Twilight glared into the bright blue sky on the viewscreen. "We're about to plow through a lot of atmosphere very quickly. Rarity, can you switch on the Structural Integrity field?"
Rarity put her hoof on the sapphire-studded topaz switch and pressed it upward. A tiny trickle of power drained from the ship's main generators into emitters secured at various points around the hull. "The structural integrity field is operating at one hundred percent, dahling."
"All right," Twilight said, not taking her eye off the display. This was it. "Lemon Hearts, engage the impulse engine."
"Impulse go," Lemon half-whispered, and punched the key.
The ship lurched violently upward. The crew felt themselves thrown toward the back of the ship for a split-second, then the feeling subsided. But as the impulse engine ramped up to one-tenth power, the crew were again pulled back, then again released, then pulled back, then released, over and over about once every two seconds. It was like being on a rocking ocean ship in a storm, and more than one crew member felt the nausea rise in their throat.
Twilight shook her head. "Ack, there's a delay between the changing acceleration and the forward-gravity autoadjustment. Rarity, can you smooth this out?"
Rarity was on the floor rolling back and forth with each wave. "I told you I need a harness to hold me in place!"
Twilight looked at her as though she were a puppy having trouble with a new trick. "I thought you knew. Vinyl Scratch, strap her in."
A gentle nudge came from behind Rarity, coralling her back in her stall-station. The DJ unicorn smiled at her; somehow even with her Borg implants, Vinyl Scratch made her purple sunglasses look good. She grabbed a strap dangling from one edge of the stall, pulled it over and around Rarity, and locked it into place on the other side. Rarity was now wrapped in a webbing guaranteed to keep her in one place.
"Oh," Rarity said, embarrassed, "There's been a harness here all along, hasn't there." She grasped the forward-gravity control knob and tried to get into the rhythm of the surges. After three tries, her hooves found a pattern and the ship's rocking became significantly milder.
The brief sideways buffeting as they passed upward through the jet stream was another matter.
Twilight watched the blue sky on the viewscreen slowly darken, then fade to purple, and finally fade out entirely, replaced by a myriad tiny pinpoints of light. The stars! And so much brighter than from the ground! Not one of them twinkled, even the slightest bit.
"That's the first hurdle," Twilight announced. "We are in space. Are we leaking any air?"
Amethyst Star scanned her instruments, then gasped in alarm. "Yes. Yes we are! There's a slow pressure drop."
"Can you tell where? Localize it?" Twilight asked.
"Uh ..." Amethyst began, trying to make sense of the bewildering array of data in front of her.
A speaker next to Twilight buzzed. It was speaker 2, her two-way intercom with engineering. "Twilight," a voice said, "This is engineering. We've got a minor hull breach near the aft end of starboard."
"I'll bet that's our leak," Twilight said to Amethyst. Then, to speaker 2: "Can you fix it?"
"We should have a sealing patch on it in — there, that's got it."
Amethyst looked at her instruments. "Looks like the pressure drop's gone."
Shining Armor smiled. "I told you those sealing pads might come in handy."
Twilight snorted, then the voice on speaker 2 resumed: "The breech looks like a stress fracture. When Team E put up the structural integrity emitters, they must have missed a spot. Fortunately, they tell me they brought some spares, and can get an emitter hooked up on this spot in five minutes. Just ... be gentle on the ship 'til then."
"Acknowledged," Twilight said. Then she pressed the main P.A. stud and spoke into the mike, "Attention crew, be on the lookout for any other areas of the hull that are missing a structural integrity field emitter. Our hull is going to be under even more strain when we start the warp engine." She released the stud and turned to her bridge crew. "In the meantime ... now that we're in space, Amethyst, I need you to look for warp signatures at the coordinates I gave you earlier. Let's hope our sensors are good enough to spot a Borg cube six light-days away."
Amethyst twiddled her controls and studied her readouts. The crude displays Team F had cobbled together — or was it Team H that had turned the sensor data into a pony-readable form? — were mostly streams of numbers with one or two oscilloscope-like vector displays. Interpreting them was more than a little tricky. Looking for a warp signature was a matter of searching for one specific pattern of neutrinos ... against a backdrop of stars that were also sending out their own neutrinos. If she'd had to look in every direction, it might have taken her all day. But — "Hey hey, wouldja look at that!" she blurted. "I think that's them. Bearing 127 point 77 mark 34 point 82." She looked at Twilight. "Nearly the same coordinates you gave me before!"
"Excellent!" Twilight said. "Lemon, point us on that course. Keep the impulse engine steady at one-tenth power until they get that structural integrity emitter installed in aft-starboard."
"Sure thing," Lemon Hearts replied, and touched her controls. The ship swung slowly on its axis, and the stars on the viewscreen scrolled to one side, until they were pointed directly at the coordinates where the Borg cube should be. At this distance, it would be totally invisible ... unless —
"Amethyst," Twilight mused, "Could you increase the magnification again?"
"Sure," Amethyst replied, and cranked the knob clockwise. The stars zoomed outward and new stars replaced them, as though they were hurtling through the galaxy at millions of times the speed of light. Near the center, each dim pinpoint of light got steadily brighter and farther apart as new dim points of light replaced them. Any one of them could have been the metal cube they were after. "And that's maximum," Amethyst said, almost apologetic.
Twilight nodded. "I shouldn't have been surprised. They're 96 billion miles away. There's no way we could resolve details at this distance, unless we had a telescope as big around as this whole ship."
"Engineering to Twilight," speaker 2 said. "The new structural integrity emitter's installed and running. We've also got the hull breach welded shut. From what I hear on the grapevine, it looks like that was the only part of the hull Team E missed. We should be good to go."
