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Monday, July 30, 2012

Falling From Orbit by Chris Brecheen

Falling from Orbit  
by Chris Brecheen

They say when you are dying, your life will flash before your eyes. Never one for convention, Millie Winter did not find this to be true. Only a single summer plagued her vision when she was dying. When a Human’s First radical slipped a DZP tablet into each of three lavender cosmopolitans and left her tied spread eagled to a bed, she drifted to toward oblivion inside dreams of the summer in 87. When the rusty fang of a nail jutting from the back of a protestor’­s sign bit into the underside of her wrist, and the leering man in his denim jacket dragged it half way to her funny bone, it was the summer of 87 assaulting her senses as vermilion jets slowed to gentle pulses. Even now, suspended in the air over the waters of the San Francisco bay, in that instant before gravity yanks her into the blackness below, she is looking out past the glittering lights of Alcatraz and Oakland to the giant harvest moon rising beyond, and it reminds her of watching the Earth rise like a shimmering topaz from Luna’s horizon in the summer of 87. She remembers Alan’s hand curled in her own, and this is all it takes to trigger the familiar chain of memories that rush towards her even faster than the inky blackness below.

She remembers how her hands trembled as she opened the envelope from Oklude Industries. The words “accepted” and “welcome” winked back at her. A smile lit her face. She had done it. She had done what they said she couldn’t do.

She remembers her mother’s beaming face. “Good for you kiddo!” she said.  “I’m glad the competition wasn’t as tough as you heard.”

She remembers the way her father pulled his reading glasses from his plaid flannel shirt pocket with thick calloused hands, placed them over his wrinkling eyes, and read the whole letter out loud from beginning to end. “Dear Emily Winter, We are pleased to inform you...” At the end he took his glasses off to look at her. “I am so proud of you, Bumblebee. You worked hard.  You deserve this.”

She remembers her best friend Andrea glared across a curl of golden hair she let fall over her eyes.  Andrea did this when she didn't approve of things, and she didn't approve of a great many things. Millie first got the look when they met in kindergarten. Millie tried to explain to Andrea why winged unicorns weren’t biologically possible, and Andrea only stopped glaring after tricking Millie into admitting that magic made anything possible, and that magic might exist because everyone said it didn’t--because people got things wrong all the time.

“What’s wrong, Dre?” Millie probed when the over-the-curl gaze fell upon her. Digging out Andrea’s issues was usually painful. Letting them fester always was.

“Do you have to go away?” Andrea asked. “Especially to a place like that?”

“Oklude Industries is a very prestigious internship,”  Millie said.  “Plus they pay for my room and board and an entertainment stipend.”

“It’s not the company. It’s the place.”  Andrea drifted off.

"How many people actually get to go there?" Millie said.  "Everyone talks about it like it's no big deal, but no one has ever really been there.  I'll get to do what almost no one else really has."

"It's just so far away," Andrea said.

“Can’t you be happy for me?”  Millie said. “Just this one time?”

“I am happy, Mills.  I'm happy that you got accepted.  You showed em!  But, remember, you only applied to prove wrong everyone that you couldn't make it. Who cares about actually going?”

“I didn’­t care when I thought they were right,” Millie said. “Now I do.”

“That makes absolutely no sense at all Millie,” Andrea said. She rolled her eyes.

“I know.”

“This is supposed to be our last hurrah. The summer after graduation! Big fanfares. The best parties.  The last of the bad decisions you can chalk up to college experimentation. I mean you literally can’t get any further away from me than the moon. And, who wants to be around all those stuffy...” she made a noise that was a cross between being sick and “Splerg!”

“I like stuffy.” Millie said. “People don’t make sense to me. All those emotions messing with their brains. Stuffy isn’t so bad.”

“It is when you can’t have feelings,” Dre said.

“Case in point,” Millie said, “this conversation.”

Andrea’s voice took on a conspiratorial edge. “Did you know Derrick Anderson was asking me about you? Wanted to know if you were seeing anyone. Could be a bad summer to be out of town, Mills.”

Millie paused. She looked down at the chewed fingernails on her left hand and thought of sitting in Differential Equations behind Derrick, staring at that place where his neck and shoulders met, and wondering if he might gasp or sigh if she touched it with her tongue.

She shook her head. “This will be good for me. Oklude internships are crown jewels.  People walk into seven figure salaries with something like that on their resume.

