• Published 23rd Oct 2016
  • 607 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...

  • ...

Chapter 10


Princess Luna’s examined the device resting on the table before her, while her assistant, Calm Wind, gave a report. The Princess was only half listening, as she already knew most of the information: it had been found attached to one of the exterior power relays on the fabrication building, inconspicuously tucked beneath the wiring that powered the building’s communications systems. The device latched onto the fabrication building’s comms channels, jumped to the ESA complex’s primary communication array, and attempted to attach a data file to the ESA’s regularly-scheduled update to Harmony.

“Fortunately, a comms officer noticed the larger-than-usual upload size, and stopped the message before it was sent,” Calm Wind finished, lowering her clipboard and looking to Princess Luna. “Analysts are still examining the file, but they think it was a virus.”

“A virus…” Luna repeated, thinking to herself. So, the terrorists want to disable Harmony through digital warfare. Quite the long shot… Well, two can play at that game. The Princess looked to her assistant, a plan forming in her mind. “Send a message to Harmony, let them know to be on alert. Allocate as many analysts as you can to examine this virus; draw from other government departments if you have to. Contact me when something of value is found.” Calm Wind nodded, and rushed off to complete her task. Luna sighed, once again looking over the crude device. So, she thought, what can you tell us?

An incessant knocking on her bedroom door roused Twilight from her sleep; her tired amethyst eyes flicked to the door, and with a yawn, she pulled herself out of bed, glancing at the clock as her vision focused. It was early, but not so early that she was annoyed by the interruption. As long as the coffee flowed, Twilight had no qualms with being woken up slightly ahead of schedule.

Finally reaching the door, Twilight hit the control, revealing Skychaser in the corridor outside, his hoof raised mid-knock. He lowered his hoof, took a step back, and bowed his head. “Sorry about the interruption,” he said. “We just got an emergency communique from Equestria, you’re needed in the security room.” Now beginning to grow worried, Twilight motioned for Skychaser to lead, and followed the stallion out of her bedroom. She paid little attention to her surroundings as she climbed up the ladder, instead hypothesizing what could be the matter. With the rescue only a few days away, any new developments could spell disaster.

Stepping into the security office, Twilight found Ace and Sharp Sight already present, their eyes focused on different parts of the room. Ace was staring, unblinking, at the table in front of him, clearly deep in thought. Sharp Sight switched his focus every few seconds, his eyes landing on Twilight and Skychaser as they entered. Ace looked away from the table, blinking a few times, and offered a polite smile.

“Good morning,” he said. “Apologies for the abrupt awakening, but there was… a bit of a situation last night, at the ESA complex.”

“Is everything alright?” Twilight asked, her concern only growing. The rescue ship had already launched, but if the ESA itself was compromised, it would be far more difficult to get home.

“Yes, for now,” Ace replied. “A saboteur snuck in. She was caught by security, but not before she managed to plant a device in the comms system. This device uploaded a virus that could have crippled Harmony, though it was caught by a technician before going through. They’re still investigating, but Princess Luna has warned us to be extra careful.”

“When aren’t we being extra careful nowadays…” Twilight sighed, shaking her head. “Well, at least the virus was caught.”

“Yeah, but we got lucky,” Sharp Sight said. “If that technician hadn’t noticed the virus, we could all be dead right now.”

“Agreed,” Skychaser said. “We can’t keep sitting here, hoping that whatever the saboteur is planning will fail. They’ve left no clues that could indicate their identity, and none of our investigations have turned up anything. We need to change our strategy.

“Do you have an idea, XO?” Ace asked.

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Sky replied. “You and I considered this earlier, but we decided it would interfere too greatly with the management of Harmony: we need to lock down the ship, permanently.”

“... Would that work?” Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow. The solution seemed almost too simple.

“Most likely,” Ace answered, nodding. “The issue is, as Skychaser mentioned, the management of the ship. If something breaks down in engineering, and the entire ship is on maximum lockdown, it could take ten times as long to get down there to fix the problem. And if we lock everypony into the same room, we’ll force the saboteur to strike. There’s no way he or she could take down all of us, but they could still kill more of the crew before being apprehended. It’s… risky. But given how close we are to rescue, I’m inclined to let it happen.”

“Well… it’s your call, Ace,” Twilight said. “Nothing else has worked so far, and we’re running out of time. If this idea has a chance of succeeding, I say we do it.”

“Not yet,” Ace decided. “There’s still work to be done before rescue arrives. We need to make sure this ship is ready… I’ve got an idea: we’ll all pair up with somepony else on the crew, therefore keeping them under almost constant watch. Each pair will work on some task to make the ship rescue-ready, and hopefully they’ll all be done by the time rescue arrives. Then we can enable the lockdown, send Twilight and Vibrant out to get the replacement drive, have them install it, and be on our way.”

“That sounds good,” Sharp Sight said. “What sorts of tasks?” Ace paused, thinking to himself, then nodded, standing up.

“Princess,” he began, looking to Twilight, “you’ll take Quick Fix and work on mending the space suit used by Golden Bolt. Skychaser, work with Lightning Flash to confirm the homebound jumps are plotted correctly. Sharp Sight, I want you to take Star Step through storage and gather up the tools that will be needed. I’ll take Cobalt and Vibrant Flame, we’ll prep engineering for the arrival of the new jump drive. Everypony understand?” After receiving a round of nods, Ace slowly crossed to the door, pausing just before opening it. “We’ll report back here tonight. Be cautious; one of us is paired up with the saboteur, and they may try something.” He exited the room, followed shortly after by Skychaser and Sharp Sight. Twilight lingered for a moment, her thoughts reflected in her sour expression. Even if the rescue ship arrived and the jump drive was installed without difficulty, there was still fifteen additional days of space travel to return home. These solutions only went up to the rescue, not beyond. There was still plenty of time for disaster to strike…

“Right this way, highness,” Calm Wind said, leading Princess Luna down one of the many corridors in the ESA’s IT department building. The Princess tried to hide her scowl, knowing perfectly well how to get to their destination. She had seen this entire complex built from the ground up, and knew every room, every corridor. Yet still she relented, knowing Calm Wind was only doing her job. In these stressful times, Luna was grateful to have a personal assistant in the first place.

