• 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...

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Chapter 2


When Cobalt and Vibrant Flame brought Twilight’s personal items to her room, the Princess set herself on unpacking. She originally was going to go straight to checking in with the crew, but figured that a bit of alone time could do them some good. Their entire morning had been a stressful one, and giving them some time to unpack and unwind would be beneficial, Twilight had decided.

All of her personal items were contained within a single metal box, which was labelled with her name and contained more packing foam than actual items. Twilight had to admit she was impressed; not a single one of her items had shifted in transit. She carefully inspected each one as they were pulled out of the box, looking for any signs of damage. Despite some of the items being fragile, they were all in perfect condition. Good, Twilight thought, humming to herself as she arranged the items around her room.

On a table next to her bed, Twilight placed two photographs: one with her and her friends, and one with her as a filly, standing between Princess Celestia and her parents. Next to the pictures went a personal tablet, on which were stored hundreds of books of varying genres. Six months was a long time, and the twenty-four days of jumping to their destination would be primarily uneventful. While Twilight would always prefer the feel of a real book, she was grateful that digital formats existed. After the tablet was safe on the table, Twilight withdrew a charger from the box and plugged the tablet in, making sure it would be at full battery for later.

The rest of her personal items went into a set of drawers across from her bed; a second tablet in case the first one broke, a camera, some headphones, and a few other mementos of home. With all of her items unpacked and put away, Twilight finally allowed herself a moment of relaxation. She yawned, popping the joints in her wings, and sat down on the bed. It was not as comfortable, or as large, as her bed at home, but it would make do. The clock on the bedside table read one o’clock PM, and Twilight found herself surprised that it was still so early. The launch had not taken long, nor had the system startup, but to Twilight, it felt like it should be later.

With a tired sigh, Twilight jumped off of her bed. She decided the rest of the ponies had had enough time to unpack by now, and ventured out of her bedroom into the corridor beyond. Of all the cylindrical modules that made up Harmony, this one was the longest. It contained all of the bedrooms, as well as the bathroom and shower facilities that the crew would be sharing. Just down the hall was the medical bay, and on the opposite end was the mess hall. Twilight frowned as she looked down the long, stark corridor, with its sterile surfaces and monochromatic coloration. The only color in the entire corridor was on the floor, where labelled lines served as guides to other sections of the ship, and showed which direction was forward, and which was aft. It was going to be difficult to accept this as home for the next six months.

A few feet down from Twilight’s door was another, with a single label on the front, reading “Quick Fix, CMO.” Down from her door was another, and another, and yet another. Twilight sighed, knowing these check-ins were going to take some time. Still, she wanted to put in the effort to truly get to know these ponies. More than just wanting to work effectively with them, Twilight was interested in their lives, and she would never turn down a chance to forge new friendships.

Each pony was going to take at least a few minutes to speak to, and there were nine, not including herself or Ace. Twilight hoped the crew would not be leaving their rooms anytime soon, to make this as smooth as possible. Putting on a happy expression, Twilight trotted to Quick Fix’s door and knocked. She stepped back, and waited to be let in…

One hundred and thirty-two trillion, five hundred billion kilometers. A distance ten million, four hundred and thirty-three thousand times larger than the diameter of Equus. A distance eight hundred and eighty-three times larger than the solar system itself. One hundred and thirty-two trillion, five hundred billion kilometers; the longest distance that had ever been travelled, and it was over in seconds.

When the post-jump checklist was complete and the crew vacated the bridge, Ace chose to remain. He stood at the very front of the room, watching the stars from a very new angle. Space was emptier than the science fiction films would have ponies believe; there were no strange nebulas, no clouds of gas, no alien artifacts ripe for discovery. Here, there was nothing. Nothing but the vast emptiness of the universe, and the stars that had been born and died throughout the ages. It was beautiful.

Ace did not know how long he was standing on the bridge. There was no sun to tell the time, and all of the computers had been put into sleep mode by their users, so all clocks were hidden. However long it was, the Captain hoped he had given the crew enough time to settle in. The bulk of their work would not begin until arrival at the exoplanet, but that did not mean the first part of their journey would be a summer camp. There was work to be done.

