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
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
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
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
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
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. Slipping
a key out of a leg pouch on the space suit,
he jabbed it into the center of the lock,
opening the lever housing.
He pulled strongly on the lever. With a
hiss of escaping air, the lock swung open.
Jon Karyl darted inside, the door closing
At the end of the long tunnel he stepped
to the televisor which was fixed on the area
surrounding the station.
Jon Karyl saw none of the steel-blue creatures.
But he saw their ship. It squatted
like a smashed-down kid's top, its lock shut
He tuned the televisor to its widest range
and finally spotted one of the Steel-Blues.
He was looking into the stationary rocket
As Karyl watched, a second Steel-Blue
came crawling out of the ship.
The two Steel-Blues moved toward the
center of the televisor range. They're coming
toward the station, Karyl thought grimly.
Karyl examined the two creatures. They
were of the steel-blue color from the crown
of their egg-shaped heads to the tips of
their walking appendages.
They were about the height of Karyl—six
feet. But where he tapered from broad
shoulders to flat hips, they were straight up
and down. They had no legs, just appendages,
many-jointed that stretched and
shrank independent of the other, but keeping
the cylindrical body with its four pairs
of tentacles on a level balance.
Where their eyes would have been was
an elliptical-shaped lens, covering half the
egg-head, with its converging ends curving
around the sides of the head.
Robots! Jon gauged immediately. But
where were their masters?
The Steel-Blues moved out of the range
of the televisor. A minute later Jon heard
a pounding from the station upstairs.
He chuckled. They were like the wolf of
pre-atomic days who huffed and puffed to
blow the house down.
The outer shell of the station was formed
from stelrylite, the toughest metal in the
solar system. With the self-sealing lock of
the same resistant material, a mere pounding
Jon thought he'd have a look-see anyway.
He went up the steel ladder leading to the
station's power plant and the televisor that
could look into every room within the
He heaved a slight sigh when he reached
the power room, for right at his hand were
weapons to blast the ship from the asteroid.
Jon adjusted one televisor to take in the
lock to the station. His teeth suddenly
clamped down on his lower lip.
Those Steel-Blues were pounding holes
into the stelrylite with round-headed metal
clubs. But it was impossible. Stelrylite didn't
break up that easily.
Jon leaped to a row of studs, lining up
the revolving turret which capped the station
so that its thin fin pointed at the
squat ship of the invaders.
Then he went to the atomic cannon's
He pressed first the yellow, then the blue
button. Finally the red one.
The thin fin—the cannon's sight—split in
half as the turret opened and the coiled nose
of the cannon protruded. There was a
soundless flash. Then a sharp crack.
Jon was dumbfounded when he saw the
bolt ricochet off the ship. This was no ship
of the solar system. There was nothing that
could withstand even the slight jolt of power
given by the station cannon on any of the
Sun's worlds. But what was this? A piece of
the ship had changed. A bubble of metal,
like a huge drop of blue wax, dripped off
the vessel and struck the rocket of the
asteroid. It steamed and ran in rivulets.
He pressed the red button again.
Then abruptly he was on the floor of the
power room, his legs strangely cut out from
under him. He tried to move them. They lay
flaccid. His arms seemed all right and tried
to lever himself to an upright position.
Damn it, he seemed as if he were paralyzed
from the waist down. But it couldn't
happen that suddenly.
He turned his head.
A Steel-Blue stood facing him. A forked
tentacle held a square black box.
Jon could read nothing in that metallic
face. He said, voice muffled by the confines
of the plastic helmet, "Who are you?"
"I am"—there was a rising inflection in
the answer—"a Steel-Blue."
There were no lips on the Steel-Blue's
face to move. "That is what I have named
you," Jon Karyl said. "But what are you?"
"A robot," came the immediate answer.
Jon was quite sure then that the Steel-Blue
was telepathic. "Yes," the Steel-Blue answered.
"We talk in the language of the
mind. Come!" he said peremptorily, motioning
with the square black box.
The paralysis left Karyl's legs. He followed
the Steel-Blue, aware that the lens
he'd seen on the creature's face had a
counterpart on the back of the egg-head.
Eyes in the back of his head, Jon thought.
That's quite an innovation. "Thank you,"
There wasn't much fear in Jon Karyl's
mind. Psychiatrists had proved that when he
had applied for this high-paying but man-killing
job as a Lone Watcher on the Solar
He had little fear now, only curiosity.
These Steel-Blues didn't seem inimical.
They could have snuffed out my life very
simply. Perhaps they and Solarians can be
Jon followed him through the sundered
lock of the station. Karyl stopped for a
moment to examine the wreckage of the
lock. It had been punched full of holes as
if it had been some soft cheese instead of a
metal which Earthmen had spent nearly a
"We appreciate your compliment," Steel-Blue
said. "But that metal also is found on
our world. It's probably the softest and most
malleable we have. We were surprised you—earthmen,
is it?—use it as protective
"Why are you in this system?" Jon asked,
hardly expecting an answer.
It came anyway. "For the same reason you
Earthmen are reaching out farther into your
system. We need living room. You have
strategically placed planets for our use. We
will use them."
Jon sighed. For 400 years scientists had
been preaching preparedness as Earth flung
her ships into the reaches of the solar system,
taking the first long step toward the
conquest of space.
There are other races somewhere, they
argued. As strong and smart as man, many
of them so transcending man in mental and
inventive power that we must be prepared to
strike the minute danger shows.
Now here was the answer to the scientists'
warning. Invasion by extra-terrestrials.
"What did you say?" asked Steel-Blue.
"I couldn't understand."
"Just thinking to myself," Jon answered.
It was a welcome surprise. Apparently his
thoughts had to be directed outward, rather
than inward, in order for the Steel-Blues to
He followed the Steel-Blue into the gaping
lock of the invaders' space ship wondering
how he could warn Earth. The Space
Patrol cruiser was due in for refueling at
his service station in 21 days. But by that
time he probably would be mouldering in
the rocky dust of the asteroid.
It was pitch dark within the ship but the
Steel-Blue seemed to have no trouble at all
maneuvering through the maze of corridors.
Jon followed him, attached to one tentacle.
Finally Jon and his guide entered a circular
room, bright with light streaming from
a glass-like, bulging skylight. They apparently
were near topside of the vessel.
A Steel-Blue, more massive than his
guide and with four more pair of tentacles,
including two short ones that grew from the
top of its head, spoke out.
"This is the violator?" Jon's Steel-Blue
"You know the penalty? Carry it out."
"He also is an inhabitant of this system,"
Jon's guide added.
"Examine him first, then give him the
Jon Karyl shrugged as he was led from
the lighted room through more corridors.
If it got too bad he still had the stubray
Anyway, he was curious. He'd taken on
the lonely, nerve-wracking job of service
station attendant just to see what it offered.
Here was a part of it, and it was certainly
"This is the examination room," his
Steel-Blue said, almost contemptuously.
A green effulgence surrounded him.
There was a hiss. Simultaneously, as the
tiny microphone on the outside of his
suit picked up the hiss, he felt a chill go
through his body. Then it seemed as if a
half dozen hands were inside him, examining
his internal organs. His stomach contracted.
He felt a squeeze on his heart. His
There were several more queer motions
inside his body.
Then another Steel-Blue voice said:
"He is a soft-metal creature, made up of
metals that melt at a very low temperature.
He also contains a liquid whose makeup I
cannot ascertain by ray-probe. Bring him
back when the torture is done."
Jon Karyl grinned a trifle wryly. What
kind of torture could this be?
Would it last 21 days? He glanced at the
chronometer on his wrist.
Jon's Steel-Blue led him out of the alien
ship and halted expectantly just outside the
Jon Karyl waited, too. He thought of the
stubray pistol holstered at his hip. Shoot my
way out? It'd be fun while it lasted. But he
toted up the disadvantages.
He either would have to find a hiding
place on the asteroid, and if the Steel-Blues
wanted him bad enough they could tear the
whole place to pieces, or somehow get
aboard the little life ship hidden in the
In that he would be just a sitting duck.
He shrugged off the slight temptation to
use the pistol. He was still curious.
And he was interested in staying alive as
long as possible. There was a remote chance
he might warn the SP ship. Unconsciously,
he glanced toward his belt to see the little
power pack which, if under ideal conditions,
could finger out fifty thousand miles into
If he could somehow stay alive the 21
days he might be able to warn the patrol.
He couldn't do it by attempting to flee, for
his life would be snuffed out immediately.
The Steel-Blue said quietly:
"It might be ironical to let you warn
that SP ship you keep thinking about. But
we know your weapon now. Already our
ship is equipped with a force field designed
especially to deflect your atomic guns."
