The Borg were no longer lost among the stars on the viewscreen. Now, without even having to go to maximum magnification, the cube shape was unmistakable — and grew larger by the moment.
For Twilight, the past sixteen hours had felt ... strange. She'd grown used to having the Borg's entire knowledge base at her beck and call over the last week. To have that grand library turned off, and have to rely only on her memory and her written notes for information, almost felt crippling. Perhaps this was how the collective had gotten started in the first place. She could certainly see how an early civilization that had invented such technology would consider it a monumental blessing. And when the combined knowledge, thoughts, and feelings of an entire species were all updated and shared each instant, who could tell what emergent properties such a meta-mind might have?
It might even have been a thing to strive for, if not for that tiny circuit inside their transceiver — officially called circuit 121840 by the Borg — that her horn had had the good sense to burn out. Subjugating the subject's will to the collective! What sick and twisted motivation had driven the Borg to invent such a circuit? Why had they seen fit to install it in each and every individual, even those born among their numbers?
Twilight didn't know. And as they inched ever-closer to the Borg cube containing every earth pony and pegasus pony on Equestria, she couldn't afford the luxury of finding out. "We'll be caught up with them in one minute," she said. She glanced around the bridge. "Are all of you ready?"
Shining Armor nodded, and glanced at his wife. "I'm ready."
Princess Cadance looked back at her husband. "I'm ready."
Princess Celestia stared off into infinity. "I'm ready."
Princess Luna's eyes narrowed on the cube on the viewscreen. "I'm ready."
Lemon Hearts patted her warp drive control lever with her hoof. "And I'm ready."
Twilight closed her eye for a couple of seconds. "We're going to get one shot this. We can't give them the opportunity to throttle up to high warp." She glanced at the chronograph by her left flank. "Forty seconds ... thirty seconds ... twenty seconds ... ten seconds...." The Borg cube loomed large on the viewscreen, even as Amethyst reduced the magnification further and further. "Five, four, three, two, one, In range! GO!"
A black cloud blossomed from Luna's horn and lanced forward, passing through the front wall as though it didn't exist. The black magic raced across the intervening megamile of vacuum, enveloped the entire Borg cube, then drained through the openings in its hull and at last found what it was seeking. Luna announced, "Got 'em!"
With a flick of her hoof, Lemon Hearts yanked the warp lever all the way back. HMS Rescue fell out of warp instantly. At the same time, Shining Armor and Cadance touched their horns together, and sent out a shimmering pink-magenta bubble that expanded to surround the entire starship's hull. Finally, Celestia's horn flared into white brilliance and fed its own power into the enormous ship-enveloping bubble.
"The Borg's warp drive is now suppressed!" Luna said, maintaining her black magic.
Amethyst looked at the Borg cube filling the screen, and her eyebrows shot up in surprise. "And we're down to one-to-one magnification! We ended up less than ten miles from the cube!"
"Fantastic timing, Lemon!" Twilight said. With a burst of pink from her horn, she reactivated the transceiver stuck to the side of her head. The billion voices, terrible and welcome at the same time, flooded back into her thoughts. "I'm in touch with the collective again. They seem ... confused."
A light blinked on Amethyst's console. She read the label. "What does 'carrier wave' mean?"
"It means they're sending us a message," Twilight said. "There should be a switch near that indicator light for opening two-way communications."
Amethyst scouted around, then brightened and said, "Oh, there!" She flipped the switch.
The image on the viewscreen switched from their own sensor image to a hazy view of Borg drones encased in dimly-lit metal. The Borg were sending video. From the speakers around the bridge came the same flat, quasi-monotone voice they'd heard booming in the air when the cube had arrived in Equestria's atmosphere a week earlier: "WE ARE THE BORG. RELEASE THIS CUBE'S WARP REACTOR."
Rarity gasped and shivered in fear at the voice.
Twilight's eye narrowed, and she answered: "We are from Equestria, the planet you just invaded. Return the inhabitants you've abducted!"
The reply came swiftly, and with equal flatness: "YOUR DESIRES ARE IRRELEVANT. RELEASE THIS CUBE'S WARP REACTOR."
A wide-angle cone of pale white light shot out from the cube toward the Rescue. It parted like a river flowing around a rock.
"That was their tractor beam," Twilight said. "Nice work, big brother! Looks like they can't grab onto us through your barrier."
Shining Armor shook his head. "That wasn't me, or Cadance. That was Celestia."
Twilight raised her one remaining eyebrow at her mentor.
"It's a protective spell I thought we might need," Celestia said, her horn still glowing white. "Looks like I was right."
The Borg tractor beam shut off, and in its stead a narrowly-focused cylinder of intense white coherent light stabbed out from the cube. It struck squarely on the pink barrier surrounding the ship and tried vainly to carve a hole into it. A butter knife would have stood a better chance of carving a hole into a diamond.
Shining Armor smiled. "That was me."
The cutting beam stopped, and a green glowing missile streaked from the cube and smashed into the barrier. No effect. Three glowing white quantum torpedoes followed. Again, direct hits on the barrier; and again, no effect.
"Your weapons can't affect unicorn magic," Twilight told her attackers, "And you can't adapt to it. Return the inhabitants of Equestria, and we will allow you to leave this solar system."
Then, the connection simply ... went dead.
"Hmmm." Twilight rubbed her chin with her remaining natural front hoof. "They stopped talking to us. No ulimatums, no refusals, no acquiescence. I don't know what to make of that reaction."
Rarity was still shivering with fear. "Wh-what if they teleport some of those dreadful drones of theirs aboard? They could beat us up, or muss my mane!"
"Don't worry," Twilight reassured her. "Unlike unicorn teleportation, their transporters don't work through deflector shields. My brother's barrier is enough like a deflector shield to keep them out."
Celestia looked concerned. "If they can't get in, and they can't hurt us, then I fear they may be trying to wait us out."
Twilight's heart sank. "Uh oh. I was ... really hoping we might be able to negotiate with them." She sighed. "Stalemate. Well, if they can play the waiting game, so can we. Right, crew?"
"Uh ..." Luna began.
Twilight turned to look at the dark horse princess. A thin bead of sweat was forming on Luna's brow. Luna said, "It's not as easy for me to hold their warp engines as I thought it would be. I can't sustain this indefinitely."
Twilight gritted her teeth in despair. She searched the Borg collective for signs that they might, maybe, give in; but the collective chittered with the same remorseless resolve as ever. "So if we can't break this stalemate, we lose."
And if we lose, two-thirds of the ponies in all Equestria lose.