Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Little Tractor That Couldn't (Esoterrorists, Mutant City Blues)

Sometimes these things write themselves.

Pity the poor farmer whose tractor throws its final wobbly and insists on major repairs, as John Deere may hold that farmer to software ransom. For the full skinny take a look at this article in Vice, but the short version is: as John Deere has installed software on its tractors that can only be repaired at John Deere dealerships, desperate farmers in the US have turned to crackware brewed up by Ukrainian software pirates to keep their tractors free.

And they say there's nothing new under the sun.

I've discussed the potential of unusual hacking and infiltration techniques before. Everything has chipware in it. We are living in Cyberpunk 2020 (except with slightly fewer gun homicides) and we all Love The Computer, yes we do. But how many of you out there realized that tractors were also at the mercy of their manufacturer's chipware?

From John Deere's perspective there's an obvious attraction. Here you have a market that's utterly dependent on your product, but the purchasers insist on carrying out their own repairs rather than hasten to the dealership when there's a problem. Wouldn't life be so much easier, and more lucrative, if they'd just give up their annoying independent ways and become totally reliant on the dealerships?

Meanwhile the purchasers' fears are summed up neatly in the article itself: John Deere could just decide to shut down their tractor remotely and there's not a damn thing they could do about it. It's one thing to have to refer to the EULA when it's an app you bought for $0.99 that went screwy. It's something else again when the product in question costs north of $40,000 and is the only thing standing between you and economic ruin.

In step those nice Ukrainians with their free market dynamic and their oh-so-reasonably priced supplies. Incidentally, perhaps its just me but I had no idea tractors were so complicated. Payload files that program individual parts of the vehicle, allowing the owner to fine-tune the thing like Frankenstein tinkering with the Monster's limbs? Yikes. I in my naiveté figured all you had to do was turn the key, like a slightly more sophisticated Model T Ford.

While I have every sympathy with the farmers in this scenario, it does beg the question: just what might be coming in with that cracked software?

Picture this: some chancer in, oh, let's say Moscow why not, ensures that the crackware coming out of the Ukraine destined for the American Midwest is riddled with custom viruses. Then that same chancer says to Farmer Bob one day, pay me $10,000 in Bitcoin, or your tractor is kaput. Or just decides for a laugh to remote control a dozen tractors and start carving crop circles across Ohio.

Or shuts down the farming industry altogether. After all, once you let someone's hooky software into your industry, it's not just John Deere who can screw with your livelihood.

That's if you're content with ordinary hackers. The Creeper0741 virus I posited for Night's Black Agents could have a field day with this setup. Imagine one gigantic Hive Mind controlling every single tractor in the Midwest. In fact you don't need to do much imagining, since Stephen King's already done the heavy lifting for you.

So what can we do with this, say, from an Esoterrorists or Mutant City Blues perspective?

Well, Esoterrorists is straightforward. A terror cell, possibly with assistance from Ukrainian Esoterrorists, starts using software sourced from the other side of the Membrane to really mess with everyone's day.

The real trick is going to be misdirecting the players. Half of them will, as soon as they get the initial plot hook, suspect that the tractors are the source of the problem. So they are, but it's boring if they guess right away.

So your best bet here is to shoot for something a little more unusual. Say that software was designed to perform a particular magic ritual, but instead brought an Organ Grinder into being - part tractor, part killing machine from the Outer Dark. These things tend to hide in cities, but there are plenty of places across the rural Midwest where something like this could hide out for months, venturing out every so often to claim fresh kills. Often these things are traced by the magic rituals and grimoires used to summon it, but this time it can be tracked via the dodgy forums and black market sites used to disseminate the tainted software.

Or, if your group is comfortable with mature themes, this could be the Snuff Golem of their collective nightmares, perhaps created in collaboration with a farmers-only sex site. 'City folks just don't get it,' claims the site designers. Well, no, they don't - but then, who would? One interesting side note to a creation of this sort is that a tractor-based golem would presumably be less vulnerable to water damage than the standard variety. Not immune, just slightly better protected.

Mutant City Blues is a little different, and hopefully less horrifying.

Oddly enough there are no Powers that directly affect technology, which I can't help but feel is a missed opportunity. However re-writing the Quade Diagram to include them is beyond the scope of this piece.

Judging by the existing background material, it's unlikely that the Heightened Crimes Investigative Unit has a dedicated outpost in the farm belt. I'd have thought it more likely that there's, say, an HCIU representative attached to one of the existing police structures, say the state police or FBI.

What a lonely job that must be; nobody else who shares your duties or unique condition, a ton of paperwork - mostly useless, but it still has to get done - and every time some farmer puts in an insurance claim for dead cows lost to, say, force beams, you've got to rock up with your outdated forensics kit to prove that, no, it really wasn't force beams, so you can take a few zeroes off that claim, Farmer Bob.

Then somebody up and kills you. Wouldn't that just be the icing on the cake.

Ordinarily the police are very proactive about going after cop killers, but the staties and Feebs may not be so quick to get involved when it's the weirdo from the HCIU lying on a slab. So in come the big city boys to play Green Acres for a day, and hopefully avenge their fallen comrade.

Turns out the dead cop was onto something potentially very interesting, because someone seems to have found a way to make the Possession power work on tractors. Or at least so the cop claims in her notes, and it seems pretty clear that she was run over by something that must have been remarkably like a tractor. So who knows? Perhaps the Quade Diagram will have to be rewritten after all.


1) Actually it was the John  Deere rep, who's been trying to wean the locals off of their Ukrainian tech. He's been using software from the home office to mess with local farmers, and when the HCIU cop caught on he used that same software to make it look as if an illegally modified tractor ran her down. Now he's hoping nobody's a skilled enough computer user to work out who was really controlling the tractor that day.

2) Except no, it was the HCIU cop herself. She was desperate to get out of this dead-end assignment; desperate enough to invent a completely new Power variant, hoping that by doing so she's earn a transfer to somewhere where there's more Starbucks than cows per square mile. She used hooky Ukrainian software to do it, and thought it would add to the realism if she could engineer a near-miss incident with a rogue tractor. Except the miss wasn't nearly near enough, as it turned out.

3) But no again, it was a bunch of bored Mutated kids messing with the HCIU cop for kicks, because she kept interfering in their business. Problem is the joke went one step too far, and now the kids are doing their best imitation of Mizaru, Mikazaru and Mazaru, hoping against hope that nobody will ever trace that dodgy tractor control software back to them.

That's it for this week. Enjoy!

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