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Colour me Purple; an Atysian science-fiction story.

Story 2
Last Melody

"Sir!"

"At ease, corporal Ipalyo."

"Reporting for duty, sir! What shall be my assignment today?"

Captain Arbhor ruffled through his papers. Though he already knew the answer, a man in his position could afford no mistakes.

"Well, corporal, it seems that sandstorm in the western reaches has finally winded down. We're sending your squad out there to scout out what it changed. See if it uncovered anything dangerous, or buried anything important. See how the terrain has changed. Sandstorms of this magnitude tend to alter the entire landscape. The cartographers will go in later to map the details, but I need you to give me a rough picture of what the area's like now. Most importantly, make sure there aren't any threats. We've been blind to this area for days, so we need to re-secure it quickly. Got all that?"

Corporal Ipalyo nodded. He knew what his commander was hinting at. In the worst case, the sandstorm could've uncovered an opening to the Prime Roots. It could also have uncovered a spring or oasis, which would be almost as bad...

He had already expected this assignment. Corporal Xylon Ipalyo and his squad were some of the best patrollers in the army, and anyone walking through the streets that morning could've seen that the orange glow that had been on the western horizon for the past few days was now gone, meaning the sandstorm there had ended. He figured they'd immediately send out patrollers to re-scout the area, and that his squad would be the one they'd sent...

As captain Arbhor dismissed him, he eagerly headed down to the stables. This was what he lived for.

---

"Heya corporal! Got your ride all ready for you."

The stable-attendant was probably old enough to still remember the old meaning of the word "ride". It had changed rather dramatically in the last decades.

The complete infection of every large land animal that could serve as mount had forced the Fyros to devise alternate means of transportation. The result was the contraption in front of Xylon, it's construction based partially on plans for Tryker boats, which had earned it the nickname "ship of the desert". It could alternate between wheels and gliders for traction, and between sails and rockets for propulsion.

"Howdy boss! Your lackeys stand ready!" a voice said behind Xylon. He turned around to see his squad standing behind him, all packed and armed for the trip. "We going to the western reaches?" asked the tall blonde woman. "You guessed it, Kyn," replied Xylon. Kyn Madax had been nicknamed "Mad Axe" in the academy after she almost beheaded her instructor with her axe in her first year. She'd never gotten much better at melee weapons, but she was possibly the best gunner in the empire.

"It wasn't a very hard guess," remarked the shorter black-haired woman. Lyla Melan was the melee expert of the squad, though her fighting style was unusual for a Fyros. She eschewed the traditional Fyros axe in favour of dual wielding two swords, and had earned the nicknames "Melody" or just "Mellow" for the calm, almost dancing way in which she moved, both in and outside of combat. A stark contrast with the fiery, raging style of most Fyros.

"Let's see what that storm stirred up then," spoke the man, Thenix Daraan, in the booming voice that had garnered him the nickname "Thunder" long before he made it all the more appropriate by becoming their heavy weapons specialist. Unlike Kyn, about who Xylon sometimes wondered if there was any part of her body she didn't have a gun strapped to, Thenix carried only one gun. But that one gun, a huge launcher on his back, could do more damage than the entire rest of his squad.

A little while later, the four of them skidded out of a side gate of the city. About 500 meters out, they reached the firewall, the city's outer perimeter that was quite literally a wall of fire. A meter high and encircling the entire city, the flames of the firewall burned day and night, fuelled by an elaborate system of underground pipes that continually supplied them with fresh acid to burn. In case of an actual attack, the pipes could be opened further to increase the height of the flames up to 10 meter.

The pipes could also be closed to turn off the flames, and the Fyros made temporary 'gates' in the wall by closing off a few of the pipes. The location of these gates was different each day. Xylon's squad followed the firewall to the western-most gate that was open today, where the sergeant on duty saluted them. "Sir!" Xylon saluted back, "Corporal Ipalyo, sir, off on a patrolling mission." Army regulations demanded these formalities, even if patrollers crossed the firewall so often that the wallguards all knew who they were. The sergeant took a cursory glance at their orders and nodded. "Good, we'll all be a lot more comfortable here once you make sure that sandstorm didn't dig anything up. Good luck, corporal."

