• 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 8


Establishing connection to ESA…

Complete. Connection to ESA established.

“Good morning, Twilight,” Princess Luna greeted as her image filled Twilight’s laptop screen. She smiled warmly, and Twilight smiled in response, glad to see her friend. Hers was a welcome face, especially when Twilight’s only link to Equestria was through a fourteen-inch monitor.

“Hello, Luna. How are you?”

“I’m doing well, thank you,” Luna replied. “We’re launching in a few hours. The jump drive was installed successfully, and all diagnostics show that it is functioning as intended. In seven days, rescue should arrive.” Twilight felt her smile widen. Her mind was filled with thoughts of home, and being able to see her friends again in person, not over a video call. But with her hopeful thoughts also came a trace of anxiety; seven days was not a long time, and it was still plenty of time for something to go wrong. The past two days had been incident-free, which came as a welcome change, but it did nothing to ease Twilight’s fears. Until her hooves touched Equestrian soil again, the Princess knew she would not feel safe.

Twilight forced the thoughts away, and focused back on Luna. “That’s excellent news. I… look forward to coming home. As much as I’d love to see this mission through, I’ve pretty much accepted the fact that it’s not going to happen.”

“Maybe next time,” Luna said with a playful smirk. “So, things on the ship have been good?”

“As good as they can be, honestly,” Twilight answered. “Tension is down, and morale has gone up ever since my little ‘announcement.’ I feel bad for lying, but it’s had a good effect so far…”

“That’s good to hear. And, aside from all of the sabotage business, how has your time in space been?” At this, a genuine smile broke out across Twilight’s face. She thought of all the good things that had happened, from the first few weeks with the crew, to the simple beauty of space.

“I… I hope one day I can come back,” she said wistfully. “Under different circumstances, ideally.” Luna chuckled, and nodded.

“Well, if I ever have need of another Princess to go to space, I know who to call,” the elder Princess said. “I don’t know about ‘Tia, but I have no real desire to go to space. I’m perfectly happy sending other ponies. Ponies like those on the crew. What is the crew up to, by the way?” Twilight shrugged, and looked to her door.

“Ace considered shortening work hours, but right now, even more time with nothing to do won’t help. Right now, most of them are working. I think it’s helping, but I haven’t really been socializing with them as much over the past couple days.” Twilight squinted, and she found herself wondering exactly how everypony else was feeling. The last time she had seen them socializing, most of them were talking as if nothing had changed. This pleased Twilight; if the crew could try focusing on the rescue, the saboteur would lose ground gained in the chaos that had reigned a few days prior. Right now, focus was the only thing that could save them until the zebra ship arrived.

“I… wish I could do more, Twilight,” Luna said sorrowfully, a hint of regret in her eyes. “I’m sorry for everything you’re going through.” Twilight raised an eyebrow, confused by the Princess’s words.

“Luna, none of this is your fault,” she said. “Nopony could have expected that this would happen. It’s a tragedy, but not one that you could have prevented.” Through the screen, Twilight saw Luna pause, her breath catching in her throat. Twilight’s eyes narrowed, wondering what the elder Princess was thinking.

“Twilight…” she began, “there’s something I need to tell you. I--”

Before Luna could speak any further, she was silenced as an alarm came to life over Harmony’s intercom. Twilight’s eyes shot to the ceiling, her brow knit together in concern as red lights flashed.

“All crew to the bridge,” Ace’s voice said, coming through the intercom. “Repeat, all crew to the bridge.” Twilight returned her eyes to Luna, who nodded at the younger Princess.

“I’ll talk to you later, Twilight,” she said. The laptop screen flickered off as the comm link closed. Twilight hurried out of her room and fell into step behind a few other ponies, all of them headed up to the bridge. As she climbed the ladder, the Princess’s mind raced. What’s happening? After two days of nothing, why strike now? What is going on?

When Twilight finally arrived at the bridge, she immediately made her way to Ace’s chair. The Captain was looking forward, his eyes set on a display near the front of the bridge. He glanced at Twilight as she approached, and stood to address everypony in the crew. They stared back at him, anxiously awaiting his announcement.

“I’ll make this quick,” he said. “Some of our repairs from the initial sabotage are starting to fail. It’s not much of a surprise, given how quickly we did them, but we need to act fast. The CO2 scrubbers have started failing throughout the ship, and it won’t be long until we start having difficulty breathing. So, Vibrant Flame, I want you to gather two volunteers and start repairs. Understood?”

“I’ll help,” Twilight offered, looking to Vibrant.

“Same,” Lightning Flash added, standing from his chair at the front of the room. Ace nodded satisfactorily, and looked back over the crew.

“Work quickly, and if anything goes wrong, let me know,” he said. “Everypony else, back to work.” Twilight and Lightning trotted over to Vibrant Flame, who was waiting by the door. The engineer looked nervously over his assistants, and cleared his throat to speak.

“Okay…” he began. “There are… five life support stations throughout the ship. I’ve rated their damage from most to least significant. We’ll… we’ll start with the one on deck seven… Let’s go.” Vibrant navigated to the ladder and worked his way down, followed closely by the pilot and the Princess. The alarms stopped blaring, plunging the ship back into its familiar silence. The life support vents still hissed quietly, but Twilight knew the clock was ticking. Even on a ship the size of Harmony, oxygen was a limited resource, and soon it would be poisonous to breathe.

“Here we are,” Vibrant said, stopping by a nondescript wall panel just outside the deck seven ladder exit. The engineer pried the edge of his hoof into the seam of the panel, tugging it out with a single pull. It clattered to the floor, revealing a few small boxes, connected by several sets of tubes. One box was conveniently labelled “Carbon Dioxide Scrubbers,” next to which was a latch. Vibrant pulled the latch and opened the box, revealing even more tubes running throughout its interior.

“I… don’t see any damage,” Lightning Flash observed, confused. Vibrant nodded and removed a set of saddlebags from his back, opening them to reveal several tools.

“We’re going to need to pull the tubes,” he said. “Here, watch me.” Twilight leaned in to watch as the new chief engineer got to work, carefully observing his every move. But as she watched, she could not help but feel a strain of anxiety entering her mind. She was not yet willing to rule out additional sabotage, despite Ace’s explanation. The main question in her mind, however, was not whether or not this system failure was sabotage; what she truly wanted to know was, why? The CO2 scrubbers were an easily fixable system. If somepony had sabotaged them, they would also be planning something else. Something far more permanent.

Ace watched as Vibrant Flame, Lightning Flash, and Twilight Sparkle exited his bridge, off to repair the broken CO2 scrubbers. As soon as they were gone, he rubbed his eyes with a sigh, and turned to his XO. Skychaser was at a nearby station, attempting to look busy. But Ace had known Skychaser long enough to see past his feigned expression; the pain of Astral was starting to heal, but it still burned in the XO’s mind. Frowning, the Captain stood, and placed a hoof on Skychaser’s shoulder.

“Hey,” he said, “come on. I need your help with something.” Without a word, Skychaser followed the orders of his commanding officer and stood up, waiting for further instruction. Ace spared a glance around the bridge, ensuring everything was in order, then proceeded to the ladder well, where he climbed down to the next deck.

The security room door was closed, its lock enabled, just as Ace had left it the previous day. He entered his passcode into a panel next to the door and stepped inside, followed closely by Skychaser. The XO closed the door after he entered, and looked to Ace, an eyebrow raised.

“What are we doing down here?” he asked. Ace did not answer immediately; rather, he crossed to the security terminal and brought it out of sleep mode, accessing the feeds from security cameras all over the ship.

“Investigating,” the Captain answered. “Right now would be a prime time to strike. Everypony is at work, everypony has an alibi. If somepony was to try something, it would likely go completely unnoticed until the damage was done. That’s why we’re going to sit here and watch. If we see the feeds freeze up, we’ll get up and have a look around.” Nodding, Skychaser joined Ace at the security terminal and took a seat, his eyes scanning over the screens.

“... I don’t know how you do it,” the XO said after a brief silence. “Keep calm, I mean. We are trapped, trillions of kilometers from home, with a homicidal maniac on the ship who wants to kill all of us. It’s taking its toll on everypony, but… but not you. How do you do it?” The Captain paused, judging the question in his mind. He thought to himself, figuring out how to word his response, until finally he turned to Skychaser.

“How long have you been in the service?” he asked.

“Seventeen years.”

“How many deployments?”


“And how many operations?”

“Eight or nine.”

Ace nodded, while Skychaser only appeared more confused. “Eight or nine operations. In any of those, did you see combat?” Skychaser only nodded. “When you’re pinned down, behind walls so thin they look like you could blow them over… When all you can hear is your own heartbeat, mixed in with the steps of enemy soldiers... When, with every shot, one of the ponies under your command dies… In those moments, panic does you no good. Screaming, crying, running - all that will achieve is alerting your position to the enemy. When the enemy has every advantage over you, every last thing you do matters. That’s why I stay so calm, Skychaser. If somepony on this ship is out for my blood, I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of seeing my fear, even though I’m feeling it.”

Skychaser paused, letting Ace’s words sink in. Ace merely grinned, and looked back to the screens.

And that was when he saw it. For a fraction of a second, every security feed flickered, before returning to normal. Narrowing his eyes, Ace looked to Skychaser. The XO had clearly noticed the disturbance as well, and locked eyes with the Captain.

“... Go out into the hall really quick,” Ace ordered. Skychaser wasted no time in following the command, and he exited the security room, entering into the hallway beyond. Ace looked back to the security terminal, focusing on the feed for the security camera just outside. He frowned, noticing that nothing had changed. Though Skychaser was clearly outside, the camera feed showed nothing. It was frozen.

