Scimitar of God, by E.S. Strout


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Post January 12, 2010, 10:17:01 AM

Scimitar of God, by E.S. Strout

Interesting story, Gino.

I like the 'revenge' element quite a lot.

That we--even in our fall--manage to strike back at the enemy is a strangely comforting thought.

But once again, the science sucks. No kidding, man. Where do you learn this stuff? When The Stand came out in 1978, Stephen King had people falling over dead in their tracks (initially, anyway) from a virus. I was 18 at the time, and even then I knew this was crap.

A virus just can't work that fast. Look up how they work and then tell me how this could be even conceivable, let alone possible. Is that where you got this? SK, himself, keeps telling people not to learn science from him. When will folks listen?

Make it a toxin, make it a gas, but don't try and say that a virus will kill somebody within minutes of exposure unless you come up with a completly different mechanism for how viruses work.

What I'm trying to say is that though the story line is one of those that can stand the test of time, it is absolutely obviated by the fact that you made the mistake of explaining what the deadly agent was. Only secondary, was the fact that you got it wrong.

It puts your story into the "Green Women of Mars" category. Though this may have worked fine in the 30's, it wouldn't fly now, at all. Why? "Cause we know better."

And to tell you the truth, your story deserves better. It's a very cool take on both terrorism and the individuals who are out on the front lines trying to protect us. . .as opposed to the governments that support them.

It is a testimony to those who give all they have to give in order to man the fine line between 'us' and 'them.' There are heroes out there--whom we will never hear about--and who give their all for us.

And the sad thing--for me--is that you could have written the same story without the silliness of instantly-acting viruses, and it would have done what you wanted it to do.

Next time, feel free to email me your story ideas and I will steer you in a direction that won't cause your story to sound silly to anyone who knows how a virus, or anything else about science, works.

No kidding.

Great story, but you might as well have written it about the Venusians invading earth to steal all the men.

It fell flat.

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Post January 12, 2010, 01:20:43 PM

Thanks for the input, Bill.

I did at first, in fact,, consider a methylphosphate derivative neurotoxin like sarin, deadly as hell but no way to make it self replicating or long lasting.

Also, neurotoxins are not amenable to immunization.

So I was stuck with swine flu. I couldn't visualize my protagonist in a hazmat suit meeting up with the antagonists dressed in similar gear.

The cryogenics bit was suggested by the 2001 flick Final (Denis Leary & Hope Davis).

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Post January 12, 2010, 01:45:40 PM

Ah, but what if the bioagent excretes a toxin?

Consider our old friend the botulinin bacterium. It ain't the bacteria that kill you -- it's the toxin it produces (that eventually paralyzes the muscles you need to breathe, etc.). So let's postulate that the virus replication process produces an extremely lethal neurotoxin as a byproduct, and that in close quarters, even the nanoquantities released by an initial infection would be lethal. If Our Hero has exuded enough of the toxin (and virus-laden air)...

(Okay, I'm not sure that a virus -- a real-world "Replicator" whose only function is to copy itself -- COULD produce a toxin as a byproduct. But it's slightly more plausible than a hyperefficient virus that replicates fast enough to be directly lethal in minutes... I think.)
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Post January 12, 2010, 01:48:10 PM

gino_ss wrote:Thanks for the input, Bill.

I did at first, in fact,, consider a methylphosphate derivative neurotoxin like sarin, deadly as hell but no way to make it self replicating or long lasting.

Also, neurotoxins are not amenable to immunization.


gino.


Just off the top of my head.

Genetically modified probiotic organisms which--after a few generations--produce both neurotoxins (or even hemotoxins) along with the antidote?

That way, you could give yourself the shot, you'd kill everyone around you and though you would evetually die, it would take a while because the same generations that are producing the toxin also produce the antidote.

Evetunally, the bad would overwhelm the good, but it would work.

That way, the bad guy could have done the virus (a more sensible virus) but our hero could have injected himself with something that would have killed everyone around him but he would have lived long enough to see their death throes.

Same story, the science works, and we still see the last efforts of one of our front line folks who know that even though we lost, we at least took our killer with us.

Isn't that the story?

In all honesty, he could have been rigged with a really powerful explosive vest and done the same thing. It's not like he spread a new plague to all the bad guys who were coming in to 'mop up' the few survivors in America. Why even use a disease, at all? From what I can tell from the story, his true brilliance was to draw the bad guy to him. Why not just bury a really big bomb and push the button once he had his little talk? He somehow knew when and where the guy would be, five years down the road.

As I said, something off the top of my head. Maybe with some research I could come up with something a little more flashy.

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Post January 12, 2010, 01:53:11 PM

Re: Ah, but what if the bioagent excretes a toxin?

Robert_Moriyama wrote:Consider our old friend the botulinin bacterium. It ain't the bacteria that kill you -- it's the toxin it produces (that eventually paralyzes the muscles you need to breathe, etc.). So let's postulate that the virus replication process produces an extremely lethal neurotoxin as a byproduct, and that in close quarters, even the nanoquantities released by an initial infection would be lethal. If Our Hero has exuded enough of the toxin (and virus-laden air)...

(Okay, I'm not sure that a virus -- a real-world "Replicator" whose only function is to copy itself -- COULD produce a toxin as a byproduct. But it's slightly more plausible than a hyperefficient virus that replicates fast enough to be directly lethal in minutes... I think.)


Sorry Robert. As you know (from what you wrote) whether we're talking virus or prion, all they can do is replicate themselves inside a cell and then go and do the same thing once the cell is chalk-full and ruptures.

There are no byproducts, they don't create 'waste' of any kind, including respiration.

That's why just calling it a virus makes the whole scenario impossible.

If it did any of that other stuff, it would have to be something else.

But nice try.

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Post January 12, 2010, 07:27:18 PM

I don't think a major league explosive-filled vest would solve the problem.

Okay, it does get rid of a bunch of bad guys with their leader, but Scimitar is probably like Al Qaeda or the nine-headed Hydra of Greek mythology. Chop off one head and another grows to take its place.

Secondly, our hero is a Washington bureaucrat, not a Ranger or SEAL. His expertise would probably not include constructing explosive devices.

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Post January 12, 2010, 07:37:20 PM

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This was an excellent story. I liked it.

This one will be on my mind for a long while.

Thanks.

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Post January 13, 2010, 08:45:10 AM

gino_ss wrote:I don't think a major league explosive-filled vest would solve the problem.

gino


Gino,

From what I can tell, all our hero did was to kill everybody who showed-up. It's not like some of them got away to spread the disease to the rest of their cadre. Now that, would have been cool.

He had five years to do this, why not just mine the field where they landed and kill everyone in a five-hectare area? Same results, and though it's not the Just Desserts that your solution was, it gets the job done.

Let's face it, he's an immune in a dying/dead America. Supplies ain't a problem. And though he's aging, it's still better than the wheelchair-bound, half paralyzed opponent he evetually became.

Just thoughts about the plot, but the fact that you wrote an impossible virus to make the story work hurts it more than an inelegant--but possible--solution would.

Take it for what it's worth.

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Post January 13, 2010, 12:34:35 PM

Bill,

Remember, out protagonist is a 22-year Pemtagon bureaucrat. It's unlikely he would have had any explosive ordnance training, let alone find fifty or so land mines at an army base specializing in biological warfare agents. And his being paraplegic would pose some problems in planting mines.

The final confrontation between Eli and the Blade of Justice is still the most powerful ending.

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Post January 14, 2010, 09:40:32 AM

gino_ss wrote:Bill,

Remember, out protagonist is a 22-year Pemtagon bureaucrat. It's unlikely he would have had any explosive ordnance training, let alone find fifty or so land mines at an army base specializing in biological warfare agents. And his being paraplegic would pose some problems in planting mines.

The final confrontation between Eli and the Blade of Justice is still the most powerful ending.

gino


Gino,

Your points are all valid. But for five freaking years, I'd rather take the chance that I could find what I need to kill everybody in a few hectare area than to take the chance that a single syringe (stored for five years) would do what I wanted.

Not to mention the odds being that I would be either a paraplegic (which is what happened), quadriplegic or a Republican (IQ 50-60, what else would you call him?) after the cryo freeze.

It's not like it's 20 or 40 years.

Point being, your solution only killed everybody in the vicinity. We can do that without crippling ourselves in the process. In five years, I can learn how to do just about anything. And so could Eli. . .the way you wrote him.

I'm not second-guessing your story as much as pointing-out that the character you wrote should have known better. It's a consistency thing that too many amateur writers fail to consider.

If you write a smart character, he has to do smart things or the story suffers. If you need him to do something silly, in order to tell the tale you want to tell. . .then just write him that way.

"Harry Potter would never do such a thing!" is one of the downsides of writing good characters. You can make them do what you want, but people--and I mean readers--will notice if you don't maintain some internal consistency.

That's the point to all of this, isn't it?

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Post January 14, 2010, 05:19:05 PM

Bill,

Recall that Eli was in deep freeze for five years. After thawing out, he had only a couple of months to await The Blade and accomplish his preplanned demise.

If the new super (impossible) virus retained the characteristics of its ancestors, wouldn't it have replicated and spread world-wide in short order, thereby eliminating the rest of Scimitar's thousands?

