THE FIRE-FIGHTERS-

Dr. Jeremy Stone had been retired from UC-Berkeley for almost seven years, but he had remained the Head of the Crises Team at the "Wildfire" Lab. His tenure there though was due to expire in six months. There had been only one other "biological crises" since the "Andromeda Strain"…an outbreak of the 1918 Spanish flu in a mining town in Alaska in 1977, when someone had disinterred a body frozen in the tundra since the pandemic and the thawed flesh had re-infected the entire town with a variant of the influenza virus yet unseen. In fact, most of the "Wildfire" funding had been cut after that and the facility was in low "standby" mode for over a decade.

So when the Army officer and two aides arrived at his home that night in June, Stone was completely taken aback and twice asked "Are you sure?" to their bland, innocuous statement that "There's a fire, sir." The officer confirmed it and Stone quickly grabbed his coat and made for the door. There was small consolation that this time, unlike the incident in 1970 and 1977, his wife was not there to demand what was happening and when he would be back. She had died of breast cancer eight years earlier.

In the sedan, the liaison officer handed Stone a file. Across it was labeled "Project: Blue—Top Secret". Stone broke the seal and began reading the briefing. Over the years, he had kept abreast of the biological warfare experiments the United States was conducting, almost all in blatant violation of the treaty against them signed with the Soviets. (A treaty influenced on the American side, in some part by the events of "Andromeda").

Stone had developed the same cynical loathing that Ruth Leavitt had for the military and for scientists who aided it in developing biological weapons. After meeting General Starkey in 1987, that cynicism had only grown. The man in charge of "Project: Blue" in the Mohave was an utterly contemptible militarist whose "build me a better bug to destroy the world before the Rooskies build it" attitude mirrored the worst of Leslie Groves and Curtis LeMay. Reading the "Blue" file only reinforced that view in Stone's mind.

The virus itself was simple, but elegant. Basically it had incorporated the standard Asian influenza strains with the newly-discovered HIV strains. "Blue" was airborne and acted upon the infected almost exactly as normal flu strain would. Unfortunately for the victim, the virus was capable of shifting ever so slightly when in the presence of the natural antigens that the body would produce to fight it off. Every time the body produced an antigen, "Blue" would change and continue the disease process. Eventually the virus dominated, lungs drowned in their own mucous and the victim died of both exhaustion and asphyxiation. The chances of immunity were also nearly non-existent. Once released it was the perfect "Doomsday" weapon…for all sides.

The car arrived at the airport and Stone boarded a Gulfstream jet bound for southern Nevada and "Wildfire". He asked for an update on the other team members. The Army officer checked his notebook. "Dr. Hall is on-route from Los Angeles, already in the air," he flipped a page, "Dr. Dutton's replacement, Dr. Newberry is being picked up now from a seminar at Boston University. " He flipped a second and frowned. "Dr. Leavitt is refusing to accompany the detachment until she hears from you personally, Dr. Stone." Jeremy Stone smiled slightly. "Get her on the radio-phone," he said, "I'll talk to her." Seven minutes later, Ruth Leavitt's voice came over Stone's hand-set. "Who is this now?" came a gruff, exasperated voice.

"Ruth, it's Stone." A short sigh. "Dammit, Jeremy…this better be important. I have potential gene therapy for diabetes and I'm not going to leave it behind to go off to that goddamn hole in the ground and …" The Army officer made a worried face to Stone. "Ruth, this line isn't completely secure, so…" "I don't give a damn if your line is 'secure', Stone," she continued, her voice rising, "I've got important work here." Stone gave her a moment to cool down then began, "Ruth…it's bad this time." "It's always bad this time, Jeremy." "No, Ruth….worse than 'Andromeda'." The military man made his face again, but Stone waved him off. "No shit?" Leavitt asked, obviously incredulous. "No shit," Stone replied. Another few seconds of silence passed. "Okay, fine," she said slowly, "But I'm getting way too old to keep playing this game." There was a pause. "Tell your goons I'm coming quietly." Stone smiled. "All right, Ruth, I'll see you in a few hours." And he clicked off the handset.

