- netwars - The Code Compilation
- The Author
- Title page
- The Code
- The Code 1: Crash
- RULE #1: Always Introduce Yourself
- RULE #2: It’s Nothing Personal
- RULE #3: Accidents Will Happen
- RULE #4: Stay In The Shadows
- The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn
- The Code 2: Betrayal
- RULE #5: Only Fools Rush In
- GIRL 219
- RULE #6: Keep Your Enemies Close
- RULE #7: Take Care of Business
- 7 A.M.
- The Code 3: Attack
- RULE #8: Coming, Ready or Not
- RULE #9: Sleep is Your Only Friend
- RULE #10: Familiarity Breeds Contempt
- RULE #11: One Day at a Time
- Into Darkness
- The Code 4: Decoy
- RULE #12: Physician, Heal Thyself
- RULE #13: The Early Bird Catches the Worm
- RULE #14: Appearances Can Be Deceptive
- RULE #15: No Man is an Island
- The Good Samaritan
- The Code 5: Scapegoat
- RULE #16: Take Control
- RULE #17: Secrets and Lies
- RULE #18: Never Negotiate
- RULE #19: A Bird in the Hand
- Being Human
- The Code 6: Revenge
- RULE #20: The Road to Nowhere
- RULE #21: Run, Don’t Hide
- RULE #22: Softly, Softly Catchy Monkey
- RULE #23: It’s All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye
- The Rising
- What happens after Strider’s vow for revenge?
netwars – The Code Compilation
netwars: The Code. Welcome to the Deep Web. Those parts of the internet no search engine explores. The place where you can buy anything. Drugs, children, weapons. Anyone can do it. And get away free
Anthony Prince, head of high-tech security firm PrinceSec, dies in a plane crash at the hands of a hacker named Strider. By day, Strider is Scott Mitchell, an analyst at the National Cyber Crime Unit (NCCU). On the night of Anthony Prince’s death, PrinceSec suffers a cyber-attack. Passwords, secrets, security measures to high profile targets are stolen. When the NCCU is called to assess the damage, they find a link between Prince and a criminal hacker group called Black Flag. The race is on for Mitchell to protect his hacker identity as Strider and to stop Black Flag before the next attack.
M. Sean Coleman launched his career as one of the original writers on Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Online. He has since written and produced original, award-winning shows for MSN, O2, Sony Pictures, Fox, the BBC, and Channel 4. He continues to write novels, graphic novels and tv scripts from his home in London.
The Code – Compilation
Complete First Series
You will never know me, but I will be the death of you.
I saw what you did — I see everything you do.
I heard what you said — I know your secrets.
I know where you went — I follow you everywhere.
You are not above scrutiny — I scrutinise everything.
You are not above the law — I am the law.
Don’t ask for forgiveness, nor pardon, nor grace.
Just understand this:
If you cannot live by the Code, you must die by the Code.
The Code 1
RULE #1: Always Introduce Yourself
Targets should know that they have been attacked and understand why. Ultimately, they must know that their secret is out.
He hated Paris in the springtime. It was all such a cliché — couples walking hand-in-hand along the Champs-Élysées, and kissing for posed photographs beneath the Eiffel Tower, or buying overpriced, single-stem roses from street hawkers at pavement cafes simply because every other couple there had just done exactly the same thing. Of course, he understood that they were all just fulfilling a romantic stereotype, it was what they had come here for, but it was the sheer unoriginality of it all that annoyed him — countless couples going through the motions of being in love to such an extent that Romance Tourism was now a major business in Paris.
Strider, as he was known online, sat in his elegant apartment, just off the Rue de Sévigné listening to the evening bustle of the 3rd Arrondissement, and wondered again what had happened to make him so cynical? Why should he care if people downloaded their love lives wholesale from the movies. At least it gave them a framework within which to conduct the relationship. If it made them happy, why should it bother him so much how they went about it? Perhaps it was his own lack of interest in having a relationship that upset him more. It seemed that the very thing every other human sought out had always left him cold. It wasn’t that he had anything against women, in fact he found them fascinating, and he had an appropriate understanding of men, but when it came to relationships, even friendships, the whole concept just seemed so illogical. Why would you allow another person to get that close to you? Or get to know you that well? How could you let someone look into your soul and see you for who you really are? He simply couldn’t understand the appeal. He had never let anybody know him to that extent. Not even those who would call themselves friends knew what Strider did or who he was. He would always be alone, ultimately, and there was something about being in Paris that hammered that fact home.
Still, in a matter of hours this would all be over, and he would be on a high-speed train bound for the relative normality of London and far away from the capital of romance. These last hours had passed pleasingly slowly. During the final moments of any assignment, time seemed to slip and slide at different paces — ponderously slowly for hours and then, when the moment of truth finally arrived, he was always afraid it would pass too quickly and he would miss it altogether. He could feel the quickening in the pit of his stomach. A feeling of nervous excitement, but with something else in it — something almost spiritual. This was his calling.
His apartment — one of several safe havens he had dotted around Europe — was both his laboratory and his office. It had been modified to filter out much of the rough noise of the city below, and today he had appreciated the silence more than ever as he had spent the afternoon checking and rechecking his work, making sure everything was perfect. After months of preparation, it all came down to this one brief moment of absolute concentration. He needed to focus now; a man’s death depended on it.
Anthony Prince strode out onto the tarmac at Paris-Le Bourget airport and headed directly to his small private jet — a Cessna Citation Mustang. His pride and joy. Prince had often joked that if it were a toss-up between saving his wife and saving the Cessna, the plane would always win. In truth, it already had. One of the reasons he was going back to London tonight was to explain to his wife why he had to leave her — to tell her his side of the story. There was no point continuing to live a lie, but he felt he owed her a version of the truth she could live with. Besides, there were things he needed to do in London before he vanished for good.
He pulled the collar of his designer coat up around his ears and bent his head against the cold rain. He had hoped to be in the air before this weather front had come in, but he had been caught in yet another series of calls from his business partner in London. The company was in the middle of rolling out upgrades to its flagship security software, Cryptos, and the process needed Prince on hand. As CEO of PrinceSec — a specialist security software company which supplied governments and private corporations with state-of-the-art cyber security systems around Europe — Anthony Prince had built an enormously successful company on the back of a single piece of code, and he had done it all by hard work and a healthy disrespect for fair play. He was in the pocket of a number of major players in the UK and, thanks to this new software roll-out, he was expanding his trade to the EU.
Prince loved being in control and he loved exerting his power. Right now, however, he felt completely out of control. He needed to get back to the UK. He needed to get rid of the evidence, and he needed to get the hell out of there again, before the morning news broke, bringing all of his skeletons crashing out of the closet with it.
He climbed into the empty plane alone. Prince insisted on flying himself whenever he could, despite the company’s protests. It was a control thing, but it was one of very few moments when he could concentrate fully on something other than running the company. Just him, the plane and the elements. No calls, no meetings, nothing else to think about but keeping the bird in the air and putting her down safely. He was a good pilot.
He smiled grimly as he settled himself into the small cockpit and began the preflight sequence. He liked it here. Paris-Le Bourget was a small airport with a rich aviation history, the most seminal and famous event in its illustrious past being the arrival on 21 May 1927 of Charles Lindbergh — the first man to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic in his famous single engine monoplane, the Spirit of St Louis. Despite the relative comfort of his own small Cessna, in these moments before take-off Prince usually liked to imagine himself as one of those great heroes of aviation history, strapped into an old plane, unsure if this flight would be his last. Today felt different. Today he didn’t feel at all heroic. He felt like he was fleeing the battlefield.
He slipped his laptop into the small strongbox beside the co-pilot’s seat. Even though he was alone on this flight, he liked to have the machine under lock and key — there were secrets there he needed to keep close. Of course, even if someone got hold of his laptop, the heavy encryption on his files and his almost impenetrable password system would make it very difficult for all but the most serious hackers to find anything incriminating, but even so, he felt comforted to know it was locked up. Especially right now. He needed to get back to the UK and download the data onto his secure server and wipe the drive. It was the same procedure after every one of these little extra-curricular trips of his, but all the more important now that his secret was out. He needed to destroy any evidence linking him to his contacts. He might be able to escape the UK authorities if he was careful, but if any of his new associates were implicated, they would find him and they would kill him without question. There must be no trace.
‘Good evening Tower, Citation Charlie Juliet Four, holding short runway two right,’ he said to the control tower. He felt his voice wavering and cleared his throat.
‘Citation Charlie Juliet Four, winds 200 at 7, runway two right, cleared for takeoff,’ came the reply in a heavy French accent.
Prince leaned lightly on the throttle and felt the engines respond to his touch. He pushed the plane through the streaming rain towards the end of runway two, wipers pumping across the windscreen. Despite hundreds of hours of amassed flight time, he still felt nervous going up at night and in the rain. He had no choice today though, he didn’t have much time.
‘If you ever have any doubts, don’t fly,’ his flying instructor had drilled into him. He wasn’t sure that the advice stretched to fear of being arrested on landing.
‘Come on Tony! With both balls!’ he hollered to himself above the strain of the engine. The strangely encouraging phrase was a family tradition that had come from his Spanish father’s playful abuse of his son whenever Anthony Prince was being feeble. ‘Vamos Antonio! Con dos cojones!’ he would bellow joyously, and Anthony would laugh and redouble his efforts. ‘Crude, but effective,’ thought Prince fondly. As he pushed the throttle forward, the small plane bumped and jostled along the runway, gathering speed. The rain pounded against the windshield and the headlights barely penetrated the gloom.
‘Paris in the spring time, my arse,’ muttered Prince as the plane nosed up into the air with a small wobble.
It was a flight he made frequently, crossing the channel and heading across southern England up to the small airport in Surrey where Roger, his driver, would be waiting to pick him up. Even in this weather, it was a pretty straightforward run. He eased the plane out of its ascent, wishing he could see further into the gloom.
Have faith in your instruments, he thought. Seconds after the thought crossed his mind, a beep from the console indicated he had reached his desired altitude.
‘Easy money,’ he said out loud. It was one of his favourite phrases.
Once he had signed off with the tower and double checked all of his readouts, he put the plane into autopilot. Now she could do all the hard work. He sat quite still, staring into the driving rain, mesmerised by the rapid back-and-forth sweep of the wipers. He reflected on his week and on the transaction he had just completed. It was despicable act, really, for a man in his position. As CEO he should care more about what this scandal would do to PrinceSec’s reputation and, more importantly, to his staff, but Anthony Prince only cared about one person and he was going to be just fine. He hoped.
‘I should have just stayed out of it,’ he thought ruefully.
This past year had been the most stressful and the most exciting of Anthony Prince’s life. He had always worked hard, always earned well. Yes he had stepped on some people on his way up the ladder, but how else were you supposed to get to the top? He had always been above board, though. Of course, he had dirty little secrets, like his penchant for young girls, and his secret stash of filthy images bought from shady operators under a cloak of anonymity. He had always struggled to see why society felt it was so wrong. He was just looking. In his search for images, he had come across a network of like-minded individuals who called themselves the Teddybear’s Picnic Network. Through them, he had found a place to explore his feelings and share his desires, and it was all completely anonymous. It was still his little secret, and nobody else would ever know who he was. A year ago, that all changed.
He had been working in his office late one night when a call had come in on his direct line. The caller had identified himself by the ominous sounding handle Nightshade, and had directed Prince to a secure server, where they had engaged in an hour-long conversation via an instant messaging client. By the end of the conversation, Prince knew nothing would ever be the same. The caller knew everything about him, everything about his family, his bank account, his whole life. That didn’t worry Prince too much, it was all pretty easily accessible data, he had nothing to hide on that front. But the caller had gone on to detail every one of Prince’s illicit transactions. Child pornography. When Nightshade had typed the words, Prince’s heart stopped. He knew. But how could he have known? The Teddybear’s Picnic Network guaranteed anonymity.
Nightshade had made Prince an offer that night — his silence in return for data and access. Reluctantly, Prince had agreed. It went against everything he had ever stood for, but Nightshade had him over a barrel. He couldn’t face the idea of his secret getting out.
This was no ordinary blackmail though. Nightshade had been offering a rather lucrative partnership. A way out of the life that Prince had been living, a way to explore his wildest desires and a way to make more money than he could even dream of. And why shouldn’t he? Wasn’t he sick of struggling against the bureaucrats in government? Wasn’t he tired of putting PrinceSec’s bottom line at risk simply because politicians or multi-million dollar corporations were too tight to upgrade their security? They all knew the risks, but they would rather wait until somebody actually proved how vulnerable they were.
Nightshade had told Prince that he represented an underground organisation who called themselves Black Flag. Prince had come across Black Flag before — an elite group of hackers who worked in the criminal market on the Deep Web. They were exactly the kind of hackers Cryptos had been designed to stop. Nightshade laid out their proposal and, by the end of the conversation, Prince’s recruitment into the Black Flag ranks had begun. It made perfect sense, the way Nightshade explained it. All this time Prince had been protecting the government and big corporations from potential cyber attacks — and to what end? Who were they to say what was right and wrong, when they were guilty of far worse crimes against their own people. Prince slowly came to understand that he had been protecting the wrong people. What Black Flag did was real, it was here and now, it forced change in a way that made governments uncomfortable, and Prince could be part of that. Not to mention the fact that he could earn a lot more money, and thereby pursue his own fantasies.
The first part of the plan had been to ensure that PrinceSec’s Cryptos software was installed in as many manufacturing plants, power grids, water treatment plants and other national infrastructure processes as possible. They needed to encourage rapid and widespread take up. Nightshade claimed to have contacts in military and municipal installations that would benefit from a sizeable back-hander for speeding the process through, but most of the drive needed to appear to be a legitimate business offer. PrinceSec had been supplying industry-leading security software for years and with a substantial number of the major control systems operating in Europe already using PrinceSec’s software, they were in a unique position of trust. It didn’t take long, at discounted prices, to get substantial buy-ins across the board. Part one of the plan had gone incredibly well. A cheap and robust software solution to a substantial security risk — who would turn it down? Over fifty per cent of the major infrastructure and manufacturing processes in the UK were now running Cryptos, and the take-up in Europe had been strong too. That represented some eleven million devices inside schools, hospitals, production and manufacturing plants, refineries and transport networks. But that was all gravy — they had only really needed to get into one particular control system, and that had been achieved last month. Their operation could move on to the next level, and Prince’s work for Black Flag was as good as done. It was time for him to make his exit.
Prince knew how close he was to getting away with it all. He only had to get through the next day and his part in the whole sordid contract would be over. He would have more money than he knew what to do with, and he could take himself away, outside of the UK. To paradise. PrinceSec would be destroyed, but he didn’t care anymore. Over the past year, he had found a way to fulfil all of his fantasies without ever having to worry about being caught. The Deep Web, with all of its secretive, anonymous boards. Oh, the things he had seen. The depths he had plumbed. It seemed money could buy you happiness, after all. He had already spent a large fortune setting up a luxury house in Thailand, and with the help of a few new documents and his friends in the Teddybear’s Picnic Network, he had already made plans to have a little welcoming party when he got there. He was finally going to realise his fantasies. He had built a palace, and now he would find a little Princess to live there. Nightshade and his employers could have the rest. He knew he should feel some kind of guilt, but he was way beyond that now. There was no stopping them, and if he was honest, Prince had begun to enjoy being part of something illegal. It suited him.
Another ping sounded from the console, breaking his daydream.
‘Bloody thing,’ he muttered, looking down. It was the altitude indicator. It had been acting up on the flight over, coming on as a warning when there was nothing wrong. He had asked for the plane to be serviced while he was in Paris, and the mechanic on the ground had assured him that everything was in perfect condition. He tapped the light. It stayed on, staring back at him like a malevolent eye. He wouldn’t have time to get it looked at again tonight. It had been that very same mechanic who had handed Prince the envelope which had contained proof of Prince’s impending downfall.
‘This was left for you,’ the softly spoken man had said. It had struck Prince as odd at the time that someone would have left his private mail with a mechanic, but he had been on the phone and hadn’t paid too much attention. He had thanked the man, taken the envelope and the service log book, and carried on with his call. As he had walked away, he had heard the mechanic wish him a safe flight. It was only after he opened the envelope, while sitting in the business lounge, that Prince realised the trouble he was in.
The envelope had contained a single slip of paper with a series of digits written on it. Four sets of numbers, separated by three dots. Prince recognised them immediately as a numerical website address. Sitting in the lounge at the airport, he had opened a secure browser on his laptop and keyed in the numbers. He often received information this way from his contacts, and he hadn’t thought twice about entering the digits.
The address took him to a directory with several links in it. The first link said ‘Read Me’. As Prince clicked on the link, it refreshed the screen with a cryptic note, which read:
You will never know me, but I will be the death of you.
I saw what you did — I see everything you do.
I heard what you said — I know your secrets.
I know where you went — I follow you everywhere.
You are not above scrutiny — I scrutinise everything.
You are not above the law — I am the law.
Don’t ask for forgiveness, nor pardon, nor grace.
Just understand this:
If you cannot live by the Code, you must die by the Code.
Prince had never heard of Strider, but he found this note very threatening. As he tried to close the window, it triggered a series of new windows to pop open. Each of the new windows revealed another part of Prince’s online life: evidence of all of his purchases and interactions with the Teddybear’s Picnic Network, every minute he had spent browsing the dark recesses of the Internet, copies of the images he had shared, even a picture of the house he had just bought in Thailand. There had been no demands and no ultimatum.
Prince had called Nightshade immediately, and read him the message. Nightshade had been spooked, Prince could hear it in the hacker’s voice, but he had assured him that he would take care of it. It was one of the benefits Prince enjoyed from his work with Black Flag, and he felt confident that Nightshade would be able to remove any threat to their plans from this new source, but he still didn’t like the idea that there was somebody else out there who knew his secret. He wondered how much else Strider knew.
Sitting in that small plane now, Prince felt that rising wave of panic again. He needed to get back, and burn his drives at work. He had been foolhardy. What if this Strider character had already informed the authorities — they could be waiting for him at the airport. It’d all be over for him, certainly, but that didn’t worry him as much as the threat of reprisals from Black Flag. If their plan was compromised now, the whole organisation could be unmasked, and it would all be Prince’s fault. He had let his guard down. He had been greedy. If his stupidity caused any of the members of Black Flag to be exposed, Prince knew he would end up paying the ultimate price for that failure.
Ping. He was starting to hate that ominous little light. He disengaged the autopilot and tried to right the plane. The controls felt like they were fighting against him. His stomach lurched as he felt the plane go into a roll. What the hell was happening? The controls not only wouldn’t respond, but they seemed to do the opposite of everything he asked. As if from nothing, the small jet started to spin out of control, spiralling straight downward.
‘Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!’ he called over the radio. ‘Charlie Juliet Four. I’m out of control. I’m going down! Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!’ Nothing but static came as a response. He had been in a roll like this before; the Cessna was a touchy jet. He needed to act quickly. Trying to compose himself, Prince released the stick, eased forward on it again and felt the plane lift out of the roll and come back to level. He was a good pilot. He tried to calm down again, breathed out, and felt the plane come fully back into his control. He couldn’t see anything in the gloom outside, but he checked his console which confirmed that he’d lost height, so he cautiously eased the stick forward to lift the nose.
‘Control? This is Citation Charlie Juliet four. I’m okay. I’m okay. Levelling up,’ he said.
‘Goodnight, sweet Prince,’ came the reply.
