notice the danger. “Get us on the highway, kid. We got a joyrider.”

Nickel’s confused squint was invisible behind the dark glasses. “Sir? How did you? Where? How did you know I was here?” He had just stopped for a quick sandwich and a candy bar. How could Quarter just show up out of the blue and plop into the passenger seat?

Quarter looked at him with that energetic incredulousness he was infamous for. You could see it despite the dark glasses since Quarter had a pair of thick, dark eyebrows that were expressive beyond the norm. “Nickel, you know better than to ask questions like that. South on Highway Seventy Eight until you get to one of our roads.”

“Right.” Nickel pulled out of the convenience store parking lot. He only had to think about it for a moment. “There’s a bug or tracker or something in the car. Right?” Then he reconsidered. “Wait. How would you show up like that unless you were following me? Were you following me?”

“Kid, when are you gonna learn?”

It wasn’t a rhetorical question. “When you teach me.” That was lesson two when you were a recruit. You learned the means, methods and even the ethics as you went along. Your superiors would see to it that you never screwed up so bad that it would hurt the agency. Nickel sighed. He accepted the invitation to join so that he could know. Instead he was kept in the dark just like John Q. Public. Sort of. He had to admit he knew some things that he could only guess before. And he was allowed questions as long as they were intelligent and pertinent. “What’s a joyrider?”

“Kid, we’re on our way to the site of an actual alien encounter.”

Nickel’s pulse rose instantly, but not even Quarter could see the difference. That much Nickel had learned. As soon as he got into character, nothing could shake the icy façade. He did allow just a touch of his enthusiasm into his voice. “Real aliens this time? Not those hoaxers?”

“The real thing, kid. There were reports of lights over a little town called Plakerton last night and the night before. Tonight it was visible objects moving in impossible ways. We aren’t going to get there before first contact.”

“Yes sir.”

Quarter would have smiled if he could have. The kid didn’t repeat his question. He knew better. It was something Nickel was ready to know though. “We’re after a joyrider. Maybe one, maybe more than one. Here’s a secret that the average skywatcher wouldn’t guess. The E.T.s that people see aren’t usually working for any actual alien government. They’re just punks traveling to different worlds on their own. No authority, just doing their thing.”

“I remember them telling us something like that during training. That’s why descriptions of alien encounters are so discrepant.”

“Is discrepant a word? Discrepancy is, but is discrepant?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I like the way that rolls off the tongue. Discrepant. Discrepant.”

“Sir? I don’t mean any disrespect, but when I’ve got enough experience am I going to end up like you?”

“You should be so lucky. You think I’m weird, wait until you’ve met some aliens. Do you know what makes aliens so damn weird?”

“Um no, sir, I don’t.”

“They can’t tell time.”

Nickel waited a few seconds. “What does that mean?”

“It means that interstellar travel has its natural limitations. Aren’t you going to ask me what highway we’re traveling to?”

“I assumed you’d tell me when we reached it, sir.”

“What do you know? The kid is learning. Pop a Q-sight pill. There’s no sleep for us until the job is done.”

*       *       *       *

Sheriff Bentley knew what to expect when he arrived at the station the next day. He knew how to handle it. He’d act like he ordinarily would. He got his coffee, and no one said much to him other than Janice who made certain that he knew they got several calls during the night.

Once he was ready for it, made clear by a loud, easy breath and a moment of eye contact with everyone there, Janice told him, “We got calls from Rick Grady, Beverly Parsum, Ned—”

“I don’t need to know who all called. How many?”

“You know why they’re calling?,” Deputy Gander said.

Gander was always a little sharper than the Sheriff expected. He covered a moment of preparation with a careful sip of coffee. Then he remembered, “I got three calls at home last night.”

“Because a the lights?,” Deputy Pilsner asked.

“Yep. Looks like we got flyin’ saucers in town.” That got a few laughs. “Well, I’d like to file that away as something I don’t gotta think about, but if we’re getting’ that many people talkin’ about it, we’d better at least know what we’re goin’ to say when they call again.”

