After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

“You were watching me on the train?”

“It is much easier to watch from another time-frame than it is to interfere. Thus, your re-establishment in this one, not to mention my bastardly schemes, became necessary to help Mr. Lincoln. I had to find some way to bring your rare inherent powers into play.”

“Oh yeah, my rare inherent powers. I had almost forgotten. Tell me about those.”

“I shall try.” For a moment Pilgrim looked almost humble. “You have seen that time can be manipulated. That we can sometimes travel through it, if you will. Some people, one in a million, can do something similar without the aid of technology—just as some are lightning calculators who on their good days can emulate the performance of a computer. You are one such. At the vital moment on Friday evening you ought to have more than one swing at the ball.”

“What’s that mean?”

“You will be able to back up, a matter of a few seconds or a minute, and start over.”

“I will?”

“At least once, perhaps as many as three times. I hope no more than that; it is possible to get caught up in something like a closed programming loop.”

“You’re saying if I fail, I’ll—I’ll somehow be able to try again?”

“That is my fond hope. And the ability may save us all. You see, Jerry, there are usually great, and often prohibitive, paradoxes involved in any attempt to manipulate the past. Sometimes the difficulty can be overcome by making an abstract of the past, and manipulating that—but there are reasons why that approach is ruled out in this case. There is only one timeline, one universe, one past, and we must live with it, or try to change it at our peril.”

“Why do we have to try to change it?” Pilgrim ignored the question. He said in a business-like way. “You came here to this theater today to scout the ground, did you not? With a view to going along with my plan on Friday night?”

“Yes. All right, I admit I did that. I couldn’t see anything else to do.”

“A courageous and logical decision. Now.” Pilgrim pointed straight out across the stage. “The box directly opposite, the counterpart of this one on the right-hand side, is the Presidential box where Lincoln will sit on Friday night. At this moment on Wednesday, no one in this city but you and I, not even Lincoln himself, knows that he is going to decide to attend the theater on Good Friday. But he will attend; unless of course you should be so foolish as to warn him. That would defeat all our plans utterly.”

“All your plans. My only plan is to go home.”

“I am afraid such a warning would defeat that modest ambition also.”

“Huh. The talking watch seemed to be trying to explain something along that line. But I’m not sure I got the message. A lot of it was too noisy for me to understand.”

“The noise of paradox, my friend. I am not going to attempt to explain the theory of time-travel and of paradoxes to you now. But the simple difficulty in transmitting a message is as nothing to the problems that would ensue were I to attempt to interfere directly in the matter of the attack upon Mr. Lincoln. Without, that is, the beacon signal that you will transmit to me as guidance. You still have your watch, I trust—? Good. History must be allowed to run smoothly in its time-worn bed.”

“Then exactly what do you plan to do to help him? Lincoln?”

“Save him from being shot. On Friday evening, unless we interfere, John Wilkes Booth will enter the vestibule leading to the Presidential box yonder, across the stage. After blocking the vestibule door behind him to prevent interference, he will quietly step into the box itself, so quietly that none of the four occupants will at first turn around.

“He will shoot Lincoln in the back of the head, wounding the President fatally. Then Booth will leap from that box to the stage, breaking his leg in the process. Still he will manage to hobble to his horse out in the alley and escape.”

Jerry looked. “I don’t wonder he breaks his leg. Isn’t it about twelve feet?”

“It is. I must warn you now not to underestimate Booth as a physical opponent. He is a good rider, an excellent shot and swordsman, and famed for his athletic feats on stage. He would not break his leg were it not for the fact that one of his spurs catches on a flag.”

“Hooray for Booth.”

“I am pleased that you are willing to rise to the challenge posed by such a worthy opponent.”

“That’s only because I haven’t discovered a choice yet. Suppose I get within three meters of Lincoln at the fatal moment, and I do send the beacon signal you want. What do you do then?”

“Leave that to me.”

“I expected you to say that. Anyway, suppose we somehow do save Lincoln. Isn’t that going to turn history out of its bed rather drastically?”

“There are limits on what I am allowed to explain to you now.”

“Very convenient.”

“On the contrary. But it is so.” Pilgrim once again became practical. “On Friday night no one will occupy this box where we sit now. Perhaps I will be able to establish here an observation post. In one way or another I will be watching events closely. But I cannot interfere until you, who are now an established member of this time-frame, trigger the beacon for me.”

“I bet.”

If Pilgrim was perturbed by his agent’s lack of enthusiasm he gave no sign, but pressed on. “Remember the white door that you opened to enter the vestibule outside these boxes. There is a corresponding door on the other side of the theater, through which Booth must pass on his way to destiny. When he has passed through that door, he will immediately block it against outside interference. You must pass through that doorway also, before he barricades it.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“It is up to you to find a way. You might consider concealing yourself in the Presidential box ahead of time, or in the darkened vestibule just behind. But I do not think that approach would work.”

“Thanks for the helpful advice. By the way, who is Colleen Monahan? Is she another of your conscripted agents?”

“Colleen Monahan does not, I devoutly hope, even suspect that I exist. She is Secretary Stanton’s agent, as she told you. And Stanton is Lincoln’s loyal servant, according to his lights.”

“Then I can trust her? Am I going to meet her again?”

“I can only guess at the answers to both questions, insofar as they depend upon the actions of individuals with free will. Certainly you must not trust her with any knowledge of my plans—or of your origins. Beyond that, it is your decision. Any other questions? I am going to have to leave you at any moment.”

“Don’t run off. Am I going to have a chance to talk to you again, before… ?” But Pilgrim was already gone. As on the train, his chair had emptied itself into thin air. Just like that.

A few moments later, feeling somewhat shaken, Jerry groped his way through the dim lobby downstairs and tapped on the half-closed office door. The voices inside, which had been still droning away, broke off as if startled.

A moment later the door was opened wide by a youthful-looking man with blue eyes, curly hair and large sideburns. He said in a salesman’s voice: “You startled me, sir. What can we do for you?”

“The door to the street was open—I believe I may want some tickets, for Friday.”

“Certainly, sir—how many tickets did you have in mind?”

“It would be a fairly large theater party.” Jerry frowned, as if in thought. “I wonder if I might have a look at the auditorium before I decide on a location.”

“Well, we have a good selection of seats—seventeen hundred of them to choose from. By the way, I am John Ford, the owner.”

“Jeremiah Flint.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Flint. You’re from out of town?”


“I see. This is Tom Raybold, who works for me.” The second man in the office was standing up now, moving forward to shake hands. His face had something of an odd expression, as if he were afraid that it was going to start hurting at any moment. “Tom, why don’t you show Mr. Flint the auditorium?”

“I’ll see to it right away.”

Jerry, standing in the doorway waiting for Tom Raybold to pull his coat on over his shirtsleeves, looked around the little office. On a table just in front of him was a litter of old playbills and posters, once in ordered stacks, now undergoing entropy. A printed name caught his eye as he glanced down, and he looked more closely. One of the bills, dated in March, advertised the notable actor John Wilkes Booth, starring in THE APOSTATE. Unfortunately there was no picture.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred