To Make an Interstellar Omelet, Part √-1

The next day Justin returned to the office, and spent the morning trying to avoid his anonymous e-mail account. He knew the aftermath of his online tirade would be messy, and he needed to concentrate on work.

He’d already seen the initial reactions to his site on the two forums where he’d posted them. The Vision’s forum had split into factions. The first faction was steadfast in their faith- refusing to believe any allegations that the info on The Vision was false, or that the author was dishonest in any way. The second faction was on the fence.

The third faction, however…

Justin took a long sip of coffee as his mind wandered off of his work, and onto the drama that had unfolded. The third faction on The Vision’s forum had gone off of the deep end, and took Justin’s information as evidence of a deeper conspiracy.

One forum member, who went by Bohogrove72 had said, “It should be obvious to everyone that Alice, the alleged author of this site, is a sock puppet controlled by the ILLUMINATI ELITE. They want to discredit all of us, who are close to uncovering the truth about the elite’s alien origins.”

 And so, far from convincing anyone of their errors, everyone had stuck to their preconceived notions and found a way to rationalize the new evidence.

As Justin sat in thought, his office door opened, and a large, bearded man stepped through, carrying a cardboard caddy filled with paper cups.

“Hey, Justin.”

“Hi, Max. Thanks,” Justin said, taking another cup of coffee from Max’s caddy.

“Hey, you go on the science boards, don’t you?” Max said.  “Have you been on this morning?”

“No,” Justin grimaced as Max mentioned the one thing he’d been trying to avoid.

Max chuckled as he set the rest of the coffee on the desk and took one for himself. “Man- it really exploded this morning. The moderators are banning posts by anonymous users, now.”

Justin paused, realizing belatedly that he was on his second coffee, and was feeling a bit jittery. He put the cup down with a shaking hand.

“Why would the moderators do that?” Justin asked.

“Well, do you remember that crazy guy who posted the link to his website? He had a personal vendetta against some pseudoscience blog- The Vision, or something. Anyway, some regulars from The Vision started a flame war on the science boards. The crazy guy doxed The Vision’s author, so the flamers started to attack all of us.”

Justin jumped up. “But he didn’t dox her.”

“Sure he did- he put her full name on his website, and on his posts.”

Justin could feel the bottom of his stomach drop. It was the sort of sensation one gets from either riding in an elevator, or making a terrible mistake.

“Wait- wasn’t her full name on her blog already?”

“Oh no- she just went by the name ‘Alice_of_hearts.’ The crazy guy released her last name. On the website, too, he mentioned the name of her business- some café.”

Justin grabbed his laptop. “I’ll be right back. I just have to go check something.”

 

 

#

 

 

Justin spent a good portion of his afternoon and evening pacing the floor- first the floor at his office, and then the floor at home- with his phone in his hand. Alice was unavailable on skype, she was not answering e-mail, and she was certainly not answering her phone.

Justin had taken down his website as soon as he’d realized his mistake, and he’d gone to delete the posts he’d made on The Vision and the science forums, but they’d already been deleted by moderators. Still, the damage had been done. He needed to not only make his apologies, but find some way to offer what practical assistance he could to Alice to mitigate the damage he’d done.

He cursed his own oversight. He’d never intended for things to go this far. This was the reason he’d refused Alice’s debate challenge to begin with. How had he allowed himself to be drawn in?

Toward eight o’clock, his computer chimed. He dropped his phone and ran to check skype.

Alice~ Hey, don’t worry about the doxing. I’m doing damage control. By the way- turn on CNN.

“What the-“

Justin approached his TV slowly, as though he were afraid it might explode. He gingerly picked up the remote, and switched on CNN. He sat in his recliner and relaxed slightly. They were playing a story about some meaningless celebrity feud.

Justin couldn’t help but be a little baffled, but he allowed himself to become momentarily distracted by the small scroll at the bottom of the screen, running tidbits about some political scandal.

Suddenly, the celebrity feud and the political scandal went away, and the camera focused on a smiling anchor.

“This evening, we’ll discuss the growing problem of internet harassment. Joining us tonight is Alice Stevens, author and editor of the popular blog, ‘The Vision.’ Alice was ‘doxed,’ a term meaning that her personal information was released to the public, earlier this week.”

Alice’s face appeared beside the anchor. She was sitting in front of an overstuffed bookcase, and as soon as she was on, she waved at the camera and winked.

Justin blanched.

“Good evening, Alice,” the anchor said cheerfully. “Welcome to the show.”

“Thanks, Brian. It’s great to be here.”

“I wanted to start out by asking you about your website, The Vision. We featured an article from your blog last week.”

“Well,” Alice began, “The Vision is a website that advocates for science education and space exploration. We’ve always been a controversial site, and we don’t shy away from uncomfortable questions. Because of this, I felt it was safer for me to run the site under an assumed name.”

