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Author's Note: Protectors of the Plot Continuum was founded by Jay and Acacia, and I write in their universe with permission. The Fahrenheit 451 setting was created by and belongs to Ray Bradbury. The fanfiction My own match was written by Pele the Goddess, and passages quoted from it are bold. It can be read here. Thanks to Neshomeh for beta duty. Also, thanks to Aster Corbett for catching a charge I missed. This mission was originally posted here.

Warning: Spoilers for Fahrenheit 451.

***


The door to Response Center 251, already slightly ajar, was shoved open roughly. It reached the limit of its swing and bounced back, receiving another dent from the wheelbarrow that was now trundling through the doorway. As the door was pushed away for the second time, the new recruit got his first look at his base of operations. He felt the nearest wall for a light switch, getting a static shock as he flipped it.

The lights revealed a room as grey as the hallways outside, but here, everything was coated in a layer of dust. The far wall was mostly blank, except for the computer system agents called a console, which occupied the right-hand corner. In front of that, on the right wall, was a bookshelf with the top shelf missing. Across from that, on the left wall, were a small television on an entertainment stand and a miniature refrigerator. The wall had two doors, one on either side of the TV and mini-fridge. A beanbag chair was on the ground in front of the TV, leaking foam pellets across the floor. The last wall, containing the door the new agent had just walked through, had a bunk bed.

Agent Doc heaved against the wheelbarrow, pushing it into the center of the room, then turned to regard the bookshelf. The upper region had been completely broken; the top shelf was missing and the sides ended in jagged splinters above what should have been the second-highest shelf. One end of that shelf was slanted down, as the pegs to hold it up were now missing along with the wood they had been set in. Doc clicked his tongue angrily and pushed his glasses farther up his nose. He was of average height and small build. Short-cut brown hair covered his head. Doc was dressed in black, as was standard for an agent of the PPC. He had baggy cargo shorts and a collared shirt with a pencil in the front pocket.

Doc moved towards the doors on the opposite wall. The bathroom was surprisingly clean, considering how long it must have been empty. Dusty, yes, and the faucets and drains in the sink and shower were covered in rust, but there was no sign of any cockroaches. The closet, however, was a different story. The closet floor was a sea of black pants and shirts and socks tangled up with wire hangers and large chunks of generic surface.

“I guess the old agents didn’t bring all their stuff with them when they moved out.” Doc looked at the bare clothes racks on the walls. “At least I’ve got space to put them for now.” He knelt down in the doorway and began to yank clothes out of the heap. Shirt. Sock. Chess pawn. Pants. Bra—Doc tossed it away when he realized what it was. Sneaker. Hanger. Coat. Sock, but not a match to the earlier one. T-shirt. Pebble. Pants. Hand. Another sock—

Agent Doc simultaneously stood up and flung himself backwards, bruising himself somewhere he wouldn’t notice until later. He lay there on his elbows, staring at the human hand poking out from the clothes. After a couple of minutes of watching it do nothing, he rolled to his stomach and stood up. It was probably just a model or something. He leaned forward again and poked at a finger.

It was warm. And then the hand reached out and wrapped around his wrist.

For the second time, Doc tried to fling himself backwards out of the closet, but the grip on his right arm was too strong for him to break free. As he wrenched his arm to get it loose, the pile of clothing began twisting around and surging upwards. Another hand appeared and started pushing away generic surface. Then the upper torso of a girl with long, black hair and a business jacket erupted from underneath the clothing, and she sucked in a deep breath as Doc fell backwards again.

“Man, it did not smell good in there!” She smiled.

Doc didn’t speak for a moment. After a few seconds of staring at that goofy grin, he ventured, “Who are you?”

“Why, who am I?" She paused, staring. "I am Agent Vania Tolluk, Department of Floaters, Protectors of the Plot Continuum! Who are you, and why are you in my RC?”

Doc’s expression of shock transitioned into confusion. “I’m Agent Doc, and this is my Response Center; I’ve just been assigned here.” He frowned. “And I was told I wasn’t going to have a partner.”

“Well, that works out fine, seeing as I already have one.” Vania brushed dust off her clothes. “So, you’re a Doc, eh? What are you a doctor of?”

“Uh . . . nothing. I’m not a doctor, that’s just my name.”

