After the fact by Fred Saberhagen


Central Illinois was about the flattest place that Jerry Flint had ever seen. Plowed fields, islanded here and there by clumps of trees and farm buildings, seemed to go on forever. The horizon was lost in an indeterminate haze more appropriate to Indian Summer than Spring.

Here and there along the interstate that stretched southwest from Chicago, grain elevators in tiny towns stood up like junior skyscrapers. Occasionally the highway would line up on one of them and rush straight at it for three or four miles, only to swerve at the last moment, bypassing both tower and town completely.

Jerry had intended to use the driving time to prepare himself for the interview facing him in Springfield, but found himself listening to the wind rushing past instead. Before he was well out of Chicago he had begun to realize that there was not a whole lot in the way of preparation that he could do; since he knew next to nothing about the people who ran the Pilgrim Foundation for Historical Research, it was difficult to imagine what sort of programming or systems work they might want from him.

Tom Scheffler, a fellow student at St. Thomas More in Chicago, had told Jerry that he had worked for the man Pilgrim himself about a year ago, had been well paid for his labors, and recommended that Jerry give the Foundation a try.

Or had Scheffler said even that much? Jerry couldn’t remember now but certainly Scheffler, a big kid from Iowa, had been generally encouraging. Scheffler was an undergraduate in computer engineering at the University, where Jerry Flint was now working on his master’s in computer science. The two of them had shared one class and a couple of seminars, and over the past few months had become moderately well acquainted.

Jerry didn’t have the impression that Scheffler was much given to jokes, at least no more than the average student. So now Jerry, looking back at the brief discussion the two of them had shared on the subject of the Pilgrim Foundation, began to find it rather strange, and even a touch ominous, that the big youth had seemed secretly amused—or even a bit excited by the prospect of Jerry’s coming interview.

Their only important conversation on the matter, Jerry recalled, had been conducted between classes, in something of a rush.

When Jerry brought up the subject, Scheffler had shrugged and smiled. “Sure, if Olivia says it’s okay,—and she told you to talk to me, right?—give it a try. The guy does pay well, I can testify to that. He wasn’t ‘the Pilgrim Foundation’ when I worked for him, though.”

“Oh? What did you do?”

Scheffler’s inward amusement seemed to grow. “No computer stuff, really,” he said at last, apparently groping for the right words. “My work involved some traveling,” he added, finding them. “And there were some historical artifacts.”

“Oh?” Jerry was squinting, scowling, trying to understand, and at the same time not wanting to be late for his next class. “This Pilgrim is a collector, then? In some kind of private business?”

“I’m sure he is. Look, I can’t really give you any details. He’ll have to do that. But I know Olivia, too, and if she’s the one who’s trying to recruit you, I’d say it was definitely okay.” And with a wave of hands they parted company as each hurried on to his next class.

Olivia—Jerry knew her only by her first name—the person who had suggested that he talk to Scheffler about this, was something of a mystery herself. She was only a voice on the phone to Jerry Flint; she had started the whole business by phoning him one day out of the blue, and suggesting that as a bright student he might be willing to accept a summer job that would guarantee the financial support he was going to need if he wanted to go on and get a doctorate in computer science.

Did he want that? For Jerry that degree was life’s big brass ring: not only was the subject matter incredibly interesting, but people with such advanced degrees in computer science were currently going directly from school into jobs that started at a hundred thousand a year. Still, it was a little odd that Olivia was also the one who recommended that he talk to Scheffler.

When Jerry, having been given a phone number to call in Springfield, came to talk to Dr. Pilgrim himself, he was assured that if he were hired, a grant could be arranged, above and beyond his pay for the coming summer, that would finance his schooling all the way to a Ph.D. in computer science.

Jerry’s preliminary research in the university library had failed to turn up any reference to grants from a “Pilgrim Foundation.” Of course the library’s list might well be out of date. Nor could he even find a foundation of that name listed anywhere; but, he told himself, that that meant little; these organizations came and went.

So on the appointed day, with a week of spring break clear ahead of him, he rented a car and started driving south.

Jerry hadn’t visited the state capital since a seventh-grade historical tour, and he was vaguely surprised that the place turned out to be a modest scale model of the metropolis to the north, complete with suburbs. There were no grain elevators here, but as Jerry drove in he observed a couple of buildings even taller than grain elevators. One of these, as he got close to it, turned out to be the hotel that he was looking for. At twenty stories or so it loomed far above everything else in sight.

There was no difficulty in finding a parking space on the street close to the hotel. Jerry climbed out of his little red rented Ford, and pulled on the suitcoat that had been riding on the back of the front seat. He tightened and straightened his unaccustomed necktie, and set out for the hotel lobby, leaving his bag in the car’s trunk for the time being. Wondering if Dr. Pilgrim might possibly be waiting for him right in the lobby, he checked his image in a passing plate-glass window. Jerry had about given up wishing that he looked a little bigger, older, more mature. The key word for his appearance, he thought, was really nondescript. He could try raising a mustache, but it would probably be thin, and certainly the same commonplace brown as his hair. There was, of course, even less to be done about physical size. At five-seven at least he was a comfortable way from being a midget. And the karate classes he’d been attending for the last two years kept him in good shape.

As for being and looking older—well, that was certain to take care of itself in time. He was twenty-five now, and still sometimes taken for eighteen.

The hotel lobby was modern, and at the moment it was pleasantly uncrowded. Perhaps business was not that great. Jerry approached the desk. Yes, there was indeed a room reserved for Mr. Jeremiah Flint. Yes, prepaid too. There was also a message waiting for Mr. Flint, and Jerry received it along with his room key.

The note handed over by the desk clerk was handwritten in a distinctive but very legible script, black ink on a sheet of hotel notepaper. It read:

Dear Mr. Flint,

Please accept my apologies for not being on hand to welcome you on your arrival. An opportunity to conduct an experiment, one that I dare not pass up, has arisen. If you are able to come to the lodge across from the entrance to New Salem State Park before five o’clock, we shall be able to begin our discussions there, while at the same time you will be able to see something of the Foundation’s work.

In haste,

A. Pilgrim

New Salem was only about twenty miles away, according to the desk clerk, who had the directions memorized—it was evidently a favorite tourist destination. As for meeting Pilgrim there before five, that was no problem; it was now only a little after noon.

An hour later, after settling in and having a cheeseburger in the hotel coffee shop, Jerry was back in his little red Ford, headed out of town again.

State Route 97 re-entered farmland only a couple of miles from the hotel near the center of town. Presently the highway branched, and the branch Jerry was following became even narrower. Jerry had gathered from a tourist brochure picked up in the hotel that New Salem was a small log-cabin settlement preserved and reconstructed more or less as it had been on reaching its peak of prosperity, sometime in the 1830s. That was about the time young Abraham Lincoln, working on a riverboat, had arrived in the settlement and taken up residence.

Now, scanning the farmland ahead on both sides of the highway, Jerry saw no sign of any community, historical or otherwise: just farms, hedgerows and islands of trees, leafing out with fresh spring green. Such groves of course might conceal something, but mostly what he could see was the black earth of Illinois, ready and eager to start producing crops. Here and there the fields were already dusted with preliminary green of one fine shade or another. Now and again the freshly turned fields alternated with pasturage. At intervals he could see a tractor laboring in the distance, tugging at some kind of machinery with which Jerry was not familiar. He was pretty much a city kid, or at least a suburban one.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred