Short Story: “Site License”

There’s more than one kind of First Contact.

“Site License”
by P. Orin Zack
(Aug 2007)

“Yes sir, Mr. Nagle,” I told the debriefing officer, “that’s what they said when they handed us the papers.”

The five of us had just returned from what was supposed to have been the first stage of a long-delayed Mars colonization project. Had everything gone as planned, we were to have stayed for five years, helping groups of volunteer colonists set up their habitats and showing them how to use all of the special equipment. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.

He looked up from his notes. “Did they say anything?”

“Sure,” I told him, “but it was a very awkward first contact. Their grasp of English was brutally precise, and we had to be careful not to be ambiguous, or to use any kind of slang or jargon. We stuck to the script that HQ had drilled us on at first, hoping that the assumptions made by the xenosociologists back home would play out, but the creatures insisted on talking only with Ray, and they refused all of our attempts to curry favor with them.”

“Why did they select her?”

“We’re not certain. Afterwards, we talked it over, and about the only thing that set her apart from the rest of us was the fact that she was a musician. Aside from that, we’ve all either been cross-trained, or shared a similar background. But then, the people here should already know that.”

“But why would an alien race be so interested in a musician?”

“We were hoping that you could tell us. Have the papers been translated yet?”

“Nearly so. We’re expecting to get a preliminary report sent over any time now.”

The armed guards flanking the door behind Nagle’s chair stood like unmentioned elephants in the living room. Military presence had been a part of the mix ever since NASA caved to budgetary pressures back in the Shuttle days, but I didn’t recall them ever being used inside a post-flight debriefing. What was the agency so afraid of?

“How’s Ray doing? She pretty much kept to herself for the trip back. Outbound, she kept us all entertained with an amazing collection of old filk songs from the days before the space elevator was built. But after that encounter, she wouldn’t even talk about them, much less sing one.”

“Yes, well…“ He fixed me with a steely gaze for an uncomfortably long moment. “The psychiatric team found some other anomalies in her profile, so they ran a series of fMRI scans to assess her brain function. There was a reason she didn’t sing those songs on the trip back.”

“What did they find?”

“I’m sorry, Captain Whelan, but I’m afraid I can’t tell you the details until after—”

“Now look! Ray wasn’t only my shipmate; she was also a close friend. I’ve known her for years, ever since we went head-to-head at an intercollegiate robot competition. In fact, we simultaneously tried to call one other about being selected for this mission. So tell me. What did they find?”

“She doesn’t seem to remember any of them now. It’s like a swath of her memory was erased. She still remembers everything else, but the music is gone.”

“Gone? But how…?”

“We think it had something to do with the aliens. It would also confirm your suspicion that her musical background was the reason they chose to speak with her.”

Wait a minute. “But that doesn’t make any sense. If they picked Ray because she was a musician, why would they have stolen her musical memories?”


The guards broke their formal stance at the sound of the door’s attention tone. One of them trained his weapon on me while the other stood ready to shoot any unauthorized intruder when the door swung open. Both stood down and returned to their sentry duties when a man in a brown business suit stepped in. He laid a folder on the table as he spoke. “Mr. Nagle, Captain Whelan.”

Nagle opened the folder and glanced at the half page of text. “Is this your analysis, Dr. Horvak?”

“Unfortunately, yes, sir. The aliens have a remarkable grasp of English, and have made reference to quite a number of precedents from our own legal system.”

“Our legal precedents? What about?”

“Mostly copyright rulings, sir. It seems they’ve claimed prior rights to a certain bit of creative work which they say we have violated the license for.”

I looked up at Horvak, and then craned to see the paper that Nagle was holding. “What are they talking about? The music in Ray’s memory?”

“Not exactly, Captain Whelan. They confiscated that as being a derivative work.”

“Derivative? Come on, I knew some of those tunes weren’t exactly original, but why would aliens care about that?”

Horvak grimaced. “No, sir. It’s nothing like that. They’ve claimed a much broader ground for their charge of copyright infringement. According to one of the footnotes in the papers they handed Ray, music is a form of communication based on the repetition of sequences formed from a small set of primitives — notes, if you will. They contend that their prior art precludes the unlicensed performance of any such work.”

The paper in Nagle’s hand went limp. “But that’s crazy! How can they claim the rights to every piece of music ever written?”

“It’s, um… it’s not just music, sir. Any kind of performance: plays, movies, the whole lot. It seems they’re all derived from a much earlier work, one that used a vocabulary of just four primitives. According to the writ they handed her, the human race is confined to Earth until the case is settled.”

“Confined to…? What are they claiming prior rights to anyway?”

He shook his head weakly. “It came as a shock to us, too, sir. But according to the legal ruling they quote from their own world, they pretty much own us. They even included a copy of the author’s digital signature string, which they said was embedded in the code, so we could confirm their claim for ourselves.”

Nagle set the paper down. “And did you?”

“Yes sir. It seems they’re right. They do have the copyright on our DNA.”


[Afterward: There was a kind of ‘open mike’ session at Writers Weekend, where each person would read something for up to 5 minutes. Most folks read an excerpt from a novel they were writing; I read this. It was weird. The constant side-chatter suddenly ended when I finished, as people realized what had just happened, and then the room exploded.]

Copyright 2007 P. Orin Zack


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