There has to be a way, Twilight thought, her stomach tied in knots again. There has to be a way! She scoured the voices of the collective, grasping at straws, desperately searching for anything — anything — that might offer a way to salvage this mission and save her friends.
"I'm ..." she said with a shaking voice, scanning the worried faces of her bridge crew, "I'm open to suggestions."
"You tried bargaining with them," Celestia said. "You offered them escape. Is there anything else they want, that we could give them in exchange for the ponies?"
"No," Twilight shook her head. Her eye stung with welling tears. "They've got what they want: fresh drones from a new species." She scowled. "Our biological and technological distinctiveness. It's just ... the collective is so different from any creature on Equestria. Every member of the collective is in the most intimate relationship you can imagine, and yet they're utterly devoid of any feelings. They don't even try to understand outsiders, except by assimilating them. The simple concept of making friends is utterly beyond their comprehension."
She stared at the metal cube on the viewscreen. "Maybe I need to show them the power of friendship." Then, to Amethyst Star: "Open a communications channel with the cube. Use the same subspace frequency they did when they talked to us."
Amethyst pushed a few buttons, and the viewscreen once again switched to an indistinct image of the cube's interior. "They've accepted. We're live."
"Occupants of the Borg cube," Twilight began, "To you, the local inhabitants you've recently assimilated are merely drones of species 14864. But to us, they're something more. They are our friends. We don't live in a collective like you do. Each of our minds is an island, each physical body an individual. Each of us can only interact with our surroundings through five narrow biological senses. But just like you, we are utterly dependent on one another for our mutual survival and prosperity. We form emotional bonds, attachments with the individuals that make the greatest difference in our lives. We can become so familiar with each other that we and our friends form a little collective of our own, a collective based not on high-bandwidth data links but on personal interaction and the knowledge accumulated over a lifetime. When you took our friends from us, you severed that collective. You caused untold suffering and loneliness, not only in the unicorns you left behind but in the minds and hearts of each and every pony you turned into a drone. For their sake and ours, please, I beg you, consider releasing them from your collective so that they may rejoin ours."
"Well put," Celestia whispered to her. "I couldn't have said it better myself."
The reply came swiftly and as flatly as ever: "YOUR DESIRES ARE IRRELEVANT. YOU WILL RELEASE THIS CUBE'S WARP REACTOR. WE WILL NOT RELINQUISH THE RECENT DRONE ACQUISITIONS, NEITHER SPECIES 14864 NOR SPECIES 14865."
"Who is species 14865?" Twilight asked them.
The transmitted image on the viewscreen changed. Now, it clearly showed one Borg drone. Like the other drones, it stood on two legs; but this one was much smaller. "THIS IS SPECIES 14865," the speakers said. Even through the metal plating on this drone, the sickening off-gray skin, and the gadgets attached to its head, the body plan was unmistakable. Its head was enormous in proportion to the rest of its body. Tiny fangs protruded from its mouth. And sticking out the back, behind its two stubby legs, was a tail.
A scaly tail.
Twilight screamed. "SPIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIKE!"
She didn't know exactly what happened next. Only her bridge crew saw it. Her horn and her natural eye both burst forth in blinding white light. The next second, she was ten miles away, inside the Borg cube and right next to the drone that had once been Spike. She didn't notice the metal walls around her. She didn't notice the other drones who turned and marched toward her. She didn't even notice the metal plating and faraway look in Spike's eyes. All she saw was the light of her life, the little dragon that had been her companion since before she first stepped foot in Ponyville, in the thrall of Equestria's worst enemy. There was no planning. There was no thought. There was only Twilight's raw, protective instinct. She threw her forelegs — natural and artificial — around Spike, her horn flashed once, and she and Spike reappeared on HMS Rescue's bridge.
A chorus of gasps rose from her bridge crew.
"Spike!" Twilight shouted as she came back to her senses. "What have they done to you?!"
Spike only stared at her with dead eyes. "I am eighth of ten, quinary adjunct of Unimatrix seventy-two," he said with no emotion. "Return this drone to the cube."
"Spike," Twilight half-whispered, almost pleadingly desperate, "I know you're in there somewhere. I know you can hear me. Follow my voice. Can you get any kind of message to me at all?"
The tiny drone only stared blankly at her and said, "Resistance is futile."
Twilight's heart sank. She shut her eye and shook her head. Hard. She couldn't shut off the thermograph that had replaced her left eye, though, and it showed Luna getting uncomfortably warm. The dark princess was beginning to pant. The strain of suppressing the cube's warp engines was getting to her. And all Twilight had to show for her efforts was a puppet of the collective that had once been Spike. The Borg's hold on him was absolute. No force of will, no matter how strong or how pure or how dedicated, could ever hope to get past circuit 121840.
In a mix of hope and desperation, Twilight quickly scanned Spike's body and located where the Borg had installed circuit 121840 on him. It was at the top of his spine, where the vertebrae met the skull. She concentrated, and the wavy lavender-pink glow of her normal magic surrounded her horn. Staring intently, she focused her magic into a wire-thin tight beam, and aimed it directly at circuit 121840. It hissed. It sizzled. Then, it popped.
He looked up into Twilight Sparkle's hardware-clad, expectant face, and gasped as the full force of what just happened finally hit home. "Twilight!" He jumped up and threw his little arms around her neck. "It was horrible! I wanted to tell you, I wanted to stop them, but I couldn't, I couldn't!"
Twilight fell to her knees and held him as tightly in her forelegs as she'd ever held anyone. Tears of joy streaked down her face. "I know, Spike, I know! I thought I'd never see you again!" She held him at forelimbs' length to take him all in. He looked awful, metallic, gray, disfigured by the weight of all that circuitry — and the light in his eyes was the most beautiful thing in the world. "Oh, Spike! We're going to get you home."
