After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

The setup reminded Jerry vaguely of the laser systems that construction crews sometimes used to make sure that things were kept exactly level or exactly perpendicular. At least two of these devices could have been cameras, and all three of them had what must be their battery power-packs on the lower shelves of their tripods.

Jerry in his years of engineering studies had never seen anything like it. But he had to give up for the moment on trying to figure it out. He resumed his advance.

Though the man was facing directly away, it was he who made the young woman aware of Jerry’s presence. As if he might have received some extrasensory warning, the dark-haired man lifted his eyes suddenly from his instrument and turned around to look at the new arrival. A moment later he raised a hand in an abrupt gesture, signaling his helper that they were through for the moment with whatever they had been doing.

Jerry strode forward, armed with his most intelligent smile. “Dr. Pilgrim?”

“Yes.” As on the phone, the voice had the precision of an actor’s, slightly and indefinably accented—James Mason would come close, thought Jerry, who was something of an old-movie buff. “Yes,” Pilgrim continued. “And you will be Jeremiah Flint.” He appeared genuinely pleased to see his visitor, and not to resent the interruption of his work.

The doctor’s handshaking grip was firm but brief. Then he turned his head toward his assistant. “Jan, let that go for now. Come and say hello. It may be that our computer problems are on the verge of solution.”

Jan Chen approached. Jerry took his first good look at her through a fragrance of lilacs; the bushes flanking the Onstot cabin door were in full spring bloom. She walked with a grace that suggested a model’s training; her eyes were as black as her hair, but her skin glowed like old ivory. It hardly seemed to matter that her face was a long way from Jerry’s ideal of classic beauty.

“I see you found our messages,” she said to him in a voice in which he could find no accent at all. She shook his hand in a business-like way. “Sorry that neither of us could meet you in person at the hotel—either hotel.”

“That’s quite all right. I was glad to come up here and meet you on site. This will give me a chance to see what kind of work you’re doing.”

Pilgrim was frowning at his watch. “Now that you are here, Mr. Flint—may I call you Jerry?”

“Sure. Of course. I was wondering what you were doing with these devices that—”

“Now that you are here, I think it will be best if we spend as much of the afternoon as possible in our discussions. Therefore we had better break this off—Jan, let us pack up the equipment immediately.”

The young woman nodded, murmured something in agreement, and turned away to begin folding one of the tripods. Pilgrim seemed to have another of them already folded—he had got it taken down with what seemed to Jerry altogether unlikely speed. The battery pack and everything else stayed neatly in a bundle with the tripod when its long legs were collapsed. Jerry was unable to catch a manufacturer’s name, if such a thing was showing, before the device had been snapped inside a cloudy plastic cover.

Jerry volunteered to carry one of the three machines, and equally burdened, the three headed out through the main gate of the village to the hilltop parking lot through which most visitors approached.

“Have you been here before?” Jan Chen asked him.

“No, first time for me.” His school tour, long years ago, had never got this far from Springfield.

“For me too. But I have long been an enthusiast of Abraham Lincoln, and to be here where he lived is exciting.” Despite her rather stilted turn of phrase, Jan sounded animated; this meant something to her. She turned to point back into the village, indicating one direction after another. “He was a boarder there, at the Rutledge tavern. And a clerk over there. And a storekeeper and postmaster down there. His first claim to fame was as a frontier wrestler in these parts.”

Jerry caught at a name. It brought back vague memories of someone’s poem. “Ann Rutledge? She was supposed to be Lincoln’s girl friend, wasn’t she?”

“Many think so—but we can’t be sure.” They had come to a stop in the parking lot, and Pilgrim had unlocked the side door of a new van and was beginning to stow equipment inside. Meanwhile his assistant was starting to glow with an inner excitement, which Jerry recognized as that of the true enthusiast unleashed upon a favorite subject. She went on to discuss in detail the lack of any real evidence connecting young Lincoln with the innkeeper’s daughter.

Dr. Pilgrim, meanwhile, apparently bursting with his own brand of cheerful energy, stowed the last bit of gear in the van and slid shut the wide side door. “I would like to suggest, Jerry, that I ride back to Springfield with you. I presume you have a car. We will meet Jan there, unload our equipment, and continue our discussions in the office.”

Jerry found the rush to get the gear packed away not too surprising; a lot of companies had proprietary secrets they were reluctant to reveal, at least until you were contracted to secrecy. Probably this equipment was something like that. Jerry knew a momentary regret that he was not riding back with Jan. That would almost certainly make it a more pleasant trip—but possibly a less productive one. And Pilgrim was definitely the man he had to talk to, to find out as soon as possible if this job offer could possibly be as good as Mr. A. Pilgrim had made it sound.

After waving Jan on her way in the van, he and Pilgrim started trudging side by side down the winding, forest-lined drive that led to the highway and to the small motel parking lot where Jerry had left his car.

“Interesting equipment you were using up there,” Jerry remarked in a bright tone, opening conversation.

Pilgrim gave a little shrug. “Not really mine, in any proprietary sense. I have learned to use it, that is all.” The words were said in a deprecating tone, as if to imply he might not be capable of learning more. “I am not really a technologist. The fact of the matter is, the Foundation needs help in several technical areas.”

“I see. What were you doing up there today, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Pilgrim might not have heard the question. “Your own role, Jerry, if we are able to come to an agreement, would be—largely—in the area of computers. Of course, we might ask you to do another little job or two also. Specifically, I should like to establish a network comprising several of the newer Macintosh machines. They would be connected by modem with a larger computer, one of the new “parallel” devices, and possibly with several other machines as well. The Macintoshes are in the Foundation’s office in town, where we are going now.”

Jerry’s only experience with parallel processing was course work, but he had found that course work intensely interesting. But what could an historical research project need with that kind of raw power? Intriguing. Maybe this job would be better than it had sounded over the phone.

“Then I would be working here, in the Springfield area, full time. Is that it?”

“Yes—allowing for the occasional field trip elsewhere. You would work here during the coming summer, putting in as much time as your school schedule allows. The Foundation will pay all of your living expenses while you are in Springfield—or on any field trip we might require you to undertake—plus modest salary. And it will guarantee in writing that, provided your job performance is satisfactory, it will pay all your further expenses toward your doctorate in computer science.”

“That sounds like a great deal.”

Pilgrim, looking straight ahead through the windshield, nodded minimally. “Indeed. All this, of course, contingent upon our agreement that you are the right man for the job.”

“Of course. I should warn you that microcomputers aren’t really my specialty. I have worked some with Macs, though.”

Jan and the van were long out of sight by the time they had walked down to Jerry’s car. On the drive back into town Jerry, by invitation, held forth on the various computer projects in which he’d already been involved. They made a fairly impressive list for someone of his age; he’d had to work his way through most of college, and most of the work he’d done had involved computers in one way or another.

He wasn’t sure though, how much of it Dr. Pilgrim understood. The man in the front passenger’s seat sat listening and nodding thoughtfully, and for the most part appeared to be keenly interested. But he didn’t really say anything that would offer good evidence of his understanding. It wouldn’t be the first time that Jerry had tried to inform a highly intelligent but non-technical audience about his work, only to discover later that hardly anything he’d said had been understood. There were computer people, who could understand, and then there was the rest of the human race.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred