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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
An American space satellite has re-entered the earth's atmosphere and landed off course just outside the town of Piedmont, Arizona. When Army officials arrive to retrieve the satellite, they notice everyone in the town is dead except for an old man. Before the Army investigators can discover the cause, they also die. Since Army surveillance photos show the bodies have died quite recently, Major Mancek believes the deaths are related to the satellite and notifies a top-secret government agency called Project Wildfire.
That same night the army begins rounding up the team of scientists that will make up the Project Wildfire team responsible for investigating the cause of deaths in Piedmont. We learn that the "Scoop" satellite that landed in Piedmont was part of a military mission to develop biological weapons. The satellite may have brought an alien (extra-terrestrial) bacteria back with it, a bacteria that has wiped out the entire town of Piedmont, Arizona.
The next morning, two of the scientists, Stone and Burton, put on protective rubber suits and are lowered from a helicopter into the town of Piedmont. They discover that the satellite at the home of the town doctor, who had opened it and unwittingly unleashed a plague upon the town. Many people in the town appear to have committed suicide the night before. When Burton autopsies their bodies he finds the entire cardio-vascular system has clotted solid. Stone and Burton discover two survivors. They take a baby and an old man back with them in the helicopter. As they leave Piedmont, Stone orders a nuclear strike on the town to prevent the unknown organism from spreading.
Later that morning, Hall and Leavitt arrive in Flatrock, Nevada - the site of the Project Wildfire facility. The site is disguised to look like an agricultural station, but underground lies a massive multi-billion dollar research facility designed to study unknown organisms such as the one brought back on the "Scoop" satellite. The satellite is now located on the bottom level of this five level underground lab. The station is completely isolated from nearby cities and traffic and has a variety of security measures, including a built in nuclear self-destruct mechanism to prevent the bacteria from escaping the research lab. Hall alone can stop the nuclear destruction countdown once it starts by inserting a unique red key around his neck into one of the many substations around the facility. Stone, Burton, Hall, and Leavitt will now spend the next few weeks trying to identify the nature of the alien organism and establishing preventive measures to protect against it.
After enduring an elaborate series of decontamination procedures, the four scientists arrive at the bottom level and begin work. Burton begins autopsying lab animals intentionally exposed to the bacteria, Hall works with the two human survivors found in Piedmont, and Stone and Leavitt begin scanning the satellite itself with microscopic equipment. They find evidence that the organism is growing. Meanwhile, Burton experiments with anti-coagulation drugs on animals and Hall interviews the old man to discover his health history. In the communications room, a printer malfunction prevents the team from being notified when they receive a notice from the outside world (this is long before email and Instant Messenger became commonplace). They are effectively shut-off.
That day, a U.S. Air Force jet crashes outside of Big Head, Utah. An investigation reveals that the pilot had gone off course and flown through the airspace around Piedmont. The cockpit tape records the pilot describing all the "rubber" hoses dissolving shortly after passing Piedmont, causing the plane to crash. Mancek contacts the Wildifire team about the crash, but receives not response, and wonders why he has still not heard from the team after sending a message regarding the failure to drop the bomb on Piedmont.
Back in the lab, Stone informs Hall that not all the corridors on level five have a substation where he can insert his key to stop the countdown. Therefore, it's important for Hall to always remain in an area that has a substation. Later that day, Leavitt wakes up in his room and realizes that the teamís unusual work schedule has caused a flare-up of his epileptic seizures. He decides not to tell anyone, however, because he does not want to risk being removed from the team.
Itís not until the Wildfire team tries to contact the Presidentís scientific representative that they learn the telex printer has not been working properly. They also learn that the bomb has not been dropped and hear about the plane crash. This news gives the team a new sense of urgency to find a cure. Based on his interviews with the old man, Hall is very close to defining the nature of Andromeda when the alarm goes off and a light begins flashing. As he runs down the Hall he see Leavitt convulsing on the floor. The flashing lights have triggered an epileptic seizure. The contamination occurred in the pathology lab, so Burton is now sealed off with the virus while Stone and Hall try to figure out why he isnít dead yet.
Hall eventually realizes that Andromeda depends on a very specific blood pH level to survive, but not before another seal bursts, trapping Stone and Hall in the observation room without a substation. The countdown starts to a nuclear explosion. As they wait, Stone remember that there is a way for someone to climb up through the core to another level, where Hall could insert his key and stop the countdown. As he climbs through the core, Hall is shot with various tranquilizers designed to prevent animals from escaping. With only thirty seconds left, he crawls onto level four inserts his key and hits the button to prevent the nuclear bomb from going off and destroying the facility.
When Hall wakes up in the infirmary, Stone tells him that the Andromeda strain has somehow mutated and now appears to be harmless to humans. The important thing, he says, is that they now understand how the virus works.