Too Hard-Headed

Gorch steelheading, by any of its various names, originated as a street medical procedure from the freesoil world Gorch (Dinyoza’s Serpent). A retroviral treatment, steelheading affects the glial cells of the brain, causing them to accumulate metallic, particulate iron within internal vacuoles. This serves as an effective countermeasure to uploading using the standard techniques (i.e., the high-resolution NMRI built into every commercially available cerebral bridge), since the ferromagnetic particles darken and distort the image, and may indeed cause damage to the scanning equipment. As such, steelheading has become popular among every quantum-hatted forknapping-obsessed paranoid from Core to Rim.

Since it remains a street procedure, it is sadly to be noted that many of its purveyors do not inform their clients of the actual risks of placing a brain stived through with super-nanoscale iron particulate into a high-grade magnetic field, and specifically the combination of thermal effects on the glia and direct magnetic force effects resulting in said brain being stirred like a bowl of overcooked pudding. Caveat emptor, indeed!

Unfortunately, other uses of the procedure have become apparent. I draw your attention here to the incident last year aboard CS Fist of Civility, when hostages recovered from one branch of the Resolutionist Faction had been involuntarily steelheaded by their captors, a fact not discovered until it had led to a permanent death.

Steelheading, however, is a technique that is only preventative against NMRI or similar technologies, and a clean upload can still be achieved by use of the older membrane disassembler, or a nanitic burning-scan reader such as that used in a ripknife. Of course, these techniques either require an extracted mostly-dead brain or are fatal to the patient, which is why they were replaced by high-resolution NMRI in the first place, and yet they remain viable methods of extracting a mind-state from a steelheaded brain.

For this reason, we have now added testing for the presence of encapsulated ferromagnetic particulates in brain tissue and the use of alternate methods as part of the best practices for uploading brains recovered from hostages, kidnapping victims, or otherwise “left unattended”, and we commend this to the attention of our colleagues elsewhere.

– Dr. Venerí 0xCADE443E,
Noble Order of the Lancet,

Fellow of the Imperial College of Surgeons,
Imperial Sodality of Neuroscience,
in a letter to the All-Worlds Journal of Medical Incident

Notable Replies

  1. Huh. That seems like an uncharacteristic oops for the Empire to not discover the steelheading beforehand. Given the possibility of ferromagnetic metals in implants, wouldn’t checking for the presence of things that might misbehave in strong magnetic fields be more common practice?

  2. Not to say that there wasn’t a medtech on CS Fist of Civility cussing themselves out for missing it at the time, but there are a few points worth making:

    1. Implants, by and large, don’t hide themselves. (Mostly, in fact, they conveniently report their presence when called through the appropriate MedAlert API, but, y’know, not everyone pays attention to supporting industry standards.) They’re also usually outside this size range: either gross and easy to spot, or smol little nanosomes that are down in the range that can be safely ignored (like the iron nanoparticles that they use as NMRI contrasts, for example). tl;dr they’re in a zone where no-one’s looking.

    2. Ferromagnetics are actually not commonly used in implants of the era. We use surgical stainless steel not because it’s good (it’s biocompatibility is lower and its corrosion-susceptibility is higher than would be preferred for implants), but because it’s cheap. High-nickel alloys are notably allergenic, but again, inexpensive. But in a world where you don’t need to look at the price chart before punching for fabrication of your implant base out of foamed-titanium/bioglass composite wrapping some nice gold workings, there’s not much incentive to move downscale.

    3. And perhaps most importantly, implant designers don’t use ferromagnetics because they interact badly with NMRI technology, which - cerebral bridges aside - is one of the core components of the medscanners found in every hospital, clinic, sickbay, autodiagnosis kiosk, home med-bed, disaster pod, and high-end ambulance anywhere in civilized space. It’s a big compatibility lose that also asks your customers to put their lives at risk, belike.

  3. Even implants here are very strongly non-magnetic. (Says the guy who’s had an MRI in the last 2 weeks with a plate and 4 screws in his spine. Even those, which I strongly suspect are titanium, are something I can feel heating up in the MRI tube.)

  4. wow, I didn’t know the effect would be that significant with non-ferromagnetic materials

  5. Ookay. Prevention of forknapping is something many people will want defenses against. Probably in combination with a decent suicide implant designed to prevent post-mortem scanning (what Stanislav Lem called “tomb-tapping”) and other “older” methods mentioned. Even if forknapping is (or at least should be) a very serious crime in any civilized jurisdiction, The Empire and other higher-tech polities should have such options available. Even if they make authorized backups a hassle, require specialized non-standard cerebral bridges, etc.

Continue the discussion at

7 more replies


Avatar for avatar Avatar for JHPrime Avatar for MirrorField Avatar for Maximilian_Crichton Avatar for JAPH Avatar for Scott_Kenny