Firebrand.

Haven’t posted recently. Too many reasons to list here, but one of them involves an April-30 story deadline that I beat by a measly two hours. I would have beat it by more than that, but after writing half a story I realized it was crap and started out with an entirely new plot exploring the same theme. I’d finished a complete first draft of the second iteration before realizing, in the shower last Thursday morning, that it too was crap. Fortunately that same shower yielded a more workable scenario (and thanks to the BUG for input and inspiration so diffusely omnipresent that I can no longer draw a line between the point where my ideas end and hers begin — all I can say is, she happened to be there in the shower when the lightning struck).

This latest iteration is probably shit too.  All I know is that it’s better than what’s gone before. And it begins thusly:

The first case of the day, Dora Skilette had learned, was often a bit tricky.

Here for example was Ryan Fletcher, igniting in front of his whole family while watching an after-dinner episode of Death Row Death Match on his recliner (which had, not atypically in these sorts of cases, survived the blaze relatively undamaged). He had lit up the single Benson-and-Hedges he permitted himself each day, brought it to his lips, and breathed a sudden surprising jet of fire into the room — “just like a dragon!”, as eight-year-old Sheldon Fletcher had put it to the police not twenty minutes later. That gout of flame had backwashed down Fletcher’s GI tract where the estimated two-and-a-half liters of dodecane that had accumulated over the previous three days was sloshing around with the usual mix of bile, methane, and prefecal lumps. The resulting explosion left cauterized bits of intestine stuck to the wall mirror at the end of the hall, a good five meters away.

Fletcher had had no professional connection with the biofuel industry. He had, however — according to the GPS log recovered from his Subaru — passed downwind of a GreenHex facility two weeks earlier, during the time when a gasket had failed on one of their bioreactors. Fortunately, no one would ever make that connection.

Instead, Dora decided, they would blame the Poles.

I have no idea whether this is going to fly.  Still waiting to hear back from MIT.  It’s a tougher gig than you might expect; you’d think that jokes about spontaneous human combustion would almost write themselves.

 

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Tuesday May 01 2012at 04:05 pm , filed under fiblet . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

43 Responses to “Firebrand.”

  1. Sweet. But does MIT publish fiction nowadays? I guess everyone’s diversifying in this economy…

  2. “they would the blame the Poles” should be “they would blame the Poles”, right?

    Also, I think I can see where this is going… where will it be published?

  3. So, he got a stomach full of gengineered, biofuel manufacturing germs, lit up a cig and… fwoosh. :)

    Whether or not this flies with the MIT crowd, I definitively want to see where this goes.

  4. I can be a bit a writing bitch. Maybe take out the world ‘resulting’? It’s not necessary when the description is that vivid and active.

  5. Ha ha ha ha, hot zone redefined, eh ?


    #dodges tomato

    Okay, I’d better be going

  6. Devil in the flesh: I can be a bit a writing bitch. Maybe take out the world ‘resulting’? It’s not necessary when the description is that vivid and active.

    I don’t know, it adds a certain clinical detatchment to the proceeding, as if this isn’t the first time the protagonist has had to deal with exploded Subaru drivers. Informing character, as I see it.

  7. Carlos:
    “they would the blame the Poles” should be “they would blame the Poles”, right?

    Good catch. Fixed. Thanks.

    Also, I think I can see where this is going… where will it be published?

    Don’t know if it will be, yet. MIT Press asked me for something to go into their annual sf antho. Whether they accept it or not, we’ll see.

    Devil in the flesh:
    I can be a bit a writing bitch. Maybe take out the world ‘resulting’? It’s not necessary when the description is that vivid and active.

    Hmmmm. Maybe…

  8. I hope it flies . . . liking the ideas colliding here, for a variety of reasons.

    Vaguely embarassingly I didn’t realize MIT Press *had* a yearly sf antho, and I try to be aware of such things, or did before a slow metaphorical implosion took out a big chunk of my life recently. Intending to search it out, considering that it’s a five minute walk to their bookstore from my office. *facepalm*

    Amused to see that Wikipedia (unreliable source, but whatever) notes that it has ostensibly been considered as a jet fuel surrogate, but with no citation there . . . checked Vera and I see

    Gould, Benjamin D. “Nickel-catalyzed autothermal reforming of jet fuel surrogates: n-Dodecane, tetralin, and their mixture” Journal of Power Sources Vol. 164 Iss. 1 p. 344 – 350 (2007)

    Interesting.

