The Divine Compression

By Bill Ricardi

“And in the name of Digital Jesus we pray: Oh Lord, thank you for gracing Your people with The Divine Compression. Know that Your mercy and Your infinite wisdom have not been squandered. We, the guardians of data, will continue to archive all human history and all human knowledge with complete and perfect fidelity. And we do this through the grace of Digital Christ, our Lord.”

The congregation responded with a unified, “Amen.”

The Bishop of Broadcast smiled beatifically upon the hundreds of lucky souls chosen to be part of the live studio audience. And that expression of joy and love was captured by the livestream cameras, sent to the tens of millions of viewers watching from home.

The Bishop said, “Before I close out today’s mass, I wanted to remind our congregation that December 9th is a holy day, celebrating the birth of the prophet Grace Murray Hopper. Please consider attending the COBOLday celebrations. Traditionally there are sack races and Frogger competitions, as well as COBOL themed arts and crafts. It’s a really fun time. Digital Jesus bless you and keep you! Go in peace to love and to serve our Lord.”

Moments after the webcams faded to black, the congregation filed out of the Grand Temple of the Digital Christ. Each worshipper was handed a thin tablet on the way out, so that they could fill in their Divine Feedback form and opt-in to any kind of E-Indulgence that they felt they needed. For a small fee, they could receive forgiveness for their online sins. Any transgressions that occurred during the week could be handled by microtransactions.

Only one woman remained in the comfortable pews. She wasn’t dressed in her Sunday best, opting instead for comfortable slacks and a brown cable knit sweater. The woman held an oldschool pad of paper and was busily scribbling notes using a reliable mechanical pencil. Anyone who was a regular viewer of the popular journalistic video blog ‘512 Seconds’ would instantly recognise her as Rhonda Flowers.

Rhonda wore no makeup other than the faintest hint of tinted lip gloss, more for moisturizing than any cosmetic effect. Her medium length brown hair held more than a hint of silver, but she saw no reason to dye it. To call Rhonda ‘no-nonsense’ was an understatement. She was a Serious journalist with a capital ‘S’, credited with breaking some of the biggest political and corporate stories of the last decade. Her research team was top notch, and her dedication to both the craft and the truth were unwavering.

Today Rhonda was doing a piece on tax evasion. The Church of the Digital Christ recently backed a political candidate in the United States. It was done on-air, in a very public forum. This was in direct violation of their tax exempt status. Miss Flowers was prepared to ask the hard questions, and planned to air the piece on COBOLday, for maximum impact.

Rhonda was surprised when the Church agreed to an interview. She was doubly surprised when they said that the Bishop of Broadcast himself was prepared to make a statement, followed by a detailed Q&A. Rhonda booked the next flight to Houston, and then made her way to Beaumont.

Bishop Desmond was, by Church standards, a fairly low ranking clergyman. Above him were Archbishops, Cardinals, and the Pontiff of Divinity himself. But the Bishop of Broadcast was the face of The Church of the Digital Christ, and absolutely nobody inside or outside of the organization would question his power. The jovial looking, mid-40’s pastor with an aw-shucks southern attitude pulled in half a billion dollars every Sunday. Before syndication.

It was his smiling face that greeted Rhonda when she looked up from her notepad.

The Bishop of Broadcast extended his pale white hand. “Miss Flowers, I am sure honored that you would come and see li’l old me on this fine Sunday. Trust yer flight was passable?”

Rhonda stood, wrapping the Bishop’s hand in her tan, calloused fingers. She said, “Bishop Desmond. It’s good to meet you.” She paused, and then let the handshake die. “Your mannerisms are quite different in person when compared to your broadcast. Am I imagining that?”

Bishop Desmond laughed and shook his head. “Guilty as charged ma’am. They worked real hard ta make me sound like a pro up there. But when them lights go down, I’m just me. Can’t take the farm out of the boy an’ all that. Want some coffee?”

The clergyman led the reporter ‘backstage’, to where the more mundane functions of the Church happened. They entered a small cafeteria for staff and visiting clergy. Other than the simple wooden tables and chairs and the non-slip vinyl floor, every surface was stainless steel. The bishop politely offered Rhonda a metal tray as they queued up at the self-serve buffet.

Miss Flowers slipped the notepad and pencil into her purse before accepting. Then she said, “Thank you. I never pictured you as a cafeteria kind of guy, Bishop Desmond.”

The Bishop of Broadcast chuckled. He commented, “Thought it was all champagne brunches an’ pastoral picnics, didja?” He reached out and snagged a powdered donut. “Nope, ‘bout half the time I grab somethin’ right quick, then get back ta work. Christ’s message don’t write itself.”

Rhonda opted for a piece of buttered toast. They slid their trays towards the coffee station. After a moment of silence, she said, “Nor do political endorsements I suppose. Or tax laws for that matter.”

