P. E. R.
Michelson and Morely
The Speed Of Right
The jitney caravan from Albuquerque to Oklahoma city traveled on the remains of old highway forty. Before the Austerity War, before the Great Collapse, the Northamerican Production Zone had been divided into two societies called 'nations'. A nation was something like a smaller version of the Corporate World Government, except it only exploited a small part of the world. Back then, the whole planet was divided into these little 'national' corporations, each trying, in its own way, to ultimately take over and merge with the rest. The inevitable result was a merger of all the corporations into the Worldgovernment, but the process was slow, and used up almost all of the Earth's resources, and resulted in the near total destruction of the biosphere.
The road the caravan traveled had been built in pre-Collapse times, and that it still remained, albeit in a broken and sometimes incomplete form, made it quite the wonder to see. It spoke of an age where resources were so plentiful that large-scale construction for the majority of people was undertaken, where bridges and roads were built for even the poor to use. These ruins from a grander age also brought anger - they had so much, back then, and they left nothing for anyone after them.
Ginger watched the sky brighten, the perpetual smog layer slowly gaining a diffuse light that made it possible to see the landscape and the wonders upon it. In the dim, yellow-gray light, the broken, tall towers of Bridgeport stood like spikes against the sky. It was hard to imagine the scale of life back then, before the Collapse. Everyone, even the poor, must surely have lived like gods, with food on every corner and electricity all the hours of the day.
Nutmeg was asleep, hunched over Ginger, pressed tight into him because of the intense crowding. The pair had not been lucky - Ginger had used some of their incredible wealth to purchase an impressive store of alcohol which he then used as payment both for the journey, and for a window seat in the middle Jitney. It was a clever choice - the windows never had any transpex in them, they were always open in a Jitney, and they were wide, too. The air would keep them from baking, and reduce the stench of such close company. It was a prime place to be.
The middle jitney car in the caravan had advantages too - if the caravan was attacked from the front or the rear, both of them would be able to react and possibly escape, and if an attack came from the side, they would see it first and have at least one car beside them to act as a shield of sorts - jitney caravans did not travel single file.
The caravans ran mostly on alcohol, which is why Ginger had used that for barter, but they could also make use of kerosine if it was available, and as a last resort solar. Solar power required days of charging to run for mere hours, and was the slowest option and the most dreaded. But no caravan had escaped having to use it at some point or another, when other fuels ran out. This trip, thanks to Ginger's generous payment, had been swift and entirely alcohol powered.
They had gone east, of course, because there were only three directions to go, and only one of those made any long term sense. The Barrier had already taken most of the south-west coast of the Northamerizone, The vast curve of the bubble just beginning to engulf the ruins of Las Vegas. California had nearly ceased to exist, along with much of Oregon and part of Washington. By next year, the edge of the Barrier would be nibbling at the Great Lakes. There was no question that the expansion had some kind of an exponential quality to it. For those not yet ponified, the fifth year after Year Zero, the year in which the Conversion Bureaus had opened, would be a year of constant evacuation.
Four years since Zero, five since First Contact. Two years left. The Jitney caravans mostly carried passengers only East.
Ginger let his partner sleep. He wanted to move, though - his buttocks had fallen asleep, and his leg was halfway there, tingling ominously with the threat of a cramp. He had no choice. "Nutmeg? Nuh-huh-hut-meg.... wakey wakey, hay and cake-y... Nutmeg?" he gently stroked the back of her neck, it usually worked.
Nutmeg slowly pulled herself up, her neck and back in agony from sleeping hunched over. As she groaned, Ginger tried to loosen her muscles with a surprisingly strong grip. Eventually her groans turned to moans of relief. "T-thank you, oh Celestia, thank you. I was... cramping up pretty bad there." She indicated her left shoulder, which Ginger gave a few more squeezes for good measure.
"I... really need to shift a bit, Nutmeg - my legs are going to sleep, as well as...my flanks, if you catch my drift." Ginger stretched as best he could in the confined, crowded car, pressing with his feet as he flattened like a board in the seat. His head bumped against the passenger behind him, to whom he apologized profusely. Ginger stuck his head and shoulders out of the window, and tried standing that way, holding carefully and tightly onto the edge of the vehicle as he rose above the top.
On the roof of the Jitney were dozens of people in the economy seats, exposed constantly to the open air. There were advantages and disadvantages to riding up on top - it was cooler and it smelled less, but it was much more dangerous and sunburn, even through the smog layer was a serious issue. If it rained, the economy seats became -for some at least - a miserable hell.