  9. I like the excerpt. That said…


    . That gout of flame had backwashed down Fletcher’s GI tract where the estimated two-and-a-half liters of dodecane that had accumulated over the previous three days was sloshing around with the usual mix of bile, methane, and prefecal lumps. The resulting explosion left cauterized bits of intestine stuck to the wall mirror at the end of the hall, a good five meters away.

    Is intestine an oxygen-rich enviroment? I doubt that. Where would the oxidizer for the explosion come from?

    Even to get a incomplete burn to CO, the dodecane would need more than it’s own weight in pure oxygen.. (one carbon for one oxygen, atomic weights are roughly similar)
    In meatbags, most oxygen is locked up in water.

    The explosion is kind of smallish in your story, but even then, where would all the oxygen come from? Some hundreds of gramms would be needed still.

    Backwash through the intestines is also unlikely. Too cramped, too long, too wet, you’d need to have flammables and oxygen sprinkled liberally through the whole length.

    I’m not an expert on bioreactors, but I’d think the bacteria involved are very likely used not as aerosols, but in some sort of liquid, and would anyway be outcompeted by gut bacteria in the human digestive system.

    They usually are specifically tweaked so they produce fuel, doubt that would translate into better survivability or reproduction rate.

  10. It is shit. (But I say this with love, for I’ve read nigh everything by you over the years, Peter.)

    Probably needs another run through the rewrite grinder or two before it lives up to its potential. Opening line doesn’t grab at all, and not much in there with many hooks. The underlying premise, however, is caustically, darkly, hilariously brilliant, as usual. Biofuel-generating bacteria infecting human population resulting in spontaneous combustion? Brilliant.

    Though even funnier to apply the idea to the proximity of many biofuel plants and farms. Cows self-hamburger-izing. Pigs flying, rocketing off on a flammable, slurry mixture of burning feces and flame.

    Questionable street stands selling questionable meat of questionable levels of hygiene and done-ness resulting in fatal flaming fecal hilarity.

    Native kids turning to Jenkem for their solvent-huffing addictions.

    Weaponized napalm cholera!

    Yeah, this premise has legs. 😀

  11. Y.:
    The explosion is kind of smallish in your story, but even then, where would all the oxygen come from? Some hundreds of gramms would be needed still.

    May I suggest an (other?) bacterial strain producing ammonium nitrate, too … resulting in an ANFO bomb:
    http://scienceblogs.com/moleculeoftheday/2008/09/ammonium_nitrate_bomb_fertiliz.php
    http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/munitions/explosives-anfo.htm

  12. Reminiscent of the case where a proctologist was cauterizing some poor sod’s hemmorhoids when a natural blast of methane ignited on the cauterizing tool and blew an eight-inch hole in the last part of the sod’s colon.

  13. Bahumat:
    It is shit. (But I say this with love, for I’ve read nigh everything by you over the years, Peter.)

    Ouch! Damnation and a play on words. Tough crowd.

  14. Paula:
    Reminiscent of the case where a proctologist was cauterizing some poor sod’s hemmorhoids when a natural blast of methane ignited on the cauterizing tool and blew an eight-inch hole in the last part of the sod’s colon.

    Huh, suddenly I don’t want to light farts on fire. Not that I ever did, mind you, but now I REALLY don’t.

  15. Trust you to make prefecal matter incandescent, first thing in the morning.

  16. It has an interesting absurdist note. Why not have the explosive chemical be made-up? Then no one can second-guess what you want it to do?


  17. Reminiscent of the case where a proctologist was cauterizing some poor sod’s hemmorhoids when a natural blast of methane ignited on the cauterizing tool and blew an eight-inch hole in the last part of the sod’s colon.

