By The Rules by Edward M. Lerner

Kelly’s parking-lot confession had broken some metaphorical ice, and we were on the way to becoming real friends instead of acquaintances by association, but our increasingly lengthy conversations kept reminding me of my naiveté. After she demonstrated how she’d messed with my email, and shared with me a few other hacking exploits, a horrifying thought occurred to me. Could I be certain the prank was over? I had no idea if my chat-room visits and Internet searches were being stage-managed, if friends with too much time on their hands were electronically still yanking my chain. No matter where I went on campus, might not someone with Kelly’s mischievous skills detect the log-in to my university account and do … whatever?

The irony that I was becoming as paranoid as the true believers I might or might not be investigating did not escape me. I started frequenting municipal libraries, using Internet access from the public-library computers to revisit the chat rooms I’d previously explored. The good news was that my now-anonymous forays showed nothing at odds with my previous lurks.

My original survey had encompassed only a few days, but the longer I read, the more I perceived common patterns of discourse. I dug through the archives of several UFO chat rooms to increase my sample size. The common thread, I decided, was the influence of the skeptics. These people calmly but compellingly rebutted the many claims of close encounters, of alien abductions, of—arguing about parameter values for Drake’s Equation—the mere plausibility of extraterrestrial visitors. Under the onslaught of the skeptics’ quiet logic, the community in even the most rapidly growing chat room would soon peak. Since everyone participated via alias, I could not begin to tell whether the true believers were persuaded by these arguments, or merely moved to more hospitable environs.

I was as yet unconvinced, of course, that my new friend Kelly wasn’t somehow still orchestrating the practical joke to end all practical jokes.

* * * *

When my mother was a girl, Rule One was “No singing at the table.” As best I can tell, there was no Rule Two. Neither Mom’s musical interests nor aptitude were passed on—talent, alas, tends to be a recessive gene—but I certainly was exposed to plenty of music growing up. My tastes are a few centuries more current than my parents’, but I’m enough like Mom to always be listening to something. Her musical preferences, however, lent themselves more to where I wanted to lead this conversation than did my own.

“You know,” I began, “how some pieces of music are obviously related?” The somber, prematurely balding man across the table from me only nodded. “My musical gifts are limited, but I’m pretty good at recognizing compositions as being by the same composer. Whether I’m listening to a symphony, an opera, a sonata, or the requiem mass”—all Mom’s taste, not mine, I hasten to add—”there’s no mistaking Mozart.”

My lunch companion poked unenthusiastically with a fork at his French fries. Nigel Wellman was an ex-patriate Brit teaching at a nearby liberal arts college. His field was lexical analysis, just barely close enough to discourse analysis that he had responded to my voice mail. I’d never heard of him until undertaking a literature search. We had met at a diner on the edge of his campus. “Had you mentioned wanting to discuss musicology, I would have steered you to someone else on the faculty.”

I’d invited him to discuss overlap between our areas of research. That remained my plan. “Bear with me, Nigel.” I rapped with little success on the bottom of a catsup bottle until our waiter went away. “Music was only an analogy. My speculation, which I hope you can validate, is that a person’s textual writings also have similarities, despite a variety of topics and venues.”

In a remarkably short time, half of his cheeseburger disappeared. “Of course such similarities exist. They underlie, for example, the many assertions that Shakespeare did not write the works popularly credited to him. While the most common alternate attribution is Sir Francis Bacon, there are other credible candidates.” His voice warmed; his eyes shone. “Christopher Marlowe, for example, and Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford. The lexical metrics are quite fascinating.”

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Categories: Edward Lerner