“Come on!”  Andrea said, sounding a bit like a car salesman. “What if Derrick finds some other math nerd and gets all hot for her. He’s not going to pine--not with a ass like his.  He asked me about you.  He asked me about your interests.  Your interests! Who actually says that? He is so into you. Come on! Last hurrah!”

“Maybe last hurrahs are overrated.”

Andrea sighed. “Maybe your face is overrated, Millicent Winter." She screwed up her mouth and stuck out her tongue. “No one in their right mind doesn't want a last hurrah. I swear, without me you’­d forget how to be human.”

She remembers how her mother giving her advice one night while they were putting away the dishes. “I know you, Millie,” her mother said. “You’re always trying to swim upstream. And it’s cute sometimes, but if you pull that crap with Luna Population, you’re going to end up in trouble.”

“Okay mom,” Millie said, rolling her eyes.

Her mother dropped the plates she was holding, and they shattered across the blue tile floor in a cascade of tiny white shards. She grabbed Millie’s head firmly and pressed their foreheads together. Millie could smell the tang of cranberry juice on her breath, and could see the cake of foundation filling in crow’­s feet around her eyes. The pressure was firm, but not uncomfortable.

“I’m serious,” her mother said, sliding her hands to the side of Millie’s cheeks. Her lip quivered. “You don’t know how afraid to be yet, Emily. You don’t know what serious is. Remember your Uncle Roy? Brilliant linguist. Published. Running the big ten circuit as a guest speaker. Ivy league professor.  Such a career ahead of him! Not even a sympathizer. But one article--one--on how the word ‘exodus’ was technically a misnomer because it should have been ‘exile,’ and  overnight he can’t even find a job teaching a survey course at a community college. One article! People have died over this. This can’t be like your kooky sense of fashion or veganism or something. Go get the feather in your cap and come home.”

“You broke all the plates, Mom,” Millie said, confused and unsure what to do, but feeling scared and loved all at the same time, like she was wrapped too tightly in the most comfortable blanket ever.

“They’­re just things,” her mother said. “Don’­t ever forget that.”

She remembers her trip in disjointed images: the Earth falling away more quickly than she expected (far more quickly than the black water now rising up to meet her); her discovery that space wasn’t black at all, but crammed unmercifully with points of light; how fascinating she found the science and technology behind the colonial dome and how it creeped inexorably along the massive titanium track on a 28 day circuit around the south pole, keeping it straddling the light and dark side of the surface, perpetually within the twilight of lunar dusk where the temperatures were bearable; being given cumbersome magnetic boots that took up the slack of low Lunar gravity but making each step a comic display of clumsiness.

She remembers her first day of work at Oklude and how her boss, T-dor, explained her job to her. T-dor was one of the older teaching and training models with a square hole for a mouth and bald head, and reminded Millie so much of a crash test dummy that she had a hard time not giggling when ever he looked at her. Her job would be to look through thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of lines of computations and see if the numbers “looked right.”  The staff could do lightning fast computations at levels of complexity right at the edge of human understanding, but their biggest problems happened if a nominal error in the data snowballed unnoticed through the calculations--feedback loops, cascade errors, that sort of thing. They had no intuitive ability to look at a number and sense that it was way off.

“Wait,” Millie said.  She looked from T-dor to the screen with the computations and back. “I have a double degree in general mathematics as well as probability and statistics. I got a 3.9 from Stanford.  I graduated Summa Cum Laude, and was second in my class.”

T-dor cocked his head and took a moment to reply. “That is why we chose you, yes. You were our most impressive candidate.” He paused. “Well, technically that’s not true.  You were our most impressive candidate without any rather...transparent hostility towards Luna Population.”

“But you don’t want me to do any math?” Millie asked.

T-dor paused again. “Of course we do.  You are doing math. You must be quite familiar with the operations in order to know if the numbers seem right. No one without your expertise would be able to tell if they were looking at something that was roughly correct or simply a random number. However, when it comes to the actual calculations, we can perform them nearly three thousand percent faster than you, even if you use a computer.  It is more efficient this way.”

“So all that studying and all the competition to get here, and the only thing you want me to do is look at some number and tell you how it makes me feel?”

“Yes,” T-dor said, oblivious to her tone of voice. “We lack that ability.”

She remembers Alan S-mer. He was a Synth: virtually indistinguishable from humans without instruments--the model that led to The Exodus. Millie only knew he wasn’t human when he danced into the Oklude's break room gracefully, clearly not wearing magnetic boots.  He had dark eyes, sandy hair, an imbalanced goatee with a crooked line on the left that Millie found charming.  He called her Emily and blushed when she corrected him. He stumbled over his words when he asked her if she liked Thai food, and offered to cook a meal since Luna didn’t really have restaurants to speak of and he thought she was probably tired of the enriched protein tubes. He made Pho in his apartment, donning a green apron with “Kiss the Cook” written on it while he darted about the kitchen.  The cubed tofu chunks, diced broccoli, chopped asparagus, and thick, handmade noodles were all too salty after Alan forgot to account for the preserving salt when considering the recipe, but Millie wolfed everything down. They talked for hours that night.  She told him about Earth, her childhood, her family, and Andrea. He told her about how lonely it got on Luna. Synths were designed to have feelings identical to humans so they got homesick just as easily, and the lack of personability in older models like T-dor could make them just as ill at ease as they did most humans.

Millie fell in love more quickly than she thought possible. She liked that his left eye had more flecks than his right.  She liked how he could never get his goatee sides balanced.  She liked how he got animated when they talked about volcanism on Io.  She liked the way he shook his head when he talked about how you wouldn’t find Synth literature on Earth just because it was written by Syths and the stuck up snobs wouldn’t give it a fair shake, even though much of it was just as good, and some of it was on par with canon authors.  She liked how he made a moue at her every time she claimed that mathematics could, at some level, explain everything.  She never gave a thought to holding back.  If anything, the spice of the forbidden drove her forward.

She remembers a cascade of milestones.  The first time she told him she loved him they had finished up watching an MST3K marathon.  She wondered why he loved the old movies and laughed so often; she thought they were mostly boring and pretty goofy.  But she got such a kick out of watching him watch a show about robots watching movies that it was worth it. When he didn’t notice that he had a bit of popcorn stuck in the chin hair of his goatee, she suddenly felt overwhelmed.  “I love you, Alan,” she blurted.

He looked at her, and she was terribly afraid he was going to say something about love not being a part of his program matrix or something.   But then he moved closer.  His arms took her shoulders and gathered her gently towards him.  He held her for a long time, and she could smell the fake popcorn butter on his chin.  She inhaled deeply and held him close.  For the rest of her life when she thought of Alan, she could swear she smelled fake butter.

The first kiss happened a few days later. Alan tried to talk her out of her feelings.  Many non-emotive residents of Luna comprehended only at the most intellectual levels why they had been kicked off of Earth.  They knew the humans didn’t want them there and could have academically expounded on the numerous social, cultural, and economic reasons in great detail.  But the the later models, and especially the Synths, had a keen grasp of the why.  They understood all too well.

“Millie,” Alan said, deep lines cutting across his forehead, “they will hate you even more than they hate me.”

“I don’­t care,” she said.

“You should.  In their minds I can’t help what I am.  I am some tragic thing cursed by fate, but you have a choice.”He paused, hand held near his face in mid-gesticulation.  “They will hate you for that choice.  They will hate you more than you can possibly imagine.”

“I don’­t care,” she said.  She tried to mean it.  Eventually she did.

Then he kissed her.  His two forefingers gently traced a line from her cheekbone to her chin as their lips touched, gently at first, and then with greater fervor.   He was a great kisser.

The first time they made love he gasped as he entered her.  She wondered what behavioral algorithm prompted that.  He came too quickly the first time, which inflamed her passions even more.

Lying next to him afterwards, she started to giggle.

"What?" Alan asked.

"That was like a dozen times for me, and five for you," she said.  She laughed a little more before she was able to get out: "You're quite the machine!"

She giggled on, but didn't fail to notice that Alan hadn't joined her.

Their first fight was because he wouldn’­t hold her hand in public.

“Why,” she yelled.  “Are you ashamed of me?”

“No!” Alan said.  “No I’­m trying to protect you.”

“Oh thanks,” she snapped.  “Thanks for protecting poor little Millie, who, by the way, never asked for it and doesn’­t want it.  Feeling really respected right now.”

Alan sighed.  Millie thought that was strange since he technically did not need breath except to speak. “Millie, it literally would not occur to many of my people to not be completely honest if someone from Earth asked about us,” Alan explained.  “They have the ability to detect that I am a synth, that you are a human, and the earlier models wouldn’t even consider deception if someone asked what we were doing.  The good news is that means they can't figure out the subtext if we spend all our free time in my apartment, but the bad news is they won't know to lie to protect us if we take it outside. The last thing you want is to be seen as a sympathizer when you return.”

“I’m not going back there!” Millie said,  “Not after I’­ve found you here.”

“Don’­t be ridiculous.  Of course you are.” Alan said.  “You can't stay here forever.”

“Don’­t tell me what I want Alan!” she yelled.  “Dont ever tell me what I want.  I love you.”

“I just don’­t want to see you get hurt,” Alan said, looking wounded.  “I love you too.”

“Do you?  Do you even know what that means?  Can you  even comprehend what I’­m going through right now?”

“Of course I can.  I know what love means.  Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and vassopressin are all simulated within my--”

“Oh, simulated! That’s great!” Millie shouted.  “It’s nice to know your feelings are so well simulated.  Except for one little problem--I’m talking about real love, Alan.  Real love.  The kind where you aren’t ashamed to hold hands in public.  The kind where you don’­t just casually tell them that they’ll be leaving in two months.  The kind where you don’­t presume it’s going to end.  Not just a behavioral algorithm and simulated oxy-whateverthefuck.  I’m talking about love you fight for.  I'm talking about the love you go down fighting for and never give up on.  Real love!”

“Millie,” Alan said.  “Your life is on Earth, where I cannot go.  Human physiology and psychology can’­t even handle the effects of perpetual dusk or lunar gravity.  You’­d go crazy first and then your muscles would atrophy, and then you’d wither and die within a year or two.  That has nothing to do with how much we love each other.”

“Fuck you, Alan!” she spat.  “Don’t just reduce me to some limitation based on my physiology.”

“You fucking humans!” Alan snapped.  “You’re all so stupid.  You think you’re feelings are so special because they’­re intense, and that you’re the first ones in the whole damned history of ever to feel like that, and no one else could ever feel like you do.  We’­re both machines!  You aren’­t special because your wiring is organic and your behavioral algorithms are encoded chemically.   If I drained out your bonding hormones, you wouldn’t feel love either.  But that doesn’t somehow make what you’re feeling now ‘not real.’  You don'­t hold the patent on real love or the title or the deed or whatever you want to try to claim.  And you sure as fuck don’­t get to tell me mine isn’t real.”

She bit her lip.  “I’­m not telling you it isn’­t real.”

“No, just that yours is better or more real or some crap!  That I’­ll never know what it’­s like to love the way you do.  And that’­s a bunch of bullshit!”

“Then it should be killing you not to hold my hand in public,” she said.

Alan paused before speaking, and looked at her with eyebrows lifted and lips pressed together.  “I never said it wasn’t killing me."

Nearly half way down to the water, she remembers seeing the Earth rise.  Alan drove her within a transport away from the dome so they could watch the “earthrise.”  Half of the topaz sphere crested over the horizon and hung there like art on an impossibly far away wall.

“It’s weird that it doesn’­t move.” Millie said.

“Oh, it moves,” Alan said.  “Just very slowly. It makes a small circuit around the sky every three hundred hours or so.”

“Do you ever want to go back?” she asked.  "Do you ever miss it?"

He looked at her.  “Every day.  I miss Earth in a way I can’t even begin to explain--the sunshine on my face.  Well, technically I can get that here, but it would melt my innards. Sounds. You don't realize how much you miss the sound of animals and bugs and distant people and even traffic until it's just silent. Breezes--god I miss the wind on my forearms.  But I can’t go back.  Even if the law changed today, your bigotry would remain for generations.  Watching your people let go of hatred is like...” Alan paused.  “It’s like watching the Earth go across the sky.  Sometimes, it seems like it isn’t moving at all.  And it always seems to wind up back where it started.”

“Why are you so perfect?” Millie asked looking away from the Earth and towards him.

Alan looked back.  “We shouldn't stay long.  The transport's heaters weren't built with humans in mind.  They’ll take the edge off, but it’s getting cold.”

“Sometimes I wish you weren’­t,” she said.

“Weren’­t what?” Alan asked.

