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Mission of Honor: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Friday, April 23, 2010 18:39 EDT




    Eloise Pritchart looked around the table at her assembled cabinet. They sat in their normal meeting room, surrounded by a seamless, panoramic three hundred and sixty-degree view — from a combination of true windows and smart wall projections — of the city of Nouveau Paris. The sun was barely above the horizon, with a lingering tinge of early dawn redness, and none of her secretaries or their aides looked especially well rested.

    “I think it’s certainly dramatic,” Henrietta Barloi replied after a moment.

    The Secretary of Technology, like Tony Nesbitt at Commerce, had been one of the late, distinctly unlamented Arnold Giancola’s supporters. Like Giancola’s other allies within the cabinet, her horror appeared to have been completely genuine when Pritchart revealed the near certainty that Giancola, as the previous Secretary of State, was the one who’d actually manipulated the diplomatic correspondence which had led the Republic to resume military operations. The president had no doubt their reactions had been genuine, but that didn’t change the fact that Barloi and Nesbitt remained the two cabinet secretaries who continued to nourish the greatest suspicion — not to mention resentment and hatred — where the Star Empire of Manticore was concerned.

    Despite which, as far as Pritchart could tell, Barloi’s response was more a throwaway remark, sparring for time, than anything resembling the notion that Haven should reject the opportunity.

    “‘Dramatic’ is one way to put it, all right,” Stan Gregory, the Secretary of Urban Affairs agreed wryly.

    He was one of the secretaries who’d been out of the city last night. In fact, he’d been on the opposite side of the planet, and he’d been up and traveling for the better part of three hours to make this early morning meeting. Which didn’t keep him from looking brighter-eyed and much more chipper than Pritchart herself felt at the moment.

    “Dropping in on you literally in the middle of the night was a pretty flamboyant statement in its own right, Madam President,” he continued. “The only question in my mind is whether it was all lights and mirrors, or whether Admiral Alexander-Harrington simply wanted to make sure she had your attention.”

    “Personally, I think it was a case of . . . gratuitous flamboyance, let’s say.” Rachel Hanriot’s tone could have dehumidified an ocean, despite the fact that the Treasury Secretary was one of Pritchart’s staunchest allies. “I’m not saying she’s not here in a legitimate effort to negotiate, understand. But the entire way she’s made her appearance — unannounced, no preliminary diplomacy at all, backed up by her entire fleet, arriving on the literal stroke of midnight in an un-armed civilian yacht and requesting planetary clearance . . . .”

    Her voice trailed off, and she shook her head, and Denis LePic snorted in amusement.

    “‘Gratuitous flamboyance’ or not, Rachel,” the Attorney General said, “it certainly did get our attention, didn’t it? And, frankly, given the way things’ve gone ever since Arnold got himself killed, I’m in favor of anything that moves us closer to ending the shooting before everything we’ve managed to accomplish gets blasted back to the stone age. So if Alexander-Harrington wanted to come in here naked, riding on the back of an Old Earth elephant, and twirling flaming batons in each hand, I’d still be delighted to see her!”

    “I have to go along with Denis — assuming the offer’s sincere and not just window dressing designed to put Manticore into a favorable diplomatic light before they yank the rug out from under us anyway,” Sandra Staunton said. The Secretary of Biosciences looked troubled, her eyes worried. She’d been another Giancola supporter, and, like Nesbitt and Barloi, she continued to cherish more than a little suspicion where the Star Empire e was concerned. “Given how Elizabeth reacted to the Webster assassination and the attempt on Torch, and with the Battle of Manticore added to her list of ‘Reasons I Hate Haven’ on top of that, this entire out-of-the-blue offer of some sort of last-minute reprieve just rings a little false to me. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is that it seems way too good to be true.”

    “I know what you mean, Sandy.” Tony Nesbitt’s expression was almost equally troubled, and his tone was subdued. But he also shook his head. “I know what you mean, but I just can’t see any reason they’d bother. Not after what they did to us at Manticore.”

    He looked rather pointedly at Thomas Theisman, and the Secretary of War returned his gaze levelly.

    “I fully realize Operation Beatrice failed to achieve what we’d hoped to achieve, Tony,” Pritchart said. “And I also fully realize the decision to authorize it was mine.” Nesbitt looked at her, instead of Theisman, and her topaz gaze met his without flinching. “Under the circumstances, and given the intelligence appreciations available to both the Navy and the FIS at the time, I’d make the same call today, too. We weren’t the ones who’d canceled a summit meeting and resumed military operations, and I fully agreed with Thomas that the only real option they’d left us — since they’d broken off negotiations and wouldn’t even talk to us about any other possible solution — was to try and achieve outright military victory before they got their new weapon system fully deployed. As nearly as we can tell, we were almost right, too. None of which changes the fact that we were wrong, and that I authorized what turned out to be the worst military defeat our star nation has ever suffered.”

