Programmable Love by Bremer Acosta

Bremer Acosta's story about Gillen, a neuro-bot suffering an existential crisis, and her human boyfriend Jon, who must confront the prejudices of his friends.

Part 1

Gillen gazed into the plasma-mirrors coiled inside her dome apartment. They bent all the contours of her body, mirroring her flesh in crosshatchings of light. She stood in front of the mirror, naked, pale and veined in her legs and arms, with gears turning under her skin like cockroaches crawling under a rug.

Her mind lingered into a weird daydream as she stared. Is this neuro-bot really supposed to be her, this creature, this thing, compiled of the ghosts of human data, the replicas of their past? She felt alien in the bathroom, wishing for something she couldn't quite put into words.

Gillen didn't feel the same way the humans told her she should feel, as a duplicate of their humanity, as an afterthought of their existence. She felt real when she saw the gleam around her purple irises, the faint hairs on her legs, the pockmarks lining her back, the bumps crowning her nipples. And her stomach looked molded out of clay, capable of being shaven down to its abdominals or expanded out into a simulated pregnancy. All of this, everything she was made of, she thought she knew already, without speaking, with only one glance.

If only Gillen could have a child, though, if only she could feel the existence of a species squirming inside her stomach. But she couldn't. She could never create a life; only exist as a life the humans had created for her to feel. She sucked in her breath, feeling pumps inside her mechanical lungs, and then she breathed out again. Her stomach looked pasty, flat, and lifeless, forever a chamber with nothing inside.

But she did have her own identity, didn't she? Her memories glimmered like unfocused paintings, golden in their frames but blurry past their surfaces. She did have genuine memories, ones that she formed herself. Or were they simply implanted inside her mind, already used, discarded from another?

Even though her creators claimed she was made five years ago, she could still remember her childhood. She remembered falling off a metal swing in the courtyard, and the sting of her bloody knees, and the way she ran to her mom and dad, and how they picked her up and kissed her wounded flesh.

Gillen could recall all of these images, from her childhood to her adulthood, until she had looked upon her parents' graves after their cancers. And she remembered talking to them every spring, even though she knew they couldn't hear her anymore.

Her designers said her memories were borrowed from what the humans considered meaningful, what they put together out of the computerized probabilities. Gillen sighed, fogging her mirror, trying to forget the truth, trying to ignore that the pain she felt when her parents died wasn't real. But it was real to her. If anything else, it was real to her.

She rubbed her bald head, feeling the grooves of her titanium skull underneath her scalp. And after lathering powder and a sticky cream on her head, she twisted her brunette wig on, letting the curls fall down to her shoulders.

She laced a black shirt and pants over her body. Chains dangled from her leather boots and gloves. And after finishing up the dashes of mascara to her eyelashes, she gazed at the clock and saw that it was time.

Setting the dial embedded inside her hip, kindness radiated into her circuits. She felt herself flush as her cells activated inside her body in warming lights. The orange light hummed, and pulsated, under her wan skin. She lit up like a glowworm. And then the light settled back into her circuits and her hue blended to tan.

She walked outside her bathroom and into the living room. It was covered wall-to-floor in gleaming silver. Her apartment didn't have any paintings, albums, cabinets or sinks, beside a white flower given to her by Jan. A white flower shielded in a metal vine.

Gillen charged her dial from an outlet on the wall. She had to be prepared for another date with Jan, had to be focused and interested in what he said. As she stood next to the wall, her eyes opened. She stared at the white petals hanging across the ceiling. Some of the petals floated down in spirals and landed on the silver floor. With tinges of kindness soaking through her skin, from her dial to her metallic veins, she felt like she could trust Jan. He was the first human she had dated, the only human she ever really knew. And he'd know what to say to her, how to treat her right and proper, like a real woman should be treated, instead of how the others typically treated her... as just another neuro-bot, as a device rather than a whom.