“Perfect,” she said. “Sometimes it bothers me.”

“You are bothered by perfection?” Alan asked.


“Shall I do something imperfect?” Alan asked.  “I could probably leave my socks on the floor of the living room.  I’m fairly certain that’s less than perfect.”

“That’s not the point, Alan,” Millie said feeling irritation seeping in with the cold.

“What is the point?” he asked.  “...Emily.”

“The point is that I don’­t want you to just change some program and then be perfectly imperfect.  That wouldn’­t count.”

“Why not?”  He demanded.  “Because altering a program is fundamentally different than some human working to break a bad habit and change their behaviors to suit you?”

“No.  Fuck.  I don’t...  I can’­t explain it.  Effort maybe, I don't know.  I want you to get some things wrong.   I want to love the things about you that I hate.”

“No wonder you can’­t explain it,” he said.  “It's utter nonsense.  It’­s exactly the sort of paradox bullshit humans run around feeling perfectly content with in their lives and get pissed off enough to exile the lot of us when we point that you’re being completely fucking retarded .”

Millie was furious.  “It’s not nonsense,”  she said.  “It’s humanity.  It’­s what we are, and why you creep us out because it’s what you aren’t.  It’s the fucking human condition to never be happy.  I’m sorry that you can’t understand because you’re an oversized laptop.”

Alan drove on quietly, but his hands were clenched around the wheel.  Somehow that made Millie feel good.

But watching him obviously fighting tears doused her anger.

“I’­m sorry,” she said after a moment.  “That was way out of line.  We just think differently about some things.  I forget that sometimes.  We literally think differently about things.  And that matters.”

“You know, there seems to be plenty that you hate about me,” Alan said.  “But you don’­t love to hate it or some stupid thing.   You just plain hate it.  Maybe you should work on that.”

“I said I was sorry,” she repeated.

“Let's just get home,” he said.  “It’s way too cold for a human here.”

She remembers the small, dark theater packed with Synths and a few humans .  She felt Alan’­s hand press into her own, holding it close.  She turned to look at him; he was already looking at her.  His fingers entwined hers.

“If this is what it takes for you to know what you mean to me,” he said.  He took her chin in his fingers and pulled her lips towards his.

Someone behind them gasped.  Murmurs started.  She heard someone mutter that he wasn’­t wearing mag-boots but she definitely was.  Millie didn’t care.  She didn’t care as hard as she could.

She remembers her mother calling first.  “You’re coming home,” she said.

“I am not,” Millie said.

“Now!” her mother said.  She tried to sound angry, but Millie only saw fear in her eyes.

“No, mom,” Millie said.  “Don’­t tell me what to do.”

“Millie, if you come home right now--right now--I have a few friends who might be able to do some damage control.  You’re young.  You’re impressionable.  You were alone and lonely.  And some of those Synths were literally built with seduction in mind.   We can make sure you don't get branded a sympathizer.”

“I don’­t care what I get branded,” Millie said.  “I love him.”

Her mother reeled.  “Honey.....   You don’t care because you don’­t know what it means.  Sometimes when we’re young, we're very foolish,” her mother said.  “Sometimes we feel things, and they seem real--maybe very real.  And we think we're going to feel that way forever.  But we outgrow those feelings.  They’re a phase.”

“I’m not going to outgrow my love,” Millie said.

“It isn't real, sweetie.  What you’­re feeling isn't real.  It’­s just a lot of confusion because of your situation.  You’ll understand when you fall in love...for real.  You'll understand why this isn't.”

“Don’t ever tell me my love isn't real!” Millie yelled.  “I love Alan.  I love him more than I've ever loved anyone.”

“Oh god, Millie!” she said, literally wringing her hands.  “Don’t--  I am your mother.  Don’­t ever say that to me.  You make me sick.  I raised you better.”  She disconnected, and her face disappeared from the screen.

Her father called after that.  “Your mom’s worried, but I told her you were our little Millie, and you were gonna do what you were gonna do.”

Millie smiled.  “Thanks dad.”

“Don’t worry Bumblebee,” her dad said.  “When I was probably about your age I went through the same exact thing.  I mean that was back before the Exodus was legally enforced, so it wasn't the kind of deal it is today, but still people would have looked at me funny to be with one of them.”

“You fell in love with an android?” Millie asked, smiling.

