Parker Chandler wrote himself into the sequel of his first novel. He broke the news on his Twitter feed. “I decided it was time that I met my monsters. Fuck Mary Shelley.”
Two thousand miles away, in a Hactivate bunker, Stanley “H-100” Marks got an H-Mail message from H-0 telling him to activate the Last Straw Protocol.
Stanley did what he was told.
His message hit every H-Directorate device in the continental United States.
Stanley’s black computer screen displayed H-Squad’s response in green letters. “Thy will be done.”
He said, “Fucking-A right, it will.”
Then he signed into Netflix to finish Daredevil before spoilers hit the fan sites.
Parker Chandler was a no-show for his reading at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
His agent, Cornelius Maxwell, made the announcement on the library’s front steps.
The riot made the ten o’clock news. Fans in full Hactivate cosplay fatigues were caught on camera throwing Molotov cocktails through windows, flipping cars, screaming the Motto into bullhorns.
Reporters were terrified relaying the scene into their foam-tipped microphones. They said, “Fans of controversial novelist, Parker Chandler, have taken to the streets,” and “All I can say is this is a scene straight out of a Chandler novel,” and, “Holy fucking shit, run.”
That one went viral.
Stanley had the message boards on ParkerChandlerWrites.com on autorefresh. He read posts about Chandler turning to chickenshit because of the impending release of Hactivate 2 and the vitriolic fan reactions regarding his artistic choices. About Chandler killing himself because if he’d gone nuts enough to write himself into a sequel of the best book in history he was crazy enough to eat a bullet. About how it was all reminiscent of the time he just up and disappeared, let rumors of his death billow up for a while, and came back with a new book ready for the printers.
There was nothing about possible kidnapping. About Chandler being chloroformed and tossed into a van. About being blindfolded and interrogated about why he’d found himself in such a situation.
Stanley was given point on this one. He would be the only one to disseminate that information. And he’d do it the right way. The Hactivate way.
He logged into the Hactivate server, keyed in, ETA? Waited.
Green letters. 1930.
He smiled, typed, Whose will be done? Waited.
He loved this part. Got hard thinking about the power he’d been given. Thought of his fan fiction. His hacks. The amount of content he’d pushed onto the internet.
His fingers hovered over his keyboard shaking.
Thy will be done in green.
Stanley logged off the server and left the room.
He had to take three capfuls of ZzzQuil to fall asleep.
The new recruits were named Nobody, Anonymous, and Nothing. H-110 introduced them all to Stanley, slapped them each across the face.
Stanley never had Greenies sent to his bunker before. Newbs, sure. But Greenies?
He sure as shit wasn’t going to question why they were there. Not out loud, anyway. He’d do some reading. Study the Greenie Gun Policy. Practice the ceremony in his quarters. He’d do everything right.
He stared a while, had to force his face slack underneath the single hanging lightbulb.
Dressed in gray jumpsuits cinched at the waist with rope, the Greenies stood and stared back, their hands at their sides, balaclavas pulled up to show their faces.
Anonymous shifted his weight from his right foot to his left, the concrete scuffing a bit under his shoes.
H-110 flicked Nobody in the balls with the back of his hand.
Nobody let go of the air in his lungs, closed his lips and let the raspberry fart across the concrete room.
“Confused?” Stanley said, staring at Anonymous.
Anonymous said, “Yes, sir.”
H-110 moved to Nothing, readied his hand.
Stanley cleared his throat, stopped H-110.
“Have you read the novel, Anonymous?” Stanley said, forcing the quiver from his voice by increasing the volume at the end of his sentence.
“Yes, sir. I did, sir.”
“Mmhm. Are you sure?”
“Then what is there to be confused about?”
Under the pale light of the bulb, Stanley stepped forward. Kept stepping forward. Then he pressed the tip of his nose to Anonymous’, felt a drop of sweat slide onto his skin, curl under his nostril, fall to the floor, uncertain whose it was.
He almost blinked, almost averted his eyes.
Then Anonymous said, “I saw the movie, sir.”
“Get his ass out of here.”
Stanley backed away.
H-110 punched Anonymous in the face. The crackle of shattering nose forced Stanley to turn, gag. He counted to ten trying to ignore the whimpering. He waited until H-110 dragged Anonymous up the wooden steps, opened and closed the door.