Jon Karyl covered up his thoughts
quickly. They can delve deeper than the
surface of the mind. Or wasn't I keeping a
leash on my thoughts?
The Steel-Blue chuckled. "You get—absent-minded,
is it?—every once in a
Just then four other Steel-Blues appeared
lugging great sheets of plastic and various
They dumped their loads and began unbundling
Working swiftly, they built a plastic
igloo, smaller than the living room in the
larger service station igloo. They ranged instruments
inside—one of them Jon Karyl
recognized as an air pump from within the
station—and they laid out a pallet.
When they were done Jon saw a miniature
reproduction of the service station, lacking
only the cannon cap and fin, and with clear
plastic walls instead of the opaqueness of the
His Steel-Blue said: "We have reproduced
the atmosphere of your station so that you
be watched while you undergo the torture
under the normal conditions of your life."
"What is this torture?" Jon Karyl asked.
The answer was almost caressing: "It is
a liquid we use to dissolve metals. It causes
joints to harden if even so much as a drop
remains on it long. It eats away the metal,
leaving a scaly residue which crumbles
eventually into dust.
"We will dilute it with a harmless liquid
for you since No. 1 does not wish you to die
"Enter your"—the Steel-Blue hesitated—"mausoleum.
You die in your own atmosphere.
However, we took the liberty of purifying
it. There were dangerous elements in
Jon walked into the little igloo. The
Steel-Blues sealed the lock, fingered dials
and switches on the outside. Jon's space suit
deflated. Pressure was building up in the
He took a sample of the air, found that
it was good, although quite rich in oxygen
compared with what he'd been using in the
service station and in his suit.
With a sigh of relief he took off his helmet
and gulped huge draughts of the air.
He sat down on the pallet and waited
for the torture to begin.
The Steel Blues crowded about the igloo,
staring at him through elliptical eyes.
Apparently, they too, were waiting for the
torture to begin.
Jon thought the excess of oxygen was
making him light-headed.
He stared at a cylinder which was beginning
to sprout tentacles from the circle.
He rubbed his eyes and looked again. An
opening, like the adjustable eye-piece of a
spacescope, was appearing in the center of
A square, glass-like tumbler sat in the
opening disclosed in the four-foot cylinder
that had sprouted tentacles. It contained a
One of the tentacles reached into the
opening and clasped the glass. The opening
closed and the cylinder, propelled by locomotor
appendages, moved toward Jon.
He didn't like the looks of the liquid in
the tumbler. It looked like an acid of some
sort. He raised to his feet.
He unsheathed the stubray gun and prepared
to blast the cylinder.
The cylinder moved so fast Jon felt his
eyes jump in his head. He brought the
stubray gun up—but he was helpless. The
pistol kept on going up. With a deft movement,
one of the tentacles had speared it
from his hand and was holding it out of
Jon kicked at the glass in the cylinder's
hand. But he was too slow. Two tentacles
gripped the kicking leg. Another struck him
in the chest, knocking him to the pallet. The
same tentacle, assisted by a new one,
pinioned his shoulders.
Four tentacles held him supine. The cylinder
lifted a glass-like cap from the tumbler
Lying there helplessly, Jon was remembering
an old fairy tale he'd read as a kid.
Something about a fellow named Socrates
who was given a cup of hemlock to drink.
It was the finis for Socrates. But the old
hero had been nonchalant and calm about
the whole thing.
With a sigh, Jon Karyl, who was curious
unto death, relaxed and said, "All right,
bub, you don't have to force-feed me. I'll
take it like a man."
The cylinder apparently understood him,
for it handed him the tumbler. It even reholstered
his stubray pistol.
Jon brought the glass of liquid under his
nose. The fumes of the liquid were pungent.
It brought tears to his eyes.
He looked at the cylinder, then at the
Steel-Blues crowding around the plastic
igloo. He waved the glass at the audience.
"To Earth, ever triumphant," he toasted.
Then he drained the glass at a gulp.
Its taste was bitter, and he felt hot
prickles jab at his scalp. It was like eating
very hot peppers. His eyes filled with tears.
He coughed as the stuff went down.
But he was still alive, he thought in
amazement. He'd drunk the hemlock and
was still alive.
The reaction set in quickly. He hadn't
known until then how tense he'd been. Now
with the torture ordeal over, he relaxed. He
laid down on the pallet and went to sleep.