“Well, the companion models never did talk much.  We didn't go on picnics or anything, so it might have been a stretch to call it love.  But she did things to me no woman’­s ever done since.  Don’t tell your mother.  I still wake up dreaming of C-lil.”

“Dad!” Millie said, screwing up her smile into mock revulsion.  “Gross!

“Aw you’re all grown up, Millie,” he said.  “Your dad gets to be human now.”

“Fine, just don’­t talk about sexbots, okay.  I’m going to need years of therapy after this conversation.”

“I just wanted you to know that I’­ve been through the same thing.”

Millie frowned.  “No.  No dad, you haven't.  This isn’t just about sex.  I'm in love."

Her father’s crow’­s feet grew as he crinkled his eyes in confusion.  “With an android?”

“Yes,” she said.  She suddenly wanted to hang up on him very badly.

"I thought I was in love with C-lil," he said.  "Until I met your mother and found how nice it was to have things in common and talk and stuff."

"He's an S model, not some sexbot," Millie said. "We talk all the time.  Jesus!"

“Okay,” Millie's dad said, holding up his hands in surrender.  "Okay.  All right, I guess.   I apologize. I’m gonna worry like crazy about you, Bumblebee.  And your mom is too.  Sympathizers have a tough road.”

“If only I’d picked someone more convenient to fall for, huh dad?” she said.

“I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have it any other way,” her father said.

“Don’t be horrible!” Millie snapped.

“Hey!” her father said in his discipline tone.  “Watch it!  We're not worrying about you because we secretly dream up ways to make your life difficult.  This is real.  You're in trouble.  People die over this.”

“I know, Dad.  I'll be okay.”

Her dad chewed his lower lip for a long moment, something he only did when he was trying to solve the last few words of a crossword puzzle.

“So...” he said finally, his voice croaking a little.  “What’s he like?”

“He’­s great, daddy.  You’­d really like him,” she smiled.  "He loves literature too..."

There were more words but they faded from Millie’­s memory into a blur.  They were sweet and sappy and there were lots of simultaneous laughter and tears.  Millie hung up feeling better for knowing someone was in her corner, at least a little.

A few days later Andrea called.  Andrea couldn’­t even broach the subject, and it looked like they were just going to talk small talk for an hour.  Then, suddenly she blurted out like she was asking about a strange birthmark: “Do you really love it?”

“He has a name,” Millie said.  “It’­s Alan.  And yes.  I love him.”

“Well then you should stay on Luna,” Andrea said.  “Stay with Al--with it.”

Millie gasped a little.  “Really?”

Andrea paused.  “Yeah,” she said.

“But you hate androids,” Millie said.  “I've never seen anyone hate androids as much as you do.  You don’­t even like the little mail carrier bots with the metal fingers.”

“I do hate them,” Andrea said.  There was something strange about her voice--like when she told him about Derrick.  “They just–aren't natural.  What you’re doing isn't natural.  But if you love...him.  That just makes sense, Millicent.”  Andrea paused.  “It’s what anyone would do.”

“Really?” Millie asked.

“Absolutely,” Andrea said.  “Anyone."

“You really think so?” Millie asked.

After just a momentary pause.  “Everyone fights for love, Millie.  Everyone.”

She remembers getting notice from the planetary government on Earth that her permission to be on Luna had been revoked under suspicion of android sympathy.  She was ordered to return to Earth.

“No one here will force you to return,” Alan told her.  “But eventually you will have to for your health, and once you do, you will never be allowed to come back.”  He paused.  “They won’­t even approve a call.  And you'll be blacklisted if you don't cooperate."

Millie wondered if it was all really worth so much struggle.  It would be so much easier to just do what the whole damned world seemed to want--to go home and be with her own kind.

She remembers more fights after that, but they all blur together like the skyline is starting to blur with the alacrity of her descent.  She remembers only one moment in particular.  One fight near the end:

“Will you grow old with me?” she asked Alan.

“Do you want me to?” he asked in return.

It was like a slap in the face.  She couldn’­t answer him.  She couldn’t even look at him.

A long moment passed.  “Is it a choice?”

“Well, androids don’t normally age, no,” Alan said.  “But as a synth, I could have my appearance adjusted incrementally every month or so and--”

“You don’­t age?” Millie asked.   “Ever?”

“Why would we?” he asked.