And then they were off, riding out towards the Fyros' true first line of defence; the vast inhospitable desert. Even more hostile to life than the deserts their ancestors had called home, it was all but impassable for the majority of animal life, as well as for any homin not prepared for it. And dependant as they were on it for their safety, the Fyros had every reason for wanting the desert to stay inhospitable.

As Kyn steered their vehicle west, the others didn't have much to do yet for this part of the journey, so Xylon absent-mindedly looked back at he city behind them as it slowly became smaller. The city of New Coriolis, last hope of the Fyros. Named after the old town of Coriolis that had been destroyed in a blaze when miners uncovered a vein of flammable acid, the city of New Coriolis had been founded when miners uncovered a vein of flammable acid. That acid vein now powered the whole city, as well as the firewall, and even the propulsion of their vehicle. It's discovery had been the only thing that had allowed the Fyros to defend themselves and survive.

After a while, the city disappeared into the distance. But to the left, Xylon could still make out the mountains north of the city, no less important to the city's survival. Though it wasn't visible to the eye from this distance, Xylon's memory showed him what the mountains looked like up close, dotted with mines. It was from these mines that the Fyros extracted all the raw materials they needed to build the city, and everything else they built, forged or constructed. It was also because of those mountains that they were able to mine so deep without hitting the Prime Roots.

"Allright guys, we're nearing the area where that sandstorm hit. Keep your eyes out. Lyla, give me a bearing." Kyn's announcement woke Xylon up from his dreaming. As Lyla turned her full attention to her map and instruments, he and Thenix took out their binoculars and started scanning their surroundings for anything unusual. Due to the flatness of the desert, they could oversee hundreds of meters in every direction, but it was a very big desert. They'd have to do a lot of riding to cover it all.

About an hour passed where all they did was point out the new dunes, valleys and ridges for Lyla to mark on the map. Then Thenix shouted out, "Whoa! Spotted movement over there, guys. About 500 meters that way." Xylon looked as well. "I don't see anyhing yet... Take us in closer, Kyn. No wait, take us to that dune over there." It was always better to approach a potential threat from high ground. After they'd stopped at the top of the dune, as Xylon thought, all four of them had a better sight at what Thenix had spotted. "Is that a herd of ploderos?" Kyn asked. "Looks like it..." Xylon agreed. "And they're heading towards the city," Lyla remarked.

"Damn, where did it get so many ploderos?" Thenix' curse made Xylon stop staring and start thinking. "It must've been saving them up for a long time," Kyn answered before he could, "that could be why we haven't seen any in years." "Yes, it makes sense," Lyla agreed, "ploderos are adapt to the desert, and very big and tough, enough so to walk through a sandstorm, but also very slow...." "Far too slow to reach the city before our patrols intercept them..." Xylon continued her line of thought, "...usually."

The four of them looked at eachother. "You're saying they were using the sandstorm to sneak up on us?" Kyn's question was more a statement than a question. "Lucky for us the sandstorm ended before they could reach the city then," remarked Thenix, "let's take em out." "Allright," agreed Xylon, "take us into position and signal the city."

After directing Kyn to steer their vehicle to the right position relative to the ploderos, Thenix fired their flare gun. Two orange flares flew high up and lingered in the sky for at least a minute, ensuring the spotters back at the city would see them. Two orange meant a request for bombardment 500 meters to the south of where the flares were fired. The guns of New Coriolis had a range of about 10 kilometers, but were only accurate to within about a 100 meters. They remedied this by firing huge balls of the very same flammable acid that powered the city, which simply set ablaze everything within 100 meters of it's impact area.

It was only a few minutes after the flares had gone up that Xylon heard the sound of a thunderclap from the direction of the city. Moments later, the whole herd of ploderos bursted into flame. "Direct hit, nice shot that was," noted Thenix admirably. Xylon nodded approvingly. "Good, these ploderos are tough, if it hadn't hit them directly we might've had to request more strikes to finish them." The squad moved closer to the inferno to get a better view and stayed to watch until they were sure every ploderos had been burned to a crisp, and no risk of infection remained unburned. Then they sent up a white flare to signal that the threat had been eliminated, and continued on their scouting.

The rest of the day was rather uneventful until they finally reached the edge of the desert, and the burned out remnants of the forest that had once bordered the desert, before the Fyros had burned it down. Taking a tour along the edge, Xylon noticed the forest was already starting to recover. Young saplings were sprouting up amidst the old ashes. Xylon sighed. "Allright, guess we're burning it down again," he announced to his squad. "Let's put on our flamethrowers, Thenix. Girls, cover us."