“Damn…” Skychaser muttered as he walked back inside, noticing the freeze as well. “Search party time, then?”

“Wait,” Ace said, holding up a hoof. “Look, there.” He pointed to one of the feeds, where a small error message had appeared.

“Unauthorized access detected in… deck three food storage,” Skychaser read, his eyes slowly widening. “If the food supply is sabotaged, we might not make it to the arrival of the rescue ship.” Ace nodded, and quickly stood up, crossing to the door.

“Let’s go,” he said. “I’m not losing a resource this vital.” The two stallions exited the security room and urgently ran to the ladder, beginning the short climb down. As he climbed, Ace’s brow knit together in thought. This was sloppy on the part of the saboteur. It almost felt too easy…

Cobalt waited for Ace and Skychaser to fully disappear down the ladder before making his move. He crept out of the empty storage compartment and quietly trotted to the security office, smiling when he saw that the lock had not been re-engaged. The door slid open at his command, and Cobalt stepped inside, his eyes scanning over the many active monitors. His smile widened as he saw the frozen video feeds, more of his own work. Quickly reaching into the saddlebags on his back, Cobalt withdrew a small, featureless black sphere. Wasting no time, he placed it on the underside the desk, and exited the room as quickly as he could.

By now, Ace and Skychaser would have realized nopony was sabotaging the food supply. They would be on their way back, and Cobalt did not want to be spotted. He hurried back to the ladder and quietly climbed down, reemerging in the corridor one section down from the living quarters. He opened the bulkhead door, entered into the living area corridor, and quickly trotted to the room where he had hidden his private laptop.

It felt strangely appropriate, the location to which he had moved. The engineering sections on deck eight were hazardous, isolated, and seldom visited by the crew, but this new room was somehow even worse. Ever since Astral’s death, nopony had set a single hoof into her room. Her bed was still missing its sheets, and the chair was still kicked over near the center of the room. Cobalt grinned, confident that he would not be found in this place.

Reaching under the bed with his telekinesis, Cobalt retrieved his laptop and opened it, quickly booting to the home screen. He accessed one of the many available programs, this one intended for surveillance, and brought up the feed from the bug he had just placed. With how well-secured Sharp Sight had kept the security office, it was the only room Cobalt had been unable to bug. But now that had changed, and he had even more information at his disposal…

For a few minutes, the feed was silent. The only sound Cobalt could hear was that of the oxygen vent as it cycled, ticking like a time bomb as the air became less and less breathable. Of course Vibrant and his assistants would fix the damage, of this Cobalt had no doubts. But the fact that they had broken down was convenient, and he intended to use the distraction as best as he could.

Finally, he heard something. The security office’s door slid open, and Cobalt heard two sets of hooves entering the room. One set took a seat in a nearby chair, while the second, Cobalt assumed, remained standing. There was a moment of silence before one of them spoke.

“... Could it have been a glitch?” the voice of Skychaser asked, presumably to Ace.

“Doubtful,” Ace responded. “The security camera freeze, followed by the alarm trigger… the saboteur did something, I’m sure of that.”

“But why?” Skychaser queried, confused. “There was nopony in food storage, and there was no sign of any tampering. It… doesn’t make sense.”

“Sure it does,” Ace said. “By triggering the alarm in food storage, the saboteur drew us away from security, where we can enable lockdowns. They did something, I just don’t know what.”

“... They’re good, I’ll give ‘em that,” Skychaser admitted. “But… what’s the motive? That’s one thing I’ve been wondering. I mean, if it’s just a show of force, there are definitely easier ways of announcing to the world, ‘look what I can do.’ And considering that everypony passed the background check… I don’t understand.”

“It’s a mystery,” Ace said. “I’ve been wondering about it, too. We’re obviously not dealing with an amateur, which concerns me, given that nopony had any flags in their backgrounds. Whoever is responsible is very good at covering their tracks.”

At the mention of his background check, Cobalt’s mind turned to something Lightning Flash had said a few days prior. “What if the Princesses know? What if all of this - the ship, the mission, this crew - all has some other purpose?” All this time, Cobalt had thought himself to be in full control, but Lightning had a point. With all of the security checks he had had to pass to get into the program, Cobalt was honestly surprised that he had made it through. Shaking his head, Cobalt pushed the thoughts away, choosing to bring them up another time.

“I guess all we can do is keep investigating,” Skychaser continued. “Any ideas on that front, by the way?” There was a short pause before Ace replied.

“Not yet. Like I said, the culprit is very good at covering their tracks. But they’ll slip up eventually. Sooner or later, we’ll find something.” Cobalt smirked, knowing the odds were not in the Captain’s favor. For weeks, Cobalt’s devices had eluded discovery. Nothing had changed, and there was no reason Ace or the rest of the crew would find anything. Though the crew may search every inch of the ship, his devices were perfectly safe...