Stanley took a breath, waited until his lunch slid back down to his stomach.
He turned, said, “The Moto.”
Together, Nothing and Nobody said, “We hack because the world must be hacked. The world must be hacked because no one will hack it for us. Once the world has been hacked we will be free.”
“We hack because—”
Stanley’s phone rang. Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica saying frak me over and over. “Excuse me,” he said.
Over the phone HS-1 said, “We’re here, sir. We’re bringing the package to you now.”
Stanley swallowed. Hard. Said, “Excellent.”
Then he pulled on his balaclava, turned, said, “Well?”
Nothing and Nobody scrambled to pull their masks down.
The basement door opened. A series of sentences echoed down the steps. “Fucking lift,” and “I’m going to fall down the goddamn steps, man,” and “His shoe came off.”
When Stanley cleared his throat, said gentlemen, the guys on the stairs shut up right quick.
He let his smile take him under his mask.
It was grunts and heavy breathing after that until the H-Squad placed the package at Stanley’s feet.
Stanley’s voice cracked when he said, “Greenies.” But it held up during, “You guys are in for a real treat.”
He knelt down, pulled the black bag from Parker Chandler’s head.
Then he cursed.
Chandler’s mouth was duct-taped, his eyes were shut, face sick-white.
Stanley said, “Is he dead?” breathing in through his nose, out through his mouth, trying not to vomit into his mask.
HS-3 said, “No, sir. We had to chloroform him pretty much every time he woke up because he wouldn’t stop screaming.”
Stanley covered his mouth with his hand.
He went upstairs.
Then up to the second floor bathroom.
He was on his knees in front of the toilet. Had to convince his guts that Chandler only looked dead, that Chandler being in the basement was no big deal, that the reasons for Stanley’s bunker being chosen for this were because of his hard work, his incredible fan fiction, his hacks. That he deserved it.
He tried to keep quiet, puking.
But there was just so much.
Stanley wanted to recreate the scene from the novel where H-1 confronted the naïve narrator for the first time. Not the way it was in the movie, the movie was shit. But the way it was supposed to have been done.
But Chandler came to before Stanley finished gargling the taste of the stomach acid and lunch from the back of his throat.
Nervous, shaking, but empty, Stanley decided he should walk down the steps on the creakiest parts of the wooden planks. Slow. Deliberate. For effect. So Chandler would be fucking crying by the time he got down there.
But the stairs didn’t groan. Not once.
Stanley, sweating under his mask, slumped his shoulders and took his seat in front of the man he’d once idolized.
Groggy, bleary-eyed, Chandler said, “Where am I?”
Deep breath. Then, “You are in a Hactivate bunker at a classified location.”
“Holy shit, you can’t be serious. You’re not serious, are you?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because Hactivate was a novel, you moron. Fiction. It’s all fake.”
Stanley slapped Chandler across the face. Had to stop himself from shaking off the sting in his hand. “It’s more than that and you know it.”
“No, it’s not. It’s—”
“A manifesto disguised as a work of fiction to keep the idiotic powers-that-be at bay.”
Chandler rolled his eyes, laughed, sat back in his chair.
Stanley said, “You were a hero, Parker. And you’re going to throw it away.”
“This is about Hactivate 2, then? Look, I know how real this feels. But I was just like you. This is all an act, man. I’m under contract so I can’t say much more, but the stupid stunts Maxwell puts me up to haven’t worked all that well lately, my sales have been tapering off a bit, so I wrote a sequel.”
“That you decided to bastardize by injecting yourself into it? Metafiction blows, man.”
“That’s what Hactivate would be if I actually meant a word that was written in there, you nut.”
Stanley heard his teeth grinding in his head. Felt the heat in his jaw.
Chandler said, “The book’s not even that good. Defamation by Proxy, A World Made Sallow, and Filmmaker, Filmmaker are way better.”
“Oh, come on. Filmmaker, Filmmaker sucks.”
“It was my most honest work. Swear to God.”
“We in Hactivate do not bow to false deities.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
“You wrote that. Those are your words.”
“I made them up. They don’t mean anything. Wait, did Maxwell put you up to this? This is all just a joke, right? A publicity stunt? I’ve got to admit, it’s a new one. Bold. But fucked up.”
