Twilight scanned the fifty nervous, determined faces before her. Even their Borg implants couldn't hide their resolve. They were the ship's crew, chosen for their magic powers or their hands-on knowledge of a piece of the ship's hardware or, in a couple of rare cases, a chance-demonstrated prowess that might come in handy when operating the consoles. She stood between them and the massive hull parked outside Canterlot, which now bristled with sensors and impulse exhaust manifolds and the protruding cylinder of the warp engine.
"Mares and gentlestallions, the starship is complete. Our fuel and supplies are loaded, and every construction team has cleared us to climb aboard. I'm sorry we couldn't test it out more. I know this is all new and strange technology, and that nopony has ever travelled into space before, and I really really wish we had time to take this space ship out for a nice long shakedown cruise; but the Borg are less than a day away from the inner comet cloud. We'll all have to learn the ship's ins and outs as we go."
"There is one last detail, though. Just before a ship first leaves its dock and sails out into the seas, it's customary to christen her with a name. Our 'ship' of space deserves the same honor." She looked to her princess and mentor, standing at the far left of the crew. "I had originally wanted to name her the HMS Princess Celestia; but you could imagine the confusion that might cause." She snickered. "I mean, couldn't you just see it? Something really really bad happens in the thick of battle, and I call out 'Hey, Princess Celestia!,' and I mean the actual princess 'cause she's part of the crew, but you guys can't tell whether I'm talking to the princess or the ship, and you think I'm addressing the whole crew of the HMS Princess Celestia, so you listen up when you don't have to and it breaks your concentration and —" The impatient rolling of eyes in her crew and their uncomfortable sidelong glances at one another told Twilight that, maybe, she was getting juuuuust a wee bit off topic. "Uh ... " She cleared her throat. "Sorry. Had a little Pinkie Pie moment here. Anyway. I toyed with a number of different names that invoked royalty or grandeur or toughness or pomp, but I think what we really want is a name that reminds us all of our mission." She picked up a bottle of champaigne with her artificial foreleg, and held it high in the air by the neck. "So, I hereby christen this ship ... the HMS Rescue!"
She smashed the bottle across its metal hull to make it official.
It was a simple, almost trite name. And not a pony present thought any bit the less of it. The cheers from their throats and the thunder of their applauding hooves was deafening.
"Now let's get on board. Two at a time, please, the hatch isn't very wide."
Slowly, the mob of unicorns organized itself into a pair of lines and filtered in through the hatch. Twilight accompanied Rarity near the back of the line, with Shining Armor and Cadance entering next-to-last and Princesses Celestia and Luna bringing up the rear.
"Everyone all inside?" Twilight asked, peeking out through the open hatchway to make sure. "All right, seal the hatch and start the air circulation pumps."
A few seconds ticked by, then the unicorn responsible for life support found her station and worked the controls. The hatch slowly swung shut and locked itself into place with an ominous clank. As soon as the echoes died away, they could all hear a faint whirring sound. "Air circulation is up and running, CO2 filtration looks good."
"Excellent," Twilight said. "All right, everypony, get to whichever part of the ship you've trained for. The Rescue is a big ship, so don't be afraid to ask somepony if you can't find your way. Bridge crew, let's get to the front." And hope the main control panels on the bridge were all wired up correctly, she thought.
The bridge, like every other cabin on board, had bare-metal unfinished walls and a bare minimum of furniture. At least the stall-seats looked like they'd been welded down properly, though it was hard to get a good look — the lighting was from a few point sources directly above and left the base of each stall and console in shadow. Twilight took the center stall, facing the great black rectangle at the very front. "All right, Amethyst Star, turn on the sensor suite. Let's see how the viewscreen looks."
To Twilight's artificial eye, the black rectangle flared from a flat single-temperature surface to a mottled multicolor image. To her natural eye, though, it looked as black as ever. "Uh oh," Twilight said, "That output looks like its designed for Borg eyes. Can you make it display data in the visible spectrum?"
A couple of clicks and toggles came from the sensor station to her left, then the screen suddenly popped into a beautiful image of Canterlot. A chorus of "Ooh!"s came from the entire bridge crew. Twilight smiled with relief. "That's more like it. Looks like we're seeing the view directly ahead."
"I can adjust the magnification, too," Amethyst Star offered, and twisted a knob. The display zoomed in on one window of the castle, then zoomed in tighter until a single dust spec on the bottom windowsill filled the screen.
"Uh, maybe we'll use that when we're out in space, and everything's far away," Twilight said. "But for now, let's keep it down to actual size."
"Good idea," Amethyst replied, somewhat embarrassed, and zoomed back to 1-to-1.
Twilight pressed the push-to-talk stud on her armrest, then spoke into the pickup: "Attention crew." The words boomed deafeningly from every wall speaker in the ship: "ATTENTION! CREW!" She released the stud instantly. "Oops, maybe I should turn down the volume."
Her big brother shrugged. "At least we know the P.A. system works."