    Urban legend?

  18. In other news, Fouchier’s work will be finally published.

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v485/n7396/full/485005a.html

    I think that’s an important victory of the free scientific community over the authoritarian US fearmongers. They can’t be permitted to censor modern science with the help of BS War On Terror FUD; we all know they only want to expand their influence in order to censor inconvenient research (like, oh I don’t know, ACC?).

  19. Or the bugs could be splitting water to 2H2 + O2, thus creating fuel + oxidiser in the correct stoichiometric ratio…

    And getting the energy to do the splitting by feeding on the oxygen-poisoned GI tract anaerobic flora.

    Hmmm…

    Spontaneous human detonation, anyone?

  20. Ian Mackenzie:
    Or the bugs could be splitting water…

    I was going to post something like this:

    2H2 + 1O2 = 2H2O

    (ie

  21. Ian Mackenzie:
    Or the bugs could be splitting water…

    I was going to post something like this under the previous post:

    2H2 + 1O2 = 2H2O

    (ie, 2 + 1 = 2? Impossible!) but this is a much better use for it.

    Looking forward to the finished story.

  22. Or the bugs could be splitting water to 2H2 + O2, thus creating fuel + oxidiser in the correct stoichiometric ratio…

    That’d be dangerous for the facility using these bugs. Fuel by itself is a hazard, fuel mixed evenly with oxidizer…
    It’d only be good for detonating people.

    …. a lone, misanthropic biotech engineer.

  23. Y.: Is intestine an oxygen-rich enviroment? I doubt that. Where would the oxidizer for the explosion come from?
    (snippage)

    Uh, yeah. This is what I get when I try to write satire and forget about facts.

    I’ve kinda reworked that part. Probably still doesn’t work, but at least it addresses the oxygen thing.

    I’m not an expert on bioreactors, but I’d think the bacteria involved are very likely used not as aerosols, but in some sort of liquid, and would anyway be outcompeted by gut bacteria in the human digestive system.

    Oh, these are gut bacteria.

    Bahumat:
    It is shit. (But I say this with love, for I’ve read nigh everything by you over the years, Peter.)

    Tough love is the hardest kind to bear.

    But yes, this has proven to be a slog: first time in a long time that I’ve not only been give a tight deadline and a word limit, but also a specific theme. Since I sent the thing off I went back and rewrote the whole thing yet again. You’ll be pleased to know the first line’s gone, along with pretty much everything after the second scene.

    I can’t vouch that it’s any better. But at least it’s a thousand words shorter.

  24. “pre-fecal lumps”.
    I must use that sometime, somewhere.

  25. Whoever: 2H2 + 1O2 = 2H2O

    (ie, 2 + 1 = 2? Impossible!) but this is a much better use for it.

    It’s chemistry – is it easier to make sense of as 2H2 + O2 = 2(H2O)?

    Y.:
    Or the bugs could be splitting water to 2H2 + O2, thus creating fuel + oxidiser in the correct stoichiometric ratio…

    That’d be dangerous for the facility using these bugs. Fuel by itself is a hazard, fuel mixed evenly with oxidizer…
    It’d only be good for detonating people.

    …. a lone, misanthropic biotech engineer.

    I’m not a bench engineer, but (looks around shiftily)…

    I sort of assumed that the actual bioreactor had carefully spark-free ways of separating the gasses (differential solubility in some sort of recirculated solvent? – the fact that hydrogen gas will try and diffuse out through almost ANYTHING and oxygen won’t? – I’m not sure I’d want to be near an industrial plant where gaseous hydrogen was above a surface/funnel held at about 80 Kelvin where liquid oxygen condenses… )

    Anyway, the handwavium about the original process was purely to do an end-run around the anaerobic conditions in the GI tract 😉

    Now just imagine the results of spraying this bug on your enemies’ pastureland…

    Particularly if one detonation can set off the rest of the herd…

    (evil grin)

  26. Hey… these belly-dwelling critters you’ve got going on… if the science boffins will keep finding holes in your special brand of fire-making… how about if these bacteria simply do something innocuous like tweak the metabolic rate. Or interact with the local flora somehow. Too bad we’re not dealing with viruses instead… would love to see ’em breed with / hijack the resident bacteria so that they also get them fuel-making genes. If people could uhm… ‘eliminate’ fuel on a regular basis, it would turn the entire economy upside down…

    Or maybe just the smaller niche for incontinence pads would be turned upside down.

