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   Chapter 3
   
     Shar found herself panting as the elevator slowly rattled to the top.  She leaned heavily on the wall, feeling like she might throw up.  The events and revelations of the last few minutes were all overwhelming her.  In the past few minutes she’d gone from a mundane, if tragic, life to something so outlandish she would sooner have expected it to turn up in the most farfetched works of fiction.
     “If you’re quite finished with your panic attack, we should go back.  Mena will understand.” James remarked.
     “Shut up!” Shar snapped, rounding on… nothing.  The translucent blue boy wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Still with a lot of anger, and nothing to vent it on, Shar tore open the latticework gate and stormed out.  She was in a building, or what was left of one.  What used to be a skyscraper now lay gutted and barren.  Some old shelving lay on its side in one corner.  Aside from the load-bearing pillars, there was nothing in the building, not even walls.  Shar made her way out toward where the door used to be.  She noticed that it was warm here, like the training grounds in the Midwest, but also not exactly the same.  The warmth was wetter, and the scent of salt hung in the air.  
     “Where am I?” She wondered aloud.
     “Almas.” James responded, appearing beside her. “A pleasure world.  Not much here but a globe-spanning sea and a few islands.  White sandy beaches, fruity frozen drinks.”
     No sooner had James finished talking than the elevator shuddered and began to travel down again.  Mena would be on it when it returned, Shar knew.  She turned to run.  She bolted for the door, an old bit of decorative masonry that now served no purpose.  
     “Why won’t you just wait?” James pleaded.
     “I’m not about to join their lunatic cult!” Shar snapped, pausing at the door to glance over her shoulder.  She had a moment.  The top of the elevator was just disappearing below the floor. “Now I won’t hear another word about it, got me!?   Let’s get one thing clear, James, I’m in charge here.  I am not about to start taking orders from my clothing.  I’ve already had enough crazy shit happen to me today.”  She ran out into the street, and immediately her eyes were assaulted with the power of the sunlight.  Squinting and trying to shield her eyes, Shar looked out and around herself.  She stood on an empty street, blue skies above.  Directly ahead of her, the street continued empty for a block, then she saw throngs of people.  She thought to run for them, to hide, but immediately re-thought that.  Mena would expect her to do that, and she might be on her trail before she could disappear.  Instead, she ran off to the side, about half a block, and ducked into the nearest building, across the street.  Mena probably wouldn’t expect her to hide so close.  
     “I need a disguise.” Shar muttered to herself, looking at her hands.  The grey skin was there, just like she’d seen before.  Curious, she reached up to touch her teeth.  Still pointy, as she’d seen before.  She’d been hoping that the mirror had been playing some tricks on her.  
     “No you don’t.” James said.  Shar snorted.
     “What?”
     “You don’t need a disguise.”
     “Why?  Because I shouldn’t be hiding?” Shar griped. “Save it.  I already told you I’m not going back.”
     “It’s not that.” James said, wearying. “You don’t need a disguise because you already have one.  Me.”
     Shar, walking the whole time, reached the side of the building where it bordered the populated street.  The windows were mostly broken out, and board covered the openings, with only the occasional crack to peer out of.  Throngs of people passed by, not a one was a mutant.  She’d stick out like a sore thumb here.  Shar looked down at herself, and the skin-tight grey suit with its hex-grid pattern and odd lights.
     “You’re a terrible disguise.” She said bluntly. “Unless you can alter… your…”
     “My shape, and yours.”
     “Mine?” Shar wondered. “W-well… do it now!”
     “I may need a bit more to go on.” James admitted. “As I’ve told you form is alien to me.  I could mimic an example, perhaps.”
     Shar looked out at the street.  It made sense, she supposed, and even if she could only mimic someone, it was a handy tool.  Looking around the throng of people in skimpy swimwear she spotted a reasonable candidate.  A woman was walking away, down the street on the other side.  She was young, about Shar’s age, probably, with tanned skin and curly blond hair that tumbled about her shoulders.  She wore a yellow bikini with a sheer yellow cloth tied around her waist.
     “That girl, the blonde.” Shar said, “Did you see her?  Make me look like her.”
     Shar felt a ripple course over and through her body, like a shudder.  She looked down and was met with a sight that was entirely new.  Her skin was tanned and her bust had increased slightly.  Instead of the grey suit she was growing accustomed to, she wore a skimpy yellow bikini.  Shar reached up and ran a hand through her hair.  Her fingers found voluminous golden curls.  She touched her teeth again, flat, like before.
     “You… this isn’t just an image, is it?” She marveled. She tugged at one string of her bikini top.  It pulled away from her skin, just as could be expected from a real article of clothing.  She tugged further and further, sure she’d run into the point where the illusion would fall apart.  Eventually, when she’d almost taken the top completely off, she realized she was being very silly.  Blushing a bit, she straightened her clothes.  After waiting to see that the woman whose appearance she’d plagiarized had walked far enough, she slipped onto the street.  
     It was a good disguise she’d chosen.  The woman was pretty, yes, but not so outstanding that she warranted more than a passing look from most.   Doing her best to blend in, Shar started walking.  Her only thought was to put some distance between her and Mena’s strange cult.  After a few minutes of tense walking, she began to feel a sense of relief.  She’d been away for several minutes now, and Mena hadn’t appeared out of nowhere to snatch her.  It seemed she’d earned a moment to relax.  
     Wanting to get her bearings, Shar found a map.  It was somewhat archaic, a screen that occupied most of a small kiosk.  She discovered that she was only a few blocks away from the Gatehouse, a large building that would be home to numerous gates, gates which could lead anywhere and everywhere in human-controlled space.  Of course, there’d be scheduled openings to and from certain places.  Shar didn’t much care where she went.  Earth seemed out of the question.  What would she go back to anyway?  Shar began walking.
     “James, when you… are visible can anyone else hear or see you?”
     “No.”
     “Great, so at the risk of looking like a crazy person, let’s talk.  I still have so many questions.”
     “I cannot guarantee answers.” James said earnestly. “But I’ll do what I can.”
     “Fair enough.” Shar agreed. “I… How much?  How much of me was left?”
     “After the battle, you mean?” James clarified. “I’m not sure.  But I am certain that it wasn’t pretty.  You probably will be happier not knowing the details.”
     “And you’re sure I’m still a psion?” Shar asked.  Even now it felt odd to say.  
     “Absolutely.” James responded. “I couldn’t be bonded to you if you weren’t.”
     Shar took a deep breath.  She couldn’t decide what this meant.  It was all too strange to take in so soon.  Maybe she should take Mena’s advice on one thing: focus on the here and now.  Thinking too hard about the past or future was a good way to go utterly mad. Her head started to whirl.
     “Let’s change the subject.” She muttered. “Psion?  Me?  Just… what?”
     “I don’t know how to train you, if that’s what you’re asking.” James answered. “You may have to figure out it out as you go now, or we could go back to-”
     “I already said to leave it!” Shar snapped, drawing a few looks. “We’re not going back, and if you don’t stop bringing it up, you and I will part ways right here!”
     James appeared in front of her, arms crossed and looking over his spectacles at her. “Right.” He remarked sarcastically. “Well it’d certainly be entertaining for everyone else around her, you ripping your clothes off in the middle of the street, moments before you died screaming of course.”
     Shar blushed angrily and folded her arms. “What do you mean by that anyway?”
     “I frankly am not eager to find out.” James said. “All I know is that, without me, your body would cease to function.  It has something to do with your death and resurrection.  I was intricately involved, though I don’t know most of the details.  Human science is far beyond me.  I barely understand math and basic physics in this realm.”
     “Fine… fine.” Shar muttered, slowly lowering her arms.  “Then, tell me a little about this… Other.  What is it?  Why is it… red?”
     James leaned around her. “We may want to save it.  You should move.”
     Shar turned around.  There in the street behind her, Mena.  She wasn’t wearing the grey suit anymore, or rather she likely was, only it appeared like a purple swimsuit.  Shar’s heart stopped for a beat, but she soon realized that Mena hadn’t spotted her, as yet.  She watched Mena snag the shoulder of a girl, too young to be Shar, but with long black hair in a ponytail.  
     “She doesn’t know I can disguise myself.” Shar realized.  She swiveled on her heel and started walking, resisting the urge to break into a run.  Just as she found the Gatehouse, she heard Mena’s voice in the distance calling her name.  
     As soon as she reached the Gathehouse she realized she had a problem.  To travel via a gate, she’d need her identicard.  She didn’t have one, and even if she did, it would look totally different than she did now.  
     As she patted her sides, looking for where her card would usually be kept in her hoodie, she looked down at her borrowed body and realized that she had some other things she could work with.  
     Shar found the first male desk clerk and walked right up to him.  She immediately realized he wasn’t the best choice.  He was a little older.  She should have tried to find someone younger and more easily flustered.  Still, it wouldn’t do to walk away now, that would look strange.  So she flounced up to the man and leaned on the counter with both elbows.  The clerk looked up from his tablet, and quirked an eyebrow over his spectacles.
     “Yes?” He asked.
     “Hey.” Shar began, grinning.  “I uhm… I have a little problem.”
     “And what would that be?”
     “Well, see I was coming here for a little vacation…” Shar formulated the lie on the spot, trying to knit a good story in her head.  It came surprisingly easily. “I was so excited to go that… well I forgot my identicard!”
     “If that’s so, then how did you get here in the first place, young lady?” The clerk asked.  A tough question, but his use of the phrase ‘young lady’ gave Shar an idea.
     “Well, I was with my parents…” She said, then leaned in a little closer. “Private gate access, you know.”
     The clerk made a small ‘hmph’, but he didn’t question the truth of her story. “So it looks like you’re stuck here, is that it?”
     Shar pouted, making her eyes wide.  She had a sudden moment of fear.  Were her eyes still that ugly blood red?  Either way she had no choice but to commit if this was to work. “If I get stuck here, my parents will be worried sick!  Please, sir!”
     Shar saw it work immediately.  Though the clerk tried to make a show of being stern, Shar noticed the crack in his armor right away.  Parents worried sick.  This clerk knew something about that.
     “Alright… for the sake of your parents maybe… maybe I can do something.” He relented. “Where did you come from?”
     Shar felt her breath hitch.  She wasn’t sure she knew any other planets.  “Uhm…” She leaned around the man. “I think I came out of… that one.” Shar pointed to a random portal.  The gates were arranged around a large rectangular room, three to either side that were just large enough maybe for three to walk through at once.  On the far side, opposite Shar and the clerk was a huge gate, not unlike the one she had travelled through her very first time.  She had pointed out one of the ones on the side.
     “That one?” The clerk asked, arching a brow.
     “That one.” Shar nodded, beaming.
     “You mean Saer?” He clarified.
     “Of course!” Shar nodded, really hoping he wouldn’t ask how the weather had been, since she had no idea what sort of planet awaited her on the other side of the portal.  She just hoped her feigned confidence would be enough to convince the clerk.  
     The clerk sighed. “Fine.” He said, “But don’t let this happen again.  Not everyone’s as nice as me.”
     “Oh thank you thank you!” Shar gushed.  Her relief wasn’t hard to fake.  Once she was offworld, Mena would have next to no chance to track her.  She could slip into obscurity and figure out where to go from there.  “I’ll slip right there, get my card and come right back!” She told the clerk. “And when I get back, I’ve got a big kiss just for you!”
     The clerk just chuckled and shook his head, opening the thin plastic gate for her to pass.  Shar didn’t hide her grin once she’d gotten past him.  She’d played him like a fiddle, and she had to admit, it had felt good.  Spin a sob story, make puppy-dog eyes, and pretend your request is ‘no big deal, really’ and the fellow was putty in her hands.  
     “That was an odd turn around.” James remarked, though he didn’t bother to appear.
     “It’s called ‘lying’.” Shar told him. “And I’ll thank you not to judge me for it.  Not like you’ve any right to.”
     “I am aware of the human tendency to warp facts as it suits their needs.” James said. “I was referring to your mannerisms.”
     “Just thought I’d play the part.” Shar said, grinning again. “I mean, I do kind of look like a bimbo, don’t I?”
     “I’m unfamiliar with that word.”
     “Forget it.” Shar sighed.  She approached a line of people filing toward the gate she’d pointed out.  Most of them were more fully clothed, as they were preparing to leave the pleasure world.  Shar took stock of the people’s dress.  Most wore long sleeves, but there weren’t any thick jackets.  It’d probably be a little cold.  She started to wonder about James’ ability to protect against the elements.  She’d already noticed that, while James looked like a bikini, she didn’t feel an excess of the sun’s heat, like she’d expect when it shone on bare skin.  Then again, the weather here was perfect, so it was hard to judge the comfort of any clothes.  As the line moved slowly forward, Shar thought about another thing that she’d hardly had time to think about before.
     “You… did me a favor back there.” She said, keeping her voice down.  The two closest to her either didn’t hear or pretended not to.  A good sign for where she was going, maybe.
     “I beg your pardon?  What favor?”
     “You pointed Mena out, letting me run.  You could have done nothing, or even distracted me.  Could have dropped the disguise even, but you didn’t.”
     “My reasons for doing so were entirely self-serving.” James asserted. “I feared that if you were caught, you’d attempt to remove me, which is as much a problem for me as it would be for you.  As much as I’d prefer we went back to the family, I need you to go willingly, or else I fear you’ll try something drastic.”
     “Well keep dreaming.” Shar sniped. “I intend to keep on living, so you’re coming with me.”
     By that time Shar had reached the gate.  A woman with a clipboard looked up.
     “A bit chilly on the other side miss.” She remarked. “You might want to change out of your beach clothes.”
     “Would this be a good time to mention that I can disappear completely if you need me to?” James asked, somewhat impishly.
     “Don’t. You. Dare.” Shar growled.
     “Beg your pardon?” The woman asked.  Shar forced herself to brighten.
     “Oh, I ah… won’t be long.  I just forgot something!”
     The woman shrugged and gestured her on through.  Shar sighed, then she took a deep breath to ready herself for the plunge into the gate.  As soon as she touched the rippling surface she vanished into it.  
     Again she felt herself hurled and tossed this way and that, battered.  It was cold, and red. This time, she consciously tried to focus on not screaming or crying out.  When it did finally end, she was thrust through the gate.  She immediately fell to her knees.  Her shins found a soft pad, which was put there because people often stumbled on their out of a gate.
     “You alright?” A young man was offering her a hand.  Shar smiled.
     “Fine thanks.” She accepted the man’s hand, and saw a flicker of something cross his face.  
     “Fecking crazy suit you got there.” He remarked. “Must’ve been one hell of a party.”
     Shar noticed as her own hand crossed into her field of view.  Grey skin, and the sleeves of her hex-grid suit.  Embarrassed, she clamped her lips shut to hide her teeth.
     “Uh… yeah.” She tried to go along with it. “You should have been there.  Everyone was dressed like this.”
     The young man ran an appreciative eye up and down her form. “Shit yeah… when’s the next one?”
     “I, uh… I dunno.” She said quickly. “I gotta go get my jacket.”
     Excuses thus made, Shar slipped away, beelining for the exit.
     “Great going there, James.” Shar griped, folding her arms around herself.  She suddenly felt very exposed. “James…?”
     There was no response.  Shar wondered what that meant.  They had gone through the Other, right?  Maybe James left her to remain in his home plane.  Though, she did still have the suit.  That would’ve shot her theory down right away, but she hadn’t discounted the theory that ‘James’ had been lying to her, or was some sort of fabrication.  She tried to tug at the suit.  The sleeves didn’t seem to want to move.  They were not only snug, they almost were a second skin.  The suit was obviously high tech, maybe even bordering on magical.  Could she take it off?  Should she even try?  How would she do it?  
     As she walked through the terminal, which was much larger than the one she’d left, she gave the neckline an experimental tug.  This time, she felt a sort of ‘handle’.  As she tugged, she felt the suit begin to come away, and also she felt a tugging inside her chest, like threads bound around her heart.
     “Nope!” Shar immediately stopped tugging at the suit.  It seemed maybe Mena hadn’t been lying after all.  Well, she couldn’t wear just this, but at least it wouldn’t be too intrusive under something more suitable.  At last she stepped out of the terminal and onto the streets of… what had the clerk called it?  Saer?