“Okay,” Vibrant Flame began as he approached yet another featureless wall panel, “this is the last one. Once we swap out the damaged parts, I’ll restart the system, and hopefully CO2 will be filtered properly.” Twilight nodded, following the engineer to the wall. She reached out with her magic and pulled the panel out, setting it aside and revealing the life support components within.

“Y’know, seems like you could’ve handled this just fine without us,” Lightning Flash said as he placed himself next to Vibrant, ready to provide assistance. “I get maybe one assistant, but two is a bit excessive.”

“I think the Captain just wants to be as safe as possible,” Twilight suggested, activating her horn once again for use as a directional light. “You can hardly blame him for that.” Lightning huffed, but did not press the issue.

“Screwdriver, please,” Vibrant requested, holding his hoof out. Lightning reached into the engineer’s saddlebags and withdrew the needed tool, placing it in Vibrant’s waiting hoof. “I… I know it seems unnecessary, but… I’m just used to having somepony else to work with, you know?” Both Twilight and Lightning nodded, feeling sorrow for their crewmate. Vibrant had not been prepared to assume the role of chief engineer, and given his already timid nature, Golden Bolt’s death had hit him the hardest.

“I like working with everypony as well,” Twilight said. “I was looking forward to working with you all on the planet, but now that that’s not happening, this is the best I can get.”

“Yeah, it’s nice to get out of the bridge,” Lightning agreed. His back twitched, and a slightly pained expression crossed his face. Concerned, Twilight regarded him with a questioning stare, but was waved off by the pilot.

“You know,” Twilight began, hoping she was not crossing any lines, “it wasn’t mentioned in your file, and I’ve been wondering… What did happen to your wings, Lightning?” The pilot in question paused, not displaying any particular emotions.

“Not much to tell,” he answered. “I was flying a test vehicle for ESA, it malfunctioned and went down. My wings were mangled in the crash, had to be taken off.” He smirked, almost nostalgic. “I remember when I was on the operating table, before they knocked me out, I looked Princess Luna right in her eyes and said, ‘You owe me.’ Guess that’s how I got this position.”

“Wow…” Twilight said. “And after all that, you still wanted to fly?”

“Damn right I did,” Lightning replied. “Can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Besides, in this day and age, not like I really need the wings to fly.” Twilight nodded, impressed that Lightning was able to move past his loss so easily. A certain other pegasus she knew would have reacted far differently.

“Could somepony give me another screw?” Vibrant requested, pulling the attention of both Twilight and Lightning back to him. Twilight quickly lit her horn and grabbed one of the screws from Vibrant’s bag, hovering it over to his waiting hoof. With great care, Vibrant lowered the screw into the CO2 scrubber, only to have it fall just centimeters from its target. Twilight quickly lost sight of the screw, but she heard it falling behind the tubes, each small impact creating a quiet ding. Sighing, Vibrant reached his hoof behind the tubes and began to feel around for the screw.

“Need some help?” Twilight asked, knowing that her telekinesis could probe for the screw far more easily than Vibrant’s hoof.

“I… think I’ve got it,” Vibrant responded. He pulled his hoof back out, but held upon it was not a screw. Instead, a small black sphere rested on the surface of his hoof, with no features that could indicate its purpose.

“What’s that?” Lightning asked, only partially interested. Vibrant shook his head, rotating the sphere.

“I… don’t know,” he answered. “I’ve never seen this before. It’s not a part of the life support system, I know that for sure.”

“Let me see that,” Twilight said, taking the sphere in her telekinesis. She brought it to her eyes, squinting to see it with finer detail. She did not know why, but the sphere made her feel uneasy. It was as if she was being watched…

“Well?” Lightning Flash had his head tilted, waiting for Twilight to say something else.

“... Keep working,” she ordered, stepping away from the wall. “I’m going to run this by security. If you need anything, come find me.” Without waiting for a response, Twilight trotted to the ladder, climbing up several decks to deck two. She entered the security office, startling the two stallions who were already present. Both Ace and Skychaser had their eyes on Twilight, while the screens behind them displayed security footage from all over the ship.

“Is there a problem, Princess?” Ace asked, standing from his chair. Twilight presented the sphere, and a look of concern immediately crossed Ace’s face. He took the sphere from her, turning it over in his telekinesis to examine the lack of details.

“You know what it is, then?” Twilight asked, closing the door for fear of attracting attention. Ace nodded, and he gently placed the sphere on a nearby table.

“I do,” he replied. “I used them myself, back in the day. What we have here is a listening device, a bug. Where did you find it?”

“Hidden in the life support access station down on deck five,” Twilight said. “So… that thing has been listening for weeks?”

“This one and more, presumably,” Ace said, nodding. “We need to run a search. Starting…” The Captain crossed to the main security station, and felt beneath the desk with a hoof. “... Here.” He pulled his hoof back into view, and held within was a second bug. Scowling, Ace placed the new bug next to the first, staring at them in silence.

