Applejack trotted in through HMS Rescue's gangplank, her hooves ringing against the metal floor. Equestria's first — and, so far, only — starship hadn't so much as moved in nearly a month. Twilight Sparkle, Applejack's good friend and the savior of every earth pony and pegasus pony in the world, had speculated wildly back then. Flushed from HMS Rescue's victory against the Borg, dreams of a whole fleet of starships had danced in Twilight's head. She'd talked of microcircuitry fabrication, of networks of orbiting sensor platforms, of an entire industrial infrasrtructure powered by nuclear fusion, of a future stranger and brighter than any of them had ever imagined.
Now, a month later, the reality was somewhat less spectacular. Twilight's main efforts had gone not into laying the groundwork for a whole new high-tech society, but into simply rebuilding Ponyville. The Borg had excavated the entire town down to a depth of nearly a hundred feet. Filling in what was rapidly becoming known as "Ponyville crater" would have required more earthmoving than all of Equestria could muster in a year, so instead they'd elected to rebuild right on top of the exposed bedrock. Just digging new foundations had proven backbreaking. Applejack had heard the stories of other Earth ponies' attempts at building jackhammers with improvised Borg technology, and the comedies of errors that had followed.
Applejack herself had been too busy tending to Sweet Apple Acres. Her family's apple farm had, mercifully, been just outside the radius of Ponyville's destruction, and had survived the Borg invasion intact. But lying fallow for over a week hadn't done the farm any good, and she'd been determined to make up for lost time. Unlike Twilight, the Borg had left Applejack's eyes and forelegs intact; but her right hind leg hadn't been so lucky. The first time she'd tried bucking an apple tree to knock the ripened fruit loose, her artificial leg had smashed the tree clean off its stump. She'd had to adjust to the unnatural feel of kicking with her flesh-and-bone left leg as hard as she could, while "gently tapping" with her right leg, at which point the two would hit the tree with about equal force.
Applejack glanced absentmindedly at the long, dull corridor around her. Most of HMS Rescue these days was wasted space. The mission it had been built for required accomodating tens of thousands of earth ponies and pegasus ponies, which meant that its interior was downright cavernous. Applejack had a long, long trot from the entryway to the bridge. Every so often, she passed a piece of Borg-inspired technology decorating the otherwise bare walls.
Someday, those wonderful Borg inventions Twilight had downloaded the plans for would come to fruition. A network of electric power lines fanning out from the new fusion power plant; self-propelled electric tractors, whose batteries could be recharged over and over by tapping into that power grid; microelectronic circuitry that could make minor decisions for you; orbiting satellites that used such microcircuitry to operate without a crew; ... But today was not that day. Applejack had to take her turn operating the only working sensor suite on Equestria — the one the unicorns had built into HMS Rescue last month — to scan the distant skies for signs of another Borg spacecraft.
Not that anyone expected to see another Borg spacecraft, after the thrashing the last one had been through. Applejack had been slaved to the Borg collective during the cube's warp 1 retreat, and could hear scattered notes of dread in their many voices. Unicorn magic scared them. Twilight's command to leave Equestria alone, with no threat of hunting the rest of the Borg down, would almost certainly have come as a great relief to the collective. Or at least, that was the hope.
Applejack went through the final door into the bridge, and glanced around. Only one other pony was here, working the sensor station. That station had been Amethyst Star's during the big rescue mission, but today it was occupied by someone with a slightly ... different personality.
"Heya, Pinkie!" Applejack said.
Pinkie Pie turned around and sproinged excitedly. "Applejack! C'mere, c'mere, look at this!"
Alarmed, Applejack approached the sensor station. "What's wrong?"
"Ooh ooh ooh!" Pinkie Pie pointed at a readout while jumping in place. Applejack squinted. Pinkie was pointing at the UVC gauge, which measured the intensity of short wave ultraviolet light coming from the direction the sensors were currently pointing. It was one of many digital readouts, which displayed each number by lighting up or darkening seven little red lines. Right now, it was reading 0.00014.
"Point oh oh oh one four?" Applejack said. "That's practically no ultraviolet at all. What's the big deal?"
"No no no," Pinkie giggled, "Look at it from the other side!"
Applejack trotted around the console and looked at the number upside down. The square characters looked roughly like "hIOOOO."
"It's Ed McMahon introducing Johnny Carson!" Pinkie exclaimed.
Applejack slapped a hoof to her forehead. "Oh, for Pete's sake, sugarcube! We're supposed to be scannin' the skies fer trouble!"
