The Other is Red
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.