Stanley stood, said, “No, Parker. It’s not a joke.” He held out a hand, said, “H-111,” closed his eyes, and concentrated on stopping his hand from shaking until he felt metal weigh down his palm.
Chandler said, “Holy fuck. Look, man. You can’t do this. You’ve got the wrong fucking—”
Stanley said, “Shut up,” pressed the gun barrel to Chandler’s forehead. He said, “Your De-Education begins at oh-four-hundred hours.”
H-111 cleared his throat, said, “That’s four in the morning, sir.”
“Oh-six-hundred hours.” Stanley cocked the gun, said, “Now. Mr. Chandler. The Moto.”
Sobbing, slobbering, Parker Chandler said the words he wrote two decades ago.
The De-Education of Parker Chandler came word for word from the novel. Duct-taped mouth, zip-tied hands, blacked eyes—every detail counted.
Stanley even had the honor of giving Chandler his new name.
Stanley forced Void to watch the destruction of his former self.
A burn barrel was set up in the backyard. Void’s driver’s license, debit card, credit cards, social security card, everything in his wallet went in first. Then his clothes. Then it was clumps of his hair as Stanley sheered it off.
But the stink made Stanley hand over the rest of the initial duties to H-110.
Void was locked in one of the basement closets. The only thing Stanley left for him inside was an old boom box loaded with a cassette tape that played the Motto over and over again in various tones of voice. The volume was up so high it was heard seeping up through the floorboards from the second story. Every forty minutes for twenty-four hours Stanley had Nothing or Nobody flip the tape over.
Stanley asked H-107 to do the honors of force-feeding Void wet Alpo for dinner on the third evening.
Gun in his shaky hand, barrel at Void’s temple, Stanley said, “Why do we eat that which was meant for animals?”
Slurping, chomping, Void gagged through his response, “We are animals ourselves.”
“How can we become more than animals?”
Void didn’t make it through the next answer. Everything he swallowed was slopping down the front of him.
Stanley handed the gun over to 107, breathed deep, said, “Start again.”
Then he went upstairs to lay down a while.
Despite his queasy stomach, he forced himself to settle his nerves. He had to do everything right. He was given this responsibility because of everything he’d done for Hactivate, because the right people had taken notice, because he was a valuable asset to the cause.
So he went back to work.
He gave Void the choice between washing out his honeybucket with his daily ration of water or having something to drink. Made him to watch the most violent films H-104 had in his DVD collection in lieu of the actual Desensitization Tapes that hadn’t yet been delivered from Amazon. Had him sleep sitting up, made sure he was scared awake at random intervals.
On the fifth day, Dylan sent an H-Mail alerting H-0 that Void had given in, that he had nothing else to say but the Motto when the duct-tape was off. And would say it over and over and over.
Stanley was then ordered to Disseminate.
He used the Hactivate Server to reveal to the world that unless Hactivate 2 was pulled from the presses, Parker Chandler would be dead before the first copy was sold.
Then he posted a pic of Void tied up in the basement so the idiotic powers-that-be would know that Stanley was not fucking around.
Void’s Hactivation ceremony was held in the backyard.
In the center of the grass square, H-101 through H-114 stood in front of the tall bushes that lined the picket fence in their pressed Hactivate fatigues, polished boots, and balaclavas.
Stanley designated Numbers to Nobody and Nothing, asked them to pull their standard issue Hactivate pistol that had been tucked into the back of their pants.
Nobody opened his mouth, wrapped his lips around the barrel, pulled the trigger. With the click he was named H-115. Stanley said, “Nobody no more.”
Nothing hesitated, took a breath, put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Another click. He was H-116. Stanley said, “Nothing no more.”
Stanley stood in front of Void, pulled the duct tape from his cracked, bloody lips, asked if he was ready.
Sitting, tied to his chair, Void said, “Yes, sir.”
Stanley waved, and H-109 untied Void.
Stanley told Void to stand.
Void said, “Yes, sir.”
Face to face, Stanley and Void said the Motto together.
Then Void head-butted Stanley in the face.
The sound Stanley’s nose made was worse than the pain. But the pain came in heavy waves. When it was most intense, Stanley started with the opening letter of a curse, then screamed the remaining syllable. When the pain ebbed a bit, he opened his eyes.