Over the miles, Ginger had tried to work out why the Squamous PER, why Copper Baron Barnsour had been so determined to risk everything to wipe out the New Mexico Human Liberation Front headquarters. It seemed ridiculous, really - New Mexico really didn't have that long before it would be entirely absorbed by the expanding Barrier. The Bureau in Albuquerque was only months from being closed in any case, and they all would have needed to move well before the end of the year.
It certainly wasn't for the fools in Squamous City, going about their lives as if Equestria simply didn't exist. The perpetual smog layer made it easy to ignore Equestria to an extent - the Barrier should be visible across nearly the entirety of the Western Hemisphere, save for the world spanning smog. The human capacity for denial was almost infinite. Undoubtedly, in a cold, uncaring, mechanical universe of hopeless scarcity, intrepid denial was an evolutionary advantage - it fought despair. But it also allowed the most colossal errors in judgement, too.
No, there was only one reason Barnsour and the rest would have fought the HLF. For the future, for the bureaus east, in St. Louis, in Minneapolis, Lancing, Memphis and all the rest, and to protect, of course, the big PER base in Assiniboia. The HLF had been dealt a crippling blow, not only in New Mexico, but throughout the rest of the Northamerizone. Ginger felt for the credit stick in his pocket. Half of the war chest for the entire HLF rode with him, in that silvern stick. The other half was somewhere North, possibly even Assiniboia by now. Barnsour may well have effectively destroyed the HLF as a viable threat forever. Or at least the next two years.
But it had cost Barnsour his life, along with every other pony in the Squamous PER. Thrown flasks versus sharpshooters. If it hadn't been for the ringer he'd found in Gladiola...
"Are we there yet?" Nutmeg helped Ginger to squeeze back into the jitney. It was not always an easy task, as any vacancy was filled by the constant pressure of human bodies against each other in the cramped car. "Your flanks doing any better?"
Ginger made a weary smile. "I've got feeling back, but... my tail is still asleep. My tailbone, I mean. And it feels... well it doesn't feel at all fabulous. I guess, in this moment, I'm glad my tail is only a quarter of an inch long!" Nutmeg giggled, more from politeness than humor. It had been a long and difficult trip, and there wasn't much real humor left between the two of them.
The waiter had been appalled that the order was vegetarian. The world might be outright dying, only two percent of the population still had real jobs, and an alien bubble was devouring the entire planet, but one thing Oklahoma City would always have was goddamned steak on the menu. It might not be the best meat. It might be grown in tanks in the back from cell cultures, but it was beef, after a fashion, and why in all hell and damnation would two idiots walk into a frikkin' steak house, the ONLY steak house in the whole of Oklahoma, and order the vegetable soup and salads and not a lick of steak?
He shook his head. They had money, no doubt about that, though they certainly didn't look like they were Elite. Must be slumming it. Corporate Overlords in disguise was what Joey the Cook said. Just smile and don't cause trouble, because with that sort, it was one wrong move away from being the latest exhibit at the Blackmesh-run Torture Prison. The salads were ready - hydroponic grown, also in the back, using equipment from one of the decommissioned Conversion Bureaus that had existed back when there was still a west coast.
Nutmeg picked at her salad. The soup had tasted funny, clearly some of the vegetables were nanofabricated fakes. Surprisingly, the salad was pretty good. She and Ginger had gotten used to eating fresh, tasty foods four days a week at the Enclave, thanks to some secret connections with several Conversion Bureaus. While the official policy was always that the PER ran contrary to the stated mission of the Conversion Bureaus and the Worldgovernment AND Celestia Herself, the fact was that there were sympathizers in the Bureaus and in parts of the corporate government too. Those who understood the flat fact that the world was ending, and that the only viable escape - pipe dreams about space ships and mars colonies were as realistic as they had been in Pre-Collapse times - was ponification, made many willing to secretly assist the PER and its agents.
The bottom line was that some humans genuinely wanted to prevent people from dying for stupid reasons - Mankind as a whole might be greedy, shortsighted and cruel, but individual people were often driven by genuine compassion and altruism. Equestria was a lifeboat, the earth was a sinking ship, and if the PER were willing to fight to save a few of the stupid ones despite themselves then, well, more power to them was the feeling. There were not a few in both the Worldgovernment and the Bureaus that felt frustrated, and couldn't understand why humanity, as a whole, was not fleeing in droves to Equestria instead of apparently ignoring the very end of the world.
