IN CASE OF FIRE
By RANDALL GARRETT
Illustrated by Martinez
There are times when a broken tool is better
than a sound one, or a twisted personality
more useful than a whole one. For
instance, a whole beer bottle isn't half
the weapon that half a beer bottle is ...
n his office apartment,
on the top floor of the
Terran Embassy Building
in Occeq City, Bertrand
casually through the dossiers of the
four new men who had been assigned
to him. They were typical of the kind
of men who were sent to him, he
thought. Which meant, as usual, that
they were atypical. Every man in the
Diplomatic Corps who developed a
twitch or a quirk was shipped to
Saarkkad IV to work under Bertrand
Malloy, Permanent Terran Ambassador
to His Utter Munificence, the
Occeq of Saarkkad.
Take this first one, for instance.
Malloy ran his finger down the columns
of complex symbolism that
showed the complete psychological
analysis of the man. Psychopathic
paranoia. The man wasn't technically
insane; he could be as lucid as the next
man most of the time. But he was
morbidly suspicious that every man's
hand was turned against him. He
trusted no one, and was perpetually
on his guard against imaginary plots
Number two suffered from some
sort of emotional block that left him
continually on the horns of one dilemma
or another. He was psychologically
incapable of making a decision
if he were faced with two or more
possible alternatives of any major
Number three ...
Malloy sighed and pushed the dossiers
away from him. No two men
were alike, and yet there sometimes
seemed to be an eternal sameness
about all men. He considered himself
an individual, for instance, but wasn't
the basic similarity there, after all?
He was—how old? He glanced at
the Earth calendar dial that was automatically
correlated with the Saarkkadic
calendar just above it. Fifty-nine
next week. Fifty-nine years old. And
what did he have to show for it besides
flabby muscles, sagging skin, a
wrinkled face, and gray hair?
Well, he had an excellent record in
the Corps, if nothing else. One of the
top men in his field. And he had his
memories of Diane, dead these ten
years, but still beautiful and alive in
his recollections. And—he grinned
softly to himself—he had Saarkkad.
He glanced up at the ceiling, and
mentally allowed his gaze to penetrate
it to the blue sky beyond it.
Out there was the terrible emptiness
of interstellar space—a great, yawning,
infinite chasm capable of swallowing
men, ships, planets, suns, and
whole galaxies without filling its insatiable
Malloy closed his eyes. Somewhere
out there, a war was raging. He
didn't even like to think of that, but
it was necessary to keep it in mind.
Somewhere out there, the ships of
Earth were ranged against the ships
of the alien Karna in the most important
war that Mankind had yet
And, Malloy knew, his own position
was not unimportant in that war.
He was not in the battle line, nor
even in the major production line, but
it was necessary to keep the drug supply
lines flowing from Saarkkad, and
that meant keeping on good terms
with the Saarkkadic government.
The Saarkkada themselves were humanoid
in physical form—if one allowed
the term to cover a wide range
of differences—but their minds just
didn't function along the same lines.
For nine years, Bertrand Malloy
had been Ambassador to Saarkkad,
and for nine years, no Saarkkada had
ever seen him. To have shown himself
to one of them would have
meant instant loss of prestige.
To their way of thinking, an important
official was aloof. The greater
his importance, the greater must be
his isolation. The Occeq of Saarkkad
himself was never seen except by a
handful of picked nobles, who, themselves,
were never seen except by their
underlings. It was a long, roundabout
way of doing business, but it was the
only way Saarkkad would do any
business at all. To violate the rigid
social setup of Saarkkad would mean
the instant closing off of the supply
of biochemical products that the
Saarkkadic laboratories produced
from native plants and animals—products
that were vitally necessary
to Earth's war, and which could be
duplicated nowhere else in the
It was Bertrand Malloy's job to
keep the production output high and
to keep the materiel flowing towards
Earth and her allies and outposts.
The job would have been a snap
cinch in the right circumstances; the
Saarkkada weren't difficult to get
along with. A staff of top-grade men
could have handled them without
But Malloy didn't have top-grade
men. They couldn't be spared from
work that required their total capacity.
