The Night the Clocks Stopped – Holden Lee

The emergency alarm jolted Kalindi awake on Solstice Night. He was on call; he had been advised to abstain from all alcohol except the lucid-wine that the Department provided. But he had drunk not only the papaya wine that the head chronician, Yilani, had treated everyone to as they stood on the twentieth-floor balcony of the Time Tower, watching the fireworks, but also, the slowtown beer that Pim had smuggled across the wall. The alarm hardly registered through the haze that surrounded him.

He must be dreaming. There hadn’t been a level-4 emergency in a hundred years. Eight generations of chronicians. But the alarm didn’t stop. He fumbled on the nightstand for the caffeine gum and chewed furiously as he picked up the phone.

“Malfunctioning clock in slowtown, 16 B. Pick up at Main Ave exit in one minute.”

Once acknowledged, the alarm stopped. He hurriedly put on his clothes as Pim stirred beside him.

“What hap’ning?” she asked drowsily, in slowtowner contractions.

“Nothing – it is manageable – just a clock – go back to sleep – will be back,” he stammered.



Pim had come as a guest, and Kalindi was proud to show her off to his colleagues. She had no clothes suitable for formal functionaries — her musician’s garb wouldn’t do — but Kalindi knew her body well enough to buy a dress for her at the tailor’s. A deep blue, the color of history, in a crowd of red. Red, the color of speed, of fervency, of blood flowing tick-tock through the city’s mechanical heart that they pumped, the chronochrum at the center of the Time Tower. The color of the chronicians, who orchestrated the great transference of time, funneling time from slowtowners who didn’t need it, to fasttowners who were Productively engaged in the vital industries (Manufacturing, Research, Media, Finance, and Politics).

Tonight was a night of celebration. The chronicians drank and watched the sunset on the longest day of the year, reveling in their part to play in the dominance of the Gabrean empire. The model set by the capital city of Chronopolis — stratification into fasttown, midtown, and slowtown, with speeds differing by factors of two — had been replicated throughout Gabrea in the last two hundred years.

As night fell, their eyes lingered on slowtown, watching its human denizens move sluggishly compared to the stray dogs and the refuse blowing through the dimly lit streets, unaffected by the clocks. What unsavory activities were they engaged in? But soon the chronicians’ attention was drawn back to fasttown, to the pleasures that Chronopolis had to offer its heroes. They spent their free drink and meal tickets, sitting by the lantern-lit fountains at the most luxurious bars and restaurants in town. They made love with Department-provided or self-found lovers in the secluded fragrance chambers.

But all the other lovers could not compare to Pim. She might look like a typical slowtown girl, short and hazel-skinned from the slowtown sun, except for her curly black hair that radiated out in all directions, bouncing past her waist. What they couldn’t see were the songs that coursed through her blood, and the way she could listen to Kalindi and untangle all his thoughts.

He silently dared the others to laugh at her. And they did, asking her questions about things she wouldn’t know, like theater.

“Let us ask the slowtowner for an unbiased opinion,” Evrilandra had said in the midst of a heated debate, “Which actress best played the role of the Dragoness in The Timekeeper’s Bride?”

Pim didn’t lose her slowtowner contractions when she answered, “I’ve seen better among street actors in Tourists’ Plaza!”

He loved her for her boldness. The others would never understand.

It was no easy feat, convincing her to spend the Solstice in fasttown. He hadn’t heard back from her since she last ran off, and hadn’t expected her to reply to his letter promising an “unforgettable” night. But she did — and it was like their fight had never happened, except for a certain coolness which would certainly dissolve over wine. She watched, awed, at the fireworks, opening like rainflowers across the sky. In her fifty years — twenty-five subjective years — in slowtown, she’d seen the semiannual fireworks almost a hundred times, but never had she seen them as they were meant to be seen, in the slow motion that was only possible through Chronology.



Kalindi ran down the stairs to hop onto the sirening truck. He was hardly in before they were racing for the border.

Wyrickle handed Kalindi a decompression mask from the seat beside him. Wyrickle, their youngest chronician, had only graduated from intern status five months ago. He had trembling hands, and was better at mathematics than mechanisms. Kalindi was on call because he volunteered, and Wyrickle was on call because no one else volunteered.