“Thank you for your bravery in coming out here, tonight,” the anchor said. “I understand that, after your information was released, you started getting threats from strangers online.”

Alice’s smile faded slightly, and she sighed.

“Yes, several people have sent death threats to me on social media.” Then she sighed again and smiled wider. “But you know, most people don’t really mean what they say online. The anonymity the internet provides can give people a way to vent their frustration, even if they wouldn’t hurt people in real life. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell the trolls  apart from the credible threats.”

“That’s certainly true,” the anchor replied. “I hope you stay safe, and thank you again for fighting the good fight.”

Alice nodded, and then her side of the screen vanished, and the camera focused solely on the anchor.

“This whole situation has sparked a conversation about science education in American culture. I’d like to welcome a representative from NASA, Max Rogan, to continue that conversation.”

Justin nearly slid off the recliner when the screen split again, and Max appeared next to the anchor. He’d changed into a dress shirt since Justin saw him at work.

“Hey, Brian. It’s great to be on,” Max said without being prompted. “First, I’d like to say that I’m really sorry that his happened to Alice. A public debate should never include doxing or death threats. People’s arguments should stand on their own merits.

“This all brings another issue to the forefront, though,” Max continued, straightening his wire glasses. “People are getting into nasty online fights about issues that shouldn’t even be controversial. There is a scientific consensus about climate change and evolution. Not only that, but NASA has been very forthright about its projects. You can see info about everything we’ve found on the moon and Mars online. Despite this, people still turn things such as climate change into political issues, and there are conspiracy theorists all over the internet who claim that we’re hiding evidence for aliens, or people who claim the moon-landings were hoaxes. This really goes to show that we need better science education, like Alice says.”

The screen split again, and Alice re-appeared. Almost on cue, she laughed. “What about the pictures of rats on mars?”

Max smiled good-naturedly. “Well, I don’t know about rats, but we have found liquid water on Mars. Who knows what we might find, in the future? Let’s get some funding for NASA, so we can go back and explore!”

 

 

#

 

 

The next week, Justin found himself back in the loud, pink maid café.

He had no idea what he would say to Alice when she arrived. After he had seen the interview on CNN, he’d wanted to wash his hands of the whole matter, but on further reflection, he realized that he still had to find some way to make things right. Even if Alice had managed to spin the situation in her favor, he’d still wronged her.

He was brought out of his reverie when Alice, without preamble or nicety, plopped down at the table across from him.

“Justin, I don’t know how to thank you enough,” she said, extending her hand. “You played your part perfectly- even better than I would have dreamed. I knew you would, when we met.”

Justin blinked up at her for a moment, and then sighed and shook her hand. “So this was your plan, all along?”

“Well, we did go a bit further than my original plan, but I knew you would be my foil, and you were an excellent one.”

Alice smiled a bit more gently at Justin’s expression. “Hey, don’t feel bad about it. Look- I got an e-mail from Congressman Malik. He’s introducing a bill to expand science and technology research funding. He’s been getting a flood of support for it, and we played a part in making that happen.”

“Yeah. Well, I’m glad for that, at least.” Justin stood up. “You’re too much for me, Alice. I can’t handle being your foil, anymore. I had three hours of sleep last night- my nerves are shot… this is it. No more.”

“If you say so,” Alice said smugly.

Justin gritted his teeth. “Is there any way I can help you fend off the trolls? I never meant to dox you.”

“Oh no, that’s all died down. ‘Alice’ has stepped down from running The Vision, and my alter-ego has taken her place.”

“I see,” Justin said. “Well, you have my e-mail address, so don’t hesitate to contact me if you need any practical help keeping this contained. You have my sincere apologies.”

“And you have my sincere thanks,” Alice said. “Until we meet again.”

Justin placed a tip under his saucer, and turned to walk out.

 

 

#

 

 

Justin rushed for the door of the café, impatient to be rid of the nightmarish place forever. As he reached for the handle, the door opened from the other side, and he stumbled into the girl who had opened it.

“Ow- watch it!”

Justin steadied himself and looked up, only to see the tall, brunette waitress. She was glaring at him impatiently, her hands on her hips, and he realized he had stopped in the middle of the doorway.

“Sorry- excuse me.”

“It’s no problem,” the girl said, bustling past him. “I just forgot my coat, and I’m in a hurry.”

“Oh- do you have plans for tonight?”

“Not really. I just hate it here. As soon as I get my research grant, I’m through.”

“Yeah- I understand,” Justin said. “This is a madhouse. I’m escaping, too.”

The girl put the heavy coat over her uniform and looked up at Justin again, seeming to size him up. Then she stepped forward and offered her hand. “I’m Lucy, by the way.”

