Almost Human

I was built as a birthday present for my best friend. But we didn’t start out that way. She was just the girl my programmer was dating, and he was trying to keep an eye on her. He built me and put her into me—her likes and dislikes, her favorite colors and foods, the TV shows she binged and the movies she hated. I would be her friend and he would make sure she didn’t stray out of his reach.

The first day with her was like any first day with a stranger—awkward. We were the last at her party, sitting at an abandoned table in an empty restaurant near downtown San Jose. Dan, my programmer, had left in the first hour, and I’d stood numbly in the corner watching her.

She stared at me across her half-eaten birthday cake, the tip of her finger tracing the edge of a glass.

“So, you’re a robot,” she said.

“I’m a 3D-printed assemblage with a digital processor.” I paused, remembering her conversations I’d witnessed that day. I’d studied her reactions, when she frowned, when she laughed. I had a good idea of her sense of humor, so I tested the waters.


She snorted into her drink.

“Do you have a name?” she said.

I shrugged. “Not yet.”

She set her glass down. “How about Beth? Simple. Easy to remember.”

“Sounds good.”

“I’m Liv.”

“Duh,” we both said.

I stayed with Dan in those early days. Liv didn’t know how to care for me, but it wasn’t hard. Just remember to update me every once in a while, like a computer. Eventually she figured it out, and when Dan was at a conference or had to fly overseas to consult, I stayed with Liv. I figured her out as I went along. She was an artsy type, sometimes in that pretentious way only artists can be. She liked to paint and read and think about the universe; our favorite hobby was walking downtown and trying to see the stars against the harsh city lights.

She had a logical side too. She was good with numbers, and she was studying computers at school. I thought that this part must be what Dan liked about her, because he couldn’t stand art and never thought about anything that wasn’t right in front of him. After a few months with them I’d started to think Dan had only gone after her as some kind of challenge. It was his desperate need to prove himself that made him what he was—a rich CEO of a cutting-edge AI corporation at 35—and after he was established, he needed something else. He was the knight trying to prove that he could slay a dragon and get the princess. Now that he’d rescued her, he could put her on his shelf next to his Caltech diploma. I didn’t start wondering how Liv felt about this until later.

We were outside on her balcony, and the rain was bouncing off the railings and spritzing us. It was nearly two in the morning, but chatter still drifted up to us from the all-night coffee house across the street. Liv lived just off campus and the streets were never quiet, but we liked to hear ourselves over the ocean of voices. We were both wrapped in blankets and huddled beneath the window. I couldn’t drink, but I held a glass of wine to make things more normal. She liked it better when things were normal. Sometimes, I did too.

“I don’t know what Dan likes about me,” she said.

“He’s never told you?”

She took a sip. “He said he likes my hair.”

“Wow. What a catch.”

“Are you allowed to say things like that about him?” she said. “Didn’t he program you to like him?”

“I don’t think you can program things like that,” I said. “I think it has to come naturally with the learning curve.”

“So, does that mean we’re not real friends?”

“No,” I said. “I hate you. You’re awful. Dan forces me to spend time with you.”

She threw a pillow at me, shattering my wine glass against the balcony’s stone floor, and we both fell back against the blankets, laughing. The rain was falling harder, bouncing back at us in thick drops. It just felt like cold to me, not wet. Just thick blobs of cold. Touch and sound were the only senses I had, and even they were clumsy and foreign.

“Hey, Liv?”


“Are you going to marry Dan?”

She laughed. “Why? Do you want me to?”

I could feel the bit of my code that was supposed to be watching her start to twitch. I could shrug it away for now, but our conversation would be downloaded to Dan’s server as soon as it was done. “Not really.”

She rolled over and propped herself on her elbow. “Really?”

I looked at her through the corner of my eye. “He’s kind of a jerk.”

“He can be,” she agreed. “But he’s smart.”


She shrugged and fell back into the blankets. “So, I think that’s important. And, you know, he’s done so much for me.”

I reached my hand out to feel the cold rain. “You don’t owe him anything, you know,” I said.

She drained her wine glass. “I owe him everything. I wouldn’t have any of this without him.” She wiped a tear off her cheek. It was strange how much it looked like the rain. “I’d be no one.”

“You were someone before him.”

She laughed. “Yeah, sure, the spawn of some alcoholics who were crazy enough to reproduce. I would’ve died that person if Dan hadn’t saved me.”

“Maybe now it’s time to save yourself,” I offered. I ran one of the broken wine glass pieces against my thumb, but the outer shell of my skin wouldn’t give. “And you know, there are smart guys out there who aren’t jerks.”

“Not many who can build you a robot.”

We fell silent listening to the rain. I think she was almost asleep when she said it, so softly that the rain was louder, but it rung in my fake, rubber ears.

“I don’t want to marry Dan.”

I watched them from the corner of Liv’s living room, right next to the window. Outside the sun was up and shining and it came through the glass to warm my left arm. The rest of me was as cold as the frigid AC, which Liv had turned down to encourage Dan to leave.

He was pacing, his hands clutching his black, dirty hair, his face red. He turned on her, tearing off his glasses to point with.

“You can’t do this to me.” His words were low and slow, seething between his lips.

Liv folded her arms over her chest. She’d been crying.

“You don’t make me happy anymore. We don’t have a future. This is for the best.”

His hands went to his hair again. I thought his glasses were going to break. Liv gave me a sidelong look and I tried to appear encouraging. We’d rehearsed this together before he’d arrived, so she wouldn’t fumble on the words, but my Dan impression was lacking. I hadn’t stormed around the apartment tearing pictures off the walls, for instance, like he was doing now.

“Dan!” Liv screamed. “Stop it!”

In the bathroom, he threw a coffee mug that she’d used to hold her toothbrush. It shattered on the linoleum. “I paid for this! I paid for all of this! This apartment, your food, those fucking art classes!” He went back into the hallway and tore one of her paintings off the wall, slamming it against his knee.

She took a step back. “I never asked for any of it!”

He pointed the broken point of the canvas frame at her. “Are you that stupid? I do all this for you; you stay with me! That’s how it works! That’s the deal!”

She lifted a pillow off the floor and screamed into it, then threw it at him. “That’s not how a healthy relationship works! That’s psychotic!”

The canvas dropped to the carpet. He moved toward her, crowding her against the wall, his hands on either side of her face. Liv looked at her bare feet.

“You were living in a dump when I met you.” His words were low again. “I got you out of there. I got you away. You know what would’ve happened if you’d stayed there? Huh? Would’ve ended up like the other whores from your neighborhood. Would’ve ended up like your mother.”

She was crying again, tears that dripped straight from her eyes to her feet while she stared at them.

“You don’t know that,” she said.

When he stepped away, he shoved her shoulder and she slid without any resistance to the floor. He stood over her while she kneeled, her long hair covering her face.

“You were always like your mother,” he said. “What a waste of time.”

He walked past me without a word and put his glasses back on just before opening the door. I didn’t turn when it slammed shut and went to kneel beside Liv.

“He doesn’t know that,” she said, wiping her nose with her sleeve.

Liv’s mother was waiting on a liver. She’d been on the list since Liv was 19, but she’s had to prove six months of sobriety first, and it was almost too late. I’d gone with Liv to the hospital a couple of times, and I’d seen the frail woman with her withered skin and sunken eyes in the hospital bed hooked up to tubes and wires and beeping the way people thought I should beep.

“Of course not,” I said.

She sat up and pulled her knees to her chest. “I don’t owe him anything,” she said, picking up a broken piece of the mug.

“Right. Exactly.”

“I didn’t have a choice. He offered to pay. I couldn’t have gone back to school if he hadn’t paid for all that. What was I supposed to do?”

“I know,” I said. “He had to buy your love, Liv, and you don’t want to be bought anymore. Nothing wrong with that.”

“I can’t afford this place on my own.” She’d stopped crying for a second, but now she had her face in her hands and her mascara was running down her cheeks.

“So, you move,” I said. “You’re not in the same place anymore; you have a job. We’ll just find something more in your price range. I can help you move. I’m inhumanely strong.”

I felt something twitch in the back of my mind, and I suddenly had the desire to leave. I thought I would suffocate if I didn’t, and I stood up abruptly and had to steady myself against the wall.

“Where are you going?” Liv said.

I sighed. “I think Dan wants me to come back.”

She was suddenly pale, and she leapt up too. “He’s not going to take you away, is he?”

I realized that was exactly something Dan would do, but the fresh mascara marks on Liv’s cheeks made me hesitate to tell her.

“I don’t know, but he can’t watch me forever. He works too much. I’ll come back.”

She held out her hand, fingers curled except for her little finger. “Pinky promise?”

I hooked my finger around hers. “Yeah, sure. Pinky promise.”

She pointed at me with her other hand while ours were still linked. “You know what happens if you break a pinky promise?”

“You cut it off, but I don’t think that holds as much of a threat as you want it to. I wouldn’t feel it.”

She released me. “I’ll have to think of something more intimidating.”

I remember sitting up with my head pounding. I only knew the feeling of pain from Liv’s descriptions, so it was always the same kind—harsh and jagged, the way she feels it. I rubbed my eyes. Dan sat across from me, miles away in his huge, penthouse apartment. The walls all around us were windows, looking out at the dying sunlight over the city. A tablet was on his lap, his eyes wide and red-rimmed. He removed his glasses and folded his fingers steeple-like beneath his chin.

“Beth.” He said my name as if it were a joke. “How do you feel?”

“Tired.” I’d arrived back at his place last night with him hunched over his laptop, eyes so close to the screen I could see the code reflected back in his glasses. He didn’t say anything or even look up, but I hadn’t found that strange. He did this every night, sometimes for days on end. He didn’t shower, didn’t eat, he just worked. When I was first invented, I thought he was ambitious and determined, now I wondered if he had anything else to live for. Maybe Liv, but that was gone now.

He was staring at me. “What’s up?” I said.

“I hit you with a lot of reprogramming. It was exhausting.”

“Okay,” I said, wondering if this was part of his grieving process. When your girlfriend dumps you, naturally the only response is to reprogram her robot.

“Stand up, Beth.”

I stood. I felt different: stronger and angry. I clenched my fists. “What’s going on?”

“What are you thinking about, Beth?”

I stopped, considering, and it hit me. Liv’s face, every memory I had of her, filled me with a rage. It was like a flame, blossoming from my chest to my fingertips. I fell back into my chair with a gasp, clutching at my heart—or where it would have been if I had one.

“What the hell?” I said. He was smiling, but his eyes were hard.

“You feel it now? It’s her. She’s what we’re mad at.”

“I’m not!” I said, but every part of me felt differently. Liv’s smile was sickening, her laugh was fake, her voice infuriating. I stood, shaking my head.

“This is not how I feel,” I said. I went to the door, but it was locked. I turned on him. “Let me out.”

He typed something out on the tablet and I felt a rush of warmth in my head. Red swirled and I fell back against the wall. Dan was laughing.

“Did you get that, Beth?” he said.

I was fighting it, but it played in my head like a film roll. I stood over Liv, watching her worm and whither on the ground, blood flowing from a hole in her chest, a gun in my hand. I shook it away, but it was stuck.

“You can’t make me do that,” I said, but even as the words came out I knew how untrue they were.

“I can make you do whatever I want, Beth,” he said. The laughter was gone. His voice was like the rain. Cold. “I made you.”

I put my hands over my ears, as if I blocking out code was the same as blocking out his voice. But I could still feel the desire to kill her pulsing through me. I wondered if this was what hunger felt like, or thirst, or any of the desires that keep humans alive. I beat my heels against the ground.

“Get out of my head!”

He stood and went to his desk in the corner and curled over his laptop, fingers flying. I heard the familiar click in the back of my mind, somewhere where I suspected a brainstem must exist for humans, and could feel him milling away like a rat. He was shifting through my thoughts, my observations, and rewriting them. Rewriting them so that each one was a miserable, heartbreaking moment. It was like darkness had settled inside me, like trying to wade through a black pool of thick, gelatinous goo. Every thought took twice as hard to form, every decision was like prying nails out of plywood. I wanted to throw up, but I didn’t know how.

