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Acid Bath

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The starways' Lone Watcher had expected some odd developments in his singular, nerve-fraught job on the asteroid. But nothing like the weird twenty-one-day liquid test devised by the invading Steel-Blues.

Jon Karyl was bolting in a new baffle plate on the stationary rocket engine. It was a tedious job and took all his concentration. So he wasn't paying too much attention to what was going on in other parts of the little asteroid.

He didn't see the peculiar blue space ship, its rockets throttled down, as it drifted to land only a few hundred yards away from his plastic igloo.

Nor did he see the half-dozen steel-blue creatures slide out of the peculiar vessel's airlock.

It was only as he crawled out of the depths of the rocket power plant that he realized something was wrong.

By then it was almost too late. The six blue figures were only fifty feet away, approaching him at a lope.

Jon Karyl took one look and went bounding over the asteroid's rocky slopes in fifty-foot bounds.

When you're a Lone Watcher, and strangers catch you unawares, you don't stand still. You move fast. It's the Watcher's first rule. Stay alive. An Earthship may depend upon your life.

As he fled, Jon Karyl cursed softly under his breath. The automatic alarm should have shrilled out a warning.

Then he saved as much of his breath as he could as some sort of power wave tore up the rocky sward to his left. He twisted and zig-zagged in his flight, trying to get out of sight of the strangers.

Once hidden from their eyes, he could cut back and head for the underground entrance to the service station.

He glanced back finally.

Two of the steel-blue creatures were jack-rabbiting after him, and rapidly closing the distance.

Jon Karyl unsheathed the stubray pistol at his side, turned the oxygen dial up for greater exertion, increased the gravity pull in his space-suit boots as he neared the ravine he'd been racing for.

The oxygen was just taking hold when he hit the lip of the ravine and began sprinting through its man-high bush-strewn course.

The power ray from behind ripped out great gobs of the sheltering bushes. But running naturally, bent close to the bottom of the ravine, Jon Karyl dodged the bare spots. The oxygen made the tremendous exertion easy for his lungs as he sped down the dim trail, hidden from the two steel-blue stalkers.

He'd eluded them, temporarily at least, Jon Karyl decided when he finally edged off the dim trail and watched for movement along the route behind him.

He stood up, finally, pushed aside the leafy overhang of a bush and looked for landmarks along the edge of the ravine.

He found one, a stubby bush, shaped like a Maltese cross, clinging to the lip of the ravine. The hidden entrance to the service station wasn't far off.

His pistol held ready, he moved quietly on down the ravine until the old water course made an abrupt hairpin turn.

Instead of following around the sharp bend, Jon Karyl moved straight ahead through the overhanging bushes until he came to a dense thicket. Dropping to his hands and knees he worked his way under the edge of the thicket into a hollowed-out space in the center.

There, just ahead of him, was the lock leading into the service station....