"What do we do, Ginger?" The salad reminded Nutmeg of a happy lunch she had once eaten, helping her cousin Celia feel more comfortable on her first day at the Conversion Bureau in Phoenix back before it had closed. Nutmeg had lost one of her guaranteed fourteen Bureau days, spending it with Celia, but it was worth it. Celia had settled in nicely, and Nutmeg had never forgotten that fantastic lunch... or the dinner, later. Celia had become a quietly content unicorn named Indigo, just 'Indigo', for the color of her luxurious, royal coat. Indigo was in Equestria now, with an earthpony stallion named Greensward, and last Nutmeg had heard, she had a foal on the way. That was almost two years ago.
"Arugula, mizuna... that's tat soi... and frisee, oakleaf, red chard..." Ginger looked up "...this has to be radicchio and that is definitely mustard greens. Pretty amazing restaurant, I'd say. Maybe they import food from Equestria, you think? At these prices, it could very well..."
Nutmeg was not interested in Ginger's extensive knowledge of salad. "Where are we going, Ginger? Seriously. Everypony's...." She just managed to not cry "...I really need to know what the plan is here. I need... to have something... to cling to. Where are we going?"
Ginger looked down at his plate. He sighed, softly, before meeting Nutmeg's intense gaze. It would be pointless to question Nutmeg about what she wanted to do... that wasn't what she was asking. She wanted direction, not discussion. What she was really after was some kind of stability, some kind of goal.
Ginger felt a twinge of resentment for that... always he was put into the role of having to make decisions for the two of them. He wished that he had someone to take that burden from him, that Nutmeg might have some answers, some direction for him to follow. Somehow he had gotten stuck in the role of playing the... leader in all of this. He hadn't wanted to be.
He studied the look on Nutmeg's face, her body language. The trauma of what had happened had hit her deeply. She was in a more desperate place right now. It wouldn't be loving to not help. Nutmeg was like a little sister to Ginger, he would just have to keep being her big sister, that was all there was to it.
"Nutmeg..." Ginger tried to be as calm and reassuring as possible. "...there is a large PER presence here in Oklahoma City. Most of the groups from California and Oregon moved out here when Equestria hit land. I remembered that Secretariat regularly sent correspondence here, to somepony named Crusader. Grey. Grey Crusader. He's some kind of big PER organizer and leader type. I always figured he might even be one of the original agents, but... who knows?"
"Do you think Secretariat made it? She has a foal." The question was flat, but deep with emotion underneath.
"I can't imagine that Barnsour would have let her go on the mission. I'm... sure he would never have allowed it. She's probably safely in hiding with little Seabiscuit with her. I'm certain of it." Ginger wasn't at all certain, but he made every effort to act as if he were. It was strongly rumored that Seabiscuit was Barnsour's and that he and his secretary were more than close. Ginger privately feared that Secretariat would have gone with her lover, unwilling to not share his fate. Ginger would have done the same thing. In any case, little Seabiscuit would be with Secretariat's sister, well taken care of, safe and hidden.
"We should have gone back... shouldn't we?" This was the first time Nutmeg had brought this up. But then, they had both been in shock over it all.
"Nutmeg..." Ginger shook his head "If what we did at that high school locked the entire city down for a month, imagine what... is going on right now back there? Even going near the Enclave would mean arrest. A few conversions is a political embarrassment, not worth a real investigation. But Operation HLF..." There would be Blackmesh likely swarming the Enclave by now, having finally had reason to seriously search it out. There was no going back. "We can never return, Nutmeg. There is no... 'there'... to go back to, anymore."
Nutmeg held a leaf in her fingers - oakleaf lettuce, Ginger automatically noted - and studied it "This friend of yours, the grey guy... will he take us on, as agents?" She carefully placed the leaf in her mouth and sucked on it.
"He's not my friend... at least, not yet. I only know of him because our Enclave sent reports to his new base. I don't even know where the base actually is, except somewhere here, in Oklahoma City. But I think he is our best bet right now." Ginger watched Nutmeg finally chew and swallow the leaf. "If nothing else, we need to report to him what happened. We need to tell somepony in the PER, no matter what. They need to know the situation from somepony that was there."
"What about Gladiola? She went north, right? Wouldn't she just head for Saskatchewan and report to central command directly?" Nutmeg took a sip of her Nanocola (Now! With taste you can't see!)
