Day 3: Wildfire
12. The Conference
Hall is awakened by an automated female voice, and he goes to the cafeteria, where he joins Leavitt. He has a nutrient-filled liquid and a vitamin pill for breakfast, which will sustain him for eighteen hours. They then join Stone and Burton in the conference room, where Stone reports on the work of a biochemist named Rudolph Karp, who claimed in 1961 to have found bacteria in meteorites. These bacteria had no cell nucleus, so he did not know how they reproduced. Two years later, the bacteria were destroyed in a lab explosion. Karp’s work was dismissed by other scientists, but Stone and Leavitt were interested. Leavitt helped to draw up a study for the Wildfire Project that tried to answer the question of where would a bacteria that caused a new disease come from. There are three possibilities. First, from another planet. Second, bacteria that left the surface of the earth eons ago but lodged in the upper atmosphere. If such bacteria were to be brought down to earth by a satellite, humans would have no immunity to it. Third, considered the most likely, would be an earth organism taken into space by a spacecraft, mutating in space, and returning quite different, capable of causing lethal harm.
Stone hands out files containing the records of Scoop VII’s six-day flight, which show that on the second day, it went out of stable orbit. The report shows some kind of system malfunction that led to “orbital instability.” Stone realizes that the satellite might have collided with one of the estimated seventy-five thousand man-made orbiting objects around the earth, including broken-off scraps of metal. He also considers the possibility of a collision with a meteor.
13. Level V
The men descend to Level V. They use a black Norway rat to determine if the bacteria in the recovered Scoop capsule is still active. The rat is placed next to the capsule; it dies almost instantly. The scientists next try a monkey; it too dies within a moment of getting close to the capsule. This tells them that the bacteria is still active.
Hall examines the two survivors, Peter Jackson and the baby. A lab technician explains the computerized tests that have so far been performed on them. For sterilization security, Hall crawls through a tunnel and walks into an inflated plastic suit that effectively cuts him off from everything except the task at hand. He gives the unconscious Jackson a physical examination. Jackson revives for a moment but then slips back into unconsciousness, vomiting blood. Hall concludes that the patient is suffering from gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding, and he orders up four units of blood. Next, Hall examines the infant and finds him to be completely normal.
15. Main Control
Leavitt and Stone sit in the main control room examining the capsule through a remote viewing screen. During the exam they find, using the highest magnification, a tiny fleck of jagged material. It is black with some green areas. For four hours they scan the capsule in different ways. They examine the green spot in minute detail, and as they do so it changes to purple for a fraction of a second and then returns to green. Then it turns purple for a longer period, expands into a circle and turns green again. The organism is growing. They take a culture from it and put it in petri dishes containing growth mediums. They collect hundreds of petri dishes over a period of two hours. The dishes are then subjected to different conditions—heat, light, dark, cold, etc., and left for up to forty-eight hours to see what will happen to them.
Burton is doing some experiments. He puts a live rat in a cage against the corpse of the dead Norway rat, and allows air to pass between the cages. The rat dies, showing that the bacteria uses airborne transmission. He repeats the experiment with another live rat, placing a filter the size of a virus between the two cages. The rat remains alive, showing that whatever kills the rat is bigger than virus. He goes on experimenting until he concludes that the infectious agent is the size of a small cell. It is not a gas or a molecule. He also discovers that the dead rat is not infectious. He concludes from this that the agent is not well adapted to man, because it too dies along with the host. It cannot live for years inside a man, as many earth bacteria do. But he still has no cure for it.
Burton devises another experiment to determine how the organism enters the body. Using a monkey as subject, he determines that the blood first clots in the lungs and then spreads outward. He next tries to discover whether, if clotting could be prevented, would that avert death? Using rats, he finds that a drug that prevents blood-clotting does not preserve the rat for more than a few minutes.
Burton then performs autopsies on the dead Norway rat and the monkey. They both died of coagulation but the tissues were normal. In spite of all his research, Burton still does not know how two people have survived.
Hall reviews the lab results regarding Jackson and the baby. Jackson has been anemic and his tissues are dying. Also, his blood is too acid. Jackson awakes and Hall talks to him about his medical history. Jackson was in the hospital the previous summer because of stomach bleeding. He has had a bleeding ulcer for two years, refuses to alter his diet, and takes aspirin to reduce the pain. Hall knows that aspirin will make the body more acid and also worsen the bleeding. Jackson also takes an alcoholic drink called Sterno, which contains methanol and likely worsens his health. Having got this information, Hall allows his patient to sleep.
18. The Noon Conference
The researchers meet in a conference room. Burton reports on his experiments (described in chapter 16), and Hall reports on Jackson. He does not know whether Jackson’s high acid level, which is made even more prominent because of the methanol in Sterno, helped to protect him from the disease. They still do not know what Jackson and the baby have in common that allowed them to resist the disease.
They go to an isolation chamber and examine the black fleck with the patch of green in the petri dish. They magnify the green patch and speculate about whether it is a single bacteria or a colony. As they watch the green turns purple and breaks into hexagonal shapes. Stone performs some microsurgery (surgery that requires the use of a microscope) on the organism, taking some fragments from it. The green turns purple and gets bigger. The men agree that they need to investigate further.
