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Birnam Wood

"Nice landing."

The man who said this was no longer looking at the pilot in the spacesuit with the helmet under his arm. In the circular control room - horseshoe console in the middle - he went to the wall of glass and looked out at the ship, a large even though distant cylinder, charred around its jets.

A blackish fluid still spilled from the jets onto the concrete. The second controller, big in the shoulders, a beret tight on his bald skull, put the tapes on rewind and, like an unblinking bird, regarded the newcomer out of the corner of his eye. He wore headphones, and in front of him was a bank of flickering monitors.

"We managed," said the pilot. Pretending that he needed support to remove his heavy, double-buckled gloves, he leaned slightly against the jutting edge of the console. After that landing he was wobbly in the knees.

"What was it?"

The smaller one, by the glass, in a worn leather jacket, with a mousy, unshaven face, clapped his pockets until he found his cigarettes. "Deflection in the thrust," murmured the pilot, a little surprised by the coolness of the welcome.

The man by the glass, a cigarette already in his mouth, inhaled and asked through the smoke:

"But why? You don't know?"

"No," the pilot wanted to reply-but he remained silent, because it seemed to him that he ought to have known. The tape ended. It fluttered on the reel. The larger man got up, took off the headphones, only now nodded to him, and said hoarsely:

"I'm London. And that's Goss. Welcome to Titan. What would you like to drink? We have coffee and whiskey."

The young pilot was flustered. He knew the names of these men but had not met them before. He had assumed, for no reason, that the larger would be the chief, Goss, but it was the other way around. Getting this straight in his head, he chose coffee.

"What's the cargo? Carborundum bits?" asked London when all three of them were seated at the little table that came out of the wall. The steaming coffee was in glasses that resembled laboratory beakers.

Goss took a yellow pill with his coffee, sighed, coughed, and blew his nose until tears came to his eyes.

"And you brought radiators, too, right?" he asked the pilot.
the pilot, again surprised, expecting greater interest in his feat, only nodded. It was not every day that an engine stalled in the middle of a landing. He was full of words not about freight but about how, instead of attempting to blow out the jets or increase the main power, he had immediately cut the auto and went down on only the boosters, a trick that he had never tried outside the simulator. And that had been ages ago. So he had to collect his thoughts again.

"I brought radiators, too," he said finally, and was even pleased at how it sounded: the laconic type, emerging from danger.

"But not to the right place," smiled the smaller man, Goss. The pilot didn't know whether or not this was a joke.

"What do you mean? You received me - you called me," he corrected himself.

"We had to."

"I don't understand."

"You were supposed to land at Grail."

"Then why did you pull me off course?"


Translated by Michael Kandel, Harcourt Brace