It's inefficient to waste a man on a
job that he can do without half trying
where there are more important jobs
that will tax his full output.
So Malloy was stuck with the culls.
Not the worst ones, of course; there
were places in the galaxy that were
less important than Saarkkad to the
war effort. Malloy knew that, no matter
what was wrong with a man, as
long as he had the mental ability to
dress himself and get himself to
work, useful work could be found for
Physical handicaps weren't at all
difficult to deal with. A blind man can
work very well in the total darkness
of an infrared-film darkroom. Partial
or total losses of limbs can be compensated
for in one way or another.
The mental disabilities were harder
to deal with, but not totally impossible.
On a world without liquor, a
dipsomaniac could be channeled easily
enough; and he'd better not try fermenting
his own on Saarkkad unless
he brought his own yeast—which
was impossible, in view of the sterilization
But Malloy didn't like to stop at
merely thwarting mental quirks; he
liked to find places where they were
The phone chimed. Malloy flipped
it on with a practiced hand.
"Mr. Malloy?" said a careful voice.
"A special communication for you has
been teletyped in from Earth. Shall I
bring it in?"
"Bring it in, Miss Drayson."
Miss Drayson was a case in point.
She was uncommunicative. She liked
to gather in information, but she
found it difficult to give it up once it
was in her possession.
Malloy had made her his private
secretary. Nothing—but nothing—got
out of Malloy's office without his
direct order. It had taken Malloy a
long time to get it into Miss Drayson's
head that it was perfectly all
right—even desirable—for her to
keep secrets from everyone except
She came in through the door,
a rather handsome woman in her middle
thirties, clutching a sheaf of
papers in her right hand as though
someone might at any instant snatch
it from her before she could turn it
over to Malloy.
She laid them carefully on the
desk. "If anything else comes in, I'll
let you know immediately, sir," she
said. "Will there be anything else?"
Malloy let her stand there while he
picked up the communique. She wanted
to know what his reaction was
going to be; it didn't matter because
no one would ever find out from her
what he had done unless she was
ordered to tell someone.
He read the first paragraph, and his
eyes widened involuntarily.
"Armistice," he said in a low
whisper. "There's a chance that the
war may be over."
"Yes, sir," said Miss Drayson in a
Malloy read the whole thing
through, fighting to keep his emotions
in check. Miss Drayson stood
there calmly, her face a mask; her
emotions were a secret.
Finally, Malloy looked up. "I'll let
you know as soon as I reach a decision,
Miss Drayson. I think I hardly
need say that no news of this is to
leave this office."
"Of course not, sir."
Malloy watched her go out the door
without actually seeing her. The war
was over—at least for a while. He
looked down at the papers again.
The Karna, slowly being beaten
back on every front, were suing for
peace. They wanted an armistice conference—immediately.
Earth was willing. Interstellar war
is too costly to allow it to continue
any longer than necessary, and this
one had been going on for more than
thirteen years now. Peace was necessary.
But not peace at any price.
The trouble was that the Karna had
a reputation for losing wars and winning
at the peace table. They were
clever, persuasive talkers. They could
twist a disadvantage to an advantage,
and make their own strengths look
like weaknesses. If they won the armistice,
they'd be able to retrench and
rearm, and the war would break out
again within a few years.
Now—at this point in time—they
could be beaten. They could be forced
to allow supervision of the production
potential, forced to disarm, rendered
impotent. But if the armistice went to
their own advantage ...
Already, they had taken the offensive
in the matter of the peace talks.
They had sent a full delegation to
Saarkkad V, the next planet out from
the Saarkkad sun, a chilly world inhabited
only by low-intelligence animals.