"All right!" Twilight said, both to speaker 2 and to the bridge crew. "You heard 'em. Let's get ready to engage the warp drive!"
Lemon Hearts swallowed hard, and nervously scanned her instruments.
Twilight tried to reassure her. "I don't have to tell you, I'm a little worried too. All that antimatter we're storing, in a special containment unit that keeps it from so much as touching the sides of its own container? We're going to be deliberately sending it on a collision course with normal matter. The energies released will be terrifying. But if it works like it's supposed to, we'll be flying faster than light itself."
"Outrunning a light beam," Rarity mused. "I wonder what Rainbow Dash would say about that if she were still here."
Twilight stared with gentle intensely at her friend. "You can ask her yourself, when we've rescued her tomorrow." She turned. "Amethyst, keep tracking that warp signature. Let's not lose our objective. But ..." She glanced at the nameless starfield on the viewscreen. "Can you show us what's behind the ship?"
Amethyst frowned, then found the right control and flipped it. Instantly, the viewscreen flared into brilliance. An enormous blue-white disc filled the display, slowly shrinking. Its right edge was covered in a crescent-shaped shadow, leaving the remaining disc in a gibbous phase. Everypony on the bridge marvelled at the sight.
Twilight took a breath and said, "That's Equestria."
"Oh my," Rarity said, looking on in awe, "It really is round!"
"I've," Celestia began with a little catch in her throat, "I've never seen it from this high up. I can't even make out Canterlot from here."
"We're about to get a lot higher," Twilight said. "Lemon Hearts?"
Lemon tore her eyes away from the viewscreen and checked her instruments one more time. "Uh, it looks like the warp engine is as ready as it'll ever be."
Twilight nodded, then steeled herself. "Engage warp speed."
"Warp go," Lemon said with determination, and clicked the lever forward.
This time, there was no sense of acceleration or rocking. A hum made a quick upward glissando, and Equestria fell away in the viewscreen. Within a second, the planet had shrunk to a tiny disc only two degrees across and kept on shrinking. An even tinier gray disc wafted into view from one side of the frame, and joined Equestria dwindling in the distance.
"What's that gray speck?" Shining Armor asked.
Twilight glanced sidelong at Princess Luna. "That's the moon."
"That little thing?" Luna asked, incredulous. "That's what I've been raising in the sky every night? But it's so small!"
"It's two thousand miles across," Twilight told her. "You know, actually, I'm surprised we're seeing anything behind us at all. We should be going so fast the light can't catch up with us." She turned to Lemon Hearts. "We are at warp, aren't we?"
Lemon nodded. "Holding steady at warp factor one."
"Mmm hmm, that's light speed." Twilight squinted, then shrugged. "Maybe visible-light sensors work differently than our eyes do."
In less than a minute, Equestria was nothing more than a starlike point of pale blue light. "All right," Twilight said, "Viewscreen forward again."
Amethyst flipped the control again, and the screen showed the same familiar starfield dead-ahead. None of the stars had moved. The stars were so fantastically far away that even the ship's prodigious speed wasn't enough to shift their relative positions.
"We're going as fast as light," Twilight said, "But we need to go faster. From what I remember of the Borg's specs, the integer warp speeds represent local minima in the power requirement curve."
"Could you say that in English?" her older brother said.
"It means it's going to take a lot of power to get to warp two, but once we're at warp two it should be easy to sustain it. Well ... relatively easy, at least." She spoke into speaker 2: "Engineering, are you ready to make an attempt on warp two?"
"The warp engine's doing okay for now," a voice on speaker 2 replied, "It's actually kinda neat, watching the plasma pulsing through it. No problems so far, but that's all I can tell you."
"All right. Lemon, take us to warp two — slowly."
Lemon Hearts put her hoof to the lever and eased it forward. The background hum slowly rose in pitch and volume. "Warp one point two," she called out. The hum increased. "Warp one point four." The floor began to shimmy. "Warp one point six!" The whole ship was visibly shaking now. She tried to read the wiggling instruments. "Warp one point eight!" The shaking increased, hammering each unicorn in the hooves and the flanks.
"Cap'n!" speaker 2 blared. "The engine is overloadin'! It canna take much more o' this!"
Twilight puzzled. "Why are you speaking with a Scottish accent?"
"I don't know," speaker 2 answered. "I just ... it seemed ..."
And suddenly, the shaking ceased.
"Warp factor two!" Lemon announced. "And holding steady! Power consumption is back down in the green range."
"Yes!" Twilight cheered. "We're cruising at 10.079 times light speed! At this rate, we'll catch up with the Borg in sixteen hours." She turned to her bridge crew. "All right, folks. Let's spend the next two hours learning as many of the ins and outs of ship operations as we can. Then, bridge crew 2 takes over."
"Bridge crew two?" Rarity asked.
"Sure. Why do you think Vinyl Scratch is standing behind you? She's watching your console over your shoulder, for when she takes your station. We're going to be at warp two for 16 hours, and someone's got to mind the store the whole time. Most of us, myself included, have been up all night making final preparations for the mission. I want my main bridge crew bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when we engage the Borg, not worn down from working like a workhorse for a day-and-a-half. It'll be dinner, a long sleep, then breakfast, and if we plan it right you'll be back here at your stations two hours before we meet up with the Borg." And if the Borg don't see us coming and run for it, she thought.
"In the meantime," Twilight continued, backing out of her stall-station, "I'm going to go check out engineering and the atmospheric plant. ... So that I can get a feel for the rest of the HMS Rescue in action, you understand. If you need me, just call for me over the P.A. system."
"Oh," Princess Celestia spoke up, "My faithful student, there's something I'd like to know before you leave."
"Yes, your highness?" Twilight asked.
"What is 'starboard'?"