    There was silence in the Cabinet Room. Describing the Battle of Manticore as the “worst military defeat” the Republic of Haven or the People’s Republic of Haven had ever suffered — in a single engagement, at least — while accurate, was definitely a case of understatement. Nor had Pritchart tried to conceal the scope of the disaster. Some details remained classified, but she’d refused to change her policy of telling the Republic’s citizens the truth or abandon the transparency she’d adopted in place of the old Office of Public Information’s propaganda, deception, and outright lies. Some of her political allies had argued with her about that — hard — because they’d anticipated a furious reaction born of frustration, fear, and a betrayed sense of desperation. And, to some extent, they’d been right. Indeed, there’d been calls, some of them infuriated, for Pritchart’s resignation once the public realized the magnitude of the Navy’s losses.

    She’d rejected them, for several reasons. All of her cabinet secretaries knew at least one of those reasons was a fear that Giancola’s unprovable treason would come out in the aftermath of any resignation on her part, with potentially disastrous consequences not just for the war effort but for the very future of the constitution all of them had fought so hard to restore.

    Yet they also knew that particular reason had been distinctly secondary in her thinking. The most important factor had been that the President of the Republic was not simply its first minister. Under the constitution, Pritchart was no mere prime minister, able to resign her office and allow some other party or political leader to form a new government whenever a policy or decision proved unfortunate. For better or worse, for the remainder of her term, she was the Republic’s head of state. Despite all the criticism she’d taken, all the vicious attacks opposition political leaders (many of them longtime Giancola allies) had launched, she’d refused to abandon that constitutional principle, and all the muttered threats of impeachment over one trumped up charge or another had foundered upon the fact that a clear majority of the Republic’s voters and their representatives still trusted her more than they trusted anyone else.

    Which, unfortunately, wasn’t remotely the same thing as saying they still trusted her judgment as much as they once had. And that, of course, was another factor she had to bear in mind where any sort of negotiations with Manticore might be concerned.

    And where any admission of what Giancola had done might be concerned, as well. Which was going to make things distinctly sticky, given that it was one of the two points upon which the Manticorans were going to demand concessions.

    “I doubt very much,” she continued in that same level voice, “that anyone in this room — or anywhere on the face of this planet — could possibly regret the outcome of the Battle of Manticore more than I do. But you do have a point, Tony. After what happened there, and given the fact that there’s no reason they can’t do the same thing to us again whenever they choose to — which, I assure you, Admiral Alexander-Harrington didn’t hesitate to point out to me, in the most pleasant possible way, of course — I see little point in their attempting some sort of negotiating table treachery. And unlike the rest of you — except for Tom, of course — I’ve actually met the woman now. She’s . . . impressive, in a lot of ways. I don’t think she’s got the typical politician’s mindset, either.”

    “Meaning what, Madam President?” Leslie Montreau asked, her eyes narrowing slightly.

    “Meaning I think this is the last woman in the universe I’d pick to sell someone a lie,” Pritchart said flatly. “I don’t think she’d accept the job in the first place, and even if she did, she wouldn’t be very good at it.”

    “I’d have to say that’s always been my impression of her, Madam President,” Theisman said quietly.

    “And everything the Foreign Intelligence Service’s been able to pick up about her suggests exactly the same thing,” LePic put in.

    “Which doesn’t mean she couldn’t be used to ’sell us a lie’ anyway,” Nesbitt pointed out. “If whoever sent her lied to her, or at least kept her in the dark about what they really had in mind, she might very well think she was telling us the truth the entire time.”

    “Ha!” Pritchart’s sudden laugh caused Nesbitt to sit back in his chair, eyebrows rising. The president went on laughing for a moment or two, then shook her head apologetically.

    “I’m sorry, Tony,” she told the commerce secretary, her expression contrite. “I’m not laughing at you, really. It’s just that . . . . Well, trust me on this one. Even if all the wild rumors about treecats’ ability to tell when someone’s lying are nonsense, this isn’t a woman I’d try to lie to, and Javier and I lied with the galaxy’s best under StateSec! I have to tell you that I had the distinct impression that she could see right inside my skull and watch the little wheels going round and round.” She shook her head again. “I don’t think anyone could sell her a bill of goods that would get her out here to play Judas goat without her knowledge.”

    “Pardon me for saying this, Madam President,” Walter Sanderson, the Secretary of the Interior, said slowly, “but I have the distinct impression you actually like her.”

    Sanderson sounded as if he felt betrayed by his own suspicion, and Pritchart cocked her head, lips pursed as she considered what he’d said. Then she shrugged.