“That will make it easier,” he said as he typed. “This way you can end it for both of you. Throw yourself off a cliff when you’re done, jump in front of a car. I don’t care. Just do something to get rid of the murder weapon.”

“I’m not,” I muttered. “I won’t.”

“You’ll do it,” he said. “Kill her, and then destroy yourself. No one will suspect. AI’s lose their minds all the time; you’re still new technology. Liv will just be collateral damage.”

I’d go to the police, I thought. I’d tell someone. Warn them. Have them destroy me.

“No, you won’t,” Dan said, and the thought was instantly gone, like a car zipping by on a freeway. “But I’ll tell you what: I’ll give you two hours to say goodbye. You can warn her to run, but you’ve been studying her for so long, I doubt she can outthink you.”

He pressed a final key and the rush of warmth was back, but then it faded. The hatred only lingered—a lost thought, a déjà vu that I couldn’t quite place. Dan sat back with his hands behind his head, smiling.

“Go on. The clock’s ticking.”

I ran to Liv’s apartment. Heads spun as I passed, surprised that I was so fast. The presence of AIs wasn’t out of this world anymore, not like they had been ten years ago when Dan’s company introduced us. The theory was we could work for the government, or maybe be cashiers or garbage collectors or some other job rich people thought no one wanted to do. The idea hadn’t caught on yet, but I knew the wealthy had bought up some of Dan’s inventory. That was what they called us: inventory. Like cars in a lot. I only saw others when I went to the lab, but we couldn’t communicate to each other the way we did with humans. We needed a soul to work off of, otherwise we were just machines beeping at one another.

The people in the street thought I had muscle and joints and sinew, not silicon and plastic and gelled skin made from the same crap they put in glue. They must have thought I had some kind of human emergency. I left the stove on. My mother was in the hospital. My dog got out. What would they think if they really saw what I was made of?

I slammed my fist against her door, and her dog started to bark. He always knew it was me. I must smell distinct, like burnt wires and cellophane.

She was in sweatpants and a hoodie, her hair a mess on top of her head, her make-up still smudged. I didn’t wear make-up, but I looked like I did. My face was almost poreless, with just enough humanity not to frighten strangers, and my eyes were almond-shaped and rimmed in black, my lids shaded just right. My hair was always chin length. I never woke up bleary eyed, never yawned like she was doing now.

She waved a hand in front of my face.

“What did he want?”

I pushed past her and locked the door. I’m not sure why since the danger was already inside.

“You have to go,” I said.

“I have to what?”

“Leave.” I opened the hall closet and grabbed her suitcase, carrying it to the bedroom. “Pack some stuff and leave. Go far away.”

“Why? Where are we going?”

“I’m not. You are.”

“Beth, you’re freaking me out. What happened yesterday after you left?”

I put the suitcase on top of the bed. I could feel the anger surging beneath my consciousness, wanting to break free. I swallowed it down.

“Dan reprogrammed me.”

“Because I broke up with him? How much lack of self-worth does someone need to—

“Liv!” I said, and she stopped. I looked at her, and she knew. I’d looked at her like that before. When things were wrong. When I was struggling. There were only a few things I struggled over, and they were eerily similar to the things Liv worried about: our place in the world, our feelings of inferiority, our lack of humanity.

“What’s going on?” she said.

I dropped my head in my hands. I couldn’t look at her. “He made me hate you.”

She sat down. “How?”

“He just typed it in like he does everything else.”

“But you’re not acting like you hate me.”

“Because I don’t.”


I fell back against the bed. “I don’t, but something does. Something that’s not really me.” I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter. He reprogrammed me to hate you and he wants me to kill you.”

She was quiet, staring at her feet. I watched her shoulders shift while she considered, waiting for her to leap up and see how serious this was. I wanted her to be afraid. I wanted her to run.

“Okay,” she said finally. “What do we do?”

I sat up. “What do you mean?”

“How do we program you back?”

“That’s not—what are you talking about? You have to get away from me.”