“What all are people callin’ about?,” Deputy Gander asked.

“There were lights and objects in the sky, least if the people callin’ us are telling true.”

Janice made a sound, so Deputy Gander said, “If people are calling about it, then they’re seeing something.”

The Sheriff stopped Janice before she said anything. “Like it or not, he’s right. This ain’t just Gabby drinkin’ his homemade whiskey at the edge of the lake. This is a bunch of people all worried enough about it to call the police. So we don’t get to ignore it. Gander.”


“You and Pilsner listen to Sterling Case’s radio show a lot don’t you?”


The Sheriff also listened to Sterling Case every so often, but he didn’t think it was a good idea to say so at the moment. “Silly as it might sound, I want to cover the worst of all possible scenarios first. Suppose there’s somethin’ X-Files goin’ on in town. What do we do about it?”

Deputy Gander said, “Well, honestly, not much if we don’t got to. Usually people see lights in the sky for a little while, then they’re gone. End of story.”

The Sheriff concealed a smile. He hoped that was true. After seeing that big dark object in the sky, he wanted it to just go away. “So we ain’t gonna see little green men or anythin’ like that?”

“Prob’ly not. Prob’ly just helicopters or bugs or something.”

Janice joked, “You sure it ain’t from Venus?”

The Sheriff wasn’t as amused. What he saw wasn’t any helicopter or bug.

*       *       *       *

“You broke it,” Earl said.

“I did not break it,” George insisted. “Not my fault those fuses you bought were so lousy.”

Earl was about ready for the argument, but he was immediately distracted by the radio, “Hey! Lemme turn that up.”

—and this is Sterling Case bringing you The Shadow Report! Those of you in the Shoesole Lakes area might want to watch the sky tonight. After the initial reports of eerie bright lights in the sky two nights ago, there have been at least two near sightings of dark triangles in the skies around Plakerton. These sightings have been substantiated by multiple witnesses. When we contacted the local police department, they declined to comment.

Earl and George worked slow, listening to Sterling Case give them the strange news. It was their own town that was the hot spot this time. Sightings of UFOS. No photographs yet, but a shaky video was available. Of course Sterling was quick to admit that the video didn’t do anything to offer scale or position. Still, the moving lights in the video did match witness reports.

Earl said, “Maybe we ought to be out to see if we can see anything.”

George was about to gripe about the work they’d lose, but he was so frazzled from their lack of progress after the transformer started sparking that a night off might be good. “Sure. Sure, why not. Gimme that tarp to put over the thing.” Then George hissed, “Hush! Who’s there?”

Earl heard it too. Someone was in their workshop. He grabbed a heavy wrench. It was probably just the raccoons again, but he wasn’t taking any risks. Especially since it might have been the Cullop brothers wanting to play another prank.

George crept around the shelves until he got sight of the intruder. “Oh my good gracious golly god!”

Earl hurried around, “What is it? Turkey feathers! What the hell?”

It was impossible. A pair of big, dark eyes. Pale skin. Thin limbs and a spindly body. There was no mistaking it. The proportions were wrong for this to be a person in a mask and costume. This was the real thing. With a tiny mouth that hardly moved, the alien asked, “Is everything all right, George?”

George shook his head, and took a half step forward. “You, you know my name?”

The alien looked surprised. “The improved translation might not be so improved.”

Earl had a big toothy grin. He knew he should have been shocked or afraid, but he wasn’t. He’d fantasized about this for a long time. He even put down the wrench. “Do ya know my name?”

With a slight motion of confusion, the alien told him, “You are Earl.”

“I am Earl! How do you know that?”

The alien stepped forward, “The Sheriff was right. There was a problem with the construction. I have analyzed it.”

George wasn’t sure he got that. “What about a Sheriff?”

Earl was more concerned with what he did understand. “You know about our invention?”

“I know?,” the alien said. “How could I not?”

George asked, “How long have you been watching us?”