Bishop Desmond mock-winced. “Ohhh, right to it then? They told me you were a tiger, miss. Tell ya what, lemme get my first sip of caffeine, then you kin yell at me about egregious violations of 501-c-3.”

The clergyman took his coffee with cream and sugar, while Rhonda preferred just a shot of vanilla. They made their way over to one of the humble little tables and took their seats.

Rhonda had a sip of her vanilla coffee, and then took the notepad and pencil out of her purse. She asked, “Bishop Desmond, what makes you think that the U.S. government is going to allow you to openly endorse political candidates despite your tax exempt status?” Then the reporter had a bite of toast with her off hand, quite used to this kind of multitasking.

The bishop leaned forward in his seat. He sipped his hot drink before gracing Rhonda with an answer. “Nothin’ makes me think that, Miss Flowers. We needed ta bring the issue front and center so that it’d get challenged. It’ll make its way all the way up to the Supreme Court. And that’s where we’ll make our stand.” The middle aged clergyman then took a big bite from his donut, scattering powdered sugar all over the gleaming metal tray.

Rhonda’s right hand flew over the page with practiced ease. She said, “So this was intentional, calculated. You plan to take on the political non-involvement clause associated with 501-c-3.”

The Bishop of Broadcast dabbed at his lips with a napkin. He said, “Not quite miss. We’re gonna challenge the right of th’ government ta tax the data provision aspects of the Church. If we’re gettin’ taxed as a business by some special decree, we should be able ta speak out as a business, not a church.”

The reporter paused in her note taking. “So when the U.S. government declared that data provision wasn’t part of the church’s core function, you believe they opened a door?”

Bishop Desmond swallowed another big bite of his sugary breakfast, and then dabbed his lips with a napkin. He said, “They opened the whole darned barn Miss Flowers. All this stuff happens onna same Church grounds, in the service of the sacred Digital Christ. They overstepped. This is our way to challenge that ruling.”

Rhonda absently crushed a napkin in her left hand to get the butter off. Her right hand was still taking detailed notes. “I see. Do you think you’ll win?”

The bishop drained his cup of coffee in one big pull. Then he shrugged. “Don’t rightly know, miss. But a Crusade ain’t won all in a single battle. Our divine sacrament put half o’ big data outta business, and that made certain politicians unhappy. Not gettin’ so many donations these days, ya see. So they strike out at our sacred work. We gotta let them know that we ain’t gonna lay down. Our holy endeavour will continue.”

The veteran reporter finished her own coffee. She asked, “Is this an exclusive?”

“Y’all got 6 hours before we make our own statement, Miss Flowers. Call it in, then I’ll give ya the tour in ‘bout half an hour.”

The story was filed from the relative privacy of the church’s state of the art broadcast room. Rhonda compiled and edited her notes on the fly. It took her less than 20 minutes to send the finished product to her editor from the church’s guest terminal. She called to confirm that he received it, and assured him that this would be the sole topic of their next broadcast.

When Rhonda emerged, she was greeted by the ever-smiling Bishop of Broadcast. He said, “C’mon, I’ll give ya the dime tour.”

Miss Flowers had to admit that the Grand Temple of the Digital Christ was a fantastic achievement. It effortlessly combined the practical, the spiritual, and the technological. Every room had a function, and not an inch of space was wasted. The bishop took Rhonda through all of the ceremonial chambers, and then showed her some of the data trunks and other communications rooms. But all of this was foreplay, and Rhonda knew it. There was only one room that had probative interest. The one room that every reporter wanted to see.

The Tabernacle was a small chamber underneath the Cathedral of Data. Estimates put the dimensions of the Tabernacle at no more than 8 cubic yards. According to the Church, all of the data that has ever been produced was contained in this chamber. That was impossible of course. However the Church passed every scientific and practical test, never failing to dredge up even the most obscure data in real-time. The means of storage and retrieval was known only to the Cardinals of Compression, as nobody else was allowed inside.

So it was no surprise that this little tour ended in the sub-basement of the Temple, just outside of the thick steel door of the Tabernacle. A soulless retinal scan station jutted out from the southern wall next to the portal.

Bishop Desmond said, “And here it is. B’fore you ask, no. I don’t have access, and couldn’t let ya in even if I did. Some things ya just gotta take on faith, right?”

But Rhonda wasn’t one of the devout. She said, “It has been stated that what you’re doing is impossible. That there must be a massive chamber under this filled with data storage devices.”

The bishop held up both hands, as if he was surrendering. He murmured, “Now Miss Flowers, y’all know that experts have used their fancy echo devices. An’ they ain’t found nothin’.”

The reporter pressed, “A thin shaft leading deep underground. That would also give you access to massive geothermal power.”

