By The Rules by Edward M. Lerner

She swung the door open as Nigel’s hand came up to knock again. My eyes stayed on the screen. Set-up had taken me a while, but I had clear shots of both of my guests’ faces. I saw no surprise, no recognition. They did not know each other.

I couldn’t tell whether I was relieved or disappointed.

“Nigel, Kelly.” I ushered the two of them to my dining room table. “The pizza I promised is coming—only a bit later than I mentioned. Until then, I want to bring you both up to date.” They took turns looking amazed as the full story of my recent chat-room obsessions unfolded. The pizza arrived as I was finishing.

“So this is your story? There’s one person generating half or more of the analysis and argument in all of these chat rooms.” Kelly tore at the pizza as she spoke, the slice she’d selected trailing long strings of molten cheese. “You want me to write software to find more signs of her.”

“That’s right. Will you?”

“Nice try.” She deftly snapped stretchy cheese tendrils with a finger. “Some of us aren’t that gullible.”

“What do you mean?”

“I helped your friends get you. You’re playing a return prank. No sale.”

Nigel grimaced at his cold beer. I’d forgotten to let some warm up for him. “I’ve looked at several chat rooms on my own. Brian had nothing to do with my studies, or with which rooms, or even the languages I chose.”

Kelly hoovered down the rest of her first slice before answering. “I was recruited in the practical joke on Brian. I don’t question him having an accomplice.”

It had never occurred to me Kelly would question my motives. I’d been reduced to buying webcams I couldn’t afford to convince myself she wasn’t still getting me. Then the benefit of my paranoid delusions struck me. “Come see what else I’ve been up to.”

* * * *

The amateur spy set-up, uncomfortably beyond-my-means confirmation of my own continuing suspicions, succeeded where my honest protestations had not. The webcams convinced Kelly that Nigel and I weren’t co-conspirators in a counter-prank; she agreed to work with him on a program. Many lexical-analysis algorithms had long ago been committed to code; what I wanted Kelly to do was to take the standard tools Nigel used and embed them in a real-time search program. I needed to know—and by now my new friends were almost as curious—just how pervasive was our unseen skeptic.

Three days later, reconvened this time on Kelly’s living room sofa, I watched in fascination as Nigel went over a collection of hardcopies strewn across a Salvation Army-sourced coffee table. These dialogues had been snagged by his/Kelly’s science project. He circled phrases, highlighted text, muttered to himself. The conclusion: new chat rooms, new screen names, even new languages … and still more appearances of the same skeptic.

“That’s not even the most interesting thing.” A mouthful of popcorn muffled Kelly’s words; she made a show of chewing faster as she deposited a fresh stratum of paper. “I altered the program a bit to search chat-room archives. Observe the dates.”

The dates went back to 1995—soon after the birth of the commercial Internet. Who had the time and persistence?

* * * *

Looking around, I couldn’t help but remember the Island of Lost Toys from a perennial Christmas television special. There was every variety of cast-off PC, going back, if the tags could be believed, to 386 boxes. Several of the newer systems had been pressed into duty for tonight’s happening. My mind’s ear had rejected a more definitive label, like experiment. Whatever the evening’s activity might prove to be, I didn’t think it would turn out to be science.

Why was I so obsessed with this?

“Ready, guys?” Kelly was manic. She was clutching one of the many cell phones in her computer-filled apartment. The phones were bought-with-cash throwaways; I felt vaguely like a mob boss. The disposables seemed like prudent precautions until we had some idea what kind of obsessive-compulsive we were dealing with. (Someone like me, my inner self whispered.)

She nattered on about her preparations. My head overflowed with buzzwords, with little grasp of the telecomm set-up she’d masterminded. Six chat-room sessions had been established, accessed through a like number of aliases, Internet service providers, web hosting services, and untraceable cell-phone links. Our county is flat and sparsely populated, meaning the cell-phone towers were few and are far between. Anyone hacking the mobile-phone system could gain only a very approximate idea of where we were. (In the state of lunacy, my inner voice volunteered.) The latest version of Nigel’s and Kelly’s lexical-analysis software monitored every chat session.

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Categories: Edward Lerner