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The Andromeda Strain, Page 2

Michael Crichton

Chapter 1


  DAY 1


  1. The Country of Lost Borders

  A man with binoculars. That is how it began: with a man standing by the side of the road, on a crest overlooking a small Arizona town, on a winter night.

  Lieutenant Roger Shawn must have found the binoculars difficult. The metal would be cold, and he would be clumsy in his fir parka and heavy gloves. His breath, hissing out into the moonlit air, would have fogged the lenses. He would be forced to pause to wipe them frequently, using a stubby gloved finger.

  He could not have known the futility of this action. Binoculars were worthless to see into that town and uncover its secrets. He would have been astonished to learn that the men who finally succeeded used instruments a million times more powerful than binoculars.

  There is something sad, foolish, and human in the image of Shawn leading against a boulder, propping his arms on it, and holding the binoculars to his eyes. Though cumbersome, the binoculars would at least feel comfortable and familiar in his hands. It would be one of the last familiar sensations before his death.

  We can imagine, and try to reconstruct, what happened from that point on.

  Lieutenant Shawn swept over the town slowly and methodically. He could see it was not large, just a half-dozen wooden buildings, set out along a single main street. It was very quiet: no lights, no activity, no sound carried by the gentle wind.

  He shifted his attention from the town to the surrounding hills. They were low, dusty, and blunted, with scrubby vegetation and an occasional withered yucca tree crusted in snow. Beyond the hills were more hills, and then the flat expanse of the Mojave Desert, trackless and vast. The Indians called it the Country of Lost Borders.

  Lieutenant Shawn found himself shivering in the wind. It was February, the coldest month, and it was after ten. He walked back up the road toward the Ford Econovan, with the large rotating antenna on top. The motor was idling softly; it was the only sound he could hear. He opened the rear doors and climbed into the back, shutting the doors behind him.

  He was enveloped in deep-red light: a night light, so that he would not be blinded when he stepped outside. In the red light the banks of instruments and electronic equipment glowed greenly.

  Private Lewis Crane, the electronics technician, was there, also wearing a parka. He was hunched over a map, making calculations with occasional reference to the instruments before him.

  Shawn asked Crane if he were certain they had arrived at the place, and Crane confirmed that they had. Both men were tired: they had driven all day from Vandenberg in search of the latest Scoop satellite. Neither knew much about the Scoops, except that they were a series of secret capsules intended to analyze the upper atmosphere and then return. Shawn and Crane had the job of finding the capsules once they had landed.

  In order to facilitate recovery, the satellites were fitted with electronic beepers that began to transmit signals when they came down to an altitude of five miles.

  That was why the van had so much radio-directional equipment. In essence, it was performing its own triangulation. In Any parlance it was known as single-unit triangulation, and it was highly effective, though slow. The procedure was simple enough: the van stopped and fixed its position, recording the strength and direction of the radio beam from the satellite. Once this was done, it would be driven in the most likely direction of the satellite for a distance of twenty miles. Then it would stop and take new coordinates. In this way, a series of triangulation points could be mapped, and the van could proceed to the satellite by a zigzag path, stopping every twenty miles to correct any error. The method was slower than using two vans, but it was safer-- the Army felt that two vans in an area might arouse suspicion.

  For six hours, the van had been closing on the Scoop satellite. Now they were almost there.

  Crane tapped the map with a pencil in a nervous way and announced the name of the town at the foot of the hill: Piedmont, Arizona. Population forty-eight; both men laughed over that, though they were both inwardly concerned. The Vandenberg ESA, or Estimated Site of Arrival, had been twelve miles north of Piedmont. Vandenberg computed this site on the basis of radar observations and 1410 computer trajectory projections. The estimates were not usually wrong by more than a few hundred yards.

  Yet there was no denying the radio-directional equipment, which located the satellite beeper directly in the center of town. Shawn suggested that someone from the town might have seen it coming down-- it would be glowing with the heat-- and might have retrieved it, bringing it into Piedmont.

  This was reasonable, except that a native of Piedmont who happened upon an American satellite fresh from space would have told someone-- reporters, police, NASA, the Army, someone.

  But they had heard nothing.

  Shawn climbed back down from the van, with Crane scrambling after him, shivering as the cold air struck him. Together, the two men looked out over the town.

