"Let's stay out of the way of their weapons," said the flight leader. "Draw their attention, but don't get hit. I'm rolling in."
Stone, holding back, just outside the planetary atmosphere, falling back, waited. On the HUD, he watched as the first of the fighters from another squadron made their run. His flight leader was right behind the last of those craft as if he was following them in.
The fighter dove through the clouds but that made no difference to Stone. He could watch with his sensors on. The ship dropped to twelve thousand feet, flew straight and level for ten seconds and then began to spin.
If there was anyone awake in the Citadel, they didn't notice the beginning of the attack. The second ship followed, twisting and turning, trying to avoid the path taken by his lead. He dropped lower, to about eleven thousand but still there was no response.
The rest of that flight made their runs, dodging around the sky as if they expected to be taken under fire at any moment. When the flight finished the first run, they climbed as a unit, heading out the atmosphere and to relative safety. They didn't have a chance to engage the enemy.
Now it was the turn of Stone's flight. They were diving through the atmosphere at a steep angle. The nose of his ship began to heat and glow a dull cherry, but they didn't shallow the dive as was standard operating procedure. They continued on, stringing out so that only one ship would be over the Citadel at a time. They didn't pull out at eleven or twelve thousand feet, but kept on, down to eight thousand. As the punched through the lower cloud deck, the first of the beam weapons opened fire. A short burst that stabbed out and touched the nose of the lead ship.
"That's got it," said the flight leader. "We are now cleared to fire."
The flight climbed upward and then turned one hundred and eighty degrees before diving back at the Citadel. The flight leader punched off several missiles. As they flashed into the night, the flight leader turned again, diving toward the ground and attempting to get away.
Beams flashed from the Citadel, reaching out toward the missiles. One by one they flared brightly and disappeared in firework displays but as they did, each exploded into hundreds of other little bomblets, filling the sky with weapons in an attempt to confuse the Citadel’s targeting computers.
The second ship jinked right and left, fired deployed his bomblets and pulled away in steep climb. The bomblets were destroyed almost as they came out of the ship. Then the beam reached out again, touched the rear of the craft and cut it off. The nose tumbled upward and then began a long arcing descent. Again the beam flashed, hitting the nose section, engulfing it and then destroying it.
Stone, who watched on the HUD, broke off his attack, diving down and away. He made a long looping turn, and then attacked from a new direction using a new tactic. He fired two missiles and then dropped down again, trying to use part of the city for protection, staying away the Citadel and its weapons. He kept the bomblets and other weapons with him.
The missiles, corkscrewing in, tried to avoid the beams which flashed in defense. The beams missed at first, winked out, and then fired again. Both missiles flew into the beams and vanished in bursts of light and small clouds of expanding debris.
But the beams didn't target Stone. He was too far from them and too low. Instead they anticipated the next ship. As it turned toward the Citadel, a single beam stabbed out, hit the front of the ship and then followed it. The ship twisted right and left, but the beam stayed with it. The pilot salvoed his missiles, trying to draw the beam away from him but that didn't work. Other beams reached out and destroyed the missiles.
Four dropped down, trying to get away from the beam. He hit the top of a building, bounced upward and into one of the beams. It sliced through the ship, almost cutting it in half. An instant later the craft exploded into a ball of fire and flame as the debris rained down on the Citadel.
"You've lost Four," said Stone.
"Roger that. Form on me."
"We're getting the hell out of here."
"Roger that," said Stone. He spotted lead in front of him, about ten thousand feet higher than he was. He accelerated, climbing out, hoping he was out of range of the Citadel's weapons.
Behind him the next flight rolled in, but they came in together, spread out, all firing at once. The Citadel opened up, the beams sprouting from it like the grass on a field. Red and yellow beams flashed, striking out at the missiles, the bomblets and the ships.
"Let's break off," said the flight leader.
As one, the four ships of the flight turned, one diving, one climbing and one each turning right or left. They were doing everything they could to confuse the targeting system in the Citadel.
Every weapon fired was targeted and hit. All disappeared in blossoming explosions of yellow orange, only one getting closer than a klick. When the weapons were eliminated, the beams faded from sight.
"All fighters egress. All fighters egress."
"None too soon," said Stone.
"All fighters join on lead flight."
Stone didn't know where the lead flight was, but it didn't matter at the moment. He just continued to climb, higher into the atmosphere, away from the enemy.
"Have we completed the mission?"
There was a hesitation and then a voice said, "Knock off the idle chatter."
"Yeah," said Stone. They weren't going to broadcast an answer to that question. The enemy, whoever it might be, could be monitoring the frequency and there was no sense in giving him the answer. Of course, the odds of that were long, given the situation, that the enemy would be monitoring their combat frequencies, but there was no reason to take the chance.
On the HUD, Stone noticed the four blips that marked the location of the lead flight. It was obvious that they were getting out. The other, surviving ships would form up on them and leave the system for the fleet.
"None too soon," thought Stone.