By The Rules by Edward M. Lerner

More precisely, it was an extraterrestrial artificial intelligence inserted, mobile, into 1995’s then-nascent Internet. An alien mind left to secretly study humanity, and to report its findings, should its just-passing-through patron species ever come back.

Given interstellar distances, a return visit in fewer than several decades was not to be expected … hence, I now understood, the Skeptic’s panicked reaction to an apparent return in a few scant years. It could have meant an in-transit emergency. The wryteewr were, simply, AI crewmates about which the Skeptic worried. The Internet offered no mechanism for conveying non-human languages; without a concise translation, the AI had resorted to transliteration.

“We know what you have been doing,” I had challenged. In context, which we did not have at the time, those words could have been, and were, mistaken to mean, “We know you have gone native. That’s why we’re back. That’s why we’re communicating over the humans’ primitive network in which you have tried unsuccessfully to hide.”

That the alien AI who had blurted, “I won’t go back,” had gone native, I did not doubt. Our ethereal visitor found humanity endlessly fascinating, a cauldron of cultures only beginning to blend into a planetary unity. Its creators had completed that homogenizing transition centuries earlier. Earth was simply too fascinating a place to leave.

And the superhuman display of multi-tasking skepticism that had unwittingly revealed the surreptitious sociologist? The AI’s persistent, dogged discrediting of all things paranormal was, ironically, intended to discourage humans from looking for ETs, real or virtual.

* * * *

But I hadn’t quite yet answered the Skeptic’s question. Dad would have done so in eight words or less. With me, as with Mom, a significant reply was more about the journey than the destination. I resumed my tale.

“What now?” Kelly’s question had had a succinctness of which Dad would be proud.

“Are we off-line?” My head was pounding, this time without benefit of alcohol.

She gestured at our collection of cell phones all gathered in a row. Their tiny LCD screens were blank. The monitors, too, were dark; the status LEDs on the system boxes were unlit.

“What now, indeed,” agreed Nigel. “What would the authorities make of our extracurricular project?” He laughed nervously. “That assumes one knew which authorities were appropriate. I haven’t a clue.”

It could have been my imagination, but I hadn’t thought so. “Are you both looking at me? Expecting me to decide?”

“Uh huh.”


Holy hell. Why me? “If you don’t mind me asking, do you believe we’ve ‘spoken’ with an alien AI sociologist freely roaming the Internet?” Two pensive nods. “I suppose you think this is, somehow, a sociological matter.” Two more nods, this time emphatic.

The credible announcement of extraterrestrial intelligence could—would—impact society seismically. Credible, yes, but not one-hundred-percent incontrovertible: the “proof” of any claim depended on how and when—and even whether, now that the shock of its unmasking was past—the AI we’d named the Skeptic responded to future contacts. Would any claims we three might make become the next story our alien strove, in its quietly compelling way, to undermine?

My eyes squeezed shut in thought, and in remembrance of coursework past. The Copernican revolution that the Earth was not the center of the universe took centuries to reach general—and still incomplete—acceptance. Darwin’s theory of evolution remained controversial in countless communities. The medieval conversions that until recently had been the myopic focus of my interests … yes, I knew all about how disruptive a shift in world view could be. We are not alone was as major a world-view change as I could conceive of.

“Brian.” Kelly’s voice had been soft but insistent. “We can’t go blithely about our business with this hanging over our heads. It’s far more your specialty than either of ours to understand the consequences.”

On what basis could I presume to make such a decision?

“Let me sleep on it,” I’d lied.

* * * *

“I was no sooner home from Kelly’s unit than I went back on-line,” I typed. If the decision were to be mine alone, there was no reason not to continue the discussion one on one. I’d necessarily re-connected with none of the BFM subterfuge Kelly could arrange. Any danger I could foresee in renewed contact was not to me. “Of course, you know that.”

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Categories: Edward Lerner