Gestalt Therapy
Summary:In which the events of March and April, 2008, make the department a difficult place to recover from badfic.
Timeline:January (Prologue), March 11–April 17 (Parts One–Three), and early summer (Epilogue), 2008. Part One picks up just after "Harry Potter and the Dragonriders of Pern," and Parts One and Three run concurrently with other accounts of those events.
Published:August 31, 2009.
Rating:PG-13/T - Off-screen character death, on-screen Sue death, injuries, and mild eye squick.
Betas:Trojanhorse, Paddlebrains, and Cassie Cameron-Young.
Cameo:Leon Barker.

Prologue

The power snapped out.

Imagine, if you will, that you are standing on a beach somewhere. It doesn't particularly matter what beach. Imagine that the day is calm and that the waves lap gently against the shore. Imagine the soft hissing noise as the water slides back across the sand into the sea. Imagine the silence as the next wave gathers.

The next wave is a tsunami.

In the Department of Fictional Psychology, Suvian voices crashed through the walls with the force of a tidal wave. Even the combined cries of the canon characters couldn't completely cover the insidious suggestions slicing through the air (or arrest the author's arbitrary alliteration).

Head Nurse Suzine forcibly spat out her decaf Bloffee before she could choke on it. The spray drenched the potted fern hanging around the doughnut table, but completely missed her white skirt. No one quite knew how she managed these things.

Was that necessary? said the fern. Not that I dislike Bloffee, but really.

"No power, no Four-S," Suzine replied. The Subconscious Suvian Soundproofing System normally kept FicPsych free of the psychic projections of fangirls, projections that filtered through the metaspace occupied by HQ. "This is Bad." She put her mug down on the nearest surface and fumbled her way to the supply cabinet. She always made sure the nurses' station had an emergency cache of the most popular sedatives, just in case a situation arose that couldn't wait for access to the B-ware, as the heavily-guarded supplies in Unit B were affectionately known. This was definitely one of those situations. After some trial and error with her keyring, she got the cabinet unlocked. As predicted, the nurses came running.

Well, not running, really, as that would have caused them all to fall over themselves in the darkness. It was more of a rapid shuffle. Suzine switched on a penlight from the cabinet and shone it at the doorway, nearly blinding Nurse Elms and Nurse Dewstan.

"Oh boy, I'm glad you're here," said Nurse Elms, whose uniform was rather singed. "I don't know what's going on, but if we don't get Raistlin contained immediately—"

Suzine waved Elms silent. "What's his condition?"

"Post-Traumatic Bad Slash Syndrome," said Elms. "He keeps switching between looking for Tanis Half-Elven and then being sick, screaming 'oh gods why?!', and trying to blast us with lightning."

"He's praying to Bilius?" remarked Nurse Pablum, a man with a marked Norwegian accent, from behind her.

"Shush, you."

Suzine sighed. "Fine. Take this." She handed Elms a small frying pan from the sedatives cabinet. It was made of aluminum and said "No. 2 – Mild" on the bottom. Beneath that, in a smaller parenthetical note, it said "1d6[1]."

"Thanks!" Elms turned and pushed her way back through the crowd.

"Next?" said Suzine, and Nathonea Dewstan stepped up.

"Woobie!Legolas; keeps violently cuddling anyone who gets too close."

"And taking his pants off," added Nurse Pablum, who had the task of de-cuddling Nathonea when necessary.

"And taking his pants off."

Several nurses curled their lips.

"I see," said Suzine. She considered for a moment, then selected something that resembled a small baby bottle with a candy nipple. "Wet the candy bit in his mouth, stick it in the bottle, shake it up, and put it back in his mouth. Repeat until he goes to sleep. I think this one is Dorwinion wine–flavored. Next?"

And so on, and so forth. For the rest of the day, Suzine listened to the sounds of minor explosions and wails of dismay, always to the accompaniment of the disembodied Suvian suggestions. As the nurses calmed, sedated, or forcefully subdued their patients, the extraneous noises faded away, leaving only the incessant subliminal whispering.

Just as suddenly as it had gone out, the power leaped back on again. The whispers became staticky and finally faded into an ignorable, even soothing white noise as the Four-S sidled back into gear. (In some rooms, it had to be helped along with a well-placed kick.) Suzine wasn't the only one to heave a gigantic sigh of relief.

At the end of the shift, once it was clear that the power and order were going to stay restored, Suzine met with Dr. Freedenberg and the Kudzu in the Vine's office. The potted fern and Frank, Dr. Freedenberg's Hooloovoo secretary, also attended the meeting. Suzine liked it when Frank was around. One blue wall made a difference in all the gray.

I'm certainly glad that's over with, said the potted fern, metaphorically breaking the silence.

Suzine glared at it. "You should know better than to tempt the Ironic Overpower like that. Shame on you."

The fern, again acting metaphorically, wilted. Sorry.

The Kudzu rustled her leaves for attention. Pardon me, but I do have some business to discuss with you all.

"Yes, Ma'am," Suzine said contritely.

"Have you heard what caused all the trouble today, Kudzu?" Dr. Freedenberg asked.

It seems to have been a problem with some out-of-date capacitors in the Department of Dead Author Electricity Generation, the Kudzu replied. The Slaver Sunflower reports that forty-two graves over-spun simultaneously—

Suzine gasped. "Forty-two? I didn't even know we had forty-two canons that badly affected. All at once?"

"Yes, that's rather strange," said Freedenberg. "Whatever happened?"

I was going to say, the Kudzu answered with a touch of pique, that DoSAT, Implausible Crossovers, Bad Slash, External Security, and Medical were also affected. Captain Dandy apparently had a bit of trouble with some intruders. He and the Weeds cornered them in the pool room, but it seems they got away. Ignoring the shocked and outraged expressions on the faces of those who had them, she pressed on. The Department of External Security is investigating the situation. In the meantime, they have recommended the installation of an emergency lockdown system so that Headquarters might be secured in the event of an invasion.

"Emergency lockdown system?" Suzine arched her black eyebrows. "Invasion? They think it's that serious?"

It certainly seems that way, replied the Kudzu. Captain Dandy has promised more details as they are confirmed, but in the meantime, we shall simply have to trust his judgment. Representatives from DoSAT and the DES will be around sometime in the future to assist with the installation.

Suzine shook her head. "This lockdown system. It's to keep people from going in or out of Headquarters?"

Correct.

"So, we'd all be stuck here. Canons and agents and all. For who knows how long."

Yes, dear.

Mad agents, the fern muttered, catching Suzine's anxiety. Cooped up mad agents. Flamethrowers.

The pteridophyte makes a point, intoned Frank, whose telepathic voice was distinctly feminine and as soothing as water. Whoever coined the expression "to curse a blue streak" had obviously never spoken with a Hooloovoo, or he never would have said something so callous. In an event of such magnitude as an invasion, we should likely experience a breakdown of order far worse than that which we experienced today. We must enable ourselves to maintain order.

"Speaking of order, Frank, when was the last time we had a complete inventory of the department?" Dr. Freedenberg asked his secretary.

It has been some time, Doctor. I will see it done.

"Good, good. Suzine, who's that new nurse? Immac? Why don't you have her help Frank out? It'll be good for her."

Suzine nodded curtly. "Yes, Doctor."

"Now, let's not let all this worry us too much. That's Security's job, eh? We'll have a good sleep, and tomorrow it's back to business as usual."

Suzine thought that "usual" was not the word she would have chosen to describe the daily workings of FicPsych, but she kept that to herself. Freedenberg was right. There was no sense worrying about something that might or might not happen. For all they knew, today was simply an isolated incident.

Part One – Epidemic

Approximately two months after the power outage, as near as time could be figured in Headquarters, FicPsych was a hive of activity. The emergency lockdown system had been installed all over HQ, and Captain Dandy had announced that tomorrow it would be turned on for the first time. That meant each department was on its own for the duration of the day-long drill, and FicPsych had to make preparations.

However, none of them were happening near the main doors, so no one noticed Jennifer Robinson limp into Section 31 under the arm of a tall man who barely supported his own weight. The green-eyed woman stopped and looked around, utterly nonplussed.

"Well, don't everyone hop on the welcome wagon all at once," she said to nobody. She debated with herself for a moment over whether she should go to the Kudzu's office for instructions or skip protocol and find an open room. Taking the increasing throb in her head and left shoulder and knee into consideration, she opted for the latter. Now that the adrenaline from her field mission[2] was wearing off, the effects of falling to the hard Generic Ground from a dragon's wing were becoming more pronounced, and the ex-dragonrider with her was only a step above dead weight.

Jenni took a deep breath and soldiered forward, bringing the former rider along with her until she reached the second ward, which was set aside for the use of PPC agents and recruits. It struck her as odd that the first room she came to was unoccupied, though the fact that it was room 264 didn't even merit her notice. She made sure her recruit was settled comfortably on the bed, then spoke to him.

"I'm going to report to my boss, and then I'll be back. Will you be all right for a little while?"

He didn't look like he was going to reply. Jenni wasn't too surprised. The death of his dragon had left him utterly numb, inside and out. She knew how it went. She had seen it before, in another life.

She started to repeat that she would be back soon, but the dragonman spoke after all.

"I want to die."

Jenni stared at the dragonman. The dragonman stared at nothing.

"No," said Jenni. And she left.

She found that the door to the Kudzu's office was open and that there was a heated discussion going on inside.

"This is ludicrous," said Nurse Bogglish, a middle-aged man of Ashkenazic descent with coke-bottle glasses and a mass of curly black hair. "Do you know that we have two Phantoms of the Opera right now? One of them is Gerard Butler!Erik—you know how he can be after Bad Slash—and the other keeps going on about his hairbrush."

His hairbrush?

"An article of which he is quite violently possessive," said Nurse Mirrad, a Minbari in cream-colored robes. His Ranger training made him the resident bouncer when things got rough in the department.

"We think it's a contaminant from a crackfic involving VeggieTales[3]," said Bogglish, "though we can't figure how this Erik got it here. Anyway, Mirrad's already had to break up one fight, so putting him anywhere near anyone, let alone in a ward with another Erik—"

The Kudzu interrupted. Nurse Robinson, I can sense you gritting your teeth, which is a terrible habit. Please stop and come in.

Jenni, who hadn't realized she was clenching her jaw, did as she was told. She nodded to Mirrad and Bogglish. "Hi. Sorry. I just have to make a report. We've got two and a half Eriks now."

"What do you mean, 'and a half'?" Bogglish asked.

"Got a recruit from a bad Pern crossover in A-264," said Jenni. "He used to be E'rik, rider of bronze Skepnadth. Threadscar on the right side of his face, mismatched eyes, whole nine yards. Call him dragonrider!Erik now, I guess. He's a big mess."

It looks as though you fell upon hard times in the field, as well.

"More like the hard ground," Jenni muttered. "But I'll be fine. He's another matter. Someone needs to be with him in case he tries to kill himself. Which reminds me: I didn't see anyone on the way in. Is something going on?"