  It was peaceful, but completely dark. Shawn noticed that the gas station and the motel both had their lights doused. Yet they represented the only gas station and motel for miles.

  And then Shawn noticed the birds.

  In the light of the full moon he could see them, big birds, gliding in slow circles over the buildings, passing like black shadows across the face of the moon. He wondered why he hadn't noticed them before, and asked Crane what he made of them.

  Crane said he didn't make anything of them. As a joke, he added, "Maybe they're buzzards. "

  "That's what they look like, all right," Shawn said.

  Crane laughed nervously, his breath hissing out into the night. " But why should there be buzzards here? They only come when something is dead. "

  Shawn lit a cigarette, cupping his hands around the lighter, protecting the flame from the wind. He said nothing, but looked down at the buildings, the outline of the little town. Then he scanned the town once more with binoculars, but saw no signs of life or movement.

  At length, he lowered the binoculars and dropped his cigarette onto the crisp snow, where it sputtered and died.

  He turned to Crane and said, "We'd better go down and have a look. "

  2. Vandenberg

  THREE HUNDRED MILES AWAY, IN THE LARGE, square, windowless room that served as Mission Control for Project Scoop, Lieutenant Edgar Comroe sat with his feet on his desk and a stack of scientific-journal articles before him. Comroe was serving as control officer for the night; it was a duty he filled once a month, directing the evening operations of the skeleton crew of twelve. Tonight, the crew was monitoring the progress and reports of the van coded Caper One, now making its way across the Arizona desert.

  Comroe disliked this job. The room was gray and lighted with fluorescent lights; the tone was sparsely utilitarian and Comroe found it unpleasant. He never came to Mission Control except during a launch, when the atmosphere was different. Then the room was filled with busy technicians, each at work on a single complex task, each tense with the peculiar cold anticipation that precedes any spacecraft launch.

  But nights were dull. Nothing ever happened at night. Comroe took advantage of the time and used it to catch up on reading. By profession he was a cardiovascular physiologist, with special interest in stresses induced at high-G accelerations.

  Tonight, Comroe was reviewing a journal article titled "Stoichiometrics of Oxygen-Carrying Capacity and Diffusion Gradients with Increased Arterial Gas Tensions. " He found it slow reading, and only moderately interesting. Thus he was willing to be interrupted when the overhead loudspeaker, which carried the voice transmission from the van of Shawn and Crane, clicked on.

  Shawn said, "This is Caper One to Vandal Deca. Caper One to Vandal Deca. Are you reading. Over. "

  Comroe, feeling amused, replied that he was indeed reading.

  "We are about to enter the town of Pied
mont and recover the satellite. "

  "Very good, Caper One. Leave your radio open.

  "Roger. "

  This was a regulation of the recovery technique, as outlined in the Systems Rules Manual of Project Scoop. The SRM was a thick gray paperback that sat at one corner of Comroe's desk, where he could refer to it easily. Comroe knew that conversation between van and base was taped, and later became part of the permanent project file, but he had never understood any good reason for this. In fact, it had always seemed to him a straightforward proposition: the van went out, got the capsule, and came back.

  He shrugged and returned to his paper on gas tensions, only half listening to Shawn's voice as it said, "We are now inside the town. We have just passed a gas station and a motel. All quiet here. There is no sign of life. The signals from the satellite are stronger. There is a church half a block ahead. There are no lights or activity of any kind. "

  Comroe put his journal down. The strained quality of Shawn's voice was unmistakable. Normally Comroe would have been amused at the thought of two grown men made jittery by entering a small, sleepy desert town. But he knew Shawn personally, and he knew that Shawn, whatever other virtues he might have, utterly lacked an imagination. Shawn could fall asleep in a horror movie. He was that kind of man.

  Comroe began to listen.

  Over the crackling static, he heard the rumbling of the van engine. And he heard the two men in the van talking quietly.

  Shawn: "Pretty quiet around here. "

  Crane: "Yes sir. "

  There was a pause.

  Crane:. "Sir?"

  Shawn: "Yes?"

  Crane: "Did you see that?"

  Shawn: "See what?"

  Crane: "Back there, on the sidewalk. It looked like a body. "

  Shawn: "You're imagining things. "

  Another pause, and then Comroe heard the van come to a halt, brakes squealing.

  Shawn: "Judas. "

  Crane: "It's another one, sir.