His men were chasing Void around the yard.
Void was screaming. “Where’s the fucking door,” and, “Someone fucking help me,” and, “I’m not Parker fucking Chandler.”
Stanley stood, ordered his men to make Void shut his mouth before the neighbors on the other side of the woods heard him.
Void screamed louder.
Stanley bled all over his hands, his fatigues.
He was gagging, watching as his men tackled Void and beat him into the grass.
The surgical tape holding the splint to Stanley’s nose made him claw at his face. The itch wouldn’t go away. He’d have to re-tape it after he dealt with Void.
Tied up and passed out, Void snored in his chloroformed sleep. Stanley sat in a wooden chair feet away.
He wasn’t going to fuck this up. Couldn’t fuck this up.
He snapped his fingers. He couldn’t see H-115 and 116 moving, only heard them shuffling across the floor, grunting while carrying the bucket every Hactivate member was asked to piss into over the past couple hours.
Stanley had to keep telling himself it was just water, that’s all, just water.
He took a breath, said, “Do it.”
The new Hactivatists lifted the bucket over Void’s head, drenched him in stinking liquid.
Void screamed himself awake.
Then he wept.
He must have remembered this scene from his novel. He said no, no, no over and over until Stanley told him to shut his mewling trap.
“Why are you doing this to me,” Void said.
Stanley leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms. He waited for Void to stop crying.
Void spat on the floor, stared Stanley in the eye, said, “I’m going to fucking kill you. No, first I’ll find your family and skin them alive. Then I’ll cook them into a stew and force-feed them to you until you die from gorging yourself.”
There was a gasp behind Stanley. Whether it was H-115 or 116 he couldn’t tell. But it didn’t matter. He clapped his hands, stood up, said, “That’s the spirit, Void. That’s the true Hactivate spirit running through you.”
Void said, “There is no Hactivate spirit, you psycho. There’s not even a Parker Chandler. Not for a long time. It’s all bullshit.” Then he spat into Stanley’s face, sprayed snot and urine onto his lips.
Stanley leaned to the side, let go of his lunch all over the floor.
Then he asked for H-116’s gun.
H-116 said, “But, sir—”
Hand out, Stanley said, “Shut it.”
H-116’s gun in his hand, he stood, kicked his seat over, and told Void to open his mouth.
“Fuck you. Let me go. I’m not Parker Chandler. Parker Chandler is dead.”
Stanley said, “Not yet,” and snapped his fingers.
H-115 and 116 moved behind Void, grabbed his head, pulled his mouth open.
There was a scream, a snap of bone, a spritz of blood.
H-116 fell to the floor screaming.
Void spit the first inch of a finger to the floor.
That’s when Stanley stood up, cocked the pistol, and put a bullet through Void’s eye.
Skull bits, globs of brain, and blood slapped against the wall.
Nothing happened for one, two, three seconds, until Stanley began screaming. High-pitched, shrill, and prolonged, he shrieked until he used up all the air in his lungs. Then swallowed a deep breath and started again.
Most of the Hactivatists were gone before Stanley stopped screaming.
H-116, writhing on the floor, said, “I didn’t sign up for this bullshit.”
Stanley grabbed H-116 by the front of his shirt, dragged him into a sitting position, said, “You loaded your fucking gun?”
“What else are you supposed to do with a gun?”
“You never read the fucking book, did you? That movie was shit.”
“I tried to tell you the gun was—”
“Fuck you. That fucking movie was fuck—”
Stanley threw up what little was left in his stomach onto H-116’s chest.
Together on the floor they listened to the sirens get louder and louder.
Stanley’s trial was quick. Books were thrown. Kidnapping and murder were proverbial cherries on top of stacks of criminal charges that included—but were not limited to—the dissemination of multitudinous government secrets that lead to the losses of billions of dollars worldwide over the span of a decade.
But Stanley knew all that. It was his job.
He was called a monster by the media.
A traitor by the President.
A shitty writer by the internet—they’d found his fan fiction, made memes out of the stuff.
General population proved to be problematic.
Once the other inmates had discovered his squeamishness, Stanley was puking more than he was eating. And after his third hospitalization from dehydration and the beginnings of starvation, he was placed in solitary.
But even the guards were fucking with him.
