Ponykind had always dreamed of the great beyond, the pale moon and fiery sun that dominated the starry sky. Ever since the first Pilohippus scratched out the beginnings of civilisation in their caves and huts, the never-ending will to explore every crevasse, bridge every river, and climb every mountain drove ponykind to dominance and prosperity over their planet. As the last blank spaces on the map filled, and the population grew to bursting point, ponykind looked to the stars to find new answers.
The first tentative steps into orbit grew into leaping bounds around the system. Every planet in the Sun’s warming rays was colonised, homesteads and cities grew and prospered. And yet, it was still not enough.
Secession and rebellion, colonists took up arms against the governing forces and the taxes they imposed. With self-sufficiency they also sought independence. Independence the United Equestrian Nations was not willing to give. Ponykind’s fledgling empire rang with the battles of brother fighting brother, the UEN established the United Equestrian Space Corporation, the embodiment of its will amongst the stars. In the end, the UESC was victorious, rebels scattered to the dark edges of the system, and ponykind’s attention once more turned to the stars beyond.
A century after the UESC secured its dominance, the greatest dream of the species was realised, the slipspace engine. With it, ponies could spread across the stars; the UEN built colony ships, and planets in star systems further than ponies had even imagined soon filled with settlers.
Sadly, with the sudden growth of ponykind’s empire came the dissidence it thought long dead. Able to hide in the farthest dark places of the galaxy, or diffuse into the streets watched over by the Military Police. The UESC soon found itself unable to keep all its borders under control, the Insurrectionist movements nipping at it on every front. In the year 2525, contact was lost with the outer colony, Harvest. The UESC feared a terrorist attack on the peaceful farm world; what the investigative fleet discovered, was an alien ship that massacred the pony ships with no mercy.
One survivor retreated, a battered ship telling stories of an unstoppable force that annihilated their comrades. Admiral Celestia mustered Battle Group X-Ray, the largest fleet ever assembled by ponykind. She led them to Harvest with one purpose only, defeat the alien menace and reclaim their world.
And thus the Second Battle of Harvest began.
* * * * * *
Dash had never expected herself to become a marine, nevermind a member of the supposedly insane Moonjumpers, Orbital Drop Shock Troopers that rode from ships in orbit to the ground in metal pods. Upon reflection, Dash never expected a lot of her career to play out the way it did, war is a strange thing. Modern war has no frontline, sometimes there’s not even an enemy to shoot, just a ticking time bomb under some innocent pony’s car. The Insurrectionist war was a psychological minefield for many ponies, and Dash saw things she fought hard to forget. Everypony had a reason for fighting, a ponified reason back home. Dash had left hers behind long ago, but hoped that every terrorist she put down made them a little safer. Perhaps it did, or maybe it made no difference at all.
So much had changed now, so much was about to change. Her hooves pounded the heavy metal flooring, the dull grey of the corridor rushing by her. Fully armoured, her speed was only slightly hindered despite it. She'd trained for so long in it that it was more-or-less a second pelt. The little arrow on the visor directed her through the cold, emotionless interior of the UESC Tempest. Ships in the military were simply weapons, or tools. Built entirely to do their job, and do it well. She smiled as a memory of a pony she knew from her foalhood flashed by. The fashionista wouldn't have enjoyed the function to fashion ratio here.
She trotted the last corridor into the Ops Center. She didn't want to be the over-excited greenhorn of the squad, so she kept it cool. Dash entered casually, snapping a salute to the Lieutenant on deck.
“Private Rainbow Dash reporting, sir.” Even a casual servicemare still knew her place.
The Lieutenant lightly saluted her back. “At ease Private, we're all friends here.” He chuckled, seemingly ironically. “Gentlecolts and fillies, here's our new greenhorn.”
“Horse-apples.” Dash cursed under her breath.
“Take a seat, Ms Dash, we're just starting the brief. Ease up trooper, tension like that'll get you a broken spine in the coffin race.” He waved a hoof to the drop pods lined against the wall. In moments, Dash would have to sit in one as it was shot out of the orbiting ship at high speed, and ride it to the surface. It would either go to plan, or, as the Moonjumpers said, she would 'dig her own grave' on impact.
A hologram flared on a large table in front of them. The planet below them, so much scorched earth and lava. It seemed there was nowhere to actually land.
“Here's our drop-zone. Harvest. Population: pretty dead. Surface is mostly burnt up by orbital bombardment, but scans indicate it's breathable without masks, just. We'll be helping the 33rd, who are dropping from the Haymaker, here.” He waved a hoof at a green emblem, the friendly ship.
“We're taking a small outpost the enemy has set up. Seems to be an anti-air encampment or something similar, designed to stop ground troops dropping in. We'll just ride right past it. 33rd is dropping into Utgard, the planet's capital. We're making a hole in the defences so they can get a Landing Zone together and await reinforcements. Copy that squad?”
“Sir, yes sir!” The squad bellowed, drowning out Dash's own voice. A pony from the back, a colt, she imagined by the voice, spoke out. He had the cutie mark of a crosshair on the shoulder of his armour, and the complex setup of a sniper all over his upper body.
“What about the uglies? We good for anti-armour, and such? Also, what's command planning about the big mother-bucker hanging in orbit above our flanks?”
The Lieutenant smiled. “Smart as ever, Sharps.” The colt, Sharps apparently, nodded. “We're dropping with Jackhammers for any big buckers that rock up on us. Flare, Midnight, you're handling those goods. As far as the big ship they got hanging over the city, it'll have the whole of Celestia's fleet on it in about...ten minutes. We'll have our cover, trooper, this time tomorrow we'll all have a lovely alien skull for our mantles back home.”
Sharps snapped off a casual salute. “I'll pass on the skull, just wouldn't mind one of those ships.”
“You call dibs with the Admiral, Sharps, and I'm sure she'll oblige.” The squad laughed and Sharps joined in with a light chuckle. Dash was still on the edge of the group. She just wanted this over with. They got rid of the ship, took back the planet, and return to the first hero's welcome a UESC trooper would probably enjoy in a long time. A million Hollyhoof movies over the centuries had anticipated this first contact between pony and alien, and here she was, living that dream.
The klaxon sounded, and the Moonjumpers moved to their pods. Dash had the one dead center, she locked up her armour, sealing it from the outside world. Her SMG was equipped, attached to the inside of her foreleg's armour. A flick of her hoof and it'd fire on demand, the armour-piercing rounds could punch through nearly anything. Aliens should be a cinch. The pod door closed, hisses of air vented as it sealed tight, and the electromagical harness pulled her tight against it. She didn't want to get ragdolled around on the way down, it would give her more than bruises. The ship slowed down, halting in orbit, it was now in position over the dropzone. The small indicator light on the screen before Dash flashed, the beeps timing her down.
Boop. Boop. Boop. Boom!
The pod was ejected at high speed. No simulation could have prepared her for this, and she had anticipated that. The experience, however, blew even her most pessimistic anticipations out of the water. Her entire skeleton rattled, and once she hit the atmosphere she felt she was almost torn in half by the sudden air resistance. She ignored the comms coming in through her helmet, all her efforts spent on ensuring her breakfast rations didn't make a return to the fray. A few seconds later, the pod suddenly slowed, it’s air-brakes flaring as it crashed through the ruins of an old farmhouse, now barely more than cinders and a creaking timber frame. She'd gone from orbit to the surface in ten seconds flat, and felt every bit like it.
The explosive bolts tore the pod’s door off, and sent it crashing against a wall. Dash stumbled out, dizzily trying to get her bearings. Icons on her visor indicated teammates, and she saw that only seconds after landing, four were highlighted red. This could not be good. She found what seemed to be the front door of the farmhouse and looked outside. The village - or town, Dash couldn’t tell anymore - was a waste. Dust and smoke hung in the air, which had an acidic tang to it that made Dash cough slightly. Her view was blocked by debris and smouldering ash, the surrounding area was just stumps of skeletal, wooden frames. Houses long burnt to the ground. The ground itself crunched beneath her hooves, most of it had been melted into glass.
A small creature caught her eye; a diminutive primate with a large metallic pyramid on its back approached her, snuffling through the mask that covered its face. It noticed her presence, and stared for a moment, head cocked to the side as though it were thinking. As though it had made a decision, the creature raised a forelimb, holding a strange device shaped like a crescent moon.
Dash ducked back in the doorway as tiny blobs of searing plasma lit the farmhouse walls back on fire. She spun back round the doorway and flicked her foreleg, the barrel of her SMG swung into place. A twitch of her hoof and the alien was peppered with bullet-holes, vibrant blue blood coated the ground behind it. In her panic she had wasted half a clip on the creature. Dash chided herself, and locked a new magazine in with her teeth. It was a cadet's mistake, and there was likely to be a lot more than just that one alien here. She scanned her horizons, they were mostly blocked by the stumpy ruins of charred farms and cottages, but, she heard the tinny zings of the alien weapons mingling with the staccato retorts of her fellow ODST's firearms. She rushed to the source, feeling a pang of fear as she saw two more red-liners had joined the casualties on her HUD.
She found her squad collected in a small cottage near her landing site. The burnt out walls were barely any cover at all but they took what they could for shelter. Scattered furniture had been moved to the edges of the room, and the air was heavy with dust and ash. Sharps was standing at a window, his shoulder-mounted sniper rifle tracking his head, occasionally firing a deadly bolt at the enemy.
“Where's the L-T?” Dash couldn't see him on her visor nor in the room.
“Got hit as soon as his hatch popped open. Poor bucker, he was right in front of their squad. Big reptile things, killed him before he could make a break for it.” The sergeant was seated on a small armchair. He seemed fairly old compared to the rest of the squad, probably an old vet drafted in.
Dash shunted away her fear. Their chain of command had died with the Lieutenant, but, the sergeant seemed to take control of the situation. Sharps turned away from his window to the collected serviceponies.
“Big guys have bugged out. Hit the white one dead on the eye with a shot...he flinched it off. Did command tell us their troops have shields too?”
A sergeant replied, midway through reloading his rifle. “The hay they did. You saying we can't touch them?”
Sharps turned back to his window, intent on his aim. “I dunno, I haven't tried two rounds, but I don't wanna waste them. They're sending the little ape ones out, with the big backpacks. They've got no shielding...I reckon they're just cannon fodder.”
The sergeant's eyes suddenly flared wide in realisation. “You mean the big ones have gone and they're just chucking little buckers at us?”
A shot rang out from Sharps' rifle. “Affirmative.”
“Damn it, clever sons of mules. Midnight, Pointer, cover our rear. They're going to flank us. I want concentrated fire while Sharps keeps 'em busy out front.”
The pair of ponies acknowledged the command, and moved to the door at the back of the room. They flanked either side of the doorway, weapons at the ready, waiting for the creature to enter. Dash was glad she had a visor to hide her fear. It was the long wait that was killing her. Hanging on while something that actually would kill her took its time to appear. She bit her lip as the time ticked by; these 'big guys' she had yet to meet sure did like building suspense.
After a hoof-biting eternity, it happened, all at once. The creature burst into the room through the doorway. It snarled at the ponies inside, a tall, reptilian monster that balanced on two hind legs. It was easily twice the height of a pony, and its mouth had four small mandibles that split apart as it bellowed. With its tall stature, gleaming white armour and silvery shield aura, it looked every bit like a demon from the moon itself.
Shots rang out from all directions. SMGs, rifles, shotguns. They all hit the creature, and ricocheted straight off. It bellowed again and flung out an arm, hitting Midnight across the head with enough force to snap his neck with the blow. His vitals flared red on Dash's visor as she continued to pour ammo at the creature. It turned, searing globules of plasma burnt through the walls behind her as Dash ducked out of the line of fire. Her foreleg was still held out, pouring lead at the vicious alien towering over her.
Then, the miracle happened. As it stepped up to hammer its fist into Dash’s prone form, the silvery aura that had held back their bullets collapsed into wisps of golden sparks. Exposed to their onslaught, it was torn apart by the collected gunfire, purple blood spattered everything in the room as a load of buckshot tore the entrails from its stomach, and the creature crumpled to the floor. The ponies in the room slumped to the floor with it, each could see, on their visors, that everypony's heart-rate had skyrocketed. Guns were reloaded, and Midnight was checked over by Pointer, the corpsmare. Nothing could be done. He'd died with the blow, but at the very least, it was quick.
The plan was re-evaluated. On a like-for-like basis, the big reptiles could destroy the small squadron. But they weren't, as was previously believed, invincible. The sight of the alien's mangled corpse elicited an odd happiness for Dash. They're tough, but they're not invincible. She tore herself away from her macabre joy.
“What now Sergeant? Our objective?”
“Yeh...uhhh. Gimme a moment.” He rubbed his mane with a hoof then locked his helmet back on. “We caught sight of it on the way in. A few emplaced turrets, ship’s AI couldn't really give us much info, but they seemed pretty deadly to infantry by what she did find out. They're our objective. Plasma they can chuck out'll peel a Pelican's engines apart. Nopony knows what it'd do to hoofsoldier armour.”
Sharps pulled back from the window. “Little ones either ran out, or retreated. I think the second one. If they're cannon fodder, they probably just wait 'til the big guys are dead then break ranks.”
Dash turned back to the sergeant. “With respect sir, I think the advantage is in our hooves.”
The sergeant choked. “What?!” He managed to sputter between coughs.
“That big one, it came in with no attempts to cover itself. It wasn't aware we could damage its shields as much as we did. It underestimated us, sir. We should push on while we still have that card up our sleeves.”
“Your logic is sound, Private.” Sharps appraised Dash as he stood in the corner. “I agree. Our position is no longer safe anyway and we cannot extract with the anti-air camp on the other side of that hill. We push on, or, we wait for them to come and kill us one-by-one.”
The sergeant sighed. Dash felt he was a pony who would be happy not to have the burden of responsibility on his shoulders. He nodded slowly, then stood back up upon his hooves.
“We move up to the lip of this hill and have a look. Private Dash. You're on point. Move quick, trot quieter.”
The squad cautiously stalked its way across the open ground to the hill. Sharps was ever watchful, this ground was perfect for a sniper to overlook, but the aliens hadn't seemed to consider it. It seemed to be a town square; all the buildings circled a large crater, their objective. The squad got down to their bellies and crawled to the lip, peeping over the edge onto the camp below.
It was fairly sizable. A few of the larger aliens stood intently on guard – but not intently enough to see the ODSTs watching them apparently – while squads of the smaller apes milled around, dragging their forelegs against the ground. Dash got the impression they weren't very high on the evolution tree, which probably explained their role as a meat shield. Around the edge were strange, spherical devices that hovered in position, circling the encampment. Two barrels extended from the front, and they faced outwards towards a threat. The barrels were weapons, obviously. These must be the turrets. What really caught her attention was the construct in the center. It was a smooth, curved design, with four fins extending from the front and back in pairs. The front sloped upwards to a summit, where a floral arrangement of glowing plates focused round a central point. Whatever it fired, Dash bet her bottom bit it could buck them up in a heartbeat.
The squad retreated behind the lip of the hill. They still had the heavy weapons Pointer and the sarge had brought, but the vehicle in the centre looked too durable for it. They needed a distraction, somepony who could move quickly to avoid fire, while still dealing enough of their own to keep their attention. All eyes slowly turned to Private Rainbow Dash, First Class, who audibly gulped over the comms at the prospect.
Naturally, given the desperation of the situation, she accepted. She locked in a new clip in her SMG, and equipped a spare Sharps had used as an offhoof for close quarters on the other leg. Two SMGs to deal out maximum hurt, she just needed to get the vehicle to turn its back to the squad, the sergeant was sure it'd probably have a weak spot there. As she soared into the air then plunged down towards it, she hoped his hunch paid off.
The vehicle seemed to be taken by surprise by a frontal assault from the air, but not for long. The flower-arrangement contracted, a ball of searing plasma grew then was expelled at Dash, who strafed around it with her trademark finesse. Her SMG rounds simply pinged off the armour, as expected. She shot a look at the back, and saw that not only was it devoid of the shimmering, purple armour the front boasted, but it also had a small, spinning device that might have been a exhaust or engine part. A weak spot. She poured fire at it, and the tank turned towards her.
Perfect. She launched herself up into the air once more as it liquidated the ground beneath her into globs of molten glass.
“The back. It's unarmoured! Now!”
First, one pair, then another pair of rockets left the squad perched on the hill. The first two streaked towards the tank and pounded its unprotected back. Blue flames erupted from its rear as the containment around the engine failed. The occupant, another reptilian creature, attempted to escape from the hatch, until the second air of rockets hit the now unprotected engine. It flared in a massive blue-white fireball, engulfing the area around it. Very little was left of either tank or driver, as the light faded.
Where the aliens around the tank must have considered her little more than a pest about to be squashed, they now re-evaluated the threat. Dash found her airspace getting pretty crowded with the white-hot bolts of plasma their weapons spewed out. She focused herself, making light strafing runs on the small cannon fodder types. They fell easily from the fire her SMGs poured out, but the reptiles more-or-less ignored the feeble rounds as they poured more of their own in her direction. They were so distracted they never noticed the puffs of smoke from the now reloaded Jackhammers on the ridge. The rockets plowed into the ground at their feet, tearing through shield, armour and flesh. Chunks of purple meat rained up to Dash's altitude, before smattering the ground beneath her. The ODSTs finally charged, assault rifles pouring bullets at the primate occupants of the turrets. The hill was taken, the air was clear, and the aliens were defeated.
It was the sergeant who made the joyous call to the command ship Everfree, Celestia's own Admiralty flagship that was overseeing the operation. The call was acknowledged. Complications had arisen – more enemy ships had appeared in orbit, and the fleet was busy holding them off. Dash gulped. More of the powerful aliens appearing could not bode well. It had taken all the team's wits as well as what command would label as a 'gross misallocation of resources' by using anti-armour missiles to kill off the alien infantry to win a small skirmish. Not to mention the seven red icons that represented the fallen ponies on her visor. She hoped the Haymaker’s team had enjoyed more luck than them.
Dash began to shiver as she saw a bulbous silhouette appear in orbit. Unmistakably an alien design, it was shaped like a deep-sea Equestrian fish, all curves and fins. Red fire roared at its nose, then was unleashed in one mighty sphere towards the retaken city of Utgard less than two miles away. Dash understood the situation, screaming and leaping into a pod for cover as fire enveloped the area, even ignoring the smouldering corpse of the lieutenant that lay there with her. The doomed cowering next to the dead.
“Ship decelerating ma’am, we’ll exit into normal space in three...two...one.”
On the edge of the Epsilon Indi system, a corona of energy appeared. It widened, a huge flare of pent-up magical energies revealing a hole in space itself. It was out of this hole that the UESC Everfree came, a massive destroyer ship bristling with weaponry and armour, ready for combat. A clang reverberated through the ship, the metal structure almost rippled as the electromagical engine released its grip, and it fell back into normal space. Admiral Celestia glared at her viewscreen, they were a few hundred miles out. Close as pony science could get a slipspace vessel to go, but they were still worryingly inaccurate. It was all too possible to re-materialise inside a sun, for example, so in this instance they were lucky. Celestia couldn’t imagine a more ironic death for herself.
The small pedestal flared back to life after the rolling power fluctuation. On it a hologram stood, nothing more than a clever array of lights and crystals used to create a picture. The picture that presented itself was Twilight, Celestia’s very own personal AI. She held the form of a lilac unicorn clutching a pile of books under one foreleg, two saddlebags on her sides were also visibly packed with the things. Most AI took the forms of mythical creatures that had long been hunted from Equestria’s surface by the progressive ponies that claimed it, the fact that her AI took the form of a bookish high-school filly only made her a little more unique. That being said, Twilight’s capabilities to record, process and relay data in battle were unparalleled. And they’d aided Celestia more times than she could count.
It had been natural to bring her, because Celestia would need all she could get in this one. Harvest hung in space several thousand miles away, the solitary alien vessel that had obliterated the scouting party hung in orbit over the sickly planet. She saw Twilight wave a hoof, before grimacing as the screen zoomed onto Harvest itself. The planet was a loss. No more could be said for it. Whatever areas weren’t still venting magma high into the atmosphere were freezing over in the sudden nuclear winter. However, Celestia hadn’t brought forty of the UESC’s finest vessels to replant some apple orchards. They’d come for one, sole purpose. To show the alien intruders the might of the pony race, and to claim back their planet and kill the enemy vessel as it continued to burn the planet below. Was it even aware they were here?
“Ma’am. Additional reinforcements have arrived. It leaves us at thirty-five vessels, the group from Tau Ceti reentered way off course, they’re still navigating the Oort cloud and will take a few hours to do so.” Twilight didn’t look up from the book she was reading, levitating it before her while her horn pulsed with simulated magical energies.
Celestia straightened her posture. She always felt one couldn’t command troops without looking the part. “Good, have the rest of the fleet form up on me. Apart from the Tempest and Haymaker. We need them to flank and drop their personnel planetside. We’ll take the ship head-on. I imagine even these aliens can’t stand against forty ships’ worth of firepower.”
“Acknowledged ma’am.” Twilight scribbled out a message on a parchment, then evaporated it with a flash of light. “Orders sent, the fleet is moving. ETA twenty minutes until we come in range. Unsure of the alien weaponry’s range, but it may be superior to ours.”
“Record anything you can about them Twilight. Anything at all may be useful in fighting them.”
“Aye-aye Ma’am. I’ll prepare the weapons and counter-measures.”
Twilight’s hologram flickered away, and she pulsed through the ship’s network. She became a tiny thought signal in the nervous system of the Everfree. Her signal found the weapons control, the ship was bristling with autocannons that could pour 50mm rounds at anything that came close. Add to that the Archer missile pods that could gut a building from orbit, and the formidable Magical Accelerator Cannon at the heart of the ship, and the Everfree was as indomitable as pony science could make a vessel.
She flipped the electromagical safeties off the M.A.C. gun. The electricity slowly poured into the massive capacitor arrays on board. At the push of a button they would pour their charge into the coils, creating a temporary telekinesis field that pulled the slug along, speeding with each iteration. The round became fast enough to shatter an energy ship with it’s combined speed and weight alone. No ship in the UESC fleet - or even the rebel ships that tried to fight them - could stand an impact from it. There were more than a few reports of rounds punching their way through several vessels and still having enough momentum to destroy a small village from orbit.
Twilight saw the ship as her own body. She was unaware of the real connotations of such a word. An AI was born by flashing magic through a unicorn’s brain and saving the structure of it. The unicorn, sadly, died in the process. And while ponies often debated that AIs still held the memories of their...creators, Twilight felt none of that. She repressed the urge, the wish to become “real” was the first stage of rampancy, and no matter how indispensable she was to Celestia, she didn’t doubt that she would hesitate to purge her if she became truly self-aware. So Twilight held onto her placebo, the ship she was currently installed in. It’s long-range sensors her eyes, the reactor her heart, and the MAC gun up front her hoof.
She finished her duties, calibrating all the weapons and tweaking the fusion reactor to gain an extra one percent power output, in case they needed it. She returned to her hologram pedestal, flickering back into position. Her form appeared, and she started her speech routines in case the Admiral needed her.
“Three seconds Twilight. A new record.” Celestia cast her eyes over the viewscreen, it now held the diagram of the ship itself. Green indicator lights flared across the board as the ship reached combat-readiness.
The lavender of Twilight’s face was cut with small patches of red on her cheeks. “Oh it was nothing. If I’m honest, I had it all preset to come back online anyway.”
“Your animation routines are improving too. You’re almost acting like a real pony.” Celestia’s gaze was unreadable. The perfect poker-face. Twilight processed, and imagined the best solution would be a benign gesture of positivity, so she smiled.
“Thank you ma’am. I have done alot of research into pony interactions and relationships.” She waved a hoof and a pile of books appeared before her. “I have alot of material to reference from now.”
Celestia nodded, and the edges of her mouth curled up oh-so slightly. Twilight had to zoom her camera to see it. She returned the gesture. It was common in pony culture to relay the expression of a fellow pony if the gesture was positive. It had been one of the more difficult things to recognise. She rechecked the distance scanners towards the alien vessel. They had come within range.
“Ma’am. We’re in MAC range of the enemy vessel now. I’ve warmed up the capacitor arrays in the event your plan doesn’t succeed.”
Twilight’s finesse with her speech routines had improved greatly. Celestia even noticed the undercurrent of doubt in the synthesised voice. “We have to offer peace. I believe it’ll be the best for both us and them. Open a channel to them.”
Twilight began to scribble a letter, then halted. ”What frequency?”
“All of them.” Celestia had forgotten the complete lack of knowledge concerning these invaders. “And make sure you boost the image, we need it clear for them to recognise me.”
“Patching you through. You’re ‘on air’ ma’am.”
Celestia straightened her posture further. She needed to look every bit the commander of a glorious and powerful empire for these creatures. It unnerved her that she couldn’t see who she was talking to, but in the end, it may have been for the better.
“My name is Admiral Celestia, of the Destroyer ship Everfree, command ship of Battle Group X-Ray and one of the two Head Admirals of the United Equestrian Space Corporation, representing ponykind across the stars.” Celestia chided herself. She’d almost ran out of breath with that verbal tsunami, and her last clause was more poetic than official. “We demand that you cease hostile actions and retreat your forces from the planet Harvest, or we will use our military force to evict you from our territory.”
An uneasy silence grew afterwards, Celestia, her crewponies, and even Twilight were all silent as they awaited the response from the alien creatures. Twilight noticed something, a signal on her scanners, on the UESC frequency.
“Ma’am, I have their reply.”
“Then play it Twilight!”
A deep, seething voice filled the speakers. It’s speech seemed forced and angry. It spat the words with venom rather than just speaking them. “Your destruction is the will of the Gods, and we, are their instrument.”
Celestia was taken aback once more at the message. “What language did you translate that through Twilight?”
Twilight’s avatar, for her own part, was running a flawless simulation of bewilderment. While the message was playing she had scanned, decrypted and analysed the message. “It was pre-translated and sent on our frequencies ma’am. They prepared it for us.” She winced, one of her subroutines tracking the ship pinged her, she focused her attention onto it. The enemy vessel was in motion. “Ma’am. Enemy ship is adjusting heading, it’s coming straight for the fleet!”
Celestia shunted the implications of the message to the back of her mind. Battle was her purpose now, her voice lost all of it’s usual warmth, it became cold, calculative.
“Tempest, Haymaker. Drop troops and prepare to flank the enemy vessel. All ships form up and surround the vessel, we have numbers ladies and gentlecolts, use them. MAC fire is authorised.”
She turned to her AI now, the communications window closing as she left it. “Twilight. Hack into their comms, use every scanner we have, and record everything. Even the most menial detail could be essential.”
Twilight flicked a hoof to her forehead. “Aye-aye ma’am.” She procured a book in her hooves and began reading it, quill and parchment furiously scribbling away in the air beside her.
The fleet moved on the enemy vessel. Despite their superior numbers it still dwarfed them. The alien ship was a gargantuan piece of engineering, composed of three bulbous sections, every surface was smooth and curved. It had a truly alien beauty. Celestia chose not to underestimate it, a supernova was also beautiful, and she hoped this vessel would be alot less deadly. All of the vessels in her command fired, the Everfree itself roiled as though a thunderstorm had been unleashed on the upper decks. The shots were staggered for maximum effect, a horde of orange streaks that blazed through the dark of space like a swarm of angry bees. They met the alien vessel, and ricocheted off it without any noticeable damage inflicted. Celestia zoomed the recording. The pinpricks of blazing orange moved more slowly this time, then bounced away before reaching the vessel. They had shields, O.N.I.’s intelligence was on the money once more.
Now it was the enemy’s move. Angry, red energy flared along it’s edges. It bubbled and coalesced together at points and was ejected into the night. Whereas the orange streaks of the MAC guns had looked like angry bees, these weapons seemed like rampaging ursas against the blackness. They splashed over ships, melting straight through the metre-thick titanium bronide hulls. Balls of brilliant white light flared as the damaged ships’ reactors went critical, and detonated. The viewscreen reasserted itself, five ships lost in one salvo, and the enemy barely flinching at their own. This did not bode well.
“All ships prepare for another salvo!” Readiness symbols flickered from functioning ships. Barely twenty green lights met Celestia. She opened a channel to the unresponsive vessels. “Captains, prepare to fire!”
“Negative ma’am. Enemy fire damaged the guns, some sorta E-M field, fried the MAC capacitors.”
Similar reports came to Celestia from the rest. The plasma didn’t even need to hit to cripple a vessel. She pounded her fear into submission and continued. “All available ships, fire at will!”
Once more the swarm of rounds traced through the void, pattering and ricocheting off the ship again. Celestia’s face visibly dropped, were these creatures invincible? More red plumes of energy burnt on the rim of the alien’s warship, and Celestia looked down towards her terminal’s keypad. She heard the distress signals over the comms, then looked up. Her viewscreen now showed the casualty reports. Thirteen vessels and not a scratch on the enemy. Over four thousand hooves lost in two salvos.
“All ships break off and scatter. It’ll be harder to hit groups in this formation.” She turned to Twilight, who’s muzzle was still buried in her books. “Anything?”
“I noticed power fluctuations after the hits, but they recovered too quickly between them. They simply recharge the shields after each impact to prevent the damage.”
“So the damage from each hit is recovered by the time the next lands.”
Celestia’s face lit up, shining through her admiral’s decorum. “But. What if we fired all weapons at once? Recalculate it based on the power lo-”
“We’d need all ships remaining to fire both their MACs and missile arrays. They’d need to impact simultaneously.” Twilight waved a hoof and the firing solution came on-screen. Precisely calculated based on trajectories, velocities and weapon damage, it showed the precise times to fire each weapon on every ship in the fleet. Against a static target it had been easy, even though it wasn’t part of Twilights usual MO.
Celestia smiled. “Excellent. All ships lock in the new firing solution to your computers, prepare to fire.”
Her fleet acknowledged, then the missiles came first, speeding at hundreds of miles an hour, yet given the distance between target and the firer, they seemed slow and sluggish. The fire was staggered, yet they would all hit at the same time. Twilight had made sure of it. As they were about to impact, the MAC guns fired, their electromagical inductors propelling the rounds at thousands of miles an hour by comparison. All rounds hit at once, and the shield became visible. It flared as a brilliant, silvery shell around the craft, perfectly moulded around its form. It brightened, then flickered and collapsed, wisps of silver energy faded into the black of space.
Celestia’s heart pounded, she slammed her hoof on the communications button. “All ships recharge weapons and fire at will. We cannot calculate how long the shields will stay down.”
Celestia turned to Twilight. “I saw your calculations, they won’t help morale.” The shields would recharge in minutes, and as the enemy prepared to fire, she wasn’t sure the pony fleet had that long. As the raging storm of red energy prepared itself however, the ships around the vessel fired. Once more the streaks burnt their myriad of paths across the screen, but this time they did not ricochet off. First one, then two more, then a smattering of others punched through the enemy vessel. Atmosphere and fire vented from the holes, it began to list, a trio of rounds having made their way through what appeared to be the reactor. It’s plasma burst over the weapons, melting them away as it did the pony vessels. Engines flared, then died to a cold, dim aura. The fires springing out all over it’s surface intensified, and finally, the reactor itself burnt up. A brilliant plume of cyan and white energy burnt through the darkness. Cheers erupted over the comms, and in the bridge behind her.
Twilight however, did not join the cheer. Celestia could tell from her mannerisms that her lack of ponity was not the cause. She implored Twilight with her eyes, and in kind, Twilight flicked a hoof at the screen. It magnified the dark side of Harvest. Tiny pinpricks of brilliant white light flared against the space behind them. Red indicators appeared over the lights.
“Slipspace exits. Fourteen of them. Ma’am-”
Celestia’s rage burnt within her, directed at herself, and her naivety for believing enemy reinforcements wouldn’t come. Celestia didn’t need time nor Twilight’s help to do the math. If the other ships were half as powerful as the one they’d just fought, they’d simply canter through the fleet.
“Retreat. All vessels prepare for a tactical retreat. Everypony jump to random vectors, I repeat, do not lead the enemy to another planet!”
“Ma’am, we still have hooves on the ground! They report mission success.”
“Have them retrieved by their-.” Celestia halted. The Tempest and Haymaker had been amongst the casualties. “Twilight, go dark. Shut down all systems and send out a pelican to retrieve those ponies.” She watched the flickers of the rest of the fleet scattering and fleeing from the enemy vessels that now enveloped Harvest, preparing to finish their job. “I’d rather not leave them to be burnt from orbit.”
* * * * * *
“Private Dash?! Sharps? Pointer? Where the buck are you?” The sergeant limped through the wreckage, the little village had been reduced to cinders by the nearby plasma strike. Utgard itself was a column of black smoke dominating the eastern horizon. “Troops, form up on me. Sound off! We need to find cover!”
It was Sharps who emerged first, lifting himself out from a pile of broken planks that had barely stopped the surge of flame. “Where the hay are we going to hide from that!?”
“Anywhere but here soldier. Move, find Pointer and the rookie.”
“Okay, I’ll just search the burnt, black wastelands for their burnt, black bodies.”
The sergeant clamped his hooves on Sharps’ shoulders. “You survived. And I don’t think your burnt enough to warrant a rest trooper. So get, searching.” He jabbed a hoof into Sharps’ stomach, who then began to comb the wreckage, with little optimism. Even if they did find the missing pair, what would they achieve? A fleet of alien destroyers was hanging over their heads getting ready for round two.
A weak movement in the wreck caught his attention. An overturned drop pod lay on it’s side, half buried in rubble. A leg waved from out of it.
“Rookie? That you in there?”
“Yeh. Gimme a hoof Sharps, would ya?”
Sharps grabbed Dash’s hoof with both of his own and yanked. She came free of whatever had been pinning her, and dropped out of the pod onto the floor unceremoniously. A plume of dust and ash erupted from her impact zone. Sharps doubted the air was so breathable anymore. Not that the air quality was top of his list at this time.
“You injured private?”
“Yeh, wing got caught. Nothin’ bad, just sprained...armour held.”
“Good.” He cupped two hooves around his mouth, their radios were fried from the plasma’s EMP. “Sarge! I got the rook! You found Pointer yet?”
“Yeh...yeh I did.” The sarge trotted over to the pair. “She...didn’t make it.”
“Not your fault sarge, you did your best.”
The sarge looked upwards at the glimmering leviathan that had shrouded them in it’s shadow. “I’m not normally a critic, but I don’t think it was good enough today.”
“We can get out of this, right? Come on. We’re the ODSTs for Celestia’s sake...we, we survive anything...right?” Dash failed to hide her fear, her helmet had been shattered with the force her head hit the floor when the blast hit them. It gave her no protection from fire or the eyes of the others now.
“Sometimes, even the best get caught out. You did good rook, I’ve seen hard-flanked vets who would’ve done worse than you today. Nice moves with that tank by the way.”
Sharps perked up, craning his neck to the sky. “Sir. Your miracle might be here. Or, I’ve breathed in so much radioactive ash I’m hallucinating.” He brought his scope to his eye. “It’s a Pelican! Fleet hasn’t forgotten us after all!”
“Alright form up, our evac’s here, we’re getting the hay out off this rock.” He placed a hoof on Dash’s shoulder. “Looks like we do survive after all private. Not too soon for you, your suit’s breached to heck.”
The bulky dropship lowered itself to the ground, hovering an inch above the surface as it’s powerful engines kicked up the radioactive ash into the ODSTs faces. Not that they cared, as they powered through it, almost leaping into the angel with the stubby wings.
The marine on the gun regarded the three ponies. “You all that’s left?”
“Squad barely made it. Second team.” Sharps raised a hoof to the horizon, where there had been the ruins of Utgard, there was now just a massive, blackened crater. “Didn’t make it either.”
“Understood.” The marine hoofed a button, closing the rear door and taking a seat across from the three Moonjumpers. “If it makes you feel better, fleet got hammered into a retreat. Celestia herself stayed behind to grab you.”
“What about our ship, the Tempest?”
“Dust and echoes pony. They lost thirteen ships to kill one of the space invaders’. Talk about unlucky numbering.”
The sergeant put his face in his hooves. Sharps reached a hoof around his shoulders. “Come on sarge. You did all you could, you got me and the rook off that rock alive, and the mission got done. Even if fleet bucked up, it still matters.”
The sergeant didn’t respond. He simply wallowed in a pool of his own thoughts as the pelican streaked across space and docked with the Everfree. Everypony he had fought with - some for decades - were now either ash on the Harvest surface or glue floating in space. As the pelican landed inside the hangar, Dash felt the familiar sensation of her teeth aching as it pulled away into the ethereal slipspace. The admiral was the last to leave the battle, as had always been the tradition, and all hooves had watched as Harvest was once more put to flame. This time however, there wasn’t a hope on the moon that a hoof would be placed on it again.
The Office of Naval Intelligence was a strange place to make a career. Here the fashion to function ratio was much more lenient than mainstream military architecture. Gone was utilitarian corridors and grey metal decking every surface, the employees at O.N.I. enjoyed modern facilities, top of the range even. The main lobby was a gargantuan hall, painted in soft, cream shades. Steel and glass walkways criss-crossed the ceiling as ponies went about their daily jobs on the various levels of the Hive facility. The floor was glass, with lighting panels underneath. It gave Rarity the impression of walking on the sun’s surface.
It had been controversial when she had enlisted to serve; being an Intelligence Officer wasn’t her first career choice. No, how could one make a career choice on a job that was utterly hushed from the public it recruited? She had started in Boot Camp, excelling at recon but ultimately failing to even point a pistol straight. The recoil was simply too much on those things, and it gave her such awful cramps in her deltoids, she could already feel the skin starting to wrinkle there. Thankfully the drill sergeant had noted her affinity for subtlety, and suggested her as a recruit to ONI’s Section One. Known in the business as “the ones that are actually spies.” Rarity never talked to a pony from the other sections, not even hushed rumours were discussed amongst colleagues. ONI was a place of constant vigilance, security cameras decked every room, guardsponies stood in every corner and doorway, watching, their safeties were never on.
It was true that Rarity had noticed more than one pony experiencing a, “termination of employment.” What happened? Nopony with a brain asked. The lobby bustled with a hundred ponies going about their business, yet was silent as they passed through to the mysterious corridors and rooms of the Hive. Rarity herself pushed through the crowd, weaving past ponies to get to her destination. She had a career making appointment to keep, and it would not do at all to keep Admiral Luna waiting.
She eventually reached the room, in the Command section of the base. To think the entire beating heart and leadership of the UESC was right here under Canterlot. Not that it made it vulnerable, the facility was a mile underground, and the intervening space between it and the streets above were weaved with enough reinforcements to withstand a direct nuclear strike. Fashion and function perfectly married, if only the same could be said of the rest of the UESC. Rarity appraised the guards outside the Admiral’s office, and allowed herself to be subjected to the mandatory security checks. Her badge, irises, hoofprints and even blood were sampled and analysed by the attendant AI in seconds. She checked out, obviously as expected, and continued as the two stallions opened the doors for her.
Luna’s room was the polar opposite to the rest of the facility. While the attempt had been to make the interior of the Hive not feel that it was underground, Luna seemed to embrace this ideal. Indirect lighting was bounced into the room from slits in the walls. A large, curved desk sat in the exact centre. Black marble to match the midnight blue carpet Rarity now walked upon. The walls themselves were also glossy black, not too overwhelming, but enough to give them an obsidian-like allure in the lighting. The room was well-decorated in its own right, Rarity had to admit.
The Admiral stood from her desk, motioning with a hoof at the guards behind Rarity to leave them. Rarity snapped off a salute - one never forgot her manners - and took the seat that Luna offered with an extended hoof. It was sat directly in front of her on the opposing side of her desk. Right in the centre of her attention.
The Admiral once again took her seat and cleared her throat. “Well now we have the formalities of security considered, how was your mission, was it successful? I trust you managed to evade detection?”
Rarity nodded curtly. “Neither side was aware of my presence, to my knowledge at least. The mission was very successful. Though, I’m afraid you’ll find by the data, your sister’s was less so. The fleet suffered considerable losses.”
Luna raised an eyebrow in concern, and Rarity floated the tiny chip from out of her pocket and onto the desk. It was essentially a small, square piece of metal with a circular, glass window on the front. It was in this window that electricity arced with the knowledge held in it. Luna caught the chip in her own magic and carried it to her holo-pedestal. She inserted it into the slot and at once the pedestal burst into smoke and flames with a brilliant flash.
Rarity raised a hoof to her mouth in shock. The data might have gotten slightly corrupted in transit, but this was just unheard of, and breaking the Admiral’s own computer terminal! She slowly began to realise the situation as the now obviously simulated smoke disappeared, and in its place stood a holographic form. It was a unicorn pony with a brilliant, azure coat and a flowing, silver mane. It was decked in a matching outfit comprised of a purple cloak and hat. It regarded Rarity with a haughty expression before turning to Luna.
“Trixie is aware that you have inserted a data drive into her forward port. She imagines you’d like her to decrypt it for you?”
Luna nodded. “It is your purpose, Trixie. Now please, get to it. I need these recordings as soon as possible.” She turned to Rarity. “Did you gather any other readings?”
Rarity jumped slightly in her seat. “Ah yes! Forgot to mention, silly oversight. I managed to collect radiation scans on the enemy weapons as they were firing, as well as several studies into the shield technology. I couldn’t make mane nor tail of them, but I’m sure your scientists can surmise something.”
Luna leaned back more casually, flicking a hoof at the data terminal as Trixie reappeared. “You’ve decrypted it? Excellent. Now find the scans of the enemy weaponry and send them to the team in Section Three immediately. We need to begin work on counter measures at once.”
“Section...Three ma’am? Aren’t you going to-?”
Luna raised a hoof, cutting Rarity off mid-sentence. “While I applaud your efforts in gathering this intel, I’m afraid what is done with it is, naturally, top-secret. You have done your part Rarity, now it is for other ponies to continue this particular line of work.”
“Thank you ma’am. My apologies. I’m sure you have the best knowledge of keeping our colonies safe.”
Luna’s expression turned almost wistful. “That I hope I do Rarity. I’m sure as part of Section One you remember the report on the UESC’s integrity?”
Rarity gulped, remembering the damning review. “Yes. They gave it twenty years before collapse.”
“I have begun to watch the recordings on my glasses here. I personally think this enemy will easily halve that estimate. However the public must not know. And that, is why I’m promoting you, Rarity.” She stood up from her seat and walked round to the front of the desk. ”You were a fashion designer, were you not?”
“Why yes, but in the end I wanted to help my fellow pony.”
“Excellent. So you have an eye for art.” Luna tapped the holopad. “Trixie, duplicate the data on the drive to your local cache.”
Trixie reappeared, holding a casual leaning stance despite the lack of support. Though considering she was a hologram, gravity was something she never had to consider. “Already done.” She gave a condescending smile to Rarity. “Enjoy your promotion, ma’am.”
Rarity smiled and nodded back, while Trixie flickered off the terminal, her form dissolving back into nothingness.
“About...said promotion.” Luna levitated the data drive back into Rarity’s pocket. ”You’ll be moving to another section. Section Two, to be specific. I’d like you to help run the new propoganda campaign. I need vibrant, eye-catching posters depicting ponykind’s struggle against the aliens. But a victorious one. The public cannot find out how dire the situation is. I need not explain this to you, I imagine?”
Rarity stood up straight. Excitement welled at the prospect of getting some creativity in her job rather than sitting in orbit watching things for the sake of intelligence, (which was a job that ironically required no intelligence in her eyes.) While the job seemed fairly underhoofed, Rarity did not doubt she could bring her flair to the advertising and have those stallions signing up by the ship-load.
“You need not ma’am! I’ll happily accept the opportunity to serve.”
“Excellent!” Luna snapped an obligatory smile, and extended a hoof. Rarity took it and gave a firm shake. ”Your first assignment, is to make a press release of this footage you gathered. It must seem like a hard-won, heroic victory. But, not a defeat in any measure. I have faith in your initiative, Rarity. Report to me when you have completed your work, and we can begin the next advertising campaign for the recruitment offices.”
Rarity once more extended her heartfelt thanks and took her leave. Ideas brimmed in her head and she almost burst out in mad laughter in the centre of the lobby with her excitement. Many ponies’ curious looks and the slight raising of an armed foreleg in her direction nulled her excitement, and she took her ideas to the new office she had been promoted to.
* * * * * *
“Alright rookie, grit your teeth. This one’s gunna sting a little.”
Dash braced herself as the nozzle was wedged under her armour plating. She’d injured her diaphragm in the plasma strike, and while it wasn’t life-threatening now, it was hindering her breathing a bit. Her teeth gritted as the biofoam poured out of the nozzle and expanded. A combination of a local anaesthetic, antiseptics and tissue-regenerator. A benevolent combination of chemicals that made Dash feel like a thousand ants were crawling on the wound. After a moment the sensation and pain passed, and her chest went numb. The biofoam would be broken down by her body in a few hours, but her wound would have more-or-less healed by then.
Sharps set the canister down and waved a hoof in front of her eyes. “Still with us there rookie? I could get you a lollipop now if you’d like.”
Dash made to cuff the colt, but her foreleg didn’t reach. Sharps laughed, removing his helmet. His face was revealed for the first time to Dash, dark grey coat with a dark brown, almost black mane. His eyes were auburn, and sparkled with a mischievous glint.
“C’mon sarge, let’s help the ol’ warmare to her hooves. Gave us quite the fright passing out when we slipped out of the system there, Dash.” With him on one side, and the sarge on the other, they extended a foreleg under her shoulders and brought her, wobbling, to her hooves.
“Lucky you’ve got them hollow pegasus bones there rook, I don’t think the ol’ Sarge expected much more exercise today.” He shot a glance at the sarge, who grunted.
“I ain’t cut out for this no more Sharps. Besides, dragging your sorry, pessimistic rump out of the rubble took all my strength.” He gave Sharps his own rendition of a jesting smile, and let Dash stand on her own hooves without support. She wavered slightly, but regained her posture. Needless to say, sparking out on a slipspace exit was embarrassing for her.
“I...I’m okay. Just a little nausea was all..right!?”
“Yeh, yeh sure. Nausea.” Sharps nodded in a pretense of understanding.
“I hope I get a transfer from you guys, you’re really gettin’ on my wings.”
“Lucky we didn’t get on your lungs eh Rook?”
“Also, c’mon Sharps. I took out a super, alien, death-tank of doom, can we cut the Rookie stuff?”
Sharps’ face became deathly serious. “It’s Rookie or Twinklewings. Pick one.”
Dash sighed. “Rookie. I’m going to my quarters.”
“Hey, we didn’t pull you from your totally voluntary sleep there for nothing. The Admiral needs us to give her a briefing on what happened planet-side.”
Dash gulped, her face turning from sky blue to almost off-white. “Alright. Shouldn’t be too bad, eh?”
Celestia sat at the end of the long, conference table. Before her in the closest three seats were what remained of the 1st and 33rd ODSTs. Three ponies from a force of around twenty. Ground forces had suffered even more than her own navy had. The room was dimly lit, Twilight had damaged the reactor by overcharging it to allow the slipspace drive to charge faster. It had been a necessary action to make sure the ship could escape in time, but now it meant they had to sacrifice less important areas for the sake of keeping the slipspace drive running. The Everfree was well and truly limping back home to Equestria.
Celestia relaxed her posture for the first time since slipping into the Harvest system. She tried not to let her weariness show, however.
“At ease filly and gentlecolts. We’ve all had a trying day.”
The few collected survivors sighed and relaxed in their chairs, Dash had been holding her breath. Why, she didn’t know. It wasn’t like Celestia would throw her into slipspace because she was one of the few survivors.
“Now, I requested your immediate attention, despite the rest you all obviously need, because I need your accounts of the battle. Any detail you remember about the enemy could be critical, and it’s best to gather it while it’s fresh in your minds.”
Dash licked her lips. “Well, I saw some of the little ones up close. They seem to be used kinda like grunts, they’re not too smart and their weapons don’t fire as fast as the other ones.”
“They also have no shields, and a backpack filled with some sort of flammable gas, smelt like methane.” Sharps cut in.
“Mhm. Twilight are you getting this down?” Celestia turned to the pedestal at her side as her AI’s form appeared.
“Yes ma’am. I managed to recover the files from Private Dash’s vidcorder in her helmet array.” She waved a hoof at the table, and the hologram in the center showed a three-dimensional mockup of the creature. “A primate, these “grunts” appear to need the gas in their tanks to breath. A potential weak spot?”
Sharps waved his hoof at the hologram. “No point, our fire cuts through their armour easily, even SMG rounds. They’re less grunts and more cannon fodder for the other, bigger guys.”
Twilight nodded and flicked her hoof again. A hologram of the towering beast that had attacked the squad, and killed Midnight, appeared. The details were visceral, even the saliva spraying from its mandibles was visible.
“These’re the smart guys, field commanders.They’re more elite than the grunts. Their weapons seem to fire much faster, and hit harder. They’ve got the strength of a fair, few ponies. I’ve been in the corps for years ma’am, ain’t seen nothing snap a pony’s neck like that thing did to Midnight.” The sergeant had leaned forward, glaring the alien hologram in the eyes.
“So we have multiple species, or perhaps these grunts are an infant form of the elites?”
Twilight shook her head. “Negative ma’am. Biology is far too differentiated. These elites are reptilian, the others are primates. There are no known creatures that can metamorphosise that significantly.”
“So these are two species in union?” The image before Celestia flicked to a squad, one tall Elite surrounded by five Grunts, an arm outstretched with its mandibles wide, bellowing an order. “Although slavery seems more accurate. I doubt the Grunts willingly allow themselves to be cannon fodder.” She turned to Dash, confronting her directly. “What about the vehicle you encountered?”
Dash cleared her throat in an attempt to remove the dryness invading it. “It was large, about as wide and deep as a scorpion, but slightly taller. It had two big fins up front and smaller ones behind, it didn’t drive on the ground but kinda hovered over it.” This piece of information elicited a sparkle of intrigue in Celestia’s eye. “It sloped up to the main weapon, a kinda...flower-petal layout of glowing plates. It squeezed them together to fire these big balls of white light the size of a pony. I managed to dodge one but I still felt the heat from it even then.” The image of the tank appeared as she spoke, a ball of light welling in the petals she had just described.
Celestia nodded. “Their ground vehicles have plasma weapons...and anti-gravity technology. Fascinating. It is a real pity none of you were able to gather weaponry samples.” She stood from her chair, rising up above the holograms of the aliens. “Though your actions are more than commendable, you succeeded in your mission even as I failed you in orbit. I’m folding you into my own ODST squadrons. They’re on a covert op at the moment, but will be re-docking with us when we reach Equestria. I’m sure you’ll all be an excellent addition to their ranks, I’m sorry for the comrades you lost on Harvest and aboard the Tempest.”
The sarge looked down at the table, eyes locked onto the glare of the hologram emitters. “They were good ponies...good friends ma’am. We’ll make ‘em proud.” He levelled his gaze at the snarling Elite in the hologram. “And make them pay a hundredfold.”
Celestia smiled at the old stallion’s heart. Fire like that is what kept a pony alive. She could use a survivor like him. “For now, you all may rest. I myself am leaving the slipspace navigation to Twilight and plan to enjoy a nap before I enter cryosleep. I never do feel it’s quite the same thing.”
The serviceponies took their leave, Dash planned on stealing one of the absent ODST’s bunks for a while. Every limb from her legs to her wings ached, and all she wanted was to curl up and doze away her thoughts. In the end, she managed to act on this wish, and the grey of the Everfree’s interior melted away as she fell unconscious.
Twilight turned to Celestia, her posture now a mess as all pretense of leadership fell from her.
“Ma’am? Are you okay?”
Celestia jolted upright. Lost in her own daymares. “It’s nothing, Twilight. Keep the course, I just need sleep. I’ll consult with Luna once we arrive, we need to formulate a plan, my gut tells me Harvest is only the start, and ponykind needs to start galloping to keep up with our new enemy.”
Twilight nodded and flickered away, confiding herself to the ship’s mainframe. It would take two months to reach Equestria, and unlike the ponies aboard the Everfree, she didn’t have the ability to shut herself off. Doing so would cause the ship to simply fall out of slipspace at a random point in normal space, potentially in orbit around a black hole or inside a star, in theory.
So Twilight kept her slipspace calculators running, while she monitored the crew. It was intriguing to see the way ponies differed in their reactions to battle. Some were silent, hiding in a corner of the cafeteria behind a bottle of alcoholic liquor, others grouped together, sharing jests and smiles, as masks to cover the fear Twilight could see. Ponykind was truly remarkable in its chaotic diversity. How in all the galaxy it would ever defeat the enemy force it had found itself against, she didn’t know. She decided to run a thorough calculation routine, it kept her busy for two weeks until it yielded the answer. Ponykind would lose by her estimates, depending on how large the enemy fleet is. However there were many variables that would likely appear, and not even Twilight’s near-infinite capacity for knowledge could predict what ponykind would develop to save its own existence.
* * * * * *
The surface of Harvest was cooling now, the fires and magma receding to wintry ice as Thel’Vadamee watched from his warship. The ponies had fallen swiftly under his assault, and the planet was burnt in mere days. He pitied this race, it had found itself an insurmountable enemy in the Covenant, and he would lead his fleets into glorious battle to annihilate every one of them. The door behind him emitted a low, ethereal chime and opened as a figure glided in. It was hunched over, aging skin hung from it’s frame yet its eyes glinted with youthful joy at the first of many conquests. He was robed in regal reds and gold, and behind him extended his crown, wide and flanged, it seemed like two horns of pure gold reaching out of his back. Thel’Vadamee fell to one knee in respect for the noble Hierarch, newly instated to lead his Covenant in this new Age of Reclamation, the verminous creatures that stole their lord’s worlds would soon fall by the million.
The Hierarch halted his throne, being both a mark of his status and his method of mobility. It hovered above the shimmering violet floor like a delicate petal in the wind. He raised an arm to the kneeling Elite. “You may rise, Vadamee. You have brought great honour to our Covenant.”
Vadamee rose, towering above the Hierarch in stature, yet subservient in action. “My thanks noble Hierarch Truth. Their militia was easily scattered, and they fled to their other worlds in the wake of our fury.”
Truth toyed with his chin thoughtfully, stroking the hanging piece of skin trademark to his species. “Excellent. We will deal with the others in time, loyal warrior. For now we celebrate the beginning of a glorious conquest. This plague will trespass against our lords no more.”
Vadamee nodded slowly in agreement. “We will find their worlds, burn their towns, and slay every last creature down to the mewling infants.”
Truth smiled. “Your fervour has lead this fleet well, but I am to understand the Divine Ablution was lost, however?”
This elicited a tension in the Elite’s muscles. “Yes. They led a fleet to retake this world, but thirteen of their ships fell for one of our own. The ponies will be easily slaughtered, though the Shipmaster was lost with his flagship.”
The Hierarch waved a hand in a dismissive motion. “No matter, his sacrifice has furthered our Great Journey. I am sure that someone of your ability will make an excellent replacement.”
Vadamee’s heart surged with elation and exhilaration. He once more fell to one knee, bowing his head to the floor.“It would be nothing less of the highest honour to lead your fleets, noble Hierarch.”
Truth smiled and nodded to the once more kneeling Elite. “Arise, Shipmaster Thel’Vadamee. May you lead our fleets to many glorious victories.”
Vadamee rose once more, curling his right hand into a fist and placing it over his heart. “The enemy will see swift defeat at the hands of our Covenant. By your will, noble Hierarch, it shall be done.”
“Bits and Pieces”
Dash’s mind began to fade back into reality. Her ears pricked as they caught muffled speech, too distorted to decipher. Her eyes blearily opened to slits, giving her a faded letterbox view of the room. Dim fluorescent light invaded her retinas, and she slowly sped up on the road to consciousness.
She stretched her body, legs, wings, necks, enjoying the slight relief and pleasure from working the refreshed muscles. Dash managed to pull herself up to a sitting position and spotted her two comrades staring at her, a pair of cards levitated before both of them. The dark grey coated one gave her a sly smile and a wave.
“With us again rook? Twelve hours, there are civilians who’d be ashamed of that!” Sharps gave a glance at the sarge, who grunted slightly before turning back to his cards.
“Hey, it was a hay of a day Sharps, give me a break. Besides, I’m not going into cryo tired, always messes me up when they thaw me.”
Sharps nudged a pile of holographic bits, betting against the sarge. “You seen this rookie? They have a poker table in the barracks on this ship! Card shuffler, levitators, holochips, the whole ten yards!”
Dash watched as the sarge raised Sharps’ bet, who accepted. Both ponies’ cards flipped down onto the table, of the magic’s accord, revealing the hooves they had been dealt. Sarge scowled as he saw the trio of aces in Sharp’s hoof, who swept up the chips with an eager foreleg onto his pile.
“Rook, c’mere dammit and help me beat this cocky little bucker.”
Sharps grinned. “Be careful there Dash, he just wants you to be his money mule, don’t trust him!”
Dash decided to sit herself at the table, being only a novice at gambling, though she’d played enough to get the basic idea. The cards were collected into one pile, shuffled at a speed that she swore would cause them to catch fire, then two cards each were spat out at the three players.
A Two and a Ten. Stellar. Dash held her face straight, but she could feel disappointment nagging at the edges of her lips. The ponies all checked and the first three cards were revealed on the table. A pair of Twos and a Ten, Dash was in luck. She bet low, about a tenth of her chips. Sharps cast a wry grin as he noted her bravery; whether he thought it was a bluff or tactic, she did not know. The sarge put his chips in, a tiny stack left at his space after Sharps cleared him out.
The next card was revealed, a King. Not bad, but Dash couldn’t think of any combinations better than hers at the moment. She checked, playing it safe, but the sarge shunted the last of his holochips into the centre.
“Might as well go all in, chips I got left ain’t worth a buck.”
Sharps simply nodded, his expression perfectly blank. He pushed a slightly larger pile of chips in, goading Dash to raise him with a slight smile. Dash allowed a mirrored grin to cover her lips, and raised him again. With a raised eyebrow Sharps matched her bet, and the last card was revealed. A Queen. ”Could that be a good card? He can’t have a better hoof than me.”
Dash figured shock and awe was the best path. She collected all her chips with a hoof and nudged them into the centre.
“All in, cupcake.” She winked at Sharps, trying to throw him off.
“Must be a good hoof, rook. Mind there’s my chips in there too.” The sarge was cleaned out, and had sat in the corner chin-on-hooves glaring at his cards.
“It must be, eh?” Sharps poked at the flickering pile of chips before him. “What the hay, I’ll just match that brave little effort.”
The cards were revealed, and Sharp’s grin exploded off his face as he saw Dash’s hoof. Where she had three Twos and two Tens, Sharps had a pair of Tens in his hoof. Her face dropped as his mirrored, but superior, hoof stole away her chips. Dash and the sarge were out of chips while Sharps poked at his pile, cackling madly.
“Yeh, I’m gunna hit the hay and head to cryo.” Dash faked stretching and headed out the door. The last thing she wanted to face was Sharps insufferable cackling and boasting, it only amplified her hatred of losing. Even being frozen for a month was preferable. She stripped out of her fatigues, placing them in her locker. Ponies always entered cryo in their birthday coat, clothes often came out with the integrity of powder after being frozen for a few weeks. Also having frozen stiff clothing rubbing against the body left painful sores and bald patches. She lay in the pod, the lid closing above her as she settled into the gel bed. It moulded to her form and she got herself into a comfortable position. The lid closed with a slight snapping sound, and gas hissed as she was frozen solid in less than a second.
* * * * * *
Recruit Rainbow Dash stood to attention, her freshly shorn mane barely passing her ears as she stared blankly forward, the drill sergeant pacing in front of his new batch of greenhorns. He was of fair height, but not too heavily built. Dash didn’t doubt he could bring a stallion twice his size down with his bare hooves however, he carried himself with a confidence few stallions in the galaxy could muster.
He turned around, spitting at the ground in front of a recruit over to Dash’s left. He grimaced at the fear that flickered across the colt’s face.
“And what name do I use as a label for you, you sorry little foal?”
The recruit practically gasped for air in his fear. “C-corn Rake, Sir!”
Another glob of spit landed at the colt’s forehooves, Corn Rake retreated his forehooves away from the spittle. The sergeant noted this weakness and pushed forward. “My papers tell me you’re from Harvest, Rake? Now you mind tellin’ me why a sorry Outer Colony hick like you decided to join my corps?”
“Sir, I wanted to protect my fellow pony, Sir!”
The sergeant scoffed right in the colt’s muzzle. “Don’t give me any of that, “my planet ‘tis of thee,” horse-apples, son. I don’t care about your reasons for joining, my job’s making up tonnes of reasons for you to buck off out of my platoon.”
“Y-yes, Sir.” The colt sighed in relief as the drill sergeant returned to his original spot. Standing before the middle of the line, right in front of Dash, whom he glared at as he cast his eyes over the collection of recruits. He pulled a gun from out of a duffel bag, attaching it to his foreleg and flicking the trigger to test it. Nervous, cursive glances were shared. Everypony in that line shared the hope live rounds wouldn’t be involved.
Instead the sergeant loaded a transparent magazine filled with red tipped rounds. He rammed it in with a clack that rang through the silence, and flicked the charging bolt with the other hoof.
“Now, do any of you sorry sons of mules know what’s loaded in this gun?”
A recruit shouted out from away to Dash’s right. “Yes, Sir! TTRs, Sir!”
“Well, horse apples, it seems we have a professor of knows-bucking-everything in attendance. Yes, fillies and coltcuddlers, these are Tactical Training Rounds. They contain an anaesthetic that will numb the area it impacts, a paralytic that inhibits movement of muscles in that area, an agent that reacts with clothing, tightening the fibres, inhibiting the movement even more, and red paint. In case you genius greenhorns are unaware, blood is red.”
Dash allowed herself an internal giggle. She’d done flight training with cramps, and these rounds didn’t seem any worse than that. Everypony else seemed on-edge though, as if they knew something she didn’t.
“Hey, Corn Hick, c’mere.” The sergeant beckoned with his armed foreleg.
The recruit, obviously low on options, marched over to the sergeant. He snapped a salute and awaited the order. Now that Dash could see him, she noticed he had a unique dark brown coat, almost black. His red mane was flecked with yellow and, like her, his flank was still blank. “Yes...Sir?”
“You see that pole there? With the bell? Gallop over, ring it, then get back here double time.”
The colt nodded at the obviously too easy task. Dash’s imagination raced at the cruel trick that must be involved, but as the colt galloped, rang the bell and galloped back, no landmines or tanks appeared, and Dash had to admit part of her was mildly disappointed, another part was nervous with anticipation.
Once more, the recruit snapped of the salute and ‘Yes, Sir’ he was obligated to do. The sergeant simply raised his foreleg, flicking the trigger twice and planting a red spatter on each of his foreleg’s shin.
“Good. Now do it again.”
The colt showed pain from the start. Dash could tell from his gait that the rounds obviously hindered his ability to run in any way. Yet, while it had taken him three times as long, he had made his awkward cross between a limp and jog to the bell and back. The sergeant accepted his pained salute as he attempted and failed to raise his foreleg to his forehead.
“Good work, Hick. Fillies and coltcuddlers, what you just saw is an idea of what it’d be like to be shot. These rounds are as close as you can get without having the real deal, and this is a stallion who bucking knows. Now, we’re a team, and teams work together. Hick can sit this one out, everypony else...” He walked down the line, two rounds planted in each recruits forelegs. Dash heard the varied reactions, some hissed, trying to save face and not acknowledge the pain. Others cried out as the pair of rounds hit their shins, barely standing after the crippling impacts. The sergeant reached Dash and fired the pair of rounds. Pain shot through her body, almost causing her to collapse if it weren’t for her wings extending out of instinct.
The sergeant finished crippling the recruits and returned to his position. He watched as the various ponies struggled to stand, some wavering, others with knees like jelly. He smiled as he saw Dash, she’d realised her legs were no longer load bearing, so she stood on her hindlegs, wings outstretched for balance. Uncomfortable, but better than relying on her pained forelegs. He waved a hoof at the pole and bell in the distance. “You know the score, our good recruit Hick here showed you how it’s done. Get there, ASAP, and ring the bell, last pony there and back misses their canteen time.”
The motivation of food loss took its intended effect. Some ponies attempted to gallop, plummeting face-first into the mud after a few hoofsteps. Others simply collapsed upon moving from their precariously balanced standing position. Most of the recruits manage to limp, crawl or hobble their way across the marshy field. Apart from Dash, she stepped carefully through the mud, one hindleg in front of the other. Not exactly her usual rapid pace, but she was moving faster than everypony else’s crippled gait, that was for sure. Some other pegasi noticed her technique and tried to copy it. Sadly, their wing control wasn’t quite as acute as Dash’s, and mostly they would teeter on the brink before driving themselves into the mud even harder with their wingpower.
So it was that five minutes later Dash was standing next to the Drill Sergeant, who eyed her with the same kind of respect a pony might gift to a particularly nimble fly that evades a swatter. The bells were still ringing in the distance, most of the ponies were now struggling past each other to reach it, a large scrum of fallen and crippled ponies had collected around it.
“Well, recruit Dash. I’d say if anything I can call you resourceful, and your wing control is better than most.”
“Sir. Thank you, Sir.”
“Don’t take it as a compliment filly. Your competition was pretty piss-poor today, I don’t just want good performance, I want improvement. So you can group up with Hick over there and Smartrump lagging behind back there.”
Dash eyed the pony the sergeant’s outstretched hoof highlighted. He was behind all the other ponies, barely mobile as they all started to head back.
“And as you are now a unit, you must respond and be treated as a unit. By this I mean, if you don’t drag professor pony out of the dirt and have his rump ringing a bell and back at my flank before the rest, none of you eat tonight? Understand me recruits?”
Dash and Hick snapped off their salutes and hobbled to the stricken pony, whom Dash imagined had probably drowned in the mud at this rate. An idea sparked into her head.
“Hey uhhh...Corn Rake?”
The colt was surprised at the interaction. “Yeh, that’s my name. Please hold off on the ‘hick’ stuff though.”
“No problem, Rainbow Dash by the way. Here.” She wrapped a hoof across his shoulders. “Lock shoulders and forelegs with me, we’ll have better balance that way.”
The colt winced as he stretched his still painful foreleg across her shoulder. They began to trot, and then sped up to a casual - if wavering - jog. They reached the pony as the others were nearing his prone form. They didn’t have long left and as they both reached down, grabbing half his tail each in their mouths and pulling him up, they realised he was probably intending to give up anyway.
Regardless, Dash wasn’t missing on her eating because of one weak link in her chain, and she saw similar thoughts in Rake’s hardened expression. The two ponies simply slung the other over their combined backs, carrying him to the bell and allowing him to ring it. Other ponies were nearing the sergeant, and the pair began to canter back to his position, the deadweight jostling on their shoulders. Breathless, but triumphant, they reached their destination, coated in mud, forelegs aching and dog tired, yet brimming with pride at the completion of the task.
The sergeant looked upon the two ponies, giving a respectful nod that his eyes showed was not mocking, but truly appreciative. He prodded the prone pony, who had fallen unconscious and was now deposited on the ground before them. Dash was still leaning on Rake - and vice versa - her forelegs aching too much to bother placing her weight on them now.
The sergeant stood in front of his scattered recruits. Some clustered at the finish line, some panting for breath, scrabbling their way towards the end, others had simply given up, belly-down in the mud and perfectly still.
“Well, fillies and coltcuddlers. It is an exercise like this that shows me exactly who will be a worthy soldier. We got our deadweight out there, giving up as soon as it gets tough. We got our ponies who struggle through and get it done. And then.” He turned to Dash, Rake, and the pony neither knew the name of here. “We got the ones that don’t shit their brains out their rumps and work together. Those two ponies got here before you, went back for the useless collection of horse apples at their hooves, and carried his rump to the bell and back before half of you had even reached me once.”
Appreciative glances all round were cast at Dash and Rake from their fellow recruits. It felt good to be part of a unit, Dash had to admit. “As a result, they will be staying as a unit while I work out a good way to categorise you worthless mules into units yourselves. Also, due to their success, they are the only unit eating tonight, as they proved themselves so much better than you, it’s actually bucking pitiful.”
The same appreciative gestures turned to a spectrum ranging from indignation for the sergeant, to a murderous cracking of ankles as the now hungry recruits stared down Dash and Rake. Dash was pretty sure she’d have received less hatred dropping straight into an Insurrectionist camp.
Twilight restarted her main routines that had been left on standby while her subroutines navigated the tangled web of slipspace. Her processor accelerated, taking in the ship’s surroundings as it fell back into real space. She had navigated with the best precision ponykind’s understanding of slipspace could muster, right into Equestria’s orbit, arriving only around twenty kilometres from the nearest space elevator. Perfect, as always.
She flooded her processes through the ship, testing each system from the auto-cannons that served as point defense, to the toilet facilities in the barracks. Everything was intact, even the ailing fusion reactor had decreased its heat levels by twenty percent during the journey. It would be easy to fix upon docking, a day or two at most; though she was certain the Admiral’s flagship would gain priority, even if protocol dictated otherwise.
One of her processes found the cryobay, housing the organic crew of the ship. She pinged each tube to thaw them, and watched as the ponies climbed, stumbled and clambered their way out. Thankfully, she had the time to enact a, “slow defrost,” as the crew called it, unfreezing the ponies from their suspended animation too quickly had negative consequences, sometimes, even death. Finally, with most of the crew mobile and systems fully online, she extended a hoofshake message to the space elevator’s station AI and guided the ship carefully into position once she received the response.
The umbilical tube clamped onto the main hangar door of the ship and equalised the pressure between both ship and station. A small swarm of work ponies, all earth type with jet-packs and breather-suits, coursed over the ship. She fed them schematics, as well as damage reports, and left them to it. It was odd that ponies be so diversified, yet only the simplest class was often utilised. The lack of air combined with the design of jetpacks actually made pegasi less useful in spacial maneuvers than earth ponies; advances in earth pony electromagical work helmets meant that technology was beginning to better an average unicorn’s own magical dexterity. The work of Charles Darwhinny had always favoured the simple design rather than the complex, Twilight found it fascinating to study these scientific theories in action.
* * * * * *
The ice that coated Dash slowly melted away, cracking as twitching muscles broke it away. Signs of life returning to a pony deliberately held in a near-death state; there was nothing sleep-like about cryosleep.
Her consciousness slowly sped up, her heartbeat still a sluggish patter barely keeping pace. Like the way a pony would find their brain slowed on a cold winter’s night, Dash found her mind almost completely nulled. She began to take in her surroundings, the ice now melted away and her body starting to warm. The lid of the cryotube hissed open as her brain finally gathered the memories necessary to remember her situation. She flexed muscles that ached and cramped and as she coughed up the mucus lining her throat. She remembered this important process, and she grimaced as she swallowed the mucus whole. Disgusting, and with an unpleasant taste to boot, but it contained the nutrients her body needed after two months in the icebox. Scientists had tried flavouring the substance, but it just ended up tasting like apple-flavoured bodily fluids, which, if anything, was worse.
She rubbed her achy legs with her hooves and slowly stretched them. Satisfied that they would hold her weight, she crawled out of the tube, shakily stepping onto the metal plates that made the cryobay’s deck. The normally chilling titanium beneath her hooves actually felt warm, her metabolism fought to restart her body and create some warmth for itself. She shivered, feeling that her wings had squashed themselves up by instinct, holding in as much heat as possible.
A shimmering grey blanket was thrown over her, she saw Sharps at her side, shrouded in his own. He smiled as she constricted herself in the foil, trying to boost her body’s warmth. Sharps wasn’t shivering though, earth pony muscles were denser than of a normal pegasus, so it made sense he’d heat up quicker.
“I’d say you’re just too cool right now, Rook.” He shot her a trademark grin.
“C-can it, sh-Sharps, or I’ll b-bust your fl-lank over this deck-ck.” She pulled the blanket as tight as she could; talking through both her chattering teeth and the blanket was no easy task.
“At the very least, get some clothes on, Rook. We can hardly go on shore leave in our birthday coats! I mean, I need my fatigues at the least to get my hooves on those Equestria girls.” He noticed Dash glaring from out of her silvery cowl. “Hey, what do you expect? I’m a Reach pony! Besides, I’m sure you’ll get a nice filly too, being a war hero and all.”
Dash sputtered, almost losing her grip on the blanket. “What? I’m no f-fillyfooler! Besides...you couldn’t get a date with a mule, Sharps.”
Sharps raised a hoof to his heart in mock drama. “So cutting, oh why? I have a family back home anyway, I was foaling around. Wife’d bust my rump if she found out! Hopefully we’ll get Reach shore leave soon, gotta show you this bar I go to, it’s-.”
“Excuse me, buddy.” An irritated pegasus in fluorescent overalls and a work helmet glared at the two. “Can you have your chat out of the way of the door? Some of us have a reactor to fix.”
Sharps backed away, a hoof raised in a surrendering motion. “Ok, brony, geez” He turned to Dash who was laughing as the irritated techpony stomped off to the engineering deck. “Remind me to re-polarise that helmet of his, I’d like to see him levitate his own brain.”
Dash got suited and booted, feeling the familiar, light presence of her fatigues around her body. It was vaguely form-fitting, although it offered no protection from attack, Dash still felt a little safer trooping the colours. The pair of ponies made their way to the docking tube, the Sarge staying behind for sleep, claiming “he had no reason to visit that political hayhole.” He really was a true-blooded Outer Colonist, a frontier pony on ponykind’s new-age frontiers. As a result, he didn’t really see eye-to-eye with the metropolitan locals on Equestria, Dash imagined leaving him to sleep on the ship was probably a better option.
The lobby of the space elevator was a large, cylindrical room. The walls were a polished black metal, but it was the glass floor that gave a stunning view of Equestria and the mega-city of Canterlot that sprawled below them. The city that covered most of a continent. They were on the night-side of the planet, the surface was practically lambent with the light of civilisation. No matter how much of Dash’s life was spent spacefaring, she still found it as beautiful as the first time she had flown into the stars. Her hooves clacked on the glass as she and Sharps made their way to an available personnel elevator. The car reached the top and they squeezed in amongst a small group of crewponies from another ship, the Undoubtable, that had arrived with the Everfree.
The journey from orbit to the surface was a lot calmer than Dash’s ride to Harvest in her drop-pod. It took a minute or two, in total, to reach the surface; the car’s windows allowing them a spectacular view as the orbitscrapers towered up from the ground around them, a forest of towers of varying heights reaching out towards the night sky. Each was glimmering with the light of life, a city that never had time to sleep. She could see the commuters as the car drew level with the more averagely-sized skyscrapers, little shuttles zipping through the air, and the monorail system that had no less than three trains roar across it in the short moment she could see it.
As they alighted with street-level, their view was blocked as the car drew to a stop inside the atrium. Both ponies stepped out of the car, suddenly aware of the gravity tugging on their bodies. Gravity neither had experienced for months since Harvest, even then they had been in cryo. A unicorn dressed in pristine fashion greeted them, levitating a pamphlet to each of their mouths for their perusal. Dash happily, and forcefully, let her know they weren’t tourists and made her way to the very same monorail she had watched as she was halfway up in the sky. Sharps stopped as he noticed the destination on the entry sign.
“Ponyville? I thought we were getting some planet-capital R ‘n’ R here.”
Dash stopped in her tracks, lightly scuffing the floor with a swinging foreleg. “Umm, just some business I gotta sort out. You go do whatever you want; I just need to...visit some old friends.” Her most winning smile didn’t exactly throw Sharps off the trail, but, he let her get away with it. She watched as Sharps joined the other crewponies on the train to the nightclub district. She boarded the monorail, getting a free pass since she was a servicepony. At least the driver wasn’t another Innie sympathiser, she felt incredibly out of place amongst the civilian populace. Her tightly cut mane and non-existent tail would have been odd, never mind the fatigues that telegraphed her military role, not exactly in a subtle way either.
Still, she stared out of the window with a dull, neutral expression as the capital city of Equestria roared past, the train bee-lining for the smallest cluster of buildings, a place where barely any skyscrapers existed and the rolling red-speckled green of the apple orchards dominated the horizon. Ponyville had been a pretty good place to grow up, what once was its own little town hundreds of years ago had slowly been devoured and assimilated, as the megatropolis that was Canterlot grew outwards. It wasn’t the only town to have been claimed, many small towns like Haltergate and Filldelphia were little more than ghetto districts in the Canterlot urban sprawl. Ponyville, however, had evolved into more of a quiet suburb. The apple orchards meant that skyscrapers were prohibited, as the crop would simply die off in the shadow of the glass and steel colossi.
The tram slowly came to a stop, wavering in the air ever-so-slightly in the influence of the magi-lev tracks that allowed it to travel at such speeds. While Canterlot had been approaching night-time, Ponyville was still enjoying a late afternoon sunset. A familiar little bakery greeted her as she stepped out of the modest station Ponyville kept; she couldn’t help but smile at the traditional housing style, not after having seen so many modern cities that seemed obsessed with glass, metal and shimmering surfaces. She nudged the door to Sugarcube Corner open with a hoof, smiling as she saw the familiar form of Mrs. Cake - she never did find out her full name - standing behind the counter with a surprised smile on her face.
“Well of all the ponies to walk on in. I barely recognised you there, Rainbow!”
Dash practically winced at her first name, she’d passed as Dash for so long, (it was easier to yell in a firefight), that it felt unfamiliar to her. Still, she returned the smile and leaned up on the counter, forehooves planted on the glass surface.
“I think, first of all, I’ll have one of your delicious blueberry muffins, I’ve been to the Outer Colonies and back but nothing compares.”
The muffin Dash indicated with a hoof was gathered, wrapped, and Dash dug the bits out for the cake. A short wave of the hoof let her know this one would go free, so she pocketed her money. She wasn’t even sure if she’d had enough anyway.
“It’s so nice to see you after all these years. And a marine! I always knew you’d join up, so headstrong. I’m glad to see you’re still holding up, I’ve heard...such stories.”
“I...I get by. Thing is, something big’s coming. I can’t tell you what...sorry. But trust me, we’ll be hugging Innies by the time it happens.”
“Dear Celestia, no. I hope it doesn’t involve any violence!”
Dash’s eyes glazed over and she stared past Mrs. Cake at the wall behind her. “It does...it always does. But not with ponies. For the first time ever...but no, sorry. I’ve already said too much.”
“I hope you get through it okay Rainbow. For both your sakes.” Mrs. Cake gave an apologetic smile to Dash, who simply began to eat her muffin, unable to answer.
“Is she...is she still here? I...I dunno if it would be good for her to see me here.” Dash suddenly realised how foalish her little trot down memory lane was.
“Oh no...she moved out years ago. Your whole little gang has moved away since, I don’t think even the little bookish one stayed. I’m sorry, Rainbow.”
Dash waved her hoof, an attempt at casually throwing off her thoughts. “It’s okay. Was just coming for a chat anyway, no biggy. I got the whole Ponynet to find them with, heck, could always use an ONI satellite, eh?” She laughed, then noticed Mrs Cake’s discomfort at the mention of ONI. The shady organisation must have seemed even shadier to civilians who’d never met a spook. Thankfully, Dash knew where at least one of her foalhood friends was working, not that she was hoping for a reunion anytime soon.
She cantered back to the station, her nostalgia trip barely taking ten minutes of her time. Without the ponies she remembered, it all seemed so...empty. Like a house with no furniture. She sat as the monorail bore her back to the Orbital Elevator’s station. Sarge had the right idea, she could definitely use some sleep, for the time being.
* * * * * *
Her mane was in place, or as tamed as she could manage. Its liveliness had dulled, over time, but Celestia still failed to keep it under control. Her coat was neatly combed, she ran a brush through last, tiny tufts that defied the grooming and looked, once again, into the mirror. She saw Twilight’s form behind her, forelegs crossed and sitting with a huffed expression on her face.
“With respect, Admiral, it’s getting late. We need to move now to make it on time.”
Celestia finally beat down a particularly rebellious tuft of fur. ”Admiral Luna will wait. Besides, we can hardly have the meeting with a bedraggled Admiral presiding.”
“You look perfectly fine to me, can we go? I need to deliver my data to ONI.”
“I’m not sure if AIs are known for their fashion sense, but I’m happy anyway. Upload yourself to the data drive and I’ll take you there. I’m sure you’ve had plenty of time to mull over the data.
“I have several hypotheses, yes.” Twilight eagerly clapped her hooves together before her hologram disappeared from view.
Celestia levitated the chip and placed it in the pocket of the left side of her chest. She steeled herself, walking in amongst a group of generals and telling them that aliens were burning their planets, would be no easy day at the office. She found her way to the Pelican bay and took her allotted dropship. The data drive floated out of her pocket and into the relevant port, leaving Twilight to pilot the dropship to the ONI Hive base while she mentally rehearsed her speech.
The dropship carefully hovered in position as the doors opened below it. Twilight had some difficulty making it through rush-hour traffic in the city, the air was choked with commuting shuttles flying all over the place, yet she’d still managed to arrive at the base punctual and unscathed, as was her habit. The doors were now a wide maw, large enough to allow the Pelican to steadily lower itself in, floodlights powering on as the door closed above them. She found a spare place in the Hive’s underground hangar, row upon row of bays for Pelicans, even a few Longsword spaces too, were being filled and vacated as the clockwork of the empire moved around her.
Celestia once more removed Twilight to her drive, and placed it in the pocket. She called an elevator and was soon brought up to the main lobby floor, the familiar pastel shades and creams greeted her as she marched across the room, her position and purposeful stride drawing the gaze of most ponies there. She only focused on one destination, the office of Lady Admiral Luna, whom she needed to discuss the situation with urgently. The storm had to be contained and assessed before they could start releasing it to the ponies around them. She walked down the familiar Admiralty’s corridor, her pace slowing as she tracked her gaze across the portraits and pictures collected there.
So many battles. The Uprising of Stalliongrad, Celestia recognised her younger self, leading the counter-charge against the enemy that had laid siege to the city for so long. The fall of Gryphonia, a breakdown of peace talks that ended in an ethnic cleansing and an extinction. She stood atop the Holy Eyrie, mane flowing in the mountain wind as soldiers below celebrated the victory. The Battle of Normanedy, the Colt-Kippur War, every battle ponykind fought was with her in the lead, standing proud and tall.
Her role was always changing depending on what ponykind best needed at the time. For some, it was a religious figure, a god to worship and look up to. After science began to heal the sick and dying in its place, she became a politician, all speech and charisma, a voice for other ponies’ ideas and dreams to speak through. A military leader, in times of war. And as ponykind raced across the stars, an Admiral to guide them there.
Celestia had always been the front, the face of her and Luna’s leadership. Where Celestia excelled at conventional war, Luna’s tactics favoured the more...underhoofed world of wetwork and black operations. She was the shadow to Celestia’s tall stature, fixing, cleaning and spying behind the scenes. It was her art, to fade her work into the inky darkness, ignoring the grey-scale morality of it all. An influential enemy was simply a target for a sniper. A terror cell was a location to be infiltrated. Luna knew how to deploy ponies to these purposes well and Celestia had never doubted her after all this time.
She shunted upon the doors with her magic, the guards not even bothering to check her. It was simply unnecessary. The dark, midnight feel of the room enveloped Celestia, reminding her she’d just entered a realm of shady work and subterfuge, a realm Celestia was unfamiliar with.
Her sister rose from the desk, flicking her horn at a security camera to ensure privacy, she almost tackled Celestia to the floor.
“Celly! I was...so worried.” She realised her place, and let go of her sister, taking a couple of steps back. “Sorry...I’ll try and keep myself in better control.”
“Luna, after all these years.” Celestia stepped forward, wrapping Luna in a loving embrace. “Why do you decide to start worrying about me now?”
Luna avoided her sister’s gaze, not ready to admit her distrust. “There were so many unknowns, too much risk. I sent a Prowler to loiter in the system...it recorded the battle. We lost, terribly Celly.”
“So you were worried I didn’t make it? What about the data you gathered?”
“Cut and compiled. Section Three are looking through it now. Haylsey’s lapping it up for the S-IIs, though I feel we might have to rush them out, looking at this. She won’t be happy, but to the moon with her wishes.”
Celestia smiled. “To the moon, eh? It’s a spa resort now; I wouldn’t mind a little stay there, away from all this.”
Luna chuckled at the old joke. “Anyway. I have the propaganda on standby for the media, we’ve left the edited recordings in a lobby on a datapad.”
“What hotel’d you choose this time?”
“Manehatten Ritz. We estimate they’ll have it on-air by the next day, these reporters are like parasites, but that just makes them easier to control.”
“You know, it’s scary how manipulative you can be.”
Luna shrugged. “I do what I do. Besides, I understand the ODSTs took considerable losses, your squads have just finished the ordnance training. Follow me, you’re going to love the tech Section Three have accelerated for the field, I daresay our new enemy will think twice before taking on a squad armed with it now!.”
“Lead the way, Luna.” Celestia smiled as she watched Luna’s slightly-smaller, midnight blue form weave through the corridors. Celestia would like to brief her ODSTs personally, they were the very best in the Naval Armed Forces and Celestia felt they deserved as much. She hoped the newer members would integrate well; their experience would be invaluable in the time to come.
Celestia found herself going deeper into the ONI facility than she had ever ventured, Luna leading her far out of her comfort zone, into her world. She felt the word ‘catacomb‘ spring to mind as they navigated the obscure corridor system that made up Section Three of the organisation, ONI’s secret project wing. All pretence of airy, light design was gone. The corridors were dark and dimly lit; even the glossy allure in which Luna’s office was decorated was absent. It was a black place for black ops and Celestia was about to meet the chief of ONI’s sinful researchers.
Dr Haylsey’s reputation preceded her. A long time scientist working with ONI, her papers always verged on the wrong side of the old Geneva Convention’s laws. While her morality was often held in question, her mind could never be. Sharp, hailed by some to be the mind of this generation, her research was always unflinchingly accurate. It was the Spartan project that gained her fame amongst the Section Three projects, though nopony outside the section even knew they existed.
Celestia greeted the icy-blue pony, noting that despite the fiery orange in her eyes, they seemed almost dead. Cold as a month in cryosleep, they simply stared and calculated; drinking in the environment, but offering nothing back. Celestia found it most disconcerting, but she couldn’t deny the doctor was qualified.
“Dr Haylsey, I see Admiral Luna has sought your assistance in this matter?”
Her voice reflected her cold coat and eyes. “Yes, and I, naturally, obeyed. Of course my Spartans will have to come second in this instance. They will be more than capable, considering the new...equipment we have developed for them. Admiral Luna saw the success of MJOLNIR, and asked that I help the scientists here develop better equipment for the common hoofsoldier.”
“MJOLNIR...what exactly is it?”
“A new type of warrior, Celestia!” Luna’s voice carried an uncharacteristic joy to it, as she floated a clipboard loaded with papers to Celestia’s attention. “Even half the tech in one suit would revolutionise our ground troops. Dr Haylsey seemed more than qualified to help out.”
Celestia ran her eyes across the specifications. A complex series of plated alloys and polymers, over a gel layer designed to cool when the user heated, and vice versa. The same layer also doubled the force applied to it, allowing greater strength and speed. In addition it had biofoam injectors, Heads-Up Displays, and a myriad of other features. What caught Celestia’s attention most, however, was the price.
“Luna...we could never get this out into the field.”
“I have no intention to, Admiral. Most implements here would simply cripple the unaugmented pony using them, as my preliminary tests with MJOLNIR proved. I have the relevant recording, but I warn you, my researchers tell me it is most disconcerting.”
“Then I trust their judgement...but forgive me, what relevance-.”
“If you turn over the page, you’ll find my revised plans for the ODST Battle Dress Uniform. Thankfully, my plan still incorporates the improved armouring, and most importantly, the VISR display that one of your test subjects tell me,” She levitated her own papers to her eyes, lowering her glasses, “’sounds mighty handy in a pinch.’”
“Indeed, I trust my squad leader’s judgement in that case.”
Haylsey regarded Celestia over her lowered glasses, once more seeming to size her up. “Indeed. If you’d like, I brought one of my Spartans to demonstrate the field equipment to go alongside the new armour. His battlefield knowledge was naturally invaluable in their development.”
“I’m sure it was. I have heard many good things about them.”
“Hopefully, the reality lives up to the rumours. This way, admirals, if you please. I took over your main research facilities for the time being. While there were several projects of interest to me, it must be said the method of your employees is...ineffective. They create a device, then try to find a use for it. Most inefficient, the opposite would make significantly more sense.”
