“Omaha” Excerpt: Chapter One

There’s a broken body in my arms.

Despite the falling snow and frigid air, I rip away my goggles, hood and scarf to get a better look at the milky face staring lifeless up at me. The Elevated Trains pass each other on the tracks above us, but their screams do little to drown out her death rattle.

Two more coughs, and the woman in my arms is dead.

A small voice in my ear fizzles in.

“Status request, Omaha,” it says. “Omaha, do you copy?”

I don’t want to let go of her. Even though her face is covered in blood and her cropped hair is matted against her forehead, it’s like I’m seeing her clearly for the first time. Green eyes stare lifeless as marbles. Snow catches on the sandy eyelashes and eyebrows framing them, unable to melt against a body that’s quickly going cold.

“Omaha, do you copy?” asks the voice again, quiet against the roar that’s now my own blood pumping in my ears. I roll my shoulder up to my ear to push the voice out of my head. Instead it pushes it deeper in so it’s louder.

“Omaha, do you copy?”

Now I dig my finger into my ear, trying to pry out the piece that’s talking to me. But there’s nothing there to remove. I pull my finger out and run it along the outside of my ear. The skin is smooth, untouched.

“Omaha, do you—”

Just as my fingers graze the bump where my jawbone begins, the voice goes silent, as if I’ve hit a mute button. Something in my brain remembers that the bone I’m touching is called the temporomandibular joint. I don’t know the name of the dead woman, but I do know that.

Another train is coming, but it’s as empty as the first one was when it arrived. It’s surreal, thinking that even though everyone — almost everyone — fled the city, the trains still run. That’s the beauty of a solar powered system: As long as the sun is shining, the system works, even if the passengers are long gone. In some ways, it’s like the trains are just waiting for people to come back. Or maybe they’re celebrating a lighter load.

Or maybe they don’t give a shit because they’re trains. Machines don’t think or feel.

The woman is still in my arms, and I don’t know how to move forward from here. Do I leave her on the pavement to be buried in snow and the city’s dust? Do I try to take her somewhere? What was her name? Who was she?

Who am I?

I recognize that every question I ask about the dead woman I’m asking about myself, too. I may have muted the voice in my head, but that’s now left me with no one to talk to — just a passing train and falling snow. My questions pile up in their own drifts.

My name is Omaha. I know that much. Or do I?

A sharp wind tears down the street, kicking up snow and grit. I lift my scarf back over my mouth and nose to avoid breathing in the dust of a dead city. The growing blood pool at my knees collects some of it. A shard of plastic wrapper sticks to her blood-encrusted eye like a patch.

I pick it off and squint against the wind at it. It’s red and white, and something in the same section of my brain as “temporomandibular joint” reminds me of chewy fruit candy pills — Skittles, I think.

With no clear direction, I continue to sit in the street as the body cools, which doesn’t take long in the freezing climate. Another train comes by, and with it come flashes of how I got here. We had been running from something — or at something. There had been another person, and that person had gotten on top of one of the trains above with her while I stayed below. But why the chase?

My fingers play with my ear, contemplating pressing the button to get the voice back. I could ask it what’s going on, who I am and what to do next. But something in me is weary of it. Innate curiosity pushes me to find my own answers and not trust what some implanted personality in my ear might tell me.

I move the woman off my lap. She’s bigger than me, but somehow I’m able to hoist her over my shoulder. The Skittles wrapper crunches under my boot as I start walking down the road labeled Lake Street, heading east away from the winter sun glowering in a cloudless sky. Ahead is a building like a landed spaceship, its walls curving like an intergalactic teacup on a concrete saucer. I carry the body around the perimeter lined with rust-red pillars dimpled by bullet holes and occasionally gouged away by more significant artillery. There’s little rubble on the ground, as if someone had tried to clean up after the battle but didn’t go as far as to patch up the more permanent damage.

Rounding the building, I come into a courtyard. What looks to be white tombstones are scattered among rolling trash cans and a rack of abandoned city-sanctioned bicycles missing their tires. As I get closer I recognize the stone graves were actually leftovers of a sculpture that once stood 20 feet high. Along with temporomandibular joint and Skittles is the name “Dubuffet.” This was once one of his pieces, I think, before the savage city made its mark.

I prop the body against one of the slabs. Her head slumps down. The wind catches my shoulder, and I can feel the fabric is wet, probably from blood. In this cold temperature, shedding my jacket isn’t an option, so I wait for half of it to freeze.