The Kudzu explained the upcoming lockdown drill. We have sent the agents off with extra rations of Bleeprin, and we are currently trying to move out as many canons as possible and consolidate the ones we have left, the better to secure them.

"Which is a big fat problem when one is a homicidal Leroux!Erik on crackfic," said Bogglish.

Jenni and Mirrad stared at him. "Okay, more homicidal," Bogglish amended.

I understand your concern, Nurse Bogglish, but you will simply have to keep an eye on him. And someone will have to move this new recruit in with the others for the time being. Nurse Mirrad, perhaps you would be so good?

Jenni frowned. "I can handle him."

No, Nurse Robinson, intoned the Kudzu. You are in no condition. You are to go and clean yourself up and make sure you can stay on your feet tomorrow. Now, all of you, if you would please get out of my office?

"'No condition'," Jenni groused to Mirrad as the nurses returned to their assignments. "I'm not an invalid! I like it better when she cares more about the department than us."

"Perhaps it would be wise to look at the matter from the Kudzu's point of view," Mirrad said, hands folded serenely within the sleeves of his robe. "It is not good for the department if one of its members is tired and in pain."

"All right," Jenni said. "I know. But I want to know the instant anything happens with dragonrider!Erik," she added as she started toward her quarters. "And he should be under constant supervision, like Mad-Eye-Moody-on-caffeine constant."

"I will be vigilant," Mirrad replied with a smile.

Jenni went to her quarters, showered, changed clothes, and fell asleep one minute and fifty-eight seconds after deciding she could afford to rest on her bed for just a little while.

Meanwhile, Mirrad went to his new patient. When he arrived in room A-264, the former dragonrider was just as Jenni had left him: catatonic, sitting on the bed, and staring at the wall. He wore the clothes of a dragonman, which consisted mainly of heavy boots, trousers of some kind of animal leather, and a thick fur-lined jacket of the same leather. Despite the fact that the right side of his face was covered with a network of lacy scars, he remained handsome and seemed to have just as much sight in his blue right eye as in his hazel left eye. However, he gave no indication that he had noticed anyone new in the room.

"Hello," Mirrad said experimentally.

Inexplicably, a cricket chirruped. The man on the bed said nothing.

"I am Nurse Mirrad," said he. "I have been assigned to move you to a more suitable location and to watch over you for the time being. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to make you comfortable."

"I want to die." The man didn't look up or even blink as he spoke. "I want to die. It's all gone. Everything's gone. Home, dragon, life, all gone. I want to die."

"That is unacceptable," Mirrad said evenly. "You must come with me now."

No response. It was as though the man had never spoken at all.

Mirrad sighed silently and set about getting the patient on his feet. He came along without protest and allowed Mirrad to settle him on a new bed in a ward with two other patients in similar unresponsive states. Someone had tried to decorate one of the walls with creative applications of graffiti, but the drawings were in a shade of red bordering on urple and depicted scenes that, while they might have been comforting to someone like Sweeney Todd or Mister Teatime, weren't suited for polite discourse. Mirrad exchanged a look with Nurse Pablum, who was on watch at the time. The big Norwegian shrugged. Mirrad made a mental note to have Maintenance in to scrub the wall as soon as the drill was over.

With Pablum's assistance, he relieved the former dragonrider of any articles he might be able to use to take his own life, including his heavy jacket, his belt, and the laces from his boots and the front of his shirt. These things went out of the room, onto a table near the door. Mirrad relieved Pablum of his watch and, having nothing much else to do, made himself comfortable in a relaxed but alert standing position near the door.

After that, hours passed in much the same way that high-speed trains don't: nothing moved, nothing changed, and there was nothing interesting to look at even if there had been windows to look through, which there weren't. It was not in Mirrad's nature to fall asleep on duty, but he couldn't say that he didn't envy some of the patients their oblivious repose. When the opportunity arose, he borrowed a passing nurse to stand in his place so he could go relieve himself, and then resumed the watch.

Night never precisely fell in Headquarters, but it would have been a quiet nightfall if it did. Most of the patients were persuaded to sleep if they did sleep. Those who didn't relaxed quietly. There were, of course, those whose natures predisposed them to being awake and quite dangerous at night. These were persuaded that it was the middle of the day.

Night shift turned to morning shift, and morning shift to day shift. At day shift, the lockdown drill went into effect. The orders were that no one was to enter or leave their department or response center except for a mission or to go to Medical while Security and DoSAT tested the system.

About midday, as far as it mattered, Jenni woke up stiff and hungry. The mini-replicator in the nurses' break room solved both problems by producing a generic anti-inflammatory and a generic breakfast on demand. It grumbled a bit when, on a hunch, she requested two additional meals to go, but a stern look and a sterner blow to the machine's façade changed its tune. Concentrating on not spilling anything, she found Mirrad easily. As Jenni had supposed, the Minbari had not eaten yet, and he appreciated the food.

"There has been no change in your recruit since yesterday," he told her between bites. Jenni attempted to coax dragonrider!Erik to eat, but he was, if anything, less responsive than he had been before. "He lies motionless, without bodily function."

"That's not unusual." Jenni sighed and gave up her attempt at feeding the man. "But it is bad. He'll commit suicide by attrition if he doesn't snap out of it."

The two nurses turned their attention to the other occupants of the room, which included Legolas, who was undergoing a series of neuralyzation treatments to keep him from fading, and Cluny the Scourge, who had to be kept sedated between sessions with Dr. Freedenberg. Jenni and Mirrad persuaded Legolas to eat some of the food dragonrider!Erik had ignored, which pleased the nurses. Jenni took over Mirrad's watch, and the Minbari went on his way.

The day shift passed, and at midnight, the lockdown drill ended.

It just didn't happen in a way anyone expected.

Alert! Alert! called the fern—the same fern that liked to hang around the doughnut table. Its voice, not being restricted by mere acoustics, reached every nurse in the department, whether they were awake or not. Security reports a breach! Two Mary Sues found dead of a macrovirus infection, macroviruses in the halls. We are under full quarantine until Medical comes up with a cure. I repeat, we are under full quarantine. No one goes in or out of this department for any reason! All personnel report to Dr. Freedenberg's office for further instructions.

This announcement caused considerable consternation among the nurses, as much because of what it didn't say as of what it did. The announcement didn't say that the fern, not the Kudzu, was making it. It didn't say that the infection was currently incurable. It didn't say that they were in some serious shit. Unfortunately, all PPC agents are gifted with the ability to read between the lines, and therefore every single nurse understood everything the fern didn't say. The group that clustered into Freedenberg's yellow anteroom were close to panic.

"Now, don't panic," Dr. Freedenberg said with a degree of clairvoyance. "We shall come through this quite nicely if we do not panic."

"Where's the Kudzu?" shouted Nurse Bogglish. "I thought no one was supposed to go anywhere!" His question prompted a muted chorus of approval.

"The Kudzu is with the other Flowers, who I am certain are doing their utmost to discover what went wrong with the lockdown and to correct the situation. Surely you aren't concerned that you've been left in incapable hands?"

Bogglish opened his mouth, but then he met Freedenberg's eyes. His teeth clicked audibly as they came together.

"What do we do?" begged Nurse Parwill, whose native continuum was Trekverse. "I know about macroviruses. If Medical doesn't have the cure, we're all at risk."

"I have every confidence in Dr. Fitzgerald and the Medical staff," Freedenberg replied over the anxious murmurs of the nurses. "What we must do is look to our own situation. If we keep to the confines we have already imposed upon ourselves for the lockdown, there is every chance that we will escape this episode unscathed.

"Of course, we mustn't be complacent. We cannot know which sections of Headquarters are already contaminated. We must keep a careful eye on the canons and each other. If someone should become infected, he or she will present with a fever and must then be isolated as quickly as possible." He hesitated then. Even Dr. Freedenberg couldn't think of a good way to word the outcome of an infection.

"They have to have water in an I.V. line," Parwill said, unwilling to meet anyone's eyes. "Or they'll die. But the bugs will keep swarming out of them as long as they're alive."

"Indeed." Freedenberg nodded gravely. "But there is good news, my friends. At this stage, the only macroviruses we should have are those that have emerged from a host, which means that they will grow large enough to be visible and, therefore, able to be fought and killed. They will attempt to spray potential hosts with virus-laced mucus. This must not be allowed to happen. We will all wear such protective gear as we have, which includes masks and gloves, and those of you who are skilled in combat will go armed at all times.

"Remember: look to the canons, and look to each other. That is all."

Each nurse received a pair of non-latex gloves and a blue surgical mask from Suzine on their way out. Freedenberg, Frank, and the fern watched them go.

The situation is most dire, Frank resonated. You did not tell them each macrovirus emerges from its host measuring a mere zero-point-five millimeters. No bigger than a speck of dust, and every bit as airborne.

"They must believe a fighting chance exists, Frank." Freedenberg donned his own mask and gloves. "We must have hope."

It will not last long in the face of a true epidemic, I think. However, I will do what I can to aid this department. These macroviruses cannot infect me. Furthermore, I may be able to utilize my unique photonic makeup to disrupt them in the airborne stage. I shall take to the ventilation system.

"Thank you, Frank. Fern, you'll keep us abreast of what occurs outside, won't you?"

When I know anything, said the fern. Medical is already receiving its first victims, it added sadly. They will not be able to isolate them all.

In fact, the Medical Department was very quickly overwhelmed. True to their nature, the macroviruses swept through Headquarters, infecting anyone unlucky enough to be in their path. If they didn't make it to Medical in time, they fell unconscious where they were. After the first few days, the unfortunate victims began to die of dehydration. The quarantine dragged on while the Medical Research Division poured all their effort into synthesizing a cure in the face of the chaos around them, and FicPsych did not escape unscathed.

Mirrad, whose Ranger training made him one of the most able fighters on the staff, stood at the main doors with his extended Denn'Bok in hand. For a week since the quarantine had gone into effect, he had been taking turns at this post with Nurses Elms and Dewstan. He twirled the fighting pike idly, making sure his hands understood the effect of rubber gloves on his grip, but stopped when a noise from the hallway alerted him. With a squeak, the Denn'Bok came to rest with one end on the floor. Mirrad waited, but the noise didn't repeat itself. Or, if it did, Mirrad missed it in the midst of reacting to the much louder noise caused by a large object impacting against the doors. It was not a friendly knock. It wasn't even an unfriendly knock. It was an attack.

The Minbari assumed a fighting stance and shouted over his shoulder for help. The Generic Surface doors were incredibly hard and wouldn't break easily, but the hinges and the lock created weak points that couldn't be trusted against a determined assault. Mirrad shouted again for good measure.

Elms, who made it a point to walk by the doors whenever possible, was the first to come running, her generous blonde curls bobbing against her cheeks. She had a dagger belted at her waist, a heavy iron kettle in one hand, and a stress ball she'd forgotten to put down in the other. The kettle was worth at least 1d6 of bludgeoning damage.

"So they're coming," she said. "It took longer than I expected."

