A transgender girl rises up against alien invaders in Rich Larson’s novel AnnexJuly 8, 2018
Later this month, Rich Larson will publish his debut novel, Annex, the start to his Violet Wars trilogy. The book is set in the aftermath of an alien invasion, and follows Violet, a transgender girl who has escaped capture and discovered that an alien parasite has given her strange powers. The aliens have tagged the adults of the world with a device that leaves them in a zombie-like state. She and a group of children called “Lost Boys” struggle to survive in order to take the fight back to the otherworldly invaders.
Since 2012, Larson has established himself as an up-and-coming science fiction writer, penning dozens of stories for the likes of Apex Magazine, Clarkesworld Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Tor.com, and others (including an anthology that I edited). His jump from short fiction to a longer novel is something I’ve been looking forward to for a while now.
Orbit has supplied us with the first two chapters of Annex, which hits stores on July 24th.
The pharmacy’s sign was burnt out and the windows all smashed in—Violet had done one herself—but there were still three customers standing gamely in line. She stepped around them, shoes squealing on the broken glass, and headed for the counter. None of the three wasters noticed her butting in. They didn’t notice much of anything, not their torn clothes or singed hair or bloody feet. The slick black clamps at the bases of their skulls saw to that. Violet tried not to look too closely at wasters. Peripherals only, was her rule. If she looked too closely, she was liable to see someone she recognized.
Of course, she made an exception for the pharmacist. “Oh, hi!” she said, feigning surprise. “I think you helped me last week, right?”
The pharmacist said nothing, moving his hands in the air a foot over from the register, his glazed-over eyes trained on something that wasn’t there. His beard was hugely overgrown, but Violet had sort of a thing for the mountain man look. He was still tall and muscly, though in a wiry way now, because wasters forgot to eat more often than not. Still handsome.
“Well, if I’m an addict, you’re my dealer, jerk,” Violet said, cocking her hip and trying to flutter her eyelashes without looking like she’d detached a retina. She was getting better at it. Maybe she would try it on Wyatt soon.
The pharmacist said nothing, now pulling imaginary pill bottles out of an empty metal cupboard Violet had already ransacked. His vacant half smile didn’t seem as charming today. Violet gave a sour shrug and tossed her duffel bag over the counter, then nimbly followed.
“That’s our problem… Dennis,” she said, leaning in to read the red plastic name tag stuck through his shirt. “You’re a shitty communicator. We’re not going to last.”
Violet gave the pharmacist a consoling pat on the arm, then unzipped her duffel and set to work. Wyatt had told her to get antibiotics and painkillers, and since Violet knew her way around from last time, it didn’t take her long to fill the bag with Tylenol-4s, ibuprofen, three rattling canisters of Cipro, and a bottle of liquid codeine. Wyatt was strict about who got the medicine ever since one of the younger Lost Boys made himself sick chugging cough syrup, and he never used it himself, never took a single pill, even though Violet knew the scar along his hips made him wince sometimes.
Violet wasn’t interested in painkillers. She had more important drugs to look for. She rifled through the birth control until she found her estradiol—Estrofem this time—then emptied the tablets into her own private ziplock stash. She hunted down more Aldactone to top up her spiro supply.
She shook the plastic baggie, eyeing the candy-shop assortment of pills and counting days, then pincered a pale green Estrofem and swallowed it dry. Her Parasite rippled in response, whether with pleasure or revulsion, Violet never knew. She folded the baggie carefully into the bottom of her duffel bag with the other meds and dragged the zipper shut.
“Well, I might be free for coffee this weekend,” Violet told the pharmacist, slinging the duffel over her bony shoulder. “But I can’t give you my number because, you know, an alien invasion fried all the phones. No, I swear to God. Maybe next time, handsome.”
She scooted across the counter and dropped down on the other side, brushing a slice of dark hair out of her face. The wasters ignored her on her way out, all of them still standing patiently in line.
Violet kept them in her peripherals.
Bo was hiding behind a powerjack, only meters from the fire door and the emergency exit sign glowing above it through the gloom. The Parasite in his stomach wriggled madly. He held his hand to the icy concrete floor; when the flesh of his palm was stinging cold, he pressed it against his stomach. That helped soothe it a bit.
The electricity had gone out earlier that day, dropping the grimy corridors and sleeping rooms into darkness, and Bo wasn’t going to waste his chance. He’d snuck out of his bed while a boy named James was wailing and weeping loud enough to make the whirlybird drift over to him with its sleep-inducing syringe. A few of the other kids had watched Bo slip away, but he’d put a fierce finger to his lips and none of them had seemed particularly interested anyway. Most of them drank the water.
His older sister, Lia, was the one who’d realized that they put something in the water that made you feel dull and happy, and that it was better to collect drips off pipes in the bathroom. She was thirteen to Bo’s eleven and she usually did the thinking. But she was gone now.