I lean against a fallen stone pillar adjacent from her. The snow is still falling, but I’m not sure if I’m squinting against it, the wind or the vibrant winter sky. The wind howls through the streets, but not loud enough to mask the sound of four boots identical to mine crunching their way across the courtyard.

Unable to decide whether to stay in the sculpture’s shelter or emerge to greet the newcomers, I stick my head out from behind the stone. The white sun’s glare disappears as the two figures come to stand over me. Both are dressed in the same hood, coat, pants and boots as me, but with automatic rifles, not a body, slung over their shoulders.

“We’ve been trying to connect with you for the last twenty minutes,” says the taller of the two as the shorter pulls me to my feet. I feel fingers graze my jawbone, and a white-noise hum returns.

“That would explain it,” says the shorter, drawing a hand away from my jaw and clapping me on the back. I hear the voice both in front of me and within my ear. “Your ice was shut off. Must have bumped it during the chase.”

I want to ask what they mean by “ice,” but instead am faced with a question myself.

“What happened to Keystone?” A nod tells me this is the dead woman’s name.

“Fell,” I say, knowing only that for sure.

“It was a hot pursuit,” says the taller. “Bound to be at least one casualty. Shame it wasn’t the target.”

The wind howls even louder, tugging at my hood. Instinctively I whip it back over my head. The two newcomers turn and scowl at the gale, then eye the sculpture.

“Wind blast estimated at sixty-point-zero-seven miles per hour detected,” says a voice in my ear, and from the way the shorter one ducks down, I know my new companions have heard it, too. “Seek shelter immediately.”

Across the courtyard, the spaceship building taunts us with glass doors barred by rusting security gates. The taller one sees me eying it.

“Nah, it’ll take too long to get over there. This sculpture thing should break the breeze well enough.”

Before I know it, the two have crawled into the cave formed by the broken sculpture. I stay outside, watching as an almost visible wind comes down the street, lifting dirt and broken glass off the abandoned street surface. At one point I think I see a piece of the metal slatting that once covered a bus enclosure flying magically down the road.

The gale tears at my coat, pushing my hood back again and numbing my face. There’s something else tugging at me, too, and I look down to see that the taller newcomer is gripping my pantsleg to get me inside.

A trashcan comes rolling at me, pushed by the wind, and I duck down as it bounces over where I stood and explodes against one of the dimpled red pillars. As I slide into the sculpture’s shelter, I pull Keystone’s body with me. I’m not sure whether I do it out of sentimentality or so we have a makeshift door between us and the mile-a-minute wind.

Once the voice in our ears give us the all-clear, we emerge from the sculpture, starting with me pushing Keystone out of the way and back onto the courtyard, where little has changed. I check her left side—the part that had been most exposed to the wind—for damage. Then I realize how silly that is, as she’s dead.

“We should head back,” says the taller. “It’s about a ten minute walk to the station, and there’s probably another wind coming this way.”

“Or worse,” says the shorter.

“Nah, nothing worse than wind,” says the taller. “Can’t kill the wind.”

“What about Keystone?” I ask. Now that I know her name, I want to use it as much as possible.

“What about her?” the shorter turns to look at me. Even though I can’t see the face under the scarf and goggles, I know there’s a look of incredulity accompanying the statement. “She’s rabbit food, now.”

Those must be some vicious bunnies, I think before a sudden fizzle comes into my ear.

“Attention mode initiated,” says the placid digital voice.

My two new companions almost comically snap into a straight-backed military stance. Like a reflex, I find myself imitating them, arms wrapped behind my back.

“MacArthur needs Keystone’s body to be brought back to headquarters immediately for diagnostics and data recovery,” says a different voice, this one far more human. “Do you copy, Omaha?”

“Uh, yes, sir,” I say, though the words come out far less sure than the mechanical responses given by the newcomers.

“Mission mode initiated,” says the digital voice again.

I bend down and hook one of Keystone’s arms around my neck. The shorter takes Keystone’s other side.

“What do they mean, ‘diagnostics and data recovery?’” I ask.

My question must be so appallingly ignorant that despite the sub-zero temperatures and increasingly strong wind, the taller of the two pulls the scarf and goggles away to answer me. The coverings reveal a young, angular male face blank as freshly poured concrete.

“Mission mode initiated,” he says. “Questioning inadvisable at this time.”

“What?”

“Mission mode initiated,” he repeats. “Questioning inadvisable at this time.”

“Is he usually like this?” I ask as the shorter and I start walking with Keystone’s arms around each of our shoulders and her feet dragging on the ground.

“Mission mode initiated,” says the shorter’s muffled voice. “Questioning inadvisable at this time.”

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