After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

There was nothing to be gained by waiting around out here on the sidewalk. Jerry squared his shoulders, ran through once more in his mind the story he had decided on, and started testing the five front doors of the theater to see if any of them were open.

The second door from the right proved to be unlocked. He walked through it into a dim lobby. No lamps were lit, and, after he had closed the front door behind him, the only daylight entered here indirectly, from a window inside a small office at one side. Men’s voices, low-key and faint, were coming from the direction of that office. Jerry had opened and closed the street door quietly, and he thought it probable that no one in the office had heard him come in.

Ahead of him a dark stairway led up into heavy gloom. He badly wanted to see the layout of the theater, and decided to take a chance. If he should be discovered wandering about inside, he had his story ready.

From the top of the broad, carpeted stairs he emerged into the relatively lighter gloom of a large auditorium. He was standing now in a large, curving balcony, looking at a stage directly ahead of him where two small gaslights flamed, providing the only illumination in all the great space of the theater’s interior. Jerry moved forward slowly, until he could lean his hands on the railing at the front of the balcony. Now, where in all this vast space was Lincoln going to sit?

Probably in a box seat, for greater privacy. From where Jerry stood he could see eight box seats, four right and four left, four high and four low, all of them directly overlooking the half of the stage nearest the audience.

On Jerry’s left as he faced the stage, a man’s head and shoulder suddenly appeared, leaning out over the railing of the highest and farthest box on that side. In a moment the head and shoulder were joined by a beckoning arm. The man, who obviously wanted Jerry to come to him, bore a strong resemblance to—

Anger, relief, and hope rising in him together, Jerry pushed off from the railing and strode rapidly to his left along the curving front of the balcony. He was headed toward a door—when he looked for it he could see it—that must give access to the upper boxes on that side. In a moment he had pulled the door open and was groping his way forward through a darkened little vestibule.

“Shut the door behind you,” whispered Pilgrim’s voice from somewhere very close ahead. Then Jerry could see the man standing in a small doorway that led directly into the box seat closest to the rear of the stage, the same one he had been waving from. The two gas lamps set above the stage shone in past heavy red curtain to half-illuminate the compartment. Jerry moved forward silently.

“Have a seat,” Pilgrim, wearing a twentieth-century shirt and khaki pants, pushed a small chair toward Jerry with his foot. Then, sighing as if he were tired, he retreated to let himself down again in the chair from which he had waved to Jerry. He added: “I had hopes that you would show up here, at some time before the big event. We need to talk. And here, at this hour, is an ideal spot.”

Jerry considered several swear words, and then rejected all of them as a waste of breath. He kept his own voice low. “We need more than that. We need for you to get me out of here and back where I belong. I didn’t ask to be—”

Pilgrim raised a thick hand, gently gesturing. “In good time, in good time, you may register your complaints about my conduct. You have a legitimate grievance; but others involved in this situation have more reason than you to complain of being treated unfairly.”

“Including you, I suppose?”

“Forget about me—for the moment. Later I may want to talk about myself. For now, what about Mr. Lincoln?”

“What about him? He was dead and buried a century before I was born, and it wasn’t my fault what happened to him.”

“Not quite a century—but it wasn’t your fault. I agree. Not up until now. But what happens Friday night will be your fault. If you fail deliberately.”

For a moment Jerry could find no words. In the effort he made a whispered sputtering. “Fail? Fail? I didn’t sign up to do anything here. You kidnapped me here and then started giving me orders. Recorded orders. Garbled lectures from a talking watch. Guessing games and a disappearing act on a train. Why should I—” Jerry paused, quietly strangling on his anger.

“Nevertheless.” Pilgrim, who had listened with an air of attentive sympathy, rubbed his forehead and stared out into the gaslight, which came between the dull red curtains of the box to turn his face and hairy forearms faintly orange and yellow. From the position he had taken he could see most of the interior of the theater, but it would be very difficult for anyone outside the box to see him, unless he leaned farther forward in his chair.

He went on: “Nevertheless, you are here now, and what happens to Mr. Lincoln now depends on you. There is information, vital information, I must try to give you while I can. My time is limited here, as it was on the train. I can sympathize with your anger; in your place I should be angry too. After matters are decided on Friday night I can bring you home, and I will do so—if all goes well. Before then I cannot. Now, will you listen to me?”

“I’m listening. It better be good.”

“It is good. It is better than you think. To begin with, you have inherent powers of a rare kind, that you have hardly begun to realize as yet.”

“Sure. And where did I get these powers from?”

“They are usually inherited. Your father—I understand that he disappeared early in your childhood—was probably a timewalker.”

Jerry said nothing. He had come to a stop.

Pilgrim was watching him, perhaps with understanding. Pilgrim said: “Inherited. And danger calls them forth. Not ordinary danger, even of the degree that you confronted on the train. It might be more accurate to say that only death itself can activate them.”

Jerry was silent, his long-nursed anger slowly quenching in an inner chill. “You mean…”

“You have spoken of your powers to Jan Chen. But we were practically sure you had them, even before we set out to recruit you.”

Twice Jerry began to say something, and each time reconsidered. At last he said, in an altered voice: “You mean the time I ran into the burning house, when I was a kid.”

“I mean exactly that. I can only approximate those powers mechanically. Perhaps I can help you by augmenting them, in a way. But without your help I have no chance of doing what must be done here Friday night. You, with my help, can do it. You can save Mr. Lincoln, if you will.”

Jerry was silent for a few moments. He had the feeling he was losing the argument, had lost it already, even before his cry for justice had been fairly heard. “You’ve tricked me once already,” he said finally. “Why should I believe anything you tell me now?”

Pilgrim gave him a hard look. “I tell you you are going to stay here, trapped in this century, unless you help Mr. Lincoln. Do you have any difficulty in believing that?”

“You bastard.”

The swarthy man accepted the insult calmly. “I have been called much worse than that. You can spend the remainder of your life here, as I say. Forget about being a computer engineer, forget a great many other things as well. Or, you can do what I ask of you Friday night—and then return to your own time, with your future education financed as we had agreed. Not to mention the feeling of a job well done.”

Jerry shifted in his chair. “You think you can manipulate anyone.”

“I usually have fair success.” It was said modestly.

“I think I just might knock your teeth down your throat. That would be a job well done.”

“No.” Pilgrim’s answer was mild but prompt. “I will not tolerate a physical assault, especially by someone as well-trained as yourself. I make allowances for your anger in being tricked into this expedition—but I will not go that far in making allowances. By the way, that little skirmish on the train was well fought, if perhaps a touch too boldly, I was afraid that we were going to lose you there.” Pilgrim was leaning back in his chair, quite relaxed, arms folded, watching Jerry. Everything in his attitude said very convincingly that his teeth were not subject to any knocking that Jerry might attempt.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred