Everything surrounding them changed.
A room, brickwork walls, painted green. A coal fire burned in a cast-iron fireplace. To the left of the chimney breast, a window. Wooden shutters stopped anyone seeing in.
Three of the four walls were shelved with books of timetables and dog-eared posters advertising coastal resorts.
In one corner, two filing cabinets, one of which supported a newspaper and teacup. On a desk tucked into another corner a calendar sat on a blotter . Two long benches, back to back, took up most of the space in the middle of the room.
As they stared into the utter and complete silence of the gaping blackness, they felt themselves impelled forward. Still clinging tightly together, they sped through shimmering gas clouds, passed tiny asteroids, plummeted into planets at first small and distant then suddenly vast, their surface colours vivid, their cores intensely bright as they plunged through them, through the blinding extremes of stars, propelled into the blackness, emerging unhurt into the unheeding, uninterested, uncaring dark of a different dimension.
In this nothingness, one star appeared, its face velvet, its approach speedy beyond understanding. It exploded before it reached them. This universe disappeared.
Against the vastness of the galaxy, the tear began to grow rapidly, distorting the colours of the stars and gases at its lip where yellow and white stars glowed red before disappearing
From where they all stood it was difficult to tell if this was happening billions of lightyears away, or right next to them: there was no scale. And the silence of a galaxy being torn apart both frightened and awed them all.
Then, without warning, the split tore through the whole galaxy and lacerated the vast sky. In profound and magnificent silence, the universe had ripped itself open.
Tisha and Daniel felt Harry slump, saw his terrified face as he struggled to hold himself upright. But their attention was swiftly diverted.
Almost directly in front of them, aligned with their vision, a galaxy painted the blackness in a strewn spectrum of hazey colour. Vast mists of interstellar gas and tiny debris tried, but failed, to blot the brilliant gleaming of uncountable stars.
Then the rip began.
At the densest part of the galaxy, un-noticed at first, a tiny black sliver materialised inside the tapestry of colour. It grew, slowly at first, elongating and widening, devouring and obscuring.
Suddenly and completely a phrase filled Harry's mind.
It resonated over the picture he'd created in his mind and terrified him so completely that he could no longer think. His mind's cartoonesque image of the alien was destroyed, to be replaced by the awful and threatening reality of their situation. He would have collapsed if he were not held by the others, would have fallen if he were not in almost gravity-less space.
The words rung out, each a sentence of death, each one a terrifying statement of reality.
"Where we are, we are not the aliens. You are."
In Harry's head was a picture of the alien, set against an empty black space. It was almost a cartoon picture. On an grey archetypal lunar landscape, shadowed and pitted with craters, and beneath a bejewelled black velvet sky, Harry's mind moulded the alien into a human form.
It was hard not to see the alien as a little green man, fresh out of some 1950's B movie, a death ray firing occasionally from its third eye... but Harry forced himself to remember the weird and wonderful colours he'd seen and slowly, in his mind, the alien took human shape.
Harry closed his eyes.
On one side of him Tisha clung close, on the other, Maya, her hand trembling on his arm. He felt breathing on his skin and knew Daniel clung tightly to both him and Tisha. He heard the quiet woman next to Rick and Tracey, still sobbing.
Eyes closed, Harry composed himself.
It was hard to focus. If that noisy bitch would just shutup!
He rebuked himself for thinking that. Tried again to focus.
And called out with his mind to the alien form.
"We have so many questions. Please help us. Tell us. What is happening?"
Against the cosmic background, the alien form shimmered and changed colours, its eternal spectrum sometimes fading, making the stellar colours paint the blackness vividly and breathtakingly; sometimes brightening, making the vast energies generated by the immense and potent engines of the universe appear dim and vapid in comparison.
It was hard to say, now, if this thing, this alien being, was human sized, as it had appeared to them before, life-sized and nearby, or gigantic, vast and huge and far distant, like the galaxies and dust clouds that pulsed and glowed and offered colour and energy to the dark.
Harry looked to the humanoid alien for explanation.
Its colours glowed, rippled and undulated in colours he had names for and colours and beauty he didn't. If an explanation was to be forthcoming, he felt sure that this alien form would provide it.
Harry's eyes filled with tears and he felt his body weaken as he realised that somewhere during all this he had given up any hope of returning to the life he knew. Somewhere along the line he'd accepted that Life had been taken from him: either they'd all died, or they'd been abducted by aliens. Either way...
The laughter failed quickly. Their situation was too huge- just trying to comprehend everything that had happened devoured all their energies. They were drained: emotionally, spiritually and physically empty, as if their own souls reflected the vast barrenness of this immeasurable, empty universe.
The quiet woman sobbed loudly, her words barely understandable.
"What's happening? I can't cope anymore! What's the point? Why can't they just let us die?"
She clung onto Tisha as Tisha clung to Harry and he and the others clung on to each other. Each one, alone, and terrified.
"Please..." she sobbed "I can't be frightened anymore!"
Harry couldn't help himself.
Laughter exploded out of him, a spluttering snort followed by great billows of giggling, interspersed with weird nasal sounds as he tried hard to control himself. All the while, his mind tried to reconcile this overpowering humour with the strange and unexplainable situation they were in.
