The Conversion Bureau: Checkpoint

by Defoloce


⁄⁄⁄ ⁄⁄⁄ ⁄⁄⁄ ⁄⁄⁄ CHECKPOINT ⁄⁄⁄ ⁄⁄⁄ ⁄⁄⁄ ⁄⁄⁄

Paul stood in the middle of Interstate 95, shielding his eyes from the sun as he looked south along the highway. The shimmer of the midday heat was difficult to look past. It always seemed like a vehicle was coming into view just as he got tired of scanning and went to look away. Nothing ever did come, however.

The HLF had turned Exit 166 into a Pac-Man maze of Jersey barriers, dragon’s teeth, Czech hedgehogs, and concertina wire. For the moment, I-95 was the main artery into Equestria from all points south, with the Barrier just starting to absorb the eastern shore of the Potomac River. Anything traveling along the ground at any sort of respectable speed would have to come through there. Even so, it was just him there. The rest of the HLF working the DC-Maryland-Virginia area had pulled out west, scattering to build new strong points along the Mississippi. They were too few now, spread too thin. The Richmond Bureau was far enough away yet that they were still ferrying newfoals in via air carriage—not much he could do about that. By the time the Railroad would start working I-95, his checkpoint would be in Equestria anyway and he would be long gone.

The Barrier wouldn’t care. It would just keep coming after him.

Paul finally managed to break from the hypnotism of the asphalt and retreated back under the overpass. His aging blue Silverado was parked there. He had turned the bed into a makeshift camper by nailing sheets of particle board together into a crude box which sat on top of it. Behind his sleeping bag in the truck bed were three boxes of MREs, four gallon-jugs of water, and two cans of surplus M855 ammunition “borrowed” from the nearby abandoned Fort Belvoir.

The man took a quick inventory and realized his ammo would last him longer than his food and water. He was sitting on nearly eighteen hundred rounds, but he hadn’t had a reason to fire his M16 in weeks. He did, however, have to keep hydrated and keep eating. He winced as he remembered that the CLP in his cleaning kit was running low, too. The bolt carrier needed to be dabbed with a couple of drops of the stuff once per day, regardless of whether or not the weapon had to be fired. M16 bolts didn’t like to run bone-dry.

He walked past and poked at the fire he had going in the lee the truck provided him. It was built out of dead branches and scraps from the leftover particle board he’d salvaged. The resin in the particle board made the fire smell horrible as it burned off, and being around it for too long made his tongue feel like it was coated in oven cleaner. Still, it was heat, and even in the summer the temperatures out in the open could dip down pretty low at night. Better safe than sorry.

Paul didn’t feel very safe or sorry at that moment.

He reasoned he could perhaps get in one or two more sweeps of Belvoir before the magical whatever-it-was got too close for comfort, but every moment he was away from the checkpoint was a moment ponies could potentially slip through and make it to Equestria.

General order five, Paul reminded himself with a grim smile, quit your post only when properly relieved.

Of course, he didn’t have to follow that anymore. Not really. Now he was just some guy with a bright green brassard and a rifle. All alone.

Paul squatted down, popped a stick of gum into his mouth, and spent a few idle moments adjusting the cinder blocks demarcating the fire pit into a more perfect circle. He’d guessed awhile back that he was by himself here because people were afraid to be around him. Not too terribly long ago he had been FO on a mortar team on the Atlantic coast, responsible for fire missions at the points of first landfall. The Barrier slowly kept them moving south, just slightly out of range of that magical shit which killed you if you breathed it in. They were so close, though, and for so long, that when they pulled back from the coast, the other HLF treated them like they were radioactive anyway. Paul frowned. After all they’d done, too, just to be looked at like if he sneezed then colored light would spray out of his nose and turn into gumdrops.

They’d done good work, though. During the little campaign from Rehoboth down to Assateague Island, the team of four managed to bag nineteen ponies and even two humans with the Railroad (though their ponies had gotten away).

Paul chewed his gum. Should have been twenty. Nice round number.

“Hello?” came a woman’s voice.

Paul immediately unslung his rifle and scooted closer to the truck, careful to stand behind the rear wheel so that his feet couldn’t be seen. He contorted to peer around the corner of the truck and saw a pegasus mare looking up and around into the metal rafters above. Her coat was an eggshell white, her mane and tail a muted yellow.

His pulse quickened, and he scanned the approach for other ponies. It was just her. He wondered what was she doing there all by herself.

“Is anypony here?” she asked the overpass.

Paul knew that pegasi would take wing as soon as they felt threatened, so the flight urge had to be suppressed before closing with them. He hastily put his earplugs in, swung out from behind the truck, and took aim.

It worked. The checkpoint and the overpass itself were nothing but hard surfaces, and the twin reports of his gunfire boomed off all of them. The bullets had passed inches over her head, the supersonic cracks at that range nearly deafening in their own right.

She went down instead of up, flattening herself against the road. Paul smirked. Every Marine a rifleman. He assaulted.

Another scan as he moved towards her. Left, then right, then left. No other movement. He stood over her, the muzzle of his rifle pressed against a spot just above her right eye. She was shaking quietly, her ears wilted, eyes tightly shut. She didn’t make a sound.

“Those wings come out, I shoot,” he said quietly. “Do you understand? Nod if you understand.”

She managed two small nods, still shaking. Paul looked up and scanned again. No movement. He looked back down at her.

“Who’s here with you?”

“N-nopony.” That sure was a lie. Paul pressed the muzzle of the M16 slightly harder into her head as punishment. He looked up and scanned. No movement.

“Bullshit!” he said, still keeping his voice even and relatively quiet while letting the anger show through. He wanted her afraid, not panicked. “Ponies don’t travel alone. Not out here. Now I’ll ask again: where’s your friends?” He looked up and scanned. There was movement.

It was an earth-pony foal, running down the steep on-ramp hill which flanked the corner of the overpass at his ten o’clock. He made a beeline for the mare, sliding to a stop next to her and throwing his tiny sage-green body across hers.


The mare began to sob. “Oh... o-oh Celestia no... Freddy... Freddy, mama told you to stay hidden until she knew if it was safe!”

Paul’s nostrils flared, and he switched his gum to the other side of his mouth. Newfoals.

“Honey?” A man’s voice. Paul flicked his eyes up and saw a stallion standing awkwardly on the steep incline of the hill. He brought up his left hand and pointed to the stallion, his right hand still pointing the rifle at the mare’s head.

“Stay right there, dad,” he called out. “You’re not that fast.”

“P-please,” begged the mare. “We smelled smoke and we just made our way here to see if somepony needed help. We... w-we don’t have any money, if that’s what you’re after. We only have th—”

“I’m HLF,” he said quietly. “I don’t want your money.”

“Leave my mom alone!” shouted the young colt. Paul looked up and met the child’s eyes.

He’d killed a kid before. It had been in Basra, with I MEF, after 3rd Infantry and the British 7th Armored had cleared out northwest. His light convoy had been moving through the city to a new staging area when they were ambushed with small-arms fire. They had tried to move out of the kill zone, but they were blocked in. Gunfire was everywhere. Incoming, outgoing. Nothing could be heard. Someone had run out from under the shade of an awning with an RPG on his shoulder. The profile of an RPG-7 was unmistakable. Paul had been the only one to see it. There had been no time to process the age of the target. He raised his rifle and fired three shots. Semi auto. All three hit. Charlie kilo. Every Marine a rifleman.

The movies got it wrong. When people died that suddenly, they didn’t scream, or fly back, or twist and rattle. They just fell, limp, like a marionette with all of its strings cut. When his rounds hit, the kid had just... deflated.

Lead element had gotten the front obstruction cleared. Paul had jumped back into his seat in his HMMWV and the convoy tore ass out of there. He saw the body through his window as they sped by. The details of it were sharper and clearer in his mind than any other memory he'd ever kept. It had been a little boy in red shorts and a white t-shirt and dirty lime-green flip-flops, six years old, perhaps seven at the most. The RPG launcher had come to rest on top of him, the warhead at the business end now sticking down into the thin layer of orange dust on the street. That’s right, Paul remembered, he’d been wobbling with it as he’d come out. The boy had barely been able to lift it. Someone had put it in his hands.

