• Published 23rd Oct 2016
  • 608 Views, 29 Comments

Onward to Tomorrow - SpartanD014

When a saboteur strikes during Equestria's first long-range space mission, Twilight Sparkle and the crew find themselves fighting for their survival, all the while searching for the saboteur in their midst...

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Chapter 9


Harmony was quiet. This had become the trend over the past few days; where once the crew was constantly on edge, waiting for signs of sabotage, they now allowed themselves to relax once more, enjoying each other’s company and trying to pass the time until rescue. The methods of passing time varied from pony to pony, but most enjoyed small talk with other crew members, reminiscing on thoughts of home, and discussing plans for the future.

Cobalt listened to every word he could, trying to think of new methods for destroying the ship and its crew. With his laptop confiscated, his ability to hack into ship systems was eliminated. And though he could still communicate with his confederates through a program on his personal laptop, with the bugs in Ace’s hooves, he was hesitant to do so. If Ace was cautious, and Cobalt knew he was, the Captain would be using the bugs for his own purposes.

“Cobalt, what would your dream house be?” Star Step asked, resting her cheek on a hoof. Cobalt snapped out of his train of thought, and reassumed eye contact with Star, trying to act as though he had been paying attention the whole time.

“Hm… I haven’t really given it a lot of thought,” he replied. “Really the only criteria I have for a home is that it’s low-maintenance and safe. What about you, Star?”

“Someplace… quiet,” Star decided after a moment of thought. “Maybe… some older architecture, I think. But modern appliances, naturally. And… yeah, lots of trees. And I want it to be walking distance to the store, with a year-round moderate climate. Except I sort of want snow. Hm.” Cobalt smirked, and placed a hoof on his marefriend’s.

“Well, maybe we can look for that home someday,” he said, then added, “together.” Star smiled, a blush creeping in on her light blue cheeks.

“What do you want to do when we get back to Equestria, anyway?” Star asked next. Cobalt’s smile faded, and he glanced away, thinking to himself.

“I… don’t really know,” he said. “I can’t see myself doing anything other than this. I feel like… I live for this. This is what I’m meant to do.” Star nodded, and a small grin grew on her face.

“Sounds like you want some moon real estate, then,” she teased. Cobalt laughed, shaking his head, and once again his thoughts turned to his mission. He had a duty, an obligation to the ponies of Equestria to see his task through. And yet, Star Step managed to get in the way of that truth. Even her smile was enough to make Cobalt temporarily forget his purpose, and instead fill his mind with images of a different future, one where his task went unfulfilled. But as he imagined their future, he saw the shadow of the Princesses cast over him, and once again knew what he had to do. In the meantime, however, he was content to sit with Star, and act as though everything was normal. If these were to be his final days, he wanted to enjoy them.

At the other side of the mess hall, Skychaser and Lightning Flash primarily dominated a conversation, while Quick Fix, Sharp Sight, and Vibrant Flame merely watched, only occasionally jumping in.

“Yeah, I’ll definitely sign up for more missions when we get home,” Flash said, nodding. “I’ll do this to the day I die, assuming the ESA lets me. What about you?”

“Maybe,” Skychaser answered. “It’s… definitely good work. Beneficial for all life, not just ponies. I don’t want to work in space for the rest of my life, but I could handle a few more years, I think. Anypony else?”

“This mission has been more than enough for me,” Quick Fix said. Vibrant nodded in agreement, while Sharp Sight remained quiet, thinking through the question.

“... Depends on the mission,” he finally replied. “If it’s something groundbreaking, like this, absolutely. But otherwise, I’ll stick to working on Equus.”

“But hey, we’ll all be home soon enough,” Lightning said. “It’s eight days ‘til the zebra ship gets here, then fifteen to jump back home… Yeah, less than a month.” The group fell into silence as each of their minds was filled with thoughts of home. Some had family to return to, others would simply be falling back into daily routines from before the mission. Regardless of what awaited them back on Equus, the crew was ready to go home.

Sitting in silence on the deck above the mess hall, Ace listened in on the various conversations, the bugs sending him constant feeds of every word spoken by his crew. And though he felt guilty for ignoring their privacy, he knew it was necessary. Without this unpleasant business, their chances of finding the saboteur were significantly diminished.