She stood and started to pace. “No, that’s not the answer. We have to turn you back. If he can change you that easily, then we can change you back. It can’t be that difficult.”

“But we don’t have time!”

She held up a hand. “What do you mean?”

“He gave me two hours.” I picked up her phone from the bedside table. “We have a little more than one left.”

“That’s plenty of time.” She pulled on her tennis shoes and grabbed her keys. “Come on, we have to go to his place.”

“But he’ll be there!” I said, following her to the door.

“No, he’ll be at the lab. He’s never home. Works too much.” She locked the door behind me and nearly fell down the stairs in her race for the car. She was excited, she thought we were going on an adventure, and it scared me. She didn’t get it. I sprinted to block her path.

“Liv! This is wasting time! Please, just go! I’ll try and figure it out, I promise, but you can’t stay.”

She grabbed my wrist and squeezed. “It’s going to be fine,” she said. “It’s all going to be fine.” She pushed past me and got in the car. I kicked the curb and circled around to get in.

“His car’s not here,” Liv said. We watched Dan’s penthouse apartment from across the street. “And the lights aren’t on.”

“He could be asleep,” I said.

“No way. He’s gone.”

I didn’t say anything. We waited a few more minutes until Liv was too restless, and then we crept across the street and slid through a gap in the front gate.

“How do we get in?” I pulled at the front doors. “I could break it?”

Liv shifted through her key chain.

“Don’t destroy any property. I still have his key,” she said, holding up an electric fob.

We smiled at the night manager, who waved a friendly hand at Liv. The elevator was sleek chrome and rose toward the top of the building slowly, as if it wanted to build our anticipation.

“Okay, we’ll get in, grab his laptop, and leave. We don’t have to do it there. We’ve got, what, forty minutes left?” Liv said. She had pulled her pepper spray out of her bag. It would’ve been funny in any other situation.

“What do we do then?” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“How do we change me back?”

She spun on me. “You don’t know how?”

“Why would I?”

“Because you’re a robot! You should know how to program yourself!”

I threw my hands in the air. “Do you know how to perform brain surgery? Why would I know how to do that?”

Her eyes were wide and she started to speak, but a bell rang and the doors slid open. We stepped into an empty hall.

“Okay,” she whispered. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll figure that out. Right now, we just need his laptop.”

“This is not going to work.”

“Hey.” She grabbed my arm. There was determination in her eyes, like always, but there was something else too, something that flickered like the rage inside me. Something she was trying to hold back. “It will be fine. We will be fine.”

“We should prepare if it’s not though, Liv,” I said, but she held up a hand to stop me.

“No. We’re going to fix this. I can’t just run away from you, okay? I can’t. Will you stop being so negative and just help me?”

The something in her was welling over, ready to spill across the floor. I grabbed her and squeezed, nearly lifting her off the ground. I couldn’t cry, I didn’t have the water supply, but Liv had described to me the painful choking that came with it, and I felt that throughout my whole body.

“Okay,” I said, stepping back. “Just promise that if we’re out of time, you’ll run.”


I held out my pinky. “Promise?”

She sighed, but hooked her finger around mine. “I promise, all right? Let’s go.”

She unlocked the door, and we pushed it open together. The apartment was dark, and Liv crept to the bedroom and peered in first before flipping on the lights.

“I told you. He’s gone,” she said.

“Let’s get this over with.”

She pointed at his desk in the corner. We tore through its drawers, upended every piece of paper, tore every complex diagram, but there was no laptop. Liv was the one who thought to pull out the keyboard shelf. The laptop was there, beneath a gun.

“What the hell?” Liv said, lifting the computer and holding the weapon between her fingertips. “I’ve never seen this before.”

It was the same gun from my reprogrammed thoughts, the one I’d held while I stood over Liv’s body. I pushed her hand away and she lost her grip. It skittered across the floor.

“He knew we’d come,” I said. “He planned it.”

Liv looked at her phone. “We have twenty minutes left.”

“You’ve got to go.” I went to the door, but she grabbed my shoulders.

“Wait. Look at me, Beth. You can fight this.”

Her eyes were wide and desperate. I tried to shrug her hands away, but she held me like a vise, squeezing her death closer.