Mirrad nodded and inspected her weapon of choice. "Someday you must explain to me your unusual . . . style."

Elms smiled behind her mask. "If we survive, Mir, I'll explain anything you like."

The door shuddered in its frame. The Generic Surface splintered at the hinges. The next blow, or the next, would shatter them.

After the fourth blow, Elms threw her stress ball at the doors. It hit the right-hand door squarely. Said door promptly fell into the corridor and squashed the macrovirus behind it.

Three more macroviruses, each one half a meter across, stared the two nurses in the face, as much as giant viruses can stare at anything. Mirrad spared an astounded glance toward Elms, who shrugged, wagged her eyebrows, and leaped into the corridor, swinging her tea kettle over her head and down into the waving flagellum of the nearest macrovirus. Mirrad's Denn'Bok blurred to invisibility as he followed her into the fight, striking blow after blow against the outer shells of the macroviruses until they finally cracked beyond recovery. The first three bugs went down quickly, but more swarmed down the corridor, eagerly seeking new hosts to infect. Mirrad and Elms fought back to back, each facing down one end of the corridor and bludgeoning anything that got too close.

The flare of phaser fire announced the arrival of Castor Parwill and Nathonea Dewstan. The two nurses fired with a vengeance. Though one blast did little more than to create a smoking scorch mark on the target, a barrage eventually overheated their insides to the point of repainting the corridors an interesting shade of ribonucleic acid. Mirrad and Elms fell back to the collapsed door, which, though thoroughly trampled by this point, Elms didn't hesitate to stomp on.

"I thought I saw it move," she answered Mirrad's reproving look.

The phaser fire died down and Parwill and Nathonea joined them within the department.

"I didn't see any more," Nathonea said. She would know: during a mass neuralyzation of a Borg cube, she had been briefly assimilated and still had the eyepiece and enhanced visual perception to show for it. "They were really big, though. Not what I think when I think virus."

Parwill nodded. "They can get up to a meter from a human host. We're lucky those weren't."

The others nodded.

The sound of heavy, rapid footfalls distracted them from further conversation. Nurse Pablum and Nurse Bogglish barreled toward them, started, and redoubled their efforts. Pablum let out a yell that more properly belonged to someone with a big ax and a lot of facial hair. He was clean-shaven and his hair was cropped close to his skull, and he did not have an ax, but the other nurses jumped out of his way just the same. Bogglish was right behind him. The other four turned in time to see them raise their weapons and strike a defiant tableau between them and the macrovirus that reared up from under the door. Pablum shouted at it and the two men each dealt it a fierce spray of Lysol.

The macrovirus dealt them a spray of slime to the face.

The other four cried out in dismay. Parwill and Nathonea blasted the macrovirus with everything they had until it blew up, coating the already-traumatized nurses with a second layer of goo. Bogglish cursed everything from the Flowers to his great-grandmother's ingrown toenail and did a get-it-off-me slappy dance while Pablum simply did his best to wipe his face without dislodging his surgical mask. The others looked on with a mixture of pity and horror.

Nathonea was the first to speak. She pointed at Pablum and Bogglish for emphasis. "You guys have to go into isolation. Right now."

"No. Wait." Pablum flicked a handful of slime to the floor. "Hose us down. No sense tracking this everywhere."

Bogglish wrung his hands. "How long do we have?"

"Long enough for us to find a hose, I hope," said Nathonea. "There should be one in storage. Come on."

She, Elms, and Parwill went looking. Mirrad stayed with the two men, keeping a close eye on the door. After fifteen minutes, the others came back with a ridiculously long fire hose. Where the water came from was a mystery, but the thing was useful in certain cases when the patients needed to be separated and chilled out at the same time.

Bogglish took off his glasses and squinted at the nozzle. "You can't be serious."

"Sorry," said Nathonea. She opened the flow on the unfortunate men. It was a half-strength blast, but even Pablum was forced to take a step backwards at first. Bogglish's big hair collapsed against his head like a failed soufflé. In seconds, they were completely soaked and completely free of macrovirus slime. They stood off to one side, dripping, while the women turned the hose on the door and the corridor.

"You must do something about that door soon," Pablum said when they were done, stolidly ignoring the pained looks he and Bogglish received from the others.

"Yes," Mirrad said. "I will remain here in the meantime."

Parwill agreed to stay, too. The six nurses unconsciously separated themselves into pairs: Mirrad and Parwill in one, Nathonea and Elms in another, and the infected men an extra two feet from everyone else.

"Come on," Nathonea said. "We have to go." In what might have been a compassionate gesture, she closed the gap and put a hand on Pablum's shoulder. The fact that it was her Borg hand probably explained a lot.

She and Elms escorted the two to the room where they would be kept in isolation from the rest of FicPsych. They were made as comfortable as possible on beds, restrained, and provided with an intravenous line of saline so as to keep them from dehydrating once they fell unconscious and became macrovirus factories.

As Nathonea strapped Pablum down, he suddenly gripped her by the metallic Borg arm and looked her in the face with earnest blue eyes. "I have a last request."

"Don't say that. It isn't," she said. Behind her, Elms quietly wept.

"It might be." Pablum shrugged. "So what? Everybody dies."

Nathonea frowned. "Not on my watch. What's your request?"

"Three things. First, a cigar. Second, whiskey."

"I'll second that," Bogglish interjected dourly.

"And third?" Nathonea asked.

Pablum smiled viciously. "Kill those bastard mother-loving amoeba-spawn."

Nathonea smiled back under her mask. "I think we can manage that one."

"Damn right," said Elms. She wiped her face against one shoulder. "Listen, guys, don't die. Otherwise who are we gonna brag to about how awesome we were when it's over?"

Nathonea rolled her eyes—the one of them that could roll, anyway. "I'm sure they're very motivated, Elms."

"At least we aren't alone," said Bogglish.

That seemed to be the cue for everyone to decide they'd had all the good-byes they could take. Nathonea and Elms left the room and sealed the door behind them. They couldn't know at the time, of course, but it would be the last time they saw Bogglish and Pablum for three weeks.

The epidemic continued unabated and the death toll climbed among the departments less able to handle the situation. FicPsych escaped the worst of it, but two nurses with phasers or other energy weapons were posted at the doors at all times from then on, and they were needed. First Parwill and then the cheerful new Discworld nurse, Loquacious Immac, fell to the infectious slime and had to be placed in isolation without the benefit of company. Meanwhile, the canon characters grew restless.

Being trapped in a descriptionless gray world not one's own is bad enough when one is mentally unbalanced. It is worse when one begins to recover and to realize exactly how wrong the situation really is.

The first fight broke out between Shindo Hikaru and Akira Toya of Hikaru no Go. The rivals were finally free of their uncanonical feelings of lust for each other, but that feeling had unfortunately translated into the equally uncanonical desire to beat each other into a bloody pulp. It took the combined efforts of Jenni and Nurse Barker to pull them apart and make them sit in separate corners until they snapped out of it. Aizen Sousuke of Bleach, who shared the room with them, was heard to mutter devious plans regarding the takeover of the department if only he could get in touch with Ulquiorra Schiffer, who was fortunately well down the hall.

Mirrad was forced to leave his post at the main doors to prevent Leroux!Erik from killing Gerard!Erik for the second time, and Lerik fought so ferociously that Mirrad had no choice but to actually knock him out to avoid serious injuries to all parties. The Minbari sedated Lerik and removed him to the room containing dragonrider!Erik, who remained completely insensate to all that went on around him. He hadn't flinched even when Jenni slipped lines of I.V. nutrients into his arm. The changes to his environs were as nothing to him.

Cluny and Legolas, who had shared the room, were relocated as they recovered, Legolas because he was uncomfortable with his roommates and Cluny because he was threatening to kill everyone if he wasn't allowed to leave soon. The rat warlord still slipped occasionally into the Babelfished English of the fic that had sent him there[4], but his ability to speak coherently had vastly improved, much to the dismay of the more polite denizens of the department. Immac and Frank had discovered a set of shackles during their inventory, and Suzine put them to good use making sure that Cluny didn't damage anyone.

Legolas found better company in Luke Skywalker. Although they didn't share a language, they were both more or less themselves, and they were both frustrated by the restrictions imposed on them by the nurses. Such as they were. When Luke noticed that the door to their room had been left unlocked, he didn't hesitate to take advantage. Finding his lightsaber stored nearby, he went hunting and managed to take out several macroviruses before the nurses realized what was going on. However, at the next lull in the fighting, they confiscated his lightsaber, gave him a ruthless upbraiding, and locked him in with the Elf, who at least looked sympathetic even though he had no idea what Luke said to him.

With four of their small number incapacitated, the remaining nurses had all they could do to manage the renegade canons on top of the viruses, and they grew more desperate every day. The news from outside was slim to none; all the fern could gather was that people were dying. As far as the nurses knew, they were completely cut off. It therefore came as quite a shock when a TARDIS appeared in the middle of the department.

Dr. Freedenberg came quickly at a summons from Nurse Barker, who had witnessed its arrival.

"Right there, Doctor," he said, pointing rather redundantly at the TARDIS, which had rendered itself as a giant exclamation mark.

The TARDIS opened at Freedenberg's approach, and a female agent with no flash patch emerged. "Dr. Freedenberg, I presume?"

"I am." He gestured at the exclamation mark. "What's all this, then? I thought we were under the strictest quarantine."

"We are," said the agent. "The TARDIS is able to neutralize the organisms. In fact, I'm here about just that. I'm with the Department of Internal Affairs. We need to borrow one of your nurses."

"What for, if you please?" Freedenberg folded his arms. Behind him, Barker copied the gesture. "We have four very sick people and a department full of canons under attack. I cannot lightly spare anyone."

The agent sighed. "The DIA and the DES have taken into custody a . . . being who might be able to help us cure this plague, but we need to know if she can be trusted. I understand you have someone on your staff with the ability to read minds. The situation, you will allow, is desperate. Please, Doctor."

Freedenberg thought it over, scratched his beard, and nodded. "I know who you need."

And so Jenni Robinson found herself hustled aboard the TARDIS with the DIA agent, who briefed her on the situation.

"The macrovirus epidemic was caused by infected Sues sent by the Enforcers of the Plot Continuum, a mirrorverse version of the PPC that actually supports Mary Sues. Their agents are Sues, too." The agent shook her head. "Anyway, some of our agents accidentally swapped with their EPC counterparts in an experiment their Makes-Things was running about two months back—that's what caused the power outage."

"Wow. Who got swapped?"

"Tawaki, Tadkeeta, Kedri'Neref, and Tangara. They had quite a time getting back, as I understand. Now that the EPC knows about us, they want to destroy us. But some of their members formed an underground resistance movement, and they want to help us. They got our people home, and their Honesah says she and her forces can destroy the macroviruses. You know how important that is if it's true."

Jenni nodded. "Yeah. But I don't like it. Why do you know about me, and why are we in a TARDIS?"

The DIA agent shrugged. "As for the first, my Head of Department just told me to ask around FicPsych. It made sense, given the nature of the job." She half-smiled. "The TARDISes were issued to agents who would otherwise have been stranded in the field."