The unnaturally fast-growing forest was constantly, relentlessly advancing on the desert, trying to overgrow the Fyros' most important defence. Since this was outside the range of the city's guns (letting the forest come within 10 kilometer of the city was already way too risky) it fell upon the patrol teams to burn them down by hand.

All except Kyn exited their vehicle and Xylon and Thenix strapped on the acidtanks that went with the flamethrowers. The tanks were rather heavy, which is why the guys usually got this job. Though to be fair, the girls were also simply better at providing cover. Lyla accompanied them to the edge of the forest while Kyn stayed behind with the vehicle. Fortunately, they wouldn't need to burn down every single plant personally, just start enough fires along the edge to ensure a forest fire that would eventually engulf the entire forest. A single shot from their flamethrowers was enough to set ablaze everything up to 20 meters in front of them. They'd torch a few dozen square meters, get back to the vehicle, drive half a kilometer or so along the edge, then repeat the process there. And so on along about 5 kilometer border. That should be enough.

They hardly needed to actually enter the forest, but still even being so close to the edge was not without risk. In the desert, there was not enough plant-life to form networks, so you could safely travel around. But in the forest, the very ground itself was teeming with plant-life. All of it connected, all of it transmitting messages, it was impossible not to step on some tiny shrub, impossible not to be detected. As soon as you so much as touched a blade of grass, your presence was known, and every animal in the area would come for you. This is why they would quickly start a fire, then quickly retreat back into the desert and relocate. Staying in a detectable location for too long was a sure way to get swamped.

Even so, they still risked being ambushed by animals that happened to be already close enough to reach them before they could retreat. That's why Lyla stayed close to them with both of her burning swords drawn, that's why Kyn watched them through her rifle scope from the vehicle, as they moved around showering the fresh foliage in streams of burning acid. And in fact, several times during their work did a lone predator jump at them from the bushes. Gingos, raguses, torbaks, cuttlers. It was hard to tell. All had long been mutated beyond recognition. The old species' distinctions were largely meaningless now. Each time, Xylon heard the crack of Kyn's high-caliber rifle behind him almost before he noticed the movement in the bushes, and saw the predator drop dead in front of them before Lyla could finish her combat stance.

Ofcourse, that was how it should be. Engaging the creatures in melee was a risky last resort that meant something had already gone wrong. Lyla had her own way of thanking Kyn for keeping her swords unbloodied. "Not letting me have any of the fun today, are we, Mad Axe?" she teased as they returned to the vehicle after the third such encounter. "Well, I wouldn't want you to get blood on your clothes, Mellodear," Kyn grinned ear to ear, "it's a bitch to get out." The cheeriness in her voice hid the dead-serious truth of that statement.

It was late that afternoon on the way back that the squad uncovered their most miraculous finding of the day. Xylon was the first to see it, and could barely believe his eyes. Even after they'd driven up to it and were right in front of it, he still could barely believe it. A shimmering black shape gleamed in the sun in front of them. He knew what it must be, and yet... he couldn't... "Is that... a Karavan vessel?" Kyn finally asked what they were all thinking. "It must be..." replied Lyla, just as stunned, "it's definitely not anything made by homins." "It must've been buried beneath the sand for decades until the sandstorm uncovered it," Thenix concluded.

"...should we check it out?" Kyn broke the silence again. They all hesitated. "What if there's still Karavan in there?" Lyla asked. "Don't be silly," Kyn rebutted, "they couldn't have survived beneath the sand that long." "How do we know what they could survive?" Thenix interjected. "They had technology beyond anything we could imagine." "But," replied Kyn, "that technology didn't stop them from dieing out, did it?"

None of them was nearly old enough to ever have seen a real Karavan, but they all knew the stories. How the Karavan had guided hominkind for generations, being halfway between mentors and overlords. How the Fyros had later broke with them and embraced the Kami. And how the Karavan had eventually come to their end.

The Karavan had always demanded sacrifices of resources from the homins, which had always resulted in frictions between them and those homins less devout to them. Famous was the story of when they'd tried to 'punish' a village that refused to provide them resources. But the friction never escalated worse than that, and generally the Karavan were satisfied with the resources provided to them by the portion of hominity that worshipped them.