There was one lone Steel-Blue watching
him when he rubbed the sleep out of his
eyes and sat up.
He vanished almost instantly. He, or another
like him, returned immediately accompanied
by a half-dozen others, including
the multi-tentacled creature known as No. 1.
"You are alive." The thought registered
amazement. "When you lost consciousness,
we thought you had"—there was a hesitation—"as
you say, died."
"No," Jon Karyl said. "I didn't die. I
was just plain dead-beat so I went to sleep."
The Steel-Blues apparently didn't understand.
"Good it is that you live. The torture
will continue," spoke No. 1 before loping
The cylinder business began again. This
time, Jon drank the bitter liquid slowly, trying
to figure out what it was. It had a
familiar, tantalizing taste but he couldn't
quite put a taste-finger on it.
His belly said he was hungry. He glanced
at his chronometer. Only 20 days left before
the SP ship arrived.
Would this torture—he chuckled—last
until then? But he was growing more and
more conscious that his belly was screaming
for hunger. The liquid had taken the edge
off his thirst.
It was on the fifth day of his torture that
Jon Karyl decided that he was going to get
something to eat or perish in the attempt.
The cylinder sat passively in its niche in
the circle. A dozen Steel-Blues were watching
as Jon put on his helmet and unsheathed
They merely watched as he pressed the
stubray's firing stud. Invisible rays licked
out of the bulbous muzzle of the pistol.
The plastic splintered.
Jon was out of his goldfish bowl and
striding toward his own igloo adjacent to
the service station when a Steel-Blue
"Out of my way," grunted Jon, waving
the stubray. "I'm hungry."
"I'm the first Steel-Blue you met," said
the creature who barred his way. "Go back
to your torture."
"But I'm so hungry I'll chew off one of
your tentacles and eat it without seasoning."
"Eat?" The Steel-Blue sounded puzzled.
"I want to refuel. I've got to have food
to keep my engine going."
Steel-Blue chuckled. "So the hemlock, as
you call it, is beginning to affect you at
last? Back to the torture room."
"Like R-dust," Jon growled. He pressed
the firing stud on the stubray gun. One of
Steel-Blue's tentacles broke off and fell to
the rocky sward.
Steel-Blue jerked out the box he'd used
once before. A tentacle danced over it.
Abruptly Jon found himself standing on
a pinnacle of rock. Steel-Blue had cut a
swath around him 15 feet deep and five feet
"Back to the room," Steel-Blue commanded.
Jon resheathed the stubray pistol,
shrugged non-committally and leaped the
trench. He walked slowly back and reentered
the torture chamber.
The Steel-Blues rapidly repaired the damage
As he watched them, Jon was still curious,
but he was getting mad underneath at
the cold egoism of the Steel-Blues.
By the shimmering clouds of Earth, by
her green fields, and dark forests, he'd
stay alive to warn the SP ship.
Yes, he'd stay alive till then. And send
the story of the Steel-Blues' corrosive acid
to it. Then hundreds of Earth's ships could
equip themselves with spray guns and squirt
citric acid and watch the Steel-Blues fade
It sounded almost silly to Jon Karyl. The
fruit acid of Earth to repel these invaders—it
doesn't sound possible. That couldn't be
Citric acid wasn't the answer, Jon Karyl
discovered a week later.
The Steel-Blue who had captured him in
the power room of the service station came
in to examine him.
"You're still holding out, I see," he observed
after poking Jon in every sensitive
part of his body.
"I'll suggest to No. 1 that we increase
the power of the—ah—hemlock. How do
Between the rich oxygen and the dizziness
of hunger, Jon was a bit delirious. But he
answered honestly enough: "My guts feel as
if they're chewing each other up. My bones
ache. My joints creak. I can't coordinate I'm
"That is the hemlock," Steel-Blue said.
It was when he quaffed the new and
stronger draught that Jon knew that his
hope that it was citric acid was squelched.
The acid taste was weaker which meant
that the citric acid was the diluting liquid.
It was the liquid he couldn't taste beneath
the tang of the citric acid that was the corrosive
On the fourteenth day, Jon was so weak
he didn't feel much like moving around. He
let the cylinder feed him the hemlock.
No. 1 came again to see him, and went
away chuckling, "Decrease the dilution.
This Earthman at last is beginning to
Staying alive had now become a fetish
On the sixteenth day, the Earthman realized
that the Steel-Blues also were waiting
for the SP ship.