Prince looked up from the console just in time to see the looming white face of the cliffs of Dover right in front of him. His altitude indicator was way off — he had pulled up level just above the surface of the sea. There was not even time to scream before his small jet crashed into the white cliff face and exploded with the force.
‘Goodnight, sweet Prince,’ Strider repeated, smiling darkly at his own joke.
The radar on his desk showed that the small plane had hit the ground just at the edge of the British coast. Anthony Prince hadn’t quite made it back onto home soil. Strider gave himself a moment to savour the feeling, breathing deeply. He always enjoyed the sensation of power and control he got from these moments. It was genuinely arousing — unlike any other moment in his life. Ordinarily, he would allow himself time to revel in it, but tonight he didn’t indulge the feeling for long. It had been a busy week, and there was still a lot of work to be done before he could call this job complete. Loose ends to be tied up.
Quickly, efficiently, he began to strip the machines from his desk; carefully disconnecting cables and coiling them precisely. Equipment was precious. For this particular job, he had established an exact working replica of the Flight Control System used by both French and British Air Traffic Control. It was much easier than people might think. Some of their equipment hadn’t been updated since the seventies and spares, parts, manuals and protocols were all often available online. Hell, some of the parts had even come straight from eBay. It was all about preparation in this job. Prepare, execute, disappear. Each stage of the mission as important as the next.
In the end, the actual attack was usually the easiest part. Getting close to your target was the difficult bit. Getting deep enough under their skin to know how to stop them and how to hurt them most, but at the same time to minimise the damage their accidental death inflicted on others. Tonight’s attack had been no different.
He had been secretly following Anthony Prince for over three months, and in that time he had got to know a lot about the CEO of the most respected security software company in Europe. He knew what he was afraid of, allergic to, and good at. He even knew what Prince had bought his wife for her last birthday. In fact, he had suggested it — subliminally, of course. He liked the notion that he had been inside the man’s system so long he had become entirely invisible.
Most importantly, he knew Prince’s darkest secret. Strider had seen some darkness in the world, and very little of it kept him awake at night, but he kept a special place for child molesters and paedophiles. The Teddybear’s Picnic Network, or TPN as they were known in their chatrooms, were an exclusive bunch, who took member privacy very seriously indeed. Strider had seen the way they protected their own. He had, in fact, only begun to pursue Prince after the man had managed to evade exposure in a sting targeting the TPN. He always liked to give justice a chance — but he had watched as the group closed in to protect its members when the authorities swooped in, destroying evidence and burning servers. He had seen Prince walk away without suspicion and pick up right where he left off. So, when he had discovered Prince’s plans to take his passion to the next level, Strider had felt compelled to step in. Child trafficking was unforgivable in Strider’s eyes. Prince had definitely broken the Code.
So, Prince had become his next target and he made it his job to find out everything about the man. It had been easy to learn, for example, that Prince preferred to fly himself. He also knew exactly when Prince was due to fly out of Paris-Le Bourget that evening, what his flight plan was going to be, and how long he was due to stay in London. Prince’s stop in the UK was scheduled to be very short, and a falsified flight plan for his departure was already logged. Strider knew that tonight was the night. When he had seen Prince’s request for a mechanical service while his plane was on the ground, Strider had been delighted — this would be even easier than he’d hoped.
Social engineering, as it is known, was a key weapon in Strider’s arsenal. He could adopt any disguise with confidence, and take on any persona with ease. People assumed hackers were social misfits; pale-skinned introverts who sat alone in darkened rooms, incapable of engaging with the real world. Strider was exactly the opposite — young, charming but forgettable, handsome but not strikingly so, average height, average build, neutral voice. He blended right in. He prided himself on being able to get close to even the most carefully protected people in the world. For some reason, no matter how paranoid in every other aspect of their lives, people somehow forgot to look over their digital shoulder quite as carefully. Nobody had really figured out the digital equivalent of bodyguards yet. Strider usually spent every moment of his spare time preparing background on anyone in a position of power, just in case the call came in. He watched them all, the whole strange circus, noting down the smallest details. It was always in the smallest details that the most important clues were hidden. Be prepared. Sometimes his targets were politicians, sometimes law-makers, sometimes CEOs of major corporations. The one thing that linked them all was their arrogance in thinking that they were above the law. Well, perhaps they were above the law, but they were not beyond the reach of the Code.
Considering who Prince was — the head of a global cyber security firm — the end game with him had been a little disappointing. Posing as a specialist Cessna mechanic had proved remarkably simple. Getting through airport security had required nothing more than a company logo and a laminated staff card, which he had run off in his own apartment. Of course, he always used highly sophisticated equipment to make sure everything looked authentic, but it was hardly necessary — very few people checked too closely. After all, what kind of criminal would bother posing as a mechanic for private jets? It hadn’t taken long to load his bug into the GPS control system which fed the jet’s autopilot. He had even personally handed the documents back to Prince, looked the man in the eye and wished him a safe flight. Then, once Prince was in the air, it was simply a matter of waiting until he signed off with French Air Traffic control and engaged the autopilot. Once activated, he could take control of most of the Cessna’s onboard functionality, including Prince’s ability to turn the now malfunctioning autopilot off. By the time he reached British airspace, it would have been too late for Prince to save himself anyway, even if he had realised his controls had been over-ridden. He had been warned and now he was dead.
Strider never felt guilt. Why should he? He was performing a service after all. Policing the ones the police couldn’t catch, governing the ungovernable. Yes, he acknowledged the irony — at the end of the day he was still taking a life, and to do so was the ultimate disengagement with the human condition. It left you on the outside, looking in, unable to find a way back to a normal existence. But then Strider had been an outsider for so long, he couldn’t remember a time when he felt part of something. Everything about him was a facade.
He was quick and efficient in his clean up, carefully transporting each piece of his temporary lab to the lead-lined storeroom he had installed behind a false wall in the lounge. An untrained eye would barely notice that the lounge here was smaller than any of those in the other apartments in the building. Besides, Strider never had visitors, and any curious neighbours had long since given up trying to engage the handsome but shy young man in conversation. Even the girl from the floor below had now stopped popping by on false pretences. It had taken a few months but she had finally got the message, he was not relationship material.
He thought about Anthony Prince and about the man’s poor, long-suffering wife. She was an innocent party in all this. He knew that by this time tomorrow she would have been alone anyway. At least this way, she would never have to find out what her husband really liked. To her, and the rest of the world, Anthony Prince’s death would be a tragic accident, and no one would ever know his secret. It was the cleanest, safest way to dispose of a body. Let technology do the killing for you.
