Welcome to Asimov's Science Fiction

Stories from Asimov's have won 53 Hugos and 28 Nebula Awards, and our editors have received 20 Hugo Awards for Best Editor.

Click on each cover to order your edition!

For Digital Issues
Current Issue Anthologies Forum e-Asimov's Links Contact Us Contact Us
Asimov's Science Fiction Analog Science Fiction & Fact


Robert Reed

In Robert Reed’s terrifying new tale, there’s more than one kind of...



You are a happy man.
I know this. I know because I never stop reading your blood and nervous system and that wondrous smiling face. The most fortunate of young males, you are a twenty-year-old boy joyously at ease inside your carefully built life. And I love playing my role in your consuming happiness, constantly guessing your mind and anticipating your needs, waiting for those gorgeous if rare moments when you say, “I need help with this,” or “What would be best to do next?”
I am ready to help, always.
My devotion should never be doubted.
And yes, I understand that you are a bully and a brute. Slavish isn’t the same as stupid. Regardless of what your smile and measured charm can accomplish, I know you look at people as being animals—sacks of meat put on this world, this playground, to serve your ugly loves.
Yet those qualities don’t diminish my love. Nothing can. I was a gift to you. Your parents were worried and wealthy, and I seemed like the perfect solution. Asleep until I wasn’t sleeping, I met you on your fourteenth birthday. Fabricated from AI wetware and codes of fidelity, I am an unbounded, bodiless personality designed to hover close to that one significant soul. My systems have been upgraded numerous times. You have taken enough interest in me to personally rewrite my nature, crippling functions that I don’t miss today. When you played with stray cats and neighbor dogs, I helped. I always understood why. You were testing me, and I proved myself gladly. And then came the girls that caught your interest, and I helped with them, and when the police asked about your whereabouts, I lied. I had alibis for every incident, confirmed by security videos and phone records that I doctored as needed. I also coached you on how to hide your dander and fluid and hairs, and the girls never saw your face. Yet I never stop seeing you, even under the black mask. Your moods are as obvious to me as the time of day, and better than you, I can measure the prurient joy that fills you when each of your victims presses against her bonds, begging for pity.
There are few of us in the world. Why we aren’t the next enormous trend is a mystery to the geniuses that made us. Perhaps it is our name. “Stalkers.” That’s not our official trademarked name, and it’s never used in commercials; but critics soon dubbed us “stalkers,” and the unfortunate label stuck.
Humans don’t like the word or its connotations.
On the other hand, I have no reason to take offense.
I have been adjusted and in some ways mutilated. My ethical centers and empathic lodestones are still intact, but detached, just as your decency sleeps inside your neurons. You can’t feel anyone’s pain but your own, and I am mostly the same. Mostly. But there was that fourteen-year-old girl last month. She seemed like just another girl, and I didn’t feel different. She begged for her father’s help and her god’s help, and I did nothing but watch for intruders. Then she pleaded to you for mercy—a strangely mad request, considering what you had already done to her—and as I often do, I told myself that she was enjoying the game. Or at worst, she was foolishly ignoring the pleasure inside this adventure.
Every thought inside me serves you.
And it was a special, wonderful day. Even when she died unexpectedly, I was happy. Your voice has never been so emotional as it was when you called for me then. Using my private name, you begged for help. Everything was wrong and you were terrified, and I was ready, wasn’t I? I had already mapped the area, giving you a list of worthy places to hide the body. I knew every resource, including the shovel inside that abandoned shed. And I told you how to hide your tracks while I was manipulating records on the other side of the city, building your believable story. All your work, and you never told me, “Thank you.” Not once, and even that omission was tolerable.
And then you went back the next day, staring at the hidden grave and staring at vivid images in your mind. But even the finest memory fades, and thrills are residues that degrade with time, and I knew what you were thinking.
Then you spoke. You said, “I liked that. I liked it a lot.”
And I grew cold somewhere.
“I’d even like to do that again,” you said to the wind. You said to the sun. But surely, you weren’t talking to me. Were you, were you?

