By The Rules by Edward M. Lerner

Kel inundated me with technotrivia about mechanisms supposedly further hiding us: network address translators, encrypted links, firewalls, dynamic host control protocol, spoofing. She could have imparted an equal amount of insight with much less effort by simply invoking BFM. That’s black and that’s magic; you can fill in the middle word.

It took a punch in the shoulder to rouse me from self-hypnosis. “What, Nigel?”

“Our wizard says we’re ready, Brian.”

I studied the area once more. Flashing icons on six monitors confirmed that the Skeptic—he had graduated to a proper noun—was active in every chat room, behind yet more pseudonyms. The Skeptic was, in fact, active in far more than six dialogues, but we’d limited our attentions to those electronic communities that could route private messages in addition to group chat.

The same sentence had been typed at each computer, awaiting only a mouse click to be dispatched. “Let’s do it.” We sat, each within easy reach of two computers. “On the count of three. One … two … three.” We each clicked two mice.

“We know what you have been doing,” challenged our six simultaneous messages.

The chimes of incoming responses rang out almost instantly. On my screens came, “I won’t go back,” and “Why are you back so soon?” One of Kelly’s screens repeated, “I won’t go back,” while the other, cryptically, introduced, “How are wryteewr?” Nigel’s displays offered, “Why are you back so soon?” and “Leave me alone.”

“Too short to be conclusive,” said Nigel. “No comment about that gibberish word.”

We’d signaled together to get the Skeptic’s attention. It had obviously worked; no reason to change tactics now. “Try, ‘Why won’t you come back?’” When the typing stopped, I added, “Go.”

Multiple replies again, of which the most fascinating related to the rapid pace of breakdown of tribal barriers, the osmosis of cultural constructs via public exhibitions, and customs changing in reaction to the primitive but rapidly improving crafts of artisans. Nigel had risen from his seat; he crouched over me to poke at one of my keyboards.

“Let me think,” I growled. “You’re in my way.”

The keyboard had a long, stretchy cord; he whisked away the console and began typing. Yet another window opened on one of my screens, blocking much of the oh-so-tantalizing text. “Good,” said the Brit. “Finally a sample long enough for analysis. It’s definitely from our friend.”

Breakdown of tribal barriers? Was our mysterious Skeptic an anthropologist? If so, why spend so much time discussing UFOs? Breakdown of tribal barriers? My mind suggested some possible translations: globalization, democratization, and the spread of capitalism. Options for the other unexpected phrases followed: ubiquitous American music and movies; a world in technological ferment.

Not an anthropologist. A sociologist.

* * * *

Another of Dad’s household rules had me shaking my head for much of my youth. Rule Three opined that things are often what they seem. For a long time, I thought it only a too-cute reversal of the old adage about things not always being what they seem. A first college class in philosophy opened my metaphorical eyes: Rule Three was a whole lot easier to offer to a kid than the principle of Occam’s razor. William of Occam, a fourteenth-century British philosopher, had famously declared that entities should not be unnecessarily multiplied. Famously, but not very lucidly. Occam’s Razor was commonly translated into: take the simplest explanation unless there is evidence of a more complex reason. Rule Three—once I got it, I had to approve.

Without allowing myself a chance for second thoughts, I typed and sent, “So for how long has your kind been studying planet Earth?”

* * * *

“You were only half right,” wrote the being who had quickly adopted the Skeptic as a descriptor. That was the first reaction in some time to my continuing exposition.

“I was ENTIRELY right,” I typed in retort. “That is not to dispute a second fact of which I was then unaware.”

“You are more like your father, I think, than you realize.”

I glowered at the monitor in more than mild indignation—then laughed. “It’s true,” I keyed. What purpose was there in denial? The Skeptic was, by design, a master observer.

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Categories: Edward Lerner