A military satellite
returns to earth, and a recovery team, in a single van, to avoid
suspicion, is sent out to retrieve the satellite by radio detection.
While on a live radio connection to the military base, the recovery
team dies. A photo surveillance
plane is sent to discover what has happened, and discovers the small
town where the van went through to be obliterated, apparently the
entire population has been killed. The base commander, upon seeing the
film returned by the plane, dials a special tie line number in which a
recording takes his message urging that the Wildfire team be activated
because of a suspected extraterrestrial organism having been brought to
The primary team is a group of five male scientists (in the movie,
Dr. Leavitt is a woman) who would be useful in determining the means to
solve the problem of an extratrestrial biological infestration (a
disease or parasite infecting earth). Dr. Stone has specialized in molecular biology; Dr. Leavitt is a specialist in disease pathology; Dr. Burton has specialized in infection vectors; and Dr. Hall is a surgeon with special interest in biochemistry and pH factors. The fifth member, Dr. Kirke, a specialist in electrolytes, is unable to be called up because he is undergoing surgery for appendicitis.
The team of scientists have to find a cure to this terrible
"disease" that has appeared in a small town in Arizona. They think the
satellite that was designed to find upper-atmosphere microorganisms for
germ warfare crash-landed in the town of Piedmont (New Mexico in the
movie). It brought an organism that kills by clotting blood to powder.
On investigating the town it is discovered that the residents of the
town die in mid-stride or go "quietly nuts" and commit bizarre suicide.
Piedmont's only survivors, the sick, Sterno-addicted,
geriatric Peter Jackson and the always-crying infant, Jamie Ritter, are
about as opposite as two humans can be. "We'll have the answer to this
disease," says one scientist, "when we know why a sixty-nine-year-old
Sterno drinker with a bleeding ulcer is like a perfectly healthy
The man and infant are taken, along with the downed satellite, to the secret "Wildfire" laboratory, in Flatrock, Nevada (the location is stated as being about 60 miles from Las Vegas),
for study. More investigation determines that the causative agent of
the bizarre deaths is a crystal-based extraterrestrial life form that
contains the same elements as life on earth, but lacks DNA, RNA, proteins, and amino acids. It works by directly transforming matter to energy and energy to matter, "like a little reactor."
The life form, codenamed "Andromeda" mutates with each growth making
its properties change. The scientists discover that it only grows
within a narrow range of pH,
from 7.39 to 7.43. This explains why Jackson and Ritter survived. By
the time the scientists notice this, however, Andromeda has mutated
into a form that no longer turns blood to powder. Instead, it degrades
plastic -Ч exactly what the doors and hatches in Wildfire are made out
of. As seal after seal breaks, an automatic mechanism begins a
countdown to the detonation of an atomic device, housed beneath the
complex and designed to destroy (through an 2-million degree
incineration) all traces of diseases before they reach the surface.
However, given its ability to generate matter directly from energy,
Andromeda would only find the bomb a bigger energy source. As Dr. Stone
says to Hall, "When the bomb goes off there'll be a thousand mutations,
Andromeda will spread everywhere, they'll never be rid of it!"
To prevent the explosion, Hall runs through an obstacle course to
shut down the atomic self-destruct device before it detonates. He shuts
down the device with 34 seconds to spare. "Plenty of time. Hardly even
exciting," he says, not realizing that level V, the level that nearly
all the scientists were on, would have completely decompressed to
vacuum at the 30 second mark.
An epilogue to the novel reveals that a manned spacecraft, Andros V,
burned up on re-entry as its polymer-based heat shielding failed. All
spaceflight attempts were discontinued until further notice.