There was nothing more relaxing on Iradina 41 than being seated at a table inside the Hall of the Fountains with a cup of red drink in front of you, while listening to the erratic background noise of familiar social conversation. That complex sound came in waves: occasionally louder, most of the time buffered, sometimes joyfully high-pitched, though always unexpected, like the soothing sounds of the breaking ocean waves . . . During the first nighttime quarters it seemed there was a magic presence in the air, possibly due to the elevated temperature, or to the subtle aromas emanating from the seven Fountains positioned in the center of the Hall.

     According to the rules set by the Archeologists, no technology was allowed inside the Hall—not even air conditioning—except for the forty-five light projectors on the ceiling, and the two automatic entrance gates. The air, however, was totally refreshed by forced ventilation before each nighttime meeting, while projectors’ light was a mixture of five-color components only, each having precisely adjusted wavelength and intensity magnitudes.
     The people gathered there during the first night quarters were almost all Technicians dressed in the standard silver-gold uniforms; for that special nocturnal event, however, everybody was wearing something extra. They used to beautify themselves with unusual one, two, or more “eyepieces”; with grotesque hand, neck, or “head laces”; or with antique shoulder armors. Many wore strange hats, ancient helmets, or fantasist brain-shields—totally unnecessary—ear devices, huge insignia, fancy, absurd, or invented ornaments, and each had perfectly valid sensible motivations, even logical sometimes, for those extravagant wild-imagination decorations. Regardless, everybody knew those “extras” to the standard uniforms were used to conceal the most sensitive detection instrumentation that could be bought, traded, or hand-built in the Equal Coalition Worlds.
     Most people were seated at the tables arranged on the terraces surrounding the Fountains; a few wandered alone, in the farthest and highest sides of the Hall; while others were waiting patiently in line for their turn to fill at the Fountains. Sooner or later, everybody made at least one trip per night to the Fountains in order to test his or her personal luck.
     There was plenty of good disposition around because Technicians spent their time telling jokes, funny stories, or simply making a little bit of fun of each other. Overall, however, they were all monitoring attentively the activity around the Fountains.
     “. . . honestly, B’uce, the juice was so thick inside the Black Ho’ns that you could stick you’ finge’ into it and d’aw something the’e . . . And it would ’emain imp’inted fo’ at least ten conventional minutes befo’e the cu’ents would dissipate it,” said Ab, and he ended his words watching Scott with staring bulbous eyes. His eyelids pulsed once fast, covering his plum-shaped all-black eyes from down up, then they retracted slowly.
     “Yeah, well, I have no doubts that what you say is the very letter of the truth, Ab,” replied Bruce while admiring the orange color of his drink. He paused for a moment to take a sip from his cup, then he added in a bit coarser voice, “but, hmm, how much time you said you spent on your last raid?”
     Ab twisted quickly on his left side visibly nervous. Sure, Baan and the others were watching him with large grins. He replied, “If you don’t believe me, just go the’e you’ next loading-’aid, and discove’ it for you’self. Ha! I would like to see you’ face afte’ you wande’ inside the Black Ho’ns fo’ a few days. Ha, ha! I filled all my tanks in twenty-fou’ conventional days, then back to the Base I was; yes, Si’!”
     “Now that you spent twenty-four conventional days filling your tanks inside those darn Black Horns, and then another one hundred eighty visiting breathtaking places inside the Void Lane, you must be really thirsty; right, Ab?” asked R’Ezan in a pretended worried voice. He was from the Toklon System—at that time self-excluded from ECW—and he had a face with a big down-bent nose, and small, round, yellow eyes. His skin was mainly yellowish in color, though turning green towards all extremities. Most amazing, on top of R’Ezan oblong head “lived” about a dozen of curly, thick, dark-green hairs. Whenever the man was relaxed, those hairs looked curly and soft; if he was alarmed, his hairs went straight up stiff, in a spread distribution. It was possible those hairs were a special sensory organ of R’Ezan, except he never talked about it.
     “Maybe the red drink is sufficient enough for a man who spent his last two hundred-four conventional days admiring the stunning scenery inside the Void Lane,” said Baan slowly, and then everybody started laughing as if they were waiting for that signal. Well now, that was everybody, excepting Ab and Troxi.
     Ab had no desire to laugh at Baan’s joke—such a deflated one! As for Troxi, he was from Kavsta System where people were incapable of laughing since they couldn’t produce sounds. However, Ab could see perfectly clear that Troxi’s skin colors were turning rapidly towards dark-violet nuances, which was a certain indication of a very good disposition. He let his head down, waiting patiently for the surrounding amusement to end. It took a while, but the amusement did end because everybody was curious to hear his reply to the challenge.
     “Honestly, people, the Dalk ’adiation was so st’ong the’e that—” started Ab pleadingly, but he was interrupted by a choir of people laughing uncontrollably towards their agonizing deaths.
     When he regained the power to articulate words, Baan said ironically, “Don’t steam on us with your filthy radiation stories, Ab—show it to us! For sure, those terrible Black Horns of yours, and all that dangerous Dalk radiation must have given you looots of extra powers!”
     Other people from the nearby tables became interested in the challenge, and they were shouting all sort of encouragements: “Show it to them, Ab!”, “Break the spell, Techie!”, and “Do it, brave-heart!”
     Bruce was greatly amused, like the rest of the gang, though he realized that poor Ab was pushed a little too hard, from way too many sides. He said, “All right, people, let’s show some consideration for our dear little friend here.”
     Baan was receptive. He spread his dark looks around, then said in a low, loud voice, “Hey! Contacts off people! Ab is perfectly all right.”
     His intervention clearly lowered the peak of local joyful chatter. Moments later, the overall background noise brought some relative silence at their table.
     “Now, honestly, Ab,” said R’Ezan in his scratchy, insidious voice, “you should give it a try, man. At least, do it for the sake of your good old friends, if you cannot find sufficient drive within yourself.”
     “Well, I—” started Ab, but he was interrupted by an alarmed whisper coming from Baan.
     “Mother of all troubles! SHE’S BACK!”
     The wave of surprise followed by deep silence rolled rapidly roundabout the Hall. All the eyes and visual sensors were directed towards the diagonal ramp, near the first entrance gate: indeed, SHE WAS THERE!
     The Lady was incredibly beautiful: slim built and holding her back perfectly straight, she was medium in height though superbly proportioned, dressed in a purple-blue uniform—the color of the Maintenance personnel. She was walking firmly, like a queen, knowing she had hypnotized them all, and she kept her eyes down as if she was overwhelmed by her own beauty . . . and GLORY!
     The sounds of her steps resonated inside the heart and soul of everybody present. As she was getting near and nearer to the Fountains, only a few were capable of breathing without problems. The Lady collected a cup from dispenser, then she went onto the path of the Fountains. Soon, she was near the Red Fountain, near the Orange one, then near the Yellow . . .
     Nobody in the Hall was breathing anymore. She followed the path towards the Green Fountain, then to the Blue one . . . Someone or something dropped down, up in the backside, but nobody paid attention. The Lady stopped in front of the Violet Fountain, then she raised her hand to fill the cup.
     A voice somewhere found the power to ask pleadingly, “Please, Miss Kinlen, try The Great One!”