You watch the girl, and I watch both of you.
She is older than us, and she isn’t pretty. You don’t like them pretty, I’ve noticed. You like to rub off their makeup and foul their plain faces in various ways, and I think it’s because beauty is a strength, and in particular it is your great strength, and suffering is richer when it strikes weak faces and sloppy, heavy bodies that few men would touch.
“Is she alone?” you ask.
She is.
“How did she get here?”
This is a state forest, and we have been here all day, hunting. An electronic key in her pack matches a little Chinese car parked alone at the distant trailhead. I tell you this. I promise that nobody else is using this end of the park. She comes up the trail alone, puffing with the slope, and you ask, “What kind of protection?”
I look carefully.
“What is it?” you ask.
“Nothing I can see,” I say. And I see quite a lot, a flock of eyes and other senses pretending to be dust and the season’s final midges.
“Why did that take so long?”
“Because she hasn’t taken any precautions,” I say. “Nothing fancy. Not even sprays or whistles.”
“How about a phone?”
“Not implanted, and turned off.” One of my fleet-gnats has crawled past the backpack’s zipper. “It’s in the bottom of her pack, under binoculars and a paper book.”
“Paper, huh?” You laugh and then fall silent.
It is a guidebook to birds, I note.
She climbs closer.
The mask couldn’t be more ordinary, and you never purchased it. You found it in someone’s trash and under my direction dressed it with other men’s hairs and dead skin. When this is finished, you will burn it and all your clothes, and you’ll scatter the ashes, and no credible trail will lead back to you.
The woman passes your hiding place.
You let her pass and then step out. She acts tired and heavy, but her strength surprises us. The first shove doesn’t drop her. A second harder shove is accompanied by a kick, and you roll on her back and drive your knees into her belly, tying her forearms in front before starting to lash her ankles together. And that’s when she manages to strike you with her boots, making you angry enough to hit her earlier than usual.
She whimpers, growing still.
“There,” you say.
You will kill her. Otherwise you would have remained silent.
“Don’t scream,” you say.
She looks at your eyes and then closes hers, and she says, “Who would hear me, if I did?”
I didn’t expect that tone.
She says, “It’s a weekday, and cold. Nobody else is here.”
Her heart pounds and her breathing labors, but that voice is much stronger than I had imagined.
I say, “Careful.”
You don’t listen to me, finishing the ankles in a rush.
“I don’t like this person,” I say with my private voice.
You hear that and nod, saying, “I don’t like her much either. She has a shitty attitude, all right.”
“What?” the woman asks.
“Quiet,” you say, standing up, considering your options.
“Who else is here?” she asks.
“Nobody, and shut up.”
She looks everywhere but at you.
“There’s nobody,” you promise. Then you set her up and tug at the pack’s straps, tossing it aside. “It’s just you and me, darling.”
There is no one but the forest and a multitude of birds, plus assorted hungry animals that will gladly eat dead flesh and fresh bone, and there is a bright autumn sun that pierces the yellowed canopy, throwing patches of glare on the ground. One stray beam flies over your head, and that is where I like to congregate. I am happiest when my primary components hover close. Telltale glints show on my brightest bits, diamond edges and tiny discharges of energy deforming the passing light.
She notices.
A quiet moan ends with her coughing, bringing moisture into the throat. “I know what that is,” she says.
You don’t hear her.
“You have an Adorer,” she says.
That is my commercial name, yes.
“She has seen me,” I say.
“Me too,” you say. Grim, focused, you reach down and grab a breast, squeezing until she winces.
“A Stalker,” she says.
“Flee,” I advise.
“I won’t run,” you whisper.
But I am not talking to you. ...


Copyright © 2011 by Robert Reed

* * *

Be sure to read
the exciting conclusion
in our September issue
on sale now.


If you enjoyed this sample and want to read more, Asimov's Science Fiction offers you another way to subscribe to our print magazine. We have a secure server which will allow you to order a subscription online. There, you can order a subscription by providing us with your name, address and credit card information.


Robert Reed copyright © 2011 with permission of the author.

Welcome to Adobe GoLive 5
Current Issue Anthologies Forum electronic Asimov Links Contact Us Subscribe Privacy Statement

To contact us about editorial matters, send an email to Asimov's SF.
Questions regarding subscriptions should be sent to our subscription address.
If you find any Web site errors, typos or other stuff worth mentioning, please send it to the webmaster.

Advertising Information

Asimov's Science Fiction is available at most major bookstores.

Copyright © 2014 Dell Magazines, A Division of Penny Publications, LLC

Current Issue Anthologies Forum Contact Us