I was alone in the
workshop at the back of our gun shop in the Maxburg Strasse
when Dieter, my partner, came to the door and said a
Mr Jones wanted to see me.
'He arrived in a
chauffeur-driven limousine,' he said, an almost reverent look
on his square Bavarian face. 'He looks like an English
Intrigued I put down the
ionizer from an early Asiablock electro-pistol I had been
repairing and followed Dieter to the front of the shop. We did
get some unusual visitors but not yet a member of the British
aristocracy. Most unlikely with that name, anyway.
Waiting for us was a tall
slim hatched-faced man of about 40 with a pale complexion, a
straight nose and a high forehead. He was dressed in a dark
suit, white shirt and a dark-blue striped tie. British Civil
Service, Foreign Office, I would have said. Approaching
curiously I received a direct stare from deep-set hooded
unsmiling cold grey eyes that was like a cold
'Digby,' I said in the
German fashion I had fallen into since I had come to
live in Munich.
'Jones,' he replied equally
briefly, and being British we didn't shake hands.
He turned to
'Thank you,' he said with
glacial politeness. Dieter hesitated angrily at this curt
dismissal then returned to his office, banging the door.
I cancelled any friendly remarks I was about to make
and closed my face. We looked at each other for a
'I am interested in
antique fire-arms, particularly muskets,' he said.
A customer then. Well,
I didn't have to like him.
'I see,' I replied,
gathered my thoughts and turned to our collection which lined
the walls. 'The earliest item we have is dated …'
I began and I was off into my usual chat.
As I moved around
lifting the various muskets from their racks to show him,
I listened carefully to his accent (and no one listens to
accents more carefully than the British) but couldn't place it.
Neutral southern English spoken in a light voice but now and
then a word with American intonation.
At the same time I began
modifying my opinion of him. He listened intently, asked
intelligent questions and I felt myself warming to him.
His initial coldness must have been nervousness or an official
As we continued talking
I found myself continually revising upwards my opinion of
him. The stiffness gradually disappeared, to be replaced by an
apparently dormant boyish enthusiasm and a sort of sardonic
humour which reminded me of the much decorated colonel of my
old Regiment. I felt myself irresistibly drawn to him,
grinning at his use of slang expressions I had not heard
since I had left the Army. It turned out that his main
interest was in muskets built around 1800 and fortunately we
But finally I secured
the last musket back into its rack.
'And I'm afraid that's all we
have,' I said over my shoulder with genuine regret that
I had no more to show this fascinating and knowledgeable
man. What was he? A career diplomat satisfying an eccentric
hobby? Judging by his aura of confident authority he must have
an important and responsible position in some big
'Mr Digby,' he said
behind my back as I fastened its restraining
'Yes?' I said, turning
round with a smile, to find him staring into my eyes, a
visiting-card case in his hand. The smile froze on my face.
Holding my gaze he withdrew a card and after consideringly
clicking his thumb-nail on its edge a moment, handed it to me
formally. Surprised, I took it, feeling as though
I was being awarded some sort of certificate.
Very fancy. The luminous
green holo-lettering leapt up at me. "Frank E. Jones", followed
by a line of abbreviated qualifications of which "Ph.D." was
the only one I recognized.
And modestly in the bottom
right-hand corner, "Chrondisp Institute".
Jesus! I looked up at
him startled then down at the card again. It looked expensive
enough to be genuine.
'Do you have somewhere
private?' he asked.
If he was really from the
famous and fabulously secretive Chrondisp Institute we couldn't
talk here. Not with Dieter who was now chatting with a customer
and straining his ears to hear what we were saying.
'My office,' I said,
opening the door.
I gestured to the
visitor's chair, closed the door and after sitting opposite him
laid his card on the desk between us.
'"Chrondisp",' I said,
looking at him in a mixture of awe and nervous hilarity. 'You
are a Time Traveller.'
In spite of myself
I imagined the famous helmet on his head and heard the
"Time Traveller" theme from the holo series.
He moved his head in
annoyance. I supposed he was used to this
'I work for the
Institute but am not an Observer,' he said frigidly. He picked
up his card, put it back in his wallet and looked at me
'We may be able to offer you
employment at the Institute,' he said. And then with a
infectious smile the charm returned. 'But first could you tell
me what you understand by Chronological Displacement?'
I was irritated to find myself smiling back at
But it was a good question.
What did I know? What did anyone know? I remembered
about two years ago a French scientist had written an odd paper
on the Structure of Time. He had complained in the media that
"Nature" had refused publication. A little controversy had
blown up and then the trouble in Afghanistan had started again
and he had been forgotten. About a year later an enterprising
reporter had found that funds were being channelled from
different Westblock governments into the building of a large
and fantastically well-guarded installation in the middle of
the Sahara desert. It was assumed to be something to do with
genetics and the usual articles on the production of supermen,
human clones etc. were given an airing again.
