Monday, September 5, 2011

"Backlash" by Nancy Fulda (Novelette)

Genre:  Science Fiction

Short Story Type:  Novelette

Summary:  Eugene Gutierez lost his wife, his pride, and part of his sanity during an undercover anti-terrorist operation in South America. Now, he's about to be recruited by operatives from the future; and they're not going to let him say no.

When Eugene finds a cryptic message in a restaurant fortune cookie, he thinks his daughter's boyfriend is pulling a prank. The truth is far more complex, and will lead Eugene on a journey to heal old wounds and restore his broken family.

Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, this novelette was listed in Tangent Online's 2010 recommended reading list and received an Honorable Mention in Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction.

A quiet Chinese girl collected our plates after the meal. She placed a hand-wrapped fortune cookie at each setting, gave me a searching look, and vanished into the crowded restaurant.

Clarise nibbled the end off her cookie and withdrew the fortune with the same flamboyant grace she had shown as a child. “‘Time is a fickle ally’,” she read. “Confucius must know I turn twenty-three tomorrow.” She feigned indignation, but it couldn’t mask her natural poise. She was resplendent in a tailored business suit, her hair twining free of the twist she wore at the office.

I take Clarise out every year for Valentines’ Day. It started as a consolation prize, a sort of Daddy-daughter date to soothe the pain of her breakup with Billy Sanders. Clarise was thirteen at the time; bookish, awkward, painfully insecure. She had grown into her potential since then. The annual Valentines’ dinner had become the highlight of my year; a chance to snatch back fragments of a happier past, to banter with an exquisite woman as I once bantered with her mother.

Which made the interloper to her left all the less welcome. Sean, his name was. Hair too long, shirt too baggy. Decent posture, dreadful table manners. He reminded me of high school punks with big mouths and no sense of humor. But he was the first in a long string of short relationships who actually seemed to make my daughter happy. For that, I supposed, he deserved some respect.

Clarise leaned into her guest’s shoulder as he opened his fortune cookie. “Beware of beautiful women bearing gifts,” he read, and the two of them smiled as if at some private joke. Clarise glanced up and saw me watching them.

“What does yours say, Daddy?” she asked. I snapped my cookie in half and glanced at the paper.

It was covered with spidery lines that somehow seemed random and precisely geometric at the same time. A clear space in the middle hosted crisp black text: Eugene Gutierrez. Activation code: pupae.

My hand was shaking.

“Very funny,” I said, crumpling the message in my fist. “Clarise, if this low-brow prankster is the best you can do for a boyfriend, I suggest you stay single.” I threw the paper onto my plate and stalked away from the table, slapping two fifties on the cashier’s desk as I left. Through the glass fronting of the restaurant, I saw Clarise stretch across the table cloth to retrieve my fortune.

I was halfway down the block when Sean caught up with me.

“Mr. Gutierrez? Mr. Gutierrez, I didn’t, I wouldn’t — I mean, Clarise told me you worked in special ops, but she also told me about the nightmares, and I would never—”

“Go home, boy,” I said. Clarise had been telling him quite a bit, it seemed.

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