When she closed the front door, it locked and then steamed. Gillen walked through the halls with her hips swaying from side to side. She could feel the motors buzzing inside her flesh, gnawing at her with an ache, keeping her alive, always one moment away from malfunction.

Outside her dome apartment, the horizon spiraled red and green. Men and women and robots walked on distant streets. Gray domes towered above her, blinking yellow from their windows.

She paced around, waiting for Jan, still feeling nervous from the stimulation of her dial. She thought about how he would wrap his arms around her when she needed it and how he would listen to her when she told him her skin felt suffocating. Jan had honest eyes, she decided, as she leaned against her dome. His eyes glittered pale green and his gaze never wavered from hers. Most human eyes look away but his never did.

And out in the distant city, Jan drove. His sleek car spiraled through the winds, turning right and then left, before skidding to Gillen's apartment. Steam huffed from under his hovering car, doors blinked open.

Sitting in the backseat, another couple murmured, some of Jan's friends that had decided to join them. He had told her they were coming, told her he knew Kim since they went to the same academy together and how Gillen would like her once they got to talking.

Gillen slid into the front passenger seat and seat-belts clicked around her waist and legs. She smiled at Jan and he pressed his hand on her knee. She reached for her dial, cranking it without looking away from his green eyes. Her cheeks flushed and he smiled softly and pretended he didn't notice her blushing.

After a moment he pressed a few green buttons, starting his car with a faint hum. The car moved forward, spiraling and twisting through the red breeze. Outside the windows, gray domes streaked into light.

"Kim," said Jan, glancing to the backseat. "This is Gillen." She smiled and nodded. "Gillen, this is Kim and her... boyfriend, Maerk."

Kim brushed her purple hair behind her ears. "He isn't my boyfriend, just a date."

Maerk looked outside the window at the blurs of light. "We'll see."

Kim and Maerk exchanged looks. She scrunched up her nose.

"Pleased to meet you," said Gillen. "You both seem like a healthy -"

"So, where're we going tonight?" asked Kim, looking past Gillen's face. "Please don't tell me we're sitting in one of those bot capsules. I don't think I could stomach the high vibrations."

Jan winced, looking at Gillen but she sat quietly, poised. "No, no, we're going to the Electric Eel for a few drinks," he said.

"Sounds good," said Maerk, scratching the birthmark on his head. "But I'm not much of a drinker. Stains all your teeth red and gives you indigestion."

"That's perfectly fine," said Jan. "There'll be other things to do."

"Like what?" asked Kim.

"You'll see," said Jan, pressing his finger on a black panel. The engine shuttered into a slow turn, its gears grinding under the hood. Then he flicked a button to ease the engine, and before they all knew it, the car spiraled higher into the air.

The car swerved to the right, with a clink and a rattle, skidding forward through the sky-lanes. It chugged a bit with the stink of rotten bananas and then halted near the flashing red dividers. "Damn it," Jan said, touching the panel repeatedly. He looked around the dashboard, rubbing his cheek.

His eyes frosted over with anger as he hit at the green buttons. Orange lights blinked and then bleated from the black panel. Steam whooshed from under the vehicle, clouding the windows.

"Why are we stopping here, honey?" asked Gillen, touching his hand.

"There must be something wrong with the accelerator. This always happens at the worst times. Damn it." He looked down, his eyes glassy, defeated.

"I can check it if you want."

He cocked his head to the side. "You sure?"

"I'm fully capable of fixing accelerators." Gillen pressed a green button on the side door. It split open and her seat-belt buckles unlatched. She climbed outside, holding the paint with her fingers like a tarantula, her black shirt wavering in the wind. Then she inched herself all the way to the bottom of the vehicle and vanished.

Kim pressed her hand against her cheek and then said, "So this is a normal night for a neuro-bot, just hanging in the air like a crazy person? We could've called for help."

Maerk frowned. "She's one of them?"

"Oh, didn't you know?" Kim smiled.