Earlier that evening, to ensure that all of those loose ends had been tied up, Strider had accessed Prince’s desktop computer in the PrinceSec London offices and had deleted an encrypted folder of images which he knew Prince kept in his document folders, making sure to overwrite the space with a folder of similar sized documents — family photos he had lifted from Prince’s laptop. Once people learned of Anthony Prince’s unfortunate accident, there would inevitably be an inquiry into his death, and when they probed his last actions, Strider didn’t want any evidence pointing to the notion that someone may have had a reason to kill Prince. He needed Prince to go quietly if his plan to shut down the Teddybear’s Picnic Network was going to work.
Stepping out of his apartment into the driving rain and popping up an umbrella, Strider felt satisfied with his work. Perhaps Paris wasn’t so bad after all.
It hadn’t been confirmed yet, but Nightshade knew. Prince had promised to check in with him as soon as he landed. It was now four in the morning, and he had still heard nothing. As soon as Nightshade had seen the coastguard report of a small aircraft crash, he had known. Anthony Prince was gone. Which was a real shame, and terrible timing. He would have a lot of cleaning up to do to make sure that Prince didn’t lead anyone back to him or his team. He couldn’t worry about that now, he had a much bigger problem. With Prince gone, their source of information and access was gone. He was going to have to go in and take as much as he could before anybody realised the CEO was dead. Nightshade had used Prince’s login details many times in the past, but with Prince dead, he wouldn’t be able to do that again after tonight. He needed to know everything Prince knew. The whole plan rested on it.
‘Think, think, think,’ he muttered, drumming the sides of his forehead repeatedly with the fingers of both hands — as though keying directly onto his brain. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, his bare feet tucked under his knees and laptop balanced precariously on his lap. His fingers left his head and prodded carefully at the keyboard. He hit return. A beep came back.
He cursed as the password was rejected, yet again, by the remote server. He stared at the login screen of Prince’s remote desktop. How could the password have changed? He knew Prince hadn’t changed it, it wasn’t part of the plan. Nightshade was the kind of person who made contingencies for his contingencies. Even though he had been convinced that Prince would play his part in the plan exactly as directed, Nightshade couldn’t leave anything to chance. Right at the beginning of their relationship, he had installed a key logger — a small program that monitors each keystroke a user types on a keyboard — on all of Prince’s devices. He was sure Prince was aware of that fact — the CEO was highly security conscious after all — but it had never stopped him from allowing Nightshade access. Somehow, now, Prince’s password was not matching the one he had input last. Which meant that the password could only have been changed from a device that Nightshade wasn’t monitoring.
‘Think,’ he urged himself to clear his mind. Had Prince cut him out, right at the last minute? Nightshade found himself wondering whether Prince was even dead. Perhaps he had just disappeared. Perhaps he had got cold feet, knowing that this Strider character was about to expose him. Perhaps he thought the risks were too high and just did a runner. No. That didn’t make sense. Prince would know that there was no way he could back out now. Nightshade couldn’t allow paranoia to creep in.
“Think, think, think,” this time he drummed the sides of his laptop. Then it struck him. Contingencies for the contingencies. He didn’t need to go in through Prince’s machine at all. With a little luck, he could access the server directly. Only three people in the company had full system administrator rights to the company server and Prince was one of them. Even if someone else had changed Prince’s desktop login, the chances were they hadn’t gone to the trouble of changing his server admin password. Nightshade would have to go in the hard way.
Feeling a nervous thrill of excitement, he accessed the server via a secure shell, and pausing only to check his file log for the right admin password, he keyed it in. A reassuring ping told him it had worked. He was in.
Nightshade wasted no time getting what he needed: PrinceSec’s entire database of Cryptos clients, complete with firewall details, administrator user IDs, IP addresses, security weaknesses and current software versions, all of which were worth millions to the right buyer. But Nightshade wasn’t selling. This database was the key to stage two of their master plan and that was worth a hell of a lot more.
He turned his attention to removing any further evidence of his relationship with Prince. They had been very cautious — never using real names or locations — but Nightshade wanted to make double-sure. Being careful to cover his tracks, he checked the server for any sign of his connection. He was sure that Prince had never used his company desktop to contact him, but it was worth checking. Having convinced himself that every trace of their contact was destroyed, Nightshade logged out. He felt a wave of relief wash over him as he stretched his arms up above his head. It had been a long night, but it had been strangely entertaining.
Since Prince had called to tell him about the threat, Nightshade had spent a large part of the evening looking for evidence of the hacker who called himself Strider. As he trawled through the Deep Web, he began to piece together an image of what Strider was capable of. Secretive, mysterious and obviously dangerous, Strider may prove to be a worthy adversary. He began to feel a grudging respect for the hacker’s abilities. Strider was very good, and although Nightshade was angry that he had got in the way tonight, he wished they could have worked together somehow. It was so rare to find such talent attached to an obviously murderous mind. It would never happen now, he knew that he couldn’t leave a hacker like Strider out there in the world. Especially after he had come so close to ruining Nightshade’s plans. No one kills a member of Black Flag and gets away with it. They would have to get rid of him.
‘But not quite yet,’ he thought.
Nightshade smiled. It was a smile of pure, twisted malice. There was still some fun to be had. There was something intriguingly familiar about the hacker’s work, and Nightshade wanted to know more. Besides, there was no point getting rid of an adversary without letting them know they’d been beaten — where was the fun in that?
‘So, Strider,’ he mused. ‘Are you coming out to play?’
RULE #2: It’s Nothing Personal
Your job is to make sure that nobody is above the law. You are not in the business of vendettas.
The Internet. Wonder of the modern age. Liberator of free speech and creative expression. Over the past twenty years, thanks to the almost global adoption of connected devices, human interaction has undergone an enormous transformation. The world is a much smaller place, and the World Wide Web is to blame. It’s a place of social networking, Google searching, music streaming, desktop protesting, self-publishing, information in nanoseconds, sharing, spreading, community, productivity. There’s something for everyone: if you can think of it, the Internet will have something dedicated to it. That’s how the majority of the connected population see it, anyway. Very few of us stop to think about just how many of our daily activities are now ‘connected’. Yes, we are aware of identity theft, spamming, phishing, viruses and worms, but few of us will look at a device which has been built to make our lives easier and see it as a possible weapon.
Potentially, anything with an electronic component could be hacked to cause huge damage. An automated drip in a health clinic, for example, could be reprogrammed to deliver a fatal dose, and reset again before staff were any the wiser. A simple security update to the control room computers in a power plant could grant hackers access to the entire grid. Using your smartphone on your work Wi-Fi network could open up all of your corporate secrets to your competitors. Your phone, your house, your pacemaker, even your car keys could be turned against you if the desire was there.
