Igniting Fire Alive!
It licks without a tongue.
It breathes without lungs.
It devours without teeth.
It rages without a heart.
It cannot be frightened.
Photo from IMDB
These are the reason for writing the novel, Fire Alive! As a kid I wasn’t one of those who saw being a “fireman” as something I wanted to do when I grew up. Having seen Backdraft, I started to take interest in the idea that fire might be a living thing of sorts. I brought this up with one of the students at the college, where I work, and he mentioned that he had been in the wildfire service. He told me that the ideal psychology of a firefighter was one of believing the fire to be a living creature that was out to get you. I also realized that there weren’t that many stories which centered on firefighters.
Originally, I planned to write the story as taking place in the present day, but stopped myself. I’m a science fiction writer! Why not have it happen in the future? Who else has done science fiction firefighting other than Ray Bradbury? His firefighters burned books, so I didn’t think that counted. Fire Alive! takes place in the year 2026. It would allow me to toy with technological ideas, and possibly show how fire departments of the future might update their training.
From there, I endeavored myself to cast a story of how real firefighters handle their job using the metaphor of living fire creatures to convey to other people what the job was like. First, as always with my work, was to get the details right. I set about learning about fire suppression tactics, equipment, culture and procedures around firefighting.
An especially lucky find were the YouTube training videos by Captain Dale G. Pekel of the Wauwatosa Fire Department. Along with being a company officer, Captain Pekel is a certified firefighter instructor. His many videos demonstrate how to handle all manner of emergencies, and he shows how to build training props out of low-cost materials. After watching these, I emailed Captain Pekel explaining what I was writing and entailed some ideas I had. He particularly enjoyed my invention of the Ninth Evolution or “Ninth Circle” to the Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus confidence course, which at present has eight evolutions or tests that every firefighter must overcome.
I then decided on the environs for the novel to be set in, and realized that I should pay tribute to a local fire station not far from home. As such, Fire Alive! centers on Salt Lake City’s Station 8. I called that station and asked if I could interview them and get a sense of the station’s layout. The first time I called was interrupted by an alarm that the department had to respond to, which I describe later. The idea of compartment fires, those being fire incidences in enclosed spaces, seemed the most interesting. Urban/suburban fires were also the reason for choosing Station 8, whose zone of operation overlaps these nicely, giving a wide variety of action scenes. For that, I needed more information about combating fires.
Thus, I found firetactics.com, a webpage created by Paul Grimwood, retired firefighter who worked in New York and London, former Principle Fire Safety Design Engineer and currently serves as a Principle Fire Safety Engineer. His website contains a library of articles, many written by Grimwood himself, regarding various fire emergency situations. I still have the notes I took, when studying the websites articles on compartment fires. The basics seemed simple; that every fire needs fuel, air to oxidize and an ignition source.
However, the world is a bigger lab and things get more complicated when entering the Dragon’s Lair. Grimwood’s descriptions of how to read smoke, establishing tactical ventilation and the mechanics of fire behavior had me thinking firefighters faced an enemy akin to John Carpenter’s The Thing. I learned things that truly creeped me out, such as the concept of “Snake Fires.”
Snake Fires are when the smoke, which is unburned fuel, is so dense that it prevents sufficient air for a fire to burn. A room that’s ablaze might appear to be contained from spreading to other compartments. However, as the main fire is being slain by people on the hose line, a streak of combustion could occur along the ceiling. Lacking enough air to reignite the gas billowing over fire crews’ heads, this sinusoidal line of incineration would slither along at random until entering a new room where ample air exists with enough smoke for a new inferno to be born.
“The Thing” (1982)
Photo from IMDB
This is likened to a scene in The Thing where the creature’s head detaches itself from the body, as the characters attempt to kill it. That this event had a real world parallel instilled into me more respect for what dangers firefighters face on the job. Of course, there’s also room in storytelling to show when things get really bad, and that sometimes people make mistakes.
In my correspondences with Captain Pekel he sent me a video of the National Firefighter Instructors Association. The speaker was Lieutenant Ray McCormack of NYFD’s Ladder 28. Lt. McCormack brought up the four D’s of firefighting: Dirty, Demanding, Difficult and Dangerous, which he said is how it will always be. There’s nothing wrong with today’s firefighter, Lt. McCormack said, however, he did find fault with some of today’s leadership. In detail, he described a steady drip-drip of safety messages that he believed undermined the most critical asset to any firefighting company, public trust. In this, he described the fact that a fire company might be so focused on safety for the firefighter that they fail to prioritize the safety of the people counting on firefighters to be there when needed most.
In place of the Culture of Safety, Lt. McCormack argues strongly for a Culture of Extinguishment. This led me to add a plot element in Fire Alive! where the main character, Captain Duane “Longhand” Longhurst reflects back on McCormack’s words as one of the firefighters who was in the audience that day. In the novel, Captain Longhurst often receives praise for a rescue of fellow firefighters early in his career. However, Longhurst himself always saw that mission as a failure for one unanticipated fact. Civilians, whose presence wasn’t known during Longhurst’s evacuation of other firefighters, had died just minutes prior to a new rescue team discovering their final whereabouts.
This is the memory that both haunts Captain Longhurst and motivates how he works throughout the story. Longhurst’s occasional discarding of safety protocol in order to save civilians earns his fire battalion the name Crazy Eight, but captures the firefighter motto of, Risk a lot to save a lot, risk little to save little and risk nothing to save nothing.
However, that’s ordinary fire with complexities that might elude those of us not baptized by its fiery wrath. For this novel, I set out to learn how an organism based on fire might come to exist. I looked into particle physics to uncover such things as Superfluidity. I postulated that in certain quantum states particles might convey their kinetic energy, which we experience as heat, in only one direction along their axis of spin.
This allowed me to devise a creature composed of particles that hadn’t formed atoms and didn’t have appreciable mass. Because of their quantum states, infinitesimally thin filaments became the composition of the creature’s body. These Superfluid filaments exist at less than a tenth of a degree above Absolute Zero. However, because of their spin-specific heat convection, the fire creatures were enveloped by temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. This spin property also allowed me to craft a way that the creatures could absorb heat from fuel sources as a means of eating.
“Fire Alive!” by John Steiner
The title itself, exclamation point included, I came up with as a new emergency code that firefighters would declare when encountering what I called a S.P.O.T. or Self-Propagating Organized Thermotroph. When firefighters encounter Spots in the novel they would declare, “Fire alive, fire alive, fire alive.” This then informs all other first responders on the scene to change their tactics to suit the infernal creatures.
The stage was set, it seemed. However, I still felt that the spirit of firefighting needed to be defined. In my interview of SLC’s Station 8 firefighters there was great emphasis that I learn about the Knights of Malta and the origins of the Maltese Cross. The Maltese Cross has become the symbol of firefighters everywhere. The Knights of Malta arguably were the world’s first fire rescue professionals. During sieges of the crusades the Knights of Malta encountered a new weapon in the form of naphtha, a moderately combustible liquid that Arabic soldiers employed to defend their fortifications. At that moment knights found their mission changed from one of combat to rescuing their fellows from a fiery fury. This became the inspiration for a couple of scenes in Fire Alive!, one of which is Longhurst’s dream before waking up to the sound of a station alarm.
Equally important to American firefighters was the Irish symbolism that pervades firefighter culture. When Irish immigrants came to America they encountered bigotry that tends to be aimed at every new wave of peoples who choose to become Americans. The shamrock was a code that let Irish know they could find work without discrimination. For the story, I decided to advance this proud history by including Hispanic firefighters facing similar injustices.
A number of other social and political issues entered into the novel, which is something I find myself compelled to do in all my works. Living in Utah, I saw a chance to highlight issues that I believe Utahans need to address as a civic body and as a culture. Furthermore, because I find soldiers’ stories fascinating, I included a second main character who is a veteran of America’s war with Iran. Malcolm O’Connell, who in the story is a probationary firefighter fresh from the academy, was injured in the line of duty in the U.S. Army. His background allowed me to splice political issues into one of the most prevailing themes of science fiction. O’Connell is the beneficiary of technological and genetic enhancement from an Army Medical Corps program code named C.A.R.E. or Combat Augmentation and Recuperative Engineering.
It was my belief that the near-sociopathic urge to destroy the social contract of civilization would lead to a bill that forbids the government from paying for veterans’ healthcare. Forces into a voucher system, veterans become the latest prey by opportunistic private enterprise. This was a fictional legislative test bed that might well become the forerunner to dismantling Medicare and Medicare, despite the fact that the United States had a history of government run healthcare dating back to 1897.
The Army Medical Corps and Pentagon officials realize that outlawing government healthcare for vets would be its own national security crisis. Who would enlist if they knew that any injury meant they would be discarded as if their lives were cheap and disposable? The C.A.R.E. acronym is meant to imply that it’s a weapons program, which both parties are just in love with, but in fact is a clever way to break an unjust law and do right by those who put their lives on the line. I merged two real life Pentagon agendas, the Future Force Warrior Project and the Wounded Warriors Program.
