Canterlot's main reception hall was packed to the rafters. So many ponies ... so many colors.
Twilight had been right about the earth ponies being better builders. Within an hour of being underway toward home, Applejack had studied the engineering diagrams they'd brought with them and come up with a way to reinforce the warp core. Twenty minutes later, HMS Rescue made a smoother transition to warp two than they'd ever thought possible. By the time they made atmospheric re-entry and landed on Equestria, various earth ponies had concocted procedures to remove the nanoprobes from their blood and divest every piece of Borg hardware from their bodies.
Some Borg implants, though, couldn't come off. There was no magic or science that could regrow a lost limb or a lost eye. Twilight's left leg and left eye were still artificial, and looked ... different against the natural lavender of her fur. The Borg transceiver was still stuck to the right side of her head, too, but that was ... voluntary. She wanted to be able to track the Borg should they ever decide to call her bluff. At least, that's what she told herself. In truth, instant access to the biggest library in the unverse was too tempting to resist. You might even say that resistance would be ... futile.
In fact, a few of the earth ponies had elected to do the same.
But contact with the collective had grown slower and more sporadic as the cube distanced itself from Equestria. The transceiver's range was incredible, but it wasn't infinite. Twilight, and a handful of the earth ponies who still had their transceivers, had spent their time scouring this mental library for technologies that had nothing to do with starship construction, and copying down every important scrap of data they could find. Who knew what the potential of any of the Borg's inventions might be, five or ten years down the line?
And now, less than two days after they'd landed, she stood proudly on the same dais she'd been on so long ago. The last time she'd been here, Princess Celestia had ceremonially commended her and her five closest friends for overcoming Discord. The throng facing her today beamed with a gratitude even greater than she'd seen on their faces back then. She looked up into the eyes of her princess expectantly.
"Mares and gentlestallions, fillies and gentlecolts," Celestia addressed the crowd, "We are gathered here today in appreciation of perhaps the greatest act of heroism Equestria has ever seen. Twilight Sparkle," she turned slightly to keep both Twilight and the crowd in view, "You've been my student for several years. I've watched you grow and mature, and I always knew a great destiny was in store for you. But I had no idea just how great you would become. I watched you shoulder the greatest burden I have ever seen anypony take on. I watched you take the reins of leadership, and turn Equestria's darkest hour into its finest. It's no exaggeration to say that two-thirds of the ponies standing here today owe their lives and freedom to you. And thus, it is my great privilege to bestow upon you the highest award any Equestrian can receive: the Canterlot Medal of Honor!"
The princess levitated a blue ribbon around Twilight's neck, from which dangled a metal disc bearing the Canterlot coat of arms and the simple Latin word VIRTUTE.
The crowd erupted into thunderous applause, stomping their hooves like it was going out of style. Cheers rose up that threatened to drown out even their applauding hoofbeats. Then, jumping up and down in place, Pinkie Pie called out, "Speech! Speech!" Then Applejack joined her: "Speech!" Then Rainbow Dash: "Speech!" And soon, the noise of the cheers had given way to a wall of sound echoing "Speech!"
Twilight blushed, and made ready to speak. The crowd noise spontaneously died away, accompanied by the occasional "Shhh!" to let her be heard. She cleared her throat. "I've never been more proud to be a unicorn than I am today. Two weeks ago, if you'd told me that unicorns who'd never picked up a hammer in their lives could build a working space ship, I would have said you were crazy. Every unicorn in this room, and nearly all of those who aren't, stepped up to an impossible challenge, and every one of you came through. We built something nopony had ever built before. We risked our lives by stepping on board an untested vehicle filled with high explosives, then hurtled ourselves through an airless void at an implacable foe. And we did it," she pointed at a throng of earth ponies and pegasus ponies in the audience, "Because our friends were worth saving."