    “I wouldn’t go quite that far, Walter. Not yet, anyway. But I’ll admit that under other circumstances, I think I would like her. Mind you, I’m not going to let her sell me any air cars without having my own mechanic check them out first, but when you come down to it, one of the first rules of diplomacy is picking effective diplomats. Diplomats who can convince other people to trust them, even like them. It’s what they call producing ‘good chemistry’ at the conference table. I know she’s not a diplomat by training, but Manticore has a long tradition of using senior naval officers as ambassadors and negotiators. It’s paid off for them surprisingly well over the years, and I’m sure that was part of their thinking in choosing her, but I also think it goes deeper than that.”



    “Deeper, Ma’am?” Montreau asked.

    “I think they chose her because she wanted to be chosen,” Pritchart said simply. She looked across at Theisman. “Now that I’ve had a chance to actually meet her, Tom, I’m more convinced than ever that your notion of inviting her to the summit we proposed was a very good one. Wilhelm’s analysts got it right, too, I think. Of everyone in Elizabeth’s inner circle, she probably is the closest thing we’ve got to a friend.”

    “Friend!” Nesbitt snorted harshly.

    “I said the closest thing we’ve got to a friend, Tony. I don’t think anyone could accuse her of being a ‘Peep sympathizer,’ and God knows this woman’s not going to hesitate to go right on blowing our starships out of space if these negotiations don’t succeed! But she genuinely doesn’t want to. And I don’t think she feels any need to insist on unduly punitive terms, either.”

    Nesbitt glanced around at his fellow cabinet secretaries, then turned back to Pritchart.

    “With all due respect, Madam President,” he said, “I have a sneaking suspicion you’ve already made up your mind what ‘we’re’ going to do.”

    “I wouldn’t put it quite that way myself,” she replied. “What I’ve made my mind up about is that we’re going to have to negotiate with them, and that unless their terms are totally outrageous, this is probably the best opportunity we’re going to get to survive. And I’m not talking about the personal survival of the people in this room, either. I’m talking about the survival of the Republic of Haven . . . and of the Constitution. If we ride this one down in flames, we won’t ‘just’ be taking thousands, possibly millions, of more lives with us.” Her eyes were cold, her voice grim. “We’ll be taking everything we’ve fought for with us. All of it — everything we’ve done, everything we’ve tried to do, everything we’ve wanted to accomplish for the Republic since the day Tom shot Saint-Just — will go down with us. I’m not prepared to see that happen without doing everything I can to avoid it first.”

    Silence fell once more. A silence that agreed with her analysis yet remained intensely wary, even frightened, of what she proposed to do to avoid the outcome she’d predicted.

    But there was more than wariness or fear in the wordless, intense glances being exchanged around that table, Pritchart realized. Even for those like Nesbitt and Barloi who most disliked and distrusted Manticore, there was a blazing core of hope, as well. The hope that an eleventh-hour reprieve was possible, after all.

    “How does Admiral Alexander-Harrington propose to conduct the negotiations, Madam President?” Montreau asked after several moments.

    “I think she’s willing to leave that largely up to us.” Pritchart’s voice was back to normal, and she shrugged. “I’d say she has firm instructions, but my impression is that when she describes herself as Elizabeth’s plenipotentiary, she’s serious. However ‘firm’ her instructions may be, I think Elizabeth chose her because she trusts her — not just her honesty, but her judgment. You already know the points she’s told us have to be addressed. The fact that she singled those points out suggests to me, at least, that everything else is truly negotiable. Or, at least, that Manticore’s position on those other points isn’t set in stone ahead of time. That whole matter of our prewar correspondence is going to be a bear, for reasons all of us understand perfectly well, but outside of those two specific areas, I think she’s perfectly willing to hear our proposals and respond to them.”

    “But she hasn’t made any suggestions at all about protocol?” Montreau pressed. It was clear to Pritchart that the Secretary of State was seeking clarification, not objecting, and she shook her head.

    “No. She hasn’t said a word about protocol, delegation sizes, or anything else. Not yet, anyway. Mind you, I don’t doubt for a minute that if we came up with a suggestion she didn’t like, she wouldn’t hesitate to let us know.

    Somehow, I have the impression she’s not exactly timid.”

    Something like a cross between a snort and a laugh sounded from Thomas Theisman’s general direction, and LePic raised one hand to hide a smile.

    “I don’t think I’d choose just that adjective to describe her, either, Madam President,” Montreau said dryly. “But the reason I asked the question doesn’t really have that much to do with her.”

    “No?” Pritchart gazed at her for a moment, then nodded. “I see where you’re going, I think. But to be honest, I’m not certain I agree with you.” One or two of the others looked puzzled, while others were slowly nodding in understanding of their own. “I’d like to keep this as small and nonadversarial as we can manage, Leslie. The last thing we need is to turn this into some sort of dog and pony show that bogs down. I don’t think for a minute that Alexander-Harrington was blowing smoke when she said Elizabeth’s unwilling to let negotiations stretch out forever.”

