"Blue Lea… is Delta Tower… respond."
Carth flicked a switch on his control board. The static that was piercing his skull came to an abrupt end. He glanced around his RLF-14's cockpit for any signs of immediate trouble and found, predictably, nothing. He pulled back on the flight stick and hit the thrusters. Outside his cockpit, the metallic dust cloud he had been inside of thinned to the emptiness of space as his spacecraft gracefully responded to his will. He reactivated the communications system he had shut off moments earlier; static no longer assaulted his ears.
"Delta Tower, this is Blue Leader. You rang?"
There was an audible sigh from the other end. "We detected a small explosion in your general vicinity. Did you find anything?"
"That's a big negatory," Carth responded coolly, despite his still-racing heartbeat. "There was a gas pocket in the debris cloud I was investigating, but it isn't there now. The engines must've set it off when I passed through it." He scanned the ship's diagnostics display. "Singed the hull pretty good, but I'm alright."
"Roger that, Blue Leader. I'll inform the sensor crew to try to scan them more thoroughly from now on. Be careful out there; don't need you getting killed right before our transfer back to civilization. Delta Tower out."
Carth opened up the squadron's comm. channel. "Blue Squadron, this is Blue Leader. Let's do a final pass through the sector before heading home." A flurry of affirmatives came almost immediately; they must have been anxiously waiting for the order to come. He didn't blame them.
"Again with the close calls, Commander? Are you trying to get yourself killed?" Carth knew the comment was coming, and lifted the facemask on his helmet so he could rub his eyes.
"Of course, Gav, of course. Gotta weed out the old farts, after all." Both of them knew that the explosion was nowhere near strong enough to damage the fighter, but the banter was the only way to keep things light on a mission. "I'm heading back to your position. Stand by."
As he gripped the flight stick to swing his fighter around, Carth gazed silently out into the nearly empty void of the system's asteroid belt. It would probably be more apt to call it a debris field, he reminded himself. There were many times more scraps of ancient wreckage than asteroids floating around. Their mission today, just like it had been for the previous two months, was to patrol various sectors of the entire solar system for any kind of activity and investigate possible disturbances. It was an easy assignment, as it should be for active-duty pilots on "vacation." The current situation in the outer edges of the galaxy made it impossible for anyone to be allowed time away from service, but rotating whole battle groups in and out of this system for surveillance duty was close enough. Nothing ever happened in the system, so all anyone had to endure was a few hours each day essentially riding on autopilot in their scout fighters and keep an eye out for anything unusual. The monotony was so great that pilots often were eager to get back to the front lines halfway through their allotted time in the system.
Carth was no exception. He preferred peace to war, but everyone knew he would rather be in battle than not during a war that threatened to devastate the galaxy. Already, he was forming the messages he needed to send to various people once he was back to the fleet. The communications blackout everyone was subject to during their stay in the system caused him much anxiety; he needed to be in contact with the military commanders, planning new strategies and fighting the war, not sitting in some backwater, uninhabited solar system. His finger was tapping the flight stick impatiently when his comm. suddenly came back to life.
"Blue Leader, Blue Six. You're taking too long to get over here. Maybe I should go to you and light up your fighter's rear. The extra thrust would be useful. I'm sure you wouldn't mind the risk of sudden decompression." Carth smirked; if anyone else had said what his second-in-command just had, he'd be sure to put them on cleaning duty for a month.
"Right, Six," he replied. "Deep space recon training mission for you when we get back."
"Well then, in that case, the rookies have started a betting pool on how much the 'old man' has lost his touch in just a few months without a single enemy to fight." Carth could imagine the grin on Gav's face as he spoke. "But I'm not supposed to tell you that."
"Are they now? Well, I'll make sure they understand that being in your thirties does not an old man make." The comm. clicked as Gav ended the transmission. "They sure know how to push my buttons." He stretched in his cockpit, waiting for the autopilot to bring him to the next waypoint, where Gav would join him for the remainder of the mission. "Just one more reason for wanting to get out of here."
