Last time, Mercy found out the political campaign she was working for didn't have a candidate that was in his best health- but they were pushing him into the governor's mansion anyway. In today's finale, she confronts a hacker and a harsh reality…

Mercy cringed as Ellis waved her over to his laptop. She left her usual workspace next to the hamilton server and headed to where Ellis had holed up. On his laptop she saw a YouTube video, playing one of Rockwood’s stump speeches. “We can’t have the YouTube logo on here anymore,” he said, indicating the “Righteous Rants” design. The red and white logo clashed loudly with the Thomas Kinkade-inspired backgrounds Ellis had picked at random from a stock photo site. “Can you make it go away? We can’t be seen to endorse a company like that.”

Mercy could see the bags under his eyes.

A bonfire on a lake

“We can’t,” she said. “It’s against the terms of service to hide the YouTube logo from the embedded player. There is a third-party video player that streams YouTube videos, which you can customize all you want, but it only works on browsers with Flash installed.”

“Most people have Flash, don’t they?”

“Not on iOS or Android,” she said. “Just about all of our volunteers use smartphones for voter canvassing and campaign communications. If you switch to Flash only, they won’t be able to watch videos on their phones.”

“So they can just watch TV, then.”

“What about 18–24 year olds, all those young people that Rockwood wants to cover their college tuition? They rarely use desktop computers now. If they can’t watch Rockwood’s speeches, it’ll look like we’re purposefully ignoring them.”

At the bare mention of a demographic, Sullivan’s ears perked up and she came over. Mercy again explained the Flash situation.

“Come on, Ellis,” Sullivan said, “the logo doesn’t look that bad. And it’s only for a few more days.”

Ellis’s eyes narrowed, but he soon rubbed them and turned back to his laptop. “I guess you have much more important things to do.”

Mercy felt Sullivan’s fingernails in her shoulder as the campaign manager pulled her away from Ellis. “Just let him be, Mercy. I told you what he’s going through with the boss.”

“He gets away with a lot because of that,” she said. “Fine. I’ll just keep our servers up and running until after the polls close.”

“I hope you’ll stay on after that,” Sullivan said. “Imagine if you were part of our staff in Tallahassee. You’d be invaluable.”

“I need to think about it,” Mercy said, meaning not just the job offer but Rockwood’s diagnosis. Did she really want to work for a governor who was suffering from dementia?

She found her way back to hamilton. On the screen was a black-cloaked, hooded figure, with skeletal arms, floating above a lakeside castle.

“Okay, who put up the Dementor?” Mercy shouted to the volunteers. No one was brave enough to come forward. She closed the image, then checked the logs on the load balancer. hamilton was unresponsive, likely a memory leak, so she triggered a reboot.

But hamilton didn’t boot back up. And Mercy smelled burning plastic.

My Own Private Chernobyl

hamilton and jay are both out of commission,” Mercy said. Sullivan sat beside her, trying her best to keep up with Mercy’s explanation. “hamilton was the first. I noticed something was off when the load balancer reported that it wasn’t responding to requests. I figured a reboot would fix that. But then it didn’t come back. Just after that, jay did the same thing.”

It was well after hours. The phone operators had left, as no one wanted to hear a campaign call at 10PM. Ellis had escorted Rockwood home. It wasn’t a good day for their candidate, as he had stared listlessly at a wall for several hours, out of sight of their volunteer corps. Although Rockwood was out of it, the campaign was doing gangbusters, inching ahead of Packard in the polls.

But that all could change if their hub went down just a few days before election day.

“I decided to swap out hamilton’s hard drive, as that’s a common point of failure. I opened him up to replace the drive and I saw this.” Mercy spun hamilton around, showing Sullivan the server’s internals. She pointed to a gummy piece of plastic underneath a heat sink. “I smelled burning plastic earlier. That’s the CPU. We don’t overclock it, so that heat sink and the fans should have kept it cool.”

Mercy closed hamilton’s case. “I checked jay, too. Same thing. I thought there might be a recall on those boxes we got. We didn’t exactly buy top-of-the-line rack servers. So I called the manufacturer. There wasn’t any recall, but these CPUs do have a flaw. It’s called a ‘halt-and-catch-fire’ sequence. It’s a manufacturing flaw, a set of instructions that can cause the CPU to overheat.”

“We didn’t accidentally make the CPU do that, did we?”

“No. It’s all instructions that happen in kernel space — the operating system, I mean. Normal software shouldn’t even be able to execute it. Then I remembered something. Earlier today I was working on hamilton when Ellis asked about the YouTube logo. I stepped away for a second. When I came back, there was a picture of a Dementor open in the browser.”

“What’s a Dementor?”

“It’s a Harry Potter thing. I thought maybe one of the volunteers was playing a prank, since I forgot to lock my screen. But I don’t think I did. I think someone used hamilton to plant an exploit on our servers.”

“Well, why did it affect one of the other servers if it was just on that one?”

“I think the exploit copied itself onto the other servers. It specifically targeted our buildout. It used a defect in how Chromium opens images to inject malicious code into kernel space, which copied itself onto the other web servers, that affect only the kinds of computers we bought. So they all have it.” Mercy sighed. “We need to hire some people. I’m really stretched thin on this.”

“We need to keep this quiet, Mercy.” Sullivan frowned.

“Barbie, I can’t fix this on my own.” Mercy hadn’t used Sullivan’s first name since she had begun working on the campaign. She sighed. “I can’t fix this.”

Sullivan took her hand. “You know, with all the staff we have coming and going, I thought it might be prudent to place some security cameras in headquarters.” She pointed to a poster of Rockwood in a corner; one of his eyes had a pencil-sized hole in the pupil, where a small camera could be placed. “If you remember when you saw this demented or whatnot, we could get the footage.”

