Streaming Stanley

Photo by Chris Yang on Unsplash

I still remember the day we found the proof. Rumor has it that no one ever saw Stanley in real life after that day.

We were sitting in recon van 7. Kelly (of course), McGuire, and a new intern named Liz.

Ostensibly we were Chicago PD. Kelly never went full LE. Partly because of his weight. Partly because of his strong libertarian side. He was just IT to the core. There was nothing that guy couldn’t figure out, no system he couldn’t hack. He was shrewd.

The van guys are careful to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s, law enforcement or not. So, I wasn’t surprised when Kelly asked about my warrant.

“It’s not that kind of trip,” I said.

He and McGuire shared a long look, then just shrugged. 

They knew enough about Stanley to read between the lines. That guy had power. In the age of all things internet, information was the real currency. he that controls it has unlimited influence. With the right information, you could cripple an entire economy, bring down a corrupt regime, or install an even more corrupt one of your own.

“One of the threes?” McGuire said without meeting my eyes. A shameless fishing trip.

He meant one of the nation’s three-letter intelligence agencies. He was probing me, testing me to see if I’d spill which of them was footing the bill for today’s shindig.

It was a disarming tactic, and despite knowing better, I fell into the trap.

But he timed his question perfectly. I was blowing on my coffee, not wanting to scald my mouth again. So disarming. Such a simple manipulative hack. And I swallowed it, hook, line, and sinker.

“Homeland,” I said, sipping my coffee.

I heard their jaws drop.

“Damn it, McGuire. I swear you’re turning into Hannibal Lecter with those infernal verbal cues.”

McGuire’s passion was neural linguistic programming. He loved NLP, hypnotic suggestions buried in common language, and gestures as much as Kelly loved IT. I could never figure out which of them was more dangerous.

Kelly sat his half-eaten sack of McDonald’s on the van floor, wiped the grease from his fingers with a now yellow, oil-saturated napkin, then raised his right hand with the thumb extended.

Of course, he was going to count. He always counts. He loves his drama. I swear, in his head, he sees himself as a wisecracking character in a movie. He begins going through his list, raising a finger with each.

“So, we’re surveilling an influencer with no criminal record, no warrant, and working for some agency other than Chicago PD, all while our department is under audit? Did I forget anything?”

I saw him wanting to say something else-anything that would allow him to raise that fat pinky.

I wasn’t scared we might lose Kelly. The target, Streaming Stanley, was an internet legend. Not a ghost, not yet anyway. And Kelly liked to match his abilities against the best. That and the guy was the worst at managing his finances. Technically, he’s only an IC for the department. But a guy has to pay rent.

Kelly picked up his bag, fished out another quarter-pounder, and took a huge bite. There was a long, slender streak of mustard under one eye and a piece of shredded lettuce under the other.

“You’re a slob,” Liz said. “Wipe your face, maybe?”

I thought that might set him off, but he sat his burger down, wiped his face, and continued eating.

I was never sure how many burgers were in those bags. I usually lost count at seven.

“We good to go?” I said to everyone. I scanned my crew, looked each one in the face, and got a nod from everyone.

I slapped the front wall, Ridley’s signal to drive. We drove.

“Gotcha,” Kelly sounded excited. The passenger side was a long shelf that ran the full length of the van. Our mobile surveillance center. Our communications lab on wheels. It was a mess of computers, scanners, some homemade equipment, cables, chargers, and a third of an uneaten hamburger.

“That was slick. I still don’t understand how he did some of that. I’d have to check out later some of his hacks. Some of this shouldn’t work.”

“But?” I said.

I needed to get him back on track and away from his thoughts about how to profit off any of this later. (IT guys, especially libertarian IT guys, are infamous for their moral flexibility.)

He came out of his reverie.

“But?” he said, hesitating a second.

“He’s re-syncing,” McGuire said, gawking at Kelly.

“But it works,” Kelly said, popping the uneaten third into his mouth, chewing four times, and swallowing.

“So, it’s…, fake? Right?” Liz said.

“Fake?” Kelly grimaced like the word was a dead bug in his mouth.

“Some of these hacks are illegal.”

Kelly was still high in gushing fanboy mode and was underselling Stanley. All these hacks were highly illegal. As far as the law was concerned, all hacks were illegal.

“But yeah, no, that’s really happening. Now, I mean. Live. The liveliest live stream I’ve ever seen.”

He gestured at the central monitor, the big one.

On the screen, in split screen mode, were two impossible images, frame grabs. Neither image was impossible by itself. But the two of them together? A chill shot down my spine.

“No. That’s impossible,” Liz said.

She was trying to recalibrate her reality map to include this new bit of data. We all were, but we had experience seeing some crazy things. I almost felt sorry for her.

I looked at McGuire, and I knew he was thinking about starting a pool to see how long the intern would last.

On the right-hand side of the screen, we saw a still of Stanley. The camera was one, as far as we knew, wasn’t one he knew about. It was a micro-camera and transmitter. One we had planted in the backseat of his caddy the week before. In the image, Stanley was stopped at a stoplight. The convertible roof was down, and he was looking at something on his phone.

On the left side of the screen was a still of Stanley standing in line to buy a movie ticket for Rocky Horror, his usual Thursday ritual.

The impossible part came when we compared the embedded timestamps in the two distinct images.

Both displayed the same date and time.

“20220830-23:41.0341 PM PDT.”

The time of what many online fans now refer to as “the singularity.”

Rumor has it Stanley hasn’t been seen in person anywhere since. But he continues to show up in live streams, stitches, blasts, zooms, in the background of dozens of other YouTube live streams, usually as a spectator in the background. It’s odd that no witness can ever remember him being at any of these places.

No one has visited his apartment in months. He’s gone; his Caddy is gone. It’s like they became ghosts. They only exist online now.

The others in the van had already accepted that today was going straight into their unsolvable file. But Liz was struggling.

“So, the guy has a twin. Stanley must have a twin, right?”

Her psyche didn’t come equipped with an impossible file. 

Kelly, in an uncharacteristic act of selflessness, took mercy on her.

“Do you enjoy doing this work?”

Everyone in the van went quiet.

I honestly couldn’t tell if Liz would cut and run now or hunker down.

She weighed the question.

“I’m going to stay. I like this work.”

“That’s great. Welcome to the…”

“But you got to make it make sense now. Please? This was some new hire hazing, right?” she said, tapping the paused, flickering images of Stanley in two different places.

Kelly thought about it.

“That might not be possible. We are not hazing you. You might not believe me, but I’m as amazed as you are.”

She nodded once, and her lip made the tiniest of quivers. I saw McGuire clock it and file it away for future reference.

“Stanley doesn’t have a twin.”

It was fitting that a man who lived for all things internet, until the day when he (apparently) lived only on the internet, would have his birth recorded in a live stream. It had been for an online med school course on birthing. Stanley’s mother was destitute. By agreeing to have her birth used by the med school, she received a free delivery for her son.

Kelly told Liz he’d answer all her questions the best he could.

I saw in her eyes an unquenchable desire for truth. I knew she was going to be a big addition to the team.

The crew began shutting down the gear. Kelly printed the screen grab, with two impossible Stanleys. He stood next to Liz. They gazed in wonder at the impossible images, already a relic.

“You know I got a funny feeling,” Kelly said, looking around to make sure the others were listening.

They were.

“I got a feeling, no one is ever going to see ole Stanley in real life, ever again.”

And we never did. 

He’s a ghost. Stanley still shows up hundreds of times a day, but only in streaming videos. 

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