They came to a wood door at the end of the hallway, and Calm Wind lit her horn, opening it for the Princess. Luna stepped inside, finding herself at the attention of several technicians, all of whom were huddled around a single laptop. The group dispersed at her entrance, each pony bowing.

“Rise,” Luna ordered. “What have you found?” The group was silent, until finally one decided to step forward and answer the inquiry.

“We’ve gotten past the base encryption,” he replied, waving Luna over to the laptop with a hoof. On the screen was a file directory, filled with hundreds of randomly named folders and files. “From what we’ve managed to decipher, this virus would have crippled nearly every system on the ship; comms, life support, engines, all of it. But… I’m not sure how they thought it would get through. On average, our updates to Harmony take about twenty minutes to upload. Considering this file size, it would have taken nearly four hours. There’s no way it would have gone through without one of our ponies noticing.”

Luna smirked, allowing herself a bit of pleasure at the implications. They are getting desperate, she thought. Turning her gaze to the technician, another question entered her mind. “How did these terrorists manage to construct a virus that could take down the most advanced ship ever built? Millions of bits went into developing the cybersecurity software on her computers, was that all for nothing?”

“No, your highness,” another technician answered, working her way through the group to the laptop. “It… looks like somepony leaked the source code for Harmony’s OS to the terrorist organization.” At this, Luna’s smirk disappeared. She made a mental note to have each member of the IT department questioned, then returned her focus to the task at hoof.

“Has anything else been discovered?” she asked. The first technician nodded, opening up one of the folders in the directory.

“We think we might have found some sort of message,” he replied. “It’s heavily encrypted, but we’ve almost cracked it. Wise over there is programming our workaround now.” The technician pointed to another stallion, this one isolated from the rest, typing away on a laptop.

“It’s compiling now,” the stallion reported, without looking away. “And… good enough, I’m sending it to you.” Nodding, the first technician accessed the program that he had been sent, and executed it. Luna watched as a progress bar appeared on the screen, beneath which was a console, logging every function completed by the program. When it finished, the progress bar faded away, and the technician accessed a new folder, unencrypted by the program.

“Nice work,” he said, his eyes scanning over the new files. “Yup, a few text documents here, definitely a message. Would you like to open them, Princess?”

“... Give me the room,” Luna commanded, sitting down in front of the laptop. Without question, the technicians filed out, leaving the Princess alone with the computer. She opened the first text document, and was met with a paragraph spanning a few lines. Her eyes skimmed over the words, looking for anything concrete.

… need more results… rescue arriving soon… ship must be stopped… best of luck…

The Princess froze. Her eyes settled on a single word at the end of the message. No, she thought, not a word. Not a word at all…

A name.

Cobalt stifled a yawn, lazily using a broom to sweep small bits of debris off of the engineering room floor. Ace and Vibrant Flame worked nearby, cleaning up the area around the burnt chassis of the old jump drive. Cobalt sighed; if the Captain was this desperate for his crew to perform busywork, he could have at least picked something more enjoyable than sweeping. Vibrant Flame was no happier than Cobalt; the engineer’s stress levels were at an all-time high, brought about by the prospect of installing a new jump drive.

“I really don’t think I’m qualified for this,” he demurred, receiving another eye-roll from Ace. “I mean, I was the… the assistant engineer, not chief. I… I have no idea how to do this!”

“We have very comprehensive instructions from the ESA detailing how to install the drive,” Ace reassured Vibrant, beginning to sound annoyed. “Plus, you’ll have Twilight helping you. Stop worrying.”

“But I--”

“Vibrant!” Ace stopped what he was doing and crossed to the timid engineer, trying to look as nonthreatening as possible. “If I didn’t think you could do this, I would ask somepony else. But I do think you can do this, so stop questioning it. Understood?”

“I… Yes, sir.” Vibrant hung his head, and continued clearing out the charred bits of metal from the jump drive chassis. Cobalt got back to work as well, sweeping all of the debris into small bags he had placed around the room. Why wasn’t this all cleaned up immediately after the explosion? He thought, scowling. His attention shifted upward as the intercom came online, as did the attentions of Vibrant and Ace.

“Captain,” Skychaser’s voice said, coming over the intercom, “please report to the bridge immediately.”

“What is it?” Ace asked, an eyebrow raised.

“You’ll want to come find out for yourself, sir.” Sighing, Ace looked between Vibrant and Cobalt, clearly thinking through the situation.

“We’ll be fine down here, Captain,” Cobalt said. “You go on ahead.” Still appearing apprehensive, Ace paused for another moment, before finally he trotted out of engineering, disappearing down the corridor outside. Cobalt returned to his sweeping, no longer caring enough to avoid yawning, and tried to think about something more interesting.

“... I hope everything’s okay,” Vibrant Flame said, trying his best to spark a conversation.