Until the world began to change, and the homin nations needed all their resources to fight for their survival. The resource-flow towards the Karavan had slowly dried up. Far from understanding the homins' plight, the Karavan had aggressively demanded that the less pious homins fill the gap, even though this meant turning resources away from hominkind's struggle to survive. It wasn't long before this led to an all-out war between the Karavan and hominkind. Even most homins that had previously believed in the Karavan defected in the face of this cruelty. Only the Matis kingdom and some of the most fanatic tribes remained loyal to the Karavan until the end, though a lot of the Matis population also joined the other side. At least, so told the Fyros stories.

The war pretty much ensured that hominkind lost it's chance of preventing the change. But they did beat the Karavan in the end... sort of. "We don't actually know they died out," Xylon said, more to himself than to his teammates, "they just disappeared." "Exactly," agreed Thenix, "all the stories say we didn't stand a chance against their technology, and the entire war was just them slowly grinding through our superior numbers, until they just disappeared." "But it's obvious they died out because they ran out of resources," Kyn wasn't one to back down easily, "why else would they be so stupid to turn all of hominkind against them, unless they really desperately needed those resources to survive? So they died out when they stopped getting them. A logistic victory is just as good as any other." "Or perhaps," Lyla added, "they died out when their home base too was affected."

"You know," Thenix proposed, "some of the generals believe they didn't die, that they're still out there, masterminding the attacks on us." Kyn replied with a dismissive gesture. "Pfft, the fantasies of old warriors who long to have a tangible enemy to fight against." Xylon sighed to himself. She might be right about that, and if so he understood those generals completely. Every Fyros grew up with the stories about the old times, the glorious battles of the Fyros of the past, against Karavan, Matis, kitins, marauders... very different enemies, but all enemies that consisted of armies of individuals. Individuals that could be cut down. Just cut down enough individuals, and the army is no more. Today their enemy was a mysterious ungraspable force that seemed to have no heart or brain to strike at, and which did not weaken no matter how many of it's soldiers were killed.

"So boss, what should we do?" asked Kyn when nobody replied. Xylon pondered this for a moment. "This is a huge discovery," he thought out loud, "since we've made sure there's no immediate danger for kilometers around, this is now more important than the entire rest of our scouting mission." Everybody nodded, and he continued. "We need to report this find immediately and get a team out here to secure it before it gets dark. But we can't leave it unguarded either." He looked at his team. "Kyn, you're the best driver, and Thenix, you're the best navigator. You two take the ship and race back to the city to tell them what we've found, then lead the team back here. Lyla and I will stay here to guard the vessel."

Xylon looked at his team expectantly. They seemed reluctant. "Ehm, boss," Kyn began hesitantly, "sending both rangers away? What if there's trouble? I mean, it's not like you and Lyla can't drive or navigate." In the regular army, a superior's orders were absolute and a soldier would never question them, but things were a lot more lax for the patrolling teams. Each patroller needed to be able to operate independently. "And shouldn't you be the one to deliver the report?" So Xylon generally had to convince his team of his decisions, rather than stand on his stripes. "There's very little risk of any danger, we already know there's nothing around for kilometers. Our biggest worry is that you can't get a team back here before it's dark, which is why we need the fastest driver and best navigator to do this. It's not like Lyla and I can't shoot a gun either."

Kyn seemed convinced, but Thenix still had another suggestion. "We could just send a flare up for back-up, couldn't we?" Xylon considered this. "We don't have a flare for this kind of situation. Via flares we can only request another patroller squad or an assault battalion. Neither would bring out people who'd know what to do about this vessel, so then we'd still have to sent someone to the city, the only difference being they wouldn't make it before dark anymore. " Thenix could only agree, but still suggested: "We could at least request the other squad so that you're not out here alone so long."

That was reasonable, Xylon had to concur. "Allright, let's do that."

A little later, the ship of the desert carrying Kyn and Thenix sailed off into the distance, as Xylon and Lyla sat down on a dune across from the strange vessel, next to all the equipment they'd unloaded for their stay. It should only be an hour, more or less, but as patrollers they'd always make sure to be ready for the unexpected. They sat in silence for the first ten minutes or so, their eyes and minds on the vessel, which Xylon had to admit made him nervous even if it seemed clearly long abandoned.

