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Reid / YEAR ZERO
Even if she’d realized that my visitors were aliens who had come to our office to initiate contact with humanity, Barbara Ann would have resented their timing. Assistants at our law firm clear out at five-thirty, regardless—and that was almost a minute ago.
“I don’t have anyone scheduled,” I said, when she called to grouse about the late arrival. “Who is it?”
“I don’t know, Nick. They weren’t announced.”
“You mean they just sort of . . . turned up at your desk?” I stifled a sneeze as I said this. I’d been fighting a beast of a cold all week.
This was odd. Reception is two key-card-protected floors above us, and no one gets through unaccompanied, much less unannounced. “What do they look like?” I asked.
“Lady Gaga strange?” Carter, Geller & Marks has some weird-looking clients, and Gaga flirts with the outer fringe, when she’s really gussied up.
“No—kind of stranger than that. In a way. I mean, they look like they’re from . . . maybe a couple of cults.”
From what? “Which ones?”
“One definitely looks Catholic,” Barbara Ann said. “Like a . . . priestess? And the other one looks . . . kind of Talibanny. You know—robes and stuff ?”
“And they won’t say where they’re from?”
“They can’t. They’re deaf.”
I was about to ask her to maybe try miming some information out of them, but thought better of it. The day was technically over. And like most of her peers, Barbara Ann has a French postal worker’s sense of divine entitlement when it comes to her hours. This results from there being just one junior assistant for every four junior lawyers, which makes them monopoly providers of answered phones, FedEx runs, and other secretarial essentials to some truly desperate customers. So as usual, I caved. “Okay, send ’em in.”
The first one through the door had dark eyes and a bushy beard. He wore a white robe, a black turban, and a diver’s watch the size of a small bagel. Apart from the watch, he looked like the Hollywood ideal of a fatwa- shrieking cleric—until I noticed a shock of bright red hair protruding from under his turban. This made him look faintly Irish, so I silently christened him O’Sama. His partner was dressed like a nun—although in a tight habit that betrayed the curves of a lap dancer. She had a gorgeous tan and bright blue eyes and was young enough to get carded anywhere.
O’Sama gazed at me with a sort of childlike amazement, while the sister kept it cool. She tried to catch his eye—but he kept right on staring. So she tapped him on the shoulder, pointing at her head. At this, they both stuck their fingers under their headdresses to adjust something. “Now we can hear,” the nun announced, straightening out a big, medieval-looking crucifix that hung around her neck.
This odd statement aside, I thought I knew what was happening. My birthday had passed a few days back without a call from any of my older brothers. It would be typical of them to forget—but even more typical of them to pretend to forget, and then ambush me with a wildly inappropriate birthday greeting at my stodgy New York law office. So I figured I had about two seconds before O’Sama started beatboxing and the nun began to strip. Since you never know when some partner’s going to barge through your door, I almost begged them to leave. But then I remembered that I was probably getting canned soon anyway. So why not gun for YouTube glory, and capture the fun on my cellphone?
As I considered this, the nun fixed me with a solemn gaze. “Mr. Carter. We are visitors from a distant star.”
That settled it. “Then I better record this for NASA.” I reached across the desk for my iPhone.
“Not a chance.” She extended a finger and the phone leapt from the desk and darted toward her. Then it stopped abruptly, emitted a bright green flash, and collapsed into a glittering pile of dust on the floor.
“What the . . .?” I basically talk for a living, but this was all I could manage.
“We’re camera shy.” The nun retracted her finger as if sheathing a weapon. “And as I mentioned, we’re also visitors from a distant star.”
I nodded mutely. That iPhone trick had made a believer out of me.
“And we want you to represent us,” O’Sama added. “The reputation of Carter, Geller & Marks extends to the farthest reaches of the universe.”
The absurdity of this flipped me right back to thinking “prank”—albeit one featuring some awesome sleight of hand. “Then you know I’ll sue your asses if I don’t get my iPhone back within the next two parsecs,” I growled, trying to suppress the wimpy, nasal edge that my cold had injected into my voice. I had no idea what a parsec was, but remembered the term from Star Wars.
“Oh, up your nose with a rubber hose,” the nun hissed. As I was puzzling over this odd phrase, she pointed at the dust pile on the floor. It glowed green again, then erupted into a tornado-like form, complete with thunderbolts and lightning. This rose a few feet off the ground before reconstituting itself into my phone, which then resettled gently onto my desk. That refuted the prank theory nicely—putting me right back into the alien-believer camp.
“Thank you very kindly,” I said, determined not to annoy Xena Warrior Fingers ever, ever again.