The Karna considered this to be
fully neutral territory, and Earth
couldn't argue the point very well. In
addition, they demanded that the conference
begin in three days, Terrestrial
The trouble was that interstellar
communication beams travel a devil
of a lot faster than ships. It would
take more than a week for the Earth
government to get a vessel to Saarkkad
V. Earth had been caught unprepared
for an armistice. They
The Karna pointed out that the
Saarkkad sun was just as far from
Karn as it was from Earth, that it
was only a few million miles from a
planet which was allied with Earth,
and that it was unfair for Earth to
take so much time in preparing for an
armistice. Why hadn't Earth been prepared?
Did they intend to fight to the
utter destruction of Karn?
It wouldn't have been a problem at
all if Earth and Karn had fostered the
only two intelligent races in the galaxy.
The sort of grandstanding the
Karna were putting on had to be
played to an audience. But there were
other intelligent races throughout the
galaxy, most of whom had remained
as neutral as possible during the
Earth-Karn war. They had no intention
of sticking their figurative noses
into a battle between the two most
powerful races in the galaxy.
But whoever won the armistice
would find that some of the now-neutral
races would come in on their
side if war broke out again. If the
Karna played their cards right, their
side would be strong enough next
time to win.
So Earth had to get a delegation to
meet with the Karna representatives
within the three-day limit or lose what
might be a vital point in the negotiations.
And that was where Bertrand Malloy
He had been appointed Minister
and Plenipotentiary Extraordinary to
the Earth-Karn peace conference.
He looked up at the ceiling again.
"What can I do?" he said softly.
On the second day after the arrival
of the communique, Malloy
made his decision. He flipped on his
intercom and said: "Miss Drayson,
get hold of James Nordon and Kylen
Braynek. I want to see them both immediately.
Send Nordon in first, and
tell Braynek to wait."
"And keep the recorder on. You
can file the tape later."
Malloy knew the woman would
listen in on the intercom anyway, and
it was better to give her permission to
James Nordon was tall, broad-shouldered,
and thirty-eight. His hair
was graying at the temples, and his
handsome face looked cool and efficient.
Malloy waved him to a seat.
"Nordon, I have a job for you. It's
probably one of the most important
jobs you'll ever have in your life. It
can mean big things for you—promotion
and prestige if you do it well."
Nordon nodded slowly. "Yes, sir."
Malloy explained the problem of
the Karna peace talks.
"We need a man who can outthink
them," Malloy finished, "and judging
from your record, I think you're that
man. It involves risk, of course. If
you make the wrong decisions, your
name will be mud back on Earth. But
I don't think there's much chance of
that, really. Do you want to handle
small-time operations all your life?
Of course not.
"You'll be leaving within an hour
for Saarkkad V."
Nordon nodded again. "Yes, sir;
certainly. Am I to go alone?"
"No," said Malloy, "I'm sending
an assistant with you—a man named
Kylen Braynek. Ever heard of him?"
Nordon shook his head. "Not that
I recall, Mr. Malloy. Should I have?"
"Not necessarily. He's a pretty
shrewd operator, though. He knows a
lot about interstellar law, and he's
capable of spotting a trap a mile away.
You'll be in charge, of course, but I
want you to pay special attention to
"I will, sir," Nordon said gratefully.
"A man like that can be useful."
"Right. Now, you go into the anteroom
over there. I've prepared a summary
of the situation, and you'll have
to study it and get it into your head
before the ship leaves. That isn't
much time, but it's the Karna who are
doing the pushing, not us."
As soon as Nordon had left, Malloy
said softly: "Send in Braynek,
Kylen Braynek was a smallish man
with mouse-brown hair that lay flat
against his skull, and hard, penetrating,
dark eyes that were shadowed by
heavy, protruding brows. Malloy asked
him to sit down.
Again Malloy went through the explanation
of the peace conference.
"Naturally, they'll be trying to
trick you every step of the way," Malloy
went on. "They're shrewd and
underhanded; we'll simply have to
be more shrewd and more underhanded.
Nordon's job is to sit
quietly and evaluate the data; yours
will be to find the loopholes they're
laying out for themselves and plug
them. Don't antagonize them, but
don't baby them, either. If you see
anything underhanded going on, let
Nordon know immediately."