     Three conventional minutes after Miss Laleah H’Ven Kinlen had left the Hall, people began to recover. Slowly, very slowly, the complex background social noise returned to normal amplitudes, patterns, and frequencies. Bruce threw shy glances at his friends. They all had ghostly shadows in their eyes, and their faces appeared to be a lot less colored than usual.
    He knew as a true fact that he looked like a chased animal himself. What he had witnessed could easily destroy irreversibly any sane nervous system: Miss Kinlen had filled her cup from the Violet Fountain! She didn’t bother to try filling her cup from The Great Fountain, with transparent waters, but it was clear she had no intention of doing it. She just filled her cup with the violet drink, and then she left the Hall!
     Somehow, Bruce was grateful that Miss Kinlen had left, otherwise he would have felt miserable, highly embarrassed, and greatly unworthy in such an illustrious proximity . . .
     There were about three hundred people inside the Hall that night, both males and females, all of the Kull-Mosky beings—defined as intelligent, carbon-based organic type—and all in different shapes, sizes, and colors. What had brought them together were the Fountains.
     There were six Fountains having colored waters arranged in a circular distribution, plus a seventh one with transparent waters positioned in the geometric center of the circle. A clearly delimited path encircled the Fountains in a slow ramp, starting from the Red Fountain, then leading to the Orange, the Yellow, the Green, the Blue, and then to the Violet one. Once in front of the Violet Fountain, the path didn’t unite to the beginning, to enclose the circle: it changed direction higher up towards the center, to the Transparent Fountain—The Great One!

