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«The Wrong Stuff», Warren Murphy и др.

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Destroyer 125: The Wrong Stuff

By Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir

Chapter 1

Life Discovered on Mars!

That blaring headline, seen all around the world, had been one of Clark Beemer's. To this day it remained the public-relations man's personal favorite.

The "meteorite" in which the fossilized bacteria had been discovered was a chunk of ordinary concrete Clark had found at a building demolition site on his way into work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Buffed, shellacked and dusted with an appropriate amount of space-age glitter from a local party-supply store, the rock had looked great for newspapers, networks and magazines. And, most importantly of all, it had gotten the tightwads in Washington to cough up an extra nine hundred million bucks for the United States space agency. Not bad for a piece of rock salvaged from the ruins of an old Piggly-Wiggly.

When the truth was learned-that the only thing trapped in the stone was some Pepsi-Cola from an ancient spill in aisle 7-it no longer mattered. The media machine had long moved on to the next story. NASA quietly pocketed the budget windfall generated by the publicity, Clark Beemer accepted approval from the brass and the PR man moved on to the next project.

Those were heady days. As he thought of that great life-on-Mars scam, Clark couldn't help but wax nostalgic.

Back then his job had been a joy. Twenty bucks worth of supplies with a record-breaking payday. But that was a once-in-a-lifetime score. This time out, Clark wasn't sure he or NASA would be able to capture the public's imagination.

Clark's fleeting nostalgic smile evaporated as he looked at the thing he was supposed to sell. It was a PR nightmare. The image was blurry on the computer monitor.

"What the hell did you make it look like that for?" Clark groused. Sweat beaded on his broad forehead. The heat in the mobile control room was oppressive.

The man before him wore a tense expression. His youthful face was dotted with a scruffy beard. "The extra legs are for balance and coordination," Pete Graham replied, annoyed. "And the redundancy's necessary for hostile climates. If there's a malfunction in one, others take up the slack." Graham was hunched over a control board. The computer terminal buried in the board's face tracked the movements of a bulky silver object as it walked through what looked like a shimmering cave.

The mechanical device moved awkwardly on its eight slender metal legs. When its third right leg stumbled, the surrounding legs supported the object's weight.

The scientists in the room watched the display with guarded enthusiasm. Clark Beemer alone wore a deep frown.

Walking, the machine looked like a baby taking its first uncertain steps. But, unlike a baby, there was no one in his or her right mind who would want to cuddle up to it.

"A spider," Clark growled softly as he studied the fuzzy outline of the device on the screen. His knuckles rested on the console next to Pete Graham's workstation.

"Perfect design for Virgil," Graham said.

"Right," Clark said with thin sarcasm. "I guess a cockroach or a snake would have been too perfect. And what's with that name anyway?"

Graham flexed his fingers over his keyboard. "Virgil was Dante's guide through Hell," he explained absently.

"Who?" Clark asked. When no one answered, the PR man shook his head. "How am I going to sell this thing?" he exhaled, dropping back into a swivel chair. He wiped the sweat from his face with his loose shirttail.

For the past three days Clark had been reminding the scientists that it was his salesmanship that mattered more than this latest Erector Set reject of theirs.

On the flight down from Florida to Mexico and on the chopper ride from the airport to this remote trailer in the shadow of Popocatepetl southeast of Mexico City, Clark Beemer had made his importance abundantly clear. So loud and frequent had been his words on the subject that most everyone had tuned him out by this point.

Clark watched the scientists busy themselves for a long moment. They seemed so focused, so excited. A bunch of geeks playing games. None of them understood how this game was really played now.

"You know," he said, exhaling loudly once more, "this is just like those boring whatchamacallit things they did at NASA back in the sixties. The ones where they put those guys on roman candles and shot them into the sky. But not the sky sky. The dark stuff that's above the sky. Bo-ring." He made a few snoring noises. "Damned if I know how the old Canaveral guys drummed up any interest in that."

Engrossed in his work, Graham didn't bother to explain about the thrill of exploration that had driven everyone at NASA back in those heady days when all of space was new. Not that he had been around to see it. Pete Graham wasn't even born when man first walked on the moon.

His eyes sharp, Graham studied the movements of the probe he had built.

Popocatepetl was in one of its less active phases. Good thing, too. Virgil couldn't have survived inside an erupting volcano. But a completely dormant volcano was useless for their purposes. What they needed was a volcano with a recent active history that was in a down phase. With its constant threats of eruption, "Popo," as the Mexican volcano was commonly known, fit the bill perfectly.

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