The world fell apart, and Coraline fell with it.
It was a gentle transition, a smooth sensation of weightlessness kicking just after the last conscious moments, just after the crack of thunder from the shotgun and the blurring form of the coatl and after a sharp pain that had suddenly been everywhere at once.
It was a formless and dream-like scape she found herself in, through which she was guided by nothing she could control but to which she put up no resistance.
Through chaos she spiralled, through tenuous parts of her mind she tumbled, through her past she fell. But not exactly her past.
There were so many routes she could have taken, she realised and considered with what few pieces of consciousness could knit themselves together. So many paths her life could have taken, those which she could have taken and those over which she had no control.
Here, she saw herself walking to the old well, a big sister in tow who radiated equal parts exasperation and cheerfulness. There, she had a younger sister, an annoyance and joy both, or a younger brother, or an older brother, or any combinations of any siblings in any numbers. For many of the countless paths, her life returned to relative normality, and the Sur-real and the Beldam kept their distance. For others, they never left. For others, they claimed her.
Maria appeared in none, but Wybie appeared in so many of them, a constant and familiar presence. They went to school together, and became friends or something more (an idea to which Coraline wasn't entirely averse, and she cheered them on as she saw them).
In this one, he saved her once again from supernatural peril. In that one, she saved him from more natural peril. And in others, time and again, they faced the Beldam once more. The Beldam, and other beldams, and yet other supernatural terrors, and normal terrors. Pregnancy, loss, heartbreak, serial killers, the usual.
From where she drifted, they all had something to commend them. All of them rooted in other decisions, in other rolls of fate's dice, in things beyond the scope of her sight.
Something strangely tangible drew sharply at her. Consciousness grew, and as she realised where she was in her thoughts, it began to melt away. All these other paths drifted past her, other potentialities lost like clouds in the sky.
If she had chosen differently…
But fate had worked out differently, and she had made her decisions. And she could live with that.
Heck, she'd been doing a good enough job of that at least.
And the world drew her out, piece by piece.
A soft buzzing, which came as a piercing whine to Coraline's strained ears, filtered through the air. She coughed as her eyes peeled open, the world stitching itself together out of a blur.
She lay in something soft, with a thin sheet covering her. The walls she could face were pale and sterile, and a woman in a white coat stood over her, taking notes on a clipboard. The doctor looked up as Coraline opened her eyes, and reached down gently to steady her.
"Careful, Secretary," she said, pitching her voice as softly as possible. "You've taken some hard knocks."
"Where am I?" said Coraline in a croak. "I was… fighting the coatl…?" The majority of her body was one huge ache, much of it encumbered by what could only be bandages.
"You were. You're now in Howard University Hospital, undergoing treatment for…" The doctor turned a page on her clipboard. "A broken arm, a dislocated shoulder, two broken ribs, a great deal of blunt trauma, and a linear skull fracture. Don't worry about that last one," she added quickly. "We detected no damage to your brain or associated neurological tissue. And the whole set's nothing that isn't being healed by injected nanites."
"You should have seen the other guy," managed Coraline, letting herself subside. "What about Wybie and Maria? My colleagues. What happened to…?"
"They took a beating, but to a lesser extent than you. They're making full recoveries."
"And how long…?"
"Two days, give or take an hour or two, if you're asking how long you've been out. Your arm, torso, and skull have been splinted and dressed, and the injected nanites should greatly accelerate your healing, so you should expect to make a full recovery in about two weeks." A machine to one side chirped, which drew the doctor's attention.
"What's that?" asked Coraline, shifting slightly.
"Your anabolic rate. It's coming up roses. I just need to pass that specific number to the room nurse," said the doctor, peeling away. "I won't be long. And I think your friends might want to see you."
"You mean…" started Coraline, pushing herself painfully up, and stopping as soon as two figures walked briskly past the leaving doctor.
Maria looked intact enough, barring several elastoplasts and a stiff neck brace. Wybie hobbled a little stiffly, the bulge of a body-splint evident under the torso of his hospital gown.
His entire face lit up when he saw Coraline, and he rushed forward to embrace her. She stretched with one arm to return the gesture, and both of them loudly yelped and winced when much-abused ribs were jarred together. But it was the thought that counted.
"Good to see you're okay," said Maria. "You look like death warmed up."
"You've always been such a charmer. Are you two okay? Nothing permanently damaged?"
"Nothing at all. Which is more than we can say for the coatl."
"What exactly happened? I blacked out."