Unfamiliar with Marsha Newberry, Stone read her biographical file after finishing the updates on "Blue" and how it had "breached containment." Originally from New Orleans, she was a Harvard PhD in medicine with a second doctorate in virology from Princeton. Primarily her focus had been on hemorrhagic fever virii in eastern Africa and had done the first work on the Hanta strain in the United States. A tenured professor at Harvard now, she also advised the US Army Infectious Disease unit as well as the CDC. She was thirty-six and unmarried. A security notice had been placed in her file in 1987 that stated that she was "likely a lesbian." Stone lightly laughed at that, given he knew Ruth Leavitt was homosexual and they had never bothered to note it in her file or worried about her being a "security risk" at "Wildfire.".

An hour and a half later, the Gulfstream touched down in the bare bones airfield, a two mile drive to the entrance to "Wildfire". Stone boarded a Humvee driven by a young man, obviously military, wearing a golf shirt and khaki pants. He said nothing to Stone and they drove silently across the desert landscape.

In the years since "Andromeda" the "cover story" for the above ground portion of the "Wildfire" Laboratory facilities had changed. Originally it was to appear as some "desert agricultural experimentation facility", complete with working alfalfa fields and a tour that any interested visitor could take. A very boring tour that quickly ended whatever slight curiosity they might have had upon discovering the place. Since 1979 though, a new story had been created, one that was guaranteed to keep out all but the most curious, who then themselves would fall under suspicion for being foreign agents, that of a radioactive and toxic waste dump.

As they went onto the turn off the main road, Stone saw the first signs. It indicated the "EnviroCore Hazardous Waste Facility", an innocuous enough sign seemingly of some private waste disposal company. As the Humvee got to the gate surrounding the ground level facility, the scene changed though. Stacks and stacks of lead-encased barrels and low mounds of dirt were seen behind the razor-wire. The old "agricultural station" shack had been replaced with a brooding, pillbox-shaped "main office". Yellow-and-black radiation warning symbols were all over the facility grounds, toxic waste symbols, and signs stating menacingly "Upon ANY exposure, quickly go to the closest decontamination shower." Anyone arriving at the place would get the impression they would be both irradiated and covered in poisonous sludge at any moment…which is exactly what they wanted them to think. Stone knew though…the barrels were completely empty as were the dirt mounds.

The Hummer pulled into the gate and parked beside the "main office." Stone got out and walked up to the door, a decontamination shower was outside it. On a hunch, he pulled the chain and disinfectant-smelling blue water came out of it, just as if it was real. He entered the office. There were three doors leading out of it. Two said "Employees Only", one said "Mr. Jenson's Office." A female secretary in a green coverall was behind the desk, typing onto a computer. The name-plate on the desk said "Mindy Solomon". She looked over and smiled pleasantly. "Yes, can I help you?" Stone smiled back and said his memorized line. "I'm interested in dioxin removal." "Mindy" responded almost robotically, "How many gallons?" "Sixty-four. Imperial." "Any day best for pick-up?" "Only Tuesdays never Fridays," Stone gave the last counter-phrase. "Mindy" nodded and buzzed him through into the "Jensen" room.

The next room was another larger office; it looked like any small businessman's. There were papers strewn on the desk, a family photo of a man, his wife, and teenage son. Leather chair, ashtray, ledgers on a shelf. Stone made a cursory glance at it and then walked over to another door. It was a lavatory, rather large. Reaching under the sink, Jeremy Stone found a rocker switch and flipped it. The entire floor sank beneath him and he watched the bathroom, fixtures, toilet and all rise above him as the floor carried him down an obvious elevator shaft some thirty feet deep.

The hydraulic floor stopped on a hallway and Stone stepped off. He pressed a button on the wall and the floor began to slide back up to the false bathroom. As he walked forward, he saw the familiar handprint scanner had been replaced (as he had been updated it would be two years ago) and a single computer screen was against the left-hand wall beside a sliding metal door. He stood before it. A soft red light hit his right eye…a retina scanner. A red light above the sliding door turned green and the door slid open. He walked into the "Wildfire" Lab's first level.