The extra-terrestrials had repaired the
blue ship where the service station atomic
ray had struck. And they were doing a little
target practice with plastic bubbles only a
few miles above the asteroid.
When his chronometer clocked off the
beginning of the twenty-first day, Jon received
a tumbler of the hemlock from the
hands of No. 1 himself.
"It is the hemlock," he chuckled, "undiluted.
Drink it and your torture is over.
You will die before your SP ship is destroyed.
"We have played with you long enough.
Today we begin to toy with your SP ship.
Drink up, Earthman, drink to enslavement."
Weak though he was Jon lunged to his
feet, spilling the tumbler of liquid. It ran
cool along the plastic arm of his space suit.
He changed his mind about throwing the
contents on No. 1.
With a smile he set the glass at his lips
and drank. Then he laughed at No. 1.
"The SP ship will turn your ship into
No. 1 swept out, chuckling. "Boast if you
will, Earthman, it's your last chance."
There was an exultation in Jon's heart
that deadened the hunger and washed away
At last he knew what the hemlock was.
He sat on the pallet adjusting the little
power-pack radio. The SP ship should now
be within range of the set. The space patrol
was notorious for its accuracy in keeping to
schedule. Seconds counted like years. They
had to be on the nose, or it meant disaster
He sent out the call letters.
"AX to SP-101 ... AX to SP-101 ... AX
to SP-101 ..."
Three times he sent the call, then began
sending his message, hoping that his signal
was reaching the ship. He couldn't know if
they answered. Though the power pack
could get out a message over a vast distance,
it could not pick up messages even
when backed by an SP ship's power unless
the ship was only a few hundred miles
The power pack was strictly a distress
He didn't know how long he'd been
sending, nor how many times his weary
voice had repeated the short but desperate
He kept watching the heavens and hoping.
Abruptly he knew the SP ship was coming,
for the blue ship of the Steel-Blues was
rising silently from the asteroid.
Up and up it rose, then flames flickered
in a circle about its curious shape. The ship
disappeared, suddenly accelerating.
Jon Karyl strained his eyes.
Finally he looked away from the heavens
to the two Steel-Blues who stood negligently
outside the goldfish bowl.
Once more, Jon used the stubray pistol.
He marched out of the plastic igloo and ran
toward the service station.
He didn't know how weak he was until
he stumbled and fell only a few feet from
The Steel-Blues just watched him.
He crawled on, around the circular pit in
the sward of the asteroid where one Steel-Blue
had shown him the power of his
He'd been crawling through a nightmare
for years when the quiet voice penetrated
his dulled mind.
"Take it easy, Karyl. You're among
He pried open his eyes with his will. He
saw the blue and gold of a space guard's
uniform. He sighed and drifted into unconsciousness.
He was still weak days later when
Capt. Ron Small of SP-101 said,
"Yes, Karyl, it's ironical. They fed you
what they thought was sure death, and it's
the only thing that kept you going long
enough to warn us."
"I was dumb for a long time," Karyl said.
"I thought that it was the acid, almost to
the very last. But when I drank that last
glass, I knew they didn't have a chance.
"They were metal monsters. No wonder
they feared that liquid. It would rust their
joints, short their wiring, and kill them.
No wonder they stared when I kept alive
after drinking enough to completely annihilate
a half-dozen of them.
"But what happened when you met the
The space captain grinned.
"Not much. Our crew was busy creating
a hollow shell filled with water to be shot
out of a rocket tube converted into a projectile
"These Steel-Blues, as you call them, put
traction beams on us and started tugging us
toward the asteroid. We tried a couple of
atomic shots but when they just glanced off,
we gave up.
"They weren't expecting the shell of
water. When it hit that blue ship, you could
almost see it oxidize before your eyes.
"I guess they knew what was wrong right
away. They let go the traction beams and
tried to get away. They forgot about the
force field, so we just poured atomic fire
into the weakening ship. It just melted
Jon Karyl got up from the divan where
he'd been lying. "They thought I was a
metal creature, too. But where do you suppose
they came from?"
The captain shrugged. "Who knows?"
Jon set two glasses on the table.
"Have a drink of the best damn water in
the solar system?" He asked Capt. Small.
"Don't mind if I do."
The water twinkled in the two glasses,
winking as if it knew just what it had
Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
This etext was produced from Planet Stories July 1952. Extensive research did
not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication
was renewed. Minor spelling and typographical errors have been
corrected without note.