Vania tilted her head. “Odd name. That’s cool.” She switched to shouting as she struggled to free her legs from the heap of clothes, revealing black pants in white pinstripes. “Paul! Could you get off that Playstation long enough to stop newbies from wandering in, please?” Doc got up as she stepped over him. When Vania saw the state of her RC, she stopped.

“Uh. Hem.” She turned right around, pushed past Doc back into the closet, then returned with a . . . pink, pointy thing.

“Explain,” she said, as she thrust the lipped end of the pink thing into Doc’s gut. “Explain now.”

Doc, having observed the large purple spikes protruding from the top of the thing, decided it would be expedient to try explaining. Unfortunately, the best he could manage was “Um . . . I just got here?”

Vania shoved the apparent weapon harder into his stomach. “Where’s my partner?” She rubbed the side of her head with her free hand. “Where’s . . . how . . . what year is this?”

“Well . . . when I left my Earth, it was 2011?”

Vania slowly began to lower the pink weapon as a look of dull understanding flooded her face. “Three years . . . ”

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!

As the monstrous noise shrieked through the air, Doc clutched his ears in pain while Vania quickly turned and fired a few spikes in the direction of the console, which had produced the beep. The spikes flew wide and embedded in the walls around the console, shattering a moment later. Even though the machine hadn’t been hit, it stopped beeping anyway.

“Aaauuhh . . . ” Doc whimpered as the noise subsided. “Why is that so loud?”

“I had to turn it up loud. Sometimes, Paul wouldn’t hear it over his games. Missed me, did you?” This last question seemed to be directed at the console itself. Vania strode over to it, walking around the wheelbarrow. As she did so, she flicked the weapon with her wrist and set it on the bookshelf. Doc followed after her.

Vania pressed a red button beneath the screen, which began to display various data—details about the mission that had just arrived.

“It’s a Mary Sue in—Fahrenheit? That European Atari game?” she asked. “That’s a new one for me.”

Doc, who was looking at the screen over Vania’s shoulder, corrected her. “No, Fahrenheit 451. It’s a book.”

“Ah, sweet!” Vania’s face brightened. “I’ve never done a literature mission before! It’s nice to get away from the video game fics for a change. Let’s see, ‘My own match.’ OK. The title isn’t capitalized correctly; not a good sign.”

Doc started reading the story’s summary, complete with misspellings, out loud. “’Guy Montag had a child with a woman he met after he escaped civilization. But, apon her second birthday, the government stole her.’ That doesn’t make sense. The government considered the forest people harmless crazies, and left them alone. Why would they kidnap a random toddler from them?”

The summary went on to explain that “’the fire station, as well as her orphanage next door, is all she knows of life. Then she met Winna...’” Doc scrunched his face up at the last line. “Who’s Winna?”

“This book is about firefighters?”

“Firemen,” said Doc. “Buildings are all fireproof in the book, so firemen are used to burn books so no one can read.” He scowled a bit as he said this.

“All right, then. We ought to disguise ourselves as firemen.”

“What?”

“We have to wear disguises whenever we enter the Word Worlds. That makes it harder for us to get noticed by any canon characters.”

“Yes, I know,” said Doc. “They explained all that in the training. What I don’t understand is why are you coming? I don’t have a partner, and, not to be rude, but you just popped up out of the closet. I have no idea who you even are, so I’m not sure if I should even—”

Vania shoved her hand over Doc’s mouth, startling him into silence. “Don’t you worry your little head about that,” she said. “I can promise you I am a legit PPC agent. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I’ll get it all sorted out with the Hyacinth when we get back. For now, a canon world is in danger, and that has to take priority. Is that cool?”

“Yes, I suppose you’re right about that.”

“Cool,” Vania said. “You want to program the disguises, then?”

Doc stared at the bank of unlabelled buttons on the console’s keyboard. “ . . . How?”

Vania giggled. “Leave it to me, then. I need to know what I’m programming first, though, so . . . ? How do the firemen dress?”

Doc frowned and looked up at the ceiling as he thought. “Uh . . . guys around thirty years old in big black coats, and a round helmet numbered ‘451’. Flamethrowers connected to a kerosene tank shoulder pack, and a salamander tattoo on one arm.”

Vania hit buttons as Doc spoke. “OK, we should be set to go. Uh . . . you do have a weapon, don’t you?”

Doc ran to the wheelbarrow, and pulled out a metal pole, which had been sticking out from the mountain of books. He held the pole up proudly.