The Captain struggled down the ladder, his old limbs aching in the cramped spaces. The pain of old injuries resurfaced, and with them came the memories. Ace quickly pushed them away, not wishing to recount them. Not here, not now, and ideally, not ever. His service record was long, and he had had more than enough time to collect some black ink. Like waves on a beach, the memories would recede for a time, only to come crashing back down, disturbing the peace and destroying any barriers that had been hastily built in their absence.

Stop it, Ace thought. By trying to ignore the memories, he was thinking about them, and by extension was forcing them back up. So, to prevent them as best as he could, Ace focused on creating a task for himself. By now the crew would be unpacked and settled in, and he could go over the itinerary with everypony for the hundredth time. Sighing deeply, Ace walked down the immediate corridor, headed for the security office. Its systems would have been brought online by Sharp Sight by now, and its intercom system would be active.

As he came upon the security office door, Ace heard soft voices from within. Raising an eyebrow, the stallion opened the door with a simple spell from his horn, and looked within. Standing inside were Astral Breeze and Skychaser, both frozen in an interrupted conversation. Ace regarded the two with a curious stare as he stepped inside, and approached the two ponies. They remained silent, but turned to face their commanding officer. Ace watched the two for a moment longer, before finally speaking.

“XO,” he began, “please run by my quarters and get the itinerary from my desk.” Skychaser saluted and trotted out of the room. Ace waited until his hoofsteps were no longer audible before turning his attention to Astral Breeze, and spoke again. “Two years is a long time. What’s another six months of waiting?” Breeze froze in place, her eyes widening as a blush creeped in on her light purple cheeks. She cleared her throat, looking away from the Captain.

“I…” she stammered. “I’ll… just be going, sir.” The pony urgently left the room, and Ace shook his head as the door slid shut behind her. The Captain approached a microphone set into the main security computer, and opened a ship-wide channel.

“All crew, this is the Captain. We will meet in the mess hall in ten minutes to discuss what’s next. Bring your itineraries, as well as any questions you may have. Don’t be late. Ace, out.” His message delivered, Ace turned off the intercom and started working his way to the mess hall. It was one more deck down, which meant one more ladder to climb. Why didn’t they install an elevator on this ship?

He made the journey in good time, and arrived in the mess hall after only a few minutes. The small room was occupied by only one other pony: Princess Twilight. She sat with her back to the door, idly reading over the laminated itinerary on the table before her. Very punctual, Ace thought, crossing to the Princess. He cleared his throat, getting the attention of the mare. She jumped ever so slightly, and turned her head away from the itinerary.

“Captain!” she greeted, scooting over. “Please, sit.” Ace waved a hoof, electing to remain standing instead. He circled around the table, coming to the opposite wall. Set into the wall were a number of cabinets, each one labelled with its contents. Ace read over the labels, though he already knew what they contained. As he read, his mind turned to the Princess; specifically, to a word she had used.

“‘Captain’,” he repeated, saying the word slowly.

“Hm?” Ace heard Twilight standing up from her seat, and a moment later she joined him at the cabinets. The Captain turned his attention away from the various labels, and looked the Princess in her eyes.

“We’ve still got a few minutes before the meeting,” he began. “I figure now’s as good a time as any to figure out where we stand.”

“Where we stand?” The Princess quirked an eyebrow at the Captain. “What do you mean?”

“I’m speaking hierarchically. I’m still a commissioned military officer, you outrank me. But according to all ship records, Harmony is mine, as are all decisions regarding her. I wanted to talk to you about this, and clear it up.” A look of relief crossed Twilight’s face as she understood Ace’s intent. Ace found this strange; did he intimidate her, or was she worried in some other way?

“As you said, the ship is yours,” Twilight said. “I don’t intend to take command away from you. Princess Celestia assigned me here as a representative of the crown, and as a scientific officer to conduct research upon our arrival at the exoplanet. Although, while I’m not officially in command here, I would like to be kept in the loop of everything going on.”

“I think that’s fair,” Ace replied, nodding. He made to speak again, but was stopped as the mess hall door slid open. Ponies of the crew began to filter in; first Doctor Quick Fix, followed by Vibrant Flame, then Golden Bolt. They took seats around the room, all of them looking at Ace expectantly. The Captain remained silent, waiting for the rest of the crew to arrive.

