Steganography

Submitted by elliott on Sun, 07/03/2022 - 19:14

 

Lawrance: “The course of verifying whether someone is mind-controlled can run short or long. As for the previously-mentioned cases of cluster abuse, it wouldn’t be prudent to say exactly how much time such matters consume in our profession, unless we want to give hints as to our current methods and process. What I can safely say is that this sequence of events went on longer than average, but didn’t take much time at all when accounting for the fact we walked on tenterhooks constantly, a guide to regional folklore on spirit possession open in one hand and a complete history of psychology of the accused’s species in the other. In the normal course of similar cases, we often commission contract dowsers to probe interrogation subjects in waves. Most means of dowsing the truthfulness of a person’s word have less than perfect track records, but if enough independent sources concur on whether they’re honest (and the dowsers lay claim to both clean licenses and historically good results) then we can advance to more direct methods of authentication in good conscience. Another thing we consider a good mark is if the subject swears by Crippled False. We don’t push for that, and ethically it would be abominable if we did. If the subject does take an oath of their own decision, though, it’s them snatching their life into their own hands. Very strong move in your favor if you do - assuming the oath is relevant, of course.”

Lawrance: “In the case of our wayward warehousers, it didn’t move a single grain to either side of the scales. Maybe it’s not very pragmatic of me, but I felt relieved they declined to swear anything of any sort, true OR false.”

Lawrance: “After the judicial machine cogs stopped turning, Byland was judged to have been in his right mind when he attacked my colleague - despite not being the first to deploy his dæmon cluster. His coworkers who’d also exhibited dæmon cluster activity were judged likewise. Whole thing covered three separate suits, and they’re probably going to be future examples of ‘finding the right prosecuting buttons to press.’ Fortunately, with some argumentation one of my persuasively talented colleagues and his understudy managed to secure a stay of interruption for the sake of the case. Under the current administration that means he needed to supply a Privity Six Six Four Seven and a Refrainment-from-Nondisclosure, all chains of evidence used in all the aforementioned suits, a signed copy of the dreaded Standby Contract, and probably a twice-blessed thurible of his firstborn child’s dried blood. Dlg bless that man and lift him high. Then as an added precaution, all revivification operations in the vicinity were pulled aside - as well as those in the defendants’ service networks. Any relifings whose clients came even remotely close to the condemned’s profiles for a year following execution of the sentence would get flagged and the beneficiaries apprehended for examination and vetting later. In short, we weren’t losing access to the accused anytime soon. It laid major foundation for future findings, since having the warehouse staff in custody meant we could dig into the matter along less common lines - we’d always have physical people to cross-examine as an anchor later, to tie nouns into each other cleanly.”

Lawrance: “The next thing that needed attention was the potential involvement of gang activity. If a given misdeed involves more than a victim, a criminal, and passion, it’s statistically likely to intersect with one of Rhaagm’s outfits, usually one of the Southsea kingpins’ interests. That’s not to say embezzlement doesn’t happen with unaffiliated people; it’s just that syndicates account for so much of it. Without knowing the reasons or the structure behind this incident, we’d have to start building guesswork scaffolds and begin knocking them down sooner or later. The first guy, by which I mean the one who’d kicked the nest at the warehouse, was cagey and initially disinclined to offer up any conspirators’ names. As it happens, when you don’t tell us something in an interview, that something usually becomes what we want to know. In the interest of efficiency, though, we were willing to move on without full cooperation and try filling in some blanks ourselves.”

Lawrance: “Now, as for the matter of motivations… for at-the-time unclear reasons Byland and friends valued something enough to become burnt sacrifices. Their goods got confiscated. Their contracts (and others associated with the warehouse) ended up scrapped and reforged. Unless they were part of a conspiracy absurd enough to boggle the mind that specifically set out to inconvenience one or more of the involved economic interests, I couldn’t see what they got out of the whole debacle. However, they didn’t start out with cluster assault; they started piling that on later, presumably after some signal passed. If I had to deploy my dæmon cluster in a firefight, I’d either start that way, or I’d use it right before I died - choose to delay the irreversible crime, or choose to go and commit forthwith. In short, this auditor didn’t have all the pieces. Hopefully pushing on some of the drama’s other levers would yield perspective on King Question, because justice is good and prevention of future problems in the first place is better, but plucking a story from its amniotic skin in one piece is the best of all.”

Lawrance: “… Beasts eat me, Hepzibah. I was being sarcastic. Speculative. I was being speculative. It’d take something extraordinary for me to set my dæmon cluster on someone. Alright? Alright.”

Lawrance: “As… I was saying… the case’s objectives at this time turned to securing evidence of the condemned’s motivations. If the crime had occurred in an appropriate lower-traffic area, we could theoretically have put together a request for browsing outside the district’s light cone. Our tools allow us to do pretty much everything up to reconstructing secondhand renditions of most of a crime scene’s evolution, but obtaining direct observation privileges allows you telescopic scraping of events as they looked back then. It’s so perfect, in fact, that the only problems we had were that the Foughen Gardens are an absolutely terrible place to try back-tracing, and that securing carte blanche rights for days upon days of a location’s records will take the sort of law-and-ethics struggle I’d rather forgo in favor of fighting a skin eater to the death with my bare hands. In all honesty and as loathe as I am to admit it, that sort of privilege is a dangerous thing to hand to people like me. Too many other cases to snoop on, too many details to record. Rhaagm is already a usually-benevolent surveillance state. It’s probably for the best that wasn’t an option from the outset.”

