In Case of Fire - Cover

In Case of Fire

by Randall Garrett

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: 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.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

In his office apartment, on the top floor of the Terran Embassy Building in Occeq City, Bertrand Malloy leafed 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 and persecutions.

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 importance.

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 void.

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 fought.

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 known universe.

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 half trying.

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 him.

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 regulations.

But Malloy didn’t like to stop at merely thwarting mental quirks; he liked to find places where they were useful.

The phone chimed. Malloy flipped it on with a practiced hand.

“Malloy here.”

“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 Malloy.

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 hushed voice.

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 time.

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 objected.

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