I sat shivering in the Inserter cage, in what seemed the first quiet moment since I had arrived at the Chrondisp Institute a week ago. I stretched my neck and looked around. There had been a few changes. The cage surrounding my heavily insulated seat was now spherical instead of oval and instead of being hoisted up between two slowly rotating discharge spheres I was inside a one-meter high vertical cylinder which was divided up into many thin segments.
The biggest difference was the heavy suit I was wearing - heavy because of the thin lead plates that lined it. This was going to be the most distant Insertion ever, to more than 2 500 years in the past and a lot of X-ray radiation from the flash was expected.
But the echoing Inserter hall seemed unchanged, there was the same familiar faint smell of ozone and still no one had thought of installing a heater in the cage.
Glancing down I could see moving figures in the brightly lit window of the control room and once Jim had come to the glass and peered upwards, his hands shading his eyes from the back-glare. I shifted impatiently and fiddled with the headset volume control but there was just a faint hissing. The countdown panel on the wall in front of me remained impassively blank.
Jim was now the head of Mission Control Computing and I had been told that Dr Duluth, now head of Target Selection, would himself be watching my Insertion.
There was a click and the headset suddenly came alive.
`We're having some trouble untangling your Time Line.' I recognised Jim's voice. `But it shouldn't be long now.'
I grunted acknowledgement.
I thought back over the hectic last week. I am what you would call a "Freelance Traveller", I suppose, and my call from Chrondisp had arrived while I was air-surfing over the Bavarian Alps. Which perhaps explains why I prefer to remain freelance. I would certainly earn more as a Chrondisp staffer, but living permanently in the Chrondisp complex in the middle of the Sahara desert? No, no.
The triple "urgent" beeps from my phone had actually arrived while I was looking for lift over the steep southern face of the Zugspitze so I had glided to a nearby crag (only exhibitionists use the phone when airsurfing), hissing in to a landing on the snow, unzipped my gloves and pushed up my sun-goggles.
I had immediately recognised Jim's Californian accent.
Without any preliminary chat he had gone straight to the point.
`Dig? We gotta problem. How quick can you get your ass over here?'
Bloody hell. I had just started my holiday and far above me I could see Helga circling, the early-morning sun glinting off her surf-board as she banked.
`You there, fella?'
`Yes, yes.' I had answered irritably, `I've just started a holiday and ...'
`With Helga I bet, - the one with the fantastic-?'
`Yes,' I had interrupted him.
Jim had spent a short holiday with me last month and had been very impressed with the fräuleins. "Sweet and sexy" had been his verdict.
His voice softened.
`Well, tough. But this is a big one. Direct from Dr D.'
`Can't you tell me something about it?' I had asked.
There was a pause, broken only by the soft hissing of static.
`It's connected with your Mission in Victorian England. OK?'
`Really?' I had said stupidly.
`Yes, reely,' he had said, mimicking an English accent, and the phone had gone dead.
I had looked around the isolated snow-covered rocky outcrop on which I had just landed. The low early-morning sun in a cloudless deep-blue sky made black shadows in the disturbed snow of my landing track. Three thousand meters down below the ground was a misty blur. A nearby glint made me look up to see Helga coming in for a landing, no doubt wondering what was wrong. Fortunately I had not snapped the phone shut so the red "urgent" lamp was still visible. I had held it up to her and sadly related my already prepared story of having to return to London on "Official Business".
All in all, Helga had taken it very well. It had not been the first time I had had to disappear mysteriously for a while - she believed I was a "Secret Agent". She thought it romantic and would even cover up for me.
After the initial disappointment had worn off she had said:
`Last time it was your mother's funeral.'
`My uncle Fred,' I said sadly.
`Uncle Fred, then,' she said practically. `His heart was always weak.'
There was a reflective pause.
`But now as I suppose you have to leave immediately, I must tell you that the bright sun has a strong, how you say?, "effect", on me.'
She had looked around the isolated sunny crag and began to peel off her jump-suit in a business-like manner. And as she had nothing on underneath it, I too had suddenly begun to feel, how you say?, an "effect".
And so I had finally taken my departure after a rather shaky glide back to ground. In excuse, I should point out to anyone who has not tried it, that when "the big bird flies out of the window" at three thousand meters, it can leave you feeling surprisingly breathless.
I made a short stopover at my apartment in the Schwabing district of Munich in order to repack my bag. Clothes chosen for a holiday in the Alps would not be of much use at the Chrondisp Institute in the middle of the Sahara desert. As I folded in the last shirt, the phone rang. I picked it up, wondering how anyone knew I was back. A woman's voice:
`Captain Digby? Here is Polizeiinspektion Ett Str. I have Inspector Braut for you.'
There was a click and before I could say anything the voice changed.
`Captain Digby, I have recently come into possession of an unusual English firearm and I would be pleased if you could evaluate it for me.' A deep voice with an indefinable accent, certainly not Bavarian.
I looked at my watch. My flight to Tangiers wouldn't leave for another six hours. I didn't recognise the voice but it paid to keep in with the local police - our "Waffen" shop had a small contract for supplying them with practice ammunition and we also let them use out underground range from time to time.
`Yes, of course. But you have caught me at my apartment. I suggest we meet at our shop. In an hour perhaps?'
`Yes, very well. In one hour at your shop.'
Odd. Why ring here? But I supposed he had called the shop first and finding I was out had hung up immediately and tried my home number. He would think that being a part-owner I wouldn't always keep office hours.