Though the blood now flowed freely down the front of his clothes, no one else at the table appeared concerned and continued chattering. The fork effectively disappeared, the handle hidden inside the fist that pushed against his cheek, the tines inside his mouth. Almost absent-mindedly, he played with them with his tongue.
His mouth remained half open all this time, but it closed fully when his top teeth came down and bit deeply into his bottom lip, once, twice, three times. He moved his jaw from side to side, trying to bite off his bottom lip's drenched red flesh.
Dessert wines marshalled ramikins of finest ices and bowls of hand- picked fruit .
Tracey's focus was on one man. He sweated more than the rest and caught the camera with wet glints more often than any of the others. His cheeks and eyes were red with effort, but still he continued his assault on his food.
His greasy fingers parted his lips, fingernails scraped at his teeth. Then his fork scratched his nose. Then his chin.
Then dug into his cheek, pushing his face inwards like a deflating balloon as rivulets of crimson slipped down onto his dinner jacket.
Behind Tracey, the slavering continued, interspersed with brutish grunts, the tearing and ripping of flesh and a sense of barely sated brutality that grew with every snort and rip.
But she couldn't see it, so it barely registered. Not like those faces, gorging on the finest foods, laughing hysterically, nodding in unison with each other in vehement agreement. She saw their cheeks bulge as huge forkfuls emptied their cargo into their waiting, gaping holds. She saw sweat shine on forehead and cheek and dribble dabbed away with pristine white napkins. She saw knives slice, jaws crush and tongues savour juices.
The chatter on the silent screen must have been continuous. The table held thirty people and expensive clothes were splashed by first course droplets of exceptional bisque and the finest Dom Perignon P3 while the chink of glasses must have been a counterpoint to the nuzzled tinkling of hand -chosen jewellery. That all this was in silence captivated Tracey; she watched them talking and laughing, waving fingers in the air to make a point, gesticulating with their forks at one thing or another. There was no room in her head for thought: these images held her, hypnotically, beyond all reason.
Holding herself as rigidly as possible, her eyes darted over the parts of the room she could see. The tv flashed silent images of a food programme.
The apartment door was closed. Locked? The chain hung down. Unlocked? Fear tempted her to make a run for it, but...
The tv showed people eating, dinner jackets and bowties or pearls and designer gowns laughing and chatting at a vast polished table.
The window, closed.
Lips were licked, food forked in between them, jaws moved up and down. Tracey's eyes became transfixed on the silent screen, on the faces, on the mouths.
Before she could move, a whole flood of memories cascaded over her. Rick terrified, unable to move. Timmy, crucified. Running out of the building. Confusion. Terror. Timmy!
Her eyes flashed open, wide and staring. Timmy! They had to get out! They must -
And then she became aware of the sounds behind her. A growling, low but powerful, interlaced with bestial snarls like a rabid dog or maddened hyena. The juicy, liquid sound of flesh being torn, the dry crunch of splintering bone and the febrile breathing of frenzied feeding.
She daren't move. Whatever creature was behind her snarled once more.
Tracey awoke with a start.
What woke her wasn't so much the blood that pooled around her head and shoulder as she lay on the floor, but the disturbing noises coming from behind her.
With her eyes still unopened, her first realisation was that she had been asleep and dreaming of something quite horrific: her stomach churned and her fists were tightly clenched, but there was no memory of whatever it was she'd dreamed.
Her second realisation was that she was lying on her side on the floor and something warm and sticky was tickling the side of her head.
There is a world.
It is, apparently, changed from the world we have all known.
Within that world there is a building. Hovering. It has doors, exits, entrances. But because of the hovering, there is absolutely no way out.
Within the building, Tracey's apartment.
And in here, three occupants. Apparently asleep.
Within Tracey, there is a dream.
For her, that dream is reality for she has nothing else to compare it with. Nothing to suggest other realities.
Tracey is not concerned with potential other realities. It is inside this one, inside her reality, that she must kill whatever possesses Timmy.
Externally, little has changed. Rick hugs Tracey who in turn hugs Timmy. There's a jacket on the floor, there are toys scattered around. The tv is showing cartoons, but the sound is muted. The room is quiet, apart from the breathing: Rick and Timmy's deep and slow, Tracey's shallow, and of varying speeds.
Only in the small muscular spasms of Tracey's face and her blue tinged lips are there any signs of distress. And the movement of the eyes beneath the eyelids: fast and frantic like REM sleep, only moreso.
But she is not dreaming. And this is no sleep.
We understand you move, act, live, all in response to stimuli. Without stimuli, you cannot exist. We know this through our studies. We have studied how you, individually, reacted to the stimuli of various forms of fear.
One final study remains.
The glass moved around the board quickly, making it difficult to keep up.
Fear of one's own kind. Fear of one's progeny. The child about to destroy the mother. The mother's solitary defence is to destroy the child. Kill, or be killed. Which is superior? Fear? Or Love?
The glass halted.
Anger filled Ryland's fists with white knuckled tension.
"Why?" Maya asks. "Are you doing this?"