"And then we're putting them back, right? After all this, the last thing we need is pissed-off Time Lords coming after us for using proprietary tech."

To that, the agent had no response.

Shortly thereafter, the TARDIS touched down with a whir outside a farmhouse somewhere Jenni didn't recognize and, at the DIA agent's reassurance that she was waiting to take Jenni back to FicPsych when she was done, she went inside. She recognized Agents Tawaki, Tadkeeta, and Kedri'Neref, not to mention Captain Dandy. Since she'd apparently been given free reign to use her telepathy, she found out who everyone else was while she was at it: the Yertis, Deputy Head of Internal Affairs; the Corkscrew Cattail, coordinator of the TARDISes; Agent Gilbert Hawk of the PPC, and Agents Honesah and Ontic of the EPC. The sight of Honesah, a humanoid pegacorn wearing a gold-trimmed bikini, gave Jenni a bit of a start, but the bigger shock came from Honesah's mind.

~Daleks?~ Jenni demanded, pressing the image of the terrifying pepper-pot–shaped killers she associated with the word onto Honesah's mind. ~You can't be serious.~

Honesah was completely in earnest. Her multiverse's Daleks were, against all probability, willing to take orders and kill only what they were told to kill. And besides, Honesah was a former Sue. If anyone could control them, she could.

Jenni was forced to admit to the assembled group that the ex-Sue was on the level and quite capable of fulfilling her promise. The DIA agent transported Jenni back to FicPsych with the news that they were about to be saved.

Barely an hour later, the potted fern confirmed that five Daleks were patrolling the halls of HQ, vaporizing all the macroviruses in their path but leaving the agents, even the infected ones, unharmed. It took nine days for them to complete the task, but finally, at long last, the fern announced that all visible macroviruses were gone and that Medical was able to release a cure into the ventilation system. Any microscopic bugs still in the air would be killed and anyone who was infected should begin to recover upon receiving an injection of the cure. If the nurses shouted aloud for joy, if they lost all composure and broke down weeping relief in each other's arms, they all silently resolved to deny everything later.

In the meantime, they could only shake their heads when asked where the giant had come from.

"What do you mean, 'Paul Bunyan'?" an irate Suzine snapped at the fern. Dr. Freedenberg laid a consoling hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. "No," she said. "That's insane. Who the hell would write badfic about Paul Bunyan?"

Well, now that you've said something . . . muttered Frank. Suzine glared at the Hooloovoo.

All the same, said the fern, that is what I heard from the Echinacea. Early on, a macrovirus infected a giant—someone used the name Paul Bunyan, don't ask me—and one of the resulting spawn was responsible for killing—

"I don't believe it," Suzine interrupted. "Who saw it happen?"

"I understand that a Security Dandelion discovered the body," Freedenberg said, his normally good-natured countenance sagging with grief. "It is a tragedy, but these things do happen. None of us will live forever."

"I still don't believe it." Suzine crossed her arms and pretended disdain rather than allowing herself to cry. "It would be like Makes-Things to create a perfect copy of himself and take the opportunity for a well-deserved vacation, now, wouldn't it? No one will go after him if they think he's dead."

Freedenberg sighed, and when he placed his hands around Suzine's shoulders this time, she held still. "Perhaps," said the doctor. "In that case, may his vacation be long and happy, and may no one be the wiser until he chooses to return."

Suzine nodded, but was distracted from responding. It seemed that something had got caught in her eye.

The fern rustled its fronds gently. Forgive me for interrupting the moment, but Medical wants to know if we can spare anyone with a healer's touch.

"That depends upon how many patients we can move out of here," said Freedenberg. "I assume the quarantine and lockdown are both lifted?"

They are.

"Good. Frank?"

I believe that most of the current patients are fit to leave, said the Hooloovoo. Their number does not include Cluny the Scourge or Leroux!Erik as of yet. The latter has yet to recover from Nurse Mirrad's . . . hm . . . shall we say, aggressive therapy?

"Damn," Suzine said. "I'd have been glad to see the back of them, and Gerik, too."

"Now, Suzine. What kind of an attitude is that?"

"Mine," said Suzine, turning to face the doctor. "Please don't grandfather me, Phil. I've had enough trouble with that contingent to deserve a little attitude."

"All right. But see that it's only a little, between us."

Suzine forbore to dignify that with a response. As if she had ever behaved unprofessionally in front of the staff or their patients!

Ahem, said the fern. It was the closest a sentient plant could come to politely clearing its throat. What shall I tell Medical?

"We will, of course, send help as soon as we can," Freedenberg answered. "But first things first."

The two of them left Freedenberg's office and set about telling the nurses the news and confirming which patients could be released and which of the staff could be sent to Medical. Nathonea and Jenni volunteered to go right away, but only on the condition that Immac and Parwill went with them. They would get better care in the Medical Department.

"And I want to check on dragonrider!Erik first," Jenni added. "I promised him he would have help. In all of this, my promise has come to precious little."

Suzine nodded. "Once the canons are taken care of, I'll set Mirrad to look after him. He's good with these tricky situations." Jenni opened her mouth, perhaps to protest her dismissal, but Suzine raised a hand. "Trust the rest of us a bit, Jenni. With next to no canons in the department for once, we can handle it. If your dragonrider needs to go to Medical, I'll make sure you're the first to know. Now, I believe you have more experience in that area than any of us, so go help Headquarters."

Jenni and Nathonea went, taking Immac and Parwill with them. Suzine was as good as her word and, as soon as the Minbari was available, she sent him to check on Lerik and the ex-rider.

Mirrad's first thought upon finding the room not only missing one Erik but completely devoid of them altogether was that there was no way he deserved this much punishment. Very well, perhaps he had gone a little too far with Lerik earlier, but really.

Then again, perhaps this was a good sign. He saw no evidence of a struggle here, and wherever dragonrider!Erik had gone, he had bothered to take his jacket, belt, and laces with him. At least, Mirrad was sure no one else would have taken them. Maybe the laces, but as no one had been menaced with a bootlace by an angry Phantom yet, it seemed unlikely. Mirrad nodded to himself. The ex-rider wasn't likely to get far from the department, and anyone he ran into could only help him. Whatever had happened, at least he was no longer lying on his bed like a dead man. Finding Lerik was the nurse's first priority. He wished the other man the best of luck and set off on his hunt.

He was lucky: he managed to catch up with Lerik and keep him contained under close watch until Suzine finally found them in the depths of the primary ward. Together, they neuralyzed the Phantom and, judging him fully recovered, portalled him back to Lerouxverse before he could cause more problems. Then Mirrad was obliged to explain his take on dragonrider!Erik's situation, which he did.

Suzine sighed. "Jenni is going to kill me. I can't launch another manhunt right now—I need everyone processing canons or cleaning the filth out of this place." She anxiously rubbed the back of her neck. "Go process Gerik and those guys from Bleach. Hopefully the recruit will turn up in the meantime. He's been catatonic for a month. He can't have gone too far."

Mirrad bowed in assent and went on his way.

"I need a drink," Suzine said to no one. Then she continued her sweep of the department, making sure the canons were being properly processed and that FicPsych was being cleared of the horrible mess left over from the epidemic.

It was said that the death toll came to approximately one thousand agents and staff, including FicPsych's own Jann Pablum and Algernon Bogglish. They had died quietly, completely depleted by the macroviruses in spite of everything. As a last gesture of respect, the nurses borrowed a disguise generator to restore their thin, ragged bodies to the way they once were before they were buried near their old homes on Earth.

Part Two – Interlude

An hour or so before the epidemic ended, Leroux!Erik woke up with a pounding headache. Just the same, he sat up. He was belted to a rolling bed about the middle, but not for long—it was the work of seconds to free himself. Whatever the bald-pated nurse had done to him, once he recovered, there was nothing capable of holding him for long unless he chose to be held.

His mind was more or less as it should have been at that point. He knew where he was and what had happened to him, though everything before FicPsych was a haze.

For the moment, he ignored the other occupant of the room and examined the room itself, which was slightly more interesting than the last one he'd been in. The graffiti on the wall beside him elicited a wry grimace. The locked door, well, that was a nuisance. Erik would have to do something about that.

Later.

Right now, his head hurt and there was yet another impostor to deal with, one very much like the last one in some ways, but different in others. He stood and loomed over the recumbent man as only Erik could loom, peering down with yellow eyes through the sockets of his full, black mask.

"You there," he said, speaking French in the hope of finding at least that much civilization in the other man. "Erik wishes to speak with you, so don't pretend you can't hear him. Get up."

No response. Erik narrowed his eyes. "I said, get up." He seized the man by the shirt and pulled him into a sitting position as easily as if he'd been a small child. "Do you speak language, Monsieur Imposteur? Français? Español? Italiano? Deutsch? English? Russkiy? Erik speaks them all, so it doesn't matter. Say something!"

The Phantom's voice penetrated the man's mind, even if his words did not. The man looked up at him without seeming to see. "Leave me alone. Let me die."

English, then. Leaving the man propped up against the wall, Erik folded his arms. "Erik would kill you himself, but he has no reason to do so yet. He wishes to speak to you, so pay attention."

Without quite knowing why, the man did. His eyes focused, and so did his mind. "E'rik. That's my name. Was."

"'Was,' indeed, Monsieur Imposteur," said Erik. "That is precisely what I say. Erik is Erik, and no one else can be Erik. Many have tried, but no one else has suffered like Erik has. Are you going to claim you have, like the other impostors?" He stalked back and forth as he spoke, and now his eyes blazed. "The last one who did learned his lesson, I think, learned it well. The evidence was in his trousers."

The ex-dragonrider watched him and scowled. Unconsciously, his hands made fists around the bedding. "You think I haven't suffered? What gives you the right?"

Erik stared. "Do you, or do you not, claim to be the Phantom of the Opera?"

In a dead voice, the ex-rider replied in the only way he could. "What's an opera?"

The inexplicable cricket chirruped again.

Then Erik laughed. This was an unnerving experience for anyone, and the former rider was no exception. He felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

"You are the worst yet!" said Erik, much to his own amusement. "I must give you that. You are the worst I have ever seen." His mirth vanished, and he grabbed the man by the shirt again, leaned close to his face, snarled his words. "Tell me, I suppose you don't know Christine Daae, either? I suppose you haven't had to live with the agony of never being able to touch the one thing you love most in the world? What, then? What is the cause of your suffering, Monsieur Imposteur? Your face? This face that you wear uncovered, bare to the light of day and the eyes of everyone? Pah!" He released the ex-rider. "You know nothing of pain!"

Unaccountably, the man found himself on his feet, half tangled in his I.V. lines. He curled his lip. "Everything I ever knew was a lie. Everything I loved. Everything I hated. Everything. I don't know who you are. I've never heard of you, and by the shards of the First Egg, you have no right to tell me I haven't suffered.

"You said you would kill me. I think you should. I won't make a fuss. I think you know what it feels like to want to die."

