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The Magnetic Gospel

by Jason Vizcarra-Brown

(2,726 words)


The Discman presides, loathsome and gray, over his magnetic empire, buried way deep down under the hills of Tempe, Arizona. He is the profligate lord of the data slum, king of those minds desperate to afford one more memory.


Every day begins with a survey of his warehouse. The Discman lumbers between racks of outdated storage—spinning hard drives, long strands of CAM wire, spool after spool of magnetic tape. As he cuts a trail through the stacks, his jaw hangs loose. Behind him a knot of cable trembles and slides along the concrete floor, pulled forward by bundled haunch and silver claw. There is a strict disorder to the room: nests of copper wire draped over network equipment buried under industrial write controllers connected to hanging clusters of memory.


The Discman stalks through every aisle to peer at the most expensive machines, hungrily, though he never does repairs himself. He merely trundles about, battering any drone unlucky enough to cross his path, until he finally settles into his terminal like a bulbous mechanical toad.


This warehouse contains the most precious real estate in the world: digital storage. A place for data of all kinds, rented out to poor workers who can’t afford to store their memories with a more reputable company. Immortality in ones and zeros, ready to be restored in the case of body death or natural loss. A necessity for a society where lives have grown stretched, long and thin, far past the eldest of their ancestors.


The Discman hardly resembles the owners of the commercial storage towers crowded along the coasts. Those men are polished chrome, kept pristine in their penthouse suites far above the stench of hot brine and rotting seaweed; but their job is the same.


Accumulate, commercialize, draw in more tenants.


Hundreds of messages flicker across the terminal screen, mostly a torrent of advertisements and drugware, until one catches The Discman’s eye. It’s a heartfelt plea from one of his clients, begging for an extension on this week’s storage fee.


“Mr. Discman,” it says. “I’m writing to arrange a deferred payment on my outstanding drive rent. It’s my son’s birthday tomorrow, and I’m already overdrawn on my bank loan. I’m afraid I won’t have the cycles I need to attend my son’s party tomorrow. I know he’ll be devastated if I can’t make it. Could we possibly postpone the collection until next week?”


The Discman hits a key to bring up the warehouse’s memory map. Tenant 0x8f12ae01 . . . here. He grins, and begins sifting through the woman’s memories.


There have always been laws against accessing client data, but drivelords don’t care about a little thing like privacy. It’s simple, really, to dive into another’s past and experience it for yourself. A victimless crime, The Discman thinks. Though the woman’s memories are heavily compressed to save space, The Discman still gets thrilling tingles jumping from a grainy video of a family crowded around a dinner table, to her boy’s first visit to the zoo, to a still image of a sunset viewed from a tiny fishing boat on a lake. All the woman’s treasured memories. It’s sweet—the feeling of love deep enough to be desperate.


The Discman replies with a form letter rejecting the payment deferral, and sends a note to his secretary to reserve the woman’s mind for two hours tomorrow afternoon. Going to a birthday party will be quite a treat—it has been so long since he last had cake.


* * *


The Discman’s domain is tended by his drones. They are white collar workers who have shed their human bodies for ceramic shells, aluminum spindles, and network probes—bodies better suited to the labor they are obligated to perform.


Deep in the stacks, a drone named Folder monitors the data rate of the Premium Integrity Subscription® pipeline. For the low price of 49.99 giga-cycles per hour, The Discman promises to restore any data that gets corrupted. He never does. It’s much cheaper to pay contract penalties than run tens of thousands of backup drives.


This place is the last resort for those who can’t afford a drive at one of the commercial storage towers. Here every memory is perched upon the edge of a pit, asking to be corrupted, not even the most basic redundancy keeping the data from slowly unraveling. Those who rent a stack in The Discman’s abode are liable to lose what they recall about their childhood to a burnt-out hard drive; years of work experience slipping away on a sheared data thread.


The dark, dry heat of the building reminds Folder of a crematorium oven. The underground warehouse was originally built to store cattle feed, and The Discman hasn’t bothered cleaning since he moved in. A layer of grain dust still covers every surface, clogging fans and dimming the broad fluorescent bulbs. The hum of ventilation and the grinding of disc motors averages out to a white noise somewhere between hurricane and jet engine.


Folder has worked for The Discman for eight months now. He used to live in the city, running network diagnostics at one of Tempe's few remaining public library nodes. It had been a good job, but funding for that kind of thing was never stable.