"Do you hear that?" Lyla broke the silence of the desert winds. "Hear what?" replied Xylon. "There is a sound coming from that Karavan vessel," Lyla continued, "a repeating sequence of strangely hollow noises." Xylon stood up and instinctively reached for his weapon. "Think there's still someone in there?" He couldn't hear what Lyla was referring to. "No, I think it's automated," she said calmly, "it's repeating too perfect, probably some device left running." Reassured, Xylon sat back down. "Amazing that it'd still run after this long," he mumbled. Lyla nodded. "It sounds almost like a sad song, but perhaps that's just me."

Lyla sighed, making Xylon shift his attention from the vessel to her. "What's wrong?" She looked up at him sadly. "We can't go on like this, you know, we can't keep pretending." Though vague, those words were also ominous enough to make Xylon more nervous than the strange vessel could. "What... what do you mean?" he asked, trying not to sound too alarmed. Lyla replied: "Can you tell me with complete honesty that you didn't divide the tasks just now so that we could be alone?" Xylon was silent, stunned.

"I... didn't..." he slowly recovered his voice, "I had logical reasons for that decision, I explained them and you all agreed. If you think it was wrong, why didn't you say anything?" Lyla shook her head. "You weren't wrong, in this case. It was the best choice. But can you say for sure your heart didn't factor into it at all, even subconsciously?"

Xylon felt suddenly exposed and vulnerable. He was out of diversions, and felt he couldn't lie. Come on, he told himself, don't run away from this, you are a Fyros corporal, you are supposed to posses courage. Mustering this courage, he decided to pierce straight to the heart of the matter, as this uncertainty was unbearable. With difficulty he managed to ask: "You... knew?"

Lyla looked away from him, up into the sky, and nodded. "Kyn and Thenix know too, at least on some level, though maybe not consciously. They had no reason to doubt your order just now, I saw their uncertainty, I think their reluctance was because a part of them felt you might have some ulterior motive." She turned her head down. "It's hard to keep secrets in a group so close as ours."

"I have tried my hardest... to push it aside. To not let it affect my judgement, not let it affect my performance or behaviour." "I know you have," Lyla replied kindly, "you'd not do anything less for your duty. But it's not something you can just push aside, is it?" He shook his head, still feeling guilty. She added, "Sooner or later it will affect our performance. You know we can't let that happen." He nodded. He'd been trying to push his feelings aside to prevent this from being necessary, but he knew she was right. "After we're back I'll request a transfer to another squad."

She turned her head towards him with uncharacteristic fiercety. "No, I'll request a transfer to another squad." "But that's not fair, it's not your fault that I...." Lyla's look made the words freeze in Xylon's mouth. "No argument on this, Xylon, you know very well that our squad will suffer worse from losing it's leader than from losing me." He wanted to disagree, but he couldn't. All he could say was, "But you'll be a terrible loss too, the 4 of us make a terrific team. I wish I could've prevented this... it feels like a personal failure that I couldn't." He looked out towards the horizon. "What will Thenix and Kyn think?"

Lyla moved closer and put her hand on his shoulder. "It's not your fault anymore than it is mine. But yes, it's very sad to think this was my last mission with this team. We have worked so well together." A short pause. "And perhaps it is even sadder for Kyn and Thenix. At least you and I might get something in return." Xylon looked at her with such a puzzled look of nonbelieve that she couldn't help but smile. "Well, if it's going to cost me my place in the team, I might as well see if I can't get something good out of it," she concluded with a wink.

Xylon felt a knot in his stomach and a glow across his skin. He thought for a second Lyla was rolling her eyes at his inevitable blushing, but then realised she was looking at something behind him. "What is it?" he asked, turning his head around. "Just a flare in the distance, as purple as your cheeks, corporal," she said as she removed her hand from his shoulder and moved away again. The moment was over, there was nothing left to be said.

Purple flares were used to announce the arrival of a trading caravan at the border. "I wonder what's it like for them," Lyla said, apparently glad for this opportunity to change the subject. "On the one hand, it must be nice to be able to travel through the forests at all. On the other hand, I'm not sure I'd want to spend all my life in that treacherous place." Xylon nodded. Though he was still shaken, he was also somewhat relieved to be able to talk about something normal with her again. "Yes," he said, "I have wondered before what life could be like for the Zoraï."
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