“How many do you think there are?” Twilight asked, a hint of urgency entering her voice. She did not like the idea of being spied on, especially with the knowledge that the bugs had likely been placed weeks ago. There was no telling what kind of information they had gathered.

“No way of knowing,” Ace said. “Most of the crew is busy working right now. Skychaser, I want you to stay here and monitor security. Contact us if anything changes. Twilight, you and I will take a look around the rest of the ship. Let’s go.” He stepped past the Princess, exiting the security office into the corridor beyond. Twilight followed, one question burning in her mind.

“Wait,” she called out, causing Ace to stop just before climbing into the ladder well. “How are we going to find all of these? I mean, with how well-hidden the first one was…”

“By being as thorough as possible,” the Captain replied. “These things aren’t meant to be found. But, given that the second one was just stuck under a desk, I think it’s safe to assume that not all of the bugs are going to be as well-hidden as the life support one. Just check dark areas; seams, vents, or other places that are never illuminated. Also check places that go frequently undisturbed; it’s highly unlikely that a bug would be hidden in somepony’s personal belongings drawer. Now come on, we’re losing time.” Ace climbed into the ladder well, and began working his way down to deck three. With a sigh, Twilight followed, knowing this task would not be easy...

The sun was high in Equestria when Princess Luna closed her third press meeting in three days. She stared out the big-picture windows at the sprawling ESA campus, the only sounds belonging to the crowds of reporters as they exited the conference hall. After the first sabotage attempt with the falling elevator, two more had followed, only one claiming any injuries. She and Celestia had resorted to assigning guard pairs to nearly every corner of the assembly bay and launch area, while pegasi constantly circled the air, looking for trouble. And it had worked. The zebra ship had launched, and it was on its way to Harmony.

“Another press session well-handled, sister,” Celestia said, entering the room behind Luna. Luna did not respond; instead, she continued looking outside, the thoughts in her mind not pertaining to the press session. Celestia clearly realized this, and she raised an eyebrow as she came to stand next to her sister. “Is something wrong?”

“I almost told her,” Luna replied. “I almost told Twilight what we did.” Celestia’s expression grew far more serious, and she lowered her voice.

“I thought you had gotten over this,” she said. “Isn’t that what you told me? That you had come to terms with what we have done?”

“I know,” Luna said, nodding. “But seeing her on that monitor, and hearing her talk about the crew, it’s… It’s harder than I thought.”

“Luna…” Celestia began, affectionately draping a wing over her sister’s back. “Take a break. You’ve been working tirelessly for weeks now, and it’s paid off. The zebra ship is on its way, and soon Harmony will be back with us. Please, for the good of your mind, take some time off.”

“... I will,” Luna agreed. “I will head back to Canterlot tonight. But at the first sign of trouble--”

“I know,” Celestia said. “And if there is trouble, I will do nothing to stop you from coming back here.” Luna nodded, finding the terms acceptable, and turned her attention back to the view the window provided. Celestia paused, and removed her wing from Luna’s back. “... This will all be worth it. The saboteur will be found, and we will learn everything we can. Then, once these terrorists are out of the way, we can start funding the next space mission.” Luna smiled, amused by the thought, but it was quickly replaced by a frown.

“Assuming they do not try anything else here,” she said. Celestia nodded grimly, and stepped away from her sister.

“I must return to my duties,” she said. “Farewell, Luna. I look forward to seeing you back in Canterlot.” With a brilliant golden flash, Celestia disappeared from the room, leaving Luna by herself. The Princess of the Night sighed, knowing she still had duties to attend to before her impromptu “break.” She stood and, with a sigh, set off to perform them...

Ace and Twilight dumped their sizeable pile of bugs onto the security room table, watching as they clattered over one another, until finally they came to a stop. Her eyes wide at how many they had found, Twilight carefully counted each bug in her head, her dismay growing the higher the number got. When she was done, she looked to the Captain and XO.

“Fifty-one,” she said slowly, frowning. “How did this many bugs make it aboard without being noticed?”

“Well, we know the saboteur had some outside help,” Skychaser said. “Maybe somepony within the ESA smuggled them aboard, somehow.”

“It doesn’t matter how they got aboard,” Ace interrupted. “What matters is that we, hopefully, have all of them. And in finding these, we have something real, something tangible, to use against the saboteur. From these, we can find more evidence.”

“How?” Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow. Ace picked out one of the bugs, and pulled it to him with his telekinesis. He turned it over, examining the black, glossy surface.

“Bugs aren’t very useful without some way to listen to them,” he began. “I’m familiar with this model. There’s a small wireless transmitter inside each of these, all of them tuned to the frequency of a receiver on the other end. We can find the frequency from the bugs, and use that to track the location of the receiver. It’s somewhere on this ship, we just have to find out where.”