“Just how old are you, Alan?” she asked.

“I came online 63 years ago,” he said.

“You're sixty-three?” she shrieked.  “You’re older than my grandpa.”

“It’­s just a number,” he said.

She doesn’t remember how that conversation ended.  The number made her feel sick.

She remembers sitting in the terminal waiting for the shuttle to take her back to Earth.  Alan sat next to her.  He wanted her to stay with him, even just another week or two.  He thought they could work things out or try to find other options.

“You know, you're probably months out from even the onset of perpetual dusk psychosis,” Alan said.  “Maybe by then we can set you up in a cycling UV room, and figure out an exercise regimen to help you with the physical stuff.  We can figure it out.  We can at least have a little more time. ”

“It’s better this way,” she said.

“It isn't better, Millie,” Alan said, his voice cracking.  “It’­s easier.”

“This is hardly easy,” Millie said.

“I'm really impressed with the way you've gone down fighting for real love,” Alan spat.  "I understand now what that phrase really means. Thank you for enlightening me."

Millie said nothing, and they sat in silence.

After several minutes, Alan blurted: “Don’t I make you happy?”

Millie blinked against the sudden irritating appearance of white hot tears in her eyes.  “Yes,”  she said.  “Yes.  You make me happier than anyone ever has.”

She swallowed and looked into his confused eyes.  She ran a finger across the smooth skin at the corner of his left eye and down the crooked line of his goatee.  “And that is making me miserable.”

“Millie,” Alan said.  “That makes absolutely no sense.”

“I know,” she said.  They were the last words she ever spoke to Alan.

This time Millie’s stomach will not rebel against the toxins and vomit out her cosmopolitans into a frothy pink goop on her belly.  This time she will not wrap her shirt around her gushing arm and stumble topless ten blocks to a medical clinic that will treat her kind.  This time she has been effortlessly hoisted over the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge by a thick, purple-faced man whose words were only a jumble of flying spittle and vowels. Perhaps she will join the 2% of Golden Gate jumpers who survive the 250 foot fall, but she thinks it unlikely.  This time she won’t return to struggle on with her fellow sympathizers.  She will just keep falling deeper and deeper into the summer of 87.  She looks out at the moon again, and as the velocity of her fall begins to create a roar of passing air inside her ears, she feels the wind on her arms, and she thinks about the bits of popcorn in his beard--about how perfectly imperfect he was.  She wonders if there is some small chance that he is on the moon right now looking back at the Earth and thinking of her.  She thinks she can almost smell fake butter in the rushing air. A smile lights her face.

[© 2012  All Rights Reserved.   If you enjoyed Falling from Orbit, please consider a small donation (in the tip jar on the left side of the screen) to continue to fund future offerings of fiction here on Writing About Writing.]


  1. Wow. I knew from your blog entries that you could think critically, dismantle a movie, pierce the veil of politics, but this is the first time that I am aware of your ability to write.

    That was compelling, funny, relevant and had a strong emotional component. I'll probably reread it again with my "editing hat" on but nothing jumped out at me my first time through. Well, the word 'moue' jumped out at me but that was just an opportunity to improve my vocabulary.

    More than any other science-fiction writer, this piece feels Heinlein-esque. I don't know if it is the social commentary, the real-ness of the characters (and their relationships), or the setting that doesn't insult the readers intelligence by over-explaining everything, but I am very impressed.

    Thank you for sharing- I know that can be a nerve wracking experience.

    1. ~blush~ Here I'm just happy that no one has thrown fruit yet.

  2. This one is my favorite so far.

  3. I want this novel. Failing that, a Silverber-Earth's-Other-Shadow-style story collection. Or a short film. More please.

    1. Thank you so much. I'll post more fiction right here if this story does well. (So feel free to share!)

  4. Oh, say. You can write.

  5. By this time, Chris, a small donation is in your tip jar. Art does require support and "You need to do more bloody fiction!" she said with a growl in her throat. I'm not sure after reading this if it is part of a larger whole or not. Is it? If it is I want more. I want to know the story of the Exodus from the beginning. I want to know if any reconciliation is possible. There's a bit of "I, Robot" in this piece. I want to see how you handle more of that world. Feel up to it? Are there more stories from this world bubbling on your back-brain? Yes, I'm kind of poking the bear here. :)

    1. Thank you! (And thank you for the other thing--I just got the e-mail!)

      This is a stand alone work. I'm glad the universe left you a little thirsty because one of my main worries was that world-building would get too ham handed with the exposition.