She tried again, this time at a level that was only reasonably loud. "Attention crew. We're about to try out the artificial gravity controls. You may want to brace yourselves, and stow any tools that aren't on a short tether." She released the P.A. stud. "Okay, Rarity, give us a little extra gravity straight down. Point one gee only."
"Hmmm," Rarity said to herself. "I remember picking out these colors. I made the floor-gravity control a darling emerald green, and the forward gravity knob the most subtle pastel blue I could find. Oh, they do look so pretty right next to each other! Point one gee to the floor, coming up!" She turned the green knob a tiny bit clockwise, but she hadn't anticipated what the added weight would do to her foreleg. Her hoof slipped, and accidentally cranked the dial over a full half turn before she was thrown to the deck. Everypony's weight suddenly doubled.
"Ugh," Twilight collapsed flat on her stomach. It felt like somepony was sitting on top of her. "I said point one gee!"
Rarity struggled back to her hooves and finally managed to reach the green knob again. Instantly, nearly all their added weight vanished. "I must say, I think I'm going to need some sort of stall harness to keep me from falling over. But we're steady at an added zero-point-one gee now."
"Excellent. Now let's try going to minus point one gee."
Rarity braced herself this time, and turned the green knob a tiny bit counterclockwise of center. Her stomach turned slightly, as though she were descending in an elevator, but down was still definitely toward the floor. "Point one negative gee," she announced.
"Now the most important," Twilight said, "Forward gravity. Give us point one gee to the front."
Rarity nullified the green knob, and tweaked the pale blue one. She caught herself falling forward. The whole bridge suddenly looked like it had been built at an angle. She felt queasy and had to take a few deep breaths. "Uh," she read the miniature readouts on her panel, "Forward grav plating is holding steady at point one gee."
"All right," Twilight said. "Cancel all artificial gravity. But if at any time on this trip you feel us getting heavy, or floating away, or falling toward the front or back of the ship, turn those knobs until everything feels normal again. Don't wait for my orders. Use your horn to turn the knobs if you have to. The comfort and safety of the crew are in your hooves."
Rarity raised her eyebrows. "My hooves? Oh dear. I'll try not to let you down, Twilight dahling."
Twilight turned her attention to the station directly in front of and below her. "Lemon Hearts, what's the status of our impulse engine?"
The blue-maned unicorn in front of Twilight read the numbers off her console, then consulted her written reference sheet. "Looks like everything's within the normal range. They're ready to go."
Twilight smiled. "All right, then," she took a deep breath. "Let's get the HMS Rescue in the air. Give me one point one gee of negative external gravity."
"Negative ship weight, coming right up!" Lemon replied. She worked the controls. Inside, nopony felt any heavier or lighter; but the entire hull shuddered, and the viewscreen showed Canterlot scrolling slowly downward.
Outside, the gathered throng of unicorns gasped as one. This "space ship," this gigantic metal clamshell, with their princesses and some of their friends inside it, was floating into the air! They'd all seen unicorns levitate some pretty heavy objects in the past, but what this ship was doing was beyond anything anypony had ever done before. It rose higher, and higher, and still higher, until it had cleared the tops of the highest spires in Canterlot. And still it rose!
"We're half a mile above ground," Amethyst called out.
Twilight nodded. "Take down these coordinates." Her natural eye rolled up into her head for a moment. Then: "127 point 7 mark 34 point 9, distance 9.63 times ten to the forty-eighth Planck lengths. Got it?"
"Got it," Amethyst confirmed, writing down the numbers with a levitating quill pen just to be on the safe side.
"Got it," Lemon Hearts also replied, having entered the numbers into her own console.
"Good," Twilight said. "Those are the current coordinates for the Borg cube. It's time for me to turn off my transceiver, before we get any farther from the ground." She blinked once. Hard. As one, the billion voices in her head all ceased. Her universe went eerily quiet. "Whoa." She shook herself back into focus. "All right, I've just gone dark. They won't be able to track me any more, but that cuts both ways. Once we're out in space, we'll need to point a sensor sweep near those coordinates to find them. Their warp signature should stand out against the background comets and stars like a beacon."
She paused, as much for effect as to ready herself for the next challenge. "Okay, Lemon, angle us straight upward and make ready to engage the impulse drive at one-tenth power."
The ship tilted like a pinwheel until its nose pointed to the sky. Even without the engines, Rarity had to adjust forward gravity to -1 and floor gravity to +1 just to counteract the new angle at which they were suspended in the air. There were a few lurches and bumps along the way, but Rarity was getting the hang of it.
"Nicely done, Rarity," Twilight complimented her. "Now when the engine engages, the forward gravity generator should be slaved in to the ship's accelerometer and make the adjustments for you — but in case there's a problem I'll need you to counteract our acceleration, and fast. We don't want to end up squished against the back of the hull."
Rarity nodded, her hoof hovering just above the blue forward-gravity knob.
Twilight keyed the P.A. system one more time. "Mares and gentlestallions of the HMS Rescue, make ready to leave Equestria."