     What was before her was a thriving, crowded city.  Much of the streets were lit by dark blue holograms, giving the whole area a gloomy feel.  Above her, a few airbuses thundered by.  The streets were filled with cars, barely moving in the heavy traffic, and on either side of the street were tall buildings.  Shar walked past them for a while, but ducked into an alley as soon as she found one.  She needed to get out of the line of sight of people.  In near-darkness, she made her way to the other side of the alley.  No clothes, she thought, no money, no… nothing.  What was she going to do?
     She got an answer, if not the one she’d been expecting, within moments.  As she made her way toward the opening on the other side of the alley, she spotted something.  There were two shapes, large, bulky, definitely men.  One was smoking, the other was simply slouched against the wall.  Shar paused.  Would they be trouble?  They didn’t even seem to have taken notice of her yet, but that could change.  Now would be a good time to alter her form, maybe to look like a homeless bum or something, but she wasn’t sure she could.  James seemed to be gone.
     As she hesitated, wondering what to do, the man who was smoking turned toward her.
     “Who’s lurking out there?” He demanded gruffly.  His hand went to his hip, Shar’s heart began to beat harder.  What was he going for?  A gun, a blade?  Either one was bad news.
     The other man stood clumsily.  He had a bad knee, Shar noted.  Finding weaknesses like that had been one reason she’d been untouchable in the training ring during boot camp, and the old instincts kicked back in immediately as her pulse quickened.
     The one with the bad knee was dressed in a long jacket, and he reached under it and produced a baton that glowed faintly.  His companion, the one who’d spoken, drew out his own weapon.  It was hard to identify clearly in the dark, but it seemed to be some kind of sword, with a ring at the crossguards that was lit with an emberlike orange glow.
     “Who’s there?  Say!” The man with the sword called again. Shar took a hesitant step back.  Normal street thugs and homeless bums didn’t carry swords and shock maces…
     “Stop right there!” The mace-wielder snapped. The two lunged at her.  In that moment, Shar decided to fight, tough as the odds seemed.  Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew that running wouldn’t work out for her.  She was still barefoot, and thus likely to trip or get hurt on something.  Still, the fight would be hard without a weapon of some kind.  She gave ground, waiting for one or the other to make a move.  As she did so, her hand touched a broomstick which had been left leaning against the wall.  Well, Shar thought, It was something.  She clasped her fist around it.
     The bigger man with the mace struck first.  He lashed out, powerful but clumsy.  Shar didn’t try to block, but instead stepped nimbly out of the way.  She struck out at his knee, not the bad one, though.  The broomstick hit with a loud crack.  The man snarled in pain and grasped at his injured knee.  As he did, he put all his weight on his bad knee and promptly fell over.
     “Fecking…” The other man lumbered forward, slashing with the sword.  Shar fell back, away from the strike.  The man’s swing was wide and clumsy.  In the opening he left after his swing, she thrust the broomstick at his face.  The end had been broken off, and the jagged point gouged his skin, just missing his eye.  Howling, the man fell back.  Shar saw an opportunity and thrust her broomstick at his blade.  The stick went right through the ring in the blade’s crossguard.  Shar lunged forward, grabbing the other end of the stick and twisting it so that it wrenched the blade out of her assailant’s hand.
     Her plan had been to catch the blade’s hilt as it came loose, but she fumbled it and the blade clattered to the ground.  Before Shar could reach for it, a huge fist crashed into the back of her head and she saw stars.  She lashed out with a backhand to try and drive the man off so she could grab the sword, but the blow had next to no effect.  The big man reached out and grabbed her by the throat.  A moment later, her arms were grabbed behind her by the other man, who’d by now finally regained his feet.  The man’s hand around her throat wasn’t strangling her, but kept her firmly in place.    Shar struggled for a moment, but as she realized she wasn’t in a position to do much she slowed her struggles, waiting for a better moment.
     “The feck is this?” the sword man growled. “You think she was sent by Mordrun?”
     “Pretty terrible attempt if she was.” The other said. “And what’s this she’s wearin’?  Almost thought she was naked when she first came up.”
     Shar grunted and wriggled a bit.  “Hold up your mace.” The sword man instructed.  The other held his mace up, allowing the purple glow to illuminate Shar’s face.  
     “By the Crown!  A mutant!” The sword man gasped.  The other made a disgusted sound.  Shar found herself thrown to the ground.  She almost rolled over to get to her feet, but a hard knee came down in her gut, and two heavy hands pinned her arms.
     “Kill her!” the sword man said.  It was he who was holding Shar down.  Desperation rising, Shar looked to either side of her.  The sword!  It lay just beyond her arm’s reach.  Straining, she reached for it.
     “But… it’s not so bad in the dark.” The one with the mace said. “Maybe we could…”
     Shar redoubled her efforts.  Fear of death was one thing but suddenly her fear and revulsion tripled.
     “By the Crown… you disgust me.” The other man said. “Just finish this freak!  And be quick about it!”
     The man with the mace raised his weapon, the purple glow illuminating his bald, scarred head.  Shar reached, straining.  Almost… had it…
     The mace came down.  An instant before it would have been too late, Shar’s fingers found the sword’s hilt.  She brought it up and parried the downward strike off to the side.  Wasting no time, Shar swung the blade at the man’s knee.  She felt a spray of blood as the blade severed the leg entirely.
     “Mutie bitch!” the man who was holding her howled as his partner fell to the ground screaming.  He cocked a fist back and punched her again.  Shar’s vision went black for a second as her head bounced against the pavement.  Pain throbbed through her skull.
     Shar’s grip tightened on the sword.  She didn’t dare let it go.  Her assailant grabbed her throat again, this time with the intent to throttle her.  His knee drove all the air out of her lungs and his massive hand constricted around her throat.  
     As her vision dimmed, Shar fought against panic.  She knew she was in mortal danger, but she also knew that she had a way out of it.  She only needed to control her mind and think rationally for a moment.  
     Summoning all her strength, she gripped the sword and swung upward.  There was a sickening squelch and she felt the impact in her whole arm.  The hand around her throat loosened.  As her vision returned, Shar saw the man go limp, her sword stuck right through his head.  Lighting flashed and she saw his eyes roll back and his tongue loll out before he keeled over sideways.  There was another slick, sliding sound as Shar held onto the blade and it pulled out of her assailant’s skull.  
     Shar lay there, panting, trying to fight past the screaming pain in her lungs and the ache around her throat.  She surely had bruises, but she was lucky that she had no worse.  As she stood, she gradually became aware of the other man, writhing on the ground and screaming.  He was the one who’d wanted to…
     In a moment of rage, she rounded on him.  She saw red.  As the man clutched at his severed limb, she grabbed his head and shoved him back.  No sooner had his back hit the asphalt than her blade pierced his heart and pinned him there.  
     
     It began to rain.
     
     Shar stood slowly, her hair beginning to fall into her face.  Shar slid the blade free of her adversary and raised it to look at it.  It was of decent quality, energy enhanced like most weapons were.  The blade was a robust leaf shape that ended at the glowing ring.  There were no quillions, and the handle was a plain cord wrap, but effective enough.  Shar’s hand tightened around the blade.  It felt good in her hand, and she liked it, especially since it had just saved her life.
     While she stared at the sword, a car rumbled up to the street, just in front of her.  Slowly, she looked up.  A jet black limousine was parked in front of her.  For a long moment, she stared at the tinted window, and the featureless piece of glass stared back.  
     Then the window rolled down just a little bit.  She could see what looked like the figure of a young man inside, shrouded in shadows.
     “Did you kill those two?” The man asked.  Shar measured her response.  This man obviously wasn’t the law, but had she just killed his underlings.  Wether that was the case or not, it was pretty obvious she had just slain them.
     “I might’ve.” She answered at last. “They were assholes.”
     To her surprise, the man inside the car chuckled.  He gestured casually, and a large man in a suit stepped out of the passenger seat. “That they were.” The young man in the back answered.  The man in the suit opened the rear door, revealing the cushy interior of the limousine.  
     “Why don’t you get in?” The young man said genially. “Just… please leave your blade with my man Boris.”
The Other is Red: Chapter 3
Third chapter.  I've been moving pretty quick on these, which is very odd for me.   So some more stuff happens to our hero.  And it's not good stuff.  Also, now it's raining, for thematic reasons.
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   The Other is Red
   Chapter 2
   
     The next morning, they were outfitted with an assault rifle, a sword, and three grenades.  After receiving their weapons, each soldier was handed a flak jacket.  The simple, bulky armor came in one of two sizes: too big or too small.  In Shar’s case it was too big and way too big.  
     The troops piled into open-topped trucks and were told to sit and wait.  So wait they did.  At nearly noon, about six hours after being woken, outfitted, and loaded, the trucks began to move.  They rumbled slowly down a road, away from the training camp.  About a mile down the road, a sergeant with a heavy southern accent hopped onto the truck.  He wore his flak jacket without the standard-issue jacket underneath.  
     “Welcome to the fight, newbies!” He addressed the group.  “I’m your briefing.  So what you’re gonna do is: After the truck goes through the gate, get off the truck, load your gun, and shoot anything that isn’t human!”
     Shar, sitting near the back and thus very close to the sergeant felt herself go pale.  Was this really happening?  Were they really about to be in combat?  Against a something not human, no less!  She’d heard of the other things that were out there in the galaxy.  Horror stories, mostly, of psychic bugs and war machines.  The sergeant jumped off and walked over to the next truck.  
     “Holy shit, it’s a gate!” Cried someone from the front of the truck.  Shar turned with the others to see that the truck was headed toward a huge ring of metal.  It stood three stories tall, and the center of it was distorted, with a reddish-pink ripple, like water.  Shar looked down at the ground around it, and saw four figures in red robes, each with the hood up and a featureless black glass mask to cover their faces.  The figures had their arms extended towards the gate, their bodies stock-still.
     “Are those psions?” Shar wondered aloud.
     “Kingdom-approved ones, yes.” Mena muttered.  Shar looked over at her, perplexed.  She had said it with such hatred in her voice.  She was about to ask her about it, but the truck passed through the gate, causing an experience that drove all other thoughts from her mind.  As soon as the truck touched the rippling surface, the whole thing, troops and all, vanished from the field.  Shar didn’t feel much of the transition, at least, not as the others felt it.  To most on the truck, the trip through the gate felt like an eerie sense of weightlessness.  To Shar, she felt as though she’d been plunged into a powerful river, fast and cold, and… red.  For some reason, though she couldn’t see, and couldn’t breathe, the color of the gate, the reddish pink, was forefront in her mind.  She might have screamed, she couldn’t be sure.  Her throat certainly hurt a few moments later, when the truck fell out of the other side, onto a rough and gravelly road.  Mena caught Shar as she started to fall forward.
     “Are you okay?” She asked gently.
     “What was that?” Shar tried to say through a horse throat.  
     “Psi-gate travel is pretty rough.” Mena sympathized.  
     “Felt kinda weird.” One of the men sitting across from them said. “Not… entirely unpleasant, though.”
     “You must like swimming in rapids, then.” Shar muttered disparagingly.  After that, they all fell silent.  The sounds of battle rapidly reached their ears.  Gunfire and explosions, and other, strange noises.  Shar began to see lines of injured human soldiers, limping back toward the psi-gate.  The gate looked basically identical to the one they’d just entered back on Earth.  The truck was moving slow, so Shar hopped off and grabbed the nearest man.  When he turned to face her, she recoiled in shock.  The man’s arms, one was in a makeshift sling and held near his chest, were similar in form to a bird’s feet.  His eyes were solid green orbs.  
     Shar had heard of mutants before, even seen pictures of them on the internet, but this was the very first time she’d ever met one face-to-face.  Until now, they could have been a fabrication.  They were no more real than actors in film.  But now that she saw one up close, his visage was hauntingly inhuman.
     “What?” The man asked, wearily, touching one of his clawed hands to his head, which was wrapped in a bandage. “Am I bleedin’ still?”
     “N-no…” Shar tried to compose herself. “I mean… what’s going on?  What’s the situation?”
     The mutant shook his head slowly. “We’re losing ground to the bugs.” He said. “Crown there’s…. so many dead.”
     Shar flinched as he put a hand on her shoulder. “Go… for the Queen.” He said.
     Shar watched, open-mouthed as the soldier turned and trudged away.  They weren’t even a full day out of training and already they were being tossed into the grinder.  More corpses to litter the field.
     Another truck passed and someone called out to her.  “Hey, new meat!”  Shar recognized the voice.  Without really thinking, she turned to the truck and hopped up onto the back.  This one wasn’t packed with troops, but ammunition.  The man who rode in the back seemed familiar.  Hanging onto her rifle with one hand and the truck with the other, she peered at the man.  The lean, scruffy young man grinned back at her.  
     “Hey… you were there on my first day.”  The guy chuckled.
     “Yeah, I showed you the way to the barracks.” He said. “You look like the training paid off.  You ready for a little fun?”
     “Fun!?” Shar felt her voice crack. “We’re being sent to our deaths!”
     The young man shook his head and laughed. “You’ve been dead since you left that processing hut.” He said. “Just a matter of how long you keep moving.”  Shar scowled at him, confused.
     “It’s best if you let go of the illusion that you’ll survive.  Just enjoy the adrenaline rush while it lasts.  Oh, here.” The young man handed her a syringe.  The white tube, tipped with a plastic cap over its needle, had a clear window in which could be seen a few milliliters of some red fluid. “Try that out.  It’ll help you let loose.”
     “Let loose?” Shar repeated.
     “Yep.  A dose of courage is what that is.” The soldier said. “Enjoy.  Actually, here.  Take a few more.  Give ‘em to your friends.”
     Shar accepted the other syringes with a mumbled thanks.  She hopped off the truck and jogged to catch up with her vehicle.  
     By the time she reached it, she was met with a sight both awe and terror-inspiring.  The trucks had stopped on a ridge, which overlooked what used to be a farming field.  Now it had been ground into muck as the boots of thousands of soldiers of the Royal Army tramped across it.  The air shook with the sound of battle cries as the army poured across the open ground.  What really took Shar’s breath away was the sight of the enemy.  
     There were a dozen of them in immediate view, though the arc of the artillery support suggested there were more beyond the dip at the edge of the field.  They were each the size of a bus, and they were to her eyes a confusing mass of whirling limbs and insectoid parts.  Their backs reminded her of gray lobsters, but their tails arced over their bodies and had some kind of grasping claw on the end.  As they got to the front line of the Royal Army, they reached down with these claws and began snatching men up, flinging them away to sail hundreds of feet before crashing into the ground, or slamming them back down into the earth right at their feet.  Shar saw sprays of blood as soldiers were occasionally torn in half.  
     Shar focused on one of the creatures, trying to discern more details of its form, and saw it snag a man with a mass of slimy tendrils that poured out of what she assumed must be its head.   The man’s form was spun and twisted in the bug’s grasp, and then Shar lost sight of him.  She felt a chill run down her spine as she realized what she’d just witnessed.  She hoped and prayed that, if she was to die, it wouldn’t be like that.
     The Royal Army was fighting back, of course.  Bullets and grenades and even a few lasers and heavy ordinance went sailing into the onslaught of insects.  Most of them bounced off the shimmering purple barriers that the bugs projected in front of themselves.  A few found their way through, but they seemed to be making little headway.  Shar didn’t see any bugs fall.  The bugs, in addition to using their own monstrous forms as weapons, sent waves of force through the human army, scattering men like toys.
     “Dear Crown what is this?” Shar whispered, horrified.  Just then, a crack to her right caught her attention.  She turned and saw the earth split open.  One of the bugs emerged from the newly-formed tunnel, shrieking a roar that made every bone in Shar’s body ache.  What was more, in her mind, she heard what it was trying to say.  It was a simple message: die!  
     All around Shar were support troops.  Soldiers who hadn’t left the trucks yet, as well as supply operators and wounded.  Most of them shouted some curse or another and opened fire.  Handguns and swords were drawn as all the nearby troops jumped into the fray.  Shar stood stunned for a moment as the purple, rippling shield absorbed the damage for a time.  Soon, though, it began to deplete and a few rounds got through, striking the bug’s chitinous hide.  It was then that Shar finally remembered she had a weapon of her own.  
     Bringing her rifle to bear, she opened fire.  As she did, she found herself yelling back at the creature.
     “Die!” She howled.  The bug dispatched the two men that were harassing it with swords and came plowing toward her.  It happened in a second, and before she realized what was going on, the bug was nearly on top of her.  She continued firing, desperately just trying to kill it before it ripped through her.  She felt waves of hate coming off the creature.  Hate directed at her!
     She felt a lancing pain in her leg and fell down on her back.  Her vision began to go hazy as she saw the bug’s tail-claw carrying a severed limb away.  A second later, a needle-sharp appendage pierced her right shoulder, causing her to drop her gun.
     “Why!?” The bug screamed in her head.  It was furious at her.  At all humans, really, but right now especially her. “Why? Why? Why? Why!?!?” Each emphatic wave of hate was also accompanied by a new puncture wound.  Shar knew it could kill her much faster, but apparently its hate warranted extra cruelty.  In a haze of pain, barely noticing that her left arm and right ear had been removed, Shar groped for her rifle.  “Why? Do you!? Exist!!!”  
     Shar’s fingers found a trigger.  She grasped it and, summoning the very last of her strength in a burst of desperation and pure animal instinct, pointed it toward the bug and pulled.  She didn’t realize she had found the trigger of her rifle’s underslung grenade launcher until the firey explosion engulfed the bug’s face.  She hardly remembered being blown to smithereens.
     
     <><><><><><><><><><>
     
     Shar woke shrieking.  All the fear and pain that adrenaline and the bug’s mental screaming had pushed to the back of her mind came to the forefront all at once.  She remembered vividly the bug on top of her, piercing her flesh with its spines and claws, rending her limb from limb.  All the while, it had screamed at her in hate.
     Shar panicked and thrashed for a few moments before she realized she wasn’t under the bug anymore.  In fact, she wasn’t on the battlefield anymore.  Instead she was in a dimly-lit room, cylindrical in shape with four pillars going up to the vaulted ceiling.  Small blue holograms ran up the length of the pillars, providing some light to the room.
     “Where…?” Shar wondered softly as she started to sit up.  That question was soon replaced with another.  As she moved, she looked down at her own body.  To the best of her most recent memory, she’d lost a leg, an arm, and had several holes punched in her.  She shouldn’t be able to move, she probably shouldn’t be alive and yet…
     She looked down at herself.  There were both legs, and both arms.  She was dressed (If what she wore could truly be thought of as clothing) in a strange gray suit.  It fit her like a second skin, from her neck below the chin, to her wrists, to her ankles.  Actually, Shar wondered if it somehow was skin, it seemed to be so form-fitting.  The gray of the suit was overlaid with a pattern of a white hex grid.  Little bright points traveled along the lines of the grid from the top to the bottom periodically.  “How…?”
     Despite being whole, somehow, Shar still felt weak, and ached everywhere.  Places she wasn’t entirely sure even had muscles somehow found a way to ache.  Groaning, she lay back down.  She was on a bed, of sorts.  A foam mat that had a vaguely human-shaped impression in it.  The odd bed stood about three feet off the ground on a solid metal base.  Shar flopped an arm over her eyes.  Had the battle been a dream?  And if it had, why hadn’t she awoken in her barracks, or in her own home?  For a minute, she desperately wished she would wake up in her parents’ house.  She wanted the last few years of her life to all have been a bad dream.
     “Oh, are you awake?” Came a strangely familiar voice.  Shar bolted upright, and her body obligingly protested.  After wincing, she laid eyes on the woman who’d spoken.  She stood in what seemed to be the only doorway to this room.  Shar could only see her silhouette, and by that could guess that she was either naked, or as was more likely, wearing the same sort of suit that she was.  Her mind swirled with questions, so she asked the first one she could properly form.
     “Am I really alive?”
     “Of course, Shar.” The woman stepped forward.  Shar finally realized who she was.
     “Mena?” Shar’s mind just sort of blanked.  Her thoughts were overwhelmed with a confused ‘What the feck?’.  Mena had her long hair, which she had kept in a bun most of the time during training, loose and flowing over her shoulders.  She was, as Shar had assumed, dressed in the same strange clothing.  
     “I found you, after the battle.” Mena said. “The Royal Army didn’t win, I’m sorry.”
     “What… how did you-? Why-?” Shar trailed off, at a loss. “I… I died, didn’t I?  There was no way I could have survived that!”
     “Yes, sort of.” Mena answered. “There was… enough of you to make a clone.”
     “Enough of me!?” Shar yelped, rising to her feet.  She almost rushed Mena, but thought better of it.  She still didn’t know exactly what was going on. “You mean… I was… what, in pieces?”
     “Yes.” Mena answered. “Surely you don’t want to know the details.  Suffice to say, I managed to bring you back.”
     “I’m… not even me.” Shar whimpered, staring at the floor. “All these memories and feelings… they’re not mine, they belong to a dead girl.”
     “Oh don’t be melodramatic.” Mena scoffed gently. “Maybe you are the same girl, maybe you’re not.  Just accept the here and now.  You are alive, and healthy, and you have a sound mind.  Isn’t that enough?”
     “I… I don’t know how much longer I’ll be sane knowing that I’m just a dead girl.”
     “If it helps,” Mena offered, “A couple of us like to think of it as ‘a ghost with a body of flesh’.”
     “’Of us’?” Shar gawked. “What… okay… Back up, start at the beginning.”
     “I’ve heard it’s a very good place to start.” Mena said with a grin. “Well, you were fabricated here about four days ago.  That is, this body was.”
     “Is everyone here a dead person?” Shar asked.
     “Well, yes.” Mena replied. “There are differences, of course.  I have no memories of the former Mena, but I’m told she was no one of consequence… much like you were, before now.”
     “Okay… I’ve got a lot of smaller questions, but I’m skipping to the most pressing ones…” Shar continued. She sat on her bed. “What… the hell is this?”
     Mena followed her pointing finger to her outfit. “Ah… well.” She smiled. “Prepare yourself.  James?  Why don’t you show yourself now?”
     There was a faint shimmer in the air, and a figure appeared.  The boy, who had stick-straight black hair and wore a pair of square-framed spectacles, appeared translucent and blue, like he was maybe a hologram.  And yet, Shar felt something when she saw him, felt like he was simultaneously real and not real.  His existence, simple as it seemed to her eyes, hurt her mind a little, like trying to comprehend a paradox.
     “Hello.” The apparition known as James said calmly.  Shar just stared, one eyebrow cocked and her mouth set in a thin frown.
     “The feck are you?” She asked bluntly.  Mena chuckled at her response.
     “James is the suit you’re wearing, and he’s also so much more than that.” Mena explained as James tilted his head in a polite little bow.  “Have you ever heard of The Other?”
     Shar shook her head slowly. “Oh my.” Mena responded. “Well then you’ve a lot to learn.  So very much.  For now, why don’t you come with me?  I’ll introduce you to the rest.”
     Shar nodded mutely.  As she walked toward James, to stand by Mena’s side, she looked from him to her outfit.
     “Just tell me… how are you my clothes?”
     “I am from The Other.” James responded. “Form is an alien concept to my kind.  Actually, so is ‘kind’ and ‘kin’ for the most part.”
     “So why are you named James?” Shar asked.
     “Well I was born and raised here, so I was named like the locals.  Names are another thing the natives of The Other are not used to.  Not knowing what to name ourselves, we borrowed names from this realm, so that the locals here could refer to us.”
     Shar blinked, shook her head, then blinked again. “The feck?” she whispered to herself.
     “All will be explained in time.” Mena assured her, as the humanoid apparition vanished. “Don’t worry about the greater details for now.”
     “Okay…” Shar agreed, trying not to, even though her mind reeled with a million questions. “Does… ‘James’ have to fit so tight?  These outfits don’t leave much to the imagination.”
     “Yes, another byproduct of the natives of the Other’s limited understanding of form.” Mena said. “We tried to explain to them what clothes were and… well, this is the best they could do.”
     “Great… so why am I wearing him?  Also, why clothes?  Why not, like, familiars or something?”
     “Well, if you weren’t wearing James, you’d die.  Within about half an hour, actually.”
     “What!?” As Mena and Shar walked down a narrow, arched hallway lit dimly by the little round holograms, Shar froze in her tracks. “I’ll die!?”
     “Unfortunately.” Mena said. “Your body and mind can’t remain in sync without James’ help.  It’s the unfortunate burden of psions.”
     Shar chuckled. “But I’m not a psion.” She said, almost daring Mena to say otherwise.  Mena smiled benignly at her.
     “Of course you are.” She said. “I knew of your talents as soon as we passed through the gate.  Remember that feeling?  Like drowning?  That’s what psions feel when going through a gate.  It’s what you feel when you touch The Other.”  Shar slowly shook her head.  This was all too much.  She needed to know so many things, in order to understand just the basics of what Mena was talking about.  She had heard of psions and their abilities on the internet.  They were in some ways like mages in the fantasy games she played, only their powers supposedly came from the ability to use the entirety of their brain, which normal humans were locked off from.  Shar thought that sounded odd, but psions certainly existed, so who was she to argue?  At any rate, she’d never cared much about such things.  She hardly used any of her brain, let alone an expanded amount, so what reason did she have to believe she was a psion?
     “So… are you saying that you’re one too?  Like you can use 100% of your brain?” She asked Mena.  The older woman rolled her eyes.
     “That’s all just Crown propaganda.” She said, sounding incredibly disgusted. “All humans use their whole brains, that’s basic medical fact.  No, psionic powers manifest when a person is born with a ‘third eye’.”
     Shar reached up and touched her forehead. “No, silly.” Mena continued. “It’s not an actual eye, either.  It’s just an ability to sense and connect to the Other, a different reality where the rules of physics, form, and almost everything which makes up our galaxy are completely alien.”
     “How… does something exist without the basic laws of… existence?” Shar wondered.
     “They wondered something similar about us.” Mena argued. “We were, as far as I know, the first to welcome beings from the Other into our realm, and give them a way to survive.  Beings like James, outside of very expensive and advanced containment technology, can’t survive in this world unless they cling to a psionic form, such as you or me.”
     Shar continued following Mena down the hall, shaking her head in bewilderment.  If she wasn’t wearing a seemingly impossibly form-fitting suit that had just spoken to her, she would have told Mena she was insane.  The hallway they were walking down ended and opened up into a larger, ovoid room similar to the one they’d left.  In the center was a table, which jarred terribly with the strange architecture as it was a normal, long wooden table, with varying types and even sizes of chairs around it.
     “This is where we all eat.” Mena said, “and our rooms are down that hall, come on.”  Shar followed again, still confused and a little scared.  They walked down a hall just like the other one they’d come from, and the first room to their left was a more brightly lit room with lots of drawings visible through the open entry.  Shar glanced at them and her mind momentarily stopped in its tracks.  The room was covered in drawings of a tremendously lewd nature.  The subjects were always female, and everything a woman could do to herself or another woman was on display here, including lots of things that Shar struggled to perceive any sort of sexuality in.  She’d surfed the internet for crude smut before, but much of this work depicted fetishes Shar had never heard of, and only recognized as sexual due to the other stuff that surrounded it.  She wasn’t easily flustered, but the sheer volume of the material made her feel distinctly uncomfortable.
     In the far corner of this room was a short man with greasy dark hair seated at a writing desk.  He was dressed in the same sort of suit that Shar and Mena wore, and was drawing furiously, grunting and muttering in his work.
     “No, no…” He muttered, tossing a piece of paper off his desk.  As it fluttered to the ground, Shar saw that he’d barely gotten as far as sketching some stick figures.  Odd, Shar thought, as his other work, while horrifying, was of impressive quality. “Lewder!” The man cackled feverishly to himself. “I can go lewder!”
     Mena turned to Shar as the man began scribbling again.  
     “This guy… I think he needs help.” Shar said. “He’s clearly got a very serious problem!”
     “Nonsense.” Mena said, smiling. “We all worship the Other in our own way.”
     “W-worship?” Shar gasped. “Hey, isn’t that, like, Treason or something?”
     Mena smiled and put a finger to her lips. “It’s okay.  As long as we don’t make a big scene, here we can do what we want.  The agents of the Crown won’t find us.”
     Shar’s head reeled. “Do I have a room?” She asked.  Mena nodded and showed her to it.  It was dimly lit, like most of the hallways she’d seen.  It was furnished with a cot, a small bathroom station with a curtain for privacy, and a simple wooden chair.  Shar meekly requested some time alone and walked in to sit down heavily on the bed.
     Alone with her thoughts for a moment, she tried to drink in the magnitude of her situation.  Somehow, she had been kidnapped and indoctrinated into a cult.  That was, of course, after she had been slain on the battlefield and resurrected by cloning.  Being a clone and joining a Treasonous cult were both highly illegal.  She wasn’t even supposed to exist, and in her existence she was a criminal.  She’d be branded a Traitor if she was ever found out.  All it would take was for her to be noticed by someone who knew she was dead.  That meant no electronic credits, she didn’t dare be caught by the planetary Guards, even for a simple questioning.  If they scanned her face to verify her ID, as was standard operating procedure, they’d know.  
     She’d have to live as a shadow now, out of public sight, as much as she could.  She stood and wandered over to the bathroom mirror. Would this complicate things?  What was more, what plans did she actually have?  She planted her hands on either side of the cheap metal sink and looked up into the mirror.  As soon as she did, she almost fell over with shock.
     Her face looked like someone else’s!  She couldn’t say that she was more beautiful, or more ugly, but the face that looked back at her was not her own!  Her chin was narrower, for one, and her nose was different, a bit larger.  But what really got her attention were the three dull-red lines that ran down her face vertically.  They seemed like tattoos, and one crossed each eye while the third ran directly down the center of her face.  Her skin was slightly grey, which with her black hair gave her a sort of sharklike appearance.  As she opened her mouth to gasp, she was greeted by the sight of her own sharp teeth.  Her eyes went wide, showing her clearly that they were no longer brown.  Instead they were the same dull reddish color of dried blood.
     “What!?” She squeaked.  Her whole world was imploding around her.  First she learned she was dead, then found she was an unwilling member of a treasonous cult, and now she looked in the mirror at the alien face of a mutant.
     Stumbling into the hallway, she ran back to the dining room, half tripping over her own feet.
     “What have you done to me!?” She demanded, the instant she saw Mena sitting at the table in a pink, floofy chair.  Mena just looked up and smiled. “This… THIS!” Shar’s voice cracked as she gestured to her face. “Why!?”
     “It’s a gift.” Mena said. “A little bit of Other-ness to help you adjust.”
     “Help me adjust!?” Shar shrieked. “I feel like I’m going insane!”
     “Good.” Mena stood. “A little touch of insanity is the first step.”
     Shar stepped into the room and began to work her way to the third hallway that entered this room.  She hadn’t explored it yet, so she hoped it contained the exit. “The first step… of what?” She asked shakily, keeping her eyes on Mena. The older woman stepped toward Shar, her arms out.
     “To becoming one of us.” She said gently.  
     Shar ran then.  Her feet stumbled once, and then she found them again, bolting down the hall.  She would not be a part of this!  She didn’t want to embrace this sort of insanity!
     “Wait!  Don’t go!” Mena called behind her, but she paid her no heed.  James chimed in as well.
     “Please stop.” He implored her, sounding calm, though urgent. “We shouldn’t betray the family.”
     “Listen to me, James.” Shar growled as she ran. “Either you go with me on this, or I’ll take you off, and we’ll see just how bad it can be for both of us!”
     “I’d very much prefer you didn’t do that.” James said hastily. “Fine, but I’d like you to know that I feel strongly against this.”
     “Noted. Shut up.” Shar began to hear sounds of persuit.  There were maybe four people after her now, but she spied what she was looking for.  Ahead lay an elevator.  Shar slammed the gate that kept the lift chamber closed open and then slammed it behind herself, just in time to stop Mena from grabbing her.  
     “Shar, wait!  Hear me out!” Mena pleaded.
     “No!  I’m not joining your fecking crazy cult!” Shar snapped.  She jabbed the elevator button and the lift started rising.  Mena continued her pleading until she was out of sight.
The Other is Red: Chapter 2
Second Chapter of "The Other is Red", with some hints of The Other and why it's red.  Also some traumatic experiences for Shar.  Yeah... get used to that.  This is not the kind of story where everything goes swimmingly for the main character.
Putting a mature tag to be safe, just because the war scene is kinda intense.
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   The Other is Red
   Chapter 1
     
     “Ready to die, kid?”  Shar looked up at the man who’d spoken.  Crowded into the back of a troop transport, Shar and eleven other recruits were headed for a nearby training camp.  There they’d be given about two weeks of training, have a gun slapped into their hands, and then be sent off to fight on some exotic front.  