Vania raised her eyebrows. “You got the novel in there, too? Might be useful.”

“Of course! It’s my favorite!” Doc plunged his arm into the books, rooting around.

Vania was looking at the screen again. “Yikes!” she said. “It’s a good thing I glanced at the story. We need a crash dummy in here.” She turned around to regard the empty bookshelf, then headed for the closet, saying, “Looks like my RC got cleaned out in my . . . absence. Hopefully there’s one in here still.”

The two agents continued their respective searches, Doc up to his shoulder in books and Vania with her arms and head inside the pile of clothes on the closet floor. As Doc retrieved a tattered old paperback from his wheelbarrow, Vania returned with a small pile of equipment in her arms, including a yellow cube and a small scrap of paper.

“What does that do?” asked Doc, pointing at the cube.

“The fanfic is in first-person view. We put this dummy in to take over the first-person actions. Otherwise, the story would take control of one of us instead.”

Doc’s eyes widened. “Oh.”

“You can write a thank-you note to the Department of Sufficiently Advanced Technology later.” Vania grinned and tossed Doc the dummy cube as she ran back to the console, where she hit a few buttons. A blue dot appeared on the wall to the left of the console, which stretched out horizontally, then vertically, until a large, square doorway covered most of the empty space. “OK, Doc, put the cube through the portal and pull the cord.”

Doc did as he was told, carefully trying to keep his hand on the same side of the portal as the rest of his body. He heard a sound like a balloon inflating.

“All right!” Vania shouted excitedly, as she finished shoving the equipment into various pockets. “We should be all set to go. The disguises will turn on as we walk through.” She strutted past Doc and straight through the portal.

Doc gulped, but shoved the copy of Fahrenheit 451 into a large pocket and stepped inside.

The room Doc found himself in was very simple. Specifically, it was an empty grey void, lacking walls, or even a floor, really. Standing before Doc, but turned away from him, was a man in a black coat.

Doc looked around uncertainly. “Vania,” he whispered. “Where did you go?”

The man turned around and grinned widely. “Right here, silly!” he said in a bright voice that sounded quite odd coming from a mouth surrounded by five-o’clock shadow.

“Vania?” His eyes widening, Doc stammered, “You’re, uh . . . you’re a guy.”

“You said they were all guys, yes?”

“Uh, yes, I just didn’t . . . realize . . . I thought the disguises would just be disguises, not full changes to anatomy.”

“You’ll get used to it,” said Vania as she flashed a bright smile. “You’re changed too, you know!”

Looking down at himself, Doc discovered that he was indeed wearing the same clothing as Vania, and was bigger and more muscular than he had been before. He scratched at the tattoo on his arm.

“Let’s talk about that summary,” said Vania, who still had the piece of paper in her hand. “Woops. Can I see that?” she asked, pointing to the pencil in Doc’s shirt pocket. He handed it over and Vania began writing. “I take it this Guy Montag guy is a canon character?”

“Yeah, the protagonist of the novel,” Doc explained. “He did flee society, and he could have had children with someone after that point.”

“No charge there, then.” Vania looked up at the ceiling—or sky—and shook her fist. “Well-played, Suethor, but we’ll get you for something else, rest assured!”

A little weirded out by this display, Doc glanced over Vania’s shoulder, where he caught sight of movement. Fully inflated, the dummy had taken on a humanoid shape.

“Hey, look! The dummy’s moving and why is it doing that?”

Vania twisted around to see the dummy, which was standing over a pile of flaming books. “Ah, finally, the story is getting underway,” she said as she caught Doc’s arm; he had tried to charge past her. “Slow down, there, bucko. It’s way too early to attack the Sue.”

“It tries to take the Precious! It ruins them!”

“Oooh, that’s a bad case. I wonder if Medical has a cure for Gollum Speak yet.” Vania drew the hissing Doc back to her and hooked an arm around his head. Then, she looked away from the dummy and unfocused her eyes briefly. “Oh, that sounds worth saving, though.”

The dummy, which still looked like a plain dummy because the Sue hadn’t been described yet, was written as only watching the blaze, so it paid no attention when Vania walked up next to the fire and glanced at the titles of books that hadn’t completely burned yet. She had to keep Doc in the headlock to prevent him from reaching into the fire, but managed to pull out a couple of thick hardcovers. She then focused on holding Doc still while the remaining childrens stories and infinate knowledge were enfulged by fire.

