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TIME GUN

Chapter 1

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 noble.'

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 shower.

'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 Dieter.

'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 moment.

'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 front.

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 had several.

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 organization.

'Mr Digby,' he said behind my back as I fastened its restraining clip.

'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 reaction.

'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 pensively.

'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 him.

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 things.

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 irrelevant.'

'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 Officers' Mess.

'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 them.'

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,' I surmised.

'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 come?'

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 official?

But then my resentment vanished as it hit me.

I was going to visit the Chrondisp Institute!

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