The two locked gazes, the scarred man and the masked man. For a moment, the little that they had in common with each other was enough. They understood one another, man to man, pain to pain.

"Erik has no reason to kill you," Erik said quietly. "If he did, the people here might 'sedate' him again, and he wishes to go home as soon as possible. Christine will think her angel has forgotten her."

The people of FicPsych could never quite discover all the little tools he had secreted about his person, and he set about using some of them on the locked door. A few minutes later, it clicked open. Erik started out, but he paused and looked back at the former dragonrider. "I think you should live," said Erik. "You have a chance to make a new life. You're an idiot if you don't take it." Having nothing more to say on the matter, Erik departed, leaving the door open behind him.

The ex-rider stared after him for some time, he didn't know how long. Absently, he pulled the I.V. needles out of his arm and started walking.

He had no thoughts of leaving the department in mind. He really had no thoughts in his mind at all, as though the conversation with Erik had exhausted the organ that had lain dormant for so long. It was only when he realized that he had been staring at the same dead-end wall for at least half an hour, and how stupid that was, that thought returned. He didn't know how he had gotten there. He did know that the same line from a Pernese teaching song was stuck in his head, drowning any coherency that tried to surface. The line was "Wheel and turn or bleed and burn." He couldn't remember the rest of the song, just like back in the Weyr when that woman, Jenni, had talked him and Skepnadth into turning on the Weyrwoman.

It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

Skepnadth, his wonderful bronze dragon, was gone now. The Weyrwoman's golden queen, against all teaching, against all sanity, had wounded him beyond recovery, and he had vanished between forever, followed shortly, as far as the man knew, by the whole Weyr and maybe even all of Pern, too.

There would be no more wheeling and turning for him anymore. He would have been content to bleed and burn.

Why didn't he know the rest of that song?

Why, for that matter, didn't he know where he was, how he had gotten here, or why his trousers were slowly working their way down his thighs?

It might, he realized, have something to do with the fact that his belt was hanging from his right hand, along with his wherhide flight jacket and the ties for everything that needed them. He vaguely remembered an odd-looking bald man in cream-colored robes removing said articles from his person. That was silly. He had no designs on this life, but he certainly hadn't planned to die without his pants on. While he was just standing there anyway, he fixed his attire, though he did not put on the flight jacket. He stared at it instead.

The shoulder knots, which represented his rank, dragon, and Weyr, had no color except the bronze for Skepnadth. What were the Weyr's colors? Did it ever have any? Did it even have a name?

Why didn't he know the song?

He must not have felt like standing up anymore. Now he was on the floor with his face buried in the leather of the jacket, sucking in the sweet-spicy dragon scent clinging to it as though it were the only thing he could breathe. But he still choked, because his mouth and nose were full of sobs, and they poured out and spilled all over the leather, all over everything, and it was a mess.

He slept through the end of the epidemic. When he woke up, the wall had become a door. Perhaps it had always been a door, but he hadn't noticed at first. Perhaps he was insane. Perhaps he was dead.

He didn't feel dead. He felt sick and empty, and his eyes were swollen half-shut from crying. His wherhide jacket was still damp.

The other side of the door was a lot like the first side: it was a hallway and it was gray from top to bottom. The only difference was that there were no doorways in sight. Not even the one he had come through.

He decided that he was definitely insane and started walking leftward.

Fly between, blue and green.

That was the next line.

Maybe this was what it looked like beyond between. Gray all over instead of black.

Nah.

He walked for a long time. Sometimes he didn't see anything. Sometimes he slept. Sometimes there were a lot of doors. They all looked important, and he detected a faint but clear feeling of confusion emanating from something outside of himself when he went through none of them. They drifted by like eddies in a fog.

At last, he could go no further without passing through the most formidable door yet. It was heavy-looking and seemed to lean toward him like an angry drill master with crossed arms. He wasn't afraid. He wasn't anything. He opened the door and went through it.

If he had bothered to read the inscription above the door, he would have read, "I reject your reality and substitute my own."

There were rumors that the PPC contained a room designed to neutralize or even eliminate Mary Sues by enforcing the true laws of their home continuum upon them, which usually included such things as gravity, biology, the passage of time, and, because this was the PPC, grammar and spelling. As is usual, the rumors contained a grain of truth. The use of such a room on Mary Sues would have to be considered torture and therefore illegal, but the Reality Room did exist. The ex-rider had just walked into it.

It was dark inside. The room insisted that there could be no visibility where there was no obvious source of light, and it didn't care what the rest of HQ thought about it. As soon as the door closed behind him, the former rider was effectively blind. He stopped walking. There was nothing else he could do.

The Reality Room took hold of him. Through sufficiently advanced technology, or magic, or simple narrative expedience, it knew everything that had yet been said about him, and it set about making sense of it.

Heretofore, his existence had been the product of a Suethor's whim. For whatever reason, characteristics belonging to a version of the Phantom of the Opera had been fused to a dragonrider of Pern—except not, because the Suethor's depiction of her fantasy included precious little resembling the true Pern. That was the first thing to fix, then. If this man was going to think of himself as a former dragonrider of Pern, he had better know what that meant in terms of the canon.

All at once, he did. His life, or what might have been his life under another writer, filled his mind so completely he might as well have been there. He might have been born to Pernese parents, perhaps early in the Ninth Pass of the Red Star. He might have been apprenticed to the Harper Hall and seen two Masterharpers lead the Hall before, perhaps, he was Searched in his teens and Impressed his dark bronze dragon. He might have had a good life if he hadn't been at the mercy of a Suethor.

In that time, he could not have become Weyrleader. His story of origin described the Hatching Grounds of his Weyr as being open to the sun, which left only Southern Weyr, or perhaps Eastern, as realistic options, and their leadership was well established for most of the duration of Threadfall, from whence came his facial scars.

His scars were their own issue. If he had been stupid enough to not wear protective goggles, perhaps in his first weeks with a fighting wing of dragons, that was a forgivable, even welcome, character flaw. Threadburn on any part of the body was no light matter, however, and a burn that covered one whole side of his face could easily have killed him. In order to have prevented that, his dragon must have jumped to the safety of between just as the Thread had hit him. Still, Thread worked quickly. Before he could have beaten it off to freeze and die, it could easily have eaten its way through his skin far enough to do extensive damage.

The Reality Room was charged with giving particular scrutiny to physical descriptions. It regarded, inasmuch as a nonliving entity could regard, the scars and the man's one blue eye. Having dual-set eyes, it knew, was uncommon. Uncommon eyes needed a common explanation to be as realistic as possible. In this case, a perfect explanation had already been provided. That eye could simply have become clouded and blue-ish as a result of damage to the cornea. Say, Threadburn.

He couldn't know exactly what happened right away, being in the dark, and when it was over it was as though it had always been so, except that he remembered differently. He felt for a moment as though he had something in his eye, something that stung like fifty eyelashes and only got worse when he reached reflexively to rub it away. The eyeball itself didn't feel right when he touched it through the lid, which was itself oddly thickened. The eye seemed shrunken and tough, like the broad side of a half-soaked lima bean.

The hurt faded. The sense of wrongness remained.

Time went by while the Reality Room worked its effects on him. He lost some things, but gained much more. He understood that his former life was nothing more than the product of words on a page. He understood the nature of the true Pern and, while the room was at it, Harry Potter and the Phantom of the Opera. He understood why Erik had been so threatened by his existence. He resolved to take a new name and thought hard about what it should be. He couldn't know what his parents might have named him in his theoretical existence as a Pernese man, but he had a vague memory of someone referring to him as dragonrider!Erik. He understood that such an appellation would eventually be contracted, and so he decided to save everyone the trouble. Dragonrider!Erik became Derik.

Then everything stopped. Something was wrong. There had been no sounds in the room unless he had made them himself, but now he could hear deep shuddering impacts from behind him. He turned to face the noise, realized how stupid this was, and threw himself to the floor as the Generic Material splintered and flew inward in a hail of sharp needle-like shrapnel.

Soar, dive down, bronze and brown.

Generic Material had a reputation for being nigh-unbreakable, but what came through the forced door had a reputation for destroying reputations, whether it made sense or not. In came a Mary Sue.

"Ha-ha!" said she. She would have described herself as tall, thin, and straight, with a head of steel. "Did I not telleth you I could besteth any foe? For lo, I am Maxima Hammerica, Gladiatoress and soon-to-be-wife of Maximus Decimus Meridius!" She struck a dramatic pose and nearly stepped on Derik's hand as she fully entered the room.

No sooner had she done this than the Reality Room took effect. Again narrowly missing the former rider, she turned into a big hammer—a sledgehammer, in fact—and dropped to the floor.

Outside the room, girly voices squealed in horror. "Lyk, omigawd! Maxi!" cried one; "Can I blow it up now?" whined another; and "The PPC will pay!" declared a third.

A face, more tanned than leather and wearing more glitter than a tree at Christmas, appeared in Derik's field of vision. "Lyk, u guys!" said the Sue. "There's, lyk, a guy in here!" Two other faces joined the first. (They were each, of course, attached to bodies.)

"Is he an agent?" said the second Sue, who wore mostly black with pink and green accents and held some kind of wooden stylus in her hand.

The third, whose hair and eyes seemed to change color every other second, addressed him. "Are you an agent or a Gary Stu?"

"No," said Derik. He sat up to see them better. The first one, who was on the right, kept wandering in and out of focus.

The Sues looked at each other. "That's not an answer," said the third one. "You have to be one or the other, or you wouldn't be here."

"We need to know, lyk, whether or not to kill u," said the first. The second shushed her and elbowed her in the ribs. The first shrieked and pulled the second's hair. It would have descended into an all-out catfight if the third hadn't intervened.

"Don't fight, sisters!" she said as she stepped between them. "We must remain strong if we are to defeat the PPC!"

"You're right," said the second Sue.

"We're, lyk, totally sorry," said the first. They both bowed their heads.

Derik thought this was the most contrived conversation he had ever heard. He rose to his feet. "What are you?"

All three Sues looked at him. In one hand was his wherhide jacket. In the other was the former gladiator!Sue-turned-sledgehammer. The right side of his face was covered with scars. He was missing part of that eyebrow and some of the lashes, as well. The eye was sunken in its socket, milky-blue, and sightless. It followed their movements just the same.

"I, um, could fix that for you," the second Sue said. "I'm a witch," she added. "Slytherin House."

"No, you're not," Derik said reasonably. "What are you?"

The third Sue began to answer, but the first beat her to it. "We're Mary Sues, duh."

None of them got the chance to say anything else. Derik erupted from the Reality Room and laid into them. Even half-blind and weakened from a month of inactivity and I.V. feeding, he hadn't quite lost the arm strength built up over years of tossing and catching the heavy bags of firestone his dragon needed to produce flame, and the element of surprise made up for the rest. In less than a minute, the corridor no longer contained three Sues, but three corpses in three rapidly-expanding puddles of glittery blood.