Being a follower of the Libertarian flag, I believe that Republicans and Democrats alike share equally low (60 or less) IQ's

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Post January 14, 2010, 05:27:24 PM

Depends... (no, not the adult diapers)

If the superbug had mostly wiped out the human race, including the Scimatarians, it might have died out or gone dormant after a time. Virus particles can survive on different (non-living) surfaces for varying amounts of time, depending on the virus and the conditions. There might not have been any live virus particles left in Eli's 'bunker' until he uncorked the new hybrid.

'Scuze me, I have to go dig up my copy of "The Hot Zone" to help me deal with questions about viruses jumping between species (sometimes more than once -- viz. avian and swine flus and Ebola and related hemorrhagic viruses, thought to have been confined to apes and monkeys before adapting to humans)...
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Post January 15, 2010, 08:35:56 AM

gino_ss wrote:Bill,

Recall that Eli was in deep freeze for five years. After thawing out, he had only a couple of months to await The Blade and accomplish his preplanned demise.

If the new super (impossible) virus retained the characteristics of its ancestors, wouldn't it have replicated and spread world-wide in short order, thereby eliminating the rest of Scimitar's thousands?


I do recall, and that's the point. He was only 44 and in reasonable health. Freezing himself for five years was really dumb--with the odds of success being what they were. But Eli wasn't dumb, at all. Therefore the inconsistency.

Don't forget, I'm just trying to show weak spots in the plot that 'took me out of the story.' My other point is that none of these weak spots did anything to enhance the story, with the possible exception of the hitting Blade with an upgraded version of his own bug. That was cool.

And no, just infecting yourself with a virus outdoors won't spread it around the world. Viruses need a host to survive unless they are specially prepared and stored. In the 'wild', they are dead in a matter of days, if not hours. So all Eli did was to kill everyone who showed up.

The whole 'unmarked' U-2 scenario is another plot problem with the story. U-2's don't have to be marked, they are all US property, including the one NASA has.

Why a U-2? It's not like you can buy them on the 'slightly used' market. The technology is still mostly classified, you can't just buy parts at the local AutoZone, and when those planes are scrapped, they are scrapped. They are also notoriously difficult to fly and very few folks could just 'figure it out.' A decent weather balloon with a remote self-destruct charge (or even a steady 'spray' of weaponized virus) would do the same thing. I wouldn't be surprised if it would cost a hundred billion dollars to steal, ready, and somehow fly a U-2.

Plus, a virus let loose in the jet stream would die or stay up there till the UV killed them all. It had to be weaponized, somehow. It's not the same physical matrix as someone sneezing on you. The release only infected the first folks. It was spread person-to-person, after that. It's how viruses work.

Most of these inconsistencies come from the 'quick kill' aspect of the infection. If it had a two-day incubation period (very fast, for a virus), it would have been cheaper and easier to get 20 vials into the 20 largest international airports of the world and just let them loose.

All these quibbles are simply an effort to demonstrate that as authors, we owe our readers a smooth ride through our story and that it's worth the effort to make it seem as possible and probable as we can. It's part of the craft.

'Nuff said?

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Post January 15, 2010, 02:15:04 PM

Bill.

I thought it was cool to have the U-2 (or other jet aircraft of you choice) be destroyed by Russian jet fighters with air-to-air missiles. A better opening paragraph grabber than a balloon blowing up, to my way of thinking.

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Post January 15, 2010, 03:51:16 PM

From the Wikipedia article on "Virus":

...Effects on the host cell
The range of structural and biochemical effects that viruses have on the host cell is extensive.[89] These are called cytopathic effects.[90] Most virus infections eventually result in the death of the host cell. The causes of death include cell lysis, alterations to the cell's surface membrane and apoptosis.[91] Often cell death is caused by cessation of its normal activities because of suppression by virus-specific proteins, not all of which are components of the virus particle.[92]...

On this basis, wouldn't it possible for the virus to include "virus-specific proteins" in its replicated package that would be extremely toxic? Or to so seriously disrupt cell function in specific areas (central nervous system?) as to cause rapid death? Just wondering...

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Post January 15, 2010, 04:33:07 PM

Bill_Wolfe wrote:And no, just infecting yourself with a virus outdoors won't spread it around the world. Viruses need a host to survive unless they are specially prepared and stored. In the 'wild', they are dead in a matter of days, if not hours. So all Eli did was to kill everyone who showed up.

[snip]

Plus, a virus let loose in the jet stream would die or stay up there till the UV killed them all. It had to be weaponized, somehow. It's not the same physical matrix as someone sneezing on you. The release only infected the first folks. It was spread person-to-person, after that. It's how viruses work.


