• Published 23rd Oct 2016
  • 606 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 6


“So, how did this happen?”

Golden Bolt withdrew a tablet from her saddlebags and turned it on, her yellow eyes reading over the report within. When she was done, she looked back to Ace, now prepared to answer his question.

“Well, there’s a failsafe in place that discharges the capacitors if they are under threat of exploding,” she explained. “It’s designed to activate on its own, in case the rest of the crew is busy, but in this case, it was activated manually. As for how… I can only speculate. The only access point for the failsafe is on the main engineering terminal. I was using the terminal at the time, so whoever is responsible didn’t go through it. They activated the failsafe remotely, somehow.”

“Is there a chance we can repair the capacitors?” Twilight asked, standing up from her chair. “We need to be in communication with Equestria. If we’re not, the rescue mission is going to be much more difficult.”

“I just talked to Cobalt, and there’s no physical damage,” Bolt answered. “There’s no real ‘repairs’ to be made. All we need to do is recharge the capacitors. However, there is some minor damage to a few other magic-based systems throughout the ship. The discharge disrupted them, it’ll be a few hours before they’re back online.”

“Thank you, Bolt,” Ace said. “You’re dismissed.” The mare nodded, then turned and exited the security office, leaving the ship’s command crew alone. Sharp Sight sighed, turning to one of the security monitors and watching a piece of footage yet again.

“She’s definitely telling the truth about the remote access,” he said. “This security camera has perfect line of sight on the engineering terminal, and Bolt wasn’t doing anything suspicious on there.”

“Which means the saboteur can remotely access mission-critical systems,” Ace concluded, frowning. “That’s not good. The saboteur is now even more of a threat than we originally thought; we need to find them. Skychaser, where’s Astral right now?”

“She went to her room,” Skychaser replied. “Quick Fix says she was with her at the time of the explosion, and medbay security cameras confirm this.” Ace nodded, and sighed.

“Just like with the first explosion, I think we need to assume that this could have been on a timer,” he said. “The whole crew knows about the rescue, which will require very consistent communication between Equestria and us. And with timers, the saboteur can be anywhere when it goes off. We shouldn’t assume innocence just because somepony was accounted for.”

“Another set of ‘interviews,’ then?” Sharp Sight asked.

“Maybe,” Ace replied. “Sharp, check through the security footage of the past few days. Look for any more outages, or check for irregularities on the ship’s network. Anything that stands out, make note of it. In the meantime, the rest of us should keep an eye out. Dismissed.” Sharp Sight turned back to the security terminal and got to work, while Skychaser and Ace exited the security office. Twilight was close behind them, and she trotted behind the Captain to catch up with him.

“Ace, wait!” she called, causing the stallion to stop in his tracks. He turned, waiting for Twilight to speak. “If you’re right, and the saboteur knocked out our communications to disrupt the rescue, then we need to prioritize recharging those capacitors.”

“You’re right,” Ace agreed. “But that’s a difficult task. The capacitors aren’t inside the ship; if they were, and they discharged, the amount of magic in them would destroy Harmony. As a result, they’re on the outer hull, completely cut off from the rest of the ship. We can’t just recharge them at will; it requires EVA.” Twilight paused, thinking to herself. EVAs were difficult; they were tiresome for the ponies in the suits, and with the amount of magic that would be required to fully recharge the capacitors… That only left one option.

“Alright,” she said, “I’ll go.”

Ace raised an eyebrow, frowning. “Excuse me?”

“I’ll do it,” Twilight repeated. “I’m the most powerful magic user on this ship, and you know it. I’m the only one who can reasonably recharge the capacitors without killing myself, or at the very least going unconscious. If you have a better idea, I’d welcome it, but you know that this is our best shot.”

“... Yes, you are right,” Ace admitted. “About being the most powerful magic user, at least. But right now, with a saboteur still on the loose, it’s simply not safe to perform an EVA. If we take more time to investigate and apprehend the saboteur--”

“You mean like we’ve been doing for the past several days?” Twilight interrupted. “Unless you have any new ideas, you know we’re going to come up short. Once again, there’s no obvious evidence regarding who’s guilty, and if the last sabotage was any indication, nothing is going to turn up. Right now, the best way to combat the saboteur is to undo their damages. We can’t do that with the jump drive, but we can with the comm capacitors. Now I’ve made it clear that this is your ship and I will respect your command, so if you do not want me to do this, I won’t. But I just want you to fully think it through.”

Ace paused, until, with a sigh, he slowly nodded. “Yes, constant communication with Equestria is critical to mission success… And you are the most powerful magic user here… Alright. I don’t like it, but it’s our only option. But take Golden Bolt with you; she can walk you through the process and make sure everything goes right.”

