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The Andromeda Strain
The Andromeda Strain
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 fur 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 leaning 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 treecrusted 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 Army 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."The Andromeda Strain. Copyright © by Michael Crichton. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.