The security room door opened, and Twilight Sparkle walked inside, her eyes immediately drawn to Ace. A strained look crossed her face, and she remained at the door as it slid shut. Neither of the ponies spoke for a moment, and they avoided eye contact, trying to ignore the elephant in the room.

“... Three days until the rescue arrives,” Twilight said, receiving only a nod in response. “... Are we ready to receive the ship?”

“We will be,” Ace replied. “I’m debating whether or not we should tell Vibrant Flame about the plans, to give him time to prepare. I’m no engineer, but I’m guessing that installing a jump drive is no easy task.”

“No, I’m betting it’s not,” Twilight agreed. They were quiet for a moment more, and finally Twilight let out a sigh, shaking her head. “Have you actually learned anything from that?”

“... Not yet,” Ace admitted.

“How long are you going to keep it up? It’s been four days, and we haven’t learned anything new.” Ace glared, looking away from the security terminal.

“I will ‘keep this up’ until the saboteur is found,” he insisted, frowning. “Regardless of whether or not the bugs actually help us apprehend our enemy, as long as they are under our control, we have an advantage. Now, the moment the saboteur is dealt with, I will personally destroy every single one of these bugs, but not a minute before. Understand?”

“No,” Twilight answered, “no I do not. I don’t like what this saboteur is forcing us to do. It’s… it’s stripping us of what makes us ponies. Compassion, harmony, peace - all of it is being sacrificed to ‘find the saboteur.’ But what if this is exactly what they want? What if they’re only nudging events here and there, and letting us do the rest of the damage?”

“You call murdering Golden Bolt a ‘nudge’?” Ace asked, standing up and crossing the room to Twilight. “You call stranding us out here a ‘nudge’? You call sabotaging the most significant expedition in pony history a ‘nudge’?” Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Her mouth slowly closed again, her lips drawn together in a thin line.

“... And what if the crew finds out?” she finally asked. “How will they react when they find out their commanding officer has been spying on them?”

“Are they going to find out?” Ace shot back accusingly. Twilight groaned, shaking her head, and stormed out of the security office. Ace watched her go, a frown tugging at his lips, wishing he could convince her that he was correct. In times like this, the last thing they needed was to be at odds. Yet the Princess was being stubborn; she was being too idealistic, not considering the reality of their situation. When sabotage was concerned, there was no pretty way to fix things. There was no magic rainbow beam that would solve all their problems; here, there was only counter-intelligence, and turning the saboteur’s plans against them...

After a short and angry ladder climb, Twilight Sparkle entered her bedroom, accessed her laptop, and sent a communications request to Equestria. She sat back, stretching out her wings, and watched the loading icon as it lazily spun on her screen. After a few moments, the icon faded away, and was replaced by an image of Celestia in her Canterlot bedroom.

“Twilight!” Celestia greeted, smiling. “How are you?”

“I’m… not so great, Celestia,” Twilight replied, causing Celestia’s grin to fade away. “I don’t know how much longer we can keep this up. It… feels like things have only gotten worse, despite the lack of any sabotage in almost a week.”

“None of you were trained to deal with something like this,” Celestia said, frowning. “It’s no surprise that nopony is taking this particularly well, but… I believe in you, Twilight. If anypony can keep the crew together, it’s you.”

“But… what if Ace is right?” Twilight asked, shaking her head. “I know that our first priority is finding the saboteur, so… so what if he is right? What if spying on the crew and invading their privacy is the best way?”

“Twilight, nothing is going to be certain until all of this is over,” the elder Princess replied. “When you return, I’m sure that dozens of scholars, historians, and tacticians are going to tear apart the ship reports, and find what you and Ace could have done better. But that does not matter; in the heat of the moment, you have to do what you feel is right, for yourself and for the crew. Sometimes your intuition may be wrong; the important part… the important part is to stick to your morals. Don’t allow yourself to become something terrible.” Celestia glanced away, and Twilight raised an eyebrow, a suspicion beginning to grow in her.

“Is everything okay with you?”

“I…” Celestia paused, forcing herself to look back into the camera. “... Yes, everything is fine. Remember what I said, Twilight. There is enough darkness in the world, do everything you can to avoid adding to it.” The screen went dark, and Twilight stared at where Celestia’s image had been, overcome with confusion. Between the uneasy expressions on Celestia’s face, and her careful word choices… Twilight had finally come to a conclusion: Celestia was hiding something.

