"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, ONI'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.