A few minutes later, Cobalt, Star Step, Skychaser, Sharp Sight, Astral Breeze, and Lightning Flash entered. When everypony had taken their seats, Ace cleared his throat and grabbed the itinerary in his telekinesis.

“Thank you all for being on time,” he said, scanning over the first few words of the itinerary. “You all should be familiar with this, but I want to go over it anyway, to clear any lingering questions you might have. First of all, the first jump was obviously a success, and we’ll be making the second once the jump drive has had time to cool down, three days from now. Assuming nothing goes wrong, we will reach the exoplanet in twenty-four days, and the mission can begin.

“The exoplanet, 55 Eridani b, is a small terrestrial world with a toxic atmosphere consisting of nitrogen, methane, ammonia, and no oxygen. There is no flora, and very likely no life at all. Scans from probes indicate there is a complex system of tunnels running throughout the majority of the crust, so we will be investigating to see if conditions within are different. We’ll take samples, set up some remote monitoring systems, do whatever else needs to be done, then leave for home once again.

“Princess Twilight, you’re the head of research on this ship. You’ll be leading the ground expedition, which will consist of yourself, Star Step, Astral Breeze, Skychaser, Vibrant Flame, Lightning Flash, and Quick Fix. Once you arrive on the surface, Vibrant Flame and Lightning Flash will prep the ascent vehicle sent ahead of us a few months ago. Everypony else will conduct research. On the ship, I will work with everypony who stays behind to make sure the ship is ready to take us home, and we’ll refuel the Phoenix capsule. Any questions?” Vibrant Flame meekly raised a hoof, shrinking at the attention it brought him.

“I… are you sure you want me to prep the ascent vehicle?” he asked quietly, his green eyes darting around. “Golden Bolt is far more qualified--”

“To keep the ship running,” Ace interrupted. “You’ll do fine on the planet. And Lightning Flash will be there to help, don’t worry about it.” Vibrant nodded reluctantly, obligated to follow Ace’s orders. The assistant engineer didn’t give himself enough credit, in Ace’s view. He was incredibly talented, and was more than qualified to set up an ascent vehicle that was already mostly set up. He needs to work on his confidence, Ace thought.

After a few moments of silence had passed, Ace nodded, and opened the door with his telekinesis. “That is all. You’re dismissed.” The crew stood up from their seats and began to filter out into the living area corridor beyond. The ponies disappeared into their respective bedrooms, likely to finish any unpacking that remained. Curiously, Star Step and Cobalt entered into the same bedroom. Ace narrowed his eyes at the display; technically neither was enlisted in the military, so officially there was nothing he could do. But this was his ship, and he would not have unnecessary distractions bothering the crew.

“So, what’s left to do today?” Twilight asked, coming up next to Ace.

“The crew will return to their positions soon, and monitor any incoming data,” the Captain replied. “I’ll begin my daily report for Princess Luna, and then it’s off to bed.”

“Mm. Anything I can help with?” Ace paused, thinking to himself, before shaking his head.

“Just keep doing what you’re doing, Princess.” He moved to leave the room, but was stopped when Twilight spoke up again.

“One more thing,” she said. “We’re going to be working together for the next six months, and I don’t want to do it with some sort of barrier between us. As long as we’re on this ship, you don’t have to worry about calling me Princess, or bowing every time I step into a room.”

Ace nodded, and stepped out into the corridor. “Understood.” His business on the deck done, Ace worked his way back to the ladder and slowly climbed up. And again, the Captain found himself wishing for an elevator.

The bridge was still quiet when Ace returned. The stations remained dormant, their screens offline. Ace took a seat in his chair, and wished for a moment that it reclined, like his office chair back in Canterlot. But that chair was gone; it was a very long one hundred and thirty-two trillion, five hundred billion kilometers away. So for the moment, this chair would have to do. Ace sighed contentedly, and watched out at the sea of stars before him. And for a moment, he allowed himself a few seconds of relaxation…


Call started.

“Is your line secure?”

“The device you sent me is set up. This should be invisible on the logs.”

“Good. What’s your status? How goes the mission?”

