Mission Of Honor – Snippet 31

“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.”