At his home, Major Manchek is informed by telephone of a training mission crash in Utah. The plane inadvertently went off its flight plan and passed over Piedmont, Arizona. Twenty minutes later, the plane crashed. Manchek wishes that the nuclear device had been dropped on Piedmont, in accordance with Directive 7-12, although he tries to convince himself that the cause of the crash was probably pilot error.
He goes to the site of the crash, where he listens to the transcripts of the pilot’s final transmissions. The pilot says that everything in the cockpit made of rubber is dissolving. Manchek is baffled. At the crash site, he discovers a piece of human bone, clean of flesh. A biochemist informs him that no rubber was used on the plane; instead there was a synthetic plastic newly designed that in some ways resembled human tissue. No problems have been reported regarding its use.
The research continues. Burton works with a spectrometer and other equipment to analyze the black rock and the green organism. In another location, Leavitt examines the organism with the use of an amino-acid analyzer. Amino acids create proteins, and Leavitt speculates about whether life is possible without proteins and enzymes. The Wildfire group has defined life as consisting of energy conversion; living things take in energy, convert it into another form and use it.
Stone prepares a speck of green material for electron microscopy. He thinks they are making progress, and believes they have sufficient time. He mistakenly believes that the nuclear bomb has been dropped on Piedmont, destroying the bacteria and preventing its spread. There is a glitch in the computers that receive communications from outside and no message about the postponement of the atomic blast has reached Stone and his colleagues.
With Burton’s help, Hall familiarizes himself with the procedures to follow in the event of a contamination which would leave him to decide whether to allow or abort the nuclear explosion that would self-destruct the entire facility.
Leavitt has a dream that he thinks may shed light on how the alien organism works but after he wakes and as he dresses he has an unexplained blackout in which ten minutes pass without him knowing anything about it. He is aware that he has a disorder that he has kept secret from Stone and doesn’t want to confess. He hopes he will be all right as long as he does not look at blinking lights. But he has forgotten his dream.
Meanwhile, Stone is frustrated because he cannot remember some detail about the birds at Piedmont that had been gassed. He is tired and his brain just refuses to pull out the information he wants.
21. The Midnight Conference
They meet at midnight. Everyone is tired. Stone sends out a message via a two-way typewriter, asking for a code for the organism they have discovered. They receive a message back assigning the code Andromeda Strain to the organism. Burton and Stone also discover a message that they had not been alerted to, informing them of the postponement of Directive 7-12. Alarmed, Stone talks by phone with the head of the president’s Science Advisory Committee, a man named Robertson. Stone urges him to persuade the president to call a 7-12 as soon as possible. He says he wants to know when the first National Guardsman in the area around Piedmont dies. Hall then notices a news item about the strange death of an Arizona highway patrolman.
The events of day three of the emergency reveal some interesting ideas. The scientists are meticulous in the way they go about their tasks, and like Stone, they work with “infinite patience” (p. 203). They are involved in a trial-and-error process as they seek to discover as much as they can about the alien organism. They acknowledged, even before this emergency came up, the possibility they might be completely unable to understand alien life forms: “It was possible that they might not be able to make the slightest headway, the least beginning, in such an analysis” (p. 202). They are brilliant but they are also fallible, as Crichton points out—Burton fails to conduct an autopsy on the rats that had been given the anticoagulants, for example (chapter 16), although why this is a mistake has not yet been made clear. Stone’s mind gets foggy due to fatigue; Burton has a physical problem that causes him to forget what might have been a brilliant idea.
The planning for Project Wildfire has sought to cover every eventuality, and the technology involved is highly advanced, but there is an irony in the fact that the entire situation might have ended in disaster merely because a bell on a teleprinter did not work properly (chapter 17), thus ensuring that a vital message did not get through to the right people in a timely manner. To bring home the irony of the situation Crichton describes how simple the problem was: “a sliver of paper from the edge of the roll had peeled away and, curling upward, had lodged between the bell and striker, preventing the bell from ringing. . . . Neither machine nor man was able to catch the error” (p. 184).
As the subgenre Crichton is in effect creating, the techno-thriller, demands, there are many details of scientific processes and the workings of computers. Most of it reads as freshly as when it was written in 1969, except that today’s reader, long familiar with the personal computer, is not likely to be as impressed by what the computers in the book can do as the early readers may have been. During the 1960s there was a massive increase in the use of computers and a huge growth in what they were able to do. However, these computers were large and costly, and were owned by corporations and governments. Only specialists had enough knowledge to use them. Widespread use of the personal computer did not begin until the 1980s, following the invention of the microprocessor in the early 1970s. Today’s reader, who is used to Goggle’s ability to search millions of Web pages in a fraction of a second, may not be too awed by passages such as this: “The computer . . . performed the endless and tedious calculations. All this, if done by manual human calculation, would take years, perhaps centuries. But the computer could do it in seconds” (p. 231).