"They won't get anything by me,
By the time the ship from Earth
got there, the peace conference had
been going on for four days. Bertrand
Malloy had full reports on the whole
parley, as relayed to him through the
ship that had taken Nordon and Braynek
to Saarkkad V.
Secretary of State Blendwell stopped
off at Saarkkad IV before going
on to V to take charge of the conference.
He was a tallish, lean man with
a few strands of gray hair on the top
of his otherwise bald scalp, and he
wore a hearty, professional smile that
didn't quite make it to his calculating
He took Malloy's hand and shook
it warmly. "How are you, Mr. Ambassador?"
"Fine, Mr. Secretary. How's everything
"Tense. They're waiting to see
what is going to happen on Five. So
am I, for that matter." His eyes were
curious. "You decided not to go
"I thought it better not to. I sent a
good team, instead. Would you like
to see the reports?"
"I certainly would."
Malloy handed them to the secretary,
and as he read, Malloy watched
him. Blendwell was a political appointee—a
good man, Malloy had to
admit, but he didn't know all the
ins and outs of the Diplomatic Corps.
When Blendwell looked up from
the reports at last, he said: "Amazing!
They've held off the Karna at
every point! They've beaten them
back! They've managed to cope with
and outdo the finest team of negotiators
the Karna could send."
"I thought they would," said Malloy,
trying to appear modest.
The secretary's eyes narrowed.
"I've heard of the work you've been
doing here with ... ah ... sick men.
Is this one of your ... ah ... successes?"
Malloy nodded. "I think so. The
Karna put us in a dilemma, so I
threw a dilemma right back at them."
"How do you mean?"
"Nordon had a mental block
against making decisions. If he took
a girl out on a date, he'd have trouble
making up his mind whether to kiss
her or not until she made up his mind
for him, one way or the other. He's
that kind of guy. Until he's presented
with one, single, clear decision which
admits of no alternatives, he can't
move at all.
"As you can see, the Karna tried
to give us several choices on each
point, and they were all rigged. Until
they backed down to a single point
and proved that it wasn't rigged,
Nordon couldn't possibly make up his
mind. I drummed into him how important
this was, and the more importance
there is attached to his decisions,
the more incapable he becomes
of making them."
The Secretary nodded slowly.
"What about Braynek?"
"Paranoid," said Malloy. "He
thinks everyone is plotting against
him. In this case, that's all to the good
because the Karna are plotting against
him. No matter what they put forth,
Braynek is convinced that there's a
trap in it somewhere, and he digs to
find out what the trap is. Even if
there isn't a trap, the Karna can't
satisfy Braynek, because he's convinced
that there has to be—somewhere.
As a result, all his advice to
Nordon, and all his questioning on
the wildest possibilities, just serves
to keep Nordon from getting unconfused.
"These two men are honestly doing
their best to win at the peace conference,
and they've got the Karna reeling.
The Karna can see that we're not
trying to stall; our men are actually
working at trying to reach a decision.
But what the Karna don't see is that
those men, as a team, are unbeatable
because, in this situation, they're psychologically
incapable of losing."
Again the Secretary of State nodded
his approval, but there was still
a question in his mind. "Since you
know all that, couldn't you have handled
"Maybe, but I doubt it. They might
have gotten around me someway by
sneaking up on a blind spot. Nordon
and Braynek have blind spots, but
they're covered with armor. No, I'm
glad I couldn't go; it's better this
The Secretary of State raised an
eyebrow. "Couldn't go, Mr. Ambassador?"
Malloy looked at him. "Didn't you
know? I wondered why you appointed
me, in the first place. No, I
couldn't go. The reason why I'm here,
cooped up in this office, hiding from
the Saarkkada the way a good Saarkkadic
bigshot should, is because I like
it that way. I suffer from agoraphobia
"I have to be drugged to be put on
a spaceship because I can't take all
that empty space, even if I'm protected
from it by a steel shell." A
look of revulsion came over his face.
"And I can't stand aliens!"
This etext was produced from Astounding Science Fiction March 1960.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the
U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.