    Actually… at some point in your story you’ll have to deal with what comes out the other end. If the dude upstairs hadn’t lit a cig, what would’ve happened to the stuff inside him otherwise? “It got to come out,” as someone once said.

  27. Leona:
    Hey… these belly-dwelling critters you’ve got going on… if the science boffins will keep finding holes in your special brand of fire-making… how about if these bacteria simply do something innocuous like tweak the metabolic rate.

    One word for all of them: plasmids. Two more: horizontal transfer.

    Leona: Actually… at some point in your story you’ll have to deal with what comes out the other end.

    Toilet-related incidents outnumbered all other sponcoms combined, not surprisingly; they were common enough to warrant their own acronym on the SR1 (defdet— although despite repeated memos from the Deputy Minister, Great Bowls of Fire continued to serve as an informal synonym even though it didn’t fit into the character field).

  28. Ian Mackenzie: It’s chemistry – is it easier to make sense of as 2H2 + O2= 2(H2O)?

    I’m not a bench engineer, but (looks around shiftily)…

    Instead of “previous post”, I should have typed “previous thread.” It’s a quip about 2+2 always equalling 4, reality, perception, the Universe & everything and how you made better creative use of it than I would have.

    Been a long time since I studied chemical notation and it’s probably changed since then anyway. Sorry for the confusion.

  29. Hey, literally explosive diarrhea 😀 !

    Leet shit !

    Okay, I guess I’m done here.

  30. So out of curiosity, where will the final version of this story be available?

  31. Whoever: Instead of “previous post”, I should have typed “previous thread.” It’s a quip about 2+2 always equalling 4, reality, perception, the Universe & everything and how you made better creative use of it than I would have.

    I think my favourite line from the previous thread was “This is your brain on philosophy”

  32. Urban legend? I found some case reports

  33. Leona:
    “pre-fecal lumps”.
    I must use that sometime, somewhere.

    The name of your new indie band?

    Performance art installation title?

    Wasn’t it already used by Peter in “The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald” during the autopsy scene?

  34. @Y.

    Urban myth — I don’t think so. As the problem is addressed in medical education, it is a rather uncommon complication nowadays.

    http://www.wjgnet.com/1007-9327/13/5295.pdf

    Maybe this had been the above mentioned “poor sod”:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=%22Gastroenterology%22%5BJour%5D+AND+1979%5Bpdat%5D+AND+Bigard+MA%5Bfirst+author%5D&cmd=detailssearch

  35. @Y.

    Urban myth … I don’t think so. As the problem is addressed in medical education, and Mannitol avoided for bowel preparation, it is a rather rare complication nowadays.

    http://www.wjgnet.com/1007-9327/13/5295.pdf

    The first reference maybe had been the “poor sod” …

  36. Ian Mackenzie: It’s chemistry – is it easier to make sense of as 2H2 + O2= 2(H2O)?

    I’m not a bench engineer, but (looks around shiftily)…

    I sort of assumed that the actual bioreactor had carefully spark-free ways of separating the gasses (differential solubility in some sort of recirculated solvent? – the fact that hydrogen gas will try and diffuse out through almost ANYTHING and oxygen won’t? – I’m not sure I’d want to be near an industrial plant where gaseous hydrogen was above a surface/funnel held at about 80 Kelvin where liquid oxygen condenses… )

    Anyway, the handwavium about the original process was purely to do an end-run around the anaerobic conditions in the GI tract

    Now just imagine the results of spraying this bug on your enemies’ pastureland…

    Particularly if one detonation can set off the rest of the herd…

    (evil grin)

    Yep. Actually, I’ve made electrolyzers that produce the gas mix, it is not unstable, if you don’t have sparks it won’t explode. There are commercial oxyhydrogen torches that just produce the gas mix and feed it (through a bubbler and flashback suppressor) into a torch. The explosion itself has average overpressure of 7..10 bars (if done at atmospheric pressure), and typically fails to blow apart a soda bottle. One could keep the reactor at sub atmospheric pressure to reduce the explosive pressure.

