Day 1: Contact
1. The Country of Lost Borders
After ten o’clock one cold February night, Lieutenant Roger Shawn looks through his binoculars at the tiny town of Piedmont, Arizona, population forty-eight. After surveying the town he goes back to his army Ford van where his colleague, Private Lewis Crane, is poring over a map. They are searching for a returned secret U.S. satellite called Scoop. Shawn and Crane have been following a radio beam from the satellite. The satellite beeper was telling them that the capsule was in the middle of Piedmont.
The town is dark and quiet, but as Shawn looks up he sees a flock of buzzards flying over the buildings. He and Crane are curious, since buzzards feed on dead things. The two men decide to take a closer look.
Three hundred miles away, Vandenberg Air Force Base is Mission Control for Project Scoop. Lieutenant Edgar Comroe is the night officer monitoring the progress of the Ford van, coded Caper One. He receives a report over the loudspeaker from Caper One that they are going into Piedmont to retrieve the satellite. Shawn reports that as they enter the town they see no lights or activity. Then he reports that they are seeing lots of dead bodies. Comroe calls Major Manchek, the chief duty officer, and continues to listen to the report over the loudspeaker. There are dead bodies all over the streets and the sidewalks. Crane then says there is a man in a white robe stepping over the bodies and walking toward them. Next, there is high-pitched scream, and the transmission ends.
The chapter begins with the information that the Andromeda Strain was the first biologic crisis ever. Because there had never been such a crisis before, the first people who had to deal with it, Shawn, Crane, and Comroe, were not really predisposed to recognize it, even when presented with the facts.
Major Arthur Manchek listens to the replay of the tape recording from the van. All they are receiving now is static, but they also hear a grinding sound and conclude the van’s engine is still running. Manchek orders Comroe to get jets to fly over the town and to alert the lab technicians.
Along with two other planes, Samuel “Gunner” Wilson flies Scavenger, his reconnaissance jet aircraft, over Piedmont. They put down a phosphorous flare, and Gunner sees bodies lying all over the place.
Back at a briefing room at Mission Control, Manchek and Comroe are joined by Jaggers, a technician who is expert at interpreting reconnaissance. He looks at the pictures taken by Scavenger. They are infrared films in which anything cold shows up as white and anything warm shows as white. They see fifty white spots, which are the dead bodies, still warm. There is also one much brighter white spot, shown in different places in different pictures, indicating that it is a person who is still alive.
A private delivers a film of the place, which is put into a projector. Wilson then arrives and gives a report as the film rolls. The bodies and the van are clearly visible. The film is then frozen at a single frame, which shows an old man in white robes looking up at the plane. He is clearly alive.
Manchek declares a state of emergency, even though he lacks the authority to do so. He tells Comroe to call General Wheeler and inform him of this fact and also ask him to come to Mission Control immediately.
Manchek reviews what he was told a year ago about Project Wildfire, which was to investigate any extraterrestrial life forms that appeared in American spacecraft that had returned to earth. There is a team of five scientists who do the lab work. Manchek figures out a code that enables him to call out the scientists via a special Defense Department telephone line. The time is just past midnight.
The subgenre that Crichton writes in is the techno-thriller. Indeed, The Andromeda Strain, along with Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, is usually considered to be one of the first books of this kind. Techno-thrillers resemble science fiction and near-future novels, and always include a lot of details about science and technology that are integral to the plot. They also aim to tell an exciting, fast-paced story. The early chapters of The Andromeda Strain clearly establish the genre: there is the “thrill” aspect, with strange and inexplicable mass deaths occurring in a tiny town in Arizona, and the eerie survival of one man; and the “techno” aspect: the elaborate code that Manchek has to use to activate a Wildfire Project alert; the digression about scientific history that begins chapter 3, and all the details about the high-tech equipment used at Vandenberg Air Force Base to find out what is going on.
Crichton also takes the unusual step of mingling fact and fiction in the acknowledgement pages that precede chapter 1. Usually in acknowledgements, the author thanks those who have helped him produce the work. Crichton first lists real people whom he consulted and then immediately afterwards, without indicating that he is switching from fact to fiction, he thanks the “participants in the Wildfire Project and the investigation of the so-called Andromeda Strain.” This is of course a fiction, but Crichton increases the impression that he is recording events that actually happened by mentioning interviews with the participants and stating that he read the transcripts of their debriefing.