He’d never told anybody about that kill. Not his family, not his buddies, not his NCOs, and sure as shit not the head-shrinker pogues back stateside. Killing a kid? He’d have been rubber-stamped as a severe PTSD case, and that red ink doesn’t fade. Damaged goods. He’d have gotten a medical discharge, and then what? Nobody would want to hire someone into any decent job if the military had dropped him for being a potential basket-case. A lifetime of washing dishes and mopping floors would have awaited him, and that’s why he didn’t tell. What was he supposed to do, right? The kid could have easily blown up one the vehicles and killed five of his buddies in a single shot. Even untrained, it would've been hard for the kid to have missed at that r—

Paul’s jaw hurt. The flavor had gone out of his gum. He realized he’d been chewing furiously for God knows how long. He snapped back to the present. The mare and her son were still there, under the end of his M16. He smelled ammonia. The pegasus had pissed herself. The little earth pony wasn’t looking at him anymore, his face instead buried in his mother’s coat.

He looked up. Dad hadn’t moved either.

“You’re so stupid,” he whispered. “How stupid can you be?”

Nobody answered. Paul removed the muzzle from the pegasus’s head and took a step back.

“Get up,” he said. She didn’t move, so he shouted. “Get up!”

He took another step back. “Dad, get over here. Stand next to them.”

The little one slid off his mother’s back as she stood, shaking anew as she looked into Paul’s eyes. The beige-coated stallion joined his family in the middle of the road, surrounded by the concrete and iron of the checkpoint’s obstacles. All three of them watched him.

“Why did you stop?” asked Paul, his anger growing slippery. “You were almost there, you were almost safe, why did you have to stop?” He was very nearly pleading with them now. “Why did you have to stop here?”

They didn’t answer. Paul had his rifle at low ready, but his arms were starting to shake. It wasn’t fatigue.

Oh, God, not now, not yet at least, they can’t see this.

“Answer me!” he screamed, his voice booming off the overpass as the gunshots had done.

“We... smelled smoke,” said the stallion. “Some kind of nasty fire. We just... we came over, and... we f... w-we found—”

His anger came back. Paul raised his M16, but he did not look down the sights.

“What did you think you’d find? Huh? This close to the Barrier? Didn’t anybody warn you? Didn’t anybody have the common sense to tell you not to stop, especially when there’s only three of you? What’re you even doing out here?”

Nearly a minute passed in silence. Paul could feel the checkering of the pistol grip digging into his palm, the dull ache in his jaw from chewing too hard, the little heartbeat pulses of pressure in his temple and the bridge of his nose. None of the ponies dared to move. They just watched him, almost curiously, with their large, clear eyes.

“Go,” he whispered, too quietly to hear. It was a rehearsal. A few seconds passed.

“Go!” he said, this time clearly. He gestured to one side with his rifle while he pulled out his earplugs. “Get your shit and get out of here. Just... just go.”

“Sir?” asked the mare.

“Do it!” he shouted. “Don’t tell me you’re even stupider than I thought!”

The pegasus flew to the on-ramp they had come from and gathered her family’s bag of belongings from the Conversion Bureau. She then returned, landing behind the furthest Jersey barrier, where she paused to disappear behind. She brought her head back up after only a moment and trotted over to join her husband and son.

Paul let another moment pass. They still weren’t moving. He wondered why, then remembered he was still at high ready. He straightened up, and lowered his rifle. “Follow this road for four miles. Then you’ll be at the Beltway. Take the exit marked 495 East to Baltimore. Keep going. The Barrier’s probably at the Wilson Bridge by now.” He stepped to the side, and the road lay open before them. “Go on.”

They walked by him slowly, as though sudden movement would spook him into opening fire. Not even Paul himself could really know if it would have or not. He stood very still, taking care not to look into their eyes anymore as they drew close, then drew past.

“Thank you, sir,” said the mare. Paul didn’t reply.

He stood there for a very long time, his head fixed south, until his neck began to grow stiff. He finally risked a look over his shoulder. The three ponies could not be seen. They were gone. He, on the other hand, was still there.

Training made him shudder into movement. Clear all suspicion of threat before standing down, it said. The pegasus had paused out of line of sight before returning to her family. Paul didn’t suspect a bomb—certainly not from ponies—but he had to know what was there before he could rest.

He walked past the urine which had soaked and darkened a round patch in the road. The fear-scent rolling up from it was stinging and heady. It made his stomach lurch slightly.

He made it to the front of the checkpoint and peered over the leading Jersey barrier. Sitting on the white solid line which marked the shoulder was a single blueberry muffin. Paul leaned his rifle up against the barrier, knelt down, and picked up the muffin. He then stood to go sit on top of the barrier, holding the muffin in his lap. He looked down at it, then leaned forward, nearly doubling over it, and began to cry.