Day 2: Piedmont
5. The Early Hours
Manchek leaves a message saying it is necessary to call up a Wildfire alert. An automatic cable is sent out to those across the nation who need to know. There is a press blackout. A second cable names the five scientists who have been alerted: Jeremy Stone, Peter Leavitt, Charles Barton, Christian Kirke, and Mark Hall.
Jeremy and Alison Stone are holding a part at their home on the campus of Stanford University. At one a.m. two military men arrive and ask to see Dr. Stone. A few moments later, Stone leaves with the men, giving no explanation. His wife makes up an excuse to tell the guests.
In the car, Stone is handed a file called PROJECT SUMMARY; SCOOP, but it is too dark in the car to read. Instead, Stone thinks back to a symposium he attended a few years ago, in which an English biophysicist, J. J. Merrick, had presented a paper about the probability of contact between man and alien life forms. He concluded that the most probable contact would be with a simple rather than complex life form, such as a bacteria or a virus.
Few people took Merrick seriously, but Stone, a professor of bacteriology at Stanford, did. It was Stone who implemented the research that led to Project Wildfire. He wrote a paper arguing that space probes carried with them the possibility that extraterrestrial organisms would contaminate the earth. Stone and a group of other scientists presented a petition to the U.S. president in 1965, in which they proposed that a facility be established that would be able to deal with an alien life form, should it present itself. The aim would be to isolate it, study it and protect earth life from it. Action was swift, and the project was funded by the Defense Department. An isolated, underground lab was constructed in Flatrock, Nevada. It is a circular structure consisting of five floors, and each floor is progressively more sterile than the previous one. It is also equipped with a nuclear device that will completely destroy it in an emergency.
Stone is ushered onto a Boeing 727, where he reads the Scoop report. He learns that Project Scoop aims to collect any organisms that live in the upper atmosphere of the earth. On the surface, it is a purely scientific project, but its real purpose is to discover new biological weapons. The first five Scoop satellites discovered no new organisms; the sixth, which came down near Bombay, India, contained a previously unknown organism that turned out to be benevolent; Scoop VII has just come down in Arizona.
Stone takes a phone call that informs him that the other members of Wildfire have been alerted. Stone thinks about the others: Peter Leavitt, the clinical microbiologist, Charles Burton the pathologist, and Mark Hall the surgeon. Hall was included because he is single, and the planners, for reasons not yet explained, wanted to have one man on the team who was not married. Kirke is ill and will be unable to participate.
The narrative switches to Hall. He is called away from the hospital by Leavitt even though he is about to perform surgery. Hall has never been interested in Wildfire and has not read any of the files. An army car takes the two men to the airport, from where they will fly to Flatrock, Nevada.
Later that morning, at nearly 10 o’clock, Stone and Burton are flown by helicopter to Piedmont. They discuss the situation. Although the bacteria is airborne, they have received no reports of any more deaths. There is no wind, and the nearest town is over a hundred miles away. So the researchers think they may have a little bit of time to figure out what is happening. They wonder what could be the cause of the almost instant death the victims suffered. As the helicopter flies over Piedmont, the pilot drops gas canisters to kill the buzzards that are still clustered over the corpses. Then Stone and Burton, wearing protective suits, are lowered to the ground.
7. “An Unusual Process”
The men stand in the silent street. They wonder why all the dead are outside, since it was a cold night. Many are wearing nightclothes. Many are clutching their chests, but they do not look as if they died in pain. Burton and Stone speculate that they may have died through asphyxiation, but quickly reject that hypothesis. They find Private Crane in the van, who pitched forward and hit the steering wheel, cutting his face. But remarkably, there is little bleeding, and this is true of the other corpses, too. Stone and Burton drive the van, and following the beeping of the satellite they eventually find it at the office of the town doctor, Alan Benedict. Benedict is dead at his desk. The satellite is there and has been opened.
Burton and Stone examine Benedict. They cut the corpse but there is no bleeding, only some red-black material falling from the wound. The blood has clotted solid. Neither men has any idea of what could have caused such a thing.
They search the house and find Benedict’s wife and their teenage son, who appears to have committed suicide by swallowing model-airplane cement and paint thinner. Burton and Stone realize that not everyone died instantly.
They find more bodies; a family sitting around a dinner table, an old woman who hanged herself, leaving a bizarre note. She appears to have gone insane. There are other suicides, including a World War I veteran who shot himself, leaving a strange tape recorded message that suggests he too, went insane.
Next they find a crying baby in a crib. Burton and Stone return to the street with the baby and the satellite. The hovering helicopter comes down and Burton climbs the ladder carrying the baby. But before Stone can follow he turns and sees an old man behind him. The man says his name is Peter Jackson, and he is fearful that Stone will hurt him. He says he is sick with stomach pain, then he vomits, falls and loses consciousness. Burton returns to the ground and helps Stone load the man into the helicopter. They fly off with the capsule and the two survivors.