As another thankfully uneventful day came to a close, the crew gathered back in the mess hall for their evening meal, all of them oblivious to the bugs hiding throughout the room. They chatted as if nothing was wrong, all of them trying to look past the ever-present threat of death, and the knowledge that somepony in the room was a traitor. This pleased Twilight; as long as chaos was avoided, the saboteur would have a far more difficult time remaining hidden.

She looked around the room, taking in the state of each pony. Star Step leaned her head on Cobalt’s shoulder, apparently no longer concerned with secrecy. Quick Fix wore a peaceful smile, remaining silent as Lightning Flash and Sharp Sight dominated a conversation about what hoofball team held the best chance at winning the upcoming tournament. Skychaser would occasionally interject with his own thoughts, and Vibrant Flame simply watched, content to remain silent. Twilight’s eyes narrowed as they crossed over Ace, who was watching the crew with an emotionless stare. Normally she would not pay his lack of emotion any mind, but given what she knew, it was difficult to see the Captain in the same light.

“Alright, that’s it,” Sharp Sight said, placing a hoof on the table. “When we get back to Equestria, you and I are going to a game. We’ll throw down some bits, and let’s see who wins. Deal?”

“Oh, Sharp Sight,” Lightning Flash mocked, barely holding back a smile, “I don’t think you want to bet against Fillydelphia this season. My own expert projections show them winning the next game.”

“Yeah, and you haven’t managed to predict the winner the past two years in a row,” Sharp shot back, smirking. “Face it, Manehattan’s got this one in the bag.” Lightning glared, pursing his lips, and finally nodded.

“Alright, Sharp,” he said, “you’ve got yourself a deal. When’s the first game after we return?”

“We get back in just under a month, right?” Sharp asked, receiving a nod. “Week after that. Doubt we’ll be able to make it, but we’ll see.”

“Anypony else in?” Lightning asked, looking around the table. “I’m sure the ESA would be more than happy to cover our ticket prices, after all we’ve been through.”

“Sure, why not?” Skychaser nodded. “Been too long since I’ve gone out for some fun, anyway.”

“Well, now I’m looking forward to this rescue,” Lightning Flash joked, smiling. “Damn, still seems so far away.”

“Only three days,” Star Step said. All eyes were immediately on her, and she froze, realizing her mistake. Twilight’s eyes widened, and she looked to the rest of the crew, waiting for their reactions.

“... What’s that?” Quick Fix asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I…” Star Step stammered, trying to force the words out. “I… I’m sorry…” The crew slowly turned their eyes to Twilight and the Captain, both of whom tried to maintain neutral expressions.

“... You lied to us,” Cobalt stated, a hint of anger creeping into his voice. “After you promised to be more transparent, you lied to us.” Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off as Ace stood from his chair.

“Yes, I did,” he said. “And I accept full responsibility. I just hope that you will all take a moment to consider the position I was in; as long as the saboteur remains unknown, we’re all in danger.”

“Unbelievable,” Lightning Flash sighed, shaking his head. “Just when things were starting to go well again, you have to go and pull this shit. Anything else you’ve been hiding that you’d like to tell us?”

“No,” Twilight replied before Ace got a chance. “That was all. I’m sorry we lied, but please don’t let this drive a wedge between us. When the rescue ship arrives, we’re all going to need to work together, and that won’t happen if we’re at each other’s throats.”

“Take the rest of the night off, everypony,” Ace ordered. “Dismissed.” With a general anger, the crew departed the mess hall, leaving Ace, Twilight, and Skychaser alone. The three ponies stood in silence for a moment, each one considering their new situation.

“... You covered for me,” Twilight said, directing her attention to Ace. “You could have told them it was my lie, about the rescue.”

“And you could have told them about the bugs,” Ace replied. “I know what Princess Celestia has been saying to you, and she’s right. At every turn, this saboteur has made me look like a fool. My ability to inspire confidence has been… diminished. But you, Twilight, you can lead this crew home. I truly believe that.”

Twilight did not know what to say. She regarded the Captain with a mix of surprise and gratitude, not having expected his words. She took a step forward, and extended her hoof, saying, “We’ll do this together. This is your ship, after all.” Ace allowed a small smile to form, breaking his toughened exterior, and extended his own hoof to Twilight’s.