He found the loogie before taking a bite of his meatloaf. The guard on duty had been suffering from a sinus infection.
Stanley gagged, placed his tray onto the cell floor, took a breath, said, “Very funny.”
But no one was listening. His voice echoed down the concrete hall.
His stomach was shaky. His palms were sweaty. His lips were glommed together with white goo. And he stared at his feet, counting his breaths, trying to hold onto his lunch—which was more than likely also soiled.
Then there were footsteps. Two sets.
They grew louder and louder until one stopped in front of his cell.
Someone said his name. His real name. H-100.
Stanley said, “Who are you?”
“I am H-0,” a man said, stepping into view. “But you know my birth name, surely.”
The last time Stanley had seen this man was on television just before the Philadelphia Riots. His birth name could be found on the acknowledgements page of every Parker Chandler novel. Cornelius Maxwell, literary agent.
Stanley said, “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to get you out of this place.”
“Who sent you?”
“I sent myself.”
Stanley stood, wrapped his hands around the bars of his cell, said, “It was you.” He pressed his forehead to the cool metal, said, “The whole time?”
Maxwell laughed, said, “Surprised you hadn’t figured that out already. Regardless, Hactivate must always have a leader. You allegedly killed that leader.”
“Parker Chandler was a charlatan. He was nothing. Said so himself.”
Maxwell laughed, hard this time. “You don’t know what you’re a part of, do you?”
“I’m not a part of anything. This whole thing was nothing. Just a handful of hackers with no lives.”
“Was Hemingway the one who came up with the iceberg thing? Doesn’t matter.” Maxwell snapped his fingers. Another man, the other set of footsteps, came forward.
Dylan didn’t want to gasp—people only gasped in shit fiction—but he did it anyway.
The man standing to Maxwell’s left was a perfect copy of Stanley.
Maxwell said, “This is H-10K986, surgically transformed and prepared to rot in a cell for the rest of his life for Hactivate.”
Stanley said nothing.
There was a buzz, the sound of the cell door unlocking.
Maxwell pulled the door open, waved for Stanley to step outside.
H-10K986 took Stanley’s place, recited the Motto, then said, “Thy will be done, sir.”
Stanley followed Maxwell down the hall asking every question he could think of, spitting them in rapid succession.
Maxwell said, “Men on the inside,” and, “You’ll understand soon enough.” Then he asked a question of his own, said, “Are you ready?”
“To get out of here? Fucking-A right, I am.”
Laughing again, Maxwell said, “No, no. I mean, are you ready to become the new Parker Chandler?”
Dylan stopped, said what.
“I love your fan fiction, H-100. Our second iteration’s work got all pretentious and weird. Who writes themselves in their own stories? Regardless, the world needs a proper Chandler.”
“But he’s dead.”
“No he’s not. The man you killed kidnapped Chandler, paid a fortune for dozens of plastic surgeries, stole his identity, kept him locked up in his basement. Or, maybe Chandler’s long-lost twin showed up to his house unannounced and was bagged instead of the actual Chandler.”
“Are you fucking with me?”
“Come with me and whatever we want to be the truth becomes the official story. Now, I’ll ask again. Are you ready?”
Stanley smiled, followed Maxwell down the hall, up several flights of stairs, onto the roof and into a waiting helicopter.
In his seat, buckled up, he was told about the medical procedures he would need to go through. The contract he would need to sign to keep his trap shut should one of Chandler’s “stunts” become a major situation. Again.
And before Maxwell could get through discussing the ins and outs of the responsibilities of being Parker Chandler, Stanley said, “Was the second Chandler the one who wrote Filmmaker, Filmmaker?”
Maxwell, yelling over the sound of the starting propellers, said, “We like not to think about that piece of shit. Hopefully you’ve got some better ideas.”
Dylan smiled, said, “Fucking-A right I do.”
NICK GREGORIO lives, writes, and teaches in Philadelphia. His fiction has appeared in Crack the Spine, Yellow Chair Review, The Bitchin’ Kitsch and more. He is a contributing writer and assistant editor for the arts and culture blog, Spectrum Culture, and currently serves as fiction editor for Driftwood Press. He earned his MFA from Arcadia University in May 2015 and has fiction forthcoming in Zeit|Haus, Down in the Dirt, and Hypertrophic Literary.