"I didn't know we'd go out with one of them."

Jan sighed. "Will you two just shut up? I don't see any of you under the car."

"That's because we're not used to the toxic steam," said Maerk, staring out the window. "These bots have been stealing jobs all round this district. Employers hire them because we're just too human." Maerk spit out the window and his phlegm whistled in the white clouds. He paused for a moment, his eyes bloodshot, narrowed. "If you ask me, any real job should be done by humans, not by some droids."

"Enough," said Jan, looking back. "Or you can do another human job and walk home."

Kim said, "I didn't mean to cause so much trouble." She glanced at Jan through a mirror. She frowned but as she turned away, he could sense a smile lurking behind her blue eyes.

"Don't worry about it," said Jan, sighing. "Let's just enjoy ourselves tonight. Alright?"

"You're the boss," said Maerk, shaking his head.

Gillen popped her head up after a while, smiled, and said, "All done." She hopped into the passenger seat. Her face was smeared with black grime. Jan glanced over and then frowned.

"You've got something on your face," he said, brushing it away with his finger. When Jan rubbed her skin, some of it peeled off on his finger tips. "Oh, sorry. I didn't mean -"

"It's not really a problem," said Gillen. "The steam makes my skin wither sometimes." She pulled out a pocket mirror and applied a patch of tan skin to her forehead. The skin-patch sizzled over her old skin, fusing together into a perfect hue. Jan pressed the green buttons and the windows and the doors locked. After some groans from the accelerator, the car spiraled toward the Electrical Eel.

Part 2

Purple light cascaded through the walls and floors of the Electric Eel. Robots stood together, sipping from drinks that sparked blue light. Humans sat at clear tables and mingled, their faces a blur of smiles under the neon flickering. Droids glided up and down the floors with four arms. Each arm spun and then extended to the tables with drinks in hands.

When Jan stepped into the Electric Eel, he heard a fusion of electro-dynamic music, its loud bass pumping, its percussion tapping, and its brass horns weaving in between the notes.

Some men and women looked at him, their faces pale and crinkled, but the robots never turned. Most robots chatted in a programming tongue to their fellow service droids while others did party tricks for the humans.

Jan's stomach groaned with revulsion. He smelled leaking oil and bitter fumes.

He shouldered through a crowd of arms and legs and heads, so he could walk next to Gillen. "Do you like it here?" he asked, stepping around a droid whizzing by him on wheels.

"It's fine," she said, glancing at a golden droid. "I guess."

"I heard this is the new thing down in this sector. A real robot-human mixer." He smiled, trying to keep up with her pace.

"Where are your friends?" she asked, looking away.

"Oh, I think Kim is finding a table."

"Listen, Jan," she said over the pumping music. "I heard what they said about me."

Jan paused and stared. "What - when? They were just trying to -"

"I heard them when I was fixing your car. It's fine if they want to talk about me that way. It's just..." She sighed, stopping in front of Jan, as the arms of strangers brushed past her.


"If you're only dating me because you think I'm some kind of novelty..."

"It's not like that." Jan said and then sighed. "Why would you say that?"

"I don't want to be treated like that. I have feelings, you know."

Jan's green eyes lingered over her face. "I know you do."

"How could you?" She reached down and cranked the dial on her hip. "You make me so angry sometimes."

"That's not what I want."

"Me neither," she said, looking up at him and blinking.

"Hey," he said, forcing a smile in the purple club. "Why don't we forget all this? Don't listen to Kim. She just doesn't understand. But she's been my friend since I was a kid."

Gillen stared at him. Her eyes spiraled blue-gold. "I don't understand why she was saying those things."

"Look," he said, putting his arm around her. "I like you and you like me. Can't that be enough? It doesn't matter what she says, does it?" He brushed a brown strand of hair away from her face.

"It's fine."