“Well, if something is wrong, hopefully he won’t try to keep it hidden,” Cobalt replied, though his hopes were not high. The Captain had nothing to gain by sharing information, and no matter how much he claimed he valued the crew’s ‘trust,’ he was fooling nopony. In Ace’s ideal world, nopony on the ship would raise questions. The crew would be perfect subservient machines, carrying out their tasks without hesitation. That was likely how it had been in the Captain’s black ops days, but those days were no more. Now Ace had weaknesses, and Cobalt fully intended to exploit each and every one of them…

“What is it?” Ace asked, trotting onto the bridge with a poorly-concealed look of annoyance. Skychaser stood near the comms station, while Lightning Flash stood outside of the bridge, trying to look interested in something else.

“It’s… a message, sir,” Skychaser reported, troubled. Ace allowed his annoyed look to drop, replacing it with one of confusion. “From Princess Luna… here.” The XO pressed the play button, and a video of Luna appeared on the screen.

Harmony!” she said urgently, her eyes wide. “The saboteur is--”

The video froze. It flickered away to static, and a ‘connection lost’ message appeared on the screen, blinking in and out every few seconds. Ace narrowed his eyes, growing troubled as well. He looked to his XO, not needing to ask the question on his mind.

“I tried re-establishing the connection, but it wouldn’t work,” Skychaser said. “I ran a diagnostic as well; the entire comms system is down, and I think it was caused by the virus we were warned about earlier. I found some unknown processes running in the diagnostics, and I couldn’t shut them down.”

“... She found out who the saboteur is…” Ace whispered, looking back to the screen. “She knows… Skychaser, I don’t care what is wrong with comms, I want it fixed now. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir, but I’m not well-versed in these systems,” the XO said. “If I could get Star Step or Cobalt to help--”

“No!” Ace interrupted, slamming his hoof onto the deck. “We don’t know who we can trust. I trust you, Skychaser, so I want you to do this. There are basic user guides on the computers, and troubleshooting softwares as well. Use those resources, and find a solution. Do you understand!?”

“I… Yes, sir,” Skychaser said, nodding. “I’ll keep you apprised.”

“See that you do.” Ace turned and stalked out of the bridge, making no attempt to mask his frustration. He began climbing back down the ladder, hoping that nothing had gone wrong in engineering in his absence. Without comms, their situation was infinitely more complicated. If something was to go wrong, Harmony would be entirely on her own…

When Twilight returned to the security office after the rest of the crew had gone to bed, she felt at even more of a loss than she had in the morning. The news of Princess Luna’s message, combined with the lack of a functioning comms system, made their task far more complicated. The rescue ship was arriving in under a day, and yet she did not feel ready. Harmony had been fully prepped for the zebra ship’s arrival, but Twilight could not help but feel that something would go wrong. The saboteur would not sit back and let them return home without a fight. More pain was yet to come, though Twilight hoped it could be prevented.

“I just thought of something,” Sharp Sight said, breaking the silence that had formed among the ponies in the security office. “What if the lockdown isn’t enough? This saboteur is quite capable, they may find a way around it.”

“Everypony will be stuck in the same room while Twilight and Vibrant are installing the drive,” Ace answered. “There’s no way he or she will get through all of us.”

“But what if they do?” Sharp asked, frowning. “They could have a plan for this, some sort of backup to disable a lockdown. Plus, there’s no doubt that the saboteur expects this to be a one way trip, so I highly doubt that self-preservation is high on their priority list.”

“... He has a point, Captain,” Skychaser said. “I have no idea how to fix comms, so we need to accept the fact that Princess Luna won’t be here to help us if something goes wrong. It couldn’t help to prepare some contingencies.”

“... Alright,” Ace agreed, nodding. “We’ll set traps, then. Magic stun mines at the entrances to engineering - all entrances. That includes vents and maintenance shafts. Twilight, I trust you can cast those?”

“I can,” Twilight said, “but I’ll need to disable them every time somepony has to cross.”

“Do what you need to do,” Ace said. The Captain crossed to the door, stopping just shy of exiting. “We’re running low on time here. Everypony remain vigilant, and we’ll get through this alive.”

“I’ll stay in security for a few hours tonight,” Sharp Sight offered. “I can also take a look at the comms system if you want, sir.”

“I’d appreciate that, Sharp,” Ace said. “Everypony else, let’s get some rest. We have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow.” He exited the room, trotting down the hall toward the ladder. Twilight followed, as did Skychaser, each of them sharing a troubled glance. There was only one more day until the rescue would arrive; one more day that Harmony was trapped, one more day until the return journey could begin.

And still plenty more days for everything to go wrong.

Is your connection secure?

Yes, I’ve accessed the virus. I am the only one on Harmony capable of using comms.

Good. And the bugs?

If Ace hid one in my room, I haven’t found it yet. But I am looking, don’t worry.

Good. Then how goes your mission? As I understand, little time remains until the rescue arrives.

I… do not know. I am running out of both time and options. As Ace becomes more and more desperate, his actions become more extreme. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if he put the whole damn ship in lockdown. But I’m not sure what else I can do; I won’t hit the jump drive again, that’s way too obvious. Unfortunately, that leaves me with very few options. There’s nothing onboard that can cause nearly as much damage as an exploding jump drive.

Know that you are not alone, Cobalt. We are working down here as well, trying to find something for you. In the meantime, we do have one idea, but you must act quickly. Now, if possible.

Now? What is it?

Listen closely…

Sharp Sight held back a yawn, glancing over the clock at the corner of the security terminal’s main screen. It was half past two in the morning, and still he had seen nothing suspicious on the cameras. No freeze-ups, no false reports, nothing. The ship was as quiet as ever. Unfortunately, he had also made little progress on the comms system. I guess one introductory-level computer science course isn’t enough to understand a complex virus, he thought, yawning.