“Don’t mention it. Anyway, as my colleague was saying, the reputation of Carter, Geller & Marks extends to the farthest corner of the universe, and we’d like to retain your services.”
Now that I was buying the space alien bit, this hit me in a very different way. The farthest corner of the universe is a long way for fame to travel, even for assholes like us. I mean, global fame, sure—to the extent that law firms specializing in copyright and patents actually get famous. We’re the ones who almost got a country booted from the UN over its lax enforcement of DVD copyrights. We’re even more renowned for our many jihads against the Internet. And we’re downright notorious for virtually shutting down American automobile production over a patent claim that was simply preposterous. So yes, Earthly fame I was aware of. But I couldn’t imagine why they’d be hearing about us way out on Zørkan 5, or wherever these two were from.
“So, what area of the law do you need help in?” I asked in a relaxed, almost bored tone. Feigning calm believably is a survival tactic that I perfected as the youngest of four boys (or of seven, if you count our cousins, who lived three doors down. I sure did). It made me boring to pick on—and useless as a prank victim, because I’d treat the damnedest events and circumstances as being mundane, and entirely expected. It had also helped me immensely as a lawyer (although by itself, it had not been enough to make me a successful one).
Sister Venus gave me a cagey look. “It’s sort of . . . an intellectual property thing.”
“Of course,” I said. “Is it media? Patents? Trademark?”
“It’s kind of a . . . music thing.” She and O’Sama exchanged a furtive look.
“I see. Is it related to royalty payments? Piracy?”
Now O’Sama jumped into the action. And I mean that literally—he leapt to his feet, and practically screamed in my face. “Who said anything about piracy?”
The nun hit him with a lethal glare. “Zip it,” she hissed. He plunked right back into his chair, giving her a hurt, sullen, but obedient look. Impressive, I thought. It was like seeing that dog whisperer guy make a pit bull back down.
“I do have an extensive background in music law,” I said, clenching my nose to stop the sneeze molecules from breaking out.
Sister Venus rolled her eyes. “No duh, Mr. Carter. We’ve done our homework.”
Well, yes, up to a point. True, they’d chosen a fine law firm from an impressive distance. But I was beginning to suspect that they had mistaken me for the Carter in Carter, Geller & Marks, rather than a lowly associate who happened to have the same last name as the founding partner. And did she seriously just say no duh?
“Also,” O’Sama added breathlessly, “we simply adore ‘Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,’ and every one of your other songs.”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
But I knew exactly what he was talking about. And if you’re a woman born between the years 1984 and 1988, you probably do, too. Otherwise, you’re hopefully only faintly aware of the Backstreet Boys—the vilest confection ever to emerge from a “boy band” factory. Like me, one of their alleged singers is named Nick Carter. He’s two years my junior, so I was here first. And I got as far as age twenty-one with a wonderfully anonymous name. Then Nick and the boys unleashed an abomination called Millennium that sold more than forty million copies. I still get about a dozen Backstreet Boys jokes per week.
That said, something told me O’Sama wasn’t joking. He just seemed too . . . earnest. “I do not have, never have had, and never will have any relationship whatsoever with the Backstreet Boys,” I said, hoping to forever banish the topic from the intergalactic agenda.
“Really?” O’Sama’s obvious devastation confirmed that he had been completely serious.
Sister Venus gave him a shocked look. “You didn’t honestly think—”
And that’s when we got Rickrolled. If you’re not familiar with the aging prank, it’s a sonic ambush that causes you to hear a snippet of Rick Astley’s foppish late eighties hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Rickrolling had its heyday during the late Bush era. But like bell-bottoms, it stages occasional resurgences, and we were in the midst of one. I figured that the culprit was my unattainably gorgeous neighbor, Manda Shark. We’d had drinks the night before, and at some point she must have slyly changed my phone’s primary ringtone. And now someone was calling, filling my office with that cheesy chorus.
Normal reactions to Rickrolls range from eye rolls to ironic sing-alongs. But my visitors started trembling, almost convulsing. And as they clung to their chairs for support, they took on an ecstatic air that was almost smutty. I instinctively grabbed my phone and muted the ringer.
“Big . . . music fans?” I ventured as they calmed down.
The nun nodded, catching her breath. “Almost any of your music can prompt that sort of reaction from us. Which is why we chose outfits with headdresses. They conceal devices that can completely silence our hearing when we’re not in a sealed room, to protect us from the ambient music that fills the public spaces in your society.”