The stranger made a sound like an annoyed sigh. He understood the variations of planetary cultures, but why did he have to explain the obvious to these humans? “You must stop the construction. After analysis, I have discovered that the conductor relays will not operate properly in this atmosphere.”

“What?,” George asked.

“The machine will not work,” the alien said. “It would be dangerous as it is, so it must be adapted. If we attempt to operate it, it will expand the halz field outside the containment chassis.”

Earl wasn’t sure he wasn’t dreaming. “Wh-what’s a halz field?”

The alien looked at him with slightly wider eyes. “It is the power effect that I demonstrated.”

“We don’t understand,” George said. “You want us to not work on the thing? On the thing we were working on?”

“Exactly,” the alien said as though proud of a child. “Cease all construction. I will soon have improved plans. I will return when they are completed.”

“Wait!,” George said.

Earl put a hand on George’s shoulder though. “Hold on. Let him go. You’ll be back?,” he asked the alien.

“I must return to provide improved plans.” The alien stood stock still a moment. Then he vanished. There was a split second that he seemed like a shadow, but in the next instant he was simply gone.

George and Earl felt a strange popping sensation like they were in a bubble that had burst. George spoke first. “He’s gone.”

Earl said, “Like Star Trek. Beam me up.”

George felt a dozen different emotions. “This’d have to happen on a week when we got all night to work every night.”

*       *       *       *

Q-sight was a remarkable substance. Nickel always felt centered and benumbed, absolutely patient and quite literally incapable of weariness. He could hear the change in his own voice. A deeper, more commanding presence was there. He still had his curiosities, but they didn’t bother him as much. He didn’t really care that he was stuck driving on one of the hidden highways all night long even though more experienced agents seemed to show up without the need for transportation.

Quarter had already explained about the effect space travel had on time. The truth was that no ship or craft of any kind could reasonably traverse the distance between stars while carrying living beings. The lights and objects that witnesses see in the sky are really just the visible manifestation of an alien signal making contact. To arrive on a distant planet, you had to have a probe there that could open a signal. Or you could take advantage of signals created either naturally or by that planet’s inhabitants. That signal could be used to transfer a lifeform to another world. It could even be used to construct the bioforms that space travelers needed to survive in an alternate atmosphere. Nickel knew that the aliens used false bodies. He had even been on two missions that had involved the disposal of discarded alien bioforms.

Of the secrets that Quarter revealed on the drive, the most important was that aliens weren’t often aware of their own biggest problem. They didn’t necessarily arrive at the moment they expected. Travel through space required travel through time as well. Quarter repeated the idea, because he liked to do that. “Alien visits are limited. They can’t just drop in and stay put. They can only remain as long as their transference lasts. So they make the most of the time they have, popping in and out throughout the parameters of the signal on Earth. A series of alien visitations doesn’t have to occur in chronological order. What seems like the first alien visit to an Earth witness might really be the fifth time the aliens have shown up from the alien perspective.”

“But witnesses don’t usually know that the aliens are disoriented like that.”

“The aliens don’t even know it. It doesn’t help that most aliens, particularly most joyrider punks, don’t have the best translation devices.”

*       *       *       *

Earl locked the workshop and trudged home, wishing he could fix his car as easily as he could a toaster. When Earl looked up he wondered, “Was that one of the weird lights or was it just a shooting star? Probably just a shooting star.”

Earl slowed his walk. He felt the slight tingling he sometimes did when he was about to get a mild electrical shock. He realized then that he had felt it earlier in the shop. Then he thought he heard something, like someone was following him. He stopped and looked around. “Am I alone?” Earl turned in place and nearly shouted when he saw the alien again.

“Do not fear,” he said. He stood stock still. He was getting used to the Earth style sense of balance, but he couldn’t walk around with perfect ease. He hoped his stillness seemed dramatic.

“Well then don’t sneak up on me, damn it!” Earl realized that he had just shouted at an alien. He became appropriately reverent in the next moment. “We stopped working on the thing. Do you already know what to do?”

The alien seemed a little confused about that. He actually looked over his shoulder like maybe Earl was talking to someone behind him. Earl felt a little comforted at the aliens’ human mannerisms. It told him, “I am Ceen.”

