After the fact by Fred Saberhagen

” ‘Always a little farther, it may be’ ” quoted Pilgrim from up front, where he was driving joyously and skillfully. ” ‘Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow…’ ”

Jerry had ceased to listen to him. Jan was much more interesting than the doctor’s quotations, and also more accessible, being seated where he could swivel easily to face her. She now engaged Jerry in what seemed to him an unusually witty conversation—in which he managed to hold his own quite well—while Pilgrim drove them through the darkened streets of Springfield.

“This—this’s been like no other job interview I’ve ever had,” Jerry pronounced with feeling at one point. He meant it as a sincere compliment to Pilgrim and especially to his most delightful aide who sat almost within reach, still wearing that enchanting red dress.

“Nor ever will have again, I should imagine,” Pilgrim agreed cheerfully. The boss was still apparently unable to perceive anything improper in the speech or behavior of his prospective new employee. “Glad to have you aboard, as the cliché goes. In fact you literally cannot imagine what a burden your successful recruitment has lifted from my mind.”

“Then I’m hired? Really hired?”

“Oh, most definitely you are hired.”

“You might almost say,” said Jan from beside Jerry, “that you are already on your way to work.” Then she giggled, as if she were beginning to give way at last to the chianti. Pilgrim, his face unreadable, glanced back at her once and then faced forward to the road.

They sounded like they were joking, but they must be serious about hiring him, Jerry reflected. If they really didn’t want him they’d be dropping him off at his hotel now, instead of taking him—where were they taking him, anyway? And hey, wait, how could he really be practically on his way to work?

They were, he noticed, definitely heading out into the country again. They were driving through solid darkness now, except for passing headlights.

These, along with the headlights of the van itself, revealed a narrow highway. But the next time Jerry interrupted his talk with Jan to look ahead, the highway had been replaced with a gravel road. And now there were no other headlights to be seen, in either direction. Roadsigns had now ceased to exist also, being replaced by wooden fenceposts and wire beyond the tall grass and fringe of weeds that overhung the edge of the road.

Jerry was just starting to doze off, seatbelted into his comfortable chair, when the van slowed to a stop. Pilgrim opened the driver’s door into an enormous silence.

“Our local headquarters,” said Jan. She sounded like a cheerful nurse, and she was acting like one now, helping Jerry out of his seatbelt and then out of the van. Standing on grass and gravel, he felt somewhat disconnected from his own arms and legs. Looking up, he beheld more stars, many more, than anyone ever saw in Chicago.

The van had stopped in a driveway, close to the front of an isolated structure that appeared to be a farmhouse. It was a two-story frame building painted white, looking ghostly in the night. There were no lights in the house when they arrived. But now Jan tripped lightly up the wooden steps and opened the front door and reached inside, turning on a light over the porch. Meanwhile Pilgrim, surprisingly strong, had taken over the job of supporting Jerry. Jerry found himself being walked up the steps as if two bouncers instead of one five-foot-five researcher had him by the elbows. Not that the job was done discourteously.

Once inside the house, the two senior officials of the Foundation turned on some more lights, and guided Jerry through it. He was blinking rapidly by this time, and his eyes didn’t really focus all that well any more. At first he didn’t see anyone else in the house, but he thought there must be other people around somewhere, because he heard a door close softly, several rooms away, while Jan and Pilgrim were both still with him.

His two escorts were conferring in low-voiced haste; he couldn’t hear what they were saying, but whatever it was, it was all right because both of them were smiling when they turned back to Jerry.

“The best thing will be for you to get some rest,” Jan was assuring him now, “before we do anything else. There’s a room back here that’s going to be yours when we get you all moved in. Wouldn’t you like to lie down for a while?”

Jerry didn’t answer for a moment, because just now, out of the corner of his eye, he had seen something strange: a diminutive figure, like a masked and somewhat deformed child, passing briefly through his range of vision at the end of a hallway. Now he was seeing things.

“Jerry? I say, wouldn’t you like to lie down?”

“Oh. Course I would. Specially if you come with me.” Then Jerry could feel his face turning red for having said a thing like that. At the same time he chuckled.

Jan, more than ever the skillful nurse, was not perturbed. “I’ll see you settled into your room. Then for the time being you’ll have to rest.”

“Busy day tomorrow,” Jerry agreed helpfully, as she assisted him down the hallway. He was demonstrating proudly that he was still capable of thought. There were no strange little monsters in sight now. Probably by the sheer power of his will he could keep them at a distance.

His last remark for some reason evoked a laugh from Jan. It was the freest laughter he’d heard from her yet, a pleasant, ringing sound.

“That is for sure,” she agreed, “a very busy day.” And she marched him on, with Pilgrim leading the way. They passed a room whose door, white-painted wood with an old white doorknob like the other doors inside the house, had been left ajar, and Jerry glanced in. He was able to see very little except a white, free-standing screen that reminded him of doctors’ offices and hospitals.

“Here we are,” said Pilgrim, leading, and they went on past that doorway and into the next one. Jerry was dimly aware of a narrow white bed, coming closer to him with little lurching motions, in time with his own unsteady strides. Then the bed unexpectedly clipped him at knee level and he toppled over onto it. The landing was beautifully comfortable, even though somehow in the course of falling he had turned over so that he was now lying on his back.

His eyes had closed of themselves. When he opened them again, Jan and Pilgrim were still there. A bottle had just clinked on glass, and they were holding little glasses with clear liquid in them, raising the glasses to each other, in the act of toasting something.

“To success,” said Dr. Pilgrim softly, and with a gesture included in his toast a picture that happened to be hanging on the wall. Jan hoisted her glass a notch in that direction too, before she tossed the contents down.

Jerry looked up at the wall between his two fellow workers. By now he certainly had no trouble recognizing the face in that dark frame, though it was younger than you usually saw it, and wore no beard. Abraham Lincoln, in one of his usual sloppy suits. Was it a photograph or a painting? Did everyone in his time dress like that?

“And now, Jerry, one more drink for you.” Jan’s arm went very nicely around his neck and shoulders, to raise his head. ‘Are you sure I need another?’ he wanted to ask as he swallowed obediently. Some milky stuff, quite pleasant. He hoped it would be good for hangovers.

A moment after that the support of Jan’s arm was gone, and Jerry’s eyes were closed again, and he could hear himself snoring. It would be all right. A little nap, just a little, and he would spring up again and show these people that he wasn’t really drunk.

“Like a light,” he distinctly heard Jan commenting. He could hear her and someone else who must be Pilgrim hovering at his bedside a moment longer, and then there were the soft sounds of feet retreating. They both went out, darkening the room and shutting the door on him, but the door wasn’t completely closed. He could tell that by the gentle incompleteness of the sound it made. Then both of them were gone, somewhere down the hall.

In another moment, Jerry knew, he would be sound asleep. It wasn’t that he minded sleeping—but to be practically carried in here like this—that was somewhat humiliating. He felt an urge to sit up, get up, assert himself in some minor way, do something of his own volition. Show them—show them how tough he was. That was the idea. After that he would be willing to take a nap.

It wasn’t really hard to get back on his feet, just as sometimes in a dream it was very easy to do things that should be hard. Things in dreams, he had noticed, tended to be very easy, or else utterly impossible.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred