Clark was watching the progress of the attack on the HUD. Scout Two had rolled through, fired a single missile that had been engaged and destroyed by the a single energy beam. A laser beam had stabbed out, touched the ship and then slipped off. Scout Two's tail glowed brightly for an instant and then it began to cool.
"Three is rolling in."
Clark punched a button and the screen to the left brightened, showing him a rear view. "Magnification ten on the left."
Now he could see the third scout ship as it dove from the outer reaches of the atmosphere. It was a streak of brightness that was aimed right at the center of the Citadel. It began to glow from the friction of the dive.
Clark took his eyes off the screen, scanned the HUD and the sky outside. There was nothing to see either on the screen or in the atmosphere.
Scout Three fired one missile but as it dropped from the rail, it exploded. A beam from the city had touched it. The detonation flipped the scout ship over. Fire burst along the underside. It flashed toward the tail, whipped by the speed of the craft through the air.
He twisted around, spinning, trying to put out the fire but that didn't work. He righted his ship, shallowed the dive but the flames stuck to the hull. It began to glow cherry red.
"Three is in trouble."
"Four, stick with him," said Clark.
Scout Three tried to climb then but the ship didn't respond to the controls. Flames had melted the thruster ports.
"Three is going down."
"Four is with you."
"Five, begin the run. Six you're with him."
"Two, join on me," said Clark.
Three slipped lower, closer to the Citadel. There was nothing he could do to put out the fire. Instead, he dumped the nose, aimed at the Citadel and punched off everything he carried. Missiles flashed and streaked. Four bombs tumbled free, falling toward the center of the city. The sudden decrease in weight lifted the craft and the nose came up. But the fire continued to burn.
Below beams flashed, targeting each of the missiles and the bombs. They exploded one by one in brilliant flashes. The display lasted for only seconds. And then came a final detonation as Scout Three disintegrated.
"We lost Three. We lost Three!"
Clark didn't respond. He'd seen it explode on the screen but that had been unreal, like watching one of the holos he used on long missions. It was something created for his entertainment.
The call from Two woke him it. The panic and awe in the voice made the death of the pilot real. He thought that he should say something but there were no words.
The Citadel wasn't finished. Now it had learned that the attack could be stopped. Beams from all over the surface stabbed up looking like a thousand multicolored searchlights. They scanned across the sky.
"Let's get out of here," said Clark. It was apparent that they had the attention of the Citadel. It was trying to sweep them from the sky.
Scout Four was hit by one beam and tried to twist away. A second focused on it and then a third. The hull became to superheat and the metal of the skin began to run like water. One of the beams punched through to the electronics, frying the computer. The HUD popped and darkened. The flight instruments failed. And then the flight controls. But that didn't matter. A second beam holed the rear and destroyed the engines. The craft then blew up.
Scout Five ceased to exist a moment later. The rear blew off and the nose cartwheeled forward. A small portion separated, a rocket fired, propelling it away from the burning, tumbling wreckage.
"Five got out," said Six. The relief in his voice was unmistakable.
A beam followed the pod and an instant later, it was gone. The escape pod disintegrated without a flash or detonation. It just ceased to exist.
"Scouts, this is Lander. We're out."
Clark keyed the mike. "Scouts. Let's go." He hit the thrusters and was thrown back in his seat. He looked at the HUD to watch the Citadel recede but it wasn't happening fast enough. The beams were still reaching for him, dancing across the hull of his ship. And then he was suddenly clear of the atmosphere.
Half his force was gone. He hoped that it had been worth the price.