  Shawn: "Looks dead. "

  Crane: "Shall I--"

  Shawn: "No. Stay in the van. "

  His voice became louder, more formal, as he ran through the call. "This is Caper One to Vandal Deca. Over. "

  Comroe picked up the microphone. "Reading you. What's happened?"

  Shawn, his voice tight, said, "Sir, we see bodies. Lots of them. They appear to be dead. "

  "Are you certain, Caper One?"

  "For pete's sake," Shawn said. "Of course we're certain. "

  Comroe said mildly, "Proceed to the capsule, Caper One. "

  As he did so, he looked around the room. The twelve other men in the skeleton crew were staring at him, their eyes blank, unseeing. They were listening to the transmission.

  The van rumbled to life again.

  Comroe swung his feet off the desk and punched the red "Security" button on his console. That button automatically isolated the Mission Control room. No one would be allowed in or out without Comroe's permission.

  Then he picked up the telephone and said, "Get me Major Manchek. M-A-N-C-H-E-K. This is a stat call. I'll hold. "

  Manchek was the chief duty officer for the month, the man directly responsible for all Scoop activities during February.

  While he waited, he cradled the phone in his shoulder and lit a cigarette. Over the loudspeaker, Shawn could be heard to say, "Do they look dead to you, Crane?"

  Crane: "Yes Sir. Kind of peaceful, but dead. '

  Shawn: "Somehow they don't really look dead. There's something missing. Something funny . . . But they're all over. Must be dozens of them. "

  Crane: "Like they dropped in their trucks. Stumbled and fallen down dead. "

  Shawn: "All over the streets, on the sidewalks . . . "

  Another silence, then Crane: "Sir!"

  Shawn: "Judas. "

  Crane: "You see him? The man in the white robe, walking across the street--"

  Shawn: "I see him. "

  Crane: "He's just stepping over them like--"

  Shawn: "He's coming toward us. "

  Crane: "Sir, look, I think we should get out of here, if you don't mind my--"

  The next sound was a high-pitched scream, and a crunching noise. Transmission ended at this point, and Vandenberg Scoop Mission Control was not able to raise the two men again.

  3. Crisis

  GLADSTONE, UPON HEAIUNG OF THE DEATH OF "Chinese" Gordon in Egypt, was reported to have muttered irritably that his general might have chosen a more propitious time to die: Gordon's death threw the Gladstone government into turmoil and crisis. An aide suggested that the circumstances were unique and unpredictable, to which Gladstone crossly answered: "All crises are the same. "

  He meant political crises, of course. There were no scientific crises in 1885, and indeed none for nearly forty years afterward. Since then there have been eight of major importance; two have received wide publicity. It is interesting that both the publicized crises-- atomic energy and space capability-- have concerned chemistry and physics, not biology.

  This is to be expected. Physics was the first of the natural sciences to become fully modern and highly mathematical. Chemistry followed in the wake of physics, but biology, the retarded child, lagged far behind. Even in the time of Newton and Galileo, men knew more about the moon and other heavenly bodies than they did about their own.

  It was not until the late 1940's that this situation changed. The postwar period ushered in a new era of biologic research, spurred by the discovery of antibiotics. Suddenly there was both enthusiasm and money for biology, and a torrent of discoveries poured forth: tranquilizers, steroid hormones, immunochemistry, the genetic code. By 1953 the first kidney was transplanted and by 1958 the first birthcontrol pills were tested. It was not long before biology was the fastest-growing field in all science; it was doubling its knowledge every ten years. Farsighted researchers talked seriously of changing genes, controlling evolution, regulating the mind-- ideas that had been wild speculation ten years before.

  And yet there had never been a biologic crisis. The Andromeda Strain provided the first.

  According to Lewis Bornheim, a crisis is a situation in which a previously tolerable set of circumstances is suddenly, by the addition of another factor, rendered wholly intolerable. Whether the additional factor is political, economic, or scientific hardly matters: the death of a national hero, the instability of prices, or a technological discovery can all set events in motion. In this sense, Gladstone was right: all crises are the same.

  The noted scholar Alfred Pockrun, in his study of crises (Culture, Crisis and Change), has made several interesting points. First, he observes that every crisis has its beginnings long before the actual onset. Thus Einstein published his theories of relativity in 1905-15, forty years before his work culminated in the end of a war, the start of an age, and the beginnings of a crisis.