Deciding that he had done enough work for the night, the security chief stood up from his chair, stretched his silver wings, and turned to the door. Nopony had come to visit him in the night, which Sharp took to be a good sign. The quieter the ship was, the better. He opened the door and stepped out, turning around to seal the door behind him. But just before his hoof came into contact with the keypad, he felt a heavy impact on the back of his head, and knew no more.

Cobalt watched Sharp Sight’s body crumple to the floor, taking a moment to check that he was all clear before picking the stallion up and dragging him back into the security office. Cobalt planted Sharp’s hoof onto a pad on the security terminal, watching as the lock was lifted and the computer was opened to him. Smiling, Cobalt took a seat in front of the computer, scanning through the various programs for the one he sought.

There we go, he thought, coming to the security profile management program. From this program, unique security IDs could be assigned to each member of the crew, each ID granting different levels of security access. Those at the top, such as Ace or Skychaser, had unrestricted access to the entire ship. Ponies like Cobalt could only lock and unlock their bedroom doors. But that’s about to change, Cobalt thought. He withdrew a pen and paper from his saddlebags, and quickly copied down the security codes for Ace, Skychaser, Sharp Sight, and Twilight. Then, he reset the computer to the state it had been in when he entered, dragged Sharp back outside, and closed the door. His eyes passed over the nearest security camera, its feed frozen by Cobalt’s jammer. He allowed himself a victorious grin, though it slowly faded away as he moved his gaze to the unconscious security chief. He knew what had to be done.

No loose ends, Cobalt thought. He channeled a significant amount of energy to his horn and, using his telekinesis, lifted Sharp Sight a few feet off the ground by his head. Taking a deep breath, Cobalt slammed Sharp’s head against the nearest wall, wincing as an audible crack filled the corridor. A small splatter of blood was left where the chief’s head had impacted, and Cobalt released his grip, sending the stallion falling back to the floor. Cobalt stared at the body for a few moments, then shook his head and looked away.

Alright, he thought, working his way back to the ladder. Now time to prepare…

Princess Luna paced back and forth throughout her office, making no attempt to hide her worried expression. To the pony who knew her best, it was clear that Luna was nothing short of terrified. Celestia stood nearby, managing to maintain her composure slightly better than her sister. Yet both of them were thinking the same thoughts: Cobalt was the saboteur, and Harmony was unreachable.

“... I really fucked this up, didn’t I?” Luna asked, coming to a halt. Celestia raised an eyebrow, urging her sister to go on. “I should have waited. The comm techs told me there was a risk that the virus could have multiplied, that it still may be present in our systems, but I didn’t listen. I was too hasty, and now I’ve ruined everything.”

“Not all is lost, Luna,” Celestia reassured her sister, crossing to the troubled Princess. “We know that only a part of the virus made it through. Harmony could still be active, we just have to hope that they can make it home on their own.”

“They won’t be able to communicate with us again until they’re in orbit,” Luna said. “In orbit, the Phoenix capsule’s comm system will be in range again. But… there’s no guarantee they’ll make it that far. For all we know, the part of the virus that survived also cut off their life support. They could… they could all be dead right now.”

“How long until the zebra ship is supposed to arrive at their location?” Celestia asked.

“Fourteen hours.”

“Could we not send a message to the zebra ship, letting them know who the saboteur is, and hope that the Harmony crew notices it when they board?” Luna frowned, shaking her head.

“We stripped the zebra ship’s comm system to make room for the jump drive,” she explained. “Another of my stupid ideas. Why do I keep having such stupid ideas?”

“Luna, you’re being too hard on yourself,” Celestia said, placing a hoof on her sister’s shoulder. “There is nothing we can do about Harmony right now. But there is still work to be done. Now that we know Cobalt is the saboteur, we can use that. We can check over his background information again, we can find out who his confederates are, and we can stop them. It may not be all that we need, but it’s a start.”

“I… You’re right, sister,” Luna admitted, nodding. “Forgive me, my conduct is entirely unbecoming of my position.”

“There’s still a few hours until morning,” Celestia began. “Why don’t you get a bit of sleep? In the meantime, I can organize an investigation. I will get my most trusted ponies on this job; we don’t want to risk more sabotage, now do we?” Luna smirked, shaking her head.

“No, I suppose we don’t.” The Princess of the Night flexed her wings, and her horn began to glow. “Wake me when you’re about to raise the sun. Goodnight, sister.” With a flash of light, Luna was gone, and Celestia was alone. The Princess of the Sun sighed, crossing to the window of her sister’s office. Outside, the space center was just beginning to wake up. The ponies with the earliest shifts were arriving, though their jobs would be considerably more difficult without comms from Harmony.

Celestia allowed her mind to wander, and soon she found her thoughts coming to Twilight Sparkle. It had been a few days since their last conversation, but it felt like a lifetime ago. In so short a space of time, it was amazing how quickly events could pass by. Barely eight months ago, Celestia was telling Twilight that she would be joining the Harmony mission. She had been so excited, so ignorant of Celestia’s true plans.

Some sins cannot be washed away, Celestia thought, remembering the recent saboteur’s words. Too true… I will tell her someday. She deserves to know. Someday, the whole world deserves to know what I have done…

Twilight’s alarm went off earlier than usual, shattering the silence that had taken hold of her room and sending the Princess shooting forward in her bed. Her tired eyes angrily passed over her alarm clock, and she slammed a hoof down onto the “off” button, wondering what had possessed it to go off a whole hour before her usual wakeup time. Only once she was out of bed and on her hooves did Twilight remember that she had set the alarm back herself, with the intention of getting a headstart on what was, arguably, the biggest day of the “expedition.”