Lawrance: “By coincidence or providence, my musings on the subject got barged aside when one of my managerially-talented eidolons begged my attention. The venerable Esther Granth-Granth-Potts-Granth had an interesting concern. It was about a different case which she wanted to bring to my attention. This was related to that scandal with that Kraken-Whaite employee embezzling mass-energy from about half of Wenrich-on-the-River. Yes, the one with the ‘yam informants’ as the pundits called it. Anyway, Wenrich-on-the-River being close to the Foughen Gardens (and by extension Blackjamb), I figured that I could stop there briefly. A few additional interviews had to get set up with the warehouse’s coordinator and the place’s other clients anyway, so why not?”

Lawrance: “For those of you who do not know her, Esther Granth-Granth-Potts-Granth is an ex-Bhushalt aesthetic designer, a busybody and wife to a… very important functionary, let’s say. She’s a bit prone to rudely imposing on others, terrible with children, wonderfully focused on whatever she happens to be doing at any given time, and terrifyingly shrewd when it comes to making connections. Connections of the social variety… AND connections between events. She’s practically an unlicensed junior auditor with how much she’s assisted in rooting out the clandestine through the years. That, plus marrying well, gives her a bit of pull. She’s used that pull for years to become a force of calamitous change.”

Lawrance: “By a crushing coincidence, she sidelong-mentioned exchanging favors with a Mr. Gladsten Ilsabal Byland back in the day at one point, and I tell you I almost leapt down dispatch’s throat when I heard that. Somehow, I restrained myself for the time being.”

Lawrance: “After getting watered with tea and having enough nougat shoved inside me that I qualified as some sort of exotic dessert, she came to the point.”

Lawrance: “Beside her apartment building was the district’s eponymous river. The far side had a few vest pocket farmsteads, basically thickets of synthwood tree nurseries and greenware plots done in layers. Like everybody she valued, Mrs. Granth-Granth-Potts-Granth had…”

Lawrance: “I’m sorry, I can’t keep doing this.”

Lawrance: “Long ago, Esther struck up a strong acquaintance or loose friendship with the tenants up and down the river. They’d come to get siphoned of gossip and survive her teatimes, she’d give them what assistance and advice she could about anything at all - but mostly warnings about regional sea changes in politics and specific sorts of civic engineering.”

Lawrance: “She’d spread her influence pretty wide by the time a certain Kraken-Whaite employee ended up not doing too hot a covering-up job. This employee skinned the waste grid for the eastern streets of the area’s districts. You won’t find it hard to spot ‘adjusted’ figures when you’re calculating the mass of your bodily waste produced in the comfort of your own residence. Apparently, our criminal thought she could introduce sufficient rounding error to do covering-of-the-tracks by delegating some of the number crunching. Instead of contracting the usual reputable firms or eidolons, she saved a bit of the budget with the services of the local greenware scene. Get three or four groups of farms to coordinate how the work gets split up and these days they’ll take half again as long to do the work, but charge you between half and a third of the more professional price. On the other hand… a field of corn and potatoes and berries networked to do credit assessment has more potential vulnerable spots than a hermetically sealed server realm.”

Lawrance: “Another downside of vegetative computing is that changes in local ambient temperature - if you have the clout, guile, or fortune to arrange such stuff properly - can make far more dramatic drops in your processing throughput than with other computing media. That was just what the Kraken-Whaite employee tried, but she forgot a very important part of hiding network-based exploitation, which goes thus: if you are manipulating part of a network, make sure that network’s members’ states don’t conflict with each other. In other words, if you’ve managed to seize a greenware field’s climate control, and you know which partitions or plots are acting as your server, and you want to screw with the numbers, then suddenly chilling those specific sectors by ten degrees and not changing the conditions of anything else nearby will accomplish two things.”

Lawrance: “First and foremost, it will potentially get you the very slightly fudged numbers you want, so long as the farm owner doesn’t do an independent clock check in their crops every so often. Otherwise, you just get your numbers back in perfect order and a bit later than normal - but the average laziness of operators means you’ll have… gamble-worthy odds, at least for finding a desynchronized crop by random chance. Odds of about eighty four to eleven against, if you’re curious. Second, the fact you didn’t make a graduated or universal temperature change in your victim server farm means that you’ll be caught. Short of somebody criminally underqualified to work with greenware or even grow plants, that part I can guarantee. Are there theoretically reasonable explanations for strongly-defined borders of sudden drops in temperature? Yes. Would you just… avoid checking out the cause of something odd and at least vaguely suspicious? No. No, you wouldn’t.”

Lawrance: “Idiot.