     Things were very simple. Anybody, or almost anybody, of the Kull-Mosky beings could go to the Red Fountain and fill a cup of red water. The drink was very good, since it had a nice aroma and a refreshing taste. After consuming that red water everybody, or almost everybody, felt some good disposition and a slight euphoric sensation. Taste and feelings were different, for different types of beings, but the generally accepted conclusion was that both the taste and the resulting feelings were greatly pleasing.
     The troubles appeared when people tried reaching the next Fountain, the Orange one: not everybody could! Their bodies simply refused to make any move in the wrong direction. Things were even more difficult with the Yellow Fountain. As for the rest of the Fountains, Bruce had heard a few stories—way too doubtful—about a couple of guys who reached the Green Fountain.
     There was nothing like a force field, energy walls, or anything technical around the Fountains—at least nothing that could be detected and measured—and that was the reason almost all the people in the Hall were Technicians, during the first night quarters. They were studying the Fountains night after night, for almost two conventional years, and each of them hoped and fantasized about becoming “The Hero”: the brightest intelligence who solved the Mystery of the Fountains.

     The Legends of the Fountains were based on a few archeological vestiges of a very old Civilization: the Elgams, in the Elgam System—deserted, without natural living conditions for a Kull-Mosky being. Some scientists said the Elgams had not been carbon-based organic beings; that their molecular structure could have been sulfur-based, silicon-based, or phosphorous-based. Others went even further, considering the Elgam people as being energy-based intelligence.
     Archeological vestiges were everything that was left from the Elgam Civilization. There were a few grandiose constructions scattered on two Planets, Elgam Four and Elgam Three, and on three Satellites of the System, most of them terribly worn out and almost unrecognizable from orbit. The underground constructions, however, had resisted fairly well to the merciless flow of time, to meteorites bombardment, to quakes, and to natural erosion.
     Particularly strange was the fact that there had been no writing-inscriptions discovered, no paintings, and no sculptures: no cultural symbols at all! The remaining constructions or parts of constructions, above and below ground, were all geometrically shaped in cylinders, cubes, pyramids, cones, semicircular or rectangular enclosures, pyramidal or domed halls, and alike. All constructions had been built with plain flat surfaces which must have been polished to perfection a long time before. The preferred material for construction was always natural rock or, possibly, it was the only one left after the destructive passage of time.
     [. . .]
     The Elgam System had been discovered fourteen conventional years before and, despite the huge archeological interest it stirred, a few areas had had to be lent for colonization, and also for the exploitation of the local natural resources. It happened the System was relatively abundant in a few precious isotopes. Even more, rumors went that two new atomic elements had been found, and their chemical and physical properties defied the well-known laws of Physics!
     The Work Base Iradina 41 was a huge spaceport built inside the Shecca Mountain on Elgam Four. The Planet had no rotation around its axis, with one side always hot and facing the Elgam Star, while the opposite one was dark and very cold. Initially, the atmosphere had been mostly xenon and carbon dioxide isotopes, but thirty-five autonomous mineral oxide reduction stations had been built during the first years of the exploration. As a result, the atmosphere became almost breathable at about four percent oxygen, and 1.25 conventional barometric pressure.
     Elgam Four had water, though not very much, as steam liquid and ice, and even a few primitive forms of flora—mostly of the mushroom type. Excepting bacteria colonies, there had been no animal life discovered; however, the exploration continued, although very slow.

     Following the oxygen addition, some beings of the Kull-Mosky type could have lived on the open surface of the Planet for a few conventional days, if they were on the right temperature equicenter ring. The livable area was, on average, a five hundred conventional kilometers wide ring surrounding the equicenter point where the light of the Elgam Star was perpendicular. The ring was positioned at the optimum livable circular zone between the always-day and always-night dangerous zones, and it was a lot of a good living surface on a Planet having a nine thousand two hundred thirty-one conventional kilometers radius.
     On top of the Shecca Mountain, the gravity was about 0.8 conventional, since the monstrous mountain actually penetrated the atmosphere with its forty-two thousand five hundred and twenty-six conventional meters peak. Many believed that Shecca was an artificial construction, because it had a huge, flat, spaceship-landing platform on top, though no sustainable evidence was found to support that theory.
     The mountain must have been an enormous city of the Elgams, since it was bored with thousands of geometric corridors leading to huge halls, spacious rooms, and to enormous plazas, most of them still intact. When the powerful Iradina Inter-Systems Consortium came to the Elgam System, they asked for Shecca to build their Work Base. The deal with the Archeologists was to destroy as little as possible of the old constructions, while using at maximum the existing layout.
     In order to accommodate the Work Base, the entire Shecca Mountain had been sealed with energy shields and airtight gates. Lots of accommodations had been built inside for a fast and comfortable transportation, for air ventilation, for communications K-links, and for everything else needed. Many companies and small businesses came to Iradina 41 attracted by the new abundant flow of ECW credits, therefore shops, restaurants, and entertaining places were popping up all over the place like mushrooms after rain, from one day to the other. At high administrative and governmental levels there were hot discussions about transforming the Work Base Iradina 41 into a free-trade City, for the benefit of all ECW citizens.
     Overall, Iradina 41 was not a bad place to live in. Even more, someone could venture there on interesting archeological discoveries, if they had the time and the drive for that—luckily, some did.