So, why aren’t we seeing more attacks like this every day? We are, they’re just not widely reported. Perhaps because a lot of them can be put down to technical glitches. Perhaps companies and governments don’t like to admit their vulnerabilities — just think what it could do to your share price or your chances of re-election. Probably, though, the main reason we don’t hear about great numbers of personal cyber-attacks on ordinary people, is because, for those criminally minded enough to want to kill or maim, it’s still a lot quicker and easier to use a knife or a gun.
For the most part, we don’t see ourselves as potential victims of an online assault because we have an over-riding feeling that we are too small to bother with, or that someone else is looking after us. Even if we did take the time to consider what an electronic attack might look like, or where it could come from, we would need to look beneath what we all know as the Internet. Beneath that social, entertaining, informative and practical crust that we all use on a daily basis, lies a much darker and more sinister side to the Internet, known colloquially as The Deep Web. A place where anonymity is almost guaranteed, if you’re careful. A place where anyone can browse for and buy drugs, pornography, weapons, even death. On any number of online black-market sites, you can buy a shipment of methamphetamine as easily as ordering a take-away curry. Using Tor — a free, open-source software which directs Internet traffic through a worldwide volunteer network of more than three thousand relays — you could anonymously hire someone to steal for you, kidnap for you, rape for you, buy a child, sell a child — anything is possible. Everything paid for with an anonymous digital currency. No questions asked. And yes, any of us could potentially do it. Anyone with a computer and the right mindset could access The Deep Web.
Not everything on The Deep Web is illegal. In fact much of it is simply a rebellion against the notion of the so-called Surveillance State. As with any black market, however, there are many levels of both sophistication and depravity. To get access, you would need to know exactly what you’re looking for and where to find it, but there are easily searchable wikis and lists to help you with that. The more you know about the market, the better you can operate within it — you wouldn’t buy guns, drugs or services from just anyone on the street, would you?
Most importantly, you need to accept what you’re getting into, because it is a dangerous place, peopled by those with an often alternative viewpoint of crime and punishment. The Deep Web doesn’t simply exist in a glorious anonymous bubble. It is a black market, after all, and as with any black market, there are people who fight every day to try and police it.
People like Scott Mitchell. As a special consultant at the National Cyber Crime Unit, Mitchell was something of a high-flyer. A division of the National Crime Agency, the NCCU had joined forces with the UK’s former Serious Organised Crime Agency, along with a number of other commands, to create a unified force against organised crime. Officers of the NCA, unlike anybody else in law enforcement, are able to deploy clout that goes beyond that of an ordinary police officer — they combine the powers of a police constable, a customs officer and an immigration officer at any time. Mitchell wasn’t an agent, but he had been with the team at the NCCU as a consultant for three years, from back when they were still known as the SOCA Cyber division. He was much respected, though not actually that well known, by the small team he worked with. He knew that some of them still looked at him as a former criminal hacker who had now been brought in to help them, and he often felt that they resented him for it.
Yet to hit his thirties, he was exceptionally talented and ruthlessly organised. His biggest failing was that he tended to become obsessed with certain crimes or criminals. The job took over and he was powerless to stop it. He could spend days lost online, searching for evidence, hunting for clues. Which meant he didn’t do the normal office things like going for a drink after work, or joining in with the banter about last night’s TV. He was happy with the trade off, though. He hadn’t become a consultant to make friends. He preferred being in there — in the digital world — lurking, seeking, stalking. It made him feel alive.
For the past six months, Mitchell and the team at NCCU had been working together to bring down a particularly active ring of child pornographers — the Teddybear’s Picnic Network. It made Mitchell sick. Not just the kinds of things they were posting or the cocky name — what made him sick was the Agency’s lack of resources in fighting this level of anonymised crime. Less than a month ago, they had successfully intercepted a single, careless, plain-text message which, after a lot of work, had allowed them to access a server based in Brighton that was being used to host the image boards for the Teddybear’s Picnic Network.
From there, they had been able to trace a significant number of the members, had made a handful of arrests and had seized the servers. Mitchell often felt that patience was the key to their work. If you watch the bad guys long enough, eventually, they slip up. The most depraved criminals are usually brought down by the smallest mistakes. Unpaid tax bills, broken brake lights, an out-of-date TV licence — some small detail, usually unrelated to their crime, which brought the authorities knocking and gave them a chance to poke around inside the basement. That’s exactly what Mitchell’s team had done with the Teddybear’s Picnic Network. To the outside world it had been a success story for the Agency — another group of perverts out of action, innocence preserved. For Mitchell, it had been a lot of hard work, a dash of luck, and a whole lot of frustration. The network had been back up and running, on new servers, within a matter of days. Most of the ringleaders had evaded capture or identification. Evidence had disappeared overnight, even after Mitchell had seen it himself. Mitchell knew that the Network must have paid someone in the NCCU to get rid of the evidence. He had sworn he wasn’t going to let them get away with it, but so far, he had no clues as to who had done it.
In the meantime, the department had needed to dedicate its time and resources to other cases, and they had moved on. Mitchell didn’t like to leave business unfinished, so he had set up his own personal watch list to keep tabs on some specific usernames. He had created a simple piece of software that would trawl the message boards that he knew about, searching for instances of usernames he was trying to hunt down. If they came back online, thinking the coast was clear, he would hear about it. Even if it was the last thing he did, Mitchell swore he would bring down every member of the Teddybear’s Picnic Network.
It was 8 a.m. on Sunday morning and Mitchell was hunched over his laptop, waiting impatiently for the screen to refresh. His trawling software had found a clue and had sent him an alert. A member called Brown Bear, who Mitchell knew only too well, had posted a message on one of their general forums late on Friday night. Mitchell stared at the message:
Brown Bear: Don’t go down to the woods today.
‘Intriguing,’ muttered Mitchell.
It was a message he had seen many times before. A warning to the rest of the network that one of their team had either been caught or was feeling threatened. They were a close-knit network and they looked out for each other. As they had seen before, if one member was compromised, they all could be. His phone rang and Mitchell ignored it, he was going on a bear hunt.
The phone had started ringing just as Rebecca MacDonald stepped out of the shower. It made her jump. Who on earth would be ringing at this time on a Sunday morning? With her towel pulled around her, she answered nervously.
‘Rebecca? It’s Jack. I’m sorry to call so early. I didn’t wake you, did I?’ Jack Taylor was her boss at PrinceSec. He had recruited her straight from university, and had become a kind of mentor to her in her first year. He had never called her home number before.
