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.