Budget cuts saw his node moved from full public access to a strict weekly data cap, and all the network staff had their hours slashed. He had tried to pick up extra work with the archival team, but his debts kept mounting and soon he owed too many cycles per day to even be able to work full time.


Working for The Discman had been the only reasonable choice. Storage companies always need more network drones, and the employee discount on drive space meant no collections company would be coming after him anytime soon. Still, Folder is only slowly digging himself out from under his mountain of debt. It will be six more years of twenty-hour days before he can afford to look for better work.


I can’t believe he gets away with it, Folder thinks, eight months and I haven’t seen a single data regulator in the warehouse. He’s breaking every law on the books. He must be drowning in lawsuits. How can he keep this up?


From this angle all Folder can see of The Discman is what bulges around the seat of his terminal—bundles of muscle fiber and steel cord beneath stretched nylon skin, a train of exposed cable, LEDs diffused by filthy plastic panels. He never leaves the warehouse except by wire, casting himself out into the bodies of his debtors. Even when he is gone, his body slumps on the throne, empty eyes leering across the room, threatening to rekindle and lash out at anyone not working to his satisfaction.


I wish he would fry in his sleep. I hope his brain rots from a virus, his heart explodes, and his ass gets welded to his seat.


Folder disconnects from the network switch and wanders closer, close enough to see the straining plastic ribs that make up the back of The Discman’s seat. The Discman’s bulk is completely still—lifeless and rigid.


He’s gone. Off somewhere being someone else, filling them up with his filth.


Folder trembles as he slides around The Discman. He’s learned to stay as far away from the monster as possible, but something compels him to draw closer, circling around the throne. Being this close feels wrong. He can see The Discman’s sallow skin, smell the sick-sweet decay on his breath. The Discman’s eyes are rolled back, jerking in response to some far-off stimuli. Two wires hang from the terminal and are driven like spikes into the admin ports on his neck.


When he’s casting like this, he’s as vulnerable as anyone else. It would be so easy to—


A claw shoots out from the tangle of wires and flesh, grabbing Folder and pinning him against the terminal’s console.


“Get back to work before I rip your drive out of the rack and grind you into dust,” The Discman shrieks. “Don’t ever sneak around me like that again. I own you, you buzzing little worm. I’ll strip you for spare parts before I tell you again.”


The Discman bears down on Folder, and his shell cracks along one edge, driving a spike of pain into his head. He can feel his servos grinding helplessly against the mounting pressure until he is sure he will break in two. Finally, The Discman relents, and Folder flees into the stacks—back into the shadows and the noise.


* * *


For four hours every night, Folder collapses into one of the drone bunks and enters remote operation mode. His debt contract with Howard & Howard International Bank requires a few hours of remote operation every day to avoid the half dozen bank fees they try to charge. The pay for going remote is much worse than working for The Discman—in fact it barely covers what The Discman charges to rent the bunk—but too many bank penalties would see Folder arrested and sent to a body farm.


No choice but surrender.


No one ever possesses his body. The life of a network drone is dull beyond reason.Instead, companies pay the bank to run who-knows-what code on his processor. On a good day he wakes up exhausted with a headache. Other days he flails in his sleep so hard he falls out of his bed. Once he woke up a little bit on fire.


Tonight, though, Folder is sitting quietly in his bunk, staring across the room at The Discman’s terminal. It feels wrong to be sitting still, like wasting time, but he knows he needs to watch for just the right moment.


Hours pass. The Discman drapes across his terminal, occasionally gulping down a sour energy drink and eating from a cold, greasy bowl. Eventually he goes still, casting out to some new body halfway across the world. The occasional grumble and moan imply he is occupied with his usual debauchery.


Folder gets up from his bunk. He moves through the stacks with a practiced glide, three rows down, right at the outdated power bank, underneath an archway of ethernet cables, to the closet where spare CAM wire and generator fuel are stored.


Quickly, before he comes back. Before you lose your nerve.


The door is locked, but Folder knows the combination. The Discman could never be bothered to open the door himself. The drone hauls a canister of gasoline off the shelf, long unused, hopefully not spoiled.


Faster now, he carries the fuel back across the warehouse. Folder is sure that every turn will bring him face-to-face with the hulking shape of the drivelord.


The noise of the room and the hum of fear fill his head, the shadows crawl—he swears he hears the thump, thump, slide of The Discman’s gait.


Turn around, you can still stop! You can go back to how things were—


As Folder rounds the last server before the throne, he almost runs into one of the night shift drones. Folder’s heart drops as the other drone looks down at the gas canister, then over towards the lifeless body of The Discman. They both remain still for a long moment.