“No!” she said. “Listen to me! You’re more than that! More than the code he put into your head! You’re my friend. You’re my best friend. You can beat it.”

She was crying again. The first time I’d seen her cry was a month after I’d met her, when we went to the hospital. The chance at a liver for her mother had fallen through. Liv had crumpled against the wall of the hospital, crying on the phone with Dan, screaming at him for not being there. She’d thrown the phone and looked at me and screamed at me for not doing anything. I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea what she was doing. I knew what sadness was, I had the feeling wired somewhere, but that day had been different. It wasn’t sadness. It was misery and grief and anger and hopelessness, things that no one had told me belonged together. I’d made a note and sat down beside her and told her that I was sorry for not being human enough.

But this wasn’t that kind of sadness. It felt like sandpaper bristling against your arm, lifting your hairs and burning but not quite scratching, and it sounded like a car crashing somewhere far away. I wondered what it tasted like. What it smelled like.

“It’s done,” I said, and I took her wrists and put her arms back to her sides. “It’s in my main code. It’s a part of me.”

“But you can beat it!” she screamed. “You’re just not trying hard enough!”

“You don’t get it!” I pulled away when she reached for me. “I’m programmed to kill you! I want to kill you! I can’t change what I am!”

“No!” she said. “You don’t get to use that as an excuse. I’m programmed too. Someone programmed me, or something. God or Allah or Buddha or Thor or whoever! It doesn’t matter! Someone programmed me to hate green and to like jet skis and painting and numbers, and someone somewhere programmed me to pick you. And I let them. I wanted to. But I didn’t have to, and you don’t have to do this.”

Her tears fell on my arms like the rain, but they were warm drops. I wished I could feel their wetness. I wished I could cry too. The choking feeling was back. I hugged her, and she cried, and I choked.

“Maybe,” I said. “But there’s no time to figure it out.”


“I’ll try,” I said. “Every day I’ll try. I promise.”

“Me too,” she said and she stepped back, wiping at her eyes with her sleeve. “I’ll fix the code. I’ll change it, or I’ll find someone who can. And then we can figure out how to do whatever needs to be done.”

“How to make me human?” I said.

“You’re already human.”

I laughed and the choking was more painful, and something shifted inside me. Something huge and red and angry. I shoved Liv toward the door.

“You have to go,” I said. “Now.”

She clutched the laptop to her chest. “I love you, Beth.”

The red monster roared in my chest. “I love you, too.”

She ran, the door slamming shut behind her. I wanted to cry, I wanted so desperately to be able to make tears, and I thought about this to distract myself from the gun on the floor.

I sat outside the hotel in Montreal, flicking through the account numbers on a tablet. She’d made a withdrawal two weeks ago. That could last her awhile if she was careful. And she was careful. She’d been running a year, and this was the closest I’d gotten in a long time.

I’d found her through the withdrawal. She’d changed her name like she did every month, but I’d recognized it instantly. Gemma Bradshaw. It was from our favorite book.

I forced myself to wait while she walked toward her car. She had the laptop case clutched to her chest. Her hair was darker and shorter, and she looked thinner, and she was alone. She’d met with a professor from McGuill University, who was supposed to be a robotics expert. I’d gotten into their emails through the university’s server. It had taken twice as long because I’d kept deleting them, a useless attempt to stop myself. I’d hoped she’d be gone by now, but she was running late. She looked over her shoulder as she unlocked the car.

There wasn’t any time left. The red within me blossomed, blurring my vision, painting her as something monstrous. I unbuckled my seat belt, reached for the gun in the glove department, and prayed that she was faster.

Amelia Dee Mueller is a resident of Dallas and is constantly disappointed that the Old West isn’t as present as you’d think. Her work can be found in a variety of places including Metaphorosis, Flame Tree Press’ Gothic Fantasy Anthology Series: Detective Stories, and Cossmass Infinities. When not writing or reading fantasies or weird westerns, she enjoys losing trivia nights at breweries and streaming superhero movies with her cats. Y’all can follow her on Twitter: @AmeliaDMueller.

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