“Alright,” Twilight said, grinning. “I’ll go grab her, then head to the airlock.” The Princess turned and began trotting down the corridor, headed for engineering.

“Twilight,” Ace called out, stopping her just before she entered the ladder well. “... Be careful.” Twilight nodded, then stepped into the ladder well, and worked her way down…

Ace watched Twilight go, his inner thoughts conflicting. His larger practical side knew the Princess was right; if they were to get long-range comms back online, she was their best shot. But his smaller, more emotional side could not help but feel concerned. Princess Twilight was young, and though she had faced down numerous threats in her life, she still had a certain recklessness about her. Ace feared she did not truly grasp the gravity of their situation.

In any event, Ace would not let the saboteur strike during an EVA mission. If ponies were in danger in the ship, then they would be at even greater risk outside, with nothing but a few millimeters of fabric between them and the void. If the saboteur wanted to see ponies die, an EVA was the best time for it to happen. But Ace would take precautions; he wouldn’t let anything happen to Twilight or Bolt.

The Captain worked his way to the ladder and started climbing up, thinking about how he would keep the Princess and his chief engineer safe. He could not simply confine the entire crew to quarters; there were other repairs to make, repairs that were needed to bring comms fully online once Twilight refilled the capacitors. And as long as the saboteur possessed some sort of jammer, watching the security cameras would not guarantee safety. Ace sighed; he was in a difficult spot, made even more difficult by the mystery surrounding the traitor. There was no evidence, nothing at all to work with. Even Vibrant’s confession had not turned up anything new regarding identity.

Ace entered the bridge, his eyes passing over the ponies already present. Star Step was still at her station, though the comms officer had nothing to do with the long-range communications offline. Lightning Flash sat at his station, idly monitoring the engines and ensuring they were functioning at peak efficiency. Skychaser was nearby, slowly walking past other stations and monitoring the various other systems that kept Harmony running.

“So what’s the plan, Captain?” he asked, taking a seat. Ace paused, then looked to his XO.

“Go have a look around,” he ordered. “Make sure everypony is accounted for. Find where they are, what they are doing, and find out how long they are going to be doing it.”

Skychaser raised an eyebrow. “Something happening?”

“Twilight and Bolt are doing an EVA,” Ace replied. “I don’t want anything going wrong.” Skychaser nodded in understanding, then turned and trotted out of the bridge to carry out his orders. Ace turned his attention to the viewport, looking out at the expanse of space, as well as the forward sections of Harmony. The comm array was not visible from this angle, but there were exterior cameras he could use.

By now, Twilight and Bolt would be suiting up. In a few minutes they would be out the airlock, and a few minutes after that they would be arriving at the comms array. Ace closed his eyes, trying to push down his worries. He did not usually let his concerns affect him in such a way, but given the total mystery surrounding the saboteur, the Captain could not help but worry. In his mind, he tried to rationalize the situation; both Bolt and Twilight had performed the EVA simulations, and this was necessary to get comms back online.

“... Alright,” he said to himself, reopening his eyes. He turned his attention to Star Step, and sat down in his chair. “Star, monitor comms status. The second the capacitors are recharged, I want you getting into contact with Equestria. Lightning, bring us to full stop. Their boots are magnetized, but I don’t want to risk anything. Let’s make this as smooth as possible…”

“Okay, depressurizing airlock…” Bolt turned a dial on the airlock wall, and Twilight watched the oxygen monitor as it slowly ticked down to zero. When the airlock was fully depressurized, Twilight gave a nod to the chief engineer, who reached out with her magic and pulled a lever, releasing the outer door locks. Twilight felt a soft vibration run through the small chamber as the locks released, and the door slowly slid open, revealing the blackness of space outside.

“So where exactly is the comms array?” Twilight asked, motioning for Bolt to take the lead. The engineer took a few slow steps forward, stopping at the outer door threshold.

“It’s a few modules down, by one of the storage pods currently docked with Harmony,” she replied. “Careful, we lose gravity the second we step out. Take it slow, magnetize when you can.” Twilight nodded and, taking a deep breath, followed Golden Bolt’s lead. With a practiced grace, Bolt slowly pushed herself out of the airlock, using her forehooves to magnetize herself to the outer hull the second she was outside. Twilight clunkily attempted to mirror Bolt’s actions, though she had only run through the EVA simulator a few times. Her results had been good, but they were nothing compared to years of training. Still, she managed to safely make it onto the outer hull, where Bolt continued to lead the way.

Walking in the spacesuit was difficult, but it was nothing for which Twilight had not prepared. After a few minutes of maneuvering across Harmony’s shining white hull, the act felt far more natural, despite the bulky nature of the suit. As the pair walked, Twilight looked about, admiring both the construction of Harmony and the sea of stars surrounding her. From the window in her quarters, the only part of Harmony she could see was one of the two sets of massive solar panels. But here, standing on its outer hull, Twilight could truly appreciate the work that had gone into constructing the ship. How could somepony want to destroy this?

“Here we are,” Bolt announced, stopping near a set of antennae protruding from the ship. Looking around, Twilight found them to be between one of the solar panels, and a small storage pod connected to the ship via one of the cargo airlocks. Directly next to the antennae were a set of cylindrical containers, which Bolt quickly removed with her magic, revealing a set of dull crystals beneath.

“I’ll try to make this quick,” Twilight said as she moved closer to the crystals. “Go ahead and update Ace, let him know that we’ve made it.” Her horn lit with a lavender glow, and she channeled her magic into a steady beam, which she aimed at each of the crystals. Screwing her eyes shut in concentration, Twilight released the beam, and began to refill the capacitors…

Spaceships were dangerous. The engineers could implement hundreds of redundancies and safety features, but spaceships were, by their very nature, dangerous. And if one was smart, and knew where to look, the dangers of a ship could be exploited. For Cobalt, this was not a difficult task. He had been trained well, and he knew Harmony inside and out. So when word had come that Princess Twilight was performing an EVA near the comm array, he knew just where to strike.

Cobalt uploaded his program to his hidden computer, set it on a timer to execute in ten minutes, then hid the laptop and quickly made his way out of the depths of deck 8 to the ladder. Nopony had spotted him going in, hopefully nopony would spot him coming out…He grabbed onto the lower rungs of the ladder and hoisted himself up, working his way to a less-conspicuous location. No doubt Ace and the rest would be extra paranoid with the Princess outside of the ship, and Cobalt did not want to attract any negative attention.

“Cobalt,” a voice said. Shit, Cobalt thought, looking to the source of the voice. Skychaser was standing in the deck 6 ladder doorway, looking at Cobalt as he worked his way up. “What are you doing there?”

Cobalt exited the ladder, coming to stand next to Skychaser, and thought up a quick alibi. “Golden Bolt had a job for me. She wanted to do it herself, but with the EVA, she asked me to do it. One of the magic-powered systems down on deck 8 was acting up, I just repaired it.” It was not entirely a lie; magic systems had been acting up all around the ship ever since the capacitor discharge, and for someone who did not understand the intricacies of the systems, it was a believable lie.

“Alright,” Skychaser said, still appearing cautious. “Which system? Something we need to worry about?”

“One of the atmospheric regulators down there,” Cobalt replied. “If it fails, it won’t affect any of the other decks, it would just make maintenance down on deck 8 much more difficult. But that won’t be a problem now, unless it starts acting up again.” Skychaser paused, squinting his eyes, as though he could see right through Cobalt’s lie. Cobalt maintained an emotionless expression, channeling his years of training as best as he could. Finally the XO nodded, and motioned for Cobalt to reenter the ladder well.

“As you were.” Without another word, Cobalt continued on his way, climbing up the ladder to deck 1. He made a mental note to move his laptop at some point, in case Skychaser decided to have a look around. But in the meantime, he needed to be in a conspicuous location where he would not be suspect. For if his plan worked, the fallout would be far more intense than the jump drive explosion…

“How’s it coming?” Golden Bolt asked, her voice coming through the earpiece in Twilight’s helmed. Twilight’s eyes were still screwed shut, her mind entirely focused on recharging the capacitors.

“... Nearly done,” Twilight replied after a pause. “Just a few… more… minutes…” She was beginning to feel lightheaded; she had used a significant amount of energy so far, and her reserves were low. If she had to keep it up for longer than a few more minutes, she would pass out from magical exhaustion.

“Nice view out here,” Bolt observed, trying to fill the silence. “Shame we’re not gonna make it to the exoplanet. I would’ve liked to see that view.” Twilight nodded, though she did not speak. She did not want to waste her energy on anything other than the capacitors.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, she felt the capacitors begin to reject her magic. Twilight cut off the flow and finally opened her eyes, looking down on the now-glowing crystals below her. She yawned, and looked to Bolt, who was standing across from her, near the storage pod.

“It’s done,” she reported. Bolt nodded, and replaced the covers with her own magic.

“Alright,” Bolt said, “let’s get back--”

She never finished her sentence. The storage pod behind her flew off of its airlock, tearing itself in half in the process. There was a flash of orange light as the oxygen in the pod ignited, and Twilight raised a hoof over her eyes. Using was little magic she had left, she summoned a shield, which she immediately felt weaken as it registered hundreds of small impacts.

Barely a second later, it was over. Twilight released the shield and slowly moved her hoof away, observing the aftermath. The storage pod was floating a few hundred meters away, growing smaller by the second. A small cloud of debris followed it, deflected by Twilight’s shield. The cargo airlock appeared intact, though the pristine white hull had been stained black by the explosion. Twilight blinked a few times, her head moving slowly as she looked around for Bolt.

“Princess!?” a voice crackled in her earpiece, and Twilight recognized it as belonging to Ace. “Are you alright out there!?” Twilight did not respond; instead, she paced back and forth around the comms array, looking for Golden Bolt. Just a moment ago she had been standing a few feet in front of Twilight. Where are you?

Finally, Twilight decided to look up. Floating a few meters above her, locked in a slow spin, was Golden Bolt. Her suit was dotted with small holes, and as her body rotated to face the ship once again, Twilight found herself frozen in shock. Going straight through her helmet and head was a larger hole, the cut perfectly clean. Through the hole, Twilight could see stars on the other side.

“Twilight, please respond!” Again, Twilight remained silent. She stared at the body rotating slowly above her, her mouth open wide. As much as she wanted to, she could not look away. Her eyes remained locked on Bolt, watching as she slowly drifted further away.

“Dammit Twilight, respond!” Twilight’s hoof slowly moved to the radio on her chest, and she flicked it on.

“I… I’m alright,” she reported.

“What happened out there?” Ace asked. “Can you get back inside the ship?”

“I’m… on my way back.” Activating her horn once more, Twilight grabbed Bolt’s body and pulled it back down to the hull. She attached the engineer to her own suit with a tether, then started working her way back to the airlock. As she walked, she spared occasional glances behind her, watching as Bolt’s body lazily floated along. When she reached the airlock, Twilight pushed Bolt inside first, then followed, falling to the deck as gravity reactivated. She closed the outer door, began pressurizing the room, and fell to her haunches as oxygen slowly filtered through the vents.

When the airlock was repressurized, the inner door opened and Ace rushed inside, followed closely by Sharp Sight and Quick Fix. They slowed to a halt as they noticed Golden Bolt, her body still attached to Twilight’s suit by the tether. Quick Fix was the first to start moving again, her medical training kicking in as she approached the fallen mare. Sharp Sight went to Twilight and undid the clasp on her helmet, carefully removing it from her head.

“Twilight…” Ace said quietly, slowly approaching the Princess. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Twilight could do nothing but nod. She looked away as Quick Fix lifted Golden Bolt’s body and carried it out of the airlock, not wanting to see it anymore. She stood up, and Sharp Sight moved to the rest of the suit, helping the Princess out of it.

“We’re going to find out what happened,” he said, placing the suit on its storage rack once it was unoccupied. “I promise you that.” The security chief exited the airlock, leaving Twilight alone with Ace.

“... Come on,” Ace said. “Let’s get you out of here.” Twilight nodded, and followed Ace as he walked out of the airlock. She did not care where she was being lead; she did not pay attention as they walked through the ship’s corridors, and she did not listen as Ace spoke to her. All she could do was replay the image of Bolt, spinning slowly away from Harmony

Ace sighed as he entered the security office, trying to maintain his normal stoic expression. Losing a pony under his command was never easy, especially when he knew it could have been avoidable. We could have just waited. The saboteur could have been caught, and we could have refilled the capacitors with no worries whatsoever. But Ace knew that waiting would have only complicated the situation. Without communication with Equestria, the ship truly was alone.

“How’s the Princess?” Sharp Sight asked, looking to the Captain as he entered.

“Not good,” Ace replied. “She’s shaken up. I’m assuming this is the first death she’s ever seen. She’ll recover, but for now, she needs rest.”

“She still succeeded,” Skychaser added. “Star Step is calibrating the comms array, and she says we’ll be back in communication with Equestria in a few hours.” The XO carefully approached Ace, and placed a hoof on his shoulder. “Bolt’s death wasn’t for nothing. And there’s nothing you could have done.”

“... What do we know about what happened?” Ace asked. Perhaps the saboteur had slipped up somewhere, and would leave a trace of their identity…

“The locks connecting storage pod three to Harmony were disconnected,” Sharp Sight answered. “The door was then opened, causing an explosive decompression that turned everything inside into projectiles. With how fast that debris was travelling… it’s nothing short of a miracle that Twilight got a shield up in time.” Ace nodded, looking to his XO.

“Skychaser, I assume you carried out my orders?”

“I… didn’t have enough time to finish, sir,” Skychaser said. “I got through most of the crew, but I still had a few ponies left when it happened. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Ace crossed to the security terminal, his eyes scanning over the various camera feeds. “... Was Astral accounted for at the time?”

“No, she’s one of the ponies I didn’t find in time.”

“Right.” The Captain turned back to Skychaser, knowing his XO would not like the following orders. “I want you to go get her.”

What?” Skychaser asked, surprised. “You can’t be serious!”

“I am serious,” Ace said. “The results of the ‘trial’ be damned, we still have more reason to suspect her than anypony else. You said you didn’t know where she was at the time, that makes her a suspect.”

“But earlier today, you said it yourself! These things can be on timers, we shouldn’t assume guilt just because a pony was unaccounted for!”

“It’s more than that, sir,” Sharp Sight said. “Beyond the fact that her location was unknown, her background with explosives and her newfound paranoia are pretty damning. I mean, when’s the last time she even had a meal with the crew?”

“Why would she eat with a crew that hates her?” Skychaser said accusingly. “You saw what we did to her, you know what this kind of discrimination can do to a pony’s mind! It’s ridiculous that you’re even considering--”

“XO!” Ace barked, instantly sending Skychaser into silence. “Our chief engineer is dead, Skychaser, and somepony on this crew is responsible. I am trying to solve this problem, to make sure everypony else gets home safe and sound. Are you going to help, or aren’t you?” Skychaser paused, glaring at the Captain in a tense silence.

“... Fine,” he said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He turned and exited the room, his angry hoofsteps echoing down the corridor all the way to the ladder. Ace sighed, navigating to a chair and sitting down.

“How did all this happen?” he asked, speaking more to himself than to Sharp Sight. “I thought I was careful with the background checks, but…” He shook his head, not knowing what else to say.

“We both know how skilled this saboteur is,” Sharp Sight said. “A background check wouldn’t have turned anything up. I know how meticulous you were, but this is not your fault. Nopony could have seen this coming. Not you, not me, not even the Princesses. We need to stop dwelling on the fact that it happened, and start with some problem solving.”

“Right,” Ace said with a nod. “... Did you know I was going to retire? I’ve spent more than half my life in the military, finally I decided enough was enough. The day before I was going to send in my letter, Princess Luna came to me with this... I don’t know what made me decide to accept… A new challenge, I suppose. One last great mission before retirement. Something… something good to do, something that helps ponies that I can be proud of. Something to finally cover up the black ink.” Sharp Sight did not say anything. He looked away, not knowing what would be appropriate to say.

“Now look at me,” Ace continued after a short pause. “This is just like old times. Conspiracy, murder, working in the shadows… When you spend enough of your life doing that, it never leaves you alone, I guess.”

“Captain…” Sharp Sight finally said, drawing Ace’s gaze to him. “You don’t have to go into all that. That part of your life, it’s gone. You’re a damn fine Captain, the best I’ve ever served under. Sure things haven’t gone well, but you’ve kept this ship intact through unprecedented situations. I have faith in you, sir.”

Ace allowed a quiet laugh to escape, and a small smile formed on his otherwise emotionless face. “We’re not home yet, Sharp. You can praise me when Phoenix touches down back in Equestria.”

Before any more words could be said, the door reopened. Skychaser stood in the threshold, his expression a mix of shock and sadness. His eyes landed on Sharp Sight first, then flicked over to Ace, where they became filled with anger. He unfolded his wing and, using his teeth, grabbed a letter from the feathers, spitting it in front of Ace’s hooves. Confused, Ace lit his horn and reached for the letter, bringing it up to his eyes.

I didn’t do it.

“Where’s Astral, sir?” Sharp Sight asked, still ignorant of the letter’s contents.

“Why don’t you two come see for yourself?” Skychaser hissed, his eyes locked in a glare. “Come see what your little trial has brought about.” Without waiting for a response, the XO abruptly turned and walked back down the corridor, Ace and Sharp Sight in tow. He lead them down the ladder to the next deck, where Astral Breeze’s bedroom door was already open. Before the party arrived, Ace already knew what he would see. A lump formed in his throat the closer they came to the door, and finally his fears were confirmed.

The sheets of her bed had been removed, and they now hung from a makeshift hook embedded in the ceiling. Astral was a few feet off the floor, her light blue tail barely brushing the metal deck. Her eyes were closed, and a kicked-over chair rested nearby. Ace looked on, not allowing his emotions to surface. There would be a time for that, but it was not yet. Not here.

“We did this...” Skychaser said, his voice filled with grief. “This is our fault! We killed her! We let the paranoia and the fear get to us, and when we found a target, we wrapped our hooves around her neck and did not let go!” When Ace did not respond, Skychaser circled around the Captain and came face-to-face with him, doing nothing to hide his rage. “DO YOU HEAR ME!? DO YOU FUCKING HEAR ME!? WE DID THIS!” Sharp Sight angrily approached the grieving XO and pulled him away from the Captain, though his own grief was showing through. Skychaser fell to the floor, tears beginning to surface in the corners of his eyes.

“She trusted us…” he whispered. “She loved us… We were her family, and we betrayed her…” Still Ace did not reply, but he knew his XO was correct. Astral Breeze was on him, as was Golden Bolt. He had made the wrong calls, and they suffered the consequences.

“Captain,” a new voice said. Ace turned to the doorway just as Quick Fix entered. “I’ve removed Bolt’s--”

The doctor froze as she saw the sight before her. Her jaw dropped, and she slowly entered the room, her eyes never leaving Astral Breeze. She joined the three stallions in a sorrowful silence, broken only as Ace turned to Fix.

“You were saying, Doctor?”

“I…” Fix paused, struggling to tear her eyes away from Astral. When she finally succeeded, her eyes brimmed with tears. “I was able to remove Golden Bolt’s suit… What do you want done with the body?”

“... There’s a specimen storage area on deck five,” Ace replied. “It has a freezer. Keep her there, and… we’ll put Astral there, too.”

“Yes, sir.” Quick Fix ducked out of the room, trotting back to the medbay to carry out her task.

“We’ll have memorials for both of them,” Ace decided. “Sharp, could you…” He trailed off, motioning to Astral. Sharp nodded and spread his wings, flying up to the ceiling to untie the bed sheets. Ace approached Skychaser and placed a hoof on his back, urging the XO to stand.

“I could have stopped her…” Skychaser whispered, not making eye contact. “I could have…”

“Come on,” Ace said, crossing to the door. “Let’s go.” With a weak nod, Skychaser stood and joined Ace at the door, following him as he walked down the corridor. The rest of the living area seemed to be barren, for which the Captain was grateful. He would prefer to make an announcement about the two deaths, rather than have the crew find out on their own.

Ace worked his way back up the ladder, and entered the security room as soon as he had reached the next deck. He sighed, taking a seat, and looked at the floor, his eyes tracing the pattern created by the metal tiles. Skychaser was right; Ace had made many mistakes in his long career, but these were perhaps the worst.

He tilted his head up, and his eyes found the microphone set into the security console. Dreading what he had to do, Ace stood and crossed to the microphone, enabling a ship-wide channel. The intercom crackled to life, and Ace leaned in, thinking through what he was going to say. These announcements were never easy, and in their present situation, he feared the aftermath would be even worse than usual. Alright, he thought. Let’s tell them what I’ve done…

Twilight stared ahead, never blinking as she considered their new normal. She had been preparing to leave her room when Ace’s announcement came over the intercom. After spending close to an hour by herself, when she had finally started to feel better, the pain came crashing down once more. First Bolt, now Astral. Some Princess you are. Tears formed in her eyes, and she finally blinked to clear them away, not wanting to make a sound in the still security office.

Ace, Sharp Sight, and Skychaser sat nearby, all of them in silence as well. Twilight looked over each pony, knowing they felt the same way she did. She wished there was a way to make it stop, a way to let go of the guilt and the fear. But there was not; mistakes had been made, and now they faced the consequences. The saboteur had finally succeeded in taking lives, and Twilight knew this was not the end.

A knock sounded on the door. All eyes immediately turned to the source of the noise, and Ace lit his horn, opening the door for the visitor. Star Step stood in the corridor outside, trying to mask her own emotions. Her face was a blank slate, yet her red eyes were enough to tell Twilight how she felt. She took a few steps inside, and waited to be addressed.

“Yes, Star?” Ace asked.

“Communications have been restored,” she answered. “Princess Luna is on the line, waiting to be patched in.” Ace looked to Skychaser, who was nearest to the security terminal, and nodded at him. The XO pressed a series of buttons, replacing the security camera feed with an image of Princess Luna, the ESA control center behind her.

“Hello, everypony,” Luna said, offering a relieved smile. Twilight frowned, realizing the Princess was still ignorant of what had happened. “Words cannot describe how happy I am to see you all. Is everything alright?”

“... No, not exactly, Princess,” Ace replied. “I’ll explain that in my report later. It’s… complicated.”