Fortunately, no amount of beer could obscure the map burned into Kalindi’s mind from ten years — twenty subjective years — of working for Chronology. The map took up the entire wall of the control room, and was replicated on every workdesk. Slowtown, in a uniform shade of blue, except for the deep blue of the slugtown jails, and fasttown, different shades of red. At the center was the Time Tower, generating the gradient between the clocks in the slowtown grid and the clocks in the fasttown grid. The clocks, spaced a hundred feet apart, covered every single point of the two districts.

16 B was the grid square of Old Plaza. Or Tourists’ Plaza, as the slowtowners called it.

The caffeine pill had kicked in, and Kalindi was lucid now, although his head hurt.

“I hope the celebrations are over,” Wyrickle said, “It would be a disaster, disaster, if the plaza was still occupied – ”

“The night is brief for slowtowners,” Kalindi said. “Many of them camp in the plaza.”

“But that is a huge, huge unbalancing!”

The basic laws of chronology were simple:  Time could not be created or destroyed, only balanced; for one fasttowner to run at twice natural speed, two slowtowners had to run at half-speed. Time could only be balanced between living things, and only human time could balance human time.

But the balancing itself was a delicate science, requiring the clocks to be tuned at the right frequencies. At the university, they had all learned the hard way what small errors did when they experimented on mice: sudden, mass hemorrhaging. He himself had yelped on the first day of class when Professor Timindis demonstrated the consequences on twenty sacrificial mice, and not thought that he would kill even more over the course of his training.

“Relax, Wyrickle. The system is robust.”

Most of the mass of the Time Tower’s mechanisms did not come from the central chronochrum, but from the surrounding regiments of failsafes and flow-dampers, time-fuses and chropacitors. The rest of the clocks would suck more time to make up for their broken counterpart.

The truck sped towards the open slowtown gates.

They hit the boundary.

The siren rose in pitch.

The world sped up around them. The slowtowners, who had looked like a crowd of slow dancers from the other side, became a seething, screaming riot. The border guards shot those who managed to get through the gate into fasttown before it closed.

BAM! The truck smashed into a slowtowner in front of them and lurched.

“Clear the way, clear the way!”

The officers on the roof of the truck sprayed onion gas to disperse the crowd in front of them. The truck ran over several more bodies. A smoke bomb went off in front of them.

The portable chronochrum in the center of the truck hummed to life. It sped up the chronicians and the police to 2x speed so they could finish their job faster, by slowing down others in the vicinity. Kalindi felt the chronotag over his ear vibrating as it connected.

“This is as far as we can drive,” the officer beside them said. “You will each be accompanied by an officer. Make haste.”

The world changed again. The sirens fell in pitch, and the crowds slowed. An officer in red waved from his motorcycle and Kalindi headed towards him, carrying his toolbox. The officer grabbed the toolbox and wedged it between his legs. Kalindi had barely sat down behind him when the motorcycle took off, weaving through the slow-moving crowd. Why were there so many people here? Slowtowners spent their Solstices in huge crowds, camping in the plaza with an extended family gathered, and they could get rowdy with music, drink, and smoke. But this wasn’t a usual Solstice night. More people streamed into the plaza every second, pushing past the police, ignoring the megaphone blasts:

“This plaza is closed. You are in violation of the law. You must leave or be forcibly removed.”

Some keeled over from compression sickness as they entered the sphere around the broken clock, others from the truncheons which hit them twice as hard, but they were too many to hold back.

Kalindi and Wyrickle came to the street-clock surrounded by a fountain, at the center of the plaza.

Kalindi grimaced. What architectural idiot had thought this a good idea?

The officer swung the heavy toolbox into Kalindi’s hand, and then joined the police to form a boundary around the fountain. He stumbled into the water, and was sprayed in the face by a jet. He heard the clock ticking, humming through the metal exterior.

Beside him, Wyrickle took the key from around his neck and opened the service door. The water around them died down – some officer had finally found the stop button. It should be quick — locate the malfunctioning part and replace it.

Kalindi stared. The gears were stuck — they were covered in a warm, sticky black substance. Two of the gears had been melded together, and were shaking, like two lovers unable to separate.

“Timelords…” Kalindi whispered.

The clock wasn’t simply malfunctioning, it had been sabotaged.

But who could have opened it? Only chronicians had the keys.

Kalindi looked more closely. There was a foreign gadget stuck in the mechanism. He deduced it was an expired timer, which had triggered a pair of scissor-like blades that closed upon a bag of two compartments, which had held the two component chemicals of the goo, and was now in tatters.