“Right,” Skychaser said, grinning. “So, how do we find out the frequency?”

“Normally you set it through the listening software,” Ace replied, “but technically, any communications software should do. The comms system we have on this ship, for example. Skychaser, boot up the admin version of our comms software. Twilight, carefully break open the shell on one of the bugs. I’ll find a compatible cable to connect the two.” Ace put the bug he had grabbed back, and the ponies got to work. Twilight picked up and bug and began searching for a seam on its surface, Skychaser opened the admin properties on the security terminal, and Ace opened a drawer, digging through numerous cables to find the appropriate one.

Narrowing her eyes in concentration, Twilight increased the precision of her telekinesis, sacrificing precious energy to do so. She worked her aura into a tiny, barely-noticeable seam on the side, and with a single tug, pulled it apart. One half of the shell fell to the floor, while the other, which contained a small microchip and magically-charged crystal, remained in Twilight’s telekinetic grasp. She pulled it closer to her eyes and looked inside, examining the miniscule components. Ace walked over to her, carrying with him a short cable, and nodded.

“Well done,” he said, taking the bug into his own telekinesis. He plugged one end of the cable into a slot on the microchip, and plugged the other end into a port on the security terminal just as Skychaser booted up the communications software. A small loading menu appeared as the computer accessed the appropriate drivers, and finally a properties menu opened on the screen.

“Okay…” Ace began, scanning over the information being provided. “... It’s in the two-point-four gigahertz range. Not surprising, given that all other wireless tech on this ship operates in the five gigahertz range. I don’t think the saboteur would like somepony hearing a bug in the middle of an audio call with Equestria.”

“Two thousand, four-hundred and forty-seven megahertz,” Skychaser finished, nodding. “So, how do we track this?”

“We use a magically-charged spectrum analyzer,” Ace replied. “Then, it’s only a matter of walking around the ship until the find where the exact frequency is strongest. There should be a spectrum analyzer on deck four, in one of the science labs. Princess Luna thought it might be useful, on the off chance that we discovered any signals on the exoplanet. Now it can finally serve a purpose.”

“Then let’s go!” Twilight exclaimed, eager to find where all of the bugs were transmitting. This was the best lead they had found so far, and it could reveal the very identity of the saboteur among them. The Princess did not want to delay.

The three ponies exited the security office, making sure to lock the door behind them, and descended the ladder to deck four. From there, it was a short search through storage to find the spectrum analyzer, a small rectangular box with a display one one end, and several antennae on the other. Twilight took the device in her telekinesis, turning it on in the process, and input the frequency they needed to locate. A graph appeared on the screen, though Twilight could understand little of what was being displayed. Instead she passed the device off to Ace, whose years of experience would no doubt be useful.

Ace took the analyzer and began pacing about, watching the lines on the graph as they changed with each step. His mouth was turned in a very small frown, and his brow was knit together in concentration. Twilight watched the stallion at work, noticing something new within him. Previously she had only seen him in a commanding role, giving orders and ensuring that the ship was running smoothly. But what she now saw was representative of another life, one lived many years ago, when Twilight’s view of the world was far narrower. This sort of work - the secrecy, the gravity of it all - was not something to which the Princess was accustomed.

The trio climbed up a deck, emerging in the living quarters corridor, and the graph on the analyzer slowly began to climb. Ace nodded to himself, clearly pleased by the development. He took a few steps in one direction, but stopped and turned when the peaks of the graph lowered. Instead he headed in the opposite direction, and slowly, the peaks once again began to climb. Twilight and Skychaser followed, both of them looking around for any signs of trouble. If the saboteur had somehow caught on to their plans, Twilight did not want to risk losing their lead.

Ace came to a stop just outside of a door, and turned to see the label indicating to whom the room belonged. When Twilight saw the name, she froze, her mouth opening slowly in shock. Ace’s reaction was far more tame, with only a slight widening of his yellow eyes. But Skychaser was, by far, the hardest hit. His jaw dropped, and a great sadness entered his eyes, as if a barely-closed wound had just been reopened. Twilight read over the label again, wondering if this was true, or if they were the victims of some sick joke.

Astral Breeze, Security Officer

“... Right,” Ace said, shattering the silence and drawing both sets of eyes to him. “Let’s… investigate, then.” The Captain opened the door, revealing the darkened room beyond. Twilight ignored the missing bedsheets and the overturned chair, instead choosing to look for anything suspicious, along with Ace. Skychaser simply remained in the doorway, forlornly looking inside. Lighting her horn to eliminate the shadows from the room, Twilight joined Ace in opening the various drawers, looking for anything that could receive the bugs’ transmissions. When the drawers turned up empty, Twilight poked her head beneath the bed, and finally found her target.