  Similarly, in the early twentieth century, American, German, and Russian scientists were all interested in space travel, but only the Germans recognized the military potential of rockets. And after the war, when the German rocket installation at Peenernfinde was cannibalized by the Soviets and Americans, it was only the Russians who made immediate, vigorous moves toward developing space capabilities. The Americans were content to tinker playfully with rockets and ten years later, this resulted in an American scientific crisis involving Sputnik, American education, the ICBM, and the missile gap.

  Pockran also observes that a crisis is compounded of individuals and personalities, which are unique:


  It is as difficult to imagine Alexander at the Rubicon, and Eisenhower at Waterloo, as it is difficult to imagine Darwin writing to Roosevelt about the potential for an atomic bomb. A crisis is made by men, who enter into the crisis with their own prejudices, propensities, and predispositions. A crisi
s is the sum of intuition and blind spots, a blend of facts noted and facts ignored.

  Yet underlying the uniqueness of each crisis is a disturbing sameness. A characteristic of all crises is their predictability, in retrospect. They seem to have a certain inevitability, they seem predestined. This is not true of all crises, but it is true of sufficiently many to make the most hardened historian cynical and misanthropic.


  In the light of Pockran's arguments, it is interesting to consider the background and personalities involved in the Andromeda Strain. At the time of Andromeda, there had never been a crisis of biological science, and the first Americans faced with the facts were not disposed to think in terms of one. Shawn and Crane were capable but not thoughtful men, and Edgar Comroe, the night officer at Vandenberg, though a scientist, was not prepared to consider anything beyond the immediate irritation of a quiet evening ruined by an inexplicable problem.

  According to protocol, Comroe called his superior officer, Major Arthur Manchek, and here the story takes a different turn. For Manchek was both prepared and disposed to consider a crisis of the most major proportions.

  But he was not prepared to acknowledge it.


  Major Manchek, his face still creased with sleep, sat on the edge of Comroe's desk and listened to the replay of the tape from the van.

  When it was finished, he said, "Strangest damned thing I ever heard," and played it over again. While he did so, he carefully filled his pipe with tobacco, lit it, and tamped it down.

  Arthur Manchek was an engineer, a quiet heavyset man plagued by labile hypertension, which threatened to end further promotions as an Army officer. He had been advised on many occasions to lose weight, but had been unable to do so. He was therefore considering abandoning the Army for a career as a scientist in private industry, where people did not care what your weight or blood pressure was.

  Manchek had come to Vandenberg from Wright Patterson in Ohio, where he had been in charge of experiments-- in spacecraft landing methods. His job had been to develop a capsule shape that could touch down with equal safety on either land or sea. Manchek had succeeded in developing three new shapes that were promising; his success led to a promotion and transfer to Vandenberg.

  Here he did administrative work, and hated it. People bored Manchek; the mechanics of manipulation and the vagaries of subordinate personality held no fascination for him. He often wished he were back at the wind tunnels of Wright Patterson.

  Particularly on nights when he was called out of bed by some damn fool problem.

  Tonight he felt irritable, and under stress. His reaction to this was characteristic: he became slow. He moved slowly, he thought slowly, he proceeded with a dull and plodding deliberation. It was the secret of his success. Whenever people around him became excited, Manchek seemed to grow more disinterested, until he appeared about to fall asleep. It was a trick he had for remaining totally objective and clearheaded.

  Now he sighed and puffed on his pipe as the tape spun out for the second time.

  "No communications breakdown, I take it?"

  Comroe shook his head. "We checked all systems at this end. We are still monitoring the frequency. " He turned on the radio, and hissing static filled the room. "You know about the audio screen?"

  "Vaguely," Manchek said, suppressing a yawn. In fact, the audio screen was a system he had developed three years before. In simplest terms, it was a computerized way to find a needle in a haystack-- a machine program that listened to apparently garbled, random sound and picked out certain irregularities. For example, the hubbub of conversation at an embassy cocktail party could be recorded and fed through the computer, which would pick out a single voice and separate it from the rest.

  It had several intelligence applications.

  "Well," Comroe said, "after the transmission ended, we got nothing but the static you hear now. We put it through the audio screen, to see if the computer could pick up a pattern. And we ran it through the oscilloscope in the corner. "

  Across the room, the green face of the scope displayed a jagged dancing white line-- the summated sound of static.