Bishop Desmond said, “With nowhere fer all that waste heat ta go. Ma’am, I’ve heard every theory, every question. Nobody kin explain it, cause ya can’t explain a miracle. ‘Scuse me.”

The bishop’s mobile phone was ringing, and the ringtone was intentionally harsh so that it wouldn’t be ignored or mistaken for background noise. As Bishop Desmond listened, his normally cherubic face darkened. “It’s another attack.” he asided to Rhonda, flatly.

Rhonda felt a chill crawl up her spine. The Grand Temple of the Digital Christ was frequently the target of attacks from radical religious factions. Their methods of assault were often destructive and violent; so much so that the Church had a full time, private army on hand to deal with these kinds of incidents.

Disturbingly, a recent rash of attacks had no credible source. No religious or terrorist organization would claim responsibility for these assaults, possibly due to their suicidal and single minded nature. Groups of robed, completely hairless men and women would pour out of a bus or van and attempt to swarm one of the gates of the Grand Temple’s perimeter. Any individuals who were incapacitated or cut off would violently self-immolate, as if they were doused with gasoline and filled with kerosene. There was never any evidence left in the aftermath of these attacks.

The wall and floors of the sub-basement shook. The well lit corridor was suddenly bathed in red emergency lighting.

“Shit.” said the bishop, in a drastic break of character. He pointed at Rhonda and said, “Stay here. This is th’ safest place in the building right now.” The clergyman got off of his mobile phone and hurried up the hallway.

Rhonda stood very still as a second tremor rocked the sub-basement. A klaxon now accompanied the dire red lights, loud but not deafening. Signs for fire exits suddenly lit up, with arrows pointing towards the path of a potential egress. Instinct told the reporter to follow the arrows, but the bishop had claimed that this place was more safe than attempting to escape. Rhonda weighed her options, then held her ground.

In most modern security systems, electronic locks default to an ‘open’ state in case of fire. Nobody wants to be the one responsible for trapping people in a burning building should the power go out. Apparently the designers of the Grand Temple of the Digital Christ felt the same way.

With a startling thunk and a protracted hiss, the Tabernacle door slid open.

Rhonda stared at the three inch gap between that thick steel door and the equally thick outer frame. Surely she would be safer inside of the heavily reinforced vault? Even setting aside her journalistic curiosity, taking shelter within the Tabernacle made sense. At least that was what she told herself.

Rhonda kept her eyes on the hallway for as long as possible, making sure that she wasn’t in any immediate danger as she slid backwards into the Tabernacle. Once inside, she tugged at the heavy door until it was nearly closed. Then the reporter turned, ready to become the first secular witness to the core operations of the Grand Temple of the Digital Christ.

The human brain wasn’t meant to be exposed to what Rhonda saw. However, part of the reporter’s mind remained rational upon observing the interior of the chamber. Silently, she documented the contents of the Tabernacle:

The stainless steel operating table was massive. It had to be if it was to properly support and restrain the seven and a half foot figure laying atop it. The angel, because it could be nothing else, was hairless and naked. Its skin was white and smooth, its groin completely featureless like some kind of children’s action figure. It was strapped to the table at the neck, wrist, elbow, ankle, knee, and waist.

The reason that it was strapped down became obvious as Rhonda’s gaze tracked upward. Its rib cage had been cracked open to expose its dimly glowing heart to the air. Thousands of tiny probes trailing fiber optic cables were lodged in its still-beating organ: The output.

Its skullcap was entirely removed. Indeed, the calvaria could be seen sitting in a small vat of blue liquid nearby, an aura of golden light hovering just above it. The exposed brain of the angel was surrounded by dozens of multifrequency lasers, firing petabits of data directly into the malakhim’s cerebral cortex... the greatest data storage device ever conceived.

Rhonda noted, clinically, that the angel’s wings had been amputated, but there was no sign of them anywhere in this room. That, in addition to the other horrors visited upon it, was probably why this being’s jaw hung open in an eternal, silent scream.

And that was the last fully sane thought that she ever had.

Realizing that it wasn’t alone, the malakhim turned its wide golden eyes upon Rhonda. Through the agonizing pain and immortal dread, it reached into the human’s mind in order to plead for help, for release, or for some kind of final death. The slightest exposure to the angel’s terror was enough to shatter Rhonda’s mind completely. Her own scream was vocal, terrible… terminal. The unnatural force of it caused her brain to aneurysm, her lungs to rupture. She slumped to the floor, bleeding from the eyes, nose, and ears simultaneously. She was dead in seconds.

Outside, the celestial beings continued their rescue attempt. They knew enough to immolate themselves rather than be captured; rather than having their halos taken away as had happened with their unfortunate sibling. They would burn, but could eventually reform and try again. Because of their oaths, they could not harm the humans. But given time they hoped destroy their infrastructure. They hoped to save their kin. They hoped to stop the screaming.