“Yeah, I see you.”

A blank moment, then the alien clarified, “Ceen is what I am called. Your designation?”

“My? My name?”


Earl was confused. “Are you the same one?”

“The same?”

Earl wondered if words cost the alien money, the way he scrimped on them. “You want to tell us how to build that thing, right?”

Ceen said, “That is correct. George told you that?”

“Huh? You did.”

“I did what?” Then Ceen decided that the garbled communications weren’t as important as his main purpose. “You will change your world. What is your name?”

“I’m Earl.”

“Earl. I have spoken to your companion George. I am here to help your species.”

“And you need our help?,” Earl asked.

Ceen was happy that he had consulted Plax’s Guide to Local Idioms. “Teach a man to fish.”

“What about fish?”

“The machine. It will change everything. I will show you when I see you next. Are you willing to help?”

“Of course. What do I have to do?” Earl didn’t get an answer. The alien stepped back, and there was that pop again, like something was unstuck from the world. Then Earl was alone.

*       *       *       *

The black sedan rolled off the hidden highway onto a local road. The Q-sight drug gave both of the agents extra senses that let them feel the unusual alteration of timespace in the area. It was something very small, but it was apparently enough for an alien to arrive in the area.

Quarter told the rookie, “We’re going to rendezvous with Dollar at a black site outside of the Shoesole Lakes area. What does it profit a lake to gain a shoe, but lose its sole?”

“Sir? That doesn’t even work as a pun.”

“There’s hidden meaning in it. There’s hidden meaning in everything.”

Nickel nodded carefully. It was one of the inside jokes of the organization. One of the reasons that no one could trace the activities of the organization was that not a lot of agents even knew what was going on. Everything was hidden even from them. Quarter was a level five agent. That meant that he knew where a lot of resources were, like a black site that was coincidentally available near a cluster of small towns they were going to surveil. Nickel doubted that even Quarter knew how a black site could be right there, but Nickel knew better than to ask. Considering what he had just learned about the aliens, he had started to wonder if the rumors among the rookies were true. Did the level sevens really get their orders from the future?

Quarter led him turn by turn onto a dirt path through the trees. Nickel was a bit sorry about the Q-sight then. He knew that if he were completely himself that he would find the area beautiful. As it was, he was unaffected. Disaffected. Disinfected. Damn. Have to watch that wordplay. Nickel admired Quarter, but he didn’t want to start thinking like him.

The black site was under the floorboards of an old abandoned building. It might have been an old schoolhouse. Under the dust and time they had a spotless command center and all the amenities of the agency. Dollar was a tall, thin, gaunt faced man whose voice reminded Nickel of Christopher Lee. “Quarter. Congratulations.”

Nickel wondered what the congratulations were for, but again, he knew better than to ask. The level five agent tapped the side of his shades in the greeting salute to a superior. “Ready for action, sir. What do we know so far?”

“Very little, I’m afraid. That’s why you’re here. We’ve isolated the signal to a town called Plakerton, but beyond that we have no real details. We believe there to be a single psychic intrusion from another world, but be prepared for more. You know how these creepozoids can be. They travel in packs. Except when they don’t. We have the scanners and optics running, but we don’t know where to appear yet.”

*       *       *       *

Neither George nor Earl had really slept. How could they when they were waiting for an alien to show up? Earl hadn’t even taken a shower. He was worried that Ceen would pop in while he was washing. They sat around their workshop with the garage door closed. George was fairly annoyed about that. When the workshop was open, Earl would let him smoke inside, but with it closed he was nicotine free. He could step outside, but he knew, he just knew, that if he did that, then the alien would arrive while he was out of sight. They had already been over it, but George, in his irritated, smokeless state, had to ask again, “So how sure are you that it was the same one?”

“Pretty sure, George. I mean, I can’t explain it, but he gives of this… vibe. I don’t know.”

“But he didn’t know your name?”

“Well, after I thought about it, he asked, but that don’t mean he didn’t know.”