  37. Dmytry: Actually, I’ve made electrolyzers that produce the gas mix, it is not unstable, if you don’t have sparks it won’t explode. There are commercial oxyhydrogen torches that just produce the gas mix and feed it (through a bubbler and flashback suppressor) into a torch. The explosion itself has average overpressure of 7..10 bars (if done at atmospheric pressure), and typically fails to blow apart a soda bottle. One could keep the reactor at sub atmospheric pressure to reduce the explosive pressure.

    Judging by Peter Watts’ post on his colonoscopy, the initial pressure could easily be 2-3 times atmospheric pressure – possibly even more 😉

    I freely admit that my idea was too silly to be practicable.

    However, for spontaneous human combustion, a hydrogen/oxygen belch over a lit match/lighter that produces a small shockwave to incapacitate the victim, plus enough heat to melt skin+abdominal fat into clothing (so you get a wicking/candle effect) and, with any luck, you start a human torch that will burn/smoulder for hours if necessary.

    I suppose if you demand a detonation, then your victim could have been walking by an armaments factory and have an intestine full of nitroglycerin ** may produce headaches and heart problems before final result **

    Actually, would the chest compression from CPR provide sufficient adiabatic compression to set off the detonation?

    Even worse, would a constipated strain produce a messier version of Peter Watts’ “Great Bowls of Fire” line?

  38. @Hljóðlegur: would that I HAD an indie band. ***weeps***
    @Peter (re plasmids): NICE 😀 I knew not of such things…

  39. Peter Watts:
    Oh, these are gut bacteria.

    Not any more they are! Lugging around a giant swollen sack of methanogenic enzymes hardly increases your fitness compared to your leaner, more adaptable cousins.

    Give them a few months, and what remnants of their engineering will have been pared down to fit their new and harsher environment, crawling with Clostridium and T cells. Any pretensions towards technological capitalism will have been ground down beneath the boots of mediocrity. Their genes will fit the same niche as their ancestors.

    Assuming, of course, that the niche still exists.

  40. I was told today that we have cracked photosynthesis. Have not confirmed nor looked at who pulled it off, when, etc. nor how the discovery will will be prevented from being implemented in any useful way. I merely know that that is the case based on the recent track record of any and all things useful. Not sure if generating oxygen that way is helpful at all to solving the problem of exploding couch potatoes.

    (It also shows that unless you can crank out books as fast as Stephen King, you can get scooped by real life. I’m not sure what that means.)

  41. Not entirely related nor unrelated, but sounds a bit like “Behemoth” to me … with the proviso that where Behemoth spread like wildfire, this new discovery spreads like… molasses.

    “Ancient life, potentially millions of years old and barely alive, found beneath ocean floor” (Washington Post. Achenbach, Joel. May 17 2012)

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/ancient-life-millions-of-years-old-and-barely-alive-found-beneath-ocean-floor/2012/05/17/gIQA3zIRWU_story.html

    FWIW that fiblet reminds me of an apocryphal tale from junior high about why you should always wear underwear when igniting farts in the guys’ locker room after gym class. 😉 Purportedly if you try this butt naked after eating lots of kielbasa, the flame can blow back up inside and, well, really truly always wear underwear.

  42. Thomas Hardman: FWIW that fiblet reminds me of an apocryphal tale from junior high about why you should always wear underwear when igniting farts in the guys’ locker room after gym class. Purportedly if you try this butt naked after eating lots of kielbasa, the flame can blow back up inside and, well, really truly always wear underwear.

    Oh, Thomas. If a man burns up his butt lighting farts? That is just evolution in action – it’s a good thing.

  43. > oxidizer
    Built right in, that’s how rocket fuel is made.
    https://duckduckgo.com/?q=bacteria+making+rocket+fuel