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When the Diplomacy Bureau at home is composed of hopeless incompetents, the
Venusians are rattling the sabre, and it looks as if an utterly senseless war is going
to result, a little screwball stuff can be forgiven—if it works!

IF THE Karfiness hadn't cut herself badly while she was trimming her chelae one morning the whole mess might never have happened. But fashion decreed that the ropy circle of tentacles about the neck of the female Martian would be worn short that year, and everybody in the Matriarchy, from Girl Guide to the Serene Karfiness herself, obeyed without question.

That was why her temper was short that morning, and why she snapped at the Venusian Plenipotentiary who had come to chat with her concerning the space-mining rights for the following year. The worthy lady glowered at the gentleman from Venus and whistled: "'By the Almighty, if you fish-faced baboons so much as try to lay a flipper on a single free electron between here and Venus I'll blow your water-logged planet out of space!" And, unfortunately for the Venusians, she had the navy to do it with.

The principles of compensation operated almost immediately; the Plenipotentiary ethered back to Venus, and Venus severed diplomatic relations with Earth. Should you fail to grasp the train of events, stop worrying. Those are the facts; the Karfiness cut herself and Venus made warlike noises at Earth.

Earth was in a very peculiar situation. Only a century ago it had begun really intensive spacing, with freight-exchanges and mining. Venus and Mars and, in a smaller way, the Jovians, had been a space-culture for millennia. Earth did not have the elaborate machineries of Foreign Offices and Consulates, Embassies and Delegates and Envoys that the other planets maintained. Terra had gone into the complicated mess of astropolitics with her eyes serenely closed and the naive conviction that right would prevail.

TO THE cloistered Bureau of Protocol in Alaska came a message under diplomatic seal from the Ambassador to Venus, right into the office of Code Clerk Weems.

Carefully he scanned the tape and lead that closed the pouch. "At it again," he said finally. "I sometimes wonder if the whole thing wouldn't go smash if we read our own mail before every other Great Power in space."

Dr. Helen Carewe, his highly privileged assistant, opened the pouch with a paper knife and a shrug. "Take it easy, career man," she advised. "Your daddy had the same trouble before they promoted him to Washington State. We get all the dirty work here in Nome—have to explain how and when and why the inviolable mail-sacks arrive opened and read." She scanned the messages heavily typed on official paper. "What," she asked, "does 'Aristotle' mean?"

"Inexcusable outrages on the dignity of a representative of Terra," said Weems after consulting the code book. "Sounds bad."

"It is. Oh, but it is! They took Ambassador Malcolm and painted him bright blue, then drove him naked through the streets of Venusport."

"Whew!" whistled Weems. "That's an 'Aristotle' if I ever heard one! What do we do now?" He was already reaching for the phone.

"Cut that out!" snapped Dr. Carewe. She could speak to him like that—or even more firmly—because she was more than old enough to be his mother. The number of career men she had coached through the Alaska Receiving Station would fill half the consulates in space—and with damned good men. Brow wrinkled, brooded aloud, "While this isn't definitely spy stuff we ought to know whether they have a line on our phones. Don't get Washington; try Intelligence in Wyoming."

MEEKLY Weems rang the Central Intelligence Division. After a hasty conversation he turned to Dr. Carewe: "They say that we're being tapped—probably by Martians. What do I do?"

"Thank the man nicely and hang up." Weems obliged.

"Now," said Dr. Carewe, "the sooner Washington hears of this, the better. And if the Martians hear of this later, much better. What we have to avoid is the Martians' being able to let the Venusians know with any degree of credibility that Earth is very, very angry about the Aristotle. Because that will get Venus very angry and virtuous. Which will get Earth very dignified and offensive; snotty, I might even say."

"I notice," commented Weems, "that Mars is practically out of the picture. Except as a silent purveyor of fighting ships to both sides, is it?"

"It is. You learn quickly and cleanly. We'll have to go to Washington ourselves with the pouch."

"And report," said Weems, "to—? oh, my God!—Osgood!"

"Exactly," said she. "Oh, my—God Osgood."

And there...

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