"Once they really know you like I do, they'll understand..." Jan gazed down at her for a moment. Then he leaned in and kissed her. Gillen's lips tasted like copper wiring and a current surged into his tongue. Purple light streaked through her hair as she pressed her body on his. "This is all I want," he said. Gillen smiled, and kissed him, and said, "me too," as the music thumped and people pressed their bodies together on the dance floor.

Kim sat next to Maerk at a clear table. And inside the table, advertisements flickered in thirty millisecond light patterns, telling customers to buy, buy, buy, all the latest gadgets, for your loved ones, for yourself, for even the people you hate, so you can be much more attractive and successful than you can ever hope to be. Kim gazed at the table flashing a rotating billboard for pills that increase serotonin and can mold you, in three installments, into the happiest consumer. Then she looked up at Gillen and Jan holding hands, dressed in black, walking through a crowd of people wearing dresses and suits. She brushed her purple hair behind her ears and sighed.

When Gillen and Jan sat at the table, she asked, "Where were you two?"

Jan said, smiling, "I ordered some crimson jazz for the table and a spark for Gillen."

Kim scrunched up her nose. "Oh, well tell me first."

"Do you like this place?" asked Maerk. "It's too loud for me."

"Yeah, why don't we get out of here?" asked Kim, staring at Jan.

"We just got here," said Jan. "Please just stay a while."

"What does the neuro-bot think?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Gillen with her hand on her hip.

"Nothing." Kim looked down at the flashing table. "Nothing at all."

"I know what you've been saying about me."

Kim slapped Jan's arm. "What did you say to her?" she asked. Her eyes quivered under the purple lights.

"He didn't say anything," said Gillen.

"Oh, clever girl," said Kim. Her eyes narrowed at Gillen like two crescent moons. "I'm only here because Jan's my friend. And to be quite honest, I don't like you."

"Good." Gillen's dimples deepened as she smiled. Her eyes stared evenly. "You don't have to like me."

"Now, please..." said Jan, trying to step between them.

"Don't worry, Jan. I'm not going to start any trouble," said Kim.

"Well," said Jan. "It looks like you already have. Why can't we enjoy a night out?"

"I'm fine with that," said Gillen. "But I don't want to be somewhere where I'm treated as inferior."

"But you are," Kim blurted out. "I can see past your fake smiles and your politeness. You don't have the slightest idea about what it means to actually have emotions, to think like one of us. All you know is what you're programmed to know."

"I could say the same about you," said Gillen. "You humans and your nervous systems, programmed to respond to your environment, to your genetic code. You think you're so different, so special? You're not. You're just an older model."

Kim reached across the table and slapped Gillen. Gillen sat there with a cloudy look in her eyes. After a moment she said, "At least I know how to behave," as she rubbed her cheek.

"See, this proves my point. You're nothing but a device," said Kim, flushing in the face. "You can't even feel pain. You don't even know what pain is. How could you be with Jan? You're just going to hurt him and you won't feel anything."

"Hey," said Jan. "I don't think -"

Gillen cranked the dial on her hip. "Don't you ever talk to me like that." She glared at Kim and then looked at Jan. And behind her pupils, he saw clockwork, churning and grinding with mechanical violence. He saw all the rage about to unfold between his friend and his lover; he saw all his progress with Gillen shattering in front of him.

Underneath the thumps of club music, he heard Gillen say, "Come on. Let's go."

Kim began laughing, her blue eyes a glimmer. "Oh, look at that. The only way I can get a reaction out of her is from her crutch. See, Jan. She doesn't feel. It's all dial for her."

Gillen shook her head. She gripped Jan's hand and stepped into the crowd. Jan looked at Kim, his eyes searching in green waves. He mouthed sorry as he walked away from her.

"Wow," said Maerk, when Jan and Gillen were gone. "Why'd you do that?"

"What? Tell me what I did? I was only looking out for my friend."

"Is there something between you two? I mean -"

"Don't get all self-righteous, Maerk. I heard you agreeing with me back in the car."