Stifling a yawn, Twilight stepped out of her room, meeting an equally-tired Ace in the otherwise empty corridor. The earliest crew shift did not start for another hour, though Twilight knew that the Captain was no stranger to early mornings. Ace greeted Twilight with a nod, which Twilight returned in kind. They walked in silence to the ladder, each stopping before stepping inside.

“Where are you headed, Princess?” Ace asked, motioning for her to go first. Twilight stepped inside, grabbing onto the rungs, and started to pull herself up.

“I’m going to check on Sharp Sight, assuming he’s still up there,” she replied. “What about you?”

“I had the same idea,” Ace said, climbing into the ladder once Twilight was a fair distance up. The Princess exited at the next deck, crossing over to the door that would lead to the security section. Ace followed, and Twilight opened the door. Before she could take a step through, her eyes fell on the silver body of Sharp Sight, lying in a small pool of blood next to the security office door. While she was rooted in place, Ace’s training kicked in, and he ran to the fallen security chief, placing a hoof to the pegasus’s neck.

“... Is he…?” Twilight trailed off, watching in a stunned silence as Ace simply nodded. The Captain stepped away, his eyes darting back and forth around the corridor. He slowly circled Sharp’s body, stopping by the security office door.

“What… what do we do?” Twilight asked, finally managing to step forward. Ace opened the door and stepped inside, his vigilant eyes scanning for anything out of place. Without saying a word, he crossed to the main terminal and leaned into the microphone.

“Skychaser, please report to the security office,” he said. He flicked a switch, changing the comm channel, and leaned back toward the mic. “Quick Fix, please report to the security office.” Twilight remained outside, unable to step past Sharp’s body, or even look at him. She tried to maintain her composure, but given the circumstances, this seemed an impossible task.

“... He’s gone,” she whispered to herself, trying to come to terms with this new development. Golden Bolt and Astral Breeze had been difficult enough, but after several days of relative peace and quiet, this was shattering.

Twilight’s eyes were drawn to the ladder as Skychaser and Quick Fix climbed out, and watched as their expressions changed from ones of confusion to ones of shock. They both ran to the fallen security chief, and Fix placed her hoof on his neck, kneeling by him.

“Don’t bother,” Ace said, exiting the security office. “Fix, please handle this.”

“I… Yes, sir,” Fix replied, nodding. She gingerly lifted Sharp Sight’s body, carrying him back to the ladder. Skychaser remained by the door, staring at his hazy reflection in the small pool of blood on the floor.

“... What are we going to do about this?” he asked, finally glancing away. “We’re down another pony. More than that, we’re down both of our security officers. How are we supposed to proceed now?”

“As we always were,” Ace stated. “Sharp Sight is dead, and nothing will change that. The rescue ship is arriving in less than ten hours, and we cannot change that either. We don’t have a choice in how to proceed, we have to follow our original plan. Twilight, you and Vibrant need to prep. Get the lower cargo airlock ready, check that the EVA suits are properly sealed, and make sure the route from the airlock to engineering is clear. Speaking of engineering, did you--”

“I set the traps last night, yes,” Twilight interrupted. “But we’re just going to brush this off? We’re going to ignore that the saboteur killed another pony, broke into security, did Celestia-knows-what, and is once again roaming freely around the ship? We’re just going to proceed like nothing happened?”

“Do you have a better idea?” Ace asked, glaring. “Once you and Vibrant have finished your pre-mission check, we’ll start the lockdown. Everypony will be restricted to the bridge, where there are no places to hide, and the ship will be sealed while you and Vibrant recover the replacement jump drive.”

“And after that?” Twilight countered. “Assuming the jump drive is installed, and we make the first jump in our journey home, what then? Do we just keep the ship on lockdown for the next fifteen days? You and I both know that’s impossible, and we don’t want to force the saboteur’s hoof, thus risking the lives of others on this crew. We need a real solution, something safe and bulletproof.”

“I’ll ask again,” Ace said, “do you have another idea?” Twilight paused, allowing herself a moment of thought. Finally she sighed, defeated.

“No,” she admitted, “I don’t. But we need to do something. We can’t… We can’t just let the saboteur get away with all of this...”

“I agree,” Skychaser said. “But let me and the Captain handle that. You need to focus on the jump drive; it’ll be just you and Vibrant on this, so be careful.”

“Right...” Twilight conceded, sighing. “I’ll… head on down, then. Vibrant’s shift should be starting by now, we can start our prep. If anything changes… if you find anything, let me know.” Ace nodded in agreement, and Twilight exited the security office, climbing down the ladder to engineering. She stepped into the empty engineering control room, and as soon as the door slid shut behind her, she collapsed to the floor, finally allowing her tears to flow.

Another pony died under your ‘protection’, she thought, trying to muffle the sounds of her sobs. Another pony that you have failed. You cannot do this. You cannot lead, and you cannot save this crew.


Twilight abruptly straightened her back, and turned to see the now-open doorway, where Vibrant Flame stood. She wiped her eyes, hoping the engineer did not notice her sorry state, and turned to fully face him, offering an obviously-forced smile.

“Good morning, Vibrant,” she greeted, motioning for him to enter as she temporarily disabled the stun trap on the door. “Are you ready to begin prep?”

“Yes,” Vibrant replied, nodding. He entered the room, giving Twilight a concerned stare. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, I am,” Twilight lied, knowing the redness of her eyes was impossible to excuse. She turned away, trying to focus on something else.

