I'm looking for the title of a short story that I would like to offer as suggested reading to my kids.

It was in the late 80's early 90s when I first read it. English was the language. It may be part of a collection.

From what I can remember, the premise is that humans were at war with space aliens. These aliens decide to start peace negotiations. Hoping to get beneficial terms they pick a distant unimportant outpost, knowing that the official diplomats would take a long time to arrive. It falls upon the staff of outcasts and screw-ups at the outpost to negotiate. The base commander uses the psychological traits of his staff to assemble a negotiating team.

One member of the negotiating team is someone who is paranoid. This person uncovers tricks and traps in the Aliens' proposals.

Another is someone who finds it impossible to make a decision.

When the official diplomats arrived, they were astounded with the job the staff performed negotiating a fair treaty.

This story helped me form an attitude of "Do the best you can with what you have."

  • 1
    Someone else seeking the same story, none of the answers look definitive: reddit.com/r/scifi/comments/5ngko6/…
    – Harabeck
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 21:40
  • @FuzzyBoots, thanks for the title change. Much more descriptive.
    – B540Glenn
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 21:45
  • @Harabeck, thanks for that thread. I check out the suggestions.
    – B540Glenn
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 21:46
  • 1
    I was going to post that list. Clans of the Aphaen Moon looks promising, but it's a novel (the short story it's based off of just had three mental patients trying to figure out how they got to where they were and accidentally getting it right).
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 21:58

2 Answers 2


I think this is In Case of Fire by Randall Garrett.

The following all tally pretty closely:

  • Humans were at war with space aliens. These aliens decide to start peace negotiations.

The Karna, slowly being beaten back on every front, were suing for peace. They wanted an armistice conference—immediately.

  • Hoping to get beneficial terms they pick a distant unimportant outpost, knowing that the official diplomats would take a long time to arrive.

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.

  • It falls upon the staff of outcasts and screw-ups to negotiate.

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 came in.

He had been appointed Minister and Plenipotentiary Extraordinary to the Earth-Karn peace conference.

  • The base commander uses the psychological traits of his staff to assemble a negotiating team.

It's actually more than just making the best of what you have:

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

A few differences are that the protagonist is actually the ambassador to the Saarkkadians (a different set of aliens), rather than the commander of an outpost, and the peace talks take place on another planet in the same solar system. Furthermore, the staff are not quite outcasts and screw-ups. It's just that this particular planet isn't very important and all the best people get assigned elsewhere.

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.

However, everyone mentioned in the story has at least one psychological disorder. In particular, the negotiating team consists of one man who is paranoid and another who can't make important decisions if there is more than one option. Together they form the best possible team against aliens who are known to be very cunning negotiators. The ambassador explains to the Secretary of State that is is because

"... those men, as a team, are unbeatable because, in this situation, they're psychologically incapable of losing."

NB The ambassador wasn't actually "normal" - he had a couple of mental quirks of his own but it turns out these are actually perfect for an ambassador in the social structure of the Saarkkadians, suggesting that his own position is another example of finding the right role for his mental make-up.

  • To be specific about quirks: He is a Space Ambassador who is agoraphobic and xenophobic. Which means that he has to be drugged into unconsciousness to be able to fly through space. And he is xenophobic, as in, completely unable to stand being near any alien. The only reason it works is because in Saarkkadian social structure, the less a person is seen by others, the more prestige they have.
    – jo1storm
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 14:38

Is it possible you're thinking of "According to His Abilities," by Harry Harrison as per Old short story where humans deliberately pick an insane man to lead a contact mission with an alien species? It has a similar theme of humans winning the negotiation due to a paranoiac.

“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.”

  • I will look into that, but I don't think it's the same one. IIRC, the post commander was "normal".
    – B540Glenn
    Commented Oct 16, 2019 at 21:48

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