Questions frantically scream around Harry's mind. He asks
"Who are you?" His mind continues "aliens? spacemen? invaders?"
Dimensionals. We study. We traverse dimensions. We study.
"Are you going to kill us?" Tisha's words were slurred, as if drugged. In truth, she had to force herself to ask it. She didn't care either way, but there was Harry...
There is no necessity for that. Your deaths have been studied.
Generally, they took that to mean human deaths had been studied. Only Harry understood the words referred to their own specific, individual deaths.
As they seat themselves around the table once more the glass is already moving.
Our studies are completing.
Tears river down Tisha's whitening face. A profound sadness has filled her world and encompassed her in an unexplained grief. Her hands, clasped, writhe desperately, but the rest of her body is motionless. Maya's eyes are wide in wonder at something only she can see. Daniel laughs at the absurdity of life. Harry is aware he has lost his faith, but found a new enlightenment in logic.
But knows that that, too, is illusion. His God, in whatever guise, has failed him.
You're drawing a picture.
In that picture, you are drawing a picture of you drawing a picture of yourself. In each of the pictures, people pass you by. Most are kind enough to look away, but some stare aggressively, challenging you to prove your hunger, challenging you to live up to the message on the cardboard
Please help. Homeless and hungry. Thank you.
Your fingertips throb because of the cold. You pause occasionally because of the pain which spasms across your empty stomach. Despite this, you wonder if you are real, or perhaps the subject in another hungry artist's picture.
Somehow - none of them really knows how - they're standing around the table on which sits the Ouija board.
"Communicate." Harry repeats uncertainly, unsure whether or not he has said it before, perhaps once, perhaps many times. He is aware that the word has been inside his head for a long time.
The wine glass on the table suddenly moves. Ryland recoils backwards, Maya's hand flies to her mouth in shock. Harry reaches his hand out towards the glass but stops. The wine glass hovers a millimetre or so above the surface of the board.
Then slowly it spells out "Ask."
Screams from Maya and Tisha, Tisha's scream abruptly cut short because the legs of the quiet woman buckle, and even with Tisha's arm around her shoulders, she slumps to her knees.
A world outside that isn't their world. Skies changing. Edges of vision blurring. A silence that screeches. Cold gusting in from the open window. A hundred metres in the air, their building, like their reality, without foundations.
Ryland prevents Danes looking out of the window. They were still low enough to see the detail of a spattered body.
Ryland: "What can we do, Harry?"
A one word reply: "Communicate."
"It's the Revelation Of The Anti-Christ!" DeStiy gasped. He couldn't suppress his joy and excitement.
Pushing past Danes he opened the window. His face purpled with excitement and he trembled. His eyes were bright, and he alternated between standing before the open window in awe and laughing hysterically.
Above them, the sun swirled, twisting and weaving into different shapes. "My Master!" DeStiy shouted, arms raised in adoration.
Then in one swift movement his hands gripped each side of the open window frame and he pulled himself up and out, and plummeted from the view of the horrified faces remaining.
Though there was noticeable movement in the apartment - the gentle sway, an occasional judder as if the block itself shuddered and shivered - all eyes were on the window.
It appeared like a silent-movie screen. Outside, the distant walls and treetops moved slowly down the screen and as they slipped from view off the bottom of the screen, rooftops glared black under the darksome sky before they, too, fell away, revealing a view of more distant rooftops.
And the black cloud swallowing everything breathed closer and closer. And all this in a silence which magnified the feeling of shocked disbelief.
The apartment block itself began to shake: small movements at first, as if the building was being tweaked or prodded. Then bigger undulations, but gently done; rhythmic movement from side to side. At first it affected their balance and they staggered slightly, but as it grew more rhythmic it was easier to stay upright.
A slight judder accompanied a tearing noise and the sounds of falling masonry. And with each subtle movement, with every flutter and sway, the apartment block rose slowly up into the air.
The silence that gripped them all was a concoction of shock, fear and awe.
The sun, slightly obscured behind a thin veil of what may have been cloud, began to change colour. The colours of the world surrounding them mutated with the changes: red, then orange, then green, a hideous, infected, sickly green, a pallor of disease.
"I'm frightened," the quiet woman whispered. She spoke for them all, her unexpected words startling them. Tisha reached out and put an arm around her shoulders.
"There!" cried Maya. Her eyes were fixed on the distance where tall buildings dominated a rising horizon. They shimmered, then disappeared into a black cloud that slowly but surely approached them.
Daniel Ryland's new-found control was hard to maintain. He'd assessed the situation: he knew what he saw, but concluded that if you don't understand what you are seeing you cannot frame the right question to ask: was what he saw truly reality or one of Harry Danes' extra-terrestrial "implants"?
So... he mined his own experience for the correct question. He found nothing.
"Harry," he began, uncertainly. "What do you see?"
Harry described what Ryland saw. Trisha said "I see that too."
"And that?" Ryland asked, pointing up at the sun.
"God deliver us!" Maya whispered; and DeStiy sneered.