“You don’t look alright,” Vibrant said. “Did something happen? If you’re allowed to tell me, I mean...” Twilight paused, contemplating the question. Was it wise to tell Vibrant about Sharp, with their duty quickly approaching?

“... I’ll explain while we work,” Twilight replied, deciding that Vibrant had a right to know. “Now, you’re the engineering expert here. I’ll let you lead.” Vibrant nodded, and returned to the control room door.

“Alright. First, we need to go to the lower cargo airlock and make sure it’s completely empty. The jump drive is large; it should fit in the airlock, but we’ll need to partially disassemble it to fit it through the corridors. I… guess we can start there.” Motioning for Vibrant to lead the way, Twilight followed the engineer out of the door, setting the stun trap once again.

The Princess frowned; they were approaching a pivotal moment in the mission for their survival. If the crew could get through this, morale would hopefully be improved enough to carry them back to Equus. And yet, every time things started to go right, something awful always seemed to happen; the loss of comms, Sharp Sight… Twilight shuddered to imagine what else could go wrong in the next fifteen days. One thing was certain, however: no more assistance would come from Equestria. If Harmony was to return home safe and sound, it would be entirely up to the crew…

“Rescue ship ETA is seven minutes, Captain,” Star Step reported from her station at the front of the bridge. Ace nodded, his vigilant eyes scanning the sea of stars laid out before him. He also discreetly looked over the crew, watching for any suspicious behaviors. With the exception of Twilight and Vibrant Flame, the entire crew was present on the bridge, each one occupying a different station. The news of the lockdown, combined with the news of Sharp Sight’s death, was more than enough to upset the crew. But they had to stay focused; if any part of this process went wrong, the rescue would be a failure.

“Be watching the scanners, Lightning,” Ace ordered. “Have all engines ready to reposition us; once that ship jumps in, I want us as close as possible, to make Twilight and Vibrant’s job much easier.”

“Yes, sir,” Lightning Flash said, lacking any of his usual mirth. Ace frowned, knowing how his crew was feeling. Loss was never easy, especially among a group that had been together for two years. That, combined with the fact that somepony on the crew was responsible, was enough to destroy anypony’s hopes. The Captain hoped that Twilight’s mission would be successful; for if they could begin the jumps home, morale was certain to improve.

Ace pressed a button on his chair, opening a comms channel to the lower cargo airlock. “Twilight, Vibrant, are you two ready down there?” On a screen in front of him was the security feed from a camera in the airlock, showing two spacesuit-clad ponies standing by the thick metal doors that separated the pressurized room from the vacuum of space. From the camera’s angle, it was impossible to tell who was who, but as one of the suits turned around, Twilight’s face became visible.

“All set, Ace,” she replied. “How are we on time?”

“Just a couple more minutes,” Ace said. “Hang tight. When you’re out there, keep your radios on constantly. If anything goes wrong, I want to know immediately. Understood?”

“Understood.” Twilight turned back around, facing the door once again. Ace sighed, and returned his gaze to the bridge viewport, watching for any signs of activity. And finally, after a few minutes of watching, he saw it.

A few kilometers away, space seemed to distort, collapsing inward like the gravitational lensing of a black hole. This was followed by a brief flash, which revealed a small object, just barely large enough to see from such a distance. Ace leaned forward in his chair, his eyes never leaving the viewport.

“Lightning?” he asked.

“Reading, sir,” Lightning Flash said. “... ID confirmed, it’s the zebra ship. She’s holding steady nineteen kilometers away, eighteen degrees off our bow.”

“Close the gap,” Ace ordered, mentally visualizing how to proceed. Harmony’s massive solar panels would present an issue, but nothing that could not be worked around. “Bring our starboard side along the zebra ship, with a distance of two hundred meters.”

“Yes, sir,” Lightning said, his hooves working the controls. Outside the viewport, the tiny dot that was the zebra ship slowly began to grow larger.

“Cobalt,” Ace began, looking to the technical officer, “begin decompression of the lower cargo airlock. Keep the door closed for now.” Cobalt nodded, and performed the task given to him. Ace took a breath, trying to focus entirely on the task at hoof.

“Alright…” he said. “Let’s get this done.”

The airlock door slowly slid open, and Twilight stared in awe at the new ship a few hundred meters across from her. Compared to Harmony it was tiny, like a needle next to a sewing machine. But the feature that demanded awe was not the ship’s size, but the jump drive installed between several metal supports in the center of the ship. As Harmony drifted closer, it became even clearer why this ship would never have worked for a conventional rescue. It was, at the widest, six meters across, and barely a third the length of Harmony. Plates had been stripped off of many sections, revealing the spots where other components had been gutted to make way for the jump drive. The ship looked like it had barely made it on autopilot; Twilight did not want to imagine what would have happened if it was crewed.

“Twilight, Vibrant, do you read?” Ace asked, his voice crackling through the earpiece in Twilight’s helmet.

“We read,” Twilight replied, stepping up to the edge of the door. Behind her, Vibrant moved to the back of the airlock, where three tethers were secured to a set of wheels.

“We’ve come to a full stop, two hundred meters from the ship. You are cleared to begin jump drive retrieval. Good luck, you two.” Twilight felt something bumping her suit, and turned around to find Vibrant securing one of the tethers to a hook on her back. Lighting her horn, Twilight did the same for her companion, then grabbed the third tether and sent it floating out the airlock, its magnetic end pointed toward the zebra ship.

“Ready for this?” Twilight asked, watching as the magnetic tether neared the zebra ship.