     The Fountains had been discovered deep down inside the base of the Shecca Mountain, in a vast circular hall having a domed ceiling. They were the most mysterious artifacts of the Elgam Civilization, particularly because they were still in a good working condition! The Fountains became famous on Iradina 41 and, later, throughout the Equal Coalition Worlds.
     There was absolutely no indication of any hidden technology—at least, as far as the best instruments could detect. The waters of the Fountains proved to be natural spring water containing only an infinitesimal percentage of a strange hydrogen isotope—yet the waters were perfectly safe to drink—plus a few negligible mineral impurities. None of those impurities explained the color of the waters, the exotic taste and the aromas of fresh fruits or strange spices, or any of the euphoric effects.
     Above all, the great mystery was the impossibility to reach the Fountains past a certain point, for most people. Machines, however, did manage to reach all the Fountains and to collect samples of their waters. In time, ordinary people rumors—plus some scientific speculations and a few theoretical hypotheses—formed the Legends of the Fountains . . .

     They said the Fountains were a highly sophisticated system used to measure the degree of intelligence of the beings who tried drinking their waters. The more intelligent, or at least the more capable of intelligence a person was, the further he or she would be allowed to sample the waters. There were speculations saying, the person who was permitted to taste the clear water from the center Fountain—The Great One—would be gifted with all the knowledge of the entire Elgam Civilization!
     Others said that the Fountains differentiated intelligent beings based on their genetic code: the closer was the genetic code to the Elgam people’s, the further into the row of Fountains that person could reach. It was possible, they said, a few Elgams still existed sleeping latently around, or frozen into some sort of a molecular stasis, waiting for someone worthy to bring them back to life . . .
     Well now, legends or not, the Fountains WERE a true real mystery, therefore many Technicians, Maintenance, Archeologists, and Administrative people on Iradina 41 were terribly passionate in solving it.

     The fact that the behavior of the Fountains was totally unpredictable, relative to different intelligent beings, was the very reason they were free for public visits from the first days of their phenomenal discovery. The Archeologists, who were studying the Fountains on a permanent schedule, allowed the public access inside the Hall during the first nighttime quarters. Nice tables and comfortable seats had been brought inside the vast enclosure, and were positioned in a circular distribution around the Fountains.
     The floor of the Hall was a series of five large concentric rings arranged in terraces, from lower in center to higher on extremities. A wide, slow ramp that was coming down to the Fountains, and then it went up again, divided the Hall on its diagonal, while two huge corridors connected the Hall of the Fountains, at each end of the ramp, with the rest of the facilities.
     The Hall was an extraordinary attraction point for everybody. In time, the Work Base Iradina 41 became a particularly nice place to live in, made even excitingly interesting due to the Mystery of the Fountains!
     The main activity on Iradina 41 was harvesting a few prized isotopes which were of a higher density in the Little Squid arm of the Sea of Ash Nebula trapped inside the Elgam System. The strong ionic currents of the Nebula collided with gravitational pits and peaks of the System, therefore amplifying the matter trapping process and creating huge, natural, matter filters and concentrators or, possibly, even transforming slightly the regular structure of the matter.
     As everywhere in the Equal Coalition Worlds, the qualified work force was at its highest premium; still, the payment on Iradina 41 was outstanding. Virgil Bruce Scott had signed a six conventional years contract with the powerful Iradina Inter-Systems Consortium as a Level 12 Technician. He spent in a loading-raid anywhere between one hundred and one hundred eighty conventional days in space—depending on how dangerous the Dalk radiation was—on a tanker spaceship, filtering Nebula’s matter for scarce precious isotopes.
     It was a tough job to handle nightmarish ionic storms, monstrous electrostatic discharges, high-speed rocks, devious pools of plasma or plasma streams and, naturally, the dangerous, hull-penetrating, cosmic radiations. At the end of each loading-raid Bruce enjoyed about ninety conventional days of medical therapy and recovery on Iradina 41, while his tanker was repaired and decontaminated.

     [. . .]



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