“The last person here implanted the timer,” Kalindi concluded, “to trigger exactly during Solstice Eve.”

The radio attached to his belt crackled.

“14X and 32N compromised. Finish current work and dial back for instructions.”

“Those are also plazas,” Kalindi said, “where thousands of people are gathered…”



Kalindi met Pim during a dark period in his life. He felt nothing but a ticking emptiness, during the long hours in front of the screens. It didn’t go away, even though he went to the chronician parties, took lovers, and faithfully bought front-row seats to see the newest episode of ChronoMan every week.

His social worker confronted him with his declining Productivity numbers.

“If you do not improve,” she said, “You will be flagged for deceleration.”

He took a week off.

There were many places to go. The Sunberry Coast and the Cocono Islands were popular getaways for Chronopolis urbanites, and even the Alterra Mountains were not so far away now, by the new train line. Instead, he crossed the border into slowtown. He had been there for countless clock-works, but it was always in-and-out — he had never stopped to see the city.

He first heard Pim in the Old Plaza, in front of a blue-painted trailer, playing her lute and singing in a beautiful, deep voice, her eyes closed, inviting him to stare into her face, serene and sad. A crowd gathered as the evening approached, and she told them:

“A hundred years ago – before the walls were built – slowtown decided to rise up against fasttown. It’s forgotten from fasttown memory, but many of you will still remember. My grandpa died that night, and many others too, but we did not give up hope. Here is a song dedicated to those who gave their lives.”

The song started with anger, towards the fires that the government set throughout slowtown in retaliation; continued into desolation, as the poverty that grew ever-worse; and ended with a ray of hope, that one day, the time would rebalance, that everyone would get the time that was their due.

When the crowd dispersed, he stayed.

He should explain to her that she was wrong, that fasttown made their entire country more prosperous, and that slowtowners had no one to blame but themselves for not being Productive enough to earn a faster speed.

But when the crowd dispersed, that wasn’t the reason he stayed.

She noticed him. “Would you like more song?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Then come in,” she opened the door to her trailer and gestured for Kalindi to follow her.

They came into a tiny sitting room, with a blue carpet and two pillows. Pim sat on one and Kalindi sat on the other, and she played for him, songs from all over the world. Each song was a story, and each story was sad, because it was about a group of people that Gabrea had conquered, and each sadness had a spark of rebellion, towards which Kalindi knitted his brows.

They sat in silence when the songs ended. Kalindi couldn’t think of anything to say.

“You look like you haven’t heard music before,” she said, and before he could deny the statement, she continued, “Why did you come to slowtown?”

“I had to escape – the rhythm – it felt always the same.”

“You don’t like your job?”

“No, I love my job. It is a very important job.”

“Tell me, why’s it so important?”

“The clocks must not stop,” his voice picked up, finding solid ground. “For how else can we keep abreast of the rest of the world? In Manufacturing, in Research, and spreading our culture through Media, in Financing our great empire. Chronopolis’s main source of income is from foreign corporations and organizations, who bid at premium rates to run faster than the rest of the world.”

“You sound like you’re echoing the Politicians,” Pim said, unaffected by the oratory, “I don’t really believe them.”

“I think – maybe I also do not believe them.”

“I know some people in fasttown,” Pim continued, “some workers.”

“You mean, the Manufacturists?”

“Yes. They’re recruited from slowtown during their peak years. They get burned out in fasttown. And then they come back, all gray and grizzled.”

“Do not worry, I will not be like that.”

“I wasn’t talking about you!” she slapped his hand. “They go because there are no jobs in slowtown. And though I’d rather travel slowtown there is not much money except in the Tourists’ Plaza. Now, I’ll thank you for what you’ll give me for my songs.”

He gave her fifty tiks. It was what he made in two hours, and it hadn’t been that long – but what she had given him was more valuable than anything he had done recently. She looked like she hadn’t seen that much money, but took it.

“I would like you to show me around slowtown,” he said.

She smiled. “Maybe I can help you.”

And so she did, the next two days – a biday, a single wake/sleep cycle in slowtown. They biked through slowtown – Kalindi was terrified the first two hours, as the bikes seemed to go four times faster, here, and the cars, too, whizzing by without slowing down, but then he laughed because he felt so alive. Slowtown was a misnomer, he reflected, because everything around him was going faster.