     “Uhm… I was kind of hoping not to.” Shar replied.  Shar was a small, slim girl just barely nineteen.  Her jet black, perpetually messy hair was pulled back into a high ponytail.  Nothing about her looked strong, or sturdy.  For much of her youth, she’d played holo-games.  The activity kept her lean, but did nothing special for her physical strength.  Years of spending her free time in a dark room illuminated only by the holograms of her games had left her pale.  Though it was never truly dark in her world, Shar was more at home in the dim, such as the back of the troop transport.  She felt she could sense everything more clearly when it was lit only by the flickering light of holo-displays.
     She wasn’t fond of the people, though.  As everyone was jammed into the back of the troop transport, she chafed at the press of bodies.  There were other women there, but Shar was stuck between the armored door, and this guy who was trying to pronounce her death.  He laughed, flinging a glob of spittle from his mouth into his bushy beard.
“Getting conscripted into the Royal Army is a fecking death sentence!” He proclaimed. “We’re all gonna die!”
     Shar turned away from him to stare at the floor.  Instead she found herself staring at the knees of the woman in front of her.  As she stared, she pondered how she’d gotten herself into this mess.  It was probably her own fault, she had to admit.  After completing the necessary years of schooling, she got her state-supplied living quarters, set up her gaming rig, and proceeded to play her days away.  She applied for government living aid, expecting that she could live on cheap food as long as she had her holo-games. And she did, for quite some time.  After a year of living off cheap junk food and playing her games day in and day out, she thought her life had reached its zenith. She was content with that, really.   As the world went to hell outside the Cluster, a massive metropolitan city in Antarctica, and the outer holds buckled under constant siege from various alien empires, Shar ignored it all and escaped into a fantasy world.
But being on government aid put her name into a database, the ‘dregs of society’ list from which the Royal Army was recruited.  The Royal Army was simultaneously an expendable force that served as a frontline against the various alien incursions, and a way to remove those people whose presence in the more heavily populated cities was only a nuisance.  Officially, the draft applied to everyone of legal age, but everyone knew that only those accepting government aid, or living below a certain income level, were going to be taken away in crowded troop transports.  
     It had been a lot like getting arrested, not that Shar ever had before.  Two soldiers broke into her home, dragged her out of her gaming rig, and shoved her into the back of the waiting transport.
     “At least this one didn’t fight.” One of them commented as they shut the door.  As if she would.  Shar was far too frail to do anything, and she knew that she would only hurt herself if she tried.  She only put up a little struggle as she was led out of her home with nothing but the clothes on her back, which since she’d been at home and planning to game all day, consisted of nothing more than a hoodie, a pair of sweatpants, and some fuzzy socks with cutesy skulls on them.  Many of her fellow passengers were dressed similarly.  People didn’t go outside in the Cluster if they could help it.  Thoughts of self-pity filled up most of their ride to the Royal Army training grounds in the U.S.  The training grounds filled up a huge, mostly uninhabited patch of plains in the Midwest.
     There was a thump and a rumble as the transport set down.  They had arrived.  The door opened and the two soldiers from before pointed their guns inside.
     “Out!” One ordered. “Anyone still in this transport in thirty seconds is getting shot!”
     Shar considered staying, for a moment.  She would die anyway, right?  But the woman across from her stood abruptly and Shar did as well, going with the flow.  As soon as they were out, Shar froze.  The sun beat down from a cloudless sky.  Trucks and hovercraft filled the air with the sounds of rumbling and grinding machinery.  Tires and boots kicked up clouds of dust from the dry ground as the hustle and bustle of the camp swarmed around her.
     And it was warm.  Shar had never felt warmth like this before.  Rather than coming from a source of some kind, like a heater or a vent, it was pervasive.  The sun beat down on her, flooding her chilled limbs with a sense of alive-ness that she had never felt before.  Almost immediately, she started to sweat.  Little droplets moistened her brow.
     “Move!” Someone yelled at her.  Startled, Shar put her head down and jogged alongside the other conscripts.  The dry, dusty ground was littered with small stones that dug into her feet through her fuzzy socks. Shar winced and limped as she was forced to jog along behind the others.  
     They were ushered toward a building made of cheap aluminum siding.  Once inside, a group of veteran enlisted officers shouted at them until they were in something resembling a line.  About a dozen transports had arrived at a similar time, and Shar found herself in a line at least a hundred people long.  Recruits of all sizes and shapes shuffled their way through the line.  As they were working their way through the line, an officer strutted back and forth on a small stage.
     “Weclome to the Royal Army!” The officer addressed the line.  Unlike the sergeants and corporals that herded them in, this officer was dressed in a fine military uniform, including armor that was made primarily of force shield generators.  Radiant armor, it was called.  Granted to only the best in the army.  Officers like him were often wealthy, not dregs and conscripts. “As of now, your ass belongs to her highness, the Queen of Terra.  The Kingdom of Earth thanks you for your service, and your sacrifice!”
     Shar scoffed quietly. It wasn’t like she had the option.  After another few minutes, and some periodic statements from the officer, who identified himself as Lieutenant Karr, Shar found herself at the desk.  
     “Name?” a tired-looking sergeant demanded of her.
     “Tulaki?” Shar responded.
     “You askin’ me or tellin’ me?”  Shar only scowled at the woman as she looked up the name on a hologram screen. “Shar Tulaki… nineteen… alright, move on through.”
     “Gee thanks…” Shar muttered sarcastically as she was ushered through.  They pushed her through a door where, to Shar’s surprise everyone was naked.  Men and women, most somewhat older than her, stood under shower heads that gushed hot water.
     “Strip, get rinsed off!” A soldier commanded her.  Feeling the heat rise in her face, Shar unzipped and tossed aside the hoodie, then slipped out of her sweatpants.  Once she’d done that, she was completely naked.  She hadn’t been planning an outing.  The soldier took her clothes and tossed them aside, probably into a trash bin.  
     Feeling several pairs of eyes on her, Shar walked through the group showers.  It would have been unbearable had there not been a few other women there good-looking enough to take attention away from her.  Shar slunk to the far corner and started to rinse herself off.  She wasn’t really dirty, but a hot shower was always tempting.
     A naked man sidled up to her and started using one of the showers beside her.
     “Hey hot stuff.” He said, nudging her.  Shar wrapped her arms around herself and ignored him.  She wasn’t here to make friends, and she certainly didn’t feel like making small-talk while being ushered through a human meat-processing plant.  She finished up quickly and scampered to the far end of the room.  There she joined a line of naked people and waited to receive clothes.  The guy who’d flirted with her stepped in behind her. She felt his eyes on her.  Thousands of scenarios played out in her mind.   For some reason she was certain he would try and cop a feel, or smack her ass.  She envisioned turning around and punching him in the throat.  In every daydreamed scenario, she was much more powerful and confident than she was in real life.  In the back of her mind, she knew there was nothing she could possibly do.  She almost breathed a sigh of relief when she reached the outfitters.  They shoved a sack into her hands, an olive-drab canvas backpack with a pair of boots sitting on it.  She took them and shuffled aside to get dressed.  
     Inside the pack she found a pair of underwear, a sports bra, a set of cammo pants, and a white tank-top.  Even once she was dressed, Shar felt a little exposed.  She had never dressed so lightly, being a native of the Cluster.  With her arms and (somewhat meager) cleavage open to the air, she couldn’t help but notice as every male who glanced at her dropped his line of sight a bit.  Shar shook her head and tried to ignore it.  She left the dressing room and found herself back in the dusty, open field of the Royal Army training grounds.
     Lost, she was just about to ask a nearby soldier where she was supposed to go when a different man grabbed her shoulder.
     “Barracks twelve, new meat!” He pointed, shouting over the roar and rumble of people and vehicles.  Shar was momentarily stunned by his attitude. Despite the phrasing, his tone was friendly.  His face wore a sardonic smile, as though he was trying to make the best of a bad situation.  
     “Uh… thanks.” She said as he started to walk away. She followed where he pointed and soon came to a row of identical buildings, different only in the large stencil-font numbers painted on them.  They started with one, so she had a bit of a walk.