Immediately, the setting changed from generic grey to grey concrete, with real walls and doorways. The crash dummy shrank to the size of a child, and finally gained humanoid features and clothing. It—or she—was holding a copy of Hamlet.

Doc’s momentary lapse of sanity seemed to have vanished along with the burning books, so Vania released his head. Then, she hammered the two singed books down on top of it.

“Ow!” shouted Doc as he rubbed his stinging head. “What was that for?”

“You can’t freak out and tackle characters like that. You’re going to get us both killed! Next time, the Sue will notice your little outburst and the mission will be ruined. Capisce?”

Doc glowered and looked away. “She was burning them. Ruining the Prec—“

“Don’t start that again!” Vania warned, frowning sternly. “Most of those were just generic books, anyway. Except for these.” She held out one of the rescued books to Doc, who took it. The black cover read, Dicionary.

“They spelled the word ‘dictionary’ wrong? On the cover of a dictionary? That’s kind of sad.”

“No, no, Doc. According to the words, she was trying to burn ‘dicionarys’ back there. And I have a hunch . . . ” Vania opened the copy she held and flipped to the “D” section, then started turning pages until she found what she was looking for. She read aloud, “’dic•ion•ar•y n., pl. –ar•ys. 1. A book containing misspellings in various languages, arranged alphabetically, which provides definitions, tense forms, and, occasionally, etymologies and source quotes. Asking about pronunciations is right out. See also: tehsaurus [I see the vast dicionarys being eaten alive . . . ]’”

Vania blinked as she finished reading. “The dicionary quotes the sentence that just now created it. That’s kind of metaphysically creepy.”

“The way you pronounce it makes it sound dirty.”

Fire alights in my eyes.

The Sue’s eye sockets ignited.

As it catches on fire, though my heart is dark, destructive passion sparks inside.

The center of the dummy’s chest began to glow orange, indicating that the Sue’s heart had followed her eyes’ example.

“What’s going on?” Doc asked out loud. “Why is this happening?”

“Quiet!” Vania whispered. “I would guess from the Words that the Sue is supposed to be burning that book. But since the author never explained what she uses to start the fire, and is using nonspecific pronouns, the World is a little confused. See there? The next sentence stated explicitly that the book was burning, so now things are behaving normally again.”

Doc bristled at seeing one of Shakespeare’s works burn, but forced himself to keep calm and instead asked quietly, “How can you tell what’s written in the story?”

Vania tilted her head towards a wall. “Look there, and let your eyes relax.”

Doc did as told, and after a few seconds, black text began scrolling through his vision. He was so startled he lost his concentration, and had to refocus his eyes to get the image back. As he read the sentence, “My eyes are locked on the flames, dancing this moment to a universal beat,” brass instruments filled the air with a dramatic fanfare. Looking back to the Sue, Doc saw that her eyes had exited her head and were now jumping around on the burning book.

Vania smacked her forehead with her palm, then went back to writing. “I hope this dummy survives the mission! This is a lot of abuse to take from literalness alone.”

This is my hobby. I like to burn things. You could call me a pyromaniac, but I’m more than that. Fire is my obsession, my lifeblood. It’s the only thing keeping me alive.

“You mean, besides, like, air? And food?”

“It’s like she’s trying to take Montag’s enjoyment of watching books burn,” said Doc, “and turn it up to ridiculous levels.”

“Water. You must have drunk water at some point in your life.”

I guess I should introduce myself.

“No, really?” Vania mused. “We’ve only gone through a full page’s worth of writing. But no rush.”

My name is Fraya.

“Hm. Doc, we’ve got a Winna and a Fraya now. Those names sound like they belong here?”

Doc thought for a moment. “Not really. The main characters’ first names are Guy, Clarisse, and Mildred. So Fraya and Winna don’t fit in very well.”

“Cool. So far, we’re looking at lack of descriptions, pronoun confusion and uncanonical naming conventions.” She went back to writing.

I live in an orphanage on cherry lane. At least, I’m supposed to, legally. But I don’t. I live at the fire station. Fraya’s narrative went on to complain about the orphanage’s pink walls and frilly sheets, too-cute teddy bears, and a night light ‘in case I get scared’. Ick. Makes me want to throw up.

