After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

“That is roughly correct.”

“Good. Meanwhile, your aide, little Jan, spent most of an evening back in Springfield feeding me drugs and telling me how important Lincoln was to history, how different everything would be if he hadn’t been shot. Which means that if I save him, I’ll be resuming my life in a different twentieth century. Or are you telling me there would then be two different futures?”

Pilgrim was shaking his head with a slow emphasis. “Understand this from the start. There is only one future. There is only one world.’

“Then how can we expect to save Lincoln, and not change—”

“Trust me. It can be done.”

“Trust you!”

“Jeremiah, my time for answering questions is severely limited; I advise you to seek information that will be of practical benefit. As for my taking over, as you put it, I repeat that is impossible. A tangle of potential paradoxes prevent it. I can help you, advise you—up to a point—but that is all. If it were possible for me to do the job you have been assigned, I should not have gone to all the trouble of finding and recruiting you.”

“You’re saying I’d better trust you because you’re not going to give me any choice.”

“At this point I cannot. Not if you want to return home.”

Jerry fumed in silence for a moment. Then he demanded: “Who’s this Lafe Baker that Colleen Monahan is telling me about? Why does he want to kill Lockwood, and why did you set me up here as someone who’s likely to be killed?”

“Colonel Lafayette C. Baker is head of the War Department’s Secret Service. He is becoming, even in this corrupt and brutal era, something of a legend in the realms of corruption and brutality. Now that the war is effectively over, his employer, Secretary Edwin McMasters Stanton, is ready to be rid of him.

“As for why you now bear the identity of James Lockwood, you must realize that we were severely limited in our choices of a persona in which to clothe you. Lockwood himself is dead now, as you have probably suspected. You do not look very much like him, and Stanton of course will know on sight that you are a fraud. So you must avoid meeting Stanton. ‘

“Thanks. Thanks a lot. He’ll be waiting for me at the station in Washington, I suppose.”

“That is possible.”

“Wonderful. Now what is all this crap about my having a three-second window of opportunity in which to act?”

“I regret,” said Pilgrim, “it is all too regrettably true that—”

The train swayed again, the lamp-flame swaying and dimming too. Jerry leaned backward from the table, needing a momentary effort to maintain his balance. When he looked for Pilgrim again, the chair was empty and the man was gone.


Jerry spent some time walking about looking for Pilgrim. He covered the interior of the car from one end to the other, without result. Sam in his nest of blanket on the floor had shifted position at last, but he was still asleep. And when Jerry entered the bedroom, Colleen was snugly asleep in the big bed, covered to the chin and snoring gently. He wondered if Pilgrim was still watching him from some other dimension or something. Well, tonight it wasn’t going to matter to Jerry a whole lot. He was dead tired; having someone watch him sleep wasn’t going to bother him.

Silently he fastened the small bolt on the inside of the bedroom door. One lamp in the bedroom was still burning dimly, and Jerry went to it and fiddled with a little wheel on the side, as he had observed other people doing with lamps. The little wheel had something to do with adjusting the length of the burning wick, but he couldn’t get it right. At last he gave up and simply blew out the flame; afterward, in nearly total darkness, he could still smell the hot metal and the kerosene.

The speeding train roared and swayed hypnotically through darkness. Groping his way around, he removed his coat and boots, making sure he had his revolver within easy reach. Then he stretched out on the sofa, which was comfortably soft but a little short for even Jerry’s modest height. His last waking thought was that he was a taller man in this world than he had been in his own.

Jerry awakened to bright daylight outside the bedroom’s curtained windows; he could feel and hear that the train was just stopping somewhere. A glance toward the bed showed him that his roommate was still asleep. He supposed Thursday had been a tiring day for her as well.

Cautiously Jerry arose from the sofa and moved to a window, where he parted the curtains and squinted out. They had reached some kind of a city or town, and baggage was being unloaded from the train. A few passengers appeared to be waiting to get aboard. Two clocks were visible, one in a brick tower in the middle distance, the other through the window of the nearby depot—both said one minute after eight.

The timepieces reminded Jerry of the device Pilgrim had so craftily arranged for him to possess, and so earnestly warned him not to lose. He pulled it out of his watch pocket and looked at it now. The watch was ticking as steadily as before, but now it said seven-fifty. That meant that either the two clocks outside were wrong in unison, or…

Could something be wrong with the hardware Pilgrim had provided for the mad attempt to rescue Lincoln? Jerry, the student of science and engineering, didn’t see any reason why not. If anything could go wrong, it would. That was all he needed, one more complication on top of—

There was a slight sound from the direction of the bed, and Jerry turned to see Colleen sitting up halfway, propped with pillows, and looking at him. She was holding the blanket up as high as her shoulders, which, he was just able to see, were demurely covered by what looked like a flannel nightgown.

“Good morning,” he offered.

“And a good morning to you.” She freed one hand, without letting the blanket slip more than an inch, and used the fingers to rub her eyes. “Where are we?”

“I don’t know. Stopped at a station. I was just wondering if we’re still in the central time zone.”

The puzzled look Colleen gave him in response warned him to let that question drop for now.

She was ready to change the subject anyway. “If you would turn your back,” she requested.

Silently he went back to the window, hearing her get out of bed behind him. That sound was followed by the rustle of voluminous layers of clothing, most of it being put on, he presumed. His mind returned to the latest oddities of time. How likely was it that both of these town clocks would be wrong together?

“You can turn back now,” Colleen’s voice announced. He turned to behold his roommate with yesterday’s dress on, and pins in her mouth, busy in front of a wall mirror doing something with her hair. At that moment there came a tapping at the bedroom door, and Sam’s voice sang out announcing that breakfast was ready in the parlor.

That at least was cheerful news. “We’re getting the royal treatment,” Jerry remarked.

“I told you, we’re supposed to be great friends of the president of the railroad. In a way we shall be, if we give a good report of him to Stanton.”

Breakfast was good. Excellent, in fact. Jerry was now firmly convinced that everyone in this century who could afford to eat at all took the business seriously.

Sam, in and out of the parlor with serving dishes, gave up his first cheerful attempts at making, or provoking, conversation when he sensed that the reigning mood was one of reserved silence. Jerry had begun to develop the unreasonable feeling that the man was putting them on, acting the part of a black servant out of some old movie.

Before breakfast was over, the train had lurched into motion again—only to grind to a halt a few minutes later at the next town.

Today was April seventh. Most of the remainder of the day passed very slowly. Armed with a timetable and Pilgrim’s watch, Jerry charted the crooked progress of the railroad across Indiana and part of Michigan. There were many more stops than he had hoped, more, even, than he had expected. A number of the towns boasted steeple clocks visible from the train, no two of which were in agreement with each other. The watch in Jerry’s waistcoat pocket ticked on steadily—he had remembered to wind it on retiring—but on the average its time grew farther and farther divorced from that displayed in the cities through which they passed.

Colleen sat most of the morning knitting quietly, but after Sam served lunch, she put her needlework aside restlessly and began speaking about the small town in Indiana where she had grown up. One of her brightest memories was how exciting it was when the railroad first came through.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred