"Deep breaths. Cool. Calm. In through the snout, out through the mouth."
Dancer shouldered his rifle, laying prone amongst the fallen leaves of the oak tree that shrouded his presence. He lined up his sights, seeing the first of his targets emerge. A group of the dumpy primates stumbled from out of the distant undergrowth across the field, he lined up his first shot on the forehead of their leader.
"Patience. Why kill one when you can kill four? You'll know the right moment when it comes."
A light winked on his Muzzle-Up Display. His comrades were in position, the welcome mat was laid out and waiting. He chinned a button in his helmet, flashing his acknowledgement in response.
The primates had fanned out, and Dancer could see them more clearly now. They were bipedal, but crawled on four legs more out of laziness than any real biological intent. He could see them raising their snouts to the air, snuffling through their masks. The very same masks were piped to pyramid-shaped tanks on their backs. Dancer realigned his shot, the gas tanks would be far more effective.
The treeline on the horizon shuddered, and a large construct forced its way through them. It was a flowing, curved design, and dwarfed the Grunts that milled around it. Four fins held it aloft a hoof or two above the ground, and at its summit it had an arrangement of glowing plates of shimmering metal, ready to unleash destruction on its enemies.
His earpiece crackled, and a hesitant voice sounded into his helmet.
"Dancer, they didn't say there'd be armour. Should we abort?"
Dancer chinned his answer. Two blinks; a firm no.
The primates had fanned out, creating a haphazard and badly maintained line across the field. The hover tank - a Wraith, as the hoofsoldier called it - crawled its way up field in their midst. Dancer waited until the head of the tank's gunner filled his scope, before he released the first shot of the battle.
The metallic shout rent the air as it soared through the head of the gunner, ricocheting off the tank's armour and up into the heavens. Three more shots rang out from Dancer's rifle, tearing apart gas tanks in emerald infernos to confuse the enemy. As they stumbled and collected together to fire on his position, he vanished. His hooves barely whispered against the dirt as he sprinted to his new spot. Constant relocation; essential to the art of a sniper. He skidded behind another tree, burrowing into a pile of leaves that surrounded its base. One button press later, and he sent the signal to his team-mates.
The field erupted as if it were a newly formed volcano. Plumes of fire and soil screamed into the air, tearing apart anything unfortunate enough to be in their path. The Wraith was utterly destroyed, its own bright blue corona of plasma energy barely noticeable amongst the carnage as its hull was torn to shreds. When the dust and smoke finally lifted from the area, there was only the wounded and the shellshocked left amongst the enemy. Dancer completed his task, and soon the field was completely devoid of life, save for the two other ponies that joined him there.
The leaner of the pair pulled off her helmet, revealing a crew cut mane of bronze that framed her beige coat. Her muzzle carried more than a couple of scars, though in Dancer's long career, he hadn't found another pony who could handle explosives like Krakatoa. It was a long held belief of his that she was capable of taking out a tank with a pack of birthday candles, were she willing to try.
"One Wraith tank, thirty little buckers. And with only three mines and a hoofful of grenades. Easy money, today."
The other pony kept his helmet on; Sharps rarely ever removed it until the task was done. In his book, that meant the point where they were on a starship somewhere in pony controlled space. Not when they were safe; Princesses, no. Such a thing was simply non-existent in this day and age.
"That was just a part of the attack, Krak. In case you haven't noticed, we've still got ponies around the city covering the eva-."
The trio cast their attention over to New Haltergate as the horizon roared with a thunderous sonic boom. In the distance and fading sunlight, flares of orange and red flickering out into the night could be seen in the distance. Above the city, a bulbous mass roared into view. As it tore through the smoke of the destruction and fire, it seemed exactly as alien as it truly was. The clouds curled around it in its wake, creating the effect of great, sprawling wings reaching out from the craft. A sphere of crimson plasma welled on its underbelly, before the beam came crashing to the ground in a violent explosion of dust and flame.
It could still be seen through the smog as it cut through buildings, streets...and ponies. In moments, it would pound all below it into dust, and the heat of the plasma would turn the dust to a field of sickly, black glass. In days, the whole of Arcania would suffer the same fate.
Krakatoa set her helmet back over her head, staring at anywhere except the burning city in the distance. She turned away back to her team, head tilted downwards to the ravaged ground.
"I've never seen them start glassing so quickly. Twelve bucking days crawling through mud and hay to save this planet...did anypony else even put up a fight?!"
Dancer waved a hoof, as if trying to reveal the devastated land around them to her.
"We did. Others didn't. Besides, with the Covenant beating down our fleets and coming from orbit above our heads...hay, there isn't really anything you can fight. If you find a way to bring down that cruiser with a few frags and landmines, yo be my guest."
"No need to be a jackflank about it, Shadow."
Dancer bit his lip, she only used his forename when he's crossed the invisible line. A lot can be said for battle's ability to bond ponies together, but even then, there are limits.
"Sorry, but we gotta suck it up, and head to our L-Z for dust-off. We tried, Krak. But...we all knew this was gunna happen. It's already happened so many times, best we can do is add another notch to our planets survived list, and move on with it."
"Of course, gotta think of my resume, in case the war ends and I need a job at a pizza joint. Why were we deployed here? Why not at the front line where the battle was just lost?"
"You ever meet Admiral Celestia, you go ahead and ask. For now, set your hooves on the line, and get marching. They'll be glassing this area in a few hours, I'd rather not be here for a close-up."
The trio began their march to the summit of the hill still visible in the distance. As they climbed, their advance became cloaked further and further by the advancing smoke of the burning city. Upon reaching the tip of the hill, they awaited the arrival of the Pelican, its stubby form looming out of the fog as they boarded. The rear hatch sealed up against the vacuum of space, and it powered up through the chaotic smog into the heavens.
Dancer stood at the rear, watching the view through the tiny window as the Pelican left Arcania for dead. One side of the planet was still lit by the planet's sickly red giant, enjoying a cloudless sunrise that on another day would have been an endearing sight. The other side, however, had taken its own, fiery hue. Dancer could just discern the enemy ships moving up and down the planet methodically, working to burn every inch of its surface away.
He sat down, casting his view around the cabin. Two other ponies occupied it alongside him, two friends forged through battle and bloodshed.
Dancer sighed, running a hoof through the collection of dogtags around his neck. Two ponies he had fought hoof and tooth to save, through hay or high water.
Yet, a fortnight ago, he had flown in with ten.