“Can’t sleep with pink walls?” Vania nudged Doc in the side. “As refreshing as it is to see a Sue that doesn’t worship at the altar of lightish red, do you think she’s just a little confused about the mechanics of sleeping? Specifically, the eyes closed part? Plus, you know, just unplug the night light!”

“She shouldn’t be complaining,” said Doc. “This orphanage sounds very high quality for World One, let alone for a dystopian-future science fiction setting.”

Apparently, Fraya had been much more comfortable sneaking out of the orphanage and sleeping in an abandoned, rodent-infested closet in the fire station, which she had done every night for two years, starting at the age of ten. The orphanage staff either never noticed she was missing or had never bothered to contact the police and report a missing child in those two years.

The ground suddenly shifted as a flashback surrounded the agents, leaving them feeling surrounded by very dense air. They were now standing in a hallway. Walking away from them, towards the Sue’s closet, was a fireman whose hat bore a metal plate shaped like a phoenix.

“That means he’s the captain of this station,” Doc whispered, pointing to it.

The captain stopped at the closet door and slammed it open for some reason. Then he started speaking. He was probably supposed to be talking to other firemen, but since none had been mentioned, he was just talking to himself instead. Fraya herd him stumble, causing a small group of deer to charge out of the closet and knock the captain over. Regaining his balance, he flicked a switch and discovered the frightened Sue, whose chest glowed brightly as her heart beat at lightening speed.

"Hello there" the man said gently. "I'm the fire-chief here, but you can call me Uncle Mo. What's your name?"
When Fraya didn’t answer, he went on. “why don't you come upstairs and have something to eat.”

“Why is he being so nice to her?” asked Doc. “I can understand ‘Mo’ not wanting to scare her, but he’s acting like a doting grandparent.”

“Mary Sues tend to have this effect on other characters,” Vania explained. “The Sue makes herself the most important thing in the story, so all the canon characters are forced to pay undue attention to her.”

“But this character isn’t canon,” said Doc. “The novel never tells who replaced Captain Beatty after Montag killed him.”

“Really? Well . . . since he’s not contradicting canon, he’s probably close enough to be a victim of the Sue’s Aura of Smooth. We may even need to leave him here when we leave, if he integrates into canon well.”

He's an old widower who took up fire-starting after his wife died. He doesn't have kids, but he had always wanted some. Acting on his parenting instinct, he had given me my own room...

“There, see?” Vania said. “The Sue must be taking advantage of his `parenting instincts` to turn him into a surrogate father. In her defense, it’s perfectly understandable for an orphan to want a parent figure.”

“Yeah,” admitted Doc, “but the author seems to be forcing Fraya to grow up in the same environment and with the same interests as her father. Liking to burn things is not a genetic trait.” Doc examined the Words again. “Her own room? Did they just happen to have a bed sitting around the firehouse? Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t exactly give a detailed layout of the station, but it always seemed rather bare-bones to me.”

“Well, fire stations in World One do have beds for firefighters on night duty.”

“That’s even worse, then. The Captain is giving away resting space for members of his team, especially if she’s occupying a whole room by herself.”

As Fraya left the closet with Uncle Mo, her narration continued. The Matron of the Cherry Street Orphanage, Mistress Mujhort, hates me. I call her Miss Mugwort.

“There’s another bizarre name.” Vania raised an eyebrow. “I thought it was Cherry Lane?”

“Apparently, they built an orphanage on Cherry Lane, and decided to name it the Cherry Street Orphanage.”

In fact, she's probably glad I'm gone. Ever since I burned a hole through the roof when I was three, she has treated me like dirt.

“ . . . What.”

I had set my room on fire while trying to burn my blanket with a single match. The miser hadn't cared whether I lived or died. She screeched about her 'precious roof', an grumbled for days about how much it would cost to fix. Not once did she ask if I was ok.

“Silly old orphanage matron,” Vania mocked, “getting angry because the other children were in danger and nearly lost their only home! Why exactly is the Captain housing this girl in a building filled with kerosene tanks?”

“Wait a minute!” Doc frowned. “All the buildings in this world are supposed to be covered in a fireproof coat. That’s why there’s no more firefighting anymore!”

For some reason, no matter what I do, I can't burn. I've tried, oh, believe me, I've tried. But my skin just doesn't burn.

Doc tilted his head as he read these words, furrowing his brow. “Excuse me? Did Fraya just claim superpowers?”

“Is that bad?”

“There are no powers in this book. Toasters that automatically butter, yes, but all the people are just plain old humans.”