“Many things are, I’m afraid,” Luna sighed. “I have an important update regarding the rescue.” At this, Twilight allowed herself to perk up. Some good news today would be more than welcome. “Our original plan is… well, it’s not going to work. The zebra ship is far too small to accommodate the Harmony crew, the zebra crew, and the necessary supplies to sustain you all. However, we have come up with an alternate plan. The zebra ship will still be used, but in a different way. It will be sent to you on autopilot, entirely unmanned, carrying supplies to replenish your stores. You will uninstall its jump drive, install it aboard Harmony, and use that to return home.”

“Understood,” Ace said. “When can we expect to receive the zebra ship?”

“With no crew members, we don’t have to worry about radiation, so the jump drive cooldown window is greatly reduced. Instead of taking fifteen days to reach you, it should only take seven. Assuming all of our safety inspections do not reveal any issues, we expect to launch in three days.”

“That’s… excellent news, Princess,” Ace said, relief entering his voice for the first time that day. He allowed a small smile to form, and Twilight felt some of the anxiety fade away. “Just send us all relevant information. We’ll be ready.”

“I anticipate your report on what happened,” Luna said. “Equestria, out.” The comm channel closed, and the image of Luna flickered away. The ponies in the security office remained silent for a moment, all of them thinking through the new situation.

“... So we have to hold out for ten days,” Sharp Sight concluded, his hopeful smile turning down into a troubled frown. “When the saboteur hears about this, they’ll act.”

“That’s why they’re not going to hear about it,” Ace stated. His eyes passed over everypony in the room, silently judging each of them. “As far as the rest of this crew is concerned, the rescue plans haven’t changed. We won’t reveal this until it’s necessary. Understood?”

“So we’re going to lie to them?” Twilight asked, frowning. “That’s not right. And with everything else that’s going on, doesn’t the crew deserve some glimmer of hope?” Ace shook his head and stood, beginning to pace around the room.

“Of course they do. But when the information that would bring hope could also bring ruin, we need to be careful. I want to tell them, but it’s too much of a risk. We’ve lost two ponies, and I will not lose any more. Now, you don’t have to follow my orders. You could activate the intercom right now and tell everypony that in ten days, we’ll have a functioning jump drive again. Would it help to lift spirits after the events of today? Absolutely. But it could also accelerate the saboteur’s timetable. We’re dealing with somepony who is very good at covering their tracks, and we have no suspects. So while right now I would like nothing more than to make the crew feel better, this is not the safest way to do that.”

Twilight froze, almost not believing what she was hearing. But the more she ran Ace’s reasoning through her mind, the more she knew he was right. This was an unpleasant situation, and it called for unpleasant tactics. So, with a sigh, she nodded and looked to the floor. “Alright.”

“Star Step,” Ace continued, looking to the comms specialist, who was still standing in the doorway. “I want you to promise me you won’t tell anypony about what you heard in here.”

“I promise, sir,” Star replied, nodding. “I’ll get back to work.” She departed, and Skychaser closed the door, his frown growing.

“Ten days,” he repeated. “That’s not a lot of time to work. We need a plan.”

“We’ll come up with one,” Ace assured him. “But not right now. Right now, I think we should let the crew say their last goodbyes to Bolt and Astral. Sharp, go tell Quick Fix to get the bodies ready. I’ll… make another announcement.” Sharp saluted, exiting the room. Twilight and Skychaser remained silent as Ace returned to the microphone, and Twilight found herself hardly listening as he made his announcement. This day had taken several turns, most of them for the worst. And she knew that, even if Harmony safely returned to Equus, the events would never leave her mind…

Following the brief memorial ceremony, the crew gathered in the mess hall for dinner, none of them speaking as they retrieved their trays. The silence persisted for a few awkward minutes; nopony made eye contact, or even looked up from their meals. The only sound was that of eating, and even that came with a certain self-consciousness, as though nopony wanted to be heard in the emptier-than-usual mess hall.

Finally, Ace had enough. He looked up, his eyes passing over his crew, and frowned. “I know we’re going through a difficult time right now,” he said. “But we need to rely on one another; we can’t let walls form between us, that will only lead to ruin.”

“Well what do you suggest we do, sir?” Lightning Flash asked, glaring. “Just go on, and act like nothing happened? Just forget about Astral and Bolt? Is that what you want?”

“Don’t put words into my mouth, pilot,” Ace shot back. “There’s a lot of tension right now, we all need to do our part to keep this family together.”

“What does ‘family’ even mean to you?” Cobalt said accusingly. “During her trial, Astral said she considered everypony here her ‘family.’ You didn’t seem to care about that then, why would you now?”

“If you’ve got something to say, say it,” Sharp Sight stated, emotionless.

“It’s just…” Cobalt paused, looking away. “The situation could’ve been handled better. It could have been handled civilly, but instead you found a culprit, and you passed an unfair sentence. And now we have to live with that.”