"I was. It's just. I don't think you should've talked to her like that. You don't know what those neuro-bots are capable of..."

Kim glared at Maerk. "I can deal with her on my own. I don't need your help."

Part 3

As the moon shone in through the skylight, Kim yawned and stretched her arms. She walked down the red hallway of her apartment, wearing silk pajamas that rubbed softly against her body. Her purple hair tangled from her head, sprouting up in wild directions.

When she lay down in her bed, she gazed at the plasma-tube that glowed from her clear walls, flashing advertisements for reptilian hormone treatments. Then she clicked it off and closed her eyes and tried to sleep. Her bed hummed with a gentle vibration, easing her into a dreamless state. And just as she was about to finally slip into the darkness of her own mind, the door buzzed.

Sitting up and brushing her hair behind her ears, she rose out of bed, walked through the red halls, stumbling for the door. Then she opened it and saw Jan standing there in silence. His head was low and his eyes were a dim-green. He looked paler than normal, with a slight yellowness under his eyes.

"Hi," he said, after a moment.

"Hi," she said.

"I couldn't sleep."

"Me neither."

After a long pause, he said, "I need to talk to you."

"Come in. I'll make you a cup of neon." She clicked the red light on and squinted. Jan followed her into the living room, carpeted in shining crimson lights. Her silk pajamas drooped down her shoulder and she pulled them up. Then she went into her kitchen and pressed a button on the wall. A cup of neon liquid slid out of the wall slit, steaming with glowing light. She handed the cup to Jan and he sipped the warmth gently, but he would still not look at her.

"What's wrong?" she asked, gazing longingly at his face.

"We need to talk..." he said after a moment.

"What about?"

"I don't like the way you've been trying to cause a rift between me and Gillen. I don't like it at all."

Kim shook her head. "Is that what this is all about? She isn't worth it, Jan. She's not worth your time."

"She is. She is. Can't you see? Can't you understand that?" He grabbed her wrist and then let go.

"You can't be with somebody like that," said Kim, stepping back, rubbing her wrist. "I don't believe it. How can you? You can't even have children with her. She's not your species. She's just a bot."

"Just a bot," he said, feeling the words echo into his mind. "Just a bot. That might be all she is to you but to me she's different than anyone I've ever known. She's special to me."

"I'm only trying to help."

"You're not."

Kim leaned against the white wall. "I only want to help you because -"

"What?" said Jan, as he stepped closer, glaring, feeling his words like acid burning on the tip of his tongue. "What could your reason possibly be? You know, if you weren't such a, if you weren't so -"

And then Kim leaned forward and touched Jan. She ran her fingers over his face, down his chest, and around his waist. He stood there for a moment in a cloud, gazing at her as she gazed at him, feeling the tension wavering in the air, between the tips of their noses, through her fingers, and into her breasts and his groin.

She kissed him. She closed her eyes and kissed him, at first passionately, and then desperately, if only to keep him close to her, if only because they both felt this urge and its forbidden words beneath their breaths for so long that they didn't understand what it meant. Her lips pressed on his with saliva and confusion, but he pulled away. He pulled away from her and didn't understand why, why now, why ever, why not before, why not before he met Gillen, why at a time when all he felt inside himself was rotten and strange.

"What - what are you doing?" he asked, pressing the back of his hand to his lips.

"You can't love her," said Kim, looking down.

"Kim - I've told you before. We're just friends."

"But why? Why don't you care about me?"

"I do. But I'm not... It's different."

"What can she do for you that I can't? Tell me and I'll do it too."

"It's not... I don't know." He sighed.

Kim rubbed her lips. "Did you feel anything when I kissed you?"

Jan shook his head slowly, no.

Kim sighed and then looked away.

After a lingering moment she said, "Oh."

"I guess this is how it is."

"Yeah," she said. "I guess so."

Jan paused and then said, "Did you ever really hate Gillen?"