Tisha leaned into him, her eyes sparkling. Maya chuckled as she passed Timmy into the waiting, open arms of his mother. Daniel smiled.
A wave of complete release swelled over them, together with a realisation that this was the first time in a long, long time that they had laughed.
“This can’t be right. It's impossible!”
To Harry and the others Tisha’s voice felt tiny in the immenseness. But she was right. This was impossible. Here they were, a small group of individuals, a random group bought together by... by what? Harry didn’t know. They’d all experienced horror to such a degree that... that what? Harry didn’t know that, either.
Here they were, living, breathing, speaking– in outer space! No protective spacesuit. No oxygen. No spacecraft. No… nothing.
“Impossible!” repeated Tisha anxiously.
"It's... impossible!" Harry echoed.
“It’s fucking ridiculous is what it is!” Rick said, his head shaking in disbelief.
Completely surrounding them, the matter of the universe blazed, its innumerable forms, from tiny asteroids to vast supernovae, bright and radiant in created and reflected light.
They huddled together, fearfully holding onto each other.
Surrounding them, colours dazzled intensely in every direction, above and below, the luminous spectrum poured out its light against an enclosing backdrop of the deepest, most solid black.
There was nothing beneath their feet but the black vastness and colours radiant in interstellar beauty: there was no sensation of falling, although a fear of falling confused them and made them all cling on to each other.
"We are the universe."
Tracey's voice surprised them. She raised her head from Rick's gentle cradling. Her voice was strong and certain.
Rick's voice faltered: "Oh my god! Are you ok?" His arms held her as if he didn't want her to move. But she pushed them away, knelt up and looked around.
"Stars," she said. "The Universe."
They were surrounded by what looked like the glossiest, most perfect photograph of the Universe. Here, a galaxy's arm ran around them; there, stellar clouds; there, pulsing light. All around, the crimson glow of red dwarves. Everywhere, deep and profound, the blackness.
...Slowly, imperceptibly at first, the apartment's walls grew thinner. At first this was nothing more than a feeling, a belief it was happening.
Every boundary slowly diminished.
All four walls thinned, faded. So, too, floor and ceiling. Though they still existed, still held the properties of the stone and wood that formed them, it soon became obvious that colours could be seen through them.
Soon those colours took on more definition as the walls became more insubstantial, shapes became visible, pinpoints of light grew all around them, above and below.
And then, timeless and formless, the apartment ceased to exist.
A soft and plush gentleness filled the apartment, an unusual and confusing feeling after everything they'd been through. Everyone felt it differently, each one of them knew this.
To Daniel it felt like he'd been dragged endlessly over the barbed wire of old battlefields to arrive here, to be soothed and caressed by wanton angels, utterly beautiful in their achingly yearning nakedness, each one loving him for himself and needing in their passion his physical and emotional love.
It was only the sensation that the apartment no longer existed that stemmed Daniel's arousal. Wanton angels disappeared. The room changed... slowly.
Rick, bent over Tracey.
Maya, hugging Timmy, who had stopped crying but whose body was still convulsed by sobs.
The quiet woman, kneeling on the floor, her arms held up in undisguised adoration of the human form whose spectrum of colours thrummed and changed with every passing moment.
Harry, head bowed, standing close beside Tisha, both also in apparent adoration of the form.
Daniel himself, desperate to control his sobbing, wet hands futilely trying to dry his eyes, remove the evidence of tears from his cheeks, frightened more by the emotions exploding within him than by the situation around him.
Daniel was aware he'd reassumed conflict-mode: his eyes darted around the room, his ears strained to identify every sound.
His palms ached for the feel of muzzle and trigger.
When the ball of colour assumed human shape, the room washed him with tranquility.
Whatever was happening, he was ready! To react. To counter; protect; above all, to survive.
Peace bathed his skin.
He put his hand on Maya's head as she hugged the child.
Soft serenity rippled through him.
He saw Timmy, saw trust beneath his tears. And from somewhere deep within him, trust and tears suffused Daniel's world.
Maya was last to enter the apartment and the door slammed shut behind her. Almost immediately, colours began to form in the middle of the room. They coalesced into a vaguely circular shape then moved away to a far corner, where a human outline began to develop. The unknown but healing colour of the form cast an air of tranquillity throughout the room.
Maya knelt down by Timmy, who flung himself into her arms. She wept with him.
Harry, his cheeks glistening with tears also, stared in incredulity at the colours moving, merging, creating and reawakening in the human form.
Daniel is aware that it's taken him several seconds longer than usual to size up a situation he should have determined immediately. In enemy territory - which cannot be discounted here - that could be the difference between life and death.
Three persons, all recognised, huddled. Wet-faced. Two motionless, eyes glazed, possibly drugged, unpredictable. The child, terrified. Otherwise room empty.
Other rooms checked quickly.
He closed the curtains.
"It's ok, Tim." he soothed. "It's Tim, isn't it? Your name."
Timmy sobs uncontrollably.
Ryland knelt by the three, patted Rick and Tracey's face softly, harder: Rick reacted.
"Ryland, what's happening?"