By The Rules by Edward M. Lerner

“Will you reveal me?” the Skeptic had asked as soon as I’d dialed up, privately, from my own apartment and associated myself with the recent confrontation. I had as quickly responded, albeit with uncharacteristic brevity, “I don’t know.” After what seemed endless introspection, although I knew it was only seconds, I had changed my answer to an even terser, “Yes.”

I had, for two hours now, been handling the follow-up question, “Why?”

This had begun with my failure to observe Rule Two: think before you do things. I’d unmasked the Skeptic by belatedly applying Rule Three: things are often what they seem.

Why was I so fixated on Dad’s damned rules?

My rambling answer had, finally, come to the very heart of the matter. “I was trained to observe societies, not to shatter them,” I typed. It was a calm, professional position to take. It was entirely true.

But did that narrow truth matter? I couldn’t, I didn’t, believe things were that simple.

Copernicus had been right, no matter the shock to people’s egos. Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, and it couldn’t be wrong that we now recognized that. Darwin, too—humanity was part of the tapestry of life, not somehow above or apart from it. I couldn’t imagine that, if I somehow had the power to reverse those intellectual awakenings, I would. So who was I to suppress, presuming for the moment that I even could, a discovery as fundamental as those of Copernicus and Darwin? Fact, Brian: we aren’t alone.

I was convinced … I just wish I knew why.

Unexpected motion caught my eye. The PC monitor now showed an oddly familiar little boy bouncing on a bed. As if triggered by my renewed attention, a short string of text appeared across the bottom of the screen. “I understand.”

I stared into the one webcam I hadn’t returned, now perched atop the monitor. With the realization that the Skeptic was watching me, the familiarity of the youngster was obvious. He was the backwards extrapolation from my real-time image to how I might have looked as a five year old. Had the Skeptic known to apply a buzz cut, it would have had me right.

“I understand,” I read aloud. What did the Skeptic understand, I wondered, as the virtual bed shuddered in synchronicity with “my” jumping. Behind “me,” books and toys toppled from cluttered shelves. That being a sociologist was not a license to censor? That was a truth, I was certain, but was it the whole truth?

The infuriating admonition from my youth echoed in my mind’s ear a split second before “Rule One” popped tersely onto the screen. If it shakes the house, don’t do it.

My alien friend did understand me. He knew me, in fact, far better than did my own father—or than I knew myself.

I never was any good at following the rules.

* * * *

With thanks (and apologies) to Jenn.

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Categories: Edward Lerner