“Charge!” Vania said excitedly. “What do you know? I guess the author does think burning things is genetic. Or something.”

Lost in my thoughts, I remembered where I was.

The flashback’s extremely abrupt end brought the agents crashing to the ground. Vania made a frustrated noise as she removed the pencil from the hole it had torn through the scrap of paper. “I was running out of room as it was,” she muttered angrily. “Where are we now?”

Doc looked up. The back of the orange fire truck loomed before them; it was facing the garage door. To his left was a brass pole that led up through an opening in the ceiling, through which light shone down. Behind that, the wall was covered by an open metal cabinet containing numerous outfits like the ones the agents were already wearing.

“Why does this area look so . . . real?” asked Doc.

“Well, for starters, it is real. More to your point though, the badfic author never mentioned this place, so it’s defaulted to its normal canon status, complete with detailed description.”

Doc felt a chill run up his back. “If we’re in the garage, then that means . . .” he slowly turned around.

Vania followed his gaze. Her eyes widened when she saw what he was looking at. “What is that?”

“The Mechanical Hound.”

In the near corner of the garage sat a large metal box, like a cross between a pet carrier and a stereotypical doghouse. Inside sat the deactivated Hound. It was a metal creature with a long, steel body wrapped in brass and copper wires and pipes. Four spider-like legs ending in rubber pads sat limp and motionless on each side of the Hound’s torso. Its head, resting on the ground, was shaped like that of a dog, but the muzzle ended in an open hole filled with little hairs, glowing red like fiber optic tubes.

“Should we be worried about this thing?” Vania whispered.

“No, actually.” Doc got up and approached the Hound’s kennel. “It’s a robot. It only attacks someone if the firemen feed it that person’s chemical signature. Then it tracks them down. The little hairs in its snout read the chemicals from the air, like rattlesnakes do.” Doc pointed to a large screen mounted above a desk next to the kennel. “That computer there should be where the DNA code of everyone in the city is stored.”

Vania stood as well, but stayed away. “But what if it wakes up? If it sees us standing here, won’t it try to defend the station?” Vania paused as grisly scenarios ran through her head. “How does it kill people, exactly?”

Doc lifted the Hound’s head. “In this hole here, there’s a needle hidden. It injects a lethal dose of morphine or procaine. But don’t worry; the Hound can’t recognize people just by looking at them. It only singles out whoever it’s programmed to kill.”

“Creepy,” Vania commented. “But I guess since we’re not in the database.” Her mouth split into a grin as her demeanor suddenly changed from cautious to malicious. “Although I can think of someone who is.”

***

After the flashback ended, Fraya had met her “Uncle” Mo in the kitchen.

He squinted at me, then gently grabbed my chin and tilted my head upwards. He frowned, looking intently just above my eyes. " You singed your eyebrows again!" He released me, chuckling. "This is what? The fourth time this month?"

"Fifth," I replied as I danced away, giggling.

He shook his head, saying, "You love fire more than I do. And that's saying a lot!"

"I sure do."

I walked into the kitchen, only to come face to face with
the Mechanical Hound. It sprang forward and sank the needle into Fraya’s thigh. She shrieked as the Hound pinned her down, waiting for the chemical to run its course. Mo stood motionless with a look of shock on his face.

“Need to make this quick,” Vania said as she held the charge paper up. “Fraya Montag, a.k.a. Fraid-y Cat, you are hereby charged with failure to capitalize the full title of your story, a street name, OK and various other words; leaving unnecessary spaces around punctuation marks; misspelling numerous words; naming the orphanage on Cherry Lane the Cherry Street Orphanage; failing to describe nearly everything, including yourself; running away and not having a single adult act responsibly to remedy that situation; creating the uncanonical names Fraya, Winna and Mujhort; setting part of a fireproof building on fire; literally setting an orphanage on fire; acting insulted when the person responsible for that orphanage gets angry about it; generally being unappreciative for everything done to take care of you at said orphanage; somehow managing to angst over a nightlight; making the government kidnap a member of a group they normally ignore; attempting to pass pyromania off as something both positive and cute; implying that said pyromania is a genetic trait; having naturally flame-retardant flesh in a world with no metahumans; risking damage to PPC technology; making a PPC agent speak like Gollum; and being a Mary Sue.” She finally took a breath. “The punishment is death.”