Derik walked back into the Reality Room and retrieved his jacket from where he had dropped it. He paused for a moment to catch his breath, then put it on and set off purposefully back the way he had come.

He remembered something Jenni had said to him while explaining why he should help her and her friends. It was, in fact, the thing that had convinced him. "Mary Sues," she had said, "are kind of like Thread, except that they eat living ideas instead of living matter, and they leave only the shiny dead bits to decorate themselves." Derik and his bronze had been shiny, decorative, dead ideas until the PPC came along, and when they had tried to become alive, the Sue Alanna and her Sue dragon destroyed Skepnadth and nearly destroyed him. Now he was half a man, half blind, and half lost, but he knew one thing. He didn't care if he died, but while he lived, he would live as a dragonman should and protect others from what would harm them: not Thread, but the closest thing to it. Sues were Thread, and he remembered the whole song:

Dragonmen must fly when Threads are in the sky.

Part Three – Invasion

The Department of Fictional Psychology had battened down the hatches once more, but this time they were at war. The League of Mary Sue Factories, in collusion with the mirror universe responsible for the macrovirus epidemic, had launched a full-scale Mary Sue invasion. The Sues were drawn to canon characters. Due to the field agents' hard work, FicPsych had them again.

Nurse Elms discovered the department's first Sue in the act of administering what could only be described as an unholy cross between Freudian psychotherapy and Dr. Ruthian advice to a collection of Pevensies. The stars in Peter's, Edmund's, and Lucy's eyes gave the Sue away. The three children sat together on a bed, sitting at rapt attention as the Sue spoke. Fortunately, her back was to the door. Elms quietly backed out of the room and brought Head Nurse Suzine, who borrowed a page from Carrot Ironfoundersson's book and threw one at the Sue—Gordon Allport's Personality: A Psychological Interpretation, in this case.

After that, the department sounded a general alarm and started moving the canon characters to the most secure areas as quickly as possible. Anyone who could handle a weapon at all, regardless of skill, found something with which to arm themselves. The potted fern and Frank took up sentry positions in the halls, and the nurses arranged themselves according to skill.

Once again, Mirrad was at the main doors with Nathonea, who had portalled back from Medical as soon as she heard, and Elms. Mirrad had put on his full Ranger gear and carried both his Denn'Bok and, more importantly, the sandal once lobbed at him by none other than Acacia Byrd. It was something of a relic in the department, lauded for being a perfectly ordinary sandal with no special attributes whatsoever. It even had a bit of foot odor about it. If anything would inspire the staff of FicPsych to feets of courage and strike terror, or at least confusion, into the soles of the Sues, that was it.

The newly-repaired door vibrated a bit in its frame. Strange perfumes sneaked tendrils of scent inside to tease the noses of those within. Elms sneezed ferociously.

"Let them come," growled Nathonea, tightening her grip on her phaser. "Let all who are against us come!"

"That would be undesirable," Mirrad pointed out. "The three of us cannot hold out against infinite Mary Sues."

"I think that was an Éomer quote," said Elms. She twirled a cast iron frying pan, marked "1d8," in her hands. True to her word, she had explained her odd choice of weaponry to Mirrad: before the PPC, she had been a Generic Fantasy tavern wench, and so she had learned to fight with whatever was handy. She had developed a fondness for large cookware.

Mirrad looked askance at her. "Even so. We should not wish to fight more than we must."

As the door continued to rattle and Sueish noises reached their ears, they decided Mirrad was probably right.

Then the noise stopped. The nurses looked at each other with expressions of confusion, not knowing whether to expect a reprieve or a more terrible onslaught. They were no less confused when the silence was filled with screams.

Elms took a hesitant step toward the door. "Should we . . . should we help?"

They thought about it. The door thumped and shook, precisely as though a body had hit it and slid to the ground.

"They're probably fine out there," said Nathonea.

"The Sues aren't," Elms pointed out. "Mirrad got his wish—or his antithesis of a wish." The others agreed.

After a minute or so, the sounds of fighting stopped and there came a very polite knock at the door. Again, the nurses exchanged doubtful looks.

"Do assassins knock?" Elms wondered.

"Not usually," said Nathonea. "For all we know, this might be a stray Black Cat."

The knock came again.

"Don't be paranoid," said Elms. "Let's see who it is." And, being closest to the door, she unbarred it, unlocked it, and opened it as far as the latch would allow. "Hello?"

"Hello. Is this the Department of Fictional Psychology?"

"I think the sign on the door says so, so we must be. Can you wait a second? Thanks." Elms closed the door and looked at her comrades. "Do we know a scary-looking man with half a face, a large sledgehammer, and a weird accent?"

Mirrad experienced a facial twitch. "Possibly. I think, probably, yes. . . . You should let him in now, Elms."

"Right." She nodded and swung open the door. Outside, the bodies of five bloody Mary Sues with caved-in heads littered the corridor, giving the nurses flashbacks to the macrovirus epidemic that made them nauseous. The man Elms had described stepped into the department. The head of the sledgehammer clunked against the floor.

He had changed, but Mirrad recognized him. "Dragonrider!Erik."

"It's Derik now," the man said breathlessly. He promptly passed out and collapsed face-down on the floor.

"Ouch," observed Nathonea. "What should we do with him?"

"Nurse Robinson will want to know he is here," Mirrad said. "She was quite anxious for his safety when she learned that he was missing." In fact, Mirrad and Suzine had been a little anxious for their own safety at the time, but the Minbari was certain that they would be forgiven now.

"I will take him," he decided. "You two must remain on guard. Here." He handed Elms his Denn'Bok and lifted Derik over his shoulder. The man was much lighter than he should have been. Mirrad was able to carry his sledgehammer, too. "Watch well until my return," he told the women.

Once again, Derik was settled on the first available bed. Once Mirrad was satisfied that he wouldn't die on the spot, he went in search of Jenni, who had also returned from Medical to help guard the canons. Barker, Suzine, and Freedenberg had the task well in hand for the moment, so she was free to leave it to them, hug the surprised Minbari, and hurry to Derik's room. Mirrad was free to return to the front line.

Jenni immediately noticed the changes that had taken place in the former rider, though she was at a loss to explain them. His facial scars, which had previously looked more like make-up than anything else, were now thoroughly ingrained with his skin, pulling it tight across the right side of his face and giving him a permanent half-grimace. She ran light fingers along the broken eyebrow, across the sunken eye. It took her back to her years as a Pernese fan character, when she wouldn't have hesitated to stroke his Thread-torn hairline like she hesitated now. Her hand curled into a ball and came to rest at her side. She'd done too much already.

She waited. Derik woke up and groggily pushed himself up.

"'s Derik now," he slurred as his brain rebooted.

"Derik," Jenni repeated, serving both to get his attention and test the name in her mouth. "That's a good choice. Very normal."

He squinted at her, turning his head slightly to bring his good eye closer. "Jenni. I remember you. I was looking for you."

"I'm here now," she said. "But what happened to you? You disappeared. We were worried."

He described his encounter with Leroux!Erik and how something in him had changed after that, compelled him to get out of bed and find himself again. He told her about the Reality Room and the Mary Sues, and how he had decided to kill them because of what she, Jenni, had said to him before.

Jenni took in his story with as much equanimity as she could upon learning she might have created a psycho killer. "Well, at least you're alive," she said. "Are you . . . all right, then? That's a lot to go through after . . . what happened before."

Derik thought about it, absently rubbing his right cheek. "No," he said. "But I was ready to let myself die before. I'm not now. Mary Sues ruined my life. If I die killing them, I will consider it worth my while. That is why you brought me here," he reminded her.

"Yes, it is," she allowed. "I guess you have a better reason for it than most of the agents here, and we could really use the help right now. But you're in no condition. You were catatonic for over a month. It's no wonder you passed out. I'll bring you some hot food and klah. I keep a stash," she confided.

Jenni's definition of food wasn't exactly what Derik had pictured—he had a vague notion of roasted meat and spicy root vegetables with crusty bread—but even the broth and rice he got made him acutely aware of just how empty his insides were, and he was grateful that he didn't have to digest anything richer. The brewed klah, however, was most appreciated. He almost felt human again.

Until he found himself falling asleep entirely against his will.

"You dosed me," he accused the woman.

"Sorry." She shrugged, half-smiled. "You need some proper sleep and I can't be worrying about you while Headquarters is under attack."

If she said anything else, he was too far gone to understand it.

Jenni smiled somewhat sadly, patted his hand, and cleared away the empty dishes. Immediately thereafter, she received the urgent news that Medical was swelling with casualties and that they needed every able pair of hands they could get. Dr. Freedenberg assured her that, in this case, she was of more use there than in FicPsych, and so she went.

Being experienced in the ways of the PPC, she was not really surprised to learn what happened in her department when it was all over.

Sedatives can only work so well on someone determined to be awake, and there is nothing more motivating than a need to urinate. One does not force Nature to leave a message when she calls—such a message is invariably rather unpleasant—and so a few hours after falling asleep, Derik forcibly regained consciousness and went in search of a necessary. Even Headquarters was not so cruel as to deny relief to a man in his condition. It took him a few minutes to fully understand the modern plumbing he'd discovered, but by that time he'd already taken care of his needs anyway. The toilet was similar enough to a bucket or a hole in the floor. It worked.

Still incredibly groggy from the drug Jenni had given him, he managed to find his way back to the room he'd come from. He sat on the bed and considered going to sleep again, but shouts from outside changed his mind. He picked up his sledgehammer from where it leaned against the wall, the head still coated with congealed, glittery blood, and went to see if he could help.

A contingent of Mary Sues had forced their way through the main doors and into the foyer, where Mirrad, Nathonea, and Barker were battling hard to keep them from the primary ward. Elms had fallen victim to the Aura of Smooth projected by the Sues and Nathonea had been forced to stun her before she turned into a Sue herself. The blonde woman lay unconscious near the wall. The other nurses had all borne injuries, and it seemed unlikely that they could hold out much longer.

Derik quietly took in the situation, realizing in an abstract way that his present mental state made him likely to be slow, inaccurate, and possibly dangerous to his allies with his weapon. On the other hand, they needed help, and he didn't see anyone else coming. He hefted his sledgehammer and shouted the first thing that came to mind as he charged the Sues.

"Skepnadth!"

Everyone stopped what they were doing just long enough for the scarred man to take his first swing, which caught a black-haired goth!Sue in the stomach and sent her gasping for breath on the floor. The others squealed in protest and renewed their assault.

"Ur meen!" they called. "We just want to show you what twu wub is!"

They swarmed him en masse, but that left them open to the nurses' counterattack. "For pony!" Barker shouted, leading the others to join back in with phaser, pike, and knife. Derik swung his sledgehammer in devastating arcs that dropped Sues no matter where he hit them. Mirrad, with much more finesse, dropped others with bone-shattering strikes to the skull or the sternum. Barker back-stabbed anyone foolish enough to be so exposed, and Nathonea made sure that any Sue that dropped stayed dead with a phaser definitely not on "Stun."