“And he wants to go fishin’?”

“I don’t think so.”

“What did he say about fish exactly?”

“Somethin’ about teachin’ to fish. I don’t know if we’re supposed to teach him or he’s supposed to teach us.”

“Wait. Teach? Like he said that if you teach a man to fish?”

“Yeah!,” Earl said gleefully. Sometimes George was so much smarter than he was.

“You idiot!”


“Whoa!” They could both feel it, that strange interference. “Are we supposed to close our eyes or anything?”

“He didn’t say.”

But then the alien crept casually around a shelf. This was Ceen’s third appearance on the planet, but he had been there eight times already. “Friends George and Earl. I am sorry about the trouble with my last transference. For me it was painful. What you call a headache.”

The alien’s attitude was awfully positive considering the confusion so far. George nodded to him. “You’re the same one we saw here before?”

“The same what?,” the visitor asked.

Earl waved George’s clarification off. George wasn’t always smarter. Earl asked, “You’re named Ceen?”

The alien’s hands moved like he was tossing the question aside. His eyes were furrowed in confusion. “You know my name.”

“Yeah, I mean, are you the only alien?”

Again, Ceen was completely at a loss. “There is an entire planet full, just as there are of your kind.”

George was already baffled to the point of directness. “All right, I’m tired of this alien and Costello routine. Are you the only alien that Earl and I have met?”

“I do not know what other aliens you have met. You told me you had met others.”

George’s temper was about to really flare, so Earl decided to set the conversation straight. “Ceen, what did you mean about the fish?”

“NO!,” George demanded. “Ignore that dumbass question. Tell us about the machine.”

Ceen was grateful that George could cut to the important subject. “I am here so you can tell me about the machine.”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” George said as he turned in place.

Ceen clarified, “I am here to examine your work.”

“Oh,” Earl said. “Sure. We were under the impression that you already knew all about it.”

Ceen had no idea what that meant. How could he know what kind of progress they had made? George and Earl led him to a corner of the room where they pulled the tarp off of their invention. Ceen looked at it, then he looked at the Earthlings. When they didn’t say anything, he was forced to ask, “Where is it?”

After glancing at each other, both of them said at once, “This is it.”

Ceen frowned as much as his little mouth could allow. “The plans I gave you. What kind of progress have you made?”

George was too befuddled to still be angry. “You haven’t given us the plans yet?”

“You have everything you need. Where is the machine?”

“This is the machine,” George said. “This is what we were workin’ on.”

Ceen couldn’t figure out what to say next, but he didn’t have to. There was a knock on the door. Ceen scurried off to one of the back rooms. He didn’t have much time left for this visit. He hadn’t meant to give himself much time, and the connection had been distorted slightly anyway after his corrections. He could already feel the beginnings of disconnect with his bioform. If he didn’t return soon, he would be forced to leave a body behind. He was already worried about any mental discordance from the corrupted transference of his last visit. So as soon as he was out of sight, he activated the return.

The popping sensation told George and Earl that their alien friend had left. It was just Miss Allard from the library wanting to know if they were done with her TV. For that they had to put off a talk with an alien.

*       *       *       *

“We’re zeroing in,” Quarter said. He was tuning the knobs frantically. “It’s gone. The intrusion has ceased already. I have a partial fix.”

Dollar said, “Indicate it on the map.”

Quarter demonstrated the technique to Nickel as he worked so that the rookie could take over the scanning if he had to. Once they established a set of coordinate boundaries, Quarter drew the shape neatly on an area map. The Q-sight drug allowed him a perfect motion that required no tools. Nickel saw the twitch of Dollar’s left hand ring finger. It probably meant that Nickel was supposed to say the next thing, so the young agent said, “There are only four buildings in that area. Only one is a domicile.”

Quarter said, “We can’t assume that the intrusion appears within a home. We’ll have to go watch that area ourselves. We’ll need a spectrometer, binoculars, insulators and I wouldn’t mind a bag of Oreos.”

Click here to read Chapter Two


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