"But, I'm afraid our job isn't over yet. We have only glimpsed the tiniest sliver of the true extent of the Borg. This one cube chose to leave us alone, but there is no guarantee they won't be back. We need vigilance. We need to build a network of orbiting sensor platforms that can cover every corner of the sky, to search for warp signatures and give us early warning should the Borg return. We need to take all this new technology that we've only just begun to grasp, and hone it into tools that will give us every edge against the Borg we can get. I'm not asking for another big push, like we undertook to get the HMS Rescue into space. I'm asking for a long term plan, for us to integrate this technological development into our daily lives. For us to become the same kind of high-tech species the Borg are, without becoming the Borg ourselves. This is not a plan for a week, or a month, or even a year, but for decades. Perhaps centuries. Your children and your grandchildren are going to inherit a world vastly different from the one we grew up in. We need to make sure that that world is a better one. A world in which we can all sleep soundly in the knowledge that the Borg can't abduct us in the middle of the night. Today, in this room, we celebrate our triumph. Tomorrow, let's start building that new world."
She stepped down, and there was more applause. The crowd began to break up into little groups as royal caterers started filtering among them with hors d'oeuvres. Princess Celestia fell into step beside her and said, "Let's go mingle." She lowered her voice. "That speech was a bit of a downer, don't you think?"
Twilight shrugged. "It had to be said. I didn't think I was going to get another opportunity to address so many ponies at once."
Celestia smiled. "Given what I've seen out of you the past week, I think you might be pleasantly surprised. You're a natural leader."
Twilight looked down as the two of them made their way across the room. "I don't know if that's a good thing, or bad."
"Twilight!" Rarity came trotting up to her. "I must see this new medal of yours up close!" She stared at it, and her smile vanished. "Why, it's so plain! It's just a bronze disc stamped with one word and a single design. No gemstones, no scrollwork, no shimmering aura of magical light. It hardly seems worthy of your accomplishments!"
"For once, I agree with Rarity," Applejack said, joining them. "You'd think Equestria's highest award would at least have a couple o' rhinestones on it."
"The medal of honor isn't jewelry," Celestia explained. "What it represents needs no fancy decoration. Only a few ponies in history have ever been awarded this medal. Its design stretches back to a time before even I was born."
Rarity gasped. "But you're over a thousand —"
"That's right," the princess said. "Canterlot has some truly ancient traditions."
Twilight piped in, "The only way Celestia could have honored me any more than this would have been to make me a princess." She snorted. "Can you imagine that? Being turned into a princess by some sort of magic spell? Hah! Princess is a title of royalty. The only ways to be a princess are to be born a princess, or to marry a prince. You can't just grant someone princesshood like you were handing out a promotion!"
Princess Celestia looked away uncomfortably.
"So," Applejack changed the subject, "What're y'all plannin' to do with that gigantic space ship you've got parked outside Canterlot?"
"We could use it to learn from our mistakes," Twilight offered. "It's a prototype, built by unicorns. I'm still impressed it could fly at all. It's got working sensors, working control panels, a working structural integrity field, and working artificial gravity. Any one of those technologies probably has a thousand uses we haven't thought of yet. And ... well ... who's to say we won't decide to build more starships?"
Applejack balked. "What on Equestria for?"
"Well, there's a great big universe out there. We can't explore it with magic, but we can explore it with warp drive. Maybe we'll get lucky, and one of the nearby star systems will have a planet with that mysterious 'dilithium' stuff on it. Then instead of exploring at ten times the speed of light, we can explore at a thousand. We might even decide we want to build a whole exploration fleet to systematically observe all our stellar neighbors up close. We could call it ... star fleet!"
Applejack and Rarity stared at her, then glanced at each other.
"Okay, you're right," Twilight said, "That's a stupid name."
"Besides HMS Rescue," Celestia said, "We've also got an enormous fusion reactor that we built to supply the ship with antimatter fuel. Now that the mission is over, what are we going to do with such a large power plant?"
Twilight furrowed her one remaining natural eyebrow in thought. She thought of the challenges Equestria faced in its immediate future. Rebuilding Ponyville. Caring for and harvesting crops that had gone unattended for over a week. Building this new technological infrastructure. It seemed like more burden than blessing. Then she thought of all the various and sundry automated machines she'd seen Borg plans for, some of which could perform the labor of a dozen ponies and all of which required outside energy to run. She envisioned armies of automated tractors plowing fields and reaping crops. She envisioned motorized trucks hauling lumber instead of pony-drawn carts. She thought of all the ponies could do when freed from back-breaking drudgery, and the answer was clear.
"Simple," she said. "We use the power plant to uplift the world."