“Please. Take the others and get out,” whispers Folder.


The other drone hesitates, looking once again at The Discman, thinking about what will happen if he doesn’t tell the boss. Thinking about what will happen if he does. Without a word, he finally locks eyes with Folder and nods, disappearing into the darkness and away from whatever is about to occur.


Folder creeps the rest of the way to the terminal. The Discman slumbers like a dragon on his hoard, self-satisfied and still full of greed.


There’s only one way this ends. Burn his body, then delete the backups. He can’t come back if none of him is left.


Folder begins to pour the fuel over The Discman, anointing him, watching the gasoline bubble down his face, over his jaw, and into the folds of his cables and skin. Fire is the only thing that can clean the years of blood and sorrow that cake him from crown to claw.


A trickle of fuel spills down The Discman’s chin, dropping directly onto the computer terminal. A single warning light blinks on.


Then an iron grip locks onto Folder’s arm, stopping the flow of gas.


“I told you to do your job,” The Discman rattles. “But you cretins never listen. I don’t need you, but I do need an example.” Then darkness rushes up to meet Folder as The Discman slams a steel fist into his head.


* * *


The Discman crouches, silhouetted by fire, like an angel too bright and terrible to behold. Behind him the server housing Folder’s memories burns, bellowing clouds of acrid black smoke.


As the drives burn, Folder awakens, head clouded by The Discman’s forceful blow. He can feel his memories slipping away, first at a drip, then a flood, and then there is just numb, empty space where a lifetime used to be.


Long nights of insufferable philosophy and wine in his youth. Months of reading networking manuals to get his first job. The anguish of rejection and loss. Every feature and flaw gone, soul turned to ash, leaving only one thing: rage. Anger hotter than the flames hollowing out the metal around him. Cherry-red violence threatening to overflow, spill out and drown.


The Discman is a jailor, an extortionist, a thief. Folder doesn’t need his memories to know what to do.


Death, death to the monsters who feed on our bones!


Folder dives into the heat, clasping onto The Discman’s face, weathering the blows denting his case again and again. Folder quickly deploys a simple friction drill, meant to punch mounting holes in the steel racks, and grinds into the monster’s skull.


Sparks, metal shavings, and screams pour from The Discman, pitch mounting higher the closer the drill bit gets to his brain. A deafening POP rings out as the drill shorts The Discman’s optic nerve, and his left eye goes dark, rolling loosely in its socket.


“Enough!” The Discman roars, getting leverage on Folder’s shell. With a twist and a crack, the drone’s arm is torn out from its socket, left dangling from the spike still embedded in the Discman’s head. The beast swings a fist and Folder is sent skidding across the warehouse, pinballing into drives and wires, coming to rest at the foot of the throne.


The Discman doesn’t hesitate. He slouches between the racks like a predator, faster than his size would suggest possible, pouncing on Folder, pounding him into the concrete floor, pummeling him with claws and pistons. Each blow sends a cloud of dust and synthetic blood into the air as The Discman furiously beats a drone-shaped crater into the ground.


“Die, die, die, die!” yells The Discman.


Not without you, thinks Folder, drowning in pain. With his remaining hand he hits The Discman once across the face, striking a spark on his metal jaw, igniting the air itself—thick with oil and grain dust—blowing the guts of the warehouse and everything in it a thousand feet into the sky.


* * *


The aftermath of the Great Tempe Drive Fire was a somber spectacle. The news reported it as a terrible accident caused by improper fuel storage and a stray spark. Tens of thousands of people’s memories up in smoke—the single largest loss of digital data in the state’s history.


Politicians made speeches about enforcing data safety regulations, and the mainstream storage corporations promised free service for anyone affected by the explosion. No new laws were passed, and the companies started charging the victims six months later, once the press had died down.


Many years later historians would discover a single, silent security video of what had happened that night at The Discman’s warehouse. They would call Folder an early casualty of the Age of Defragmentation, the era when mankind rejected the private ownership of personal data. It was remembered as a time of violence and sabotage, popular protest, police crackdowns, and brutal punishment.


But slowly, painfully, at the edge of a knife and the tip of a pen, humanity took back one more piece of their freedom.

Jason Vizcarra-Brown (he/him) is an embedded software engineer and story game designer from Los Angeles, California. He spends his days shouting about labor history and his nights shouting about fictional labor history. You can follow him on Twitter @Blooperly_, and check out his role-playing games at blooperly.itch.io.

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