O’Sama reached a finger under his turban and made a flicking gesture. “You see, I can’t hear a thing now,” he bellowed, then flicked his finger back the other way.
“Then I better change a setting on my computer,” I said, sliding over to my keyboard. “Otherwise it’ll play some Michael Bolton whenever an email comes in.” That was a lie. Neither of them could see my monitor, and I was actually launching the software that I use to record depositions and other interviews. If they wouldn’t let me shoot the meeting on my cellphone, an audio recording would be better than nothing. “Anyway. You know my name. Do you mind if I ask for yours?”
“You can call me Carly,” the nun said.
I nodded agreeably, although I’d been hoping for something a bit more exotic.
The mullah smiled gently. “And you can call me Frampton.”
“Pleased to meet you both. So anyway—it sounds like you’re big music fans. And you need representation. In what specific ways can Carter, Geller & Marks be helpful?”
Carly leaned toward me, almost conspiratorially. “We need a license to all of humanity’s music. One that will allow . . . a rather large number of beings to play it. Privately and in public. And to copy it. And to transmit it, share it, and store it.”
Decades of marveling at Hollywood aliens hadn’t prepared me for this dry request. But my career at a sharp-elbowed copyright and patent law firm absolutely had. “That should be feasible,” I said, managing to sound like Carly was the third extraterrestrial to make this request today. “And exactly what music are you seeking licenses to?” I struggled not to sniffle as I said this. I failed.
“Every song that’s been played on New York–area radio since 1977. Or has ever been sold or widely traded on the Internet.”
“That would be . . . complicated, but quite manageable.” This thigh-slapper came straight from my firm’s equiva- lent of a cunning marketing script. The partnership owes much of its lavish income to conversations that begin a lot like this one (albeit with Earthlings). A prospective client imagines that our music-saturated society must surely have a rational and well-defined set of rules governing music licensing. They come to us because we famously know everyone in the industry. So naturally, we can get them their licenses in a trice—right?
You’d think. But music licensing is an arcane thicket of ambiguity, overlapping jurisdictions, and litigation. This is a disastrous situation for musicians, as well as for music fans and countless businesses. In fact, it suits absolutely nobody—apart from the cynical lawyers who run the music labels, the lobbying groups, the House, the Senate, and several parasitic law firms like my own. Collectively, we are wholly empowered to fix the entire mess. But that would result in a needless loss of extravagantly high-paying legal work for all. So we indignantly denounce the situation to our respective patrons, wave our fists at each other in public, and then privately chuckle slyly over drinks.
In this environment, conversations with prospective clients need to be handled delicately. You don’t want them to look back later and think that you were overpromising in a no-win situation. But you certainly don’t want to talk them out of attempting the impossible.
“Why would it be complicated?” Carly asked. “Is it . . . hard to get this sort of music license?”
“No, I wouldn’t say hard.” This part of the pitch calls for offering some misleading relief. But as I started to deliver it, I recalled with a pang that the firm was about to trim some deadwood, and that I was a likely victim. They didn’t hate me around here; I just wasn’t viewed as being partner material, and would probably be shown the door within weeks. So why should I loyally push their greedy agenda until the bitter end? Particularly to a pair of extraterrestrials who probably lacked American currency anyway?
Carly tugged impatiently at her crucifix. “So, if it’s not hard, what is it?”
“Utterly impossible,” I said, with the reckless swagger of the noble corporate renegade that I’m not. “You can get close to a license as sweeping as that. But it’ll cost you a fortune. And it’ll take months at best—more likely years. And once you think you’re done, there will always be lots of loose ends. Thousands at least. Ones that people can sue you over. And when they do, your defense could drag on for years—at four to nine hundred dollars per billable hour.”
“But what if we want a license for places where no rational person would expect any of your music to ever sell, or even be played?” she pressed.
At this, Frampton got to his feet and leaned across my desk. “The far side of the Townshend Line,” he intoned, with the gravitas of a wizard invoking dungeons deep and caverns old.
Carly glared at him. “How would he know about the Townshend Line? You and I are the only beings who have ever crossed it.” She turned back to me. “The damn thing’s completely overrated anyway.”
“Completely,” Frampton agreed, retaking his seat.
“Anyway,” Carly continued. “We want a license to regions that your record labels can’t possibly care about. Specifically, all points one hundred forty-four light-years beyond your solar system.”
Frampton stretched his arms wide. “That’s over a hundred trillion times the distance from here to Staten Island!”