Pim stopped to give coins to the beggars, many of whom had missing fingers for crimes they had committed. She stopped for the waifs — the fasttowners’ slowtown concubines, who lived in the “white houses” by the wall, continually cleansing themselves and waiting on a moment’s notice to cross into fasttown, kept young for the lifetime of their masters — even though they were despised by the rest of slowtown. Pim did not have a family, but her friends did, and Kalindi marveled at three generations, living in a house, without a common profession! So unlike the incubatories and academies of fasttown. She played a song for those families waiting in line for hours to receive their weekly compensation for living in slowtown.

They ate lots of slowtown bread, the kind that took hours to rise, and was too inefficient for fasttowners. She bought dream and scintillation. These were the drugs, he had been told, that slowtowners wasted their time on: dream making time seem to pass by faster, the clouds scuttle across the sky, scintillation slowing down time, and making every sensation stronger, more electric. They tried it together, under the stars. There were many, many more stars visible here: more light hitting the eye for every subjective second.



The acids were slow to work through the goo. Wyrickle passed Kalindi the tools and vials as he worked.

“I was here last time the clocks were fixed,” Wyrickle said. “with Nin.”

“Ninaris,” Kalindi corrected.

Nin, the first slowtowner chronician in fifty years, had been so eager to prove herself, taking on more work than she needed to, just like Kalindi ten years ago. Though she took on a fasttown name and demeanor — even coldly ignoring Pim last night — it was still painfully obvious that she was not a native fasttowner.

“People coming towards us!” Wyrickle shouted.

“Calm down,” Kalindi said. “We are quite safe with the guards.”

Kalindi suddenly remembered that Ninaris was on the Solstice Eve shift. He almost dropped his tools.

“Wyrickle – if she is behind this – ”


Kalindi stepped to the side just in time to avoid a black figure who then grabbed hold of Wyrickle. Kalindi was grabbed from behind and thrust onto a motorcycle. He struggled, but stopped when he saw that the man was wearing red.

“We have to get you out of here,” the officer said.

“But Wyrickle – ”

The motorcycle revved and accelerated across the plaza. He felt a snapping in the side of his skull, as if he had been hit with a rubber band, and the world speeded up around him.

“Slug!” the guard cursed; the truck had caught on fire, and the portable chronochrum with it, so they had reverted to local speed.

A shot rang out, and the guard toppled off the motorcycle.

Kalindi was barely was able to grab the handlebars to keep himself from falling off. It was just him now, pursued by the figures in black. The Resistance. Those who sought to break the stratification, to send the city back to the dark ages where everyone, regardless of their value to society, ran at the same speed. They had led the revolt a hundred years ago, which had been crushed by the military. That time, they’d tried to blow up the clocks, but it hadn’t worked. Many hands had been chopped off, many sent to slugtown. But the Resistance didn’t die, and was here to finish the business they had started.

He accelerated. It was a good thing that he had practice with bikes in slowtown. They wouldn’t kill him because he was a chronician; he was valuable. He just had to outbike them.

Chaos reigned at the border. One guard almost sprayed onion gas into his face before he saw Kalindi’s chronician uniform, and hoisted him behind the barricade.

“ID card,” he demanded.

The card was missing from his wallet.

Instead he found a piece of paper, folded into the shape and size of an ID card, and held shut with blue glitter glue.

“I cannot find it. I must have lost it in the confusion. Listen, Nin – Ninaris – a chronician, is sabotaging the chronochrum – ”

“We are under orders not to let anyone without a ID into fasttown. You can wait in the station, and as soon as we can get someone to verify you – ”

The radio crackled, but the voice, coming from fasttown, spoke too fast for Kalindi to hear. He turned the dial to slow down the playback.

“Level 5 emergency… chronicians unconscious… military notified…”

He recognized the voice as coming from one of the chronicians on duty. He spoke as fast as he could.

“Ulingin, this is Kalindi. I need you to send someone to pick me up at the border. And about Ninaris – ”

There was a thump on the other end.

“Ulingin? Ulingin?” He called desperately, but there was only static.

He opened the piece of paper.