“There’s a minor complication…”


“The jump drive schematics we had are out of date. They failed to account for an extra housing around the outside of the drive, meant to contain more radiation and speed up the cooldown process. It’s too thick for the explosive to penetrate.”

“Can you get around it?”

“I think so. There’s a maintenance duct running beneath that should work, I just need to find a way to get it open. I… may need some outside help with that.”

“We’re here for you, ready to offer any help you might need. We will do anything to see you succeed.”

“I know. Thank you.”

“Keep us updated. Don’t fail.”

Call ended.

Twilight braced herself for the familiar jolt, then finally allowed her breath to release as the fourth jump was completed. Four jumps, and she still was not used to the sensation. The tingling of the skin beneath her coat, the temporary feeling of nausea; it all lasted under a second, yet it was enough to keep Twilight on edge during the jumps.

Four down, and four to go. It seemed difficult to believe that they were already half-way through the journey. In just under two weeks, the ship would arrive over 55 Eridani b, and Twilight would take her first steps on an alien planet. She struggled to stifle her excitement, wanting to maintain a certain degree of professionalism around the crew. Unfortunately for her, the anticipation of the mission made this a difficult task.

The mess hall door slid open, and Twilight was joined by Quick Fix. The Doctor clearly noticed Twilight’s expression, and she smirked as she crossed to a cupboard. “You look happy. What’s up?”

“Oh, just excited to arrive,” Twilight explained, hopping out of her chair. “Taking a break?”

“Just a quick one.” Quick Fix pulled a small protein bar from a box inside the cupboard, looking at the remaining ones with a forlorn expression. “I hate rations. Back home, I used to put down at least three of these per day. Now I’m restricted to one.”

“Tell me about it.” Twilight joined Quick Fix by the cupboard and grabbed a protein bar for herself, hoping it would supply her with some much-needed energy. “I’m going from two coffees a day to just one. The caffeine withdrawal is… very unpleasant.” Fix laughed quietly, shaking her head.

“You know I’ve got stuff for that, right?” she asked. “For the symptoms, I mean. Headache relief meds, some small caffeine supplements… I can’t give too many, limited supplies and all, but if you ever feel like you need something, come on by.”

“I think I’ll manage,” Twilight said. “Let’s save painkillers for somepony who actually needs them. I’d rather they not go to waste.” Quick Fix shrugged, but nodded.

“Suit yourself,” she said. “So, how’ve you been? I understand you’ve been doing a lot of socializing lately.” Twilight nodded, finishing off her protein bar.

“That’s right. I’m trying to get to know the crew better. It’s a slow process, but a beneficial one.”

Quick Fix nodded as she threw away her protein bar’s wrapper, and took a seat at one of the tables. “How is the crew? I don’t get as many opportunities as I’d like to leave the medbay and talk with them.”

“They’re doing well, I think,” Twilight replied. “Most of them seem to be adjusting well. Lightning Flash seems comfortable enough. Vibrant Flame is still a little on edge, I’m not sure why. And Cobalt and Star Step have been spending a lot of their free time together. Though, from what I understand, that’s actually been going on for a while now.”

“Oh, absolutely,” Quick Fix laughed, rolling her eyes. “The two love birds. They think they’re being very stealthy about it all, but everypony knows. I’ve seen it before, and I’ll probably see it again. The only reason nopony talks openly about it is because Captain Ace isn’t particularly fond of… ‘inter-mission relationships’, or whatever he calls them.”

“Why is that?”

“I haven’t a clue. I mean, this crew is half civilian, so there’s not much he can do about it. I think he just thinks it’s an unnecessary distraction.” Twilight nodded, somewhat understanding Ace’s reasoning. With a mission as stressful as this, everypony needed to remain as focused as possible. On the other hoof, relationships could be effective at stress relief. “How is the Captain, by the way? He rarely ever seems to leave that bridge.”

“He’s the most focused pony here, I’d say,” Twilight answered, thinking back to her conversations with the stallion over the past few days. “I respect that. He knows his mission, and he’s sticking to it. He’s very… concise, I’ve noticed.”

“Definitely,” Quick Fix agreed. “That all goes back to his old training. ‘Never say more than is absolutely necessary; anything more can be used as ammunition.’ A strange service, those black ops.” Twilight quirked an eyebrow at the mare. This was a first time she had heard of any ‘black ops.’