“I'm afraid the music industry actually cares immensely about even the remotest markets,” I said. “In fact, almost every contract that it generates contains language like this.” I picked up a document at random from my desk and gazed at it. “ ‘The terms of this contract shall apply past the end of time and the edge of Earth; all throughout the universe; in perpetuity; in any media, whether now known, or here- after devised; or in any form, whether now known, or hereafter devised.’ ” I actually know this clause by heart, and can reel it off like a cop reciting the Miranda rights. But unless I pretend to read it from a document, people think I must be joking.
A brief, gloomy silence followed. “Well, if that’s the case,” Carly finally said, “it’ll be a lot harder than we thought to save your melodious asses.”
Save our asses? “From what?” It took every bit of self-control that I’d honed as a kid at the bottom of the testosterone pyramid to say this with professional calm.
“Self-destruction,” Frampton said grimly.
“Yeah,” Carly said, then mimed ironic quotation marks with chilling enthusiasm. “Self-destruction.”
“Oh, that,” I said languidly, while teetering on the brink of terror. “But why come to me about this?”
Carly’s testy façade dropped, and admiration flitted briefly across her face. “Because we need to enlist the greatest copyright attorney on Earth. If not . . . the universe.”
I allowed myself to savor the sound of this for a few moments. But there was no sense in pretending they had the right guy. “Then you really ought to talk to Frank Carter, who started the firm back in the seventies. Old guy, rich as hell. Sits in a huge corner office two floors up. Although he only comes in about once a month these days. No relation to me, I’m afraid.”
Carly looked horrified. Frampton looked terrified. She pointed at me and fixed him with a murderous look. “I thought you said he ran the firm.”
Frampton quaked. “I thought he did.”
Carly paused, apparently putting two and two together. Then, “No, you thought he was a Backstreet Boy, and were looking for any excuse to meet him!”
Carly looked like she might hit him.
“Because there’s the firm’s name! It’s Carter. And something, and something!” Frampton pointed at me. “Nick Carter!”
“You honestly thought a Backstreet Boy was moonlighting as a lawyer?”
“As a music lawyer!”
Frampton just grinned obsequiously and gave her a terrified shrug.
Carly turned her withering gaze to me. “Why doesn’t anybody ever tell me anything?” she demanded, as if I was part of some conspiracy.
I shrugged neutrally and turned to Frampton, angling to keep the spotlight on him.
Carly kept staring me down. “Mr. Carter,” she continued, after reining in her outrage somewhat. “How senior are you around here?”
“Well, it’s hard to say exactly. But out of a hundred and thirty attorneys, for now I’m probably . . .” I thought for a moment. “Top hundred?”
Frampton cringed further. Carly glowered as if I’d somehow arranged all of this just to spite her. “In that case,” she said, “it seems that my colleague and I have pulled you into deadly waters that are well over your head.”
Whatever you might think, it’s no fun when aliens talk about drowning you, even metaphorically. “But luckily there’s a lifeguard out there, and his name is Frank Carter,” I said brightly. “His old assistant has all of his contact info. So why don’t we track him down and pass the baton to him?”
“Because it sounds like he’s retired, and probably half senile,” Carly snapped. “And besides, we don’t have time. The gateway back to our planet closes in one minute. If we don’t leave before then, we’ll be stuck here with you for almost a day before it opens again. And I don’t think you want that.”
You got that right, I thought. In fact, I wanted nothing to do with these extraterrestrial freaks. Ever. “Well, then,” I chirped. “We better get you into that gateway of yours pronto, huh?”
Carly shook her head. “We still have forty-nine seconds. And we need to arrange our next encounter with you, because it looks like you’re all we’ve got. The gateway will re-open for roughly twenty minutes tomorrow morning. Since you’ve now met us, we won’t need to come in person. Instead, we’ll connect to an Earth-based dataspace. You will meet us there. And you will need these.”
She held up a set of pink, wraparound safety lenses. They looked a lot like the odd specs that Bono always wears.
“They have been specially built to interface with one of your primitive computers. We will teleport this pair to you tomorrow at eleven oh-three a.m., and simultaneously email you instructions for joining us in the dataspace exactly three minutes later. Frampton and I will now exit by way of a Wrinkle. Don’t be alarmed.”
“By way of a what?”
“A Wrinkle,” she said. And then added enigmatically, “The universe is pleated.”
And that was when I finally sneezed—while making a botched effort to rein it in, which only made it sound like I was gagging on a pool ball.
“We could probably help you get over that cold,” Carly said, cocking an eyebrow. And with that, the two of them knelt to the floor and bent low, as if praying toward Mecca. Then, in the course of about three seconds, they faded entirely from sight.