After that night on scintillation with Pim — which he still trembled to remember — his mind had shifted, as if he were running on a slightly different time from everyone else. (His social worker had noticed it. “Tell me about your lover,” she said, in her usual friendly, prying way, and he hadn’t responded, because how could he reduce Pim to words?) He felt like a kid again, taking apart a rusty street-clock and diagnosing its trouble. When he was in the control room, knowing the procedures weren’t just a matter of recall, or even of muscle memory, but of being one with the machines, feeling them tick as his own heartbeat. When he closed his eyes, he could see the entire nervous system of the city, as if it was painted in glowing ink on his eyelids. The whole world, he was sure, was just a system of interconnected gears that he could control if he had the blueprint.

But Pim remained a mystery.

He made the mistake of offering to buy her a house on Waifs’ Row. She ran off when he said that, through the crowds and alleyways, almost but never quite losing him, until they were in a part of slowtown he had never been to before, with tents full of a lighter-skinned people who didn’t speak Gabrean, from one of the new, northern colonies.

“Of course, you would not have to stay there all the time,” he said, “it would just be a place – it would just be symbolic – ”

“You’re just like all the other fasties,” she said.

Because there were plenty of others. She had letters from people she had performed for -—from all over the the world, piles and piles of them, crammed in a makeshift cabinet in her trailer. So many letters — because the rest of the world went by, twice as quickly, and fasttown, four times.

He grew older, and she stayed young, and he feared to lose her. He didn’t have time to go to slowtown, so he paid for her to visit him. Sometimes she disappeared for months at a time.

Yet she always came back. Who wouldn’t? Fasttown was magnificent. There were crowds of slowtown girls who wanted to marry into fasttown. They folded generic love letters into paper birds, stood on the roofs and threw them at the wall on Lovers’ Day. The more fortunate became waifs, and the less fortunate became whores.

He had to find a way for her to come to fasttown permanently. He needed more money and standing, so he chased promotions. He spearheaded the modernization project, and never failed to remark on how the “Days since last street-clock outage” counter continued to increment. Increased reliability meant more valuable real estate, more gold pouring into the city’s vaults as businesses lapped up the time that the Chronopolis rebalanced from the slowtowners. Finally, his name was mentioned, as a candidate for head chronician when Yilani retired.

“You will be a star,” Kalindi promised Pim, “In fasttown, the only music is music that is motivational, and it is tiring. They will love you. It will not matter that the Performers guild will not recognize you – we will find a way.”

“But I won’t belong.”

“You do not have to belong. I love you the way you are, contractions and all.”

“But my people – ”

“If you can touch so many from slowtown – think of what you can do here, for the people who matter – ”

She had stopped replying to his letters. Until a few days before, where she accepted his invitation to the Solstice Eve celebrations. She had seemed happy, though nervous, as they hopped between restaurants.

“Will you stay with me?” he asked, when they arrived back at his apartment.

“Depends whether you love me,” she’d said.

“Of course I do.”

“But I love everyone, you only love me if you love everyone. Do you?”

“Yes.” Why wouldn’t he, when she was here?




The time for the second revolution has finally come. We will be taking control. Don’t come back ‘cuz you’ll just be caught in the crossfire.

Forgive me for my trickery. I had to send you away to slowtown. It’s not safe in fasttown.

You can’t change the force of history, but you can choose which side you’re on. Join us. On the bottom of this sheet of paper is the address of one of the hideouts of the Resistance. We’ve great use for someone of your talent.




Pim had taken his ID and keys. She would be able to get into the Department, and under the guidance of Nin Weaver, change the settings for the chronochrum. It took two pairs of hands, two keys.

The system was difficult to break; time-flow was very inertial, and Kalindi himself had helped program some of the sabotage-detection. But with a large enough outage to provide the initial shock, and with the right re-channeling at the pinch-points…

The radio crackled. It was a general police announcement.

“Stay out of 3B. Keep fifty feet away from the Time Tower; a malfunction in the chronochrum has led to several deaths.”

It was not a malfunction. Kalindi had to go back to tell them. He had the show the letter to the officer immediately. He would stop the revolution in its tracks; he would be a hero.

But a hero for whom?

What would they do to him, once they realized that he was the one who had made this possible, by bringing Pim into fasttown?

He had made his decision in loving Pim. And she had made it clear what it meant for him to love her, every time she talked about the injustices of slowtown.

If the system could be brought down…

“Where are you going?” the officer asked.

He jumped on the motorcycle and sped away from the fasttown wall. He was going to help finish the job that Pim had started.