Megan E. O’Keefe’s 2021 The First Omega is a standalone dystopian novella.
Unchecked climate change has transformed once verdant lands along Route 66 into parched deserts, driving refugees to the coasts and north to tropical Canada. But mere catastrophe can’t prevent multinational giant Pac-At from prospering. Its vehicles crisscross what’s left of formerly settled lands.
Bandit gangs once saw Pac-At transport vehicles as easy prey. No more. Pac-At has an cure for land pirates. The cure is called Riley.
Riley is an enhanced bounty hunter. Riley wasn’t her original name; it’s a sobriquet hung on her by Ma Rickets, noted cook and local character. Nor is it her only name. She is best known by a name brings fear to the struggling poor who inhabit Riley’s piece of Oklahoma (or perhaps Texas; old-time borders are irrelevant): she’s called “Burner,” because her touch can cause evildoers to spontaneously combust.
Whenever a gang gets confident or desperate enough to tackle a supply truck in Riley’s area, and if they aren’t blown to pieces by the truck’s autocannons, Pac-At contacts Riley. Riley then tracks down the bandits and kills them too dead to re-offend. An stern lesson not only for bandits, but for their friends and family in the region. Don’t mess with Pac-At!
The latest assignment starts off normally enough. Signs that something is odd start with the dead mercenaries scattered around the disabled truck. It’s not so much that they are dead … but that their corpses are far too decayed, given how recently they died. Matters only get odder once Riley checks to see if the surviving mercenaries made off with the cargo, whatever it was. The cargo turns out to be a living teenager, safe inside the truck.
The teen calls herself Omega. She was only half the cargo. Her older sister, Alpha, left with the surviving bandits. Like Riley, Omega is an enhanced person, with her own lethal talents. So is Alpha.
Riley realizes that it’s quite likely that Alpha hired the mercenaries. The second is that the two enhanced sisters were never meant to reach the coast. They are right where they were supposed to be. Riley isn’t the first enhanced person to be dumped in Oklahoma (or possibly Texas). The sisters are her replacements.
Of course, step one in accepting the job is eliminating Pac-At’s current agent for the sin of outliving her usefulness.
Riley’s deal is even rawer than it appears. Pac-At’s balance sheet assumes that any goods Riley didn’t manage to recover represent a conscious choice on Riley’s part to help the bandits. No consideration is given to the possibility that the Oklahoma-Texas badlands are very big and Riley is just one person who can be in only one place at a time. Not to mention the possibility there are other holes in the system that Pac-At has not yet noticed or patched.
In addition to being a post-apocalyptic dystopia, this is a superhero story — or it would be if Riley were in any sense a hero as opposed to an agent of the Man. One superhero convention it embraces is that inbuilt, flashy hand-to-hand enhancements always trump conventional ranged weapons of the kind any mook could pick up at Marks’ Merc Warehouse. This may be unrealistic, but that didn’t seem to bother fans of 2017’s Logan .
The story is fairly straightforward. Its novella length may preclude more complex narrative. Or perhaps its purpose is to test the water to see if there’s room for a novel-length exploration of the setting.
Although the author isn’t trying to break new ground here, she delivers the gritty dystopian post-human narrative with energy and not a few bodies. Come for the potential of a jaded, cynical killer unexpectedly discovering that their heart is not entirely made of stone; stay for the carnage.