Ned Leeds closed and locked the front door of his apartment, grateful to be done with another day of school. It was a good day. All his assignments from the previous day came back with high marks. The not-so-pop quiz in second period calculus was less difficult than he feared it would be. He had computer lab after lunch, and a substitute teacher for sixth period, which gave him plenty of time to finish his homework before the final bell rang to send everyone home. He ate lunch with Peter on the bleachers, where they talked about what Spider-Man did the day before, and where Spider-Man should patrol the next day.
After the car alarm incident Ned created a randomizing algorithm to apply to Spider-Man's activities in the hope it would be more difficult for others to find him in the future. It took some doing, especially when he factored in a recovery subroutine to compensate for times Spider-Man was needed outside of recommended areas. Peter initially resisted the idea of keeping to some kind of schedule, but the system typically allowed enough choices that he didn't feel too put upon to stick to the recommended areas. Most of the time.
Ned slid his backpack down the hallway toward his bedroom, went back to the coatrack by the front door to hang up his jacket, then headed for the kitchen. Two of his mother's homemade oatmeal cookies and an apple wound up on a saucer, with a glass of grape juice beside it. He enjoyed his snack at the counter. Mrs. Leeds was a stickler for neatness, and had no time or patience for crumbs (let alone dishes) anywhere but the kitchen and dining table. When he was done, he put the glass and the saucer in the dishwasher for later.
Safe from scolding Ned headed down the hall, snagged his backpack en route to his bedroom, put it on a folding chair just inside his bedroom door. He half fell into his "office" chair and rolled across the room to his "professional" computer setup, completing a four hundred fifty degree spin on the way. He had forty more minutes of glorious privacy before his mother and sister got home. Just enough time to take care of business.
He spent three minutes getting through his own security to the dedicated server where he did his real work — not the homework and social networking he gave his parents full access, and not the new partition he set aside for his upcoming role as guy in the chair. This was his domain, a tiny little corner of cyberspace all his own, where he sent feelers out into the deep web looking for the dark, and letting a little light in where he could.
He had five new contacts to check out, five systems his code torrent — his own term, patent pending — had infiltrated sufficiently to re-assemble itself into software that would contact him from inside whatever firewalls were in place, bypassing every layer of security as if it wasn't there. Well, not actually, but it usually gave him enough access to figure out what the system was for before it locked down the unauthorized communication.
Two contacts turned out to be subscriber-only commercial systems. One was kind of elitist, one was kind of sketchy, but both were legal. He noted them for future reference. After all, you never knew when you might need a handmade alpaca wool blanket, or cheap knockoffs of expensive designer shoes.
The third contact was absolutely vile if the image and video filenames were any indication, and no force on Earth would make him click a single one of them to see if they were. Instead, he sent the command for his software to erase itself from that system, then sent the URL to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Ned knew the internet was full of pornography, but it never occurred to him that he would have to deal with that kind of depravity when he started mapping the deep web.
Contact number four was a launch site for internet scammers. It generated automated phishing e-mails and sent them to every address it could find, while spoofing its own address and meta-data. This system didn't serve any of the links it sent out, to prevent them being backtracked and the system shut down. He sent this URL straight to the FBI Cyber Division and flagged the site on his list. If the system was still running in a couple of weeks, he would shut it down himself.
Two years ago, Ned's grandmother in Manila — Nana Reyes, not Gram Leeds — lost her life's savings to cyber criminals. It was a simple phishing scam, complete with some personal information pulled from online public records and a false forward tag from an address in her e-mail contacts. She gave them her bank account information and a credit card number. One million pesos vanished in three hours. Ned's parents started sending her money to get by, and Ned started learning computer languages to get even. Two years later, he was an unknown player on the internet, a white hat known only by reputation and anecdote. He had reported three hundred cybercrime enterprises, and taken down at least sixty systems on his own — including the scammers who targeted his grandmother.
Nobody messed with Nana Reyes and got away with it. Nobody.
The fifth system was gone by the time he tried to access it through his intrusion software. Ned had seen this before. Some systems would change URLs to avoid detection, but his software usually countered that by staying hidden in the systems under the new address, or by getting copied to the new location along with the rest of the site. This was something different, though, cyber security taken to another level. Either this system matched subscriber software that predicted the changing URL according to a preset pattern, or the system pinged its trusted contacts every time it set itself up under a new location. There was nothing Ned could do but hope his code torrent found its way into this mystery system again, then pounce on it if and when it came back up.
For now, though, all he had was an ominous, if somewhat pretentious, name.