Enlarge and Enhance

It didn’t take long to find the culprit on the security footage. A man that neither Mercy nor Sullivan recognized had walked into headquarters, with black hair and black eyeliner. He wore a “Rockwood for Governor” shirt bought from the campaign store, not one issued to volunteers. He wandered through the crowd, grabbed a soda, then sat at the computer for about two minutes while Mercy was talking to Ellis. The footage was low-res, but to Mercy it looked like his fingernails were painted in alternating black and green. He inserted a USB drive into the front of the computer, opened the image of the Dementor, and left just before she got back to the computer.

“God, that’s quick,” Mercy said. “He had to know how we operate.”

“It’s too low quality,” Sullivan said. “We can’t make out his face.”

Mercy had an idea. “Hey, I wonder if he parked in the shopping center.”

“I have a camera pointing outside.” Sullivan switched feeds. This one was pointed through the glass storefront. The glare from the Orlando sun was intense, but they could make out the man walking to a black and green domestic car. She could make out three letters from the car’s license plate.

“I think that’s enough to find him,” Mercy said.

“I’ll call the county sheriff.”

“No, wait. You said we should keep this quiet. If the cops show up, Ellis will know what’s going on, and the media could pick up on it. I don’t know how long it could take for the other servers to, well, melt down. You need to get Ellis to put our code up on Seashell Hosting, like we discussed a while ago. We can’t keep managing it here, and this is proof. But I’m going to track him down myself.”

Sullivan guffawed. “What, are you a bounty hunter or something?”

“I have some good friends,” Mercy replied.

The Half-Blood Hacker

Mercy called an ex-girlfriend who worked at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, who was more than willing to help. She gave Mercy the culprit’s address. He lived in a white stucco apartment complex in Kissimmee. The walls of his apartment building were stained brown from rusty sprinkler water. She found his apartment number, banged on the corrugated metal door.

He answered. His hair was nearly black, he was wearing black eyeliner, and he wore a Slytherin t-shirt and boxers.

“I know you did it,” she said.

A flash of recognition showed on the man’s face. He hid it with a fake smile. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he responded, in an affected British accent.

“Ever heard of surveillance? Stupid Slytherin, 10 points to Ravenclaw. Let me in and I won’t call the cops.”

The false bravado left his face, and he opened the door for her. She stepped inside, noting that he was more than just a casual fan of the Harry Potter books. From the movie posters on the walls, to the many collector’s copies of books on his shelves, to a framed photo of Helena Bonham Carter by his bed.

“A Dementor?” Mercy asked. “Seems pretty obvious.”

“It’s a calling card.” The man sat at his computer desk, squirming.

“Are you working alone?”

“I’ve been paid for my discretion.”

Mercy pulled out her phone. “Is it enough to cover bail?”

The man held up his hands. “Fine, it’s Packard.”

Mercy pocketed her phone. “Okay. What’s the fix?”

He giggled. “There isn’t one. I mean, maybe if it weren’t some web developer like you. Yeah, I looked you up on LinkedIn before I stopped by your headquarters. You put together that little cheap server farm yourself, I’ll bet. No, there’s no fix. Shutting down the hardware triggers the HACF sequence. Packard didn’t want everything down at once, because you people would know something was wrong and start digging. But I figure you’d apply rolling updates to each server, rebooting each time. Each one would fail, and you wouldn’t be able to guess why.”

“No fix? I don’t have time to talk to you, then.”

“Hey, could I get your number—“ the man said, the clanging of his front door drowning out his voice.

Executive Decision

“We’re done for,” Mercy said, getting back to headquarters an hour later. She explained the situation to Sullivan, who was at headquarters, and Ellis, who was out with Rockwood on speakerphone. The servers would need to run flawlessly until election day. If they didn’t — if they required a software update or a memory leak forced Mercy to turn any of them off — they’d melt. “We need hosting. I mean it.”

“Absolutely not,” Ellis said. “The boss is adamant.”

“You have no idea what’s going to happen if–”

“I have work to do.” Ellis hung up.

“Mercy, please.” Sullivan rubbed her temples. “Just … do what you can to keep the servers going. It’s only for a few days.”

Mercy considered her options. One: she could do her best to keep the servers up, and watch as they failed one by one, until election day came and there was nothing else that could be done. Two: she could buy more servers as others failed, but that could get expensive, not to mention tedious. Three: she could migrate everything onto Seashell’s safe hardware tonight, and risk Ellis’s wrath.

In the end, Rockwood, a man who couldn’t remember a conversation he had five minutes ago, wasn’t worth it.

“I’m moving the code to Seashell,” Mercy said. Her stomach felt heavy. “I’m leaving the campaign as soon as it’s done.”

Sullivan sunk into her chair. “I won’t stop you. I won’t stop you moving the code, and I won’t stop you leaving. I know it’s your choice.” She smiled wanly. “And Ellis won’t have any idea how to get the code back onto those servers, so it’ll stay running until after the election’s over.”

Mercy made the call to Seashell Hosting. Despite the late hour, they were excited about hosting Rockwood’s campaign and offered affordable rates. In a few hours she had transferred everything to their servers: the database, the code, their internal files. After that, she asked a technician to restart their virtual server, in case some rack-mounted unit suddenly melted. Nothing happened.

After she grabbed her things, she shook Sullivan’s hand. “I’ll keep in touch,” the older woman said.

Mercy drove home.

At her apartment, she turned on her laptop. She played the stump speech Rockwood gave in Stoneford, the one responsible for his meteoric rise and her own time with the campaign, one that would soon see him in the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee. She didn’t pay attention to the words this time. All she could see was a scared old man, desperately improvising to hide the fact that he couldn’t remember what he was doing. In the beginning, Mercy thought he was brilliant. But in the end, he simply had been making it up the whole time.

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