"I have been," Pinkie explained, speaking in her usual way-too-fast voice. "I moved the sensor thingies back-and-forth until I covered the whole sky, that took about two hours, then I went back and did it again, then I went back and did it again, then I went back and did it again, the sky is sooooooooooooooooo boring! It's almost as boring as watching paint dry, and I know all about watching paint dry, because when there were lots and lots and lots of me I had to watch paint dry because —"
"All right, all right," Applejack finally got a word in edgewise. "Well, don't worry your pretty little head, I'm here to take over for the next eight hours. You won't be due up again for at least another month."
"Yippee!" Pinkie cheered. "Now I can go and make cupcakes!" She zipped out of the bridge and bounded down the corridor too fast for Applejack's eyes to follow.
Applejack shook her blonde mane, then settled into the sensor station. All of the sensors were reading nominal. She moved the directional controls to the origin point on the celestial sphere, and began her first scan of the evening. Pinkie was right. Scanning the skies was boring. A machine that could do it all automatically would free a lot of them from drudgery. That automatic satellite microcircuitry Twilight had been talking about would sure come in handy for doing this scanning routine without somepony having to constantly twiddle the knobs and stare at the readouts.
A third of the way through her first scan, one of the readouts jumped. She blinked, then turned the azimuth knob back. There it was again, right at +1.3 radians from the meridian. The electron-neutrino flux meter, which normally never read above 0.006 unless pointed directly at the sun, was now reading 0.94.
It wasn't the first time Applejack had seen an electron-neutrino source, but it was still cause for concern. As before, she now switched on the positron-neutrino detector. It was more power-hungry than the electron-neutrino detector, and required more frequent maintenance, so they kept it turned off throughout most of a routine scan. If this was another natural neutrino source, the positron-neutrino reading should be much lower than . . .
The positron-neutrino meter flared to life and raced up to 0.92.
Applejack swallowed hard. "Oh, no, no, no," she said to herself. She brought the muon-neutrino and tau-neutrino detectors online. There were some natural sources that emitted positron-neutrinos, sure, but they all would show the same levels of the other neutrino generations, thanks to neutrino oscillation. But if those neutrinos were being carried through sub—
Muon-neutrinos read 0.47. Tau-neutrinos read 0.23.
Applejack broke out in a cold sweat. She frantically looked from one readout to the next. "Please be wrong, please be wrong!" . . . The UVC meter Pinkie had recently fawned over wasn't showing Ed McMahon any more. It was up to 0.033, and ticked up to 0.034 while Applejack was glancing at it. UVB was even higher. UVA fell off, but the numbers traced out a distinct curve. Whatever was putting out that neutrino signature was also glowing like a blackbody high in the ultraviolet. And the emission lines . . . the blueshift . . .
Applejack slumped. There was only one thing these readings could possibly add up to. Hoof shaking, she picked up the headset and punched in Twilight's number.
"Careful with that I beam," Twilight Sparkle said. "We're trying to rebuild Ponyville, not knock it down."
"Yeah yeah," the Earth pony carrying the beam grunted. "I've been building these C-frame stables for longer than you've been in charge. I know how to keep it safe."
Twilight shrugged, then cast her attention elsewhere. "Well, Spike," she said to the little dragonling by her side, "The new town of Ponyville Crater looks to be coming along, slowly but steadily."
"It doesn't look anything like the old Ponyville, though," Spike commented.
"The old Ponyville wasn't build on bedrock and surrounded by hundred-foot cliffs," Twilight said.
"I'm talking about all those new fancy buildings," Spike said. "Borg materials, Borg building designs — I don't wanna be reminded of that awful cube every time I walk down the street."
Twilight glanced at the skyline and frowned. "Yeah, I see what you mean. I went with the new building designs because they should have been quicker to erect, but so far, all I've achieved is confusing the construction crews. It'll take time for them to adapt."
Adapt. Now there was something her would-be Borg captors had talked about over and over again in the collective. She sometimes wondered if the push to use and share all this technology wasn't how the Borg originally got their start. The hand-held Borg technology communicators she'd had them start building just last week were all catching on like wildfire. Nearly everypony who had one found themselves chatting with their friends in every spare moment. They were, in a sense, forming their own miniature collective. Add in all the Borg bells and whistles, and maybe they wouldn't even want to resist their own assimilation.
Her communicator chirped. This one was only supposed to be used for official business, though.
"Applejack?" Twilight said into the hoof-held box. "What's up?"
Applejack's voice came through soft but ominously intense. "I just confirmed an incomin' warp signature from the outer solar system. Somebody's a-comin', and it could be the Borg."