My argument for its justification dates back to the earliest tool-using hominid, that of Homo erectus. The shaped stone that anthropologists call a hand-axe represented to me the first cybernetic augmentation technology. In place of sharp teeth or claws, we used inanimate stone to grant ourselves powers otherwise not bestowed onto us by evolution. Whether it was clothing, crutches, a peg leg, having a hook on the stump from a lost hand or today’s artificial joints and organs; human augmentation was always with us. I proposed through one of my characters that the C.A.R.E. Program was simply the next chapter in human progress. There is potential for misuse and abuse, even the emergence of monstrosities, however, I wanted to show readers how well-meaning justification might lead to such advances that many find abhorrent. It’s why Probationary Firefighter Malcolm O’Connell becomes the second most important character in Fire Alive!
However, he is just on probationary status at Station 8, which brings me back to that fire phone call I made to today’s Station 8. A signature of any fire station is their warped, even morbid sense of humor. I proposed an initiation prank that would befall Malcolm O’Connell on his first day on the job. I mentioned this to the firefighters I interviewed, and they agreed that it seemed like something their brothers would pull on a new guy coming into the station.
Then, their captain described to me the event which interrupted my first attempt to schedule an interview and tour of the station house. The newest firefighter at Station 8 was having his first day on the job. His first call was a Dead On Arrival scene, where the victim had passed away quite some time before anyone thought to call for help. Engine 8’s crews found the victim in a state of rigor mortis. The company captain insisted that the “Probie” [short for probationary firefighter] check for signs of life anyway. The probie described all the sounds of dead tissue straining and creaking, as he forced the mouth open and pressed the tongue down for a clear airway. He then made a plea for the dead woman to not open her eyes, while he put his ear to her mouth in order to look, listen and feel for any sign of breathing. His company got a good chuckle out of his momentary fear of a zombie plague Patient Zero. From their recounting, I realized that I needed to brush up on my firefighter humor. Those guys at Station 8 are way ahead of me in that department.
With all that firefighters face, the culture requires coping skills the likes of which we fiction authors might never contemplate as part of great storytelling. In writing Fire Alive! I wanted to write a novel that firefighters wouldn’t be disappointed in. At the same time this novel is geared toward allowing other untrained civilians like me to get a peek into the world of Old Man Fire and those who dedicate themselves to slaying dragons.
I hope you enjoy reading Fire Alive! as much as I had in writing it.
Fire. The light by we tell our stories and mythic tales. It kept the night at bay for hundreds of thousands of years. It guided humanity’s migrations across the globe, and became mankind’s first weapon of mass destruction.
What if fire developed a mind of its own?
Author John Steiner
About The Author
John Steiner earned his Associate of Biology at Salt Lake Community College, where he is currently working as a tutor in math and chemistry. He exercises an avid interest in history, science, philosophy, mythology, martial arts as well as military tactics and technology.
We’re giving away a free ebook copy of “Tampered Tales” by John Steiner! Winner may choose PDF, HTML, or Kindle format.
“Tampered Tales” by John Steiner
About the book:
Theme I: The Other is a Mirror into Ourselves
The storyteller is an honest liar, for they admit fully to their fiction. However, a tale can be false, yet tell us the truth. For while the adventure speaks of “The Other,” it reflects back upon us what we know to be within ourselves.
Oh, the age of innocence. A time in childhood where you could clap your hands and say “I believe in fairies.”Then one such creature is found, only it’s not a fairy and definitely not from this world. Six year old Jesse and her mother quickly learn that things which appear small, harmless and cute potentially bring with them more than one world’s worth of trouble into the house. The binding ties of any civilization of any planet are that they fiercely protect their young and seek their safe return at all costs.
Red Rover, Red Rover
People of the Earth had only their own eyes through which to see themselves. That all changes when the technological eyes of an alien probe comes to our planet in study of the local inhabitants around the world. What future lays ahead of Homo sapiens depends on streams of sensor data and number crunching of the undetectable and seemingly innocent Red Rover.
Four Days in Backwater
The Great Coyote chase to build the first faster than light vessel over, America’s U.S.S. Roadrunner is the third place design out of four nations. Yet it is first in FTL speed. It is also the first FTLV to discover traces of civilizations in other solar systems. The crew of U.S.S. Roadrunner are in awe of the aliens they meet, and take precautions the best human minds advise. However, the aliens see under privileged wayward yokels needing to be humored and humbled. Here Homo sapiens discovers all their theories of first contact fall flat on bad premises and do nothing but give the employees of Planet Copan’s truck stop a good laugh.