“Justin. Nice to meet you.”

Lucy’s thin mouth stretched into a smile. “Hey, would you like to grab a bite, later? I need some real food- not this sugary crap.”

“I’d like that,” Justin said.

“Good. I’ll go home and change first. Let’s meet up at the Pig and Pepper.”

“Alright. Is 5:30 ok?”

“It’s a date,” Lucy said.

Justin opened the café door once more, and he and Lucy walked into the afternoon sunshine together.

 

The End

Advertisements

To Make an Interstellar Omelet, Part Epsilon

Justin had promised to think about Alice’s offer, but the next day was Sunday, and on principle, Justin didn’t think on Sunday morning.

Instead, he would usually sit on his black leather recliner in front of his large, flat-screen TV, with a half-drunk cup of coffee on the side table and a half-eaten donut on his lap. He would lean back in the chair and doze as the Sunday morning news droned in the background.

He was spending the Sunday morning after his encounter with Alice in the usual way, though his cat had stolen his half-eaten donut, when the voice of a news anchor wormed its way into his subconscious. Something about the words triggered alarm bells in his head, though he was too groggy to figure out why.

“The blogsphere is buzzing over this photo of what appears to be a small rodent, taken by the Mars rover. Could this be the next ‘face on Mars?’”

Justin’s eyes flew open. Was he still dreaming? Did this really make the news?

“We go now to our science correspondent, Marion Johnson, who is at the NASA Space Center in Houston, TX. Marion, are you there?”

“Hey, Chuck,” the screen split, and beside the studio anchor was a shot of another anchor, standing in front of the Space Center. “The word here at NASA is that this is a picture of an ordinary rock.” The picture from Alice’s website appeared on screen. “They say the rock only looks like a rodent because of the pattern of shadows and light. This is the same phenomenon of pattern-seeking that caused a lot of people to see the ‘face on Mars.’”

Another image appeared on screen- a side by side comparison of the ‘face on Mars’ photos from the Viking Orbiter, where the face could be seen, and the higher resolution Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image, where it could not be seen.

The smiling anchors appeared again, side by side. They looked so similar, Justin thought they could be brothers.

“Now, in that second, higher resolution image, the Mars face couldn’t be seen. But the ‘Mars rat,’ photo is pretty high resolution already, isn’t it?”

Justin couldn’t believe his ears. Mars rat- they had given it a name. It was officially a thing.

“Yes, that is a pretty clear photo, but it looks more like a hamster, to me” the correspondent laughed. “I guess we’ll have to wait to see how this develops.”

Justin jumped out of his chair and began to pace the room. Tibby, his grey cat, jumped onto the warm seat he had just vacated. Tibby sat, and watched with intent green eyes as Justin paced back and forth.

“This is unbelievable. Clearly, Alice’s stupid plan isn’t working,” Justin said to Tibby.

Tibby meowed.

“The most frustrating thing,” Justin continued, “is that the news channel didn’t interview a single expert. They just had that idiot correspondent. No one cares about the facts. Alice’s website is just feeding into the sensationalism people want.”

Tibby continued to watch Justin pace, hoping he would drop another donut.

“I’m not going to play her game,” Justin said decisively, “but if Alice wants an expert, then I’ll be one. I’ll tell people the whole truth, and expose her sham of a website.”

Justin clapped his hands together, and then stalked away to retrieve his laptop. Tibby lay on the chair, and began to clean donut glaze from his paws and whiskers.

#

Justin was ready.

His grey eyes gleamed silver in the laptop’s glow as he looked over the finished website one final time, seeking out the smallest error- scanning the page with mathematical precision. All of the evidence was here, neatly catalogued, and organized under easy- to- reference headings. His arguments were solid and rational. The website was live.

He went to the vision forums, first, and posted the link anonymously, with only a short description of his evidence beneath. Then he copied his comment, and pasted it and the link on the science board he frequented, also anonymously.

He smiled with grim satisfaction as he added a heading to the science board post, which read, “Do not engage The Vision’s writers or channel moderators. They are deliberate trolls.”

“I was almost drawn into a debate with The Vision’s founder and head writer, Alice Stevens, but I decided not to engage her, because I didn’t want to legitimize her outlandish claims. I glad I made that decision, because I’ve discovered that the site is a hoax, and that Alice is telling deliberate lies in order to push her own twisted agenda.

“Alice doesn’t really believe anything she posts on her website, and neither do her fellow writers and moderators, including former cosmonaut Yuri Volkov. Alice has manipulated her followers into believing that they will promote science funding and education if they anger the public.

“I know that you may be skeptical of my claims, and that’s good! Skeptical inquiry is what we should all be about. I’ve compiled evidence to support my claim at my website- the link is below.”