In a few moments, the defenders staggered back from the Sue bodies strewn about the floor, breathing hard and looking at one another for confirmation that they were not dead themselves. All eyes eventually turned to Derik.

"You're him," panted Nathonea. "That guy. You know."

"Derik," supplied Mirrad, who was the least winded. "You were unconscious a few hours ago."

Derik leaned on his hammer like a cane and shrugged. "I got better." If he swayed on his feet a little, he studiously ignored it, hoping the problem would go away.

"Good thing, too," said Barker, clapping the man on the shoulder. "I thought they had us for a while there. Do you think that's the last of them?"

"I can still hear the alarms out there," said Nathonea, whose hearing was enhanced by her Borg implants. "I'd bet they're still out there."

As though in confirmation, an incredibly loud telepathic voice resounded through Headquarters:

ALL AGENTS TO THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN PPC AGENT! Sues are massing for a last attack! GET YOUR BUTTS DOWN HERE NOW!

"That . . . that sounded like Agent Cray," said Nathonea, massaging an ear in a futile attempt to soothe the psychic pain. "The Tomb. Dear Eru!"

Mirrad gripped his Denn'Bok hard. "That is most unacceptable."

"Look out!" Barker cried, interrupting their reverie. He pointed at the doors, where a host of Sues was running by, presumably to join their sisters for the final assault. However, they couldn't pass up the chance to get to the canon characters they could sense within FicPsych. Sixteen Mary Sues peeled off from the main contingent and stood pointing and giggling at the small contingent of fighters they faced.

"Aww, look at them, they're so adorable, thinking they can fight us!" squee'd one. "Especially that one with the kewl blue hair." She winked at Barker.

Barker turned an interesting shade of green. "Oh dear Glod, I think I'm going to be sick."

"I'm too young to die," said Nathonea. "Not like this."

"Join us!" called a Mary Sue. "You could be pretty without all that metal stuff on you!"

Nathonea had some interesting things to say about what the Sue could do with herself and her close relatives. Then she shot her.

The Sues gasped. "Ur so meen!"

"I bet your just jelus because you have no life!"

"If u dont like, dont read!"

The others glared at the one responsible for the last remark. "Nevermind!" yelled that one. "Get them!"

They surged forward. Mirrad, thinking quickly, shouted a command at the defenders. "Run away!"

"Run away!" echoed Nathonea and Barker. Derik, who had no idea what a python was, let alone why it should be monty, could only follow them as they made a dash for the recesses of FicPsych.

They had just enough of a head start for Mirrad to call out more orders before the Sues caught up. "Split up," he told them. "Lead them away. Ambush them if you can. I will warn Dr. Freedenberg!"

The herd of Sues appeared from around a corner and the nurses (and Derik) broke and ran, splitting off in different directions as soon as opportunities presented themselves.

Derik didn't get very far before he had to stop and catch his breath. He ducked into a room and hid beside the door, leaving it open just enough to see out. His knees and hands shook, and he silently cursed his weakness. However, he didn't have much time for recriminations before a group of five Sues came his way. They talked amongst themselves as they slowly inspected the hallway, and words like "hawt" and "kewl" drifted past Derik's ears. He didn't understand them, but that wasn't important. He waited until the first one stood just outside his door and then struck. With a yell of rage, he flung the door open as hard as he could, sending it to collide with the first Sue and force her to stagger back against her fellows.

"By dose! Oh eb gee!" the Sue cried, clutching her face. The others, who had either toppled under her or sprung away, scrambled to sort themselves out.

By the time they did, the nasty mean man was gone.

It occurred to Derik that he had no idea where he was going as he staggered around a third corner, zigzagging as much as possible to throw off pursuit. The corridors all looked the same except for the numbers on the doors, which didn't seem to be in any particular order. Not helpful. He wished that he had stuck with one of the nurses and wondered if they were doing any better.

As if to prove that the Laws of Narrative Comedy were on his side, he stumbled into Nathonea Dewstan around the fifth corner. Nathonea, despite the fact that she was bleeding from several minor wounds, was well able to turn around and nearly take Derik's head off with her Borg arm. She stopped herself short of rendering him unconscious when she saw that he wasn't a Sue.

"Shh!" she hissed, much to his confusion, and turned back to watching down the hallway, which made a T with the one Derik had come from.

"Sues?" he whispered.

Nathonea nodded and held up four fingers.

Derik glanced uneasily over his shoulder. He couldn't see or hear the ones following him, but . . . . "You should know there were five behind me," he told the nurse.

"Where the other four may be, I do not know," Nathonea quoted. "Ah, Glorfindel. You're still important."

So between them, they had pulled nine Sues away from Mirrad. Derik wondered how many had gone after the man with the blue ponytail. After a minute had passed with no sign of Sues, he spoke again, keeping his voice low: "Shouldn't we go somewhere . . . better?" He grasped for the right words. "More strategic?"

"No," Nathonea replied. Suddenly, she lifted her head. "Wait. Here they come." She held her phaser at the ready.

Derik imitated her with his sledgehammer, keeping an eye (for lack of two) on the way he had come. Soon, he could hear them coming toward Nathonea's hallway. And then they entered it, and found that it contained a very angry FicPsych nurse with a deadly energy weapon.

"Khazad! Khazad!" Nathonea cried. The air filled with the sounds of phaser blasts and Sue screams, and a smell somewhat reminiscent of burned cotton candy.

"Here come the others!" Derik shouted as his five Sues appeared.

"Go that way!" Nathonea pointed down Derik's corridor, away from the new Sues. She backed into it, firing a few parting shots past him as she went. "Come on!" She turned and ran.

Derik muttered a curse and followed her, though his legs felt like they were going to fall off. The Sues came after them like a flock of flamingos in high heels. They got closer, and Nathonea got further away. There was no way he could keep this up. He would have to turn and fight, and he would get his wish about dying in the course of Duty.

Suddenly, the hallway turned blue. Keep going, said a cool, feminine voice. Everyone is to rendezvous in the Kudzu's office. Go! You're nearly there. I'll distract them as long as I can.

The blueness went away. Derik, heartened by the sense of destination, threw his reserves into his legs. The hall seemed to go on forever, but at least the Sues were no longer gaining on him. He didn't know how long that would last, but he would keep going until he dropped or found this office.

The office found him, as it happened. Nathonea, with her mechanical arm, reached out and pulled him into the large, slightly damp room as he went by. He made a sound that can only be rendered as "Erk!" and collapsed onto the floor. The wind left him on impact, and he spent the next few seconds coughing and gasping.

"Great," said a neat and trim woman in white. She looked down at him with skeptical eyes almost as black as her hair. "This'll be a lot of help."

"You didn't see him before, Suzine. It was awesome," said the blue-haired man. "You all right, man?" he asked, offering a hand to Derik. The former rider took it and was hauled to his feet.

"More or less," Derik rasped. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it," said the younger man, flashing a very pointy smile. "Leon Barker, by the way. That's Suzine Sachs, Nathonea Dewstan, and Mirrad."

"Enough pleasantries," said the strange-looking bald man. "Be alert. Nathonea?"

"Here comes Frank," said Nathonea. "The Sues won't be far behind."

The blueness named Frank glided into the office. There are eleven Mary Sues remaining, she informed them. They are all coming.

"And the doctor?" Suzine asked.

He is aware.

Once again, the conversation was cut short by the sounds of Mary Sues approaching at high speeds, only this time they were very angry.

"U can run but u can't hide!"

"Nobody understands us!"

"We just wanted 2 help u!"

"It's to late now, ur ded betches!"

As a body, they poured into the office, and the tired defenders rallied again.

Mirrad stepped to the fore, holding something in the air. "Avaunt, wights of Suedom! The power of ACACIA compels thee!" He threw a sandal at them.

Much to Derik's surprise, the attack worked. Well, it broke their advance, at least. It seemed they couldn't stand the sight of a nasty old sandal. They made every effort to avoid it and wound up tripping over themselves, crying "Ew!" and "Gross!" while the PPCers seized the initiative. Mirrad stunned two of them right away, and Barker closed on another with his knife while Derik swung his sledgehammer at any Sues that got too close. Even Suzine helped, shooting darts of anti-Lustin into the crowd. Nathonea picked off any Sues that fell, ensuring that they would never get up again.

But the Sues were preternaturally fresh, and the PPCers were tired in their bones. They were pushed back, caught between the wall of the office and the wall of Sues, gasping for every breath and choking on singed glitter and urple aerosols. Even with four Sues killed, they were still matched one to one, and these were the smart ones, the warrior!Sues who knew how to dodge and recover and counterattack. Suzine ran out of darts. Barker was sliced open by a katana with pink grips. Nathonea's phaser was broken, and she was forced to fight hand-to-hand beside Mirrad and Derik to keep the others safe, and both the former dragonrider and the Minbari felt their strength failing them. Derik was forced to his knees, holding his hammer over his head to fend off the attacks of a particularly vicious Amazon!Sue.

Then, Finally!

Answered by, "What did you expect? I'm an old man. Incendio!" And again, "Incendio!"

The Sues burst into pink-tinged flames that quickly swept through the lot of them. Derik was able to force the Amazon!Sue back when her long, flowing hair went up. He was just able to catch a glimpse of a bespectacled elderly man in tweed, waving a carved stick in each hand, before finally passing out. His last coherent thought before slipping gratefully into oblivion was that he really needed to break this habit.

Around him, the Sues burned. It was messy, it was smelly, and it all went away at Freedenberg's command of Scourgify. If the nurses got a bit singed in the process, they weren't complaining. They were alive, including Barker, though he did need to go to Medical for stitches. He and Jenni exchanged their war stories when the anesthetic wore off. The other nurses picked up Derik, Elms, and the mess in the department.

Gradually, things returned to normal. Well, usual. All right, at least the halls weren't covered in Sue blood or dead bodies or slime. The nurses could assure the canon characters that everything was fine, and all the staff shared a well-deserved drink—except Mirrad, whose physiology made alcohol a very bad idea. He had grape juice.

It seemed that the threat of invasion was over for good. Due to the valiant efforts of PPC agents all over Headquarters, the Sues had been wiped out. If the League of Mary Sue Factories planned to attack again, they would have to wait until they had manufactured a new army. Meanwhile, the PPC could lick its wounds, bury its dead, and, most importantly, go back to work. After all, the thousand Sues that had died in the invasion were only a small portion of the millions out there in the multiverse, and the agents had a Duty to perform.

Epilogue

He had survived bad fanfiction. He had survived macroviruses. He had survived an enraged masked man and a severe reality check. He had survived a full-scale Mary Sue invasion with nothing between him and a gruesome, glittery death-by-glomping but a run-of-the-mill sledgehammer.

And now he was bored.

Having been given a run-down of the Duty and the basic accoutrements thereof, the newly-christened Agent Derik had been left to complete his recovery in the Medical Department, where he felt more like he was rotting. The nurses there were very kind and very busy. No one had noticed him slip out of the department, sledgehammer slung over one brown-wherhide–clad shoulder, and take to the corridors.