With new technology comes many uses. Some constructive or even lifesaving. Others for great harm and to satiate personal ambitions. Many often end up what hobbyists tinker with in the garage. Others still become the expression of mischief. In Todd’s day hacking long since departed the digital world and entered into the very physical realm of biology. DNA became the new code to write and manipulate. Small Time racing of “mini-mounts” drew talent from all corners to be applied to a myriad of species. All bred to small stature, yet still strong enough to carry a rider heavier than they. Todd also dabbled in “Jacking” with a G of genetic code to wage a harmless war of ridicule against the corporate world. He fit the bill of real bioterrorists all too easy, even if it was clear to the authorities he didn’t do it.
Theme II: In Dreams, Thus Speaks the Universe
When the universe so commands, the story writes the author. Such tales come to us as we sleep, waking us with the urge to reveal what was shown us when our closed eyes rapidly darted from side-to-side.
We think of autism as a rare affliction brought onto few among us. In Mr. Ency’s world nearly everyone, including Ency himself, exhibit the condition. A distant colony finds itself inextricably sinking into the proverbial sands of their desolate desert planet. Being an habitual encyclopedist cursed with such keen attention to absolutely everything around him Mr. Ency can’t help but record all of it. But it’s what lives in the wild dunes between cities that will test him and everyone else aboard one of the great hover ships cruising over burning sands.
Most American Indians have had live in two worlds. Whether they grew up on The Rez or, like Randy Crowfeather, constituted “City Indians.” Believing that service as a Navy Seal prepared Randy for anything, he would discover how wrong he was. When the bodies of mutilated white people show up during one of Randy’s frequent visits with grandfather there came with it a tragic family past to be confronted. It is said that all Indians must, at some point in their lives, make a choice.
All parents hold their children up as being special and destine for great achievements. In Aziz’s time the scale of greatness would span across the entire multiverse. Brought to a school for gifted children, Aziz learns he isn’t the only little boy who can send his mind slide back and forth along the temporal threads of his life. Now he’s to learn how to save humanity from extra-dimensional parasites that unravel the very existence of their hosts throughout all time.
Suppose you lived your life all wrong. Imagine that because of bad decisions or even inadvertent choices prior to death your soul had been condemned to hell. Then what…? A tale of learning coping skills no living spirit would need in order to accept and accommodate an afterlife of deafening horror and blinding pain lasting eternity.
Theme III: Conjure Me A Tale
The act of storytelling is a form of sorcery. The teller casts a spell upon their audience in summoning up tales that never happened, yet impact the reader as if they had lived the adventure.
Just because you’ve studied sorcery for more than fifty years doesn’t make you a sorcerer, Eric’s master, Iccabazzi had said. Were it so easy sorcerers would be everywhere. The power of magic remained an external tool to him. To BE that power and have it within him as the air he breathed Eric needed to face the challenge of the dragon. Only it could make sorcerers of mere mortals. It more often made smoldering ash of those who failed.
We’ve all heard the story of Custer’s Last Stand, and in recent years we learned the more accurate sequence of events as told by Crow scouts working alongside the U.S. Cavalry. Suppose there’s yet more to tell. Most armies pray for divine intervention in battle. With the arrival of a Manitou, a spirit of the Earth, one side will receive that aid in their darkest hour.
Arrows of Winter
Sure, being a diplomat in a feudal age can be tough in any civilization. On an alien arctic world harboring two indigenous species, one avian the other a rather out-of-place serpentine people, the rules of victory and defeat don’t change. The prince whom Ayawa served had to pay tribute to another kingdom who staked victory over his air forces in battle. Part of that tribute would take more than questing for the famed Redsmiths and healers of the serpentine Fshajar. It required that Ayawa learn nobility isn’t only bestowed at hatching, but is also earned though noble acts.
To Drop A Bead
Carl Bohonowicz struggled with more than simply getting people to say his name right. As the police department negotiator he didn’t quite seem suited to the job, and possibly the reassignment was a punishment as well as a leash. Then came the Randal Ivison hostage case. We all wear masks. How much they hide and what they let through are the only true differences.
Theme IV: Too True to be Real, Yet Was Lived
Bride of the Blackbird
On the first day of summer, 2010 a small neurotic songbird wages mono a mono war against an equally dark clad talking ape to defend The Misses and their beloved nest of hatchlings. An absolutely true tale of nature’s comedy in the style of the great humorist himself, James Thurber.