I am not a doctor, and I don't play one on TV. I didn't even stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. I have, however, been following this discussion.

Isn't the worry about a virus going 'airborne' the big thing that we hear whenever there's a new epidemic (SARS, H1N1, etc.)? Experts always seem to trot out and talk about the worry that the virus could mutate and become airborne like Bubonic plague becoming Pneumonic plague? (I realize that both are bacterial & not viral.)

Not saying you're wrong, Bill. Just curious.
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Post January 15, 2010, 07:15:10 PM

kailhofer wrote:I am not a doctor, and I don't play one on TV. I didn't even stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night. I have, however, been following this discussion.

Isn't the worry about a virus going 'airborne' the big thing that we hear whenever there's a new epidemic (SARS, H1N1, etc.)? Experts always seem to trot out and talk about the worry that the virus could mutate and become airborne like Bubonic plague becoming Pneumonic plague? (I realize that both are bacterial & not viral.)

Not saying you're wrong, Bill. Just curious.


I'm not an astrophysicist, but I'm pretty sure the sun rises in the east and sets in the west (from our perspective, anyway.) If you're really curious about the science, there are boo-coo resources out there.

A flu virus can live for maybe 48 hours outside the body unless it is specially prepared. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/infectious-disease/AN01238 and under really perfect conditions (warm, moist, dark) up to about six days.

You can freeze them in liquid nitrogen (or something similar) for several years (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_long_do_germs_last), but the longer you leave them that way, the fewer survive. That Eli had any viable viruses at all in his syringe is possible, but unlikely.

He would have looked pretty silly if he'd have injected himself as Blade approached and nothing had happened, wouldn't he?

No, all he did was kill himself and everyone who showed-up. He was, possibly, the only non-Scimitar immune in the world. But after less than a year, anyone who managed to survive would have had no trouble with the virus unless old Blade kept cranking it out. They just can't survive without a certain critical number of hosts.

Maybe Eli wouldn't know this, but the two who survived at the VIRUS BIOWEAPON RESEARCH FACILITY sure would have.

They were pretty dumb, too. They were in a place that would keep them from being exposed for a full year, then they were going to kill themselves rather than risk a quick and relatively painless death from the superflu.

Duh, anyone?

I'm not some massive, brilliant savant. I just read a lot. And so do a lot of people who are the market for stories like this. I'm not picking on Gino, but c'mon folks, the story is what the author makes it. Why jeopardize the suspension of disbelief just because you think it would be really cool to have James Bond flap his arms really fast and just fly out of danger.

I’m not a biophysicist (though I do have degrees in biology and nuclear physics), but I'm pretty sure that's not possible.

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Post January 15, 2010, 07:45:16 PM

Robert_Moriyama wrote:Often cell death is caused by cessation of its normal activities because of suppression by virus-specific proteins, not all of which are components of the virus particle.[92]...

On this basis, wouldn't it possible for the virus to include "virus-specific proteins" in its replicated package that would be extremely toxic? Or to so seriously disrupt cell function in specific areas (central nervous system?) as to cause rapid death? Just wondering...RM


Robert,

Interesting idea. It still wouldn't be nearly as quick as Gino and Stephen King's superflu(s), but it could add to the rapidity of the symptoms.

A few things to consider. . .

Viruses kill cells by entering them, using the contents to replicate millions of copies of themselves and then busting out to infect more cells. The protein supression you're talking about has the effect of weakening the cell membrane and making the cell break sooner. . .which also means fewer complete viruses being let loose to wreak havoc.

So faster onset, more cell death, and a generally sped-up disease. It's still not enough to sneeze on someone and watch them die, but it could help.

Maybe it could make it as fast as two days between exposure and the first sniffle. That's lightning fast for a virus.

There is such a thing as a toxic protein, but they're rare. The protein in a virus is in the myelin sheath that 'clothes' the nucleic acids that comprise innards. No nucleus in a virus, no respiration or processing, just little replicating Von Neumann devices. One of the elements that all the 'toxic' proteins share is an absolute need for zinc and nickel. The weaponized viruses might have been raised in a zinc/nickel rich environment, but the human body isn't one.

So toxic proteins wouldn't be very common in the 'grown at home' variety.

One more thing. The body normally--when all is going well--loses and replaces about 300 million cells every minute.

So the flu has to start killing zillions of cells per minute before any real damage is even done. Most viruses have not evolved to kill the host, just make it sick for a long time to spread the joy to as many new hosts as it can get.

They just can't kill you that fast.

Which is still a good thing, right?

Bill Wolfe
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Post January 28, 2010, 03:39:58 PM

My thanks to all who read, commented on, or offered critiques of Scimitar of God.

gino

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