He was occasionally distracted by the odd looks he got from some agents, most of them female—a sort of open-mouthed, gleaming-eyed proto-reaction before they figured out that, no, he was definitely not who they thought he was. And he had a big stick with a heavy chunk of metal on the end of it. They usually moved on pretty quickly. It was sort of amusing.

Eventually, he came to a doorway that was actually open and not broken, knobless, or on fire. (That had been interesting.) He peered inside.

The room was a small office, complete with a desk and a lot of filing cabinets. Atop one of the cabinets sat a small child decorating the end of a rather big stick. Derik couldn't tell what exactly was going onto the end of that stick because the color of the decorative objects hurt his eye. The child's back was to him. Derik wondered where his parents were. This was the first person under five feet he'd seen in Headquarters, and he supposed they must have some kind of crèche for the children of agents. Maybe this child had wandered off.

"Hello there," said Derik. "What are you doing there?"

The child started and turned around without seeming to move from his sitting position, holding up his stick like a weapon. The painfully shiny baubles went flying around the room. However, he relaxed just as quickly and began speaking.

"Hi! What happened to your face? Are you all right? I have something for that! Here, hold this!" Abruptly, he tossed his stick, which looked to have been made from an aluminum table leg, to Derik and started to rummage through the pouches that covered his mismatched clothes.

Derik caught the stick easily in his free hand despite being quite bewildered by the barrage of talk. "No, that's not necessary. I was burned, but it's healed now." He placed both the stick and his sledgehammer against a wall.

Without looking up, the child, a small boy with his brown hair done up at the top of his head, replied at a more understandable speed. "No, no. I know it's in here somewhere." He began throwing various things (a spork, a pair of glasses, and half a sandwich) out of his pockets. "Where is it? Aha!" He pulled a mess of porcelain and yo-yo string out of his pants pocket. After untangling the string, he was left holding a white porcelain mask with a sizable chunk missing from the top edge. With a good-natured smile, he offered the mask to Derik.

The agent's mouth dropped open slightly, accompanied by a noticeable blanching and an expression of remembered unpleasantness. "Er. I'm not him. I mean, that's not me. I mean . . . no, thanks? And, where did you get that?"

The small boy looked at the mask and back to Derik. "You're not who? Someone dropped this and I picked it up. I was going to have it fixed so I could give it back, but you look like you need it. Not to say that you are ugly or anything . . . I mean . . . you're really quite handsome." He stopped to think for a second, then added, "If I tilt my head and squint a little."

Well, at least he was honest. "Thanks," Derik said wryly. "You might as well keep the mask," he went on. "It would probably be dangerous trying to give it back, if it belongs to whom I think it probably does." He shook his head, then looked back to the person on the cabinet. "By the way, I'm Derik. What's your name?" He extended a hand.

The boy dropped the mask, which shattered, and grasped Derik's hand in both of his small hands. He shook Derik's hand vigorously. "Nice to meet you. I'm Earwig Slugthrower, adventurer, collector, counselor, and snappy dresser." He continued to shake Derik's hand.

Derik laughed at Earwig's enthusiasm. And his long list of grandiose titles, and his strange name, but mostly the enthusiasm. "Nice to meet you, too." The shaking kept up. "Um." And didn't stop. "All right, that'll do." He tugged his hand free.

"So, what are you doing here? Come to think of it, where is here? I've been here for a while, but everyone has been kind of busy recently, so I couldn't ask anybody else."

"Busy. That's an understatement," said Derik. "But never mind that. What are you doing here? Don't you have parents, or someone to watch you?"

The boy looked confused. "Well, of course I have parents, and pretty much everyone watches me very closely. Like this one time, there was this town, and everybody was watching me. But that's probably because I was upside-down. Well, actually, I was right-side-up. The dragon was upside-down."

"Dragon?" Derik was suddenly more interested in this wild yarn.

Earwig looked at Derik. "You know . . . dragons. Big lizards with wings and sharp teeth? I rode one once. He was silver and very nice. He called me Little One, which I don't understand. I'm very tall for my age," he said, pulling himself up to a very impressive three-foot-eight.

Derik, who was six-foot-two, smiled. "Quite respectable, I'm sure. How old are you?"

"I'll be twenty-nine on the fourteenth of Windsong," said Earwig.

The agent only had one eye able to properly bug out of his head, but it was doing its best to make up for the other one. "I'm sorry," he stammered. "Twenty-nine Turns?"

Earwig, by the tone of his voice, suspected that his new friend was a bit simple. "Do you mean years?"

Derik stared, then blinked. "Right, that was the Ancient word. Yes, years. You're twenty-eight years old? But . . . " it was his turn to be blunt: "you're so small! I thought you were a child," he confessed.

His indignation was certainly child-like. "Well, I never!" He planted his hands on his hips. "There's no need to go around insulting people like that," he scolded. "I am an adult kender, thank you very much, and I don't see where you could have gotten such a strange idea. Child indeed!"

"I'm sorry," Derik repeated. "I didn't know about . . . what did you say . . . kender."

"Huh. I thought everybody knew about kender," said Earwig. "Where are you from, anyway?" He seemed to forget his ire in the face of curiosity, but he didn't allow Derik to answer. "Never mind that; where is here? You never answered."

At least that was something Derik could answer easily. "This is the Protectors of the Plot Continuum Headquarters."

"Huh. Never heard of it. Is that anywhere near Flotsam?"

"Never heard of it," Derik replied.

Earwig began to rifle through his pouches again. "It's on the coast of the Blood Sea. There's a tavern there that makes the best meat pies. But they don't let kender in there. Here we go," he said as he pulled a roll of paper out of a pouch. He took it to the desk and unrolled it, revealing a map. After studying it for a minute, he put a finger on a smudge marked Flotsam.

Derik wasn't quite sure a map like that ought to have been able to fit in a pouch, but he ignored that in favor of peering at the map with interest. "Huh. I don't have a map of Pern, or I'd show you . . . well, where I come from isn't on the map. But it's my world, more or less. I take it this is yours?"

"Yup. It's great! There are elves and dwarves and ogres, but they aren't very nice, and dragons, and gnomes and—" The excited kender would have kept naming races, but Derik interrupted.

"Tell me about the dragons."

"Well, they have scales and they're all different colors, but the chromatic dragons aren't very nice. Did I tell you I rode a silver dragon once? It's the most wonderful story—"

"You did," Derik said loudly, cutting Earwig off. "Your dragons are different from the ones I know. Pernese dragons come in five colors, none of which is silver. Usually," he added, remembering his new job. He meant to stop talking there, but his tongue ran away with him. "I rode a dragon once, too. He was the most wonderful bronze dragon in the world. But he's gone now." He sighed. This was the first time he'd spoken of it to anyone.

All of a sudden, Earwig turned serious. "You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to. I lost a friend, once. I know how you feel."

Derik doubted it, but that wasn't important. "Ah, don't mind me—though I appreciate the sympathy. It's over and done. It's just good to talk with somebody who isn't insane or in the middle of a fight," he went on to change the topic. "I haven't had a chance before now. Things were busy, as you mentioned before."

The kender perked up quickly. "Yeah. There were people running around and there was fighting and I got locked in a filing cabinet. It was really hard to move in there, so I couldn't pick the lock." He opened his vest to reveal his lock-picking tools. "It was a really simple lock once I managed to fold myself in half."

Derik's eyebrows—or, well, the one he had left—rose quite a bit. "That . . . sounds terribly uncomfortable. Also, I didn't know you could pick locks from the inside." In fact, he would have considered it impossible.

Appreciative of the interest, Earwig explained. "Well, under normal circumstances you can't pick a lock from the inside. But what I did was remove the lock from the drawer and then pick it." As he talked, he puffed out his chest.

The man opened his mouth to respond, and then his brain caught up with his ears. "Wait. You removed it. So, the lock was not actually locking the drawer, per se, when you picked it. Er, why?"

Earwig seemed to think this should be common sense and said, "So that no one would accidentally get locked in after I put the lock back. That could be very dangerous."

"I see," said Derik, who didn't. "Do you do this sort of thing often? Escaping from dangerous cupboards and such?"

"Not often," he replied matter-of-factly. "Just the occasional jail cell, wizard's dungeon, treasure chest, or broom closet. All in a day's work for an adventurer. Which reminds me . . . I never asked you what you do."

"Nor have you yet," Derik pointed out, buying himself time to think about what he'd just heard. Then he decided it was best not to. "But I'll tell you anyway. I remember harper training, though I think that might have been the Reality Room filling in the blanks for me. I accidentally wandered into it at some point in all the chaos," he explained. "But in any case, my job now is to hunt Mary Sues and remove them from the worlds they infect. I'm supposed to have a partner," he added speculatively, "but I haven't been assigned one yet. I'm supposed to be lying in bed."

But Earwig hadn't heard anything after one word. "Worlds? Like more than one? Like more places I haven't seen and people I haven't talked to and things I haven't done? Can I go with you? I promise I won't get in the way. I could even help. I can pick locks and I might even be able to find a map." He put on the most impressive puppy-dog face ever seen by man. "Ple-e-ease?"

Derik grinned. "I don't see why not." If he had an odd feeling that the multiverse was suddenly laughing at him, he ignored it. "I mean, you'd have to join the PPC, but that's easy."

"Yay!" exclaimed the kender, who began shaking Derik's hand even more exuberantly than before. "You won't regret it, I promise."

The Ironic Overpower was definitely laughing.

Neshomeh's Notes
  1. 1d6 is shorthand for one six-sided die. It refers to the amount of damage done by a weapon in the d20 (twenty-sided die) role-playing system. 1d6 is average.
  2. See the DIC mission report "Harry Potter and the Dragonriders of Pern."
  3. "Silly Songs with Erik," ch. 2: "The Hairbrush Song." I actually like this fic. It is ridiculous in a good way.
  4. "I love you, Cluny!" No, not me. It's the name of the fic.

Gestalt therapy: 1. An existential and experiential psychotherapy that focuses on the individual's experience in the present moment, the therapist-client relationship, the environmental and social contexts in which these things take place, and the self-regulating adjustments people make as a result of the overall situation. It emphasizes personal responsibility. —Wikipedia

2. Psychotherapy with individuals or groups that emphasizes treatment of the person as a whole, including a person's biological components and their organic functioning, perceptual configuration, and interrelationships with the external world. —Dictionary.com

Nurse Barker appears on loan from Spud Avec and now goes back to his care. Thanks to him, and thanks to my beta-readers: Trojanhorse, Paddlebrains, and Cassie Cameron-Young. Thanks also go to Tawaki for helping me get the order and timing of the events in the story straight.

Edit 1: 6.06.11 - Corrected to reflect the actual discovery of Makes-Things' body by a Security Dandelion.

Edit 2: 9.01.11 - Retconned so that Jenni does not have a replicator in her quarters, and by extension neither do the other nurses, because that's silly. Also to place Suzine in the nurses' station, not the lounge/break room, at the beginning of the story, because that's also silly.