“Together,” he agreed. The Captain looked to the XO, who stood at attention. “Sky, Sharp Sight has been a bit overworked the past few days. Think you can cover for him tonight?”

“Yes, sir,” Skychaser nodded, trotting out of the room.

“Three days,” Ace said, crossing to the door as well. “Let’s make them productive. Goodnight, Twilight.”

“Goodnight, Ace.” The Captain exited, and Twilight sank to her haunches, thinking about how to proceed. They would need a bulletproof plan if the rescue was to go off without a hitch, but that would not be easy with how little information the saboteur had revealed. With how little they knew, and how close the rescue was to arriving, Twilight worried that more lies would have to be told if safety was to be guaranteed.

Princess Luna lazily floated a closed book away from her and to a nearby bookshelf, carefully tucking it between a few other dusty tomes, some of which had not been opened in a millenia. With how busy she had been over the past few years, Luna could not remember the last time she had allowed herself to sit back and enjoy a good book. The experience was a welcome one, but each time she turned a page, her mind turned to Twilight Sparkle, and her own affinity for books. In space, Luna knew the young Princess had little to read. Yet here she was, lounging in her Canterlot bedroom, enjoying time off like there were no worries in the world.

This is wrong, Luna thought. She jumped out of her bed and crossed to the mirror, made sure she was presentable, then summoned her regalia from a nearby closet. After a quick straightening of her mane, the Princess channeled as much energy as she could, and disappeared in a bright flash, reappearing far from the castle. The pale moonlight shone on the small fields of grass between buildings of the ESA complex, barely illuminating the quiet facility. At this hour, very few ponies would be at work. Security teams would be present, as they always were, and some of the Harmony staff would be monitoring the ship, but other than them, the campus was deserted. Luna liked the quiet; in moments of stress, the serenity was more than welcome.

“You’re supposed to be on vacation,” a voice said. Luna whirled around, finding her sister standing nearby, her horn still glowing with traces of magic from a teleportation spell.

“I’m already getting bored,” Luna said, turning away from Celestia. “There’s work to do. A vacation can wait.”

“What work is there for you to do, Luna?” Celestia asked, trotting next to her younger sister. “There are no funds to raise, teams to assemble, or meetings to attend. There is nothing for you to do that the ponies who work here cannot do. Let your staff do their jobs, and take a break.”

“I… can’t, ‘Tia,” Luna replied, shaking her head. “Knowing what we’ve done… I can’t just sit back and let other ponies fix our mistake. I need to help, if not for the crew’s sake, then for my own.”

“Fine,” Celestia sighed. “I know when I cannot win an argument against you. Just please, promise me that once all this is over, you’ll--”

“Princesses!” The two alicorns turned around, finding a gold-armored stallion sprinting in their direction, an urgent look on his face. He stopped by the Princesses, offering a short bow, before continuing. “You must come with me immediately! We have found something.”

A few minutes after being located by the guard, Celestia and Luna were ushered into a small storage area connected to one of the ESA complex’s larger buildings. A rusted metal door was flanked by two more guards, one of whom opened the door for the Princesses as they approached. Inside was a fourth guard, whose shadow was cast over a fifth pony, this one unknown. The Princesses stepped inside, drawing the attention of the guard.

“We found her trying to break into the lower fabrication building,” he explained, giving the mystery pony a swift kick in the side. The mare, whose lime-green coat was covered in scrapes and bruises, groaned at the kick, clutching her side. “We chased her, but she ran. Even once we had a decent grip on her, she struggled. Shouldn’t be a problem anymore, highnesses.” Luna frowned, lowering herself to get a better look at the prisoner. She did not recognize the mare, but with over eight-hundred ponies employed at the ESA, it was impossible for her to know everypony.

“Lower fabrication…” Luna repeated, thinking to herself.

“What’s in lower fabrication?” Celestia asked, looking to her sister.

“Anything too hazardous to build above-ground,” Luna replied. “Magic generators, engine parts… jump drives.” The prisoner coughed, and opened her shimmering purple eyes. With many questions entering her mind, Luna looked to the nearby guard. “Leave us.” The guard complied without question, stepping out of the storage pod and closing the door behind him. The small room was cast in shadow, broken by a warm orange light as Celestia lit her horn.

“What is your name?” the elder Princess inquired, lowering her head closer to the prisoner.

“Piss off…” the prisoner replied, her voice weak.