‘God no, I was just in the shower.’ She pulled her towel around her shoulders. ‘Is everything okay?’
‘No,’ Jack hesitated. ‘I don’t know. It’s Tony Prince.’
Rebecca didn’t have a lot of direct dealings with the big boss, but he seemed like a decent guy and he had always been friendly to her.
‘What about him?’
‘What do you mean, gone?’
‘His plane left Paris on Friday night, but never arrived in Biggin Hill Airport.’
‘Jesus!’ she blurted.
‘It gets worse.’
Rebecca frowned, ‘Go on.’
‘It seems that Tony was planning some kind of exit. He sold all of his shares back to the company about a month ago. He claimed he was having financial troubles, but there is no trace of the money in any of his known accounts. His wife, Barbara, knows nothing of any money worries, but she says he’s been preoccupied and secretive lately. Been going out a lot, secret phone calls, that kind of thing. She assumed he was having another affair. Then, this morning, she gets a letter from his solicitors with divorce papers in it. She had no idea he wanted a divorce.’
Rebecca tried to understand what she was being told.
‘Had he said anything to you?’ Jack was Prince’s right-hand man, he would have known if Prince was thinking of leaving his wife, and he would surely have known if the CEO was about to sell his shares.
‘No. When he left the office on Thursday he asked if I wanted to grab a quick drink, but I was busy with the Cryptos updates, so I turned him down. Maybe he was going to tell me then.’
‘You don’t think he’s done a runner, do you?’
‘I don’t know what to think. The police have told me that a small aircraft crashed on the coast near Dover. They haven’t managed to recover any of the plane yet, but they say we should assume it was him. We haven’t told them about the divorce papers or the shares yet.’
‘What does that mean, Jack? Do you think he was in some kind of trouble?’ Rebecca wondered why Jack had called her, specifically, with this news. He was obviously shaken up, but surely he couldn’t imagine that she would have any clues. ‘Do you want me to take a look at his machine?’
‘About five minutes ago I got a call from Günther. He tells me that someone remotely dialled into the server in the early hours of Saturday morning.’ Jack hesitated. She could hear him breathing. He sounded nervous. ‘They used Prince’s admin password to access the database server.’
Rebecca finally understood why he had called her. The database was the beating heart of the Cryptos software. It detailed all of their clients; which machines they were running Cryptos on, which operating systems they were using, which update was installed, which patches had been implemented. It also included access data such as details of usernames and IP addresses of all devices which had Cryptos installed on them. It would be fatal for PrinceSec if the database had been compromised in any way. Rebecca listened on in stunned silence.
‘The crash was reported at ten o’clock on Friday night. If we are supposed to assume that it was Prince’s plane that crashed, that either means he wasn’t in it when it went down, and he accessed the database himself.’ He paused again. ‘Or somebody else logged in as him. Either way, I think we’re in trouble.’
Rebecca checked herself in the full length mirror. She was aiming for the perfect combination of feminine and professional, but she wasn’t sure she could actually ever pull it off. Her dark brown hair hung in springy curls, in a shape that could only be described as full. She had embraced her curls early on in life. Of course, as a teenager she had gone through the inevitable rebellion, trying straighteners, chemicals and tongs but there was no point fighting it. Her Scottish father had married a proud Kenyan woman, and strong curly hair was not the only thing Rebecca had inherited from her mother. A defiance of the norm, a big personality and a wicked laugh were among the other traits her larger-than-life mother had given her. Both parents had been at pains to teach her that nothing was ever going to come easy for her. As the only mixed race girl in her tiny Scottish village of Glenfinnan, she had always stood out. The fact that she was extraordinarily intelligent and defiantly tall would have singled her out anyway, but Rebecca had found a way to use all of this to her advantage. She was neither excessively popular, nor was she ignored. She worked hard to be friendly, polite, thoughtful, funny and kind. None of it had really come naturally to her, she had a quick temper and a sharp tongue, which only got worse as her teenage years set in and she struggled to retain the self-control her mother had drummed into her. ‘If you want to succeed, you’re going to have to learn to bite your tongue,’ she had said, over and over as she comforted her daughter following yet another run in. Despite being tall, beautiful and intelligent, Rebecca knew she was destined to have to fight for her place at the table.
‘You’ll do,’ she said to her reflection.
It would take her at least an hour to get across London to their Victoria headquarters. Jack had told her to hurry. He wanted her to look at the server data — it was her speciality — but he wanted to be with her when she did it. Günther Klein, PrinceSec’s Head of Security Services, hadn’t been able to trace where the login had come from, or how long they had accessed the server for, but he was sure Rebecca would be able to. He had signed off by telling her he would have to inform the NCCU, but that he would hold off telling them until she had found out how bad the damage was.
Rebecca was still struggling to comprehend the scale of the chaos that could be wreaked if that database had been accessed, let alone if it fell into the wrong hands. In most of the systems the software was used on, Cryptos already ran behind standard security protocols like firewalls and VPNs, so an attack on Cryptos itself would mean that those defences had already been breached. Rebecca considered how flimsy most of those standard defences were. That’s why many of the companies had been persuaded to install Cryptos in the first place — it would act as a set of braces for when the belt inevitably failed. If their client database had been copied, the hackers would have access to every detail they needed to gain access to any one of the systems on the list. Water treatment plants, railway networks, traffic control and monitoring, the National Grid, any number of manufacturing plants — an attack could happen anywhere. Where would they even begin to search for the target? She was sure the answers lay in Prince’s machine, and in the server data itself — she just hoped she was capable of finding them before anything terrible happened.
Without the Code, Strider would have just been another angry little cracker — a criminal hacker — railing against an unseen and unnamed enemy. His attacks would have been wild and ineffective. He understood early on that the kind of work he undertook needed guidelines. Everybody needed rules, even if it was a simple code of conduct or a loose set of laws, although Strider didn’t hold much truck with the laws imposed by the state. Just because something was legal, didn’t make it right. Likewise, just because something was illegal didn’t make it wrong. Strider had been treading this thin line between right and wrong — between good and bad — like a tightrope walker passing unseen, up high, between two tall buildings. He had been up there for so long that he had grown accustomed to his special view of the world.
He loved the word assassin, it was so much cleaner than killer, or murderer, or executioner, although any of those could be applied to him with equal accuracy. Assassin. There was a certain nobility about it. It was not as indiscriminate as killer, or as bloodthirsty as murderer, not as state-sanctioned and official as executioner. An assassin, by definition, plotted and killed an important person in a surprise attack. No word could better define what Strider did.