The group filed down yet another corridor and emerged into a large testing range. A small group of ODSTs sat on benches at the edge, Celestia recognised her own squad, even with the helmets covering their faces. The pony standing at the other end of the room, however, she didn’t recognise. If it could even be called a pony, that is. It stood tall, easily a head above an average hoofsoldier, and eye-level with herself. With this height came weight, its muscles carried a powerful bulk not even earth pony stallions could boast. All this, however, was covered by a shimmering suit of grey-green plate and jet black armour. Its face was shrouded behind a gold visor, obscuring any hope of recognising a face. Seeing this unequestrian titan standing before her, she got the impression alot of toying with nature had been done to achieve it.
The Spartan simply stood to attention, snapping a salute to Celestia and Luna as they approached. It said nothing, though when Haylsey stepped up beside it, she noticed a subtle calming in both their postures. Haylsey once more levitated her clipboard to her face, reading off the list of improvements she had made to the ONI projects.
“First, we have the improved combat knife. I found a project intending to create an ‘EMP-stick,’ that disabled electronics with an electromagical pulse. Obviously, it wasn’t considered effective, but the same technology in a knife. Well, actions speak louder than simple words. 117, equip the standard blade, and attack the Scorpion plating here.”
Her hoof indicated a small knife that was strapped to the foreleg, popping out on a spring mechanism for use in tight quarters. The scorpion plate was an inch think, and the ceramic titanium could withstand several squads’ worth of incoming fire.
Spartan 117 simply clicked the knife into place on his armour, flicked his hoof, popping the blade out into position. He brought his foreleg back, and with a loud grunt, slammed the knife into the armour, denting it heavily, but not puncturing it.
“As you can see, the armour was dented, but not penetrated. The knife simply didn’t have enough integrity to push through.”
“Still, Ah wish Ah could hit a tank like t’at! What you feedin’ that boy, doc?”
“Quiet on deck, squad leader!” Luna’s bark was once more uncharacteristic. “Haylsey’s Spartan is top-secret spec ops. We do not discuss any more of this, understood?”
“Yes ma’am. This pony knows tah keep her mouth shut when it helps her.”
“Now, as I was saying. The armour is unpenetrated, so, I incorporated a small power supply and electromagical coil into the hilt of the new version. Upon impact, it creates a thin, but tangible electromagical field.”
She nodded to the Spartan. He pulled off the knife and clicked on the new replacement. Moving to a new spot, he once more threw his foreleg into the armour. The screech of tearing metal filled the room, and when he removed his hoof, a gaping hole was left in the armour.
Haysley’s lips twisted into a thin smile. “This should help us against our new foes’ shields, I believe. Now, next we will demonstrate the advantages of VISR, would some of the ODSTs on deck be willing to volunteer?”
“Ah reckon Ah’d be more th’n capable, ma’am!” Celestia’s squad leader was always one to jump into the fray.
Luna leaned in close to Celestia, who had been unaware of her sidling over while the demonstration ran its course.
“You like what you’re seeing?”
“Haylsey sure does like finding new ways to hurt ponies.”
“I have a plan, Haylsey helped me devise it; a plan that can level the playing field between us, and them. I wasn’t sure it would work, but seeing the weapons she’s built, I’m...hopeful.”
“This plan being...?”
Luna simply tapped a hoof to her snout, “Back to my office.”
* * * * * *
Celestia found herself once more in Luna’s domain, however the meeting was much more businesslike than the last. Her sister consulted both her paperwork and her AI as she spoke, revealing her plans.
“You see, these aliens have electromagical technology far beyond ours. They seem to be able to create and guide plasma, which results in significantly more damage inflicted compared to our own weapons. In a straight fight, as you proved, we aren’t a match. However, if you can’t beat it...”
A sly grin spread across Luna’s muzzle. She tapped a hoof on the holopad, and the sleek profile of a Prowler appeared.
“I have an agent, a skilled Prowler pilot, and a better stealth flier. She’s never been caught on a single operation I’ve asked her to run. We can’t simply barge into one of these aliens with a fleet. We need, subtlety.”
“Subtlety, as in, sneakily backstabbing?”
“Oh sis, in the face or the back, you’re still killing a pony. Never mind all that ‘honour’ nonsense. No.” She stood, waving a hoof as the hologram showed her plan. “We board an enemy craft, and head to their command bay. From there, we insert an AI, who hacks into their network and grabs all the data it can before the team extracts it. Even just the details on their shield technology could revolutionise our fleet, never mind weapons and propulsion too!”
“...And the enemy’s shields will just...let you pass?”
Luna giggled. “Celly, you really need to pay more attention, that AI of yours isn’t exactly...imaginative. You’d have noticed that when the enemy ship fired, it lowered sections of its shields to do so. Were you to time a missile, or, say, an ODST drop pod, you could easily surpass it. The readings my ‘spook’ gathered were very helpful. Afterwards, they could disable the ship’s barriers, and rendezvous with a pelican insertion. Quick. Clean. And, potentially, game-changing.”
Celestia stroked her chin with a hoof, mulling over the very risky plan unfolding before her. “Even for you, Luna, that’s-.“
“Not the words I would use. Who are you planning on using for this?”
“I’m glad you asked Celly. I’m sure your ODST team will be more than capable, but those new recruits you have are invaluable. Their knowledge on fighting the enemy will be very useful once they’re inside, and besides, my reports tell me they’ve all had their fair share of combat.”
“I can hardly disagree with that, but the AI, are you going to use Trixie?”
“Not exactly. Given the mission criteria...”
“Celestia, come on! Twilight is an AI, like any other! Her ability to record and process data so fast is exactly the sort of thing that would benefit this mission!”
“Trixie is just as capable...Twilight is far too...valuable a resource, what if the plan went wrong and she was captured?”
“Of course the AI for the head of Naval Intelligence being much less vulnerable?” She noted the sudden stiffness in Celestia’s posture, years of experience told her that there was no argument here. “Fine...okay, we’ll use Trixie, she’ll be more than capable.”
“That, she most certainly would be!” The image of the Prowler flashed away, as Trixie’s form took the holopad. “Though a polite commander would at least hide their orders as a plea. Trixie, however, is happy to help. She is a far better design than that 6th generation ship pilot you own, Admiral Celestia.”
A bow and a flash of light was Trixie’s trademark exit. She silently waited, watching as the obvious decision was taken. She’d been irritated with her position as Luna’s personal abacus-come-filing cabinet, she and Twilight were both generated at the same time, but that obsolete purple filly got the job piloting warships into battle. Trixie herself had just spent the day categorising the entire ONI file database by alphabet, not a job worthy of her excessive processing capabilities.
* * * * * *
Dash had spent much of the rest of her boot camp life in her own personal hayhole. Crawling on her belly through mud while live rounds zipped inches above her head, twenty-kilometre hikes with no food or water supplies, and most of the time, the drill sergeant found a way to incorporate the dreaded TTRs in his training.
She’d had Rake with her through most of it, and Smartrump. It wasn’t until a good week after he’d been folded into their unit that they discovered his real name, Champagne Supernova. Suffice to say, Smarts became his new military callsign. There had been alot of attrition, even more heated arguments, and a profound amount of hooves-to-the-face, but in the end, the trio were a tight-knit unit. They had a common enemy in the drill sarge, and set themselves against him, together.
They’d found each other’s abilities over time. Dash’s ability was speed, naturally. With an automatic weapon she could clear a training course like a lightning bolt. It was unsurprising that when her cutie mark eventually surfaced, it was a cloud, ejecting a three-coloured lightning bolt. Rake was an artist with anything that went boom, he’d once used a tooth sized piece of C-12 he’d kept for his own personal vengeance, and wired the drill sarge’s outhouse. It was just enough to crack the cistern and drench him in the disgusting waters, the trio’s joy had been bolstered by the mushroom cloud appearing on Rake’s flank.
Smarts, for his part was actually fairly good with a rifle. Not quite accurate enough for long-range combat with a sniper, yet not quick enough off the draw for close-quarters, he filled the happy medium in the group. His cutie mark of a sparkling martini glass seemed pretty inconsequential, until another troop smuggled in a crate of Applelachian moonshine. Having drunk everypony else under the table for their bits, he received alot of praise for his iron liver, and the odd irritated hoof to the withers for being better than somepony.
The group never really interacted with the other ponies, each unit becoming an independent fiefdom in the group as a whole. Competition was still heated as always, and the units were always competing for their dinners and bunk beds each night. About two months in, the squads found themselves standing in a fleet of pelicans, on their way to the Bighorn Valley. Mostly rural and with very little in the way of military installations, Dash could taste the anticipation in the air.
They were deposited at the bottom of the valley, where the Bighorn River met the Babd Catha ice shelf. Their mission seemed simple enough, hike up to the spring, and the last squad there would, “accidentally,” miss the pelican home.
A rival group had rushed ahead, barely specks in the distance flying over the frothing mass of the river. They were a trio of pegasi, and had always been near the first to complete. Dash simply adjusted her saddlebags for comfort and let them pass. It wasn’t until they were nearly out of sight that she heard it. The familiar rattle of gunfire, and tiny distant splashes. The groups forging their way up the river stopped, uncertain of what was going on.
Rake tapped a hoof on Dash’s shoulder. “The trees, Dash. See it?”
Dash squinted her eyes at the indicated treeline, from amongst the leaves a glint of light appeared. A sniper scope.
“Oh, horse-apples. Everypony, get down, snipers in the trees!”
A colt from another unit trotted over to Dash, letting his overbearing height do all the intimidating. “Yeh, like we’re gunna give you the chance to run ahea-.”
The same colt took the bullet Dash was sure for her. She dropped behind a rock as another spatter of the familiar red TTRs burst above her. She stopped to gather Rake and Smarts, another curveball being that the unit had to reach the end as a whole, and they had no weapons. They sat behind the rock, formulating a plan as the snipers calmly cut down the surrounding units, their paralysed bodies claimed by the river and washed down to the drill sergeant at the bottom.
“We need a distraction, Dash!” Rake was pressed against the rocks, watching the ponies around him topple to the floor with the sniper fire.
“You’re telling me! We haven’t got any guns for covering fire, how are we gunna grab their attention?”
Rake tapped a hoof to his head, trying to summon an idea.
“Our packs, what have we got in them?”
The trio set about their saddle bags, piling their provisions on a flat area of rock. A pair of deodorant cans, some shoelace, a pack of bandages, a small strip of metal, a GPS, and some batteries. They hadn’t even been given food and water on this one, the packs were mostly filled with lead weights to mimic the weight of their battlegear.
“Wait, wait. I think I have an idea.” Rake toyed with the items, tying the two cans together with the string. He bit the plastic caps off, tying the strip of metal around them. A hiss vented from both cans as the deodorant sprayed out. He tucked the battery under the shoelace, tying both ends of the strip to its terminals. The wire began to glow red-hot under the electric current, and his comrades finally got what was going on.
“You know Rake, you’d make a buckin’ good Innie terrorist.” A compliment from Smarts was rare; he picked up the volatile impromptu bomb with his magic, judged his aim and lobbed it at the treeline. The wire reached its flashpoint mid-flight, and was a fireball by the time it reached the sniper team.
Dash grabbed them both by the shoulder and pushed, prompting them to break cover and bolt past the snipers, who were still unaware of the incendiary making its way towards them. She had expected a light bang, and maybe a tree to catch fire. What she hadn’t known was that recent weather patrols had left the Bighorn Valley without rain for two weeks; the treeline they had thrown the deodorant can bomb at was simply dry leaves and tinder. It lit up instantly, the raging fire hungrily coursing through the leaves and branches as it devoured everything in its way. The snipers simply jumped from the trees, Dash felt a mix of both pride and joy at seeing the ponies that had terrified her unit moments ago running away in terror themselves.
She never saw the other sniper as the treeline blazed in front of her. A lonely tree away from the blaze still stood tall and defiant, its occupant more than happy to pick up the slack now his team was down. The TTR hit her in the ribs as she stood, wings-wide, forelegs in the air, cheering. Her breath was cut off instantly, lungs unresponsive as she toppled off the rock and into the water. She tried to swim out, but her lack of breath combined with the numbness now spreading to her limbs made it futile. She tasted water in her mouth, unable to bring her lungs to shunt it out as it poured in. Dash felt truly helpless as the Bighorn River sought to claim her.
Two mouths clamped on her tail, drawing her out of the water. A pair of hooves were planted on her chest, firmly pumping her lungs into action. At first she simply gargled the water, until her adrenaline joined the fight. She coughed up the water, ejecting a lungful at the unlucky pony who had been pumping her chest. He laughed, handing her a hoof so she could get to her own.
“You okay there? C’mon, Dash, we need to get trotting on.” Rake wrapped a foreleg under Dash’s left, propping her up. Smarts appeared, doing the same on her right.
“Especially since our bed depends on getting your rump to the evac bird.”
Dash couldn’t bring herself to speak, she could barely keep her lungs pumping. “Sn...snipe?”
The pair of colts looked back at the treeline; an ember had floated over to the lone tree, ousting the last of the encamped ambushers as it lit up. The sniper had given up, and with luck, there’d be no more surprises between them and the summit.
“C’mon, Dash, we don’t leave a pony behind.”