“Alright then, ‘Piss Off’,” Luna began, “what were you trying to do in lower fabrication?” The mare did not respond. “If you’re some sort of saboteur, you haven’t done a very good job. Five minutes of research would have informed you that the entire fabrication building is one of the most well-guarded structures in Equestria. So, what were you hoping to achieve?”

“I don’t… have to tell you… anything…” The prisoner closed her eyes once more, and struggled to turn her bruised body away from the Princesses.

“Luna,” Celestia whispered, pulling her head away from the mysterious mare. “I don’t like this. For the organization that managed to get somepony onto Harmony, this is sloppy work. Too sloppy.”

“What do you think?” Luna asked, glaring at their prisoner. This mare was still up to something, that much was clear.

“I don’t know… A diversion, maybe,” Celestia answered. “How many guards are patrolling the complex?”

“I don’t know, I put you in charge of that.” Celestia shook her head, frowning.

“We need to send some of them to double-check the fabrication building,” she said. “I think our prisoner here may have done something after all.”

“Good idea,” Luna agreed. She started to turn to open the door, but stopped when she noticed the prisoner slowly rising to her hooves. Raising an eyebrow in confusion, Luna turned back to the prisoner.

“Wait…” she muttered, pausing to cough. “I just remembered… they said, if I got captured, I should… deliver a message…”

“Who told you to do this?” Celestia asked.

“My employers…” The prisoner cleared her throat, and finally lifted her head, making eye-contact with the two Princesses. “They wanted me to tell you… there are some sins… that can’t be washed away…” A sadistic smile grew on the mare’s face, and she laughed quietly to herself. Luna and Celestia stared at her, eyes wide, watching without blinking as her laughs devolved into another painful coughing fit. The prisoner fell, clutching her midsection, each cough worse than the last.

“We need to get her medical attention,” Celestia said. “There may be more she can tell us.”

“No!” the prisoner shrieked, blood beginning to spray from her mouth with every cough. “It’s too… late for that! I go… to be free now… Soon… all of Equestria… will follow…” With a final cough, the mare heaved upwards, her eyes rolling back in her head. She let out a sigh and fell to the floor, no longer making any sound.

“Damn it…” Luna cursed, placing a hoof on the prisoner’s neck. “She must have taken some sort of poison while being pursued by the guards…”

“She said ‘all of Equestria will follow’,” Celestia noted, her brow knitting together in thought. “What do you suppose she meant by that?”

“Who knows?” Luna answered, shrugging. “Most likely whatever lies she was fed by the leaders of the organization. They always need to promise something.”

“I’m not so sure…” Celestia turned, opening the door, and gestured for one of the guards to enter. “Deal with the corpse.” Saluting, the guard picked the body up with his telekinesis, and set off toward the complex’s medical facility. When he was gone, Celestia and Luna stepped out of the storage room, working their way back to the main section of the complex.

“I’m more concerned with the message she delivered,” Luna said as soon as the remaining guards were out of hearing range. “Some sins can’t be washed away. You don’t… you don’t think they know about our plan, do you?”

“I don’t see how they could,” Celestia replied. “But… I can’t think of many other explanations. We need to be extra vigilant, Luna. If these terrorists are beginning to suspect us of subterfuge, they will attempt to capitalize on it.” Luna shook her head, unconvinced.

“Without evidence, nopony would pay attention to their claims.”

“They got somepony onto Harmony. That may be all the evidence our ponies need.” The Princess of the Sun stopped in her tracks, looking to the star-filled sky. “It is getting late, I should return to Canterlot. Please, promise me you will be careful here.”

“Of course, sister,” Luna agreed, bowing her head. “I will conduct an investigation of the fabrication building. Goodnight, ‘Tia.” Celestia nodded her farewell, and disappeared in a flash of golden light. Luna turned away from the spot where her sister had been standing, her eyes settling on the fabrication building, several hundred meters away. Sighing, she began the walk to the building, wondering what the newest saboteur had done. With what these terrorists had proven themselves to be capable of, there was no telling what awaited her...

Author's Note:

Hello, everyone! I hope you all had a great holiday, and a very happy New Year!

A short chapter this week, but it paves the way for the next chapter, which is quite an exciting one. If you notice any spelling/grammar errors, or if you have some feedback, please let me know! Thanks for reading!