Mo leaned down to feel Fraya’s neck for a pulse, but before he could reach her, the Sue’s body collapsed back into a tiny cube. The Captain looked up at the agents, his distraught expression quickly changing into fury. “ What have you done? How dare you!”

“How dare you, Captain?” asked Doc. “Endangering the lives of your crew by keeping somebody obsessed with lighting fires around? Where are the other firemen, anyway?” He had just noticed the absence of anyone else in the room.

Mo’s eyes flicked to the card table briefly. “You don’t understand! She was such a . . . such a special little thing. An the way she loved fire, it was so adorable! I only wish she could have seen this fire!” He reached for the nozzle of the flamethrower, but Vania already had hers in hand.

A short burst of fire caught Mo in the center of his flame-retardant jacket. He cried out as he fell backwards, losing his grip on the nozzle in the process.

“Your turn,” Vania told Doc as she handed him the paper. She moved over the fire captain and stepped on his right forearm to keep him from reaching for his flamethrower, while hers was aimed directly at Mo’s face.

Doc squinted at the tiny writing Vania had squeezed onto the torn paper. “Uncle Mo . . . a.k.a. Captain? You are charged with . . . uh . . . ignoring your job’s duties and coworkers’ health to heap praise and attention on a little girl; keeping said girl in a building filled with combustible materials despite her clear pyromaniac tendencies; treating said pyromania as cute and funny; and aiding and abetting a Mary Sue.”

Vania smirked nastily. “Let’s add threatening agents of the PPC and trapping the fire station’s employees in a plot hole. Including, I suspect, the real fire chief. Now, Doc, where’s the best place to hide a dead body around here?”

“When people die, they get dumped into giant incinerators called the Big Flue. But I don’t know where it is.”

“No worries. Get over here and cover him with your flamethrower.” When Doc had done as she said, she pulled a portable portal generator from an inside coat pocket and started tapping buttons quickly. A square portal like the one they had used to enter the fic appeared in midair; through it, Doc could see a river running through a forest.

“Nope,” Vania said. She closed that portal and began typing again. A few more portals opened and closed, but she finally left open one that revealed an aerial view of a huge fire.

“Captain Mo,” Vania said, grinning, “the punishment is death. Bye bye.” With the press of another key, the portal closed and reopened underneath Mo. As he fell through, Vania began singing. “♪I dropped through to a burning ring of fire! I fell down, down, down and the flames got higher . . . ♪”

“Uh. Vania . . . ?”

"♪To the ring of fi—♪ Huh?" She turned and regarded Doc. After a moment, she seemed to recollect herself. “Oh, right!” Vania closed the portal to the Big Flue and turned the card table over. On its underside was a shifting blackish-red portal. “I’m going to need to neuralyze these guys when I pull them out, but I don’t have any extra sunglasses for you. Why don’t you take the Hound back to its kennel?” The Hound had stood motionless in the doorway ever since Fraya had reverted to a dummy. “Then you can go look for the Cherry Street Orphanage.”

“Why?” asked Doc.

“There’s still the orphanage matron to deal with.” Vania opened a portal back downstairs for the Hound to walk through. As Doc followed it through, she retrieved a pair of black Ray-Bans from a pocket.

On the other side of the portal, Doc was ready to leave after the Hound had settled back to “sleep,” but he suddenly stopped and walked back to the desk. Looking through the entries on the monitor, he saw that the data for Fraya and Mo had already disappeared.

***

It was easy for Vania to locate Doc once she portaled out into the city’s streets; pedestrianism didn’t appear to be a popular pastime in this world. She walked up to him and immediately smacked him on the forehead with a dicionary before hiding it back under her coat.

“What was that for?” Doc shouted angrily.

“Um, we’re in a world where reading is illegal?”

Doc looked down at Fahrenheit 451 open in his hand. “Oh.” He blushed and quickly stuffed the book back into the pocket of his pants, which had retained the large pockets of his cargo shorts.

“So, this is Misnomer Orphanage?” Vania said. The building was the only one on the street, and had retained the grey, undetailed appearance of earlier parts of the fic, in contrast to the full and colorful city surrounding Cherry Lane.

Vania opened the generic door and looked around before stepping inside. Large, unfurnished rooms swept to either side of a staircase just inside the front door; thanks to the scanty descriptions in the flashback, everything was pink. “Hello?” she called. “Is anyone home? Mistress Muuj . . . jhooort?” She forced out a possible pronunciation.

