The web’s deepest mystery

How one teenage whiz kid set out to solve the puzzle of cicada, and found himself in a world of international intrigue

By David KushnerIllustration by Sean McCabe

Marcus Wanner needed a little adventure in his life. A skinny 15-year-old brainiac with wire-frame glasses and wavy brown hair, he was the eldest of five, home-schooled by their mother, a devout Catholic, near Roanoke, Virginia. Shuttling Marcus between home, church and the Boy Scouts seemed like the best way to keep him away from trouble (and girls). I missed out on a lot, he recalls with a sigh. I didn’t get out much. ¶ Though Marcus was gifted with computers, his mom and dad, an electrical engineer, also locked him down online. He couldn’t send an e-mail or register on a website without their permission. To make sure he was abiding, he was restricted to the living-room computer, which they could see. It was the Big-Brother-eye-over-the-shoulder thing, he says. But his parents only had so much power. There was no way we could check what he was up to if he covered his tracks, his mother admits. He’s light-years ahead of us. Marcus was a good kid, dependable, hardworking, the leader of his Boy Scout troop, just a project away from Eagle Scout. But he could only take so much. Until a point, I tried to go with the flow, he says. And then I was like, Aw, fuck it.