Carth pulled out his personal datapad and plugged it into the fighter's sensors and navigational databank. The mission was boring, but the subject matter was anything but. His rank in the military was nothing to be scoffed at, and thus most information about his missions would be readily available to him. This assignment, however, was different. All inquiries were met with a single phrase: "Classified information." Not even his contact in the intelligence division had access to any information regarding the assignment. The system was classified at the highest level possible, right down to its name. The only solid information he had was gathered from his own patrols. The data provided to them on their arrival said that the system contained seven planets, four being gaseous, orbiting a middle-aged yellow star, with a single asteroid belt located between the third and fourth planets. Beyond that, the details of the system were a mystery to Carth.
He hated not knowing the details.
And once I get out of this place, I can stop obsessing over it so much, he told himself. Leaving can't come soon enough.
Going over the data collected on his squadron's patrols – obtained from the base databank in a less-than-legitimate manner, of course, since it officially didn't exist – Carth noticed that there was a planet-sized mass orbiting the star between the second and third planets. He could only speculate on what it could be, since all craft were prohibited from getting within twenty-five billion kilometers of the object's orbit, but he guessed that it was a planet that also did not officially exist. Why they wanted to hide an entire planet was beyond him. His mind tried to avoid thinking about it, but his gut told him something critically important to the war effort lay there. It would explain the secrecy and the constant surveillance in the system.
He put his datapad down and willed himself to stop thinking about it. After he left, there would be no reason to keep thinking about it. After he left, he could go back to doing what he did best: fighting in the war. No one knew quite how much he hated it here.
The comm. flared to life just as Gav's fighter pulled alongside his at 1.2 kilometers distance. "Blue Leader, this is Blue Three." One of the rookies. Probably not sure what to do about something. "I found some charred wreckage floating near a group of asteroids just a few minutes ago. I've been looking at it, but it's so banged up I can't ID it. Should I report it in?"
Bingo. "May as well. Let them deal with it. It's probably nothing, but you know how they are about the details." Nearly as anal about them as I am, that's how they are.
"Yeah, they're almost as bad as you are." The man on the other end chuckled. "Three out."
Carth shook his head. "They're definitely pushing my buttons today. Rookies don't get that privilege." He made a mental note to reprimand them back at base.
The rest of the patrol went without incident, and Carth found himself nearly humming with glee as he strode through the hallways of Delta Base. That won't do for a squadron commander still in his flight suit, even among his own squadron. His delight about finally leaving the mystery system behind the very next day was definitely getting the better of him. He reached his quarters and slid the door open. Everything was as he had left it; his suitcase lay on the bed with all his clothes packed away. His personal belongings were in a separate bag at the foot of the bed. He walked inside, closed the door, and collapsed onto the bed. His legs hung off the side, and for a moment he let himself imagine the things he would do as soon as he got back to civilization. More work, but at least it'd be productive.
A sharp rapping on his door pulled him from his thoughts. The door was already open by the time he got to his feet. Standing there with a blank look was Gav.
"No," Carth said in monotone.
Gav looked down at the single sheet of paper in his hand and started reciting its contents. "To the officers and pilots of Blue Squadron: In accordance with standard military procedure concerning deployments and mission secrecy,—"
"No," he repeated. Don't say it.
"—General Fierle has, upon review of the data recovered on day sixty-five of Blue Squadron's deployment, ordered—"
"No," he said again. Don't you say it.
"—that Blue Squadron—"
"No," he emphasized, taking the boot off his left foot in the process. Don't you dare ruin this. Gav put his unoccupied hand on the door and stepped outside the room, not turning his back.
"—remain on duty here at Delta Base until further notice." Carth swung and chucked the boot at Gav's head the moment he stopped speaking. Gav, however, was already protected behind the suddenly closed door before it could reach him.
"Sorry, Carth," he said from behind the door. He opened the door back up slightly. "As they used to say—" He poked his head inside… "don't shoot the messan—"
… and had his face attacked by another flying boot.