     Once she finally found her new home, she found a bunk and just fell in it.  All around her, other new conscripts were doing the same.  A woman lay back in the bed next to her with a sigh, adopting the same hands-behind-the-head pose that Shar was in.  Shar glanced at her.  She was long and tall with caramel skin, black hair, and a large bosom.  She looked at least ten years older than Shar was.  The woman turned over to look at her neighbor.
     “You okay?”  Shar winced.  That wasn’t what she was expecting to hear.
     “Well, so far today I’ve had the worst pvp raid of my career, got dragged out of my house wearing only sweatpants, then was herded along like human cattle, stripped in front of a bunch of strangers, and now I’m here, preparing to die on some crown-forsaken rock a million lightyears from home.” All came out of her in a breath.  Once she’d spoken, Shar breathed in and sighed.  To her surprise, the other woman laughed.
     “There’s a lot of that going around.” She said.   Despite herself, Shar laughed too. “I’m Mena.”
     “Shar.” Shar answered. “Nice to meet you, I guess.  In spite of things.”
     “Indeed.” Mena said, smiling warmly.
     
     <><><><><><><><>

     Training began early the next day.  Pushups, running, and obstacle courses filled the first few days.  After that, ceaseless drills with the standard weapons of the Royal Army: An automatic assault rifle, and a short sword.  They were expected to learn how to fight with them.  At the end of every other day, they had mock fights.  Sometimes they paired off for duels with blunt swords.  Other times, they trained in groups with blanks in their guns.  
     One guy got killed during one of those fights.  Someone got excited and fired a blank right into his face.  He was rushed to the infirmary but died later.  There was a rumor that the medics didn’t try to help him.  It certainly seemed plausible.  The conscripts weren’t well taken care of, and it didn’t seem farfetched that a recruit injured in training would just be discarded.  Shar herself managed to injure someone during a training duel.  After taking a few hits she lost her temper and jabbed hard at an unarmored place.  As the medics dragged him away bleeding, her training officer slapped her on the back.
     “Takes skill to wound a man with a dull blade.” He had said.  She showed promise with the sword.  By the end of the training period, no other recruit could defeat her, though a veteran corporal had soundly handed her ass to her in order to keep her pride in check.
     “That skill with the sword might just land you a position as a real soldier.” Her trainer remarked as they headed back from their last practice fight.  The next day they were going to be shipping out to their first assignment, a conflict on an agri-world.  For the first time in two weeks, Shar glimpsed a light of hope.  By ‘real soldier’, her trainer meant one of the Vanguard.  The Vanguard were exceptionally skilled soldiers, armored in the finest, most advanced technology, armed with the best weapons that the Kingdom of Earth could put in human hands.  And above all: They died a hell of a lot less often than the troopers in the Royal Army.
     “Really?” She practically rushed her trainer. “I-I’d be honored!  Do you think it’s likely?  I’d be willing to start right away!”
     Her trainer laughed at her.
     “Survive this first fight.” He said. “If you do, I promise I’ll consider it.”
     Shar turned away, her heart sinking.  She’d hoped that maybe volunteering would get her into at least a few more weeks of training.  She wanted to avoid the coming battle like a prisoner wished to escape the noose.  Most of her fellows had accepted that they would die, but Shar couldn’t let that happen.  She wanted to live, especially as it became more and more obvious that she never truly had.
     Her mind was a whirl of thoughts and emotion as she walked to the showers.  The barracks had four communal shower rooms at the far end of the living quarters.  Each room had six nozzles.   Shar headed for the far left room.  Keesah, a black woman who was muscular and tall even before having been recruited had taken over that one and chased out any men who tried to enter.  Shar, and the other women of the barracks could use that room in relative privacy.
     In the showers, Shar found Mena, as well as a few other women.  She stepped up next to Mena and turned the shower on.
     “Good work today.” Mena commented as Shar washed her hair.
     “Not good enough.” Shar said. “I almost got into the Vanguard… but not soon enough.”
     “I had no idea you had such aspirations.” Mena replied, looking down at her.  Even though the training had helped Shar gain some muscle, she was still quite short.
     “I just don’t wanna die on some Crown-forsaken rock.” Shar grumbled bitterly.
     “What do you want to do?” Mena asked.  Shar snorted.
     “What’s it matter?”
     “Humor me.” Mena chuckled warmly.
     “I don’t know.” Shar sighed. “I’ve spent all my life so far playing holo-games.  I kinda want to see things outside my home city.  Eat fancy food, travel to exotic places and not have to shoot people, maybe.  Have sex…”
     Mena laughed, honey-sweet. “Is that all?” She asked. “Well that last one shouldn’t be hard.”
     “It would be here.” Shar argued. “Besides, I wouldn’t do it with any guy here.  They’re all ugly and gross.”
     Mena laughed again. “You know, you might not die tomorrow.”  Shar scoffed.  Optimism was nice, but everyone in the barracks knew they’d more than likely be dead before the next day was out.  Mena continued. “You want to be a Vanguard, huh?”
     “Well… not really.  But I thought it might keep me alive a little longer.”
     Mena only made a soft, musing noise, turned off her showerhead, and left.  Shar knitted her brows as she watched her go.  It was unusual for Mena to just end a conversation like that.  Shar returned to her bunk, but didn’t see Mena.  Perhaps she was up drinking or playing cards with some other soldiers.  They were all trying to make the most of the night, while still pretending tomorrow wasn’t their last day on Earth.  Shar couldn’t think about it anymore.  She lay down on her bunk, clad only in her underthings, and went to sleep.
The Other is Red: Chapter 1
This title is a little... unusual, and may not remain the title of this story.  The story started out as a warhammer 40k fanfic, but there were a lot of things I wanted to include that I didn't know if they actually worked that way.  So I just made my own world.  As such there are a lot of things based on 40k in here, Royal Guard is the Imperial Guard, vanguard came about later, but they're a vague allusion to Astartes, etc.  The queen is not immortal, or mostly dead, though.  While the monarchy is really played up for propoganda, they are just normal people and their lineage passes on when they die.  Fun fact, since it will likely never come up in story: The current queen is only twenty five.
Anyway, keep an eye out for more of this to see what becomes of Shar.
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There's something odd going on in a newly-discovered Vault.  Near the bustling city of Iron Shores, in what used to be the state of Georgia, the East Coast chapter of the Brotherhood of Steel is converging on something in the old military base.  If you'd like to find out what, comment on this journal with the following information:

Race: Any human race, or ghoul (Possibly other Fallout races such as Synth, if viable)

Brief physical description: Hair color, style, eye color, gender, basic info.

Occupation: Scavver, Caravaneer, merchant, etc.  You may start out as associated with a known Fallout faction, like the Brotherhood of Steel, but you will start as a 'rank and file' member.  Ex. for Brotherhood: Knight, Scribe, Initiate, etc.  No Paadins, Knight Captains, or Sentinels.

Just leave a comment, and I will respond and you can begin your adventure!
  • Listening to: Critical Role
  • Reading: Twelve Kings in Shadar Kai
  • Watching: Various Youtube
  • Playing: Sid Meyer's Pirates
  • Eating: Not much (I'm sick :( )
  • Drinking: Sweet tea and Cherry Coke

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redwolfradolf
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:iconaerialvenue:
AerialVenue Featured By Owner Dec 30, 2018  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Hi daddy
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:iconredwolfradolf:
redwolfradolf Featured By Owner Jan 3, 2019
Beg pardon?
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:iconlucario-bandit:
Lucario-bandit Featured By Owner Nov 6, 2018
Bi
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:iconredwolfradolf:
redwolfradolf Featured By Owner Nov 9, 2018
Bi?
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:iconlucario-bandit:
Lucario-bandit Featured By Owner Nov 9, 2018
Stupid auto I meant hi
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:iconredwolfradolf:
redwolfradolf Featured By Owner Nov 11, 2018
Oh.  Hello.
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:iconlucario-bandit:
Lucario-bandit Featured By Owner Apr 11, 2018
Hey dude
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:iconredwolfradolf:
redwolfradolf Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2018
Hey.  Sorry, I know I've been very absent, but my computer just gave up on me for a bit.
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:iconlucario-bandit:
Lucario-bandit Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2018
Ah well at least I know what happened. Well feel up to continuing the rp?
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:iconredwolfradolf:
redwolfradolf Featured By Owner Apr 22, 2018
I'm sorry, but I was getting kinda bored of it.  
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