“Who’s there?” A voice echoed from somewhere inside the empty building, followed by the sound of footsteps. At the top of the stairs appeared a woman in a long, light pink dress and black shawl. Her hair was grey, although she didn’t seem very old, and done up in a bun. Rings around her eyes spoke of either a lack of sleep or recent crying.

Not sure what to say, Doc said, “Um . . . is this the orphanage, ma’am?”

Mistress Mujhort cast her eyes downward. “It should be,” she said, “but just a few moments ago . . .” She started crying, but continued speaking anyway, her voice cracking. “I have worked in this orphanage for years, but I just realized there have been no children here at all. No one!” She began to rush down the stairs towards the two agents. “I just don’t understand! I can’t even recall what I’ve been doing all this time!”

“Easy, lady!” Vania grabbed the woman’s arm and helped her down the last few steps. “Now I think there was one child, right?”

Fear now appeared in Mujhort’s eyes, adding to the confusion already visible there. “Oh, her. That girl . . . it was so frightening to live here with her. I thought for certain I would wake up trapped in a fire someday. I was so afraid for the other children . . .” Her tears began to flow again. “But what other children?” Mujhort hung her head.

Vania began to explain in a gentle voice. “That ‘girl’ is the reason we’re here. She was actually a type of creature we call a Mary Sue. Mary Sues invade lots of different worlds.” Vania pointed her remote activator at the front door and opened a portal to the stream that had showed up earlier.

Mistress Mujhort’s eyes widened when she saw the impossible doorway open in midair, and her sobbing ceased. She continued to watch as Vania hit more buttons, causing the portal to flash images of a building’s charred foundation, the brightly-lit interior of a huge theater, a beach at sunset dotted with metal wreckage, and finally, the grey corridors of PPC Headquarters.

“The Mary Sues interfere with the lives of the people in these worlds,” Vania continued. “People like you. And children, too. We bring those children back to our HQ and raise them.” Vania gave a huge grin to Mujhort. “And lady, we’d be honored to have your help in taking care of them.”

“I—I don’t entirely understand what’s going on.” The woman returned Vania’s smile with a weak one of her own. “But the honor would be all mine.”

“It’s just too bad you’re stuck with that awful name. No offense,” Doc added in response to a look from Mujhort.

“The Mary Sue gave you that name, so we really do need to think of something else to call you.”

“I don’t want to part with my name, but . . . if you say it came from that girl . . .”

“If I remember correctly,” said Doc, “Faber is named after Faber-Castell, the pencil company, and Montag is the name of a paper company. So . . . maybe a pen company? If you still want it to start with ‘M,’ there’s MacKinnon, Macy, Marxton, Morrison, Morton . . .”

Vania tilted her head as Doc named them. “And why, exactly, have you memorized a list of pen companies?”

Doc avoided her gaze. “I thought it might be useful someday.”

Vania blinked. “OK.”

“I do like the sound of MacKinnon.” Mujhort’s voice sounded a little stronger now. “If that’s all right?”

“Whatever you want, lady. Now let’s go home.” Vania grabbed the hands of the other two and pulled them through the portal back to HQ.

When they were gone, the portal closed again, and Cherry Lane and its orphanage disappeared.

***


Excerpt from Doc's Mission Report

The Mechanical Hound (Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953)
Medium: literature
Existence: canon
Universe: Bradbury-verse
Role: antagonist
Species: robot
Gender: none
Occupation: executioner
Weapon: procaine or morphine injections
Power: robot
Notes:
A major antagonist in Fahrenheit 451, Mechanical Hounds are used by the fire departments of that world to hunt down book keepers who flee the police. This is the replacement for the one Guy Montag burned in the novel. Was still present in fic due to Suethor’s negligence in mentioning it, complete with data bank for programming victims. Neuralyzation unnecessary due to lack of artificial intelligence.


Author's Note: The linked YouTube videos contain music by Bernard Herrmann for the 1966 film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 and belong to Universal Music Group. Fahrenheit belongs to Quantic Dream and Atari Europe. Gollum and his unique speech patterns belong to J. R. R. Tolkien. Hamlet belongs to William Shakespeare. Needlers belong to Bungie. Neuralyzers belong to Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald. The Universal Studios fanfare belongs to Universal Studios. The normal version of the lyrics of “Ring of Fire” belong to Johnny Cash.
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