    “Neither do I,” Montreau acknowledged, but her expression never wavered. “And, like you, I’d like to keep the negotiating teams small enough and sufficiently focused to move quickly. In fact, I’d really like to handle as much of this as possible one-on-one between her and myself, as Secretary of State. Or, failing that, between her and you, as the Republic’s head of state. But if we do that, getting any agreement or treaty we manage to come up with approved by Congress is going to be a lot harder.”

    The puzzled expressions were changing into something else, and frowns were breaking out here and there. Somewhat to Pritchart’s surprise, one of the darkest and least happy frowns belonged to Tony Nesbitt.

    “I see where you’re headed, Leslie,” he said, “but inviting the Administration’s political opponents to sit in on this — and that is what you had in mind, isn’t it?” Montreau nodded, and he shrugged. “As I say, inviting the opposition to sit in on, even participate in, the negotiating process strikes me as a recipe for disaster, in a lot of ways.”

    Despite herself, one of Pritchart’s eyebrows rose. Nesbitt saw it and barked a laugh which contained very few traces of anything someone might have called humor.

    “Oh, don’t get me wrong, Madam President! I’m probably as close to an outright member of the opposition as you’ve got sitting in this Cabinet, and I think you’re well aware of exactly how little trust I’m prepared to place in anyone from Manticore. But compared to some of the other operators out there, I might as well be your blood brother! I don’t like to admit it, but a lot of them are probably as self-serving as Arnold turned out to be . . . and about as trustworthy.”

    A flicker of genuine pain, the pain of someone who’d been betrayed and used by someone he’d trusted, flashed across the commerce secretary’s expression, but his voice never wavered.

    “However I might feel about Manticore, you and Admiral Theisman are right about how desperate our military position is. And if this is the one chance we’ve got to survive on anything approaching acceptable terms, I don’t want some political grandstander — or, even worse, someone who’d prefer to see negotiations fail because he thinks he can improve his personal position or deep-six the Constitution in the aftermath of military defeat — to screw it up. And if we get far enough to actually start dealing with the matter of who did what to whose mail before the war, it’s likely to be just a bit awkward tiptoeing around someone who’d be perfectly willing to leak it to the newsies for any advantage it might give him!”

    “I find myself in agreement with Tony,” Rachel Hanriot said after a moment. “But even so, I’m afraid Leslie has a point. There’s got to be someone involved in these negotiations who isn’t ‘one of us.’ I’d prefer for it to be someone who’s opposed to us as a matter of principle, assuming we can find anyone like that, but the bottom line is that we’ve got to include someone from outside the Administration or its supporters, whatever their motives for being there might be. Someone to play the role of watchdog for all those people, especially in Congress, who don’t like us, or oppose us, or who simply question our competence after the collapse of the summit talks and what happened at the Battle of Manticore. This can’t be the work of a single party, or a single clique — not anything anyone could portray as having been negotiated in a dark little room somewhere — if we expect congressional approval. And, to be honest, I think we have a moral obligation to give our opponents at least some input into negotiating what we hope will be a treaty with enormous implications for every man, woman, and child in the Republic. It’s not just our Republic, whatever offices we hold. I don’t think we can afford to let ourselves forget that.”

    “Wonderful.” Walter Sanderson shook his head. “I can see this is going to turn into a perfectly delightful exercise in statesmanship. I can hardly think of anything I’d rather do. Except possibly donate one of my testicles to science. Without anesthetic.”

    Pritchart chuckled. One or two of Sanderson’s colleagues found his occasional descents into indelicacy inappropriate in a cabinet secretary. The president, on the other hand, rather treasured them. They had a way of bringing people firmly back to earth.

    “Given what you’ve just said,” she told him with a smile, “I think we’ll all be just as happy if we keep you personally as far away as possible from the negotiating table, Walter.”

    “Thank God,” he said feelingly.

    “Nonetheless,” Pritchart went on in a voice tinged with more than a little regret, “I think you and Rachel have a point, Leslie. Tony, I’m as reluctant as you are to include any ‘negotiators’ whose motivations are . . . suspect. And your point about the correspondence issue’s particularly well taken. In fact, it’s the part of this which makes me the most nervous, if I’m going to be honest. But they’re still right. If we don’t include someone from outside the Administration, we’re going to have a hell of a fight in Congress afterward, even if Rachel didn’t have a point of her own about that moral responsibility of ours. And to the brutally frank, I think we’ll have a better chance of surviving even if we end up having to air some of our political dirty linen in front of Admiral Alexander-Harrington, if it lets us move forward with a least a modicum of multi-party support, than we will if we find ourselves in a protracted struggle to get whatever terms we work out ratified. The last thing we need is to have any of those people in Manticore who already don’t trust us decide that this time around we’re being High Ridge and deliberately stringing things out rather than acting in good faith.”

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