In September, I entered Round 7 of NPR’s All Things Considered 3-Minute Fiction contest. The challenge was to write a short story that could be read in only 3 minutes (about 600 words). The judge for each round also sets specific rules for each contest. In Round 7, the rule was that one person must arrive in town and one person must leave town.
I wrote “Omara” just for this contest. It comes from an idea for a world I’ve been playing with for a few months. Only unpublished works could be entered, so instead of posting it here in September, I posted this piece on the process of writing the story.
No, I didn’t win. But I am happy that I tried (the winning story was fantastic!) and am eager for Round 8 in January.
“The first obstacle is the gate.”
Selene, Declan, Sophie….so many damaged or died getting what we need. We are taken down one by one. We can’t go on like this but we have to. Human enhancement was meant to build a better world, not this one.
I am Omara. My body cannot accept the enhancements now necessary to live in this new world. People like me are tolerated or made servants or slaves. I joined up to make a difference and change things. I was told this mission would be difficult and dangerous and I wonder how stealing this one item will help us. They told me they needed “little Omara with her cat feet”, “little Omara, nimble and quick”, “Omara the climber”.
This morning I left Charity City, terrified and hopeful, to arrive here at a city empty and forgotten. I think of Selene, who died getting the palm print and pull on the glove, like a second skin. There can be no wrinkles. The fit must be perfect and it cannot tear. I stop and breathe to calm my nerves. I rest my hand on the scanner next to the gate. Wait. Breathe. Wait. A click and it opens.
The streets are empty and I walk lightly, hardly moving the thick dust that lies everywhere. Cat feet, indeed. I walk the streets from memory. Declan got the map at the cost of his mind which they damaged. He can’t help us anymore. I find the building with its brick circular tower. It stands out from all the cold gray stone.
As promised, the door is massive and red. At first I don’t see the scanner and I panic but then I stop and I breathe. Finally, I see it. The contacts I wear hold the retinal print of someone important. I look at the scanner and wait, breathing as though I belong here. A click and it opens.
A hallway leads to a plain wooden door. From my bag, I take Sophie’s device and hold it to my throat. I say the words (what was their cost?) into the intercom grill by the door. Wait. Breathe. Wait. A click and it opens.
Above me the tower and its contents stretch high. There is a central well for the elevating platform but there are no visible controls. No scanner. I am this close and….now I can’t……. Breathe. Wait. Breathe. Then I look up and I know why they chose me. Somehow, they knew this might happen and my skills would be needed.
I remove my shoes. Now it is me, my backpack and a wall. This I know how to do. This I cannot fail. I grab the shelves, pressing my body against a wall that I can now see are books, and I climb.
The books have a smell I remember, but from where? The smell of paper, bindings and ink. I wonder if the words will press through my clothes and into my skin as I climb, tattooing me with knowledge. I climb and the joy of the climb and the smell of the words and knowing that I will be able to help my people make me delirious.
I can see the top, the final shelf and the book I was sent for. I reach out my hand to take it: my people’s freedom. The cover is rough and worn. The binding is giving way. My heart is pounding from the climb. I smile. My hand closes on the book and I hope this is what we really need.
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