Planetfall: 4

The constant humming of cooling systems and electronic monitoring signals was driving Dr. Boeckmann to distraction. He had a difficult time picking out individual voices with this level of noise, and it was infernally hot in the cramped server room. He understood why they needed to meet here. It didn't make it any more pleasant.

"How much time do we have, Sergeant?" Dr. Kumaran was calling things to order, fresh from a media appearance. In the beginning, Boeckmann had bristled at the team leader's ability to switch effortlessly from his smiling, public persona to this other self that he showed to the operatives. Now, with Venus in sight, he had to admit a degree of admiration for Kumaran's poise.

Pang checked his wristwatch. "Seventeen minutes, sir."

"Well. This will be brief anyway."

Boeckmann went over everyone's recent physicals in his head, cross-checking and thinking of anything that could threaten the mission. Nisa stood next to Kumaran, the second-in-command placid as always. The tendinitis in her right knee was responding well to the physical therapy.

Whitlock and Garima stood together in front of him. The youngest Cythereans were both in fine health, but they troubled him. Nisa had convinced him to let things lie, but he didn't like it. The body had a certain predictable nature to it. The heart was not to be trusted.

Pang, of course, was Pang. Boeckmann had once made the mistake of arm-wrestling the security chief at the ship's Oktoberfest party. Pang would be fine.

Quickly, Dr. Kumaran reaffirmed the main objective and the plan. It was all in the memo, so they didn't spend much time discussing it. Any objections (and Boeckmann certainly had objections) had been discussed, refuted and discarded some time ago. The point-by-point went similarly, each team member checking in with last minute thoughts. Garima confirmed that the minimal exposure would not be permanently crippling. Pang updated everyone on the still-fruitless search for any Orthodoxy operatives. Whitlock reminded everyone of the likely composition of the labyrinth and what could and couldn't be done in the exosuits.

"Dr. Boeckmann?" His turn now.

"I must reiterate my objections to the design of this mission. The potential for casualties and loss of life are unacceptably high compared to the chances of success."

Kumaran allowed exasperation to briefly make an appearance on his face. "Yes, thank you Kurt. How do you assess the team's physical condition?"

"It's not their physical condition that worries me."

"So nothing to report, then?"

Boeckmann frowned. He looked to Nisa. She met his eyes, sympathetic, but unyielding. He looked one more time over at Garima and Whitlock, who were oblivious to the tension between the team's leader and its doctor.

"No, Dr. Kumaran."

They went through the final details, speaking quickly and quietly. Pang's watch chirped, and they all gathered their belongings. Handshakes and embraces were exchanged between all the team members, disagreements and distrust second now to a mutual desire to see everyone come out alive and intact.

One or two at a time, leaving in intervals, they exited the server room. He and Nisa waited their turn to leave.

"Kumaran came around to your way of thinking very quickly on this."

Qasim smiled. "Yes, once he realized that drawing these things out was the quickest way to kill them."

"That doesn't upset you?"

"This mission is like anything else in life, Kurt. We will go in blind, and the true course will reveal itself despite our plans."

Qasim peeked outside the door. No one was in the hallway. She turned to the physician and kissed him on the cheek.

"Allahu akbar, mein freund."

With that, she left the room. Boeckmann was alone.

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