But then the news had broken
that science had discovered a way to send a person back in
time. The technical press had been full of it and the French
scientist had written "explaining" it in terms of a
multi-dimensional mathematics that hardly anyone could
understand, least of all me. Dieter had tried to describe to me
how you had to go into another dimension to be able to say "how
fast time moved" but I don't think he knew any more than
anyone else. Like a lot of Germans, he just liked explaining
The media had seized on
time-travelling and handsome men wearing the famous helmet were
to be seen most nights on the holo, rescuing beautiful nude
maidens from the torture dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition or
leading a squadron of Spads into battle over the Western Front
of World War I.
'The "Chrondisp Institute"
have built a time-machine called an Inserter that can send a
person, an Observer, back into the past,' I began. 'The
past has been found to consist of a Main Timeline which links
Key Events all through history down to us in the present. Then
there are Branch Timelines which are connected to the Main Line
but don't lead anywhere important. The Main Timeline is fixed;
if the Observer is sliding along it he can only observe what's
going on. But if he's sliding along a Branch-line he can
sometimes bend it too.'
'Yes,' said Mr Jones who
had been rather impatiently twisting his steel watch-strap
round his wrist as I talked. 'That is near enough.
I could add that there are many many Branch lines. Most of
humanity lives on Branch Lines. They live their lives away
peacefully, generation after generation, doing nothing
important, nothing to change the course of history. Whether
they marry or not, have children or not, lead irreproachable
lives or a life of crime is unimportant.' He shrugged. 'If they
don't influence the Main Timeline their lives are
'Then the guys who live on a
Main Timeline …' I began.
'No one lives on a Main
Timeline,' interrupted Mr Jones with a tolerant smile. 'If
you're very lucky, or maybe unlucky, you might just touch the
Main Timeline once in your life.'
He thought a moment, then
pointed at me.
'As a military example, take the case of
Colonel Macdonell. A conventional career in the Scots Guards
until Lord Wellington put him in charge of a farmhouse guarding
the British right flank at the Battle of Waterloo. The French
made strenuous efforts to capture this farmhouse and finally a
company, hidden by gunsmoke, rushed round the back where they
found the main gate to the courtyard open. The defenders put up
a desperate fight and killed the French general leading the
attack but the French finally overpowered them and streamed
into the courtyard.
Colonel Macdonald heard the triumphant cries
of the French and called to four of his men. They forced their
way around the side of the fighting mass and managed to slam
the gate closed and drop the locking-bar in place just before
French reinforcements could arrive. The French now trapped in
the courtyard were killed or captured.' He paused.
Yes, it was a good example
and I had heard of it. In fact my old Regiment had an
oil-painting of it on the wall in the dining room of the
'And that was a Key Event on
the Main Timeline,' I said.
'It was indeed. If the French
had captured the Hougoumont farmhouse they would have been able
to roll up the British line from the right. Napoleon would have
won the battle of Waterloo, Brussels would have been captured,
Belgium fallen, and maybe we would be talking now in French
instead of English.' He smiled again and I smiled back.
I'd never thought of it like that.
'But what about those who
live all their lives on Branch Timelines?' I asked. 'Are
their lives really just a waste of time?'
'No, not necessarily,' he
said looking at me in pleased surprise. 'Consider the case of
say, a tribal witch doctor who discovered gunpowder years
before the Chinese but just used it to improve his image before
the tribe. One evening at an especially ambitious performance
he and all his assistants suddenly joined their ancestors in a
spectacular explosion, taking the gunpowder secret with
He moved a hand expressively
and I smiled.
'Now if we could go back into
the past and observe this Branch Line we could discover the
secret of making gunpowder and bring it into the present and
profit from it.' He shrugged. 'If it hadn't already been
discovered in the meantime, of course.'
'Yes,' I said. 'Bringing
the secret of gunpowder into the present would surely be a Key
Event if it hadn't already been discovered. But if
I understand this right, it couldn't be used as the Main
Timeline can't be bent.'
'That's right,' he said,
nodding his head in approval, 'once the Main Timeline is in
place it cannot be moved. But this is a special case. The
information brought forward from the past can be used to
influence the direction the Main Timeline takes, now, while it
is being formed.' He stabbed his finger down on the desk. 'It's
not the same thing.'
I digested this. 'So the
Chrondisp Institute can rediscover forgotten inventions,'
'Good,' he said with a smile
and I felt a glow of pleasure. 'It's an important
application and it's why I'm here, Mr Digby. We have a
problem and we think that you with your background and
specialized knowledge of old firearms can help us.
I invite you to visit the Institute. When can you
I thought quickly
– there was nothing in the near future that really
required my attention in Munich. I shrugged and said
I could come anytime.
He looked satisfied, glanced
down at his watch and stood up.
As he briskly stepped out of
our shop a large black Mercedes appeared from nowhere and drew
up at the kerb. The burly uniformed driver stepped out and with
a polite smile held the passenger door open. But this was not
quick enough for Mr Jones who made an impatient 'get on'
gesture, climbed in and slammed the door.
The driver's smile
disappeared as he returned hastily to his seat and
Mr Jones was driven off without a backward glance.
I watched as the car crashed a yellow and disappeared
around the corner.
As I turned back into
the shop I began to play back our conversation,
remembering the way he had switched his charm on and off and
blushing with embarrassment at my fawning reactions. Which was
his real personality, charming diplomat or cold
But then my resentment vanished as it hit
I was going to visit the Chrondisp