Mission Of Honor – Snippet 30

Chapter Eight


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.”