Silence fell over the mess hall once again as the crew mulled over Cobalt’s words. They were harsh, but they were true. Twilight found her anxiety growing once again, though this time, it was not brought about by what the saboteur may do. Instead, this time, she feared what was happening to the crew. After the events of the day, with the way things were turning, the saboteur would not have to lift a hoof to destroy the crew. With the tension that Twilight now sensed, the crew would destroy itself just as well...

Princess Celestia’s room was dark by the time Luna’s moon rose, lit only by two sources: a dim scented candle on her bedside table, and the screen of her laptop. The screen displayed a single loading icon, with a piece of text informing the Princess that a connection was being established. The longer the icon spun, the more despondent Celestia began to feel. Perhaps she does not want to talk to me, she thought. Perhaps she has begun to suspect me. Perhaps she blames me for what has happened, and she hates me.

Shouldn’t she? It is my fault. I put her in this situation. I put them all into this situation. She blames herself, but I am the cause of all of this.

Should I tell her? Can I even bring myself to tell her? She would never forgive me, and I would not blame her. She admires me, but if she were to remove the black ink covering half of the historical documents in the royal library, would that still be the case? Would she see me in the same light if she found out what true leadership does to a pony?

Celestia’s thoughts were cut off as the loading icon disappeared, and the screen flashed as a connection was established. On her laptop appeared an image of Twilight’s quarters aboard Harmony, with the young Princess sitting directly in front of her own camera, dozens of light-years away. Twilight smiled, but it was a weary smile, and Celestia could see the heavy bags beneath her eyes, and the redness left behind by tears. Celestia offered a smile of her own, knowing how her pupil felt.

“Hello, Twilight,” Celestia greeted, breaking the silence. “How are you holding up?”

“I’m… hanging in there, Celestia,” Twilight replied, glancing away. “There’s still a lot of work to do, and with the new rescue plans, we’re running out of time to catch this saboteur.” Celestia frowned, recognizing Twilight’s tactic; she was trying to lose herself in her work, as she always did when she was troubled.

“Twilight…” she began, “I want you to know that I’m here for you. I know how it feels; the helplessness, the guilt… It will eat away at you if you do not address it.”

“I made a bad call, and these are the consequences,” Twilight said. “It hurts right now, but I’ll learn from this. I won’t make these mistakes again.”

“How is the rest of the crew?” Celestia asked. “From Ace’s report, it does not sound as though they’re taking it well.” Twilight sighed, nodding.

“I’m worried about them,” she admitted. “They’re drifting apart, and right now that is the worst thing that could happen. And now… now we’ve lied about the rescue. That’s only going to make the situation worse. The crew needs to trust us, but we’re not doing a lot to inspire confidence. This whole situation… it’s a mess.”

“Twilight, you are a good leader,” Celestia stated. “You can adapt under difficult circumstances, you can see situations differently from everypony else. Ace has a sharp mind, but it is a rigid one, one shaped by decades in the military. You can inspire confidence, Twilight. You must.”

“I… I’ll do my best, Celestia,” Twilight said, a genuine smile showing through the sadness. “But… I do have one more question.” Celestia nodded, urging Twilight to go on. “With Bolt and Astral… they’re the first deaths like this I’ve experienced. Does it… does it ever get any easier?”

Celestia paused, not knowing how to answer. What do I tell her? That I don’t even know anymore? That after thousands of years of living, death has become just another part of life for me? She shook her head, deciding that those answers were not what the young alicorn needed to hear.

“I know it’s difficult,” she finally answered. “But like you said, you will become stronger from this. Keep that in mind, and you’ll get through this alright.”

“I understand,” Twilight said with a nod. “Thank you, Celestia. I… think I’m going to try to sleep now. It’s been a very long day.”

“Alright,” Celestia said. “Goodnight, Twilight. And remember, I’m here.” Twilight smiled, and the screen went dark as the connection was cut off. Celestia stared at her screen for a few moments more, the effects of what she had done truly beginning to hit her. The death of two extremely talented ponies were difficult enough, but seeing how it had affected Twilight was too much. She is young. She is still innocent. She did not deserve any of this.

Closing her laptop, Celestia stood and crossed the room to her balcony, welcoming the cool night air. The serenity of the Equestrian landscape had always calmed Celestia’s mind, but it was having no such effect tonight. Tonight, the guilt was too strong. It would get better, but only if Celestia put the work in. The deaths of Astral Breeze and Golden Bolt were her fault, and hers alone. But she would not let anypony else die; no matter what, Harmony would return home safely.

Author's Note:

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