But in the last moment before that impact, two new figures had instantaneously become visible to him. They hung in midair, apparently unsupported, one of them on each side of Lincoln’s rocking chair. Even with the blurring of the world Jerry could recognize, or thought he could, the figure on his left as that of Pilgrim. The figure on the right was some stunted alien presence, much smaller than Pilgrim, and utterly grotesque.
He felt no worry about that now. The leaden ball had emerged completely from the muzzle of the derringer now, with a gout of flame and thicker smoke bursting forth behind it, continuing to force the missile forward on its deadly path.
But the two figures flanking the President were now moving even more quickly than the pistol ball. During the long subjective second during which Jerry was able to watch the bullet’s passage, they lifted Lincoln up out of his rocking chair between them. Then it appeared to Jerry that the President’s long body had slipped from their grasp—or else that they were abandoning their effort, as if in the realization that it was useless. It seemed that between them, Pilgrim and the monster pushed Lincoln down into his chair again. Then the two mysterious presences were gone.
Jerry saw the head of Abraham Lincoln jerk forward violently under the impact of Booth’s bullet, the shaggy dark hair rising and falling in a momentary flutter.
And with that event, time came back to normal with a rush. This time he got to his feet at once, not waiting for Booth to pass his chair.
But this time, before the acceleration could progress very far, the whole scene before him jerked to a stop, like the last freeze-frame of a motion picture. There was Lincoln, slumped already. Beside him, his wife, still unaware, her own nerves and brain not yet reacting to the pistol’s bark. There were the other two legitimate occupants of the box, seated with their attention still on the figure of Asa Trenchard who at the moment occupied the stage alone. There was Booth, death looking out of his wide dark eyes fixed upon his victim. The smoke from the derringer was still only beginning to fill the space inside the box.
And then the freeze-frame faded. And with the fading of the last light to darkness, silence descended also, and Jerry knew the quiet and the blackness of the grave.
Light came reaching into darkness, sure-footed as death, pushing aside even the gloom of death itself. Strange that after what had happened to him Jerry, with the light growing outside his eyelids, could hear the song of robins, and inhale the scent of lilacs. Once—it must have been a hundred years ago, on a quiet night in Springfield—Jan Chen had quoted a line of Walt Whitman to him: When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed—
Then full memory returned in a rush of what had happened in Ford’s Theater, the fighting and dying and living there, as accurate and immediate as if intervening sleep or unconsciousness had never wiped it away.
“We failed,” he moaned aloud, and opened his eyes wide at the same moment. He spoke before he knew where he was, or whether or not he was alone.
Then he saw that he was alone. This time he was lying on no corn-husk pallet. Nor was this the fine but too-soft mattress he had enjoyed at Willard’s Hotel. This bed was clean and firm and rather institutional. Something about the subtle coloration of the walls, the light, perhaps the air said twentieth century to him even before he turned his head. The curtains on the window were partially drawn back, and Jerry could look out the window of the converted farmhouse to see electric wires fastened to a pole outside.
He recognized this room, right enough. Jerry turned over in the brass bed with its white modern sheets, and discovered that he was still wearing his nineteenth-century underwear, and nothing else. The outer garments of Jim Lockwood—and the coat of John Wilkes Booth—all looking considerably the worse for wear, were scattered in various places around the room, some on a floor, some on one article of furniture or another. There were dried brownish bloodstains on the torn sleeve of a dirty shirt.
Jerry’s beard was coming along nicely, three days’ worth of it at least, he thought. On his left forearm he could feel the tug of modern bandages. Someone had done a neat job there with tape and gauze. Had Booth’s dagger nicked him again at the end of that last rewrite of reality?
Only the small wounds require bandaging. Perhaps death can safely be ignored. It needs no healing attention, whether it comes in the form of a knife-wound from a crazy actor, or in the form of a gunshot from—
The door leading to the hallway opened without any preliminary knock, and Jan Chen came through it. She was wearing white and khaki, looking rather like what Jerry supposed a nurse in a field hospital ought to look like.
“No,” she said, positively and without preamble, shaking her head at him. Obviously she had heard his outcry upon awaking. “No, Jerry, we did not fail. Most specifically, you did not. You managed to activate the beacon perfectly on your third try.
Pilgrim, wearing a white lab coat open over his usual hiker’s clothing, had come into the bedroom right after her, and now he raised a hand in a kind of benediction. “Well done, Jeremiah.”
Jerry sat up in bed and found that his sense of outrage and thoughts of revenge had been left behind somewhere. “I think I got killed at least twice,” he said.
“You did. You died by blade and bullet, ultimately to very good effect.”
“You mean that the last time, it worked?”
“It worked indeed. Lincoln is safe and history as you know it is intact.”
“The last thing I remember seeing is Lincoln getting shot.”
“You could not see everything that happened. And I trust the other members of Ford’s audience saw much less than you did.”
Jerry sank back on his good elbow. “Then tell me what I missed. Was it you who shot me from across the way?”
Pilgrim raised an eyebrow. “I thought you understood that I could take no such direct part in those affairs of eighteen sixty-five. Instead it was I who pulled you off stage, as it were, and bandaged your most recent wound. When you had completed your most difficult role, successfully.”
“You mean that after I saw Lincoln shot I somehow time-walked again and—”
“No, I think you had reached the limit of your resilience. There was danger of a closed loop establishing itself, or—but never mind. The people in the theater believe also that they saw the President shot, and the history books record the dark deed just as before. But the head that took the bullet was not Lincoln’s.” Pilgrim smiled.
Jerry could only look in confusion from one of his visitors to the other.
Pilgrim made a gesture with both hands, as if unveiling something. “It was the head of a simulacrum. An organic dummy, a duplicate down to the proper location and color of each hair, the last little scar, dressed in replicas of clothing Lincoln wore that night—which is all a matter of historical record. Your job was to signal us the exactly proper time and place of the substitution, which would otherwise have been a disastrous failure.”
“Nothing so crude as the image that word must evoke for you. It did the job nicely. Nothing was required of it beyond breathing and bleeding for a few hours with a bullet in its brain. Death was officially announced at a little after seven on Saturday morning, with the victim never having regained consciousness.”
“The victim,” Jerry said. “An organic dummy?”
Pilgrim was shaking his head, in response to something in Jerry’s face. “No, Jeremiah. We sacrificed no human victim. Oh, to the eye of the doctors at the autopsy in the White House the blood and brains looked quite convincing—they are not, but the science of the mid-nineteenth century was incapable of making the distinction. I believe you may have had a brief look at our simulacrum, on the night you left us. It was then resting in the bed in the next room.”
Jerry had sat up again, and now he was starting to get out of bed. His left arm was sore and he felt a little weak, but on the whole he was doing well enough. Very well indeed, considering all the things he could remember happening to him. Jan was holding a robe for him and he put his arms into the sleeves, being careful with the injured one. He looked at the clothes of Jim Lockwood, that he was never going to wear again. He looked at the stained coat of John Wilkes Booth, and tried to analyze what he felt. He decided his chief feeling was of relief that he was not still wearing it.