"It hit you just as the gun fired," said Wybie, throwing himself into the chair by the hospital bed. "It got you in the upper body – just here – at the exact moment you pulled the trigger. You went flying, it got a mouthful of ferroshot, and the last we saw of it, it was literally being blown apart from the inside-out by fire." He winced at the memory. "They got medical teams out as quickly as they could, for us and for a couple of agents who were hurt badly. One of them's in the room over. I dropped in to say hi, but he was a bit too busy being unconscious to care much."
"And what about everyone else? Skirving? The President? Malinois?"
"I have no idea," said Wybie. "We haven't had much chance to find out. They've been keeping us pretty secluded."
"Well," said Maria, after a pause, "There was the small thing of us having a duel to the death via a gunship with a giant feathered serpent right over the White House. That sort of thing gets people's attention."
After another pause, Coraline said "Ah."
"Ah indeed. The first night, when I was lying awake, I could hear the press vans driving in front of the hospital at all hours." Maria sat down on the edge of the bed. "I think at the moment, as far as everyone's concerned, we're the most interesting government department around."
"And can you blame everyone?" said Wybie with the warm glow of satisfaction. "Look at what we just did."
Coraline looked out at the window, over which cream-coloured blinds were drawn. Light filtered past in even strips, over the floor and walls, over Wybie, over Maria, over her, over the entire department.
"Look at what we're going to do," she said in a soft murmur.
Word got back to Coraline the day after.
The incident on the Ellipse was still under official investigation, and the dissolution of the Department of the Supernatural had been suspended given the circumstances. Kuciyela was unhurt and still working, and he sent his best regards to those still recovering. The press and public over the world were having conniptions. A dozen major religions were either claiming valediction or angrily denying the events. Approximately several thousand freedom-of-information requests had been filed against the Department of the Supernatural. Sayid was practically under home siege by the press, but was doing quite alright, thank you, and could they give him a call as soon as possible to let him know when business as normal would resume?
Malinois had been found dead in the military compound in Maryland, his form almost desiccated and the feathers embedded in his chest gleaming with a sick and hungry light. Video footage from security cameras showed his entire conversation with the department, as well as his sudden collapse at around the same time as the coatl was injured during the fight.
There were also the minor matters of breaking and entering into a federal building, causing a disturbance, assault and battery, and theft of a government gunship.
In the light of recent events, a presidential pardon would end up being in order.
The day after that, the department got another visitor.
They were gathered in Coraline's room, when a call came from the doctor, asking if it was okay that they received such a visitor.
Coraline said yes, and a moment later, Skirving stepped through.
Shorn of the circumstances, and judging only by his face, one could only have supposed that the man was undergoing an unanaesthetised and involuntary circumcision. But he soldiered on, and stood before the trio.
"I have a message from the President and Congress," he said, each word a labour. "They wish to send their best wishes that you make a quick recovery, and commend you for your actions on the first of April. There has been talk of medals and official thanks."
"In addition," he said, pressing on before any of them could speak, "It is generally recognised and regretted that the resources allocated to your department were woefully inadequate for your duty, and measures have been put in place to increase your budget. Hopefully, this'll let you expand your department and let it carry on its work."
Coraline opened her mouth to speak, Maria to gasp, and Wybie to gape, but Skirving beat them all to the draw. "And I … I would like to offer my personal apologies to you. To all of you. I have, in good faith, underestimated the importance of your duties and the reality of your situation. I can only try and redress this."
Coraline looked in Skirving's eyes, and knew that it wasn't a bad man who looked back out at her. As much as it pained him to admit he was wrong, it would pain him even more to continue being wrong. And she would have betted that he'd volunteered for delivering that message.
They would likely never get along. But there was no rule that said you had to like those who did good. In this case, that would cut both ways.
"Apology accepted, Mr Skirving" she said, and then decided to make certain that this particular hatchet was buried as far as it could go. "And thank you."
"Your affairs will, of course, still be subject to the same scrutiny as any other department," he said, because there was such a thing as suspending the universe's disbelief for too long. "Complacency and carelessness are to be avoided, Secretary Jones. Now more than ever."
"Taking care? It's as you don't know us as all, Mr Skirving," said Maria.
He left them in peace.
And for the rest of the day, though she knew it was somewhat petty, Coraline couldn't resist laughing.
And on the first of May, the afternoon found Maria sitting beside the fully employed Under Secretary Sayid, along with a host of others in the meeting room of the Thaddeus Complex.