"You know as much about Gladiola as I do, Nutmeg. I'd like to think that is where she went. But..." Ginger shivered slightly "...she was a little too... mercenary, a little too professional, you know? Now she's rich beyond avarice. I have no idea what some -human- like that will do."
It was true. Some humans, the first time in meeting them, it was like - pony - only a matter of time. It was like they were already a pony inside, in some way, and they just hadn't gotten around to getting their body properly shaped. But other humans, like Gladiola... it was hard to imagine them ever taking the purple.
They had tried carefully hinting and searching around the city, but had so far found no sign of the Oklahoma PER. They'd tried checking for Marks - the little cutie-mark like sigils that indicated entrances to PER stashes or contact points, but had found nothing. They'd even tried outright asking if any of the humans knew about the PER, but beyond various opinions as to what the PER could stick where, they had come no closer to contacting them.
By the third day, they had both begun to doubt whether Ginger had remembered correctly.
Finally, Nutmeg had an idea. "Gingey... what if we tried that thing."
"Thing? What thing?"
"The thing from the ad. On the holo. The big advertisement the PER managed to get through the Ministry? The one with the guy in the street?" Nutmeg waved her arms, trying to get... something... across.
"Guy in the street? You've completely lost me." Ginger was willing to try anything at this point, but he had to comprehend what it was, first.
"Okay, okay... there's this guy, and he goes out into the middle of the street and the voiceover says that the PER are everywhere, and that if you need to be converted at any time, day or night, just yell out 'Crusade Me!' - it was the whole 'PER Crusades The Earth, Join The Crusade' campaign. It was all over the holo. There was all that fuss that they allowed it and everything?" Nutmeg was practically dancing with frustration, trying to get the idea across.
"I'm sorry, Nutters, but I never saw that. I really didn't follow the holo stuff for a while. 'Kill your holo, free your mind' and all that?" They were making their way down a street called 'North Mickey Mantle Drive' - Ginger figured it probably was in honor of that Pre-Collapse cartoon mouse that was so famous way back when. Around them walked ponies and humans in roughly equal measure. The ponies were increasing in number, though, according to the locals, in direct proportion to the closeness of the approaching Barrier.
Nutmeg ignored the annoying play on her name. "Why don't we do that!"
Ginger stopped and stared at Nutmeg "But we don't want to get converted - I mean we do, of course we do - but we want to do it honorably. If that actually worked, then they'd probably just start tossing potion at us, and... we'd never be able to redeem ourselves... for... for..." Ginger didn't have to say it.
"Maybe we could get them to stop in time. We could shout out to them, 'Halt! We're PER ourselves! We just want to make contact!' or something like that! Frankly, Ginger, I don't know what else to do!" Nutmeg had a look on her face that made Ginger want to cry. That wasn't good. "We've lost our Enclave in Squamous. We can't go back and this... it just isn't working. We need to do something, anything... or we might as well just go to the local Bureau and just be done with it."
Nutmeg hung her head. Ginger agreed with her. They might as well do it, nothing else had worked. It was either that or the Bureau, and if they couldn't reason with the local PER, the end would be the same. They might as well. "Alright, if you want to try it, then... what the hay. There's an intersection up ahead. Let's just go stand in it and scream 'Crusade Me', and see what happens."
"I wouldn't recommend it." The voice came from a light gray stallion standing in the shadow of a stairwell. He had a white mane and tail and was wearing a darker gray Borsalino fedora with a gutter-dent, side-dented crown. It was actually a rather classy look, though it fairly screamed 'old movie detective'.
"W-why is... is that?" Ginger and Nutmeg were both taken aback. They weren't sure what they were dealing with. It was a pony, that was good. But not all ponies supported or approved of the PER. Most were staunchly loyal to Celestia's stated opinions of things, and Her Majesty's public opinion of the PER was not even slightly positive.
"Well, for one thing..." The stallion in the hat stepped out from the stairwell "... you'd be drowning in potion before you finished saying 'Me', which isn't necessarily a bad thing, except that you two seem to have some unfinished issues. Still would probably be the best thing, even so."
"Listen... all we want is to find the local PER. We have to find them. Do you know how we can do that... please?" Nutmeg clung tightly to Ginger.
"I AM the PER." The stallion tossed his head and caught his classy hat with a front hoof. Underneath, his white mane matched his tail. His eyes were intense, the look on his muzzle a smirk. "You are just about the least stealthy Fifth Columners that I have ever met. Only that old fat-ass Barnsour could have recruited you. He always valued loyalty above actual skill, and look where it got him." The look on the faces of the two humans made the stallion instantly regret his words.
