By The Rules by Edward M. Lerner

“Nigel? In words of one syllable or less?”

He took a deep breath. “My apologies. In a nutshell, the language usage is too formal—the always-correct grammar that is the classical sign of an educated non-native speaker. Most everyone else’s dialogue is full of spelling errors that no plausible typo can explain, of slang and abbreviations. Our guy didn’t use a single dangling participle or split infinitive. Surely you noticed how stilted that material reads.” He accepted my nod and was off again. “This was so intriguing that I expanded the experiment a bit. Naturally, there are UFO-related chat rooms in many languages. I’m moderately fluent in French, German, and Japanese, and I found similar patterns there.”

“Similar patterns.” I was reduced to parroting, never a good sign.

“Chat rooms in each language in which the prevalent voice of reason disguises itself behind multiple screen names. One non-native speaker.”

There was no denying the obvious question. “The same person across languages?”

Nigel canted his head thoughtfully. “English, French, and German, certainly. Japanese, I’m not qualified to say. But if I were a betting man, I’d say yes, there, too.”

* * * *

What is the meaning of someone who is fanatical about being calmly reasoning? Before anyone began posing that riddle about me, I had other matters to attend to. If I expected renewal of my fellowship, I simply had to show progress on my dissertation.

My approved topic dealt with religious transformations in early medieval societies. More specifically, I was using discourse analysis in the context of long-ago royal conversions, assessing the impacts on the subject populaces. In those days, when the king converted, everyone else was expected to. I was looking for shifts in world view, how day-to-day routines and rituals were affected … those sorts of thing.

My research involved mining contemporaneous literature for evidence. The work necessarily involved an indirect approach, of course, since only the writings of the elites were available. In the Middle Ages, who but the elites could write? I could go on and on, but the topic matters more here than the details.

State U. owned, curiously enough, thorough resources on the baptism of Clovis and the consequent mass conversion to Christianity of his people. I was poring over an English translation (Gregory, sixth-century Bishop of Tours, had, of course, written in Latin) of the History of the Franks when a dissertation-irrelevant question occurred to me. Were there chat rooms of a religious nature? I’d never looked.

A second set of Internet communities soon stunned me. Phenomena that in other venues I’d seen presented as proof of alien visitations or time travelers became, in this new context, signs of miracles or angels or visitations by the Virgin. Once again I encountered true believers, skeptics, and debunkers. These skeptics were as stubbornly persistent as any in the UFO realm. Some argued that unexpected manifestations were personal religious experiences, not to be analyzed. Others opined that these revelations were unavoidably suspect, associated as they were with fasting and sleepless vigils on solitary retreats.

With a flash of insight, I saw that the pattern was exactly the same as in the UFO scenarios: discrediting supposed strange events of any kind. I shivered as traditional content analysis confirmed what my gut already knew: these skeptics’ themes of objectivity, isolation, and the uniqueness of mankind paralleled the UFO conversations.

I was entirely unsurprised when, soon after, Nigel Wellman completed a second lexical analysis. The same prolific skeptic frequented the religious chat rooms as the UFO chat rooms.

* * * *

“Will you get that?” I yelled from my bedroom/office. Kelly was in the living room, and closer to the knock. I’d invited her over to split a pizza.

“Are you expecting anyone?”

“Just the pizza guy,” I lied. I’d ordered on-line; the pizza wasn’t due for another thirty minutes. My eyes were glued to four inset windows on the screen of my PC, two for the wireless webcams I’d hidden in my living room and two more for those in the hallway. Who knew I would ever get so involved with experimental methods? One of the webcams had a side view of Nigel Wellman waiting outside my front door, his cheeks and lips working in what I assumed was whistling. Another camera viewed the apartment door over his shoulder. Side and rear views of Kelly appeared in the final windows as she approached the door from its other side.

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Categories: Edward Lerner