Most assassins had some kind of code concerning who they would and wouldn’t kill. Everybody draws a line in the sand, even when it comes to murder. No women or children was a standard rule among many. Strider didn’t hold with this viewpoint. Women and minors were equally capable of committing terrible crimes as any man he knew. In his view, if someone committed the crime, they had to be prepared to face the consequences. You may be above the law of the land, but Strider had his own law, and he called it the Code.
He had been introduced to the Code, in its very early form, by a contact he met on one of the bulletin boards in the Deep Web. Before he had even settled on the name, Strider, he spent a lot of time in the Deep Web, touting his skills in the darker recesses, shouting his mouth off about his talents. He had been pulled up on it by a guy — he assumed it was a guy — who called himself the Salesman and the two had got chatting. At the time Strider was an angry young man, with a huge disregard for authority and no real focus for his aggression. He had been in trouble with the police in his late teens, he had had a difficult and painful childhood, he was incredibly smart — all of the classic background traits one would expect in a delinquent hacker.
It had been the Salesman who had shown him how to channel his anger to really hit the authorities where it hurt. It was the Salesman who had shown him that trying to hit the big corporations with repeated denial of service attacks or malware injections — both the standard fare of cyber disruption — was all too small scale. Sure, it annoyed the corporations and caused delays in production, or an erosion of trust in the brand, but the people who suffered most from those kinds of effects in the long term were the workers and middle managers. They were the ones who dealt with the redundancies and cutbacks, while the fat cats got fatter, and that wasn’t right.
Likewise it was the Salesman who had taught him that a scattergun approach to leaking sensitive data did nothing to bring down governments, or make those responsible accountable for their actions and decisions. The Salesman dealt in a far more personal type of work on behalf of his clients, and slowly, over a matter of months he had recruited Strider to his way of thinking and turned an angry young cracker into a cold, calculating assassin. A professional.
He had started Strider off with some simple tasks, each of which was designed to shape the young hacker into the person his potential had suggested he could be. Get inside the Government Communications HQ mainframe and amend classified information about their latest surveillance targets without being detected, for example, or hack into the control system of the head of a large oil company’s private home and set the ‘ghosts’ on him. The Salesman had been impressed — Strider had proved that he could get anywhere, find out anything and walk away unnoticed. Not only that, but he understood people, he knew what made them tick, which meant that he knew how to get exactly the information that he needed to complete his tasks. He was diligent, hard-working, meticulous — everything a mentor could ask for in a protégé.
Inevitably, a time came when the student outgrew the teacher. Strider’s reputation as a wizard — the best level of hacker — spread quickly around the Internet. He became known in the right circles as the best in the business — especially if that business was finding his way to the most protected and secretive people in the world and making their deaths look like an accident. He had completed jobs for both sides of the law, for governments, warlords and criminals, and he still only ever took paid assignments via the Salesman. Where the two separated, however, was when Strider had started to build his own agenda. The Code had become an obsession for him. Where the Salesman would complete any job, without judgement or question, Strider would only complete the kill if he could be absolutely sure that the target had breached the Code. Where the Salesman maintained a distance from everybody he dealt with — never meeting, never exchanging names or details — Strider got close enough to touch them, yet they still didn’t know who he was. By the time his targets knew he was onto them, he had been walking in their skin for months — a ghost in the machine, watching and waiting until the time was right. No stone was left unturned, no angle unexplored. He had to understand what had made them the people they were. He needed to know what caused them to turn their back on society the way they had. Part of the meticulous nature of his plots was to ensure that his target knew that they were being killed and why it was happening. He always found a way to tell them that he knew what they had done, and that they weren’t going to get away with it. It would remain their secret, but it couldn’t go on.
By the time Strider had fully developed the Code, he was a lone wolf once again. He had always known about the depth of corruption at the top of government, business and finance, but as soon as he discovered he could fight that corruption from the inside, Strider finally found his role in life — as an avenging angel, correcting, in his own, unique way, those who wrong the world from on high.
This avenging angel complex had frustrated the Salesman, but he had been partly responsible for creating that particular monster, and there were always other people to take on the tasks that Strider would refuse to do. They just weren’t anywhere near as good. So they came to an agreement to work together where they could, and respect each other where they couldn’t. Strider knew he would need the most sophisticated equipment, the best access and the highest level of clearance available, and only the Salesman could guarantee him all of that and keep his anonymity intact.
That was when Strider had begun keeping his files on people in power who he felt needed a watchful eye cast over their actions. All of those politicians and high-level bosses who felt somehow above the law. It depressed him that there were so few genuinely good people at the top of their game. It angered him how many of them thought they could get away with it. If he really stopped to think about it, he had always been this way — even as a child he had been able to see through most people’s facades and he had delighted in exposing them.
He first discovered computers at the age of nine. His primary school had decided, rather late, to join the digital revolution. He remembered, even then, knowing that there was something much more significant about this day than simply the fact that his low-rent school had finally grasped modern technology. He sensed adventure. He sensed freedom. There was nothing special installed on that basic computer — no games, apart from solitaire, and that was no fun — but that was exactly what he liked about it. It was a purely mechanical thing. It either worked or it didn’t. If it didn’t work or didn’t do what he wanted it to do, it was because he had done something wrong. Not because it didn’t like him. Not because it thought he was weird. Not because it felt threatened by his intelligence. And not because it resented him being there. It was a simple transaction: what you put in affects what you get out. No emotion. No grey areas.
Of course, even that first, very basic computer had every parent-lock enabled, but that was no problem to young Strider. He already knew his teachers pretty well, God knows he’d spent enough time in their offices feeling their disappointment. He quickly realised that the gate-keepers of the promised land he had glimpsed were the very same adults who had trouble programming their own television sets, or remembering the gate code to get into the sports hall. It took him one quiet afternoon in the library with the user manual to learn everything he needed to know about taking charge of the machine. It took him one ten minute conversation with the librarian to get the password that would enable him to do everything else he wanted. She, like everyone else, had underestimated him because he was only nine. That was her first mistake. Her second mistake had been to hook the computer up to the same network as the rest of the school. Although, how could she be expected to know any better?
Before a month was out, Strider had accessed and copied the personal records of every child in the school, and most of the teachers too. Home addresses, payslips, marital status, psychologists reports, holiday dates — you name it, Strider could find it out. That kind of power was intoxicating. Just knowing that he knew everything about them, and they knew nothing about him filled a gap that had been gnawing at his young soul. By knowing more about them, he learned that he could change the way he behaved around different people in order to get them to trust or even like him. Knowing that the kid who bullied you every day was himself the product of a broken and dysfunctional family went some way to explaining his behaviour, but for Strider, it did nothing to ...