"Hey, no sniveling now. You're PER!" Ginger and Nutmeg tried to put on brave faces. It was less impressive than they had hoped. "I just had to make sure you were for real. Follow me... I'm Crusader." The stallion flipped his fedora back on and turned away, headed up the street.
"Grey Crusader? You're Grey Crusader? You're exactly who we've been looking for!" Ginger was beyond happy, finally they would have the chance to make up for their failure. Finally things could work out for them.
"Yeah, I know. So does half the city. Did I mention you suck at surreptitude? You suck at surreptitude."
Ginger wasn't sure 'Surreptitude' was even a real word, but there was no way he was going to argue the issue. They had found other PER, they had found their herd. That was enough. That was everything.
Grey Crusader got the two refugees from the Squamous Enclave fed and showered and tucked into bed, which is to say he got others to take care of it, which was more than fine with him, and as far as he was concerned, how reality was supposed to work. Reality was rarely a problem for Grey.
He had known what Barnsour was planning - the Baron had called him just before the mission. Grey had told him not to do it, to wait for backup, to wait for the arrival of a serious force to support him, but the old bastard had always felt he had to prove something. It was that damn hot-pink coat of his. He always felt it was some kind of an affront to his stallionhood or something. Grey chuckled. It was a funny way to put it.
Neither of the two survivors was Barnsour's 'Ace', that was clear. He'd apparently felt invincible because of some new human recruit that could give a horsefly a bris at ten thousand hooves without using a scope. She was supposed to be Celestia's gift to gunmanship or something. Nopony had heard from her since the action.
Grey, before he had arranged for Barnsour's agents to be stabled, had sat them down and listened to their story. He'd sussed what their situations were, both as individuals and during the conflict, within the first ten minutes, but - feeling unusually charitable, what with all the tragedy and everything - had let them prattle on for nearly an hour. Most of the time he spent planning what to do with them, so the time hadn't entirely been wasted. Plus it settled them down and made him look good in the process. Not shabby.
The two were a pretty simple pair, really. They just needed to get ponified, stat, and everything would work out. But they were as stubborn as that old mule Barnsour, in their way, and one of the little secrets of ponification was that not every human wrinkle was always ironed out after a good, stiff belt of the purple sauce. Extremely strong feelings, attitudes and drives sometimes survived Conversion, even negative ones like vengeance and shame and guilt. It was rare, to be sure, but Barnsour himself was an example - his human ideas of masculinity had messed with his judgement and ultimately cost him his life. As well as most everypony that had followed him. Grey wasn't going to let that happen with these two. He owed that to Barnsour.
Even if it was a Pyrrhic victory, the fact was the HLF had been severely crippled. They might never recover, in fact. Not to what they had been. It was a hell of an achievement. A lot of ponies were better off for it.
So Grey had figured out a way to get these two sorted properly, so that they would take nothing negative with them into their true lives. It was a pretty clever plan, he felt, considering he made it up while distracted. The two would earn their precious little points, and they would be immediately taken care of according to their individual needs. But they wouldn't be agents anymore. They seemed nice enough, but... they were not PER material. Not to his standards. Good kids, but... not PER.
He'd get them sorted, then shipped express to Equestria. The world was coming to an end, soon. Softhearted foals like those two shouldn't have to deal with that. It could only get messier.
Ginger stared at the shape of his partner, Nutmeg. Once again, she was huddled under the covers, wrapped tight, as if somehow she could hold the sad at bay if she could only put up a strong enough blanket defense. Like the last few nights, he knew she wasn't asleep either, the grief in her mind greater than her exhaustion.
Ginger sighed. It was the pony thing to do. And... truth be told, he had to admit it helped him too.
Ginger waited. She was awake, she was just trying to act brave.
"Come on." She needed no coaxing. She was too proud to ask, but she needed it more than anything right now.
Nutmeg left her bunk and moved swiftly, embarrassed but grateful, to crawl in next to Ginger. She pressed her back in close to his, seeking warmth, comfort, closeness. It was only human. It was even more... pony.
Ginger reached back and patted her bottom. Nutmeg relaxed almost instantly. In minutes, she was asleep. She wasn't the stallion of Ginger's dreams, but she was warm, and she needed to be there. And maybe, just maybe, Ginger needed her there too.