“What do you mean?” she asked. “His service record didn’t have anything like that in it.”

“I suppose it wouldn’t,” Fix said with a sigh. “It was a long time ago, well before Princess Luna’s return. In his youth, Captain Ace lead black ops missions for Princess Celestia. It was all kept very quiet, I’m willing to bet most of it was never even officially recorded. Can’t say I blame the Princess. Missions like those aren’t really the types of things I’d want to write about.”

“And… how do you know all this?”

“Before I was moved to the Royal Veteran’s Hospital, I worked in a few field hospitals throughout Equestria. I used to treat Ace and his stallions whenever they were wounded in combat. I kept quiet when I treated them, but I was listening when they spoke. Have you ever noticed that ponies never seem to watch what they say in front of a doctor?” Twilight looked to the spotless white-panelled floor, considering this new information. Why had this been hidden from her?

“Anyway,” Fix continued, “he ran these missions for… ten years, maybe? He got to a respectable rank, then stopped. He demanded a new position, so Princess Celestia put him in charge of the Canterlot Royal Guard. He stayed there until your brother got promoted, and was retired from combat. He ran training for a little while, until he was approached by Princess Luna to lead this mission. And there you have it, a concise biography of Captain Ace.”

“Hmm…” Twilight hummed quietly, making a mental note to ask Celestia about all of this the next time they spoke. “I guess that does explain a lot. Why he’s so… pensive.” Quick Fix stood from her seat and crossed to the door, opening it with a quick burst of blue magic.

“I should get back to the medbay,” she said. “Need to make sure nopony has died in my absence. Have a good day, Twilight.”

“You too, Fix.” The Doctor left the mess hall, and Twilight was alone once more. The Princess grunted as she stood up, stretching out her wings. It had been nearly two weeks since she last flew, and already Twilight could feel her wings weakening. She had not expected to lose strength in them so quickly, but they were delicate appendages. Rainbow Dash would not be happy with their condition when she returned.

The corridor outside of the mess hall was empty when Twilight entered. This was unsurprising to the Princess, as almost everypony would be on duty at this hour. The engineers would be sharing a shift, as would the two security ponies. Lightning Flash would be working with Cobalt to ensure the next jump coordinates were correct, while Star Step would be monitoring any in- our out-bound communications throughout the ship. Twilight had to admit she was impressed; despite the high-stress nature of this mission, everything was running like a well-oiled machine. If any problems had arisen, Twilight had not noticed them. The crew’s morale was as high as ever, and Twilight could tell that everypony truly enjoyed the work they did. She could see why Ace had recruited them.

As she walked past her room, Twilight poked her head inside to look at the clock. The ship’s time was synced to the eastern standard time of Equestria, the same time zone as the space center, which currently read three in the afternoon. Dinner was not scheduled for another few hours, giving Twilight plenty of time to contact her friends back home. She stepped into her bedroom and crossed over to her small desk, on which was set a laptop computer. It was not her personal computer, but it was installed with various pieces of software to integrate with the ship’s systems - namely communications. Twilight took a seat as her magic opened the computer, and the machine powered on. As soon as she was able, Twilight opened the communications function, and set a call for home…

When dinner time rolled around, the crew of Harmony worked their way to the mess hall from their various stations across the ship. For a few of the ponies, the climb to the mess was long, and their appetites were large by the time they arrived. For the rest of the crew, the walk was not quite as difficult, and they arrived in less time. But for Twilight Sparkle, the walk was the easiest. The mess hall was right down the corridor from her room, and as such, she was the first pony to arrive.

The Princess watched as the rest of the crew arrived, some alone and some in pairs. They took their seats after retrieving the pre-packaged dinner meal, unenthusiastically opening the air-tight packaging. The only ponies who did not seem to mind the lower quality of the meals were the military personnel, due to years of regularly consuming MREs. As for Twilight, she did not find the taste particularly horrible. The issue was the lack of any exceptional taste at all.

“Good evening, everypony,” Ace said as he stepped into the mess hall. He was always the last pony to arrive. Twilight did not know if this was due to his slower movement in general, or his borderline-obsession with ensuring every system was set to its automated mode during crew breaks.