8. Directive 7-12
Directive 7-12 is a part of the Wildfire Project. It refers to exploding a nuclear weapon at the site where an alien organism has been detected in order to destroy it and prevent its spread. The authority to activate Directive 7-12 lies with the U.S. president. In this case, when the president receives Manchek’s report, he postpones activating Directive 7-12 for up to forty-eight hours. Instead, he orders the National Guard to cordon off Piedmont for a radius of one hundred miles.
On the flight to Flatrock, Hall reads the Top Secret Scoop file, which details the construction of the facility at Flatrock and other details of Project Wildfire. In particular it describes the different stages of sterilization for the five levels of the building. Hall finds that one page, describing the Odd Man Hypothesis, has been officially removed from the file.
10. Stage 1
Hall and Leavitt arrive at midday. As they drive to the secret facility, Hall asks Leavitt about the Odd Man Hypothesis, but Leavitt just says they will talk about it later. They arrive at the building, which also serves as an agricultural station that is developing a strain of corn that can grow in low-moisture soil. Before they take the elevator down to enter the underground part of the building that houses the Wildfire Laboratory, Leavitt takes Hall to a security area, where an official demonstrates the security equipment that protects the installation. In another room there are nine large German shepherd dogs that serve as sentries. They have undergone laryngectomies, which means that when they bark they make no sound.
In another room the men remove their clothes and don one-piece uniforms. As they go down a passageway an alarm sounds because Hall has not removed his watch. Hall turns away from the flashing light and then goes back to remove his watch.
They go to level 1, which includes an immunization process, conducted automatically by high-tech equipment. The automated process confirms Hall’s identity, asks him about the immunizations and infections he has had. Then an “electronic body analyzer,” using mechanical hands, hooks him up for various procedures and tests, including the insertion of an intravenous needle. He receives some booster immunizations.
Hall and Leavitt enter a conference room where Stone and Burton are already present. Stone explains that at the lowest level of the lab is a nuclear device. This is just in case that all five levels of the facility become contaminated. Stone has made it ready for detonation with his key, and his key cannot be removed. When detonation is ordered, there is a three-minute period during which it can be called off but only if Hall uses his key. No one else can do so. Hall is given this crucial role, Stone explains, because of the Odd Man theory. He hands Hall the missing page from the Scoop file that explains the theory. Research showed that single men made more reliable and correct decisions than married men. Therefore the final decision on whether to detonate the atomic weapon rests with Hall, who is single.
Stone and Burton explain to Hall and Leavitt what happened at Piedmont. They mistakenly believe that the town has now been destroyed in accordance with Directive 7-12.
They all start to go through the various levels of sterilization and decontamination procedures, which will take twenty-four hours to complete. At Level II, they go to an airtight room where they remove their clothes and go into a steam room with scented disinfectant. In another room, they take a shower that has more disinfectants. In the next room they are dried by hot air not towels, and then get clothing that resembles surgical uniforms. They rest for a while then undergo more decontamination procedures.
Then they go down to Level III, where they are given a two-hour physical examination. In Level IV, there are immersion baths, ultraviolet and infrared light, ultrasonic vibrations, and an apparatus that flashes a burst of white light that removes the outer skin layers. After another physical, they go to separate rooms to sleep for five hours.
Burton is unable to sleep. He reviews what he knows about how blood clots, but this does not help him to figure out how the bacteria that killed the people in Piedmont works.
Leavitt thinks about the procedures they must go through to understand the alien organism, and how to cure the disease it causes. He worries also that in fighting the bacteria, they might be guilty of killing off an intelligent alien life form.
Crichton makes only rudimentary sketches of his characters, describing their appearance, their basic personality and temperament, and giving a brief history of their careers. He adds little to these descriptions as the novel proceeds, which demonstrates one of the characteristics of the techno-thriller: it is entirely plot-driven. There is no character development. The men are the same at the end of the novel as they are at the beginning.
The scientific mystery the author has developed so far consists of some inexplicable events that a group of scientists must quickly get to the bottom of: they have to find out not only how the alien organism functions and how it kills people in an unusual way, but to figure out why some people died instantly and some did not, and why there were two survivors who appear to have nothing in common with each other—an old man and a two-month old baby. This sets the scene for what follows, which is intended to show how real scientists go about their business under the pressure of fast-moving events.
The Odd Man hypothesis appears to be something Crichton invented. It is based on the notion that men who are married and, presumably, have families, will make less accurate and reliable decisions than single men because they will be more influenced by their emotions, including their attachments to others. Single men, with no attachments of that kind, will make more objective, dispassionate, rational decisions. In truth, no research has ever demonstrated anything like this, but Crichton gives it verisimilitude by his use of what is known as the “false document” literary technique. Authors sometimes use this technique to add to the believability of their story. Crichton does this throughout The Andromeda Strain. He reproduces top secret cable messages in typography that suggests they are actual copies of real documents (chapter 5); he does the same with the computerized “output maps” (chapter 6) and the top secret Scoop file (chapter 9), as well as the fictional research that is used to demonstrate the validity of the Odd Man hypothesis (chapter 10). The Odd Man research is presented with such thoroughness and appearance of validity that the reader really does wonder whether this may in fact be an actual research study. (It is not.)