Lawrance: “The upshot was that Esther got a call from one of the farms. Their clients noticed actuarial tables that got spat out with two parts in a hundred gone screwy, and edited visual footage where packets had been abruptly dropped now and then. The farmers’ disseminators and other data migration specialists said ‘hey that doesn’t look right’ and followed the trace to a bunch of yams busily existing in an ice age. If somebody in the area had any legitimate reasons to tinker with a server farm’s climate configuration, Esther would know something about the matter, and about the matter she knew nothing. They picked up the other end of THAT trace, and followed the something-not-right back to a person who got VERY fired from a very lucrative career shortly afterward. Local law enforcement took the reins, and then after they recorded and captured the situation according to their regional mode, their chief filled out a standard incident report. Took some doing, but they dug up the affected yams and threw down a latticework to span the gap. Once they gathered several crates of uncooked starchy evidence, they passed the reins to us. Some back and forth. Some forth and back. Complications on account of the perpetrator doing really big theft, in terms of topographical area; lots of stealing-and-deceiving types of things being done all over everywhere. It led to the sort of scrape-together mismatched data wrangling that I end up dealing with every third day or so.”

Lawrance: “Let us allow that thread of history to dangle. The important part was that at the time just following the start of the Foughen Gardens drama, Esther got contacted by a different farming operation on Central Avenue about basically the same symptoms. Drop in temperature, plus processing quirks in some of the establishment’s engaged units. Of course, she thought of me after I’d helped with the last similar scenario. Was it the same thing as that lady with the yams?”

Lawrance: “It was not the same thing as that lady with the yams.”

Lawrance: “The cold in this case had a distinctly different source. The server plants - some type of banana mesh-grown for maximizing surface area - were themselves creating and supporting magic that didn’t fit into the more common categories seen in day-to-day Rhaagm. More importantly, they weren’t meant to be performing magic. Depending on the genre and context of use, it can be really hard to tell when some effect of magic is an objective of the magus, and when something is a side effect, but this was something else entirely. In fact, there was only the one thing that clearly correlated to a purely thaumaturgical source - namely, how the whole operation’s thermostat read a half degree centigrade lower than expected. By process of elimination, the bananas were the only possible culprits in the shipping-and-stock inventory. That said, the reduction in temperature didn’t accomplish much of anything besides making a bit of condensation. Big glowing question marks all around.”

Lawrance: “What I really couldn’t make heads or tails of at the time, though, was what else the banana clumps were doing. They weren’t running tasks vulnerable to clock-based exploitation, and they weren’t running tasks that would have raised flags for normal investigation reasons. A whole bunch of gibberish data packets were also bouncing around the subnet. The series spat them out onto the network around that part of Wenrich-on-the-River’s Central Avenue. Not just on their own greenware wiring and infrastructure; ambient Monolith traffic.”

Lawrance: “Eerie similarities, I thought, mostly because of the differences that came with them. Figured it wouldn’t be too much to do this one little favor. I went down, jumped right in, powwowed with the owners and helped sort things out. The bananas got disconnected, and plugged back in. After that, the owners managed to solve the problem they were having - at least in an immediate sense - by forcing the next delegated task through, and then the magic nonsense stopped. Hardware resets - good for virtually any kind of stateful-system stuff in terms of troubleshooting, including chronic fruit seizures.”

Lawrance: “The last oddity came when trying to track the source of the job that was responsible for originally putting the magic logic in place. The work had been requested from a self-supporting process, a process that itself had originated in shreds from about ten different locations, give or take. Some came from Wenrich-on-the-River; some didn’t. Each snippet that accreted to help make that self-supporting process looked… well, the individual bits could have passed for not much more than weighted signal noise if you watched for less than two or three hours. In aggregate, it obviously came from some mystery sender on the Monolith; an eidolon or group of eidolons who spaghettied their work through a hundred major nodes and countless minor ones. A mixed blessing of Rhaagm’s cultural information highway norms: hiring a digital personality to do stuff on your behalf requires making yourself perfectly understood… but an eidolon is better equipped for and faster at data exchange and (perhaps most importantly) isn’t you. Impossible to trace? No. Impractical to trace? Absolutely.”

Lawrance: “Didn’t think that the haunted techno-bananas might be in any way related to my casework in the Foughen Gardens and Blackjamb. Once again, proof that sometimes I think too much - and sometimes I don’t think enough. However, I did think to come around and ask Esther about her dealings with Byland, omitting specifics about my incentives except to say it had potential relevance to an underway investigation. She told me that he was a nice young man, kept to himself, and had the largest eyes of any zselétael she’d ever met.”

Lawrance: “I don’t know if it was cause or effect or neither as regards his problematic life choices, but he’d changed species seven times in his past, and after being born one and then getting conjugated he’d elected to become a zselétael again recently. He’d also been an observer of the Process Capture, and that struck me as entirely reasonable. An eclectic faith for an eclectic man. Most of this was unknown to Esther, though she did say he was ‘numerologically gifted’ - their interactions tended to stay more subject-specific and less personal.”

Lawrance: “Maybe the first time where I got surprised since the inciting incident came when she said that he had a well-developed sense of right and wrong. That… threw me a bit. I jumped on the right people’s feet then, and told them I wanted to do another interview with Byland. Something had been missed, and between future errands I needed to see if it could be found.”

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