The others there included notable philosophers, biologists, government representatives, spokespeople for animal ethics, a Justice of the Supreme Court. And Tripod and two other cats at one end of the table, within the shifting field of the Eroder.
"Shall we get this committee started?" said Maria. "Nothing will be settled here, but it should help us begin to address a few key issues that were raised recently."
"Yes, the effects of the Eroder," said the Justice cautiously. "Regarding manifested … ah … intelligence and sapience."
"We did wonder when you'd get round to asking us for a few pointers," said Tripod.
And in a secure laboratory elsewhere in the building, Wybie stood with roughly a dozen others, all of them wearing labcoats and watching the centre of the room, on which another Eroder had been assembled, with great interest.
Wybie dropped to one knee, and regarded the creature in the Eroder's area with interest. It shied back slightly, a sinewy, scrawny thing of ochre-red skin stretched over thin bone and corded muscle, with pale eyes made translucent with alarm. It bared a mouth of bristling teeth uncertainly.
"What the Kzcarzcine is this?" inquired the wendigo. "What are you?"
"Good day," said Wybie. "I'm Wybourne Lovat, of the United States Department of the Supernatural. The ladies and gentlemen with me are interested in the research I've been doing with the Sur-real, and they'd like to ask you a few questions."
The wendigo stared blankly, completely thrown by the situation. Then it glanced around, sniffed at the air, and with one smooth tug at the air, seemed to rip itself out of space altogether via a quickly opening-and-closing door of light.
"Perhaps a different approach is in order," said a man at the front.
"Saying 'please' might do it," said Wybie, watching the dancing dust particles in the disturbed air, at the change left in the psychephage's wake.
And in southeast Atlanta, just beyond a little door and just beyond rational physics, a monster tried to draw a child closer.
It stood at a kitchen counter, a woman of average proportions, with dark curled hair, dark skin, and a wide smile made uncanny by two glinting copper buttons in place of eyes. She held a mixing bowl and a whisk in her hands.
The boy, still in his pyjamas, stood in the kitchen doorway, looking uncertain. In one hand, he held a small doll in his image.
"Aren't you hungry, dear?" asked the button-eyed mother. "It's your favourite."
"Hang on," said the boy, "I've heard of this on the TV."
The Other Mother paused, nonplussed.
"Now I remember," said the boy with some triumph. "The lady who fought that monster at the White House spoke about it on the Latest Show, that there's other monsters who pretend they're your mother, only they're not your mother, and they've got buttons in place of eyes, like you, and that they'll try and sew buttons into your eyes, which is so many kinds of gross…"
By now, the beldam's gaze was decidedly glazed over.
"…and that we should stay away from them and find an adult, and call the police, and that she'll hear about it and come and kick your ass, and that's basically it all, I think. So no, I'm not hungry." The boy paused, and tossed the doll from hand to hand.
"Why would you even want to put buttons in my eyes anyway?" he asked, after an awkward silence.
"Ghhraarrrrgh!" the beldam suddenly screeched, ripping her way out of her form's blouse and slacks, her body twisting and elongating and her mouth sickeningly protruding in a wolfish snarl, her hands deforming into skeletal claws. The boy screamed and hastily stepped back as she prowled forward. "You little unwanted runt. Do you really want to see the reason? Then merely…"
There was a noise from the doorway from whence the boy had come, diverting their attention.
There was a shadow that detached from the rest, and caught the light as it turned into a woman with shoulder-length blue hair, a heavy dark trenchcoat, and a peaked cap. She bore a polished shotgun, which she held levelled below a pair of hazel eyes.
"Get behind me, kid," said Coraline Jones, inwardly rejoicing at her timing while the kid did as he was told and the beldam was brought up short.
"Shrieking hells," whispered the beldam. "It's you."
"No other," said Coraline, ushering the kid to get out through the door. "Now, I have a few questions."
Another one down and dusted.
Once again, I'd like to thank everyone who read this, or reviewed it, or whatevered this while I was writing it. You know who you are, and if you don't know who you are, try asking someone nearby who looks trustworthy. They'll get you to someone who can help.
This still isn't the end of this particular storyline. At some point in the not-too-distant future, I plan on finishing a oneshot interquel, set between the events of 'Wells Street Station' and 'The Ellipse', currently entitled 'Promenade'.
And some time after that, I'll start the third and final part of this series, currently entitled 'Narodnoya'. I hope to see you then.
- Marquis Carabas, signing off.