On the other side of the fused stone, IT slid back and forth, looking for a way through the obstruction.
After landing on the small world of Th-aah, he was to have collected a suitcase left by the previous agent, Dr. S---, and then report back to the main base. However, when he did arrive, he found the planet completely uninhabited. According to the transmission that he received from Base, the citizens of one of the small outpost towns had discovered and successfully activated some sort of ancient machinery, and, after shipping over 14,000 metric tons of plutonium offworld, had completely disappeared, along with every other sign of civillization on the planet.
Dr. S---, who was passing through the System on his way to one of Entreda's famous parties, had reluctantly agreed to land on the planet and find out what he could. "The motto of the Slarska is to Inspect, Infiltrate, and Interfere!" Several messages had been receieved from Dr. S---, making it definite that he had discovered the device that the townspeople had been using, and was successful in analysing its physical operation. After writing up an analysis of its properties and blueprinting the device itself, he used the heat beam on his ship to destroy all of the evidence of the machine's existence. Because there was no way that he could conceal his blueprints while at Entreda's, he left the documents in a suitcase that he found in the abandoned town.
He put the suitcase in a gargantuan building that seemed to have been some sort of temple once-upon a time. As this temple was easily visible from space, it was supposed to have been be a snap for him to land and retrieve the case. Unfortunately, after taking off from the planet, his ship was caught in a rogue star-storm and, while he fought to regain control, it crashed into a rogue moon, exploding instantly.
This was why Randolph was called in. With the untimely end of Dr. S---, he was the next-closest agent available. It took him three days to travel from his home System to Th-aah in his trusty ship, Blue-Bird. After orbiting the planet for several hours, he spotted the temple, a huge octagonal structure that was almost half of a kilometer wide and rose a quarter of a kilometer from the planet's surface. Landing was the matter of but a few moments.
Randolph had landed his ship at the foot of the colossal structure, and, entering by a small doorway set in the easternmost wall, followed the footprints of the renouned Dr. S--- until he reached a room that was obviously some sort of altar remaining from the lost days of the beings who inhabited the planet (and dis-inhabited it) before it was discovered and colonized by the Federation. The floor of the entire room around where the case was supposed to have been had been swept clean of dust by someone who obviously wanted to cover his tracks.
He therefore paused to look about the room to see if there was some clue as to the direction that the case was taken. The high walls of the room were ornately decorated with inlaid patterns of gold and silver, and the only door was the one by which he had entered in the first place. A small rectalinear block of stone rested in the center of the room protruding slightly above floor level, and above it on the ceiling there was a similar object.
After tapping carefully on all of the walls he concluded that there was no way out of the chamber except by the door that he had entered by. This conclusion puzzled him, because it was obvious from the single pair of footprints that Dr. S--- had entered and left only once. Then the reason for the absence of the case dawned on him.
What if Dr. S--- had not been on the ship that crashed into the rogue moon? What if he had purposefully programmed his ship's autopilot to destroy all the evidence of his existance? With the plans for the Plutonium Converter, he would be able to make himself as powerful as any of the major space powers because he would have a monopoly on the space fueling industry.
Randolph thoughtfully retraced his steps through the corridors of the ancient temple. Just before he reached the exit, however, he heard the distinctive sound of a rocket booster firing. Alarmed that something might be wrong with his ship, he raced through the few remaining passages that seperated him from the outside world. Running at a breakneck pace, he managed to get out of the building just in time to see the far-away flame of a departing ship. HIS ship.
Dr. S--- had concealed himself outside, then waited until he saw Randolph enter the building, and then used his unsurpassed technical skill to break in to the Blue-Bird and take off to parts unknown. Randolph cried out in despair. The Slarska would send a ship to pick him up if he failed to report in, but by then the trail of the Blue-Bird would be completely cold and impossible to trace. There was an answering wail from the dense forests that surrounded the temple, and he shivered as he realized that, although the planet was uninhabited by PEOPLE, there were other things that walked its lands.
With an impulsive movement he leapt back into the relative safety of the temple, then swung the tiled doors closed. Moments later he heard the sounds of something scratching on the other side of the thick stone tiles, and shivered at his near escape. As he sunk down to the floor in a stupor of despair, he thought that he heard an answering sound from the innermost chamber of the temple.
It was probably several hours before Randolph regained consciousness. When he did so, he tried to pull himself together and take stock of the situation intellegently. He checked his pockets. One flashbulb, a chocolate bar, his trusty heat-ray gun, the keys to his spaceship, and a pocket electronic organizing machine. Usually he would have been carrying more, but, having anticipated the heavy load of the suitcase of blueprints, he was only with the contents of his clothes upon landing.
As there was nothing that he could usefully do while stranded on this strange world, he decided to spend the week before help would arrive exploring the deserted chambers of the monolithic construct that he was residing in. However, after wandering around aimlessly for a few hours he became disenamoured of the idea of drifting through the dim and desolate halls, and he slumped down where he stood and closed his eyes.
After many hours of silence, he began to almost imagine that he was hearing a faint buzzing noise coming from somewhere far away and beneath him. However, when he opened his eyes the sound stopped, and after staring into the blackness for a while, he once again drifted off to sleep. .. just as the eminations of the construct changed plutonium into lead, they also worked upon the physiologies of the unfortunate colonists. .. Randolph wakes to find himself held prisoner by the bizarrely mutated populous, who have taken up residence in the caverns beneath the temple. .. After being held for several days, he is suddenly released.