Plot Summary/Details

Afraid this is going to be another one of my "longshot specials", in that I only remember a bit about the tale.

The setting takes place on an alien world, with a three-man team of humans meeting with a leader of the aliens. I believe the aliens are rather technologically backwards compared to the humans, but I am not sure about that. I believe they are man-like humanoids. I do recall the make up of the human team. There is a junior officer/member of the team, a more senior/seasoned officer, and the leader. IIRC, the leader cuts a rather dashing, alpha-male figure and personality.

The men meet with the alien leader in a hut or yurt of some sort. I do not recall the reason for the meeting. I think it is a sort of "first contact", but cannot be sure if there were other reasons (e.g. wanting a cultural exchange, trade, etc.) From the beginning, the commander of the human mission dominates the negotiations. He challenges the alien leader, calling him out when the alien tries to be deceptive or cunning, and becoming aggressive when the alien leader resorts to bluster and threats.

Near the end of negotiations, the alien leader, apparently cowed by the human mission commander, offers drinks to the human team in friendship for a new accord (something like that). The human commander, realizing the drinks are poisoned, knocks it out of the alien leader's hand, and I think he pulls out a weapon (ray gun or what have you). I'm not sure if that ends the negotiations with capitulation by the alien leader, or if they are simply held at bay while the team extracts itself from the alien village.

The story closes with the three men heading back for their ship. The junior-most team member praises the commander for how well he handled the mission. The commander agrees heartily, and the senior officer tells the junior one to shut up. The junior officer asks why, and the mission commander begins raving about his greatness. Something along the lines of "the fools thought they could stop me, but I was too smart for them", etc.

It is then we learn the twist. The mission commander is insane, suffering from paranoia and delusions of grandeur. The senior officer explains that their research indicated that the native alien species on this world was so inherently treacherous, so good at deception and double-dealing, only a paranoid madman could hope to deal with them successfully. The senior officer (whom I believe is revealed to be a doctor) also comments that the mission is going to set the commander's progress in the sanitarium back months, if not years.

Publication Details

I read this one in an anthology, and older one. I'd guess 70s or earlier. It might have appeared in an anthology containing "The Gun Without A Bang", but I cannot say that with any certainty. It just sticks in my mind I read both stories around the same time.

1 Answer 1


"According to His Abilities," by Harry Harrison. First published in Amazing Stories (May, 1965). Click on the link and it will take you to where that entire issue of the magazine is stored in various formats.

I first ran across the story when I bought a secondhand copy of Two Tales and Eight Tomorrows, a collection of several of Harrison's shorter pieces of science fiction from the early years of his long career (i.e. with original publication dates in the 1957-to-1965 range).

Your recollection of the plot is accurate in most respects, but there was one thing you'd forgotten about the build-up to that climactic situation in which one member of the party, as they are returning to the ship that will take them away from this world, inadvertently says some stuff which drives the "macho action hero type" over the edge. Here's the key point: Two of the men had to deal with the unfriendly natives and their potentially lethal tricks in order to rescue the third man.

In other words, this was not a "first contact" situation. Human explorers had already visited this world and learned quite a bit about the culture of its native inhabitants. After they filed their report, the planet had been placed Off Limits to all other humans who might want to visit. But one reckless young man, called Zarevski, thought he knew better, and he had chosen to land on this world anyway (implicitly flying a one-man ship, I gather). Not having bothered to do his homework regarding the local customs and attitudes, he soon was captured by a local big shot and treated as a slave.

Someone decided that it wouldn't cost too much to send in a two-man rescue team to try to negotiate a ransom for that fellow who'd been captured. Those two men were, as you remembered, a mental patient named Briggs who initially seems to be the main hero of the story (and maybe he is, despite his problems), and the viewpoint character, Dr. DeWitt (or "doc," as Briggs sometimes calls him), who is probably a psychiatrist (although no one seems to use that exact word in the text). It was Zarevski, after being ransomed from the local alien leader, who became a third member of their little group during the walk back to their ship, and then the Big Reveal happened, just as you described! I will quote DeWitt's explanation to illustrate that this is definitely the same story.

"Just who do you think Briggs is -- a professional hero out of some historical novel that Spatial went out and hired? He is a sick man, right out of the hospital, and I’m his doctor -- which is the only reason I’m here. One of the staff had to go with him, and I was the youngest so I volunteered."

“What do you mean hospital?" Zarevski asked with a last attempt at bluster. “The man’s not sick . . .’’

“Mentally sick -- and on the way to being cured until this happened. I hate to think how long it will set him back. Not as sick as some, he has almost a classic case of paranoia simplex, which is why we could use him. His delusions of persecution relate to his actual perception of his surroundings. So he was right at home down there. If you had read all the reports instead of blundering in you would have found out that those aliens have a society where a condition very much resembling paranoia is the norm. They feel that everyone is against them -- and they are right. Everyone is. No sane person could have been counted on to have the right reactions in such a society -- we needed someone who suffered from the same sickness. The only thing I’m even remotely happy about in this whole mess is that it wasn’t my decision to send Briggs down there. They decided that upstairs and I did the dirty work. I and Briggs.”

Then DeWitt reads Zarevski the riot act, pointing out that if he hadn't been such a reckless grandstander, he wouldn't have broken the rules by landing on that world in the first place, and it wouldn't have been deemed necessary to risk two more men's lives (and one's sanity) just to bail him out of the hole he had dug for himself.

  • Excellent response! This is unquestionably the story I was trying to remember.
    – Helbent IV
    Apr 12, 2018 at 5:30
  • "Briggs who initially seems to be the main hero of the story (and maybe he is, despite his problems)". Hero, or just protagonist?
    – RonJohn
    Jun 5, 2021 at 7:19
  • 1
    @RonJohn I see it's been 3 years since I wrote that, but as I recall, I meant "hero." As in: "Briggs understood the local culture, and the dangers visitors faced, much better than DeWitt did. Briggs had not been hypnotized into undertaking this dangerous mission; he appeared to be doing it of his own free will. He avoided a death trap at the entrance to a building; he recognized that an offering of food was poisoned; he killed the alien who had offered it to him; he succcessfully negotiated the purchase of Zarevski and got them safely away from the local big shot." (cont'd)
    – Lorendiac
    Jun 5, 2021 at 11:27
  • 1
    So Briggs was voluntarily risking his life to visit a strange culture on a strange planet just to rescue a fellow human being (who was also a complete stranger to him). He made excellent analyses of problems as they arose, coped successfully with each one, made the right sort of impression upon the local big shot in order to be treated in a respectful fashion, and succeeded in his mission. He knew perfectly well that one little mistake could get him killed, but the knowledge didn't deter him. I would say that he showed heroic qualities!
    – Lorendiac
    Jun 5, 2021 at 11:29

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