Cover image of "The First Omega," a dystopian novella

The publishing industry has undergone a sea change in the twenty-first century. Amazon, of course, has upended the traditional dominance of the mainstream publishers. But an even more significant shift lies in the advent of self-publishing. New online tools allow authors to sidestep publishers altogether. According to the latest available figures, 1.7 million self-published books hit the market in 2018, an increase of 264 percent in five years. And no literary genre has been more deeply affected than science fiction. Of course, most self-published books should probably never have seen the light of day. But there are exceptions. Megan E. O’Keefe’s engaging dystopian novella,The First Omega, is a prime example.

O’Keefe’s story is set in the American Southwest in what appears to be the twenty-second century. The action unfolds on and around the “six-six,” apparently a reference to the fabled US Route 66, the Will Rogers Memorial Highway, which slices through Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, North Texas, and Oklahoma, and then turns north toward Chicago. The locale in The First Omega seems most likely to be in Arizona or New Mexico. It’s hard to imagine a more apt setting for a dystopian novella.

The First Omega by Megan E. O’Keefe (2021) ★★★★☆

Image of a Southwestern US desert like the setting in this dystopian novella
A desert scene in the Southwestern USA like the setting for The First Omega.

This dystopian novella paints a predictable picture

In O’Keefe’s imagined future, climate change has wreaked havoc on the United States. Vast stretches of the West lie baking under an unforgiving sun. Agriculture is no longer possible on any but the smallest scale, and the population has fled to the coasts. But in the coastal cities, life isn’t much better. Tyrannical corporations based there ride herd over the survivors as the oceans steadily encroach on more and more of the land. This is dystopia, pure and simple.

One of those corporations, Pac-At, links its facilities on the East and West coasts with shipments sent across the countryside in self-driving “ghost trucks.” To protect their precious cargo, Pac-At has placed augmented mercenaries along the major highways. They’re no longer entirely human. Augments give them superhuman vision, speed, and strength—and the ability to kill with a single touch of their hands by raising the temperature of their victims to the point of ignition. In the novella, we meet one such killer, a woman known locally as Riley. Some in the region call her “Burner.”

Omega, we learn, is a fourteen-year-old woman

Riley comes across an overturned Pac-At ghost truck surrounded by the corpses of armed soldiers. Half the cargo is missing—but only half. Because that cargo consisted of two augmented killers like Riley, and one of them lies inside the truck. Her name is Omega. Her sister, Alpha, appears to have been carried away by the soldiers who survived Alpha’s attempt to defend herself and Omega.

Both the new mercenaries are teenage women. Omega is about fourteen or fifteen, her sister perhaps a year older. And she appears to Riley to be timid and far from ready to use the weapons she’s been equipped with. Unaccountably, Riley then decides to lie to her handler at Pac-At when she’s ordered to recover both young women and return them to the company. Taking a great chance that Omega will follow, he sets out to locate Alpha and the soldiers. The action that ensues is full of surprises. It turns out that what society expects us to do and what we choose instead may be very different.

About the author

Image of Megan E. O'Keefe, author of this dystopian novella

Megan O’Keefe is the author of seven science fiction and fantasy novels in two series as well as a half-dozen short stories and this dystopian novella. She lives in the Bay Area.

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