After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

Now Jerry had the watch clutched in his left hand. And the great moment, the one he had rehearsed in a thousand waking and sleeping dreams since his last talk with Pilgrim, had come at last. He snapped open the glass cover—so much he had done before, in resetting the watch to local time at Washington—and moved both hands to twelve o’clock.

But now he took the stem in the fingers of his right hand, and pulled on it, feeling the click, making the change that was supposed to activate the first stage of the device. He felt and heard one sharp click, small but definite, from the machine.

Now he had pulled on the stem, seconds were passing, but nothing had really happened. No. He realized that something was happening, though it was a slower and subtler effect than anything he had expected.

Around Jerry, time was altering.


When he saw Booth, poised at the top of the few steps leading down to the dress circle aisle, Jerry opened the face of his watch and set both hands to twelve. Booth had started down those steps before Jerry pulled out the stem to the first stop. Now, many seconds later, the actor was still descending those few steps; in Jerry’s eyes, he was moving like a slow-motion instant replay.

Now Jerry realized that since he pulled out the stem of the watch all sounds in the auditorium had been transformed: the speech of the actor on stage had slowed tremendously, and his voice was lowering from a tenor toward a drawling baritone. The background noise of audience whispers, coughing, breath and movement had taken on a deep, sepulchral timbre.

Concomitant with these changes the light was fading and taking on a reddish hue, moderate but unequivocal; for a moment Jerry thought that Booth must have found an accomplice to turn down the gas in the theater, dimming all the lights, on stage and off, at the crucial moment. But no one else in the theater appeared to notice anything. In fact, the audience seemed strangely calm—posed and almost motionless.

On stage, the voice of the actress who played Mrs. Mountchessington, confronting Harry Hawk as Asa Trenchard, was now prolonging each syllable grotesquely as the tone slid down, down and down the scale, descending to an improbable bass. Half-hypnotized, Jerry watched and listened as if his own mental processes had been slowed down by the transformation in the world around him.

At last Booth reached the bottom of the stairs and was approaching Jerry, following in the footsteps of Lincoln and his party almost two hours earlier. Each of the widely spaced footfalls of the actor was marked by a very faint sound, a fading rumble hard to identify, following the dull subterranean thump of heel impact. When Jerry realized that rumbling sound would have been a jingle were it not so slow and deep, he remembered that Booth was wearing spurs. Of course; there was a getaway horse waiting for him in the alley.

Paradoxically, despite the enormous elongation of each moment in Jerry’s own almost-hypnotized time-frame, Booth’s slow and steady walk was already carrying the actor past him. For the briefest of moments Booth’s eye caught Jerry’s, and a slow change, a kind of half-recognition, began its passage across the actor’s face. But Booth had no thought to spare now for anything but his purpose, and he did not pause in his determined progress. His eyes—shifting slowly as Jerry saw them—looked forward again. If anything Booth walked a little faster.

Jerry got to his feet, realizing as soon as he willed the movement that time for him had not been slowed down. Stepping into the aisle, he felt that he was moving at normal speed in a slow-motion universe. Intent on overtaking Booth, he shot past seated rows of nearly frozen matrons and distinguished gentlemen, their applauding hands suspended before their faces, past army officers with mustached mouths and ladies with rouged lips, all stretched open in distorted laughter at the doings of the actors.

He realized that Pilgrim’s device must have caused more than a mere difference in speed. The thousand eyes that were fixed with anticipation on the stage did not see Jerry. The swiftness of his speeding passage did not stir their feathers or ruffle their gowns. Activating the watch-stem to its first stop had partially disconnected him from the world around him, rendered him somehow out of phase with it. But not out of phase with Booth… could their mutual counter-purposes be somehow linking them? Or had the effect, whatever it was, merely not kicked in yet? In any event, so far as others were concerned, Pilgrim’s little device was concealing him as well as giving him a few precious seconds of advantage. If only he could learn how to use that advantage before it was too late!

Unchallenged, John Wilkes Booth had reached the white door and opened it. Before Jerry caught up with him he was already three-fourths of the way through the doorway. The actor had turned a sidelong glance at the two army officers seated nearest to the door, but both of them were watching the play, and ignored Booth. Now already the actor was closing the door behind him, and if what Pilgrim had told Jerry was correct, in another moment that door would be blocked solidly from the inside—

Jerry, his fear rapidly mounting toward panic, sprinted forward so that to himself he seemed to float amid a frozen waxwork audience. At the last moment he shot through the gradually narrowing aperture of the white door, past Booth and into the small blind hallway that ran behind the boxes.

But his passage was not entirely a clean one. Trying to slide past the door even as Booth was pushing it closed from inside, Jerry caromed at high speed off the actor’s shoulder, to go spinning on into the dark little vestibule. There Jerry bounced off a wall and collapsed to the floor.

At the moment of the physical collision, the time-distortion effect ceased to operate. Once past Booth, Jerry found himself suddenly conscious of his extra burden of momentum. It was more than he ought to have been able to achieve by running, more as if he had jumped from a speeding automobile. First Booth’s shoulder and then the wall, with stunning impact, absorbed the burden from him.

Jerry’s sudden materialization also took Booth by surprise, and the grazing collision knocked Booth down; but the actor, having absorbed only a small part of Jerry’s momentum, and mentally braced for violent interference at any moment, recovered from the collision while Jerry still sprawled at the end of the little vestibule. Booth picked up a wooden bar that had been lying inconspicuously on the dark floor. Not to use as a weapon; instead Booth jammed the piece of wood into place behind the white door, which he had finally managed to get completely closed. A notch to hold the bar had already been cut into the plaster of the wall.

Now there could be no further interference from outside the Presidential box; not until it was too late.

And Booth had no need of any wooden bar to fight with; a long knife appeared in his left hand as he faced Jerry; there was already a small pistol in his right. In the gaze he turned on Jerry was the bitter contempt of a man terribly betrayed.

“No one shall stop me now,” the actor declared. His soft voice, for once out of control turned harsh and broke on the last word.

Jerry was already sickeningly conscious of total failure as he regained his feet. Already someone was knocking on the blockaded door leading to the auditorium. The voices of the people on stage, in Jerry’s ears restored to normal pitch and speed, were going on, the speakers still oblivious that the hinges of history were threatening to come loose twelve feet above them.

A great roar of laughter went up from the audience, at the words of the character Asa Trenchard, now alone on stage. Booth’s derringer was still unfired, the President still breathed. History was already running a few seconds late.

But maybe all was not yet totally lost.

Jerry faced Booth. “I don’t want—” Jerry was beginning, when suddenly the door immediately on Booth’s left, leading into the Presidential box, swung open. The face of Major Rathbone appeared there, displaying, even above civilian clothes, the keen look of command.

“What is going on—” the Major began; then his eyes widened as he saw the knife in Booth’s hand. The look of command vanished. Rathbone’s lungs filled. “Help!” he bellowed. “Assassins!”

Booth, evidently determined to save the single bullet in his derringer for Lincoln, at once plunged his knife into Rathbone’s chest; the wounded man fell back.

Now Jerry was moving forward, Pilgrim’s timepiece once more gripped in his left hand, the fingers of his right hand reaching for the stem. He had to get within three meters. Because within a very few seconds the fatal shot—

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