  "Then," Comroe said, "we cut in the computer. Like so. "

  He punched a button on his desk console. The oscilloscope line changed character abruptly. It suddenly became quieter, more regular, with a pattern of beating, thumping impulses.

  "I see," Manchek said. He had, in fact, already identified the pattern and assessed its meaning. His mind was drifting elsewhere, considering other possibilities, wider ramifications.

  "Here's the audio," Comroe said. He pressed another button and the audio version of the signal filled the room. It was a steady mechanical grinding with a repetitive metallic click.

  Manchek nodded. "An engine. With a knock. "

  "Yes sir. We believe the van radio is still broadcasting, and that the engine is still running. That's what we're hearing now, with the static screened away. "

  "All right," Manchek said.

  His pipe went out. He sucked on it for a moment, then lit it again, removed it from his mouth, and plucked a bit of tobacco from his tongue.

  "We need evidence," he said, almost to himself. He was considering categories of evidence, and possible findings, contingencies. . .

  "Evidence of what?" Comroe said.

  Manchek ignored the question. "Have we got a Scavenger on the base?

  "I'm not sure, sir. If we don't, we can get one from Edwards. "

  "Then do it. " Manchek stood up. He had made his decision, and now he felt tired again. An evening of telephone calls faced him, an evening of irritable operators and bad connections and puzzled voices at the other end.

  "We'll want a flyby over that town," he said. "A complete scan. All canisters to come directly. Alert the labs. "

  He also ordered Comroe to bring in the technicians, especially Jaggers. Manchek disliked Jaggers, who was effete and precious. But Manchek also knew that Jaggers was good, and tonight he needed a good man.


  At 11:07 p. m. , Samuel "Gunner" Wilson was moving at 645 miles per hour over the Mojave Desert. Up ahead in the moonlight, he saw the twin lead jets, their afterburners glowing angrily in the night sky. The planes had a heavy, pregnant look: phosphorus bombs were slung beneath the wings and belly.

  Wilson's plane was different, sleek and long and black. It was a Scavenger, one of seven in the world.

  The Scavenger was the operational version of the X-18. It was an intermediate-range reconnaissance jet aircraft fully equipped for day or night intelligence flights. It was fitted with two side-slung 16mm cameras, one for the visible spectrum, and one for low-frequency radiation. In addition it had a center-mount Homans infrared multispex camera as well as the usual electronic and radio-detection gear. All films and plates were, of course, processed automatically in the air, and were ready for viewing as soon as the aircraft returned to base.

  All this technology made the Scavenger almost impossibly sensitive. It could map the outlines of a city in blackout, and could follow the movements of individual trucks and cars at eight thousand feet. It could detect a submarine to a depth of two hundred feet. It could locate harbor mines by wave-motion deformities and it could obtain a precise photograph of a factory from the residual heat of the building four hours after it had shut down.

  So the Scavenger was the ideal instrument to fly over Piedmont, Arizona, in the dead of night.

  Wilson carefully checked his equipment, his hands fluttering over the controls, touching each button and lever, watching the blinking green lights that indicated that all systems were in order.

  His earphones crackled. The lead plane said lazily, "Coming up on the town, Gunner. You see it?"

  He leaned forward in the cramped cockpit. He was low, only five hundred feet above the ground, and for a moment he could
see nothing but a blur of sand, snow, and yucca trees. Then, up ahead, buildings in the moonlight.

  "Roger. I see it. "

  "Okay, Gunner. Give us room. "

  He dropped back, putting half a mile between himself and the other two planes. They were going into the P-square formation, for direct visualization of target by phosphorus flare. Direct visualization was not really necessary; Scavenger could function without it. But Vandenberg seemed insistent that they gather all possible information about the town.

  The lead planes spread, moving wide until they were parallel to the main street of the town.

  "Gunner? Ready to roll?"

  Wilson placed his fingers delicately over the camera buttons. Four fingers: as if playing the piano.

  "Ready. "

  "We're going in now. "

  The two planes swooped low, dipping gracefully toward the town. They were now very wide and seemingly inches above the ground as they began to release the bombs. As each struck the ground, a blazing white-hot sphere went up, bathing the town in an unearthly, glaring light and reflecting off the metal underbellies of the planes.