“Evening, Captain,” Twilight greeted, making room for the stallion to sit next to her. He grabbed his own packaged meal and sat down, wasting no time in digging in. Everypony else began eating as well, happily enjoying their break from work. As the rate of eating began to slow, Twilight took the opportunity to speak up again. “How has everypony’s day been?”

“Thankfully, pretty damn boring,” Golden Bolt replied. “Nothing’s breaking, so I guess that’s nice. Ship’s built pretty well.”

“If there’s a critical meltdown of the reactor, will you at least make our deaths quick, Bolt?” Astral Breeze joked, eliciting a few quiet laughs from around the table.

“Only if you ask nicely,” Bolt laughed, grabbing her fork in her telekinesis to take another bite of dinner. “I mean, death by exposure to vacuum doesn’t sound that bad, does it? Your blood will only boil for a few seconds while your eyes explode. Shit, you might have time to say a few final prayers before going unconscious.”

“That’s not morbid or anything,” Lightning Flash said sarcastically, smirking. “So, anypony had any experiences with aliens yet? No sudden pains in the chest, right?”

“You know something we don’t, pilot?” Skychaser asked, his military training allowing him to keep a perfectly straight face. “You haven’t… done anything, have you? Met a nice lady, gave her access to Equestrian defense systems, allowing her to launch a devastating attack by robots who look like us?”

“You all watch too much sci-fi,” Star Step said, laughing quietly.

“Says the mare with Star Trot posters in her room,” Cobalt shot back, nudging Star Step’s side. The two shared a laugh, drawing them a fair bit of attention from the rest of the crew. If they noticed the attention, they did nothing to acknowledge it. Instead, they sat next to each other, still believing they were very good at keeping a secret.

The banter continued, going from pony to pony as the stress of the day was relieved. Twilight watched them with a smile, occasionally joining in if she had something to say. The Princess was impressed; here these ponies were, more detached from society than anypony in history, and they were taking it all in stride. They had each other, and they knew it. To see such strong friendship made Twilight happy; it reminded her of her own friends, and the struggles they shared.

“Alright,” Ace said as the meals were complete and the banter began to die down. “Seven o’clock, time for the last shift of the day. Let’s make it a good shift.” The room was filled with the sound of rustling paper and clinking utensils as the ponies gathered up their meal trays. The silverware was deposited in the dishwasher, which would run through the night and have everything perfectly clean by morning. The trays were put into a bin, connected to a chute that would dispose of the trash into space.

When everything had been cleaned up, the crew began to vacate the room. Golden Bolt and Vibrant Flame headed back to engineering, while Lightning Flash, Skychaser, Cobalt, and Star Step returned to the bridge. Quick Fix trotted down the hall to her medbay, and Astral Breeze and Sharp Sight started their security rounds. Finally, only Twilight and Ace remained. The Captain moved to the door, stopping just shy of leaving.

“... Good night, Princess,” he said, giving Twilight a nod.

“Good night to you as well, Captain,” Twilight replied. Ace exited, and Twilight followed him out a moment later. Her schedule was clear until tomorrow, so for now, she decided to retire back to her room. Already she had gone through a few of the books on her tablet, but many more remained. If she was going to finish them, she needed to keep a consistent reading schedule. As she entered her room, Twilight allowed the good feelings from dinner to stay with her. The crew was working well, the ship was working well, the entire mission was going well. As long as things continued to work well, Twilight was confident that this mission was going to be a very successful one…

Call started.

“Is your line--”

“Yes. My idea worked. I have access to the maintenance duct.”

“Good. When will you strike?”

“The next jump. Tonight I’ll set everything up. I can get the jammer going when everypony is asleep, and sneak into engineering unnoticed. In just two more days, it will happen.”

“Good. I know I have said it before, but you are doing your country a great service. When Princess Twilight is gone, the world will be better for it.”

“I know.”

“One more thing: keep the backup plans in mind. If you fail--”

“I won’t fail.”

“Keep an open mind. Any number of things could go wrong that are beyond your control. Just remember what I told you before: if you return, and she is still alive… there will be nowhere you can hide.”

“I know.”

“Excellent. Good luck, Mister Cobalt.”

Call ended.