“Got something here.” She pulled a closed laptop out from under the bed, the lack of any dust telling her that it had been recently used. There were no markings, no nametags or labels of any kind that could indicate the laptop’s owner. Ace trotted over, as did Skychaser, who had finally stepped inside, and the three ponies looked at the laptop in silence for a moment. Finally Twilight opened the computer, squinting as the screen came to life, illuminating the darkened room even more.

“Damn it…” Ace said, frowning as a small window appeared on the screen. “Password protected. We’ll need to get around that. Come on, let’s head back up to the security office.” Closing the laptop again, Twilight followed Ace out of the darkened bedroom. Skychaser was the last to leave, but before he did, he picked up the overturned chair and placed it by the barren desk, sighing. He joined Twilight and Ace outside, and motioned for them to continue. With a cautious haste, the three ponies climbed back up the ladder, hoping that the saboteur was still in the dark about these developments. For if they could gain an even greater advantage over the saboteur, Twilight hoped that all of this terrible business could be brought to an end…

Cobalt sighed, leaning back in his chair on the bridge as diagnostic reports scrolled by at his station. He frowned, boredom creeping in, and glanced at the clock on his computer’s screen. It was late; his shift would end soon, and he could finally get some sleep. Perhaps some ideas of how to deal with Harmony would come to him as well…

Cobalt’s eyes passed over Ace’s empty chair, and his frown deepened as he wondered the whereabouts of the Captain. He had left early that morning with Skychaser, and had not been seen since. The only word they had received came from Sharp Sight at dinner, who had informed everypony that Ace, Twilight, and Skychaser were busy, and would not be joining them. This worried Cobalt. What are they up to?

“Hey, Lightning,” Cobalt said, looking to the nearby pilot, “you were working with Twilight earlier, right?”

“Yeah,” Lightning replied, nodding. “We wrapped up the CO2 repairs around noon, but she disappeared at our last stop. No idea what she’s doing now.”

“Did she say where she was going?”

“Yeah, security. But like I said, no idea what she’s doing now.” Cobalt nodded, thinking to himself. What business did she have in security, and why would she abandon the repairs before they were finished?

“What’s wrong, Cobalt?” Star Step asked curiously, turning to face the stallion.

“... I think we should go down to security and see if she’s still there,” Cobalt said. “Think about it. We haven’t seen the Captain, XO, or Princess for almost nine hours. They’re obviously up to something, and they agreed to be more transparent with us. Anypony with me?”

“Sounds good to me,” Lightning said, standing up. “Getting bored up here anyway. You in, Star?” Star Step nodded and stood as well, motioning for Cobalt to lead the way. He crossed to the ladder and made the short climb down, stopping just outside of the security office door. He paused, and though he could hear voices from within, he could not make out what was being said. Taking a step back, Cobalt reached out with his hoof, and knocked.

The voices instantly stopped, and a moment later the door slid open, revealing Skychaser standing in the frame. Twilight and Ace were at the back of the room, a familiar laptop held between them, and on a nearby table was a pile of small black spheres.

“What do you need?” Skychaser asked, doing a poor job at veiling his annoyance.

“We’re just wondering if everything is okay,” Cobalt replied, trying to remain calm and maintain a straight face. Given the circumstances, this was not easy for him. “Haven’t seen any of you in a while. So… is everything okay?”

“We’re fine, thank you,” Ace answered quickly, an obvious lie. Cobalt glanced at the laptop, hoping its security systems would hold up.

“... Alright then,” Cobalt said, taking a step away. “We’ll head back to the bridge.” Cobalt and his companions turned, working their way back to the ladder.

“Wait, Cobalt,” Skychaser said, causing the stallion to stop just before entering the ladder well. “Come here. Lightning, Star, you can go.” Beginning to grow concerned, Cobalt walked back to the security office, an eyebrow raised.

“What is it?”

“You’ve been working in the computer field for your entire adult life, right?” Skychaser asked, receiving a nod in response. “Good. Come inside.” Cobalt did as he was told, taking a few steps into the security office. The door slid shut, and Skychaser lead Cobalt to the laptop, which was still displaying its password prompt. The stallion looked between Ace and Twilight, attempting to gauge their current feelings. They were being cautious, that much was clear, and he could tell from Ace’s glare that the Captain did not want anypony else involved.

“Whose laptop is this?” Cobalt asked, feigning ignorance.

“The saboteur’s,” Ace answered, scowling. “You’re our resident technical officer. See if you can try to access it.” Nodding, Cobalt sat down in front of the laptop, trying to mask his relief. He was being given an important opportunity, he only needed to take hold of it.

Restarting the laptop, Cobalt booted directly to the BIOS, trying to ignore the predatory gazes of the three ponies around him. He worked quickly, first navigating to the boot devices and setting it to a secondary drive, then saving his changes and restarting once again. He spared a glance upward, hoping that nopony understood what he had just done, and looked back down as he was once again presented with a login screen. But instead of being asked for a password, the only available option was “ENTER.” Cobalt pressed the button, and sat back as the logon completed.