“As I’ll ever be,” Vibrant answered, sounding far more anxious than usual.

After a few more minutes of floating, the magnetic tether finally impacted the zebra ship, securing itself to the metallic frame and drawing itself taut. Twilight grabbed on, and tentatively took her first step out of Harmony, pulling herself along the tether toward the zebra ship. Vibrant followed, and Twilight could hear his nervous breathing in her earpiece. Twilight tried to ignore it, focusing entirely on the zebra ship, which was growing larger by the second. The jump drive was in the center of her vision, a silver sphere secured in the center of two gyroscopic rings. Our ticket home, she thought.

Finally Twilight reached the end of the tether, and she outstretched her hooves to grab onto the zebra ship. The magnetic gloves sealed to the metallic surface of the ship, and Twilight pulled herself closer, drawing her back legs in as well. Soon she was on all-fours, looking back at Harmony and watching as Vibrant pulled himself closer to the zebra ship.

“You’re almost there, Vibrant,” Twilight reassured, offering a smile. “Just focus on me.” Vibrant gulped nervously and nodded, continuing to pull himself along the tether. Each movement he made was slow and cautious, but inch by inch he made his way to the zebra ship. Finally he pulled himself alongside Twilight, his hooves magnetizing to the metal surface as well.

“Okay…” Vibrant said, releasing a heavy breath. “Let’s… get to work. First we… we need to undo all the power connections… There should be four large cables toward the pack, then four more up front, those connect to the onboard computers. After that we… we can unscrew the mounts, and take it to Harmony.”

“You’re the expert here,” Twilight said. “Just tell me what to do.” Nodding, Vibrant began taking small steps forward, heading for the back of the jump drive. Twilight followed, though her eyes were not on the engineer. Rather, she was focused on Harmony, her worry growing once more. She looked to the bridge viewport, hoping to see inside, but the polarized window offered only a reflection of space. Twilight looked away, noticing that Vibrant had stopped moving by a set of cables. He leaned down, and retrieved a tool from his space suit’s belt.

“Okay…” he said. “Let’s get to work.”

Ace’s focus was on the bridge viewport, watching the tiny figures of Twilight and Vibrant as they floated around the jump drive, prepping it for transfer to Harmony. The rest of the crew was silent, trying to keep themselves busy while restricted to the bridge. This was the part that Ace had dreaded: the waiting. At this time, there was nothing for anypony to do but wait. And when ponies did not have things to do, they would invent tasks for themselves. Normally this was acceptable, but on a ship with a saboteur present, Ace did not want anything unexpected to happen.

“... So how long are we being kept here?” Lightning Flash asked, drawing Ace’s attention away from the viewport.

“As long as it takes for Twilight and Vibrant to get the jump drive installed,” the Captain answered, eliciting a huff of annoyance from the pilot. “I know it’s not ideal, but we need to ensure maximum safety while this is going on.”

“So what, are we going to be locked in this room until we arrive back at Equus?” Cobalt asked, irritated. Ace glared, and turned to the tech specialist.

“No, the lockdown will be lifted once the first jump is complete,” he stated. “After that, however, we will be taking some more precautionary methods. For one, nopony is allowed to travel alone for the remainder of the mission. You must have somepony with you when you are out of your bedrooms.”

“What?” Star Step asked, nonplussed. “That’s ridiculous! So, what, I’m supposed to take a shower with somepony holding my hoof?” Other members of the crew nodded, stating their agreements with Star’s point. Ace gave Skychaser a knowing look, telling the XO to handle this one.

“Alright, that’s enough!” Skychaser barked angrily. “This is for your own good, so you’d all do well to accept it and move on. We’ve only got fifteen days left on this ship; once we return to Equestria, you won’t have to deal with this anymore.” This did little to ease the rest of the crew, though it did successfully resume the silence. Frowning, Ace returned to looking out of the viewport. Twilight and Vibrant were still at work; at this rate, it would be several hours before the jump drive was aboard Harmony, let alone installed and ready to go. Sighing, the Captain turned and crossed to his chair. He took a seat, resigned to many more hours of lockdown…

… Call Started…

“Is this line secure?”

“Yes, we’re all set up.”

“Good. Cobalt is not responding, and it is likely that the rescue ship has arrived. He is low on options. What can you do for him?”

“Give us time, more comm bandwidth, and direct contact with Cobalt, and we can do anything.”

“You’ll have it all. Let’s not disappoint; the future of Equestria is depending on us.”

Call ended.

“Beginning power startup,” Vibrant Flame reported, flipping a switch in the engineering control room. Through the control room’s large window, Twilight saw a set of lights activate on the newly-installed jump drive, and the gyroscopic rings slowly began to spin. She smiled and looked to Vibrant, noticing that the engineer seemed pleased as well.

“So, how long before we can jump?” she asked.

“A few hours, minimum,” Vibrant replied. “It needs to cool down, and I want to run diagnostics to make sure it’s interfacing with our systems correctly. But, for now, I think we can assume that this was a mission success.” Twilight’s smile only grew, and thoughts of home filled her mind. For the first time since the original drive exploded, seeing home once again was a real possibility.

“Well, let’s not leave everypony waiting,” she said, eagerly crossing to the door. Vibrant followed her out and to the ladder, where they climbed all the way up to deck one. But as Twilight exited the ladder well, her smile faded as sounds of angry voices filtered through the bridge door. Now cautious once again, she opened the door and stepped inside. Immediately the angry voices grew louder, and Twilight took in the state of the room. Ace and Skychaser were near the door, while the rest of the crew was opposite them, near the viewport. With the amount of overlapping voices, Twilight could not make out anything specific, but she knew she had to make a move.