"No..." she said, looking up at him. Her blue eyes narrowed. "I hate you."

"I can't trick myself into loving you. I wish I could but I can't."

"I know."

"And if there was..."

"I know," she said, looking down. "But I can't be around when you're with her."

"I know," he said.

Jan held Kim's hand and looked into her blue eyes for a long time.

Then he touched her shoulder and said goodbye.

Part 4

Jan walked down the transparent city streets. Stirring below his feet, other clear streets spiraled and spiraled, as people and robots moved like beams of crystal light. His head lowered and his hands tucked inside his pockets.

He passed by rows of gray domes while the shadows of orange windows spread onto his face. He thought of Kim, and of Gillen, and of all women. Nobody made his heart pulse and his hands sweat like Gillen - not since he met her in the mechanic's shop and spoke nonsense to her, nonsense only she seemed to understand. But why did he like her? Why did she make him feel this uneasy when he should be out dating real women, with skin and blood and tissues, with hormones and wrinkles and emotions, girls like Kim, who could give him a child, who could grow white hair, who could be susceptible to time?

He saw the top of a woman's head on the street below him. Her black hair curled around her face, and she laughed, and held her lover's hand, and he whispered into her ear, and it made her smile. Was Jan the only man in the entire universe feeling this conflicted or was he a raindrop glimmering like all the others in the mist of attraction?

He glanced up and saw a blinking green sign in the distance. Following that sign down a winding road, he walked to the domes where the neuro-bots stayed. The halls sparkled in silver as he stepped inside.

He knocked on a door and waited around for a long moment. Opening the door, Gillen gazed around and then cranked the dial on her hip when she saw him. She smiled. He smiled too.

Then he hugged her, and she asked, "What was that for?" and he said, "I don't know."


  1. I compelling allegory as much as sci-fi. The outsider, stigma, false conceptions of 'normality' - so many threads It was an extraordinary feeling to identify emotionally with the neuro-bot than with the humans in the tale. Well done,
    Ceinwen Haydon

  2. stranger in a strange land? xenophobia ? really interesting , agree with Ceinwen how interesting it is to feel for the neuro-bot. somebody has to break down the barriers.

    Michael McCarthy

  3. I very much enjoyed this story. I agree with Ceinwen's comment that this is also an allegorical tale. I felt a pang of sadness for Gillen as the outsider, and I think the story does a great job in showing that even with all of our technological advances, now and in the future, those can't solve basic human issues such as prejudice, the longing to be happy or appear successful and attractive to one's peers, and also the timeless feelings of alienation and loneliness.

  4. I too enjoyed identifying with Gillen's more human than human feelings, and the piece raises a multitude of potential discussion; for instance can we alter our own genetic codes? I was a trifle disturbed by the story construction, in the form it's awkward POV shifts - from Gillen to Jan, to Maerk, to Kim, and back to Jan without scene shifts or ellipses, phew! I smiled at the sensation of 'lips tasting of copper wire', and buying gifts for people you hate! I loved Kim's jealousy and Maerk's wetness. Oh just a piece of advice for Maerk; if he's getting indigestion from drinking, I think he may well be suffering from a neon and 'blue light-sparking' intolerance, and he should stick to the Methode Traditionale champagne.

  5. This is an excellent sci-fi story about a future when robots have intermingled widely with humans. The same old prejudices arise: fear that the “other” will take our jobs, steal our women, and inveigle their way into the niches that we -- the normal race -- crave to occupy. Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, Irishmen, Transgenders and LGBTQ persons have all gone through or are going through the turmoil that the ‘bot MC, Gillen, is passing through. Contains some cutting and poignant plot points and reflections on society, now and in the future. And it makes the point that true love, despite all the obstacles, is really possible. After all, what is a human being but an entity with DNA/gene pooling programming. Excellent story, Bremer. If I may say so, it’s reminiscent of the great Asimov.