By The Rules by Edward M. Lerner

Was that sufficiently turgid, ill-formed, and wishy-washy to dissuade readership—or, better still, to preclude acceptance for publication? One could hope. One did hope.

Alone in my cluttered apartment, I, too, was—until the moment this paper was offered for publication—anonymous. What would be the interpretation of my words, my selection of metaphor, among my peer discourse analysts? Once this paper was sent off, my anonymity would be replaced by … what? Notoriety, I suspected.

But infamy had ceased to be my biggest concern. The political incorrectness of the phrase be damned, I was beginning to recognize that in the course of my research I had gone native.

* * * *

Kelly O’Brien had been at my party, but as the guest of a friend. Our usual conversation was an exchange of grunts when we occasionally crossed paths, most typically both of us on trash runs to our apartment complex’s dumpster. Since the party, our relationship had been subtly different in a way I could not exactly define. My best guess was quiet amusement at my expense. Fair enough—I had been very drunk that night. Kelly was a grad student, too, but in her case of computer science—another reason our chance encounters were brief.

After too many of my evenings spent researching the paper, her amusement became more overt. “How are the BEMs?” she asked, grinning, as we passed in the parking lot. She was dressed, as usual, in faded jeans, an oversized plaid flannel shirt, and an irksome aura of competence.

Bug-eyed monsters. Sighing, I began synopsizing my progress to date. She interrupted me mid sentence. “My conscience is getting the best of me here.”

“What do you mean?”

“You were set up, Brian, and I made it possible.”

I tried again. “What do you mean?”

She brushed an errant wisp of hair from her eyes. “The proposal wasn’t your idea. Your buddies,” and she named a few, “goaded you into it. I’d pre-rigged the PC to intercept outgoing email.”

“But the reply came from the journal.”

Smugness and sympathy battled over her face. Smugness won. “It was from your friends. I spoofed the return address.”

Her explanation of how she subverted the email system went over my head, which was in any event already spinning. Kelly wasn’t the only one who had seemed unusually amused with me of late. “When was someone going to tell me?”

She shrugged. “Dunno. Everyone expected you to have a momentary panic attack when you saw the reply, then to realize the acceptance couldn’t possibly be real. Your dogged seriousness as you keep doing this research has been the source of much entertainment.”

I wasn’t surprised. Some remote corner of my mind was, in fact, quite taken with their gag. Considering my frequent rants at their supposed provincialism, a maudlin fixation, even sober, about my milestone birthday, and my saki-swilling subterfuge with the sushi, their practical joke hardly lacked for poetic justice.

While a distant recess of my mind was processing that reaction, most of my consciousness was focused on an epiphany far more important: I intended to continue my new research.

* * * *

The conversational gambit “You got me good,” released peals of laughter from friend after friend. By the third such incidence, I was grossly embarrassed at my gullibility. Rereading now my drunken proposal email and the only slightly less ridiculous acceptance message only made me feel worse. How had I been taken in for more than a week by such nonsense?

To be kind to myself, an absurdly strong work ethic had started me digging while still hung over—and, despite the absurd path that had led me to the UFO chat rooms, there actually were some interesting patterns there. An apparent cacophony of dialogue, I had been quick to determine, became more illuminating once I organized them by the participants’ points of view. At one end of my self-made spectrum were the true believers, for whom no claim of alien manifestation or governmental cover-up was improbable. At the other extreme were the debunkers, for whom all evidence, no matter the claimed quality or quantity of corroborating fact, was as entirely unconvincing. In between were the skeptics, who accepted nothing non-critically, but—while never, it would appear, actually convinced of the existence of UFOs or aliens—professed minds open to future evidence.

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Categories: Edward Lerner