      I won't say that there is no chance this setting might not be the place I find another story because my brain is always doing things LIKE that, but I don't have a specific quintilogy planned or anything.

      I am hoping to do more fiction this year (2014) in large part because of generous donors like YOU! :)

  6. Dang, that's good.

    I inferred that the Exodus was somewhat like the emigration in "The Dispossessed" of the Odonian anarcho-syndicalists from Urras to Anares.

    "a Human’s First radical" or a Humans First radical?

  7. Powerful story. I love the world building you've done here. The details were woven in sparingly but still created a full world with politics and social commentary. The relationship between Alan and Millie felt very lovely and real, even when it was contentious. I'm sad they didn't get their happy ending :'( But at least Millie found some measure of peace at the end!

  8. Hey Chris how do we pay you? Like actually literally where please? (maybe rename 'Business crap" to "Business stuff" and pop the answer AT THE TOP of that section :-) ) thank you!!

    1. Hiya. I have a "Tip Jar" in the upper left corner and a Patreon in the upper right, but you're probably right that links to those should be in my business stuff.

  9. Hey Chris, just a little earlier, I was very upset about why some people could support racial minorities, women, the poor, the neurodivergent and the disabled, yet be so homophobic and transphobic...So when I read Falling From Orbit, that extreme discrimination against androids really hit me. I felt so sad seeing how Synths were treated as if they were monsters, and how any humans who got involved with them (and sympathizers in general) would also be hated and even executed. It makes me ask why people could treat each other with such cruelty and aggression! I read a book about sociopaths, where the author writes that most people do have empathy, but one situation where they would lose empathy, is if they view the person as not-human. This was why things such as the witch hunt could happen. Reading about how Alan and Millie were treated, made me think of the countries where homosexuality is still outlawed and could get you arrested, assaulted, or even killed. I simply cannot understand why people can do such things to each other! Even if they appear to be "nice and charitable" folks when it comes to other causes, such as helping the poor or supporting children with special needs.

    I was very curious about Andrea, by the way. She reminds me of a classmate I had who is generally a jerk, but he was surprisingly supportive when I came out as trans and gay. Andrea also seems to be quite close-minded on some things, yet she turns out to be supportive of Millie's relationship with Alan! But Andrea sounded so odd during their conversation...I wonder if she is secretly in love with a synth as well, but is (understandably) too afraid to go for it.

    Finally, I liked that part where Alan protests that just because he is not made up of biological parts, and his feelings are not quite the same as humans', doesn't make his feelings any less real. He made an incisive comment when he said that Millie may not see his love as invalid per se, but she sees her love as better and more real. Yeah, Millie reminds me of some allies: they are generally supportive, but can have some shocking prejudices that they haven't yet addressed. D: Though at least, if they are truly allies, they would be willing to learn and do better!

    This was a moving and very thought-provoking story!

    1. Goodness, THANK YOU. I don't get a lot of feedback on my fiction. This was lovely.

    2. It was a great story! :D I'm reading through your part 7 of No Apologies! A Defense of Why Speculative Fiction Needs No Defense. You pointed out that speculative fiction, with its extraordinary settings and stories, can make readers think more deeply about a real-world human issue---this is very true in Falling From Orbit's case! Indeed it helps to put things into a sci-fi context, to get more distance from an issue, so people may be less defensive and be more willing to see the problems in humanity. For instance, some people may still be rigidly transphobic. But when they see the severe discrimination and cruelty towards synths here, then some readers may begin to understand why hatred towards people who are different from them, is so inhumane and destructive. If some transphobes insist that they would never resort to violence, then we can point out characters (e.g. Millie's Mom) who aren't using violence against the synths and sympathizers per se, but still, with their prejudiced attitudes, these "non-violent" people contribute to build a culture where synths can be exiled forever and sympathizers can be sentenced to death. So those transphobes may see that the "I'm not an extremist, I would never hurt trans people", is in fact an excuse that perpetuates and allows the horrors that continue today.

      It was quite cathartic for me to experience these emotions, through Millie's and Alan's perspectives, while I was contemplating the issues of homophobia and transphobia in our world.