“That was easy,” Twilight observed, grinning. “Well done, Cobalt.”

“Hang on,” Cobalt said, holding up a hoof. He accessed the computer directory, and was forced to suppress a smile when the laptop’s drives were shown to be completely empty. Instead he faked a frown, shaking his head. “Yeah, that was too easy. It seems there was a second layer of security, this laptop’s drives have been completely wiped.”

“Can anything be recovered?” Skychaser asked.

“Technically yes, but not here,” Cobalt replied. “I don’t have any data recovery software on my own laptop, so the only way to recover these drives before we return to Equestria would be to have ESA send us the software over the comms. But given the size of that software… it would take days, maybe weeks, to download, and the rest of the comms would be non-functional.” Ace nodded, and crossed to the door, opening it for Cobalt.

“Thank you for your help,” he said. “That will be all, Cobalt.” Nodding, Cobalt trotted out of the security office, breathing a sigh of relief as soon as the door slid shut. He had lost access to his secret laptop, as well as the bugs, but at least he had not been found out. Sabotage was still possible, it would just be far more difficult from now on...

Twilight watched Cobalt leave, frowning in frustration. It seemed that every time some progress was made in discovering the identity of the saboteur, something else happened to snatch the advantage away. The saboteur was clever, he or she was always two steps ahead of everypony else.

“So what do we do now?” Skychaser asked, sighing. “We obviously can’t shut down comms for a week while Cobalt downloads some software, so I’d say this laptop is a dead end.”

“It’s not a total failure,” Ace said, crossing to the bugs and running his hoof over them. “We’ve cut off the saboteur’s ears, and who knows what was stored on that laptop. For all we know, that laptop is how he or she was accessing ship-critical systems. Even with this minor loss, we finally won a victory today.”

“But where do we go from here?” Twilight asked, mirroring Skychaser’s question. “What’s our next move?” Ace paused, silent. His horn glowed a soft yellow, and one of the bugs slowly floated to eye-level.

“... This saboteur plays dirty,” he said. “Well, I’m no stranger to that. Overnight, we’ll replace the bugs, this time tuned to a frequency detectable by the security systems here. We can use them against the saboteur.”

“Spy on the crew?” Skychaser’s eyes widened, and he shook his head. “So we’re just going to stoop to the saboteur’s level now? We’re going to allow ourselves to look past privacy, when it might not even reveal anything?”

“Do you think this is how I wanted this mission to happen?” Ace shot back, glaring. “In an ideal world, we’d have arrived at the exoplanet by now, and we would become the first ponies to set hoof on an alien world. True advancement would happen, for ponies, and for everyone else on Equus. But this is not an ideal world. This is a world where there exist ponies who live only to sow chaos, and to send us all backward in time. These ponies long for yesterday, for a world before the Elements, or Harmony, or the Princesses themselves. Now I don’t know about you, but that is not a world I wish to see. I’ve spent thirty-five years of my life making sure regression does not happen, and I’ve done far worse than spy on the ponies I’m sworn to protect. So yes, I am willing to put personal privacy aside for the remainder of this mission, if it means I can get this crew home in one piece. Understood?”

Neither Twilight nor Skychaser answered; instead, they considered Ace’s words in silence. There was some truth to them, but Twilight could not bring herself to fully accept the Captain’s point. This was wrong; it was wrong to spy on the crew, and it was wrong to use the saboteur’s own evil tactics.

“... No,” Twilight answered, shaking her head. “I won’t do this. As a Princess, it is my duty to protect the rights of all ponies, including those on this crew. We may not be in Equestria right now, but my duty stands. I won’t stop you, but I won’t help you.”

“Princess,” Ace sighed, frowning. “If you think an action is wrong, but you still willingly let it happen, well… You may as well be doing the deed yourself. I know you’re still new to the world of leadership, but trust me, it won’t get any easier. Soon enough, you’re going to have to choose a tactic, and stick with it.” The Captain withdrew a set of saddlebags from a nearby drawer, and began filling the pouches with bugs. When it was full, he passed the bags to Skychaser, then retrieved a second set for himself. Finally all of the bugs had been loaded, and the Captain and XO crossed to the door, ready to do their work.

“Captain,” Twilight said, stopping the stallion just before he exited. “Just remember one thing: you don’t have to become the enemy to stop the enemy.” Ace did not react. He simply exited the room, closing the door behind him and leaving the Princess on her own. She shook her head, ashamed at what they had been reduced to. But Ace was right about one thing; this saboteur played dirty, as one would expect. Still, Twilight hoped that she could come out of this with her conscience intact. For if she could, then the saboteur would have suffered a complete and total failure...

Author's Note:

Hey everyone! Here is Chapter 8.

Finals are all done and wrapped up, so expect the next chapter to come a bit sooner than the previous two. As usual, please leave any feedback in the comments, and if you notice any spelling/grammar errors, please let me know. Thanks for reading!