ENOUGH!” she shouted at a volume that could almost be compared to the Royal Canterlot Speaking Voice. The angry voices of the crew immediately stopped, and Twilight found all eyes were focused on her. Forcing herself to calm down, Twilight stepped into the center of the bridge and took a look around. “What’s going on here?”

“We’ve been stuck on this damned bridge for eighteen hours,” Lightning Flash snarled, glaring. “I’m hungry, I’m bored, and I sure as fuck have to use the bathroom. So let us out!” Ace turned around, surprising Twilight with how desperate he looked. This clearly had been going on for a while.

“How long until we can jump?” he asked.

“A… few hours,” Twilight replied. She looked to the rest of the crew, forcing a smile. “Do you hear that? In a few hours, we’ll be able to jump. Just hold out for a few more hours, alright? Then you’ll be free to walk around the ship again.”

“Yeah, with somepony else constantly monitoring us,” Cobalt said. “Is there any way we can speed things up, here?” Twilight turned to Vibrant, allowing him to answer the question.

“N-no,” he answered, shrinking away at the sudden attention. “The… the drive has to cool down, or w-we’ll all get hit b-by enough r-radiation to… to kill all of us.” The crew groaned in disappointment, clearly out of patience.

“Just look on the bright side, everypony,” Twilight urged. “Once we jump, it’s just fifteen days until we get home. Soon enough, this will all be over. But we need to stick together, and keep the peace, for if disharmony reigns, the saboteur will have an easy time killing us all.” Although the crew still appeared annoyed, Twilight’s words were successful in temporarily calming tensions. The crew returned to their various stations, resigned to wait for a few more hours.

Twilight took a seat next to Ace’s chair, rubbing her eyes and stifling a yawn. Lightning had said eighteen hours; Twilight had not realized so much time had passed while working, but now her fatigue was catching up with her. Her eyelids drooped, and she slowly sunk to the floor, unable to fight off the call of sleep. With her last ounces of energy, she looked to Ace, her vision blurry.

“Wake me when it’s time…” she mumbled. Her chin came to rest on her forehooves, and her eyes slowly closed. And barely a second later, the Princess was asleep.

The bridge was quiet. Most of the crew was asleep, but those who remained awake were keeping to themselves, either lost in thought or simply staring out into space. Ace forced his eyes to remain open, even though his body begged for rest. He kept a close watch on the crew, watching for anything suspicious; if the saboteur wanted to strike, they could maximize deaths when most ponies were asleep. But as the hours ticked by, nopony moved. The bridge was quiet, and calmer than it had been all day.

The silence was shattered as a single beep sounded, its origin Lightning’s navigational computer. The pilot, who had dozed off, jumped to an alert state at the sound, and carefully read over the notification that had appeared on his screen. A smile broke out, and Ace had a good idea of what had happened before Lightning even spoke.

“We’re good to go!” he reported joyfully, sitting up straight as the rest of the crew was roused from its collective slumber. Twilight rose from her position on the floor, rubbing her eyes tiredly as she looked around, confused. “Nice work Vibrant and Twilight, systems are reporting full integration with the new drive.”

“Cobalt, Vibrant, please confirm,” Ace ordered, looking to the ponies he had addressed. Cobalt looked to his station, with Vibrant looking over his shoulder, reading diagnostic reports that had appeared on the screen.

“Looks good,” Cobalt said, looking back to the Captain with a smile. “Ready to engage on your order.”

“Lightning, please confirm coordinates are loaded for first jump.” Ace looked back to the pilot, the anticipation building within him. He tried to keep his expression neutral, but even he found it difficult to mask his excitement at a time like this.

“Confirmed,” Lightning said. “Just give the word, sir.”

“The word is given,” Ace said. “Commence first jump home.” Grinning, Lightning flipped open the glass box in front of him, and brought his hoof down onto the button enclosed within. Outside of the viewport, the image of space stretched until it was just a blur. A bright flash filled the window, transporting the ship to an entirely different region of space.

The flash faded, and while the view outside was remarkably similar to the previous view, the various screens around the bridge reported that Harmony’s location was entirely different. Ace released a satisfied sigh, and stood up from his chair. The rest of the crew stood as well, awaiting further orders.

“One down, four to go,” he began. “Lightning, begin cooldown, set our timer for three days from now. Everypony else, just remember the new restrictions in place. Dismissed.” The crew eagerly filtered out of the bridge, all of them taking the ladder down to the crew deck. Ace watched them go, until finally only he, Skychaser, and Twilight remained.

“... This is going to be a long fifteen days,” Twilight said, yawning. “Are we truly ready?”

“The saboteur has proved that he or she is smart,” Ace replied. “I doubt our new “partner” rule is going to deter them from trying something. But at the very least, it should make any sabotage attempts more complicated.”

“I’ll take the security shift tonight,” Skychaser offered. “Now that Sharp is… we’re all going to need to work extra hard.” Ace and Twilight nodded, and the Princess began working her way to the door.

“I’m going to get some sleep,” she said. “I’ll see you two in the morning.” She disappeared down the ladder, and was followed shortly after by Skychaser, on his way to the security office. Now alone, Ace turned back to the viewport, taking in the new view of space that was offered. It was difficult to believe, but what he had longed for was finally happening: they were going home...

Author's Note:

Hey everyone, here is Chapter 10! We're nearing the climax of the story, and I look forward to getting the next couple of chapters out.

If you have any feedback, or if you noticed any spelling/grammar errors, please let me know. Thanks for reading!