She looked up at the cube on the viewscreen, then released her young dragon friend and stood. "We're going to get everyone home." She listened in on the collective again, trying to separate the voices in the cube from the rest of the galaxy-wide chatter. Then she pressed the P.A. stud. "Attention crew. Attention all unicorns! I need every one of you to focus all your magic through me. I'm going to redirect your powers at the control circuits in the Borg drones."
Shining Armor balked. "That cube's nearly two miles on a side. There must be over a hundred thousand drones on board. How are you going to pick out the ponies from all the rest of them?"
Twilight's eye began to glow white as one unicorn after another began feeding its magic into her horn. She took a deep breath, and answered: "I'm not."
As the magic from all over the ship coalesced in the horn on her forehead, it glowed every color of the rainbow at once. It was more raw power than she had ever handled, and it nearly overwhelmed her. Only her determination kept her focused. She strained to keep her targets in her mind, to coordinate the massive energies she was about to loose with the data about the cube's occupants being fed to her by her transceiver. And at last, she fired her shots. 130,000 narrow lances of magic force crossed the ten-mile gap to the Borg cube, each targeted on a separate circuit 121840. Circuits sizzled and popped like popcorn, over and over, in wave after wave throughout the floating city-in-space that housed the Borg. For most drones, confusion reigned, as the collective that had controlled them since they were old enough to crawl ceased its grip on them. For the ponies, they awoke from a week-long nightmare of seemingly-inescapable slavery.
Twilight, panting from the effort, listened to the collective for confirmation. "That's done it!" she cheered between breaths. "Every Borg on that cube is free of the collective's grasp!" She turned to her brother. "Shining Armor, open a hole in your barrier. Quickly, before any of the Borg regain control!"
Shining Armor wasn't sure what she had in mind, but he didn't argue. A circular space opened in the pink-magenta bubble outside, the size of a house's front door.
Twilight focused on the collective again, and found the command pathway she was looking for. In the Borg's current state of confusion, she hoped they wouldn't be able to plug this gaping hole in their security. She sent one overriding command to the cube: Beam every member of species 14864 into the big empty space inside the locals' ship.
Instantly the Borg's transporters came to life, and ponies laden with Borg implants started appearing in flashes of green light. They appeared so fast, in clusters so large, that it was impossible to count them all. The vast, once-empty cavernous interior of their quarter-mile-long space ship was soon filled to the brink with every earth pony and every pegasus pony of Equestria. Dazed and confused, some sobbing, some cowering — but all alive and all free.
Twilight made a pass across her data feed one more time, to make sure nopony was still left aboard the cube. "That's all of them!" she said. "Close the hole in the barrier."
"You got it," Shining Armor said, beaming with pride at his little sister. The space in the bubble around their ship irised shut.
"Amethyst," Twilight said, "Can you make the viewscreen show the inside of our ship? I want to see the ponies in the hold."
Amethyst Star smiled. "So do I." She fiddled with a couple of switches, and a sea of ponies filled the viewscreen. Their faces would be unrecognizable; but their manes and cutie marks should still —
"Rainbow Dash!" Rarity called out. "There she is, in the back!"
"Applejack!" Twilight said, pointing with her artificial foreleg. "Or ... or maybe that's another member of the apple family. But there's Fluttershy, off in the far corner! And ... and there's Pinkie Pie!" She watched the pink-haired Borg-implant-clad pony bound up and down, and more tears of joy came to her eye. "Even Borg implants can't keep her down!"
"And, hey," Shining Armor piped in, "Is that Scootaloo?"
"Next to the gray one!"
Twilight looked at him with a jaundiced eye. "They're all gray."
"Well, anyway," Twilight regained her composure, "There's one more piece of business we need to attend to. Amethyst, open a communication channel with the Borg cube again."
Amethyst closed the circuit, and this time, a single Borg drone appeared. It looked lost. "I am third of six," it said, still monotone but with an uneasy edge to it. "What do you want?"
"Broadcast this message to all drones throughout your cube," Twilight demanded. "You know how to do that."
Without a word, the drone complied, and now over a hundred thousand tiny drone images all vied for space on the ship's one viewscreen.
"Your collective no longer gives you orders," Twilight said, "So you'd better listen to me instead. You may eventually figure out a way to plug yourselves back in to collective control. You may choose to do so, or you may choose not to do so. But if and when you do, remember this: This entire solar system is off limits to the Borg. Leave, and do not ever return. If any Borg vessel so much as sticks its nose inside of the inner comet cloud again, we will use our unicorn magic to destroy you." She turned to Amethyst. "End transmission."
The comm went dead. The viewscreen once again showed only the view ahead.
"Okay, Luna, release their warp engines."
"Are you sure?" the dark princess asked between heavy breaths.
Twilight nodded. "They're no longer a threat."
Luna stopped the flow of black magic from her horn, and collapsed from exhaustion. On the screen, the Borg cube vibrated slightly, then shot off into the distance at warp nine — directly away from the ship and from Equestria. It dwindled to a point and was gone.
Twilight pressed her P.A. stud one more time. "Crew," she announced. "We did it. We did it!"
The thundrous applause of hooves on decks shook the entire ship. Everypony on the bridge stared at her, beaming in admiration as they joined in the applause.
"Let's go home!" she concluded, and released her P.A. stud.
"Um ... Twilight?" Luna asked.
"You know unicorn magic can't destroy them, right?"
Twilight smirked. "They don't know that."
"Ooh," Luna mused, "Devious!"
"Lemon Hearts," Twilight said, "Turn the Rescue back around and take us to Equestria." She remembered their last time going to warp, and added, "But mmmaybe we should keep it down to warp factor one this time."