So Bo had found his way through the dark corridor alone, running one hand along the pitted concrete wall and its retrofitted wires, making his way toward the emergency exit that led outside. Now he was waiting for the last group of kids to go from supper to bed, trying to breathe slowly and keep the Parasite in check.
A familiar whine filled the air, then a whirlybird emerged from the corridor. It was as big around the middle as Bo and drifted along at head height, like a balloon, except made of slick rubbery flesh and gleaming black metal and other things he couldn’t guess at. A tangle of spidery multi-jointed arms dangled down from its underbelly, flexing slowly in the air, and there was a bright acid-yellow lantern set into the top of its carapace that illuminated the kids plodding behind it.
As always, Bo scanned their faces. Everyone’s eyes were turned to deep dark shadows by the sickly yellow glow, and everyone was stepping slow and dreamy-like. For a moment he fooled himself into thinking he saw Lia near the back of the file, faking the effects of the water, because there was no way she’d started drinking it, but it was a different black girl. Shorter, and lighter-skinned.
He knew Lia was in some other facility. They’d been split up weeks ago. But it didn’t stop him from looking.
The whirlybird floated past and Bo imagined himself springing at it, seizing one of its trailing limbs, smashing it against the floor, and stomping until it cracked open. The Parasite in his stomach stirred at the thought. But his wrists and hands were still crisscrossed with feather-white scars from the first and last time he’d tried that.
Instead, he waited until the glow of the whirlybird receded into the dark and the last of the kids got swallowed up in the shadows.
Bo was alone. His heart hammered his ribs and the Parasite gave another twitch. He levered himself upright, crept out from behind the powerjack. Three surreal strides and he was at the door, hands gripping the bar.
A girl named Ferris had tried to open it before, and the wailing of the alarm had drawn the whirlybirds in an instant. But with the electricity out, there would be no alarm and no fifteen-second delay on the crash bar. Bo still made himself pause to listen, to be sure there wasn’t a whirlybird drifting on the other side of the paint-flaking metal. He heard nothing except the toddlers who’d been crying ever since the lights went out. With a tight feeling in his throat, Bo pushed.
The door swung open with a clunk and a screech, and cold clean air rushed into his lungs like the first breath after a storm. He’d been in the chemical-smelling warehouse for so long he’d forgotten how fresh air tasted. Bo gasped at it.
He took a shaky step forward, only just remembering to catch the door before it slammed behind him. He tried to focus. He was in a long narrow alley, garbage whipping around his feet and graffiti marching along the soot-stained walls. Bo knew, dimly, that the warehouses they’d been put in were near the docks. The briny sea-smell confirmed that much. He was far, far from their old neighborhood, and he didn’t know if it even existed anymore.
Bo looked up. The dusk sky seemed impossibly wide after months of fluorescent-lit ceilings, but it wasn’t empty. Unfurling over the city like an enormous black umbrella, all moving spars and flanges, was the ship. It didn’t look like a spaceship to Bo, not how he’d seen them in movies. It didn’t look like it should even be able to fly.
But it drifted there overhead, light as air. Bo remembered it spitting a rain of sizzling blue bombs down on the city, burning the park behind their house to white ash, toppling the skyscrapers downtown. And up there with the ship, wheeling slow circles, Bo saw the mechanical whale-like things that had snatched up him and his sister and all the other kids and taken them to the warehouses. Remembering it put a shock of sweat in his armpits, and his stomach gave a fearful churn. The Parasite churned with it.
Bo started down the alley at a trot before the panic could paralyze him. He didn’t know where to go, but he knew he needed to put distance between himself and the warehouse. As much distance as possible. Then he would find somewhere to hide. Find something to eat—real food, not the gray glue they ate in the warehouses. He had been fantasizing about pepperoni pizza lately, or, even better, his mom’s cooking, the things she made for special occasions: shinkafa da wake, with oily onions and the spicy yaji powder that made Lia’s eyes water so bad, and fried plantains.
That made him think of his mom again, so he buried the memory, as he had for months now, and picked up his pace to a jog. The Parasite throbbed in his stomach and he felt a static charge under his skin, making the hairs stand up from the nape of his neck. That happened more often lately, and always when Bo was angry or frightened or excited. He imagined himself smashing a whirlybird out of the air right as it went to jab his sister with the syringe, and her thanking him, and admitting that if he had his shoes on he was faster than her now. He pictured himself opening the doors and all the other kids streaming out of the warehouse.
A harsh yellow light froze him to the spot. Shielding his watering eyes, Bo looked up and saw the silhouette of a whale-thing descending through the dark sky. He took an experimental step to the left. The beam of light tracked him. The whale-thing was close enough that he could hear its awful chugging sound, half like an engine, half like a dying animal trying to breathe. Bo was never going inside one again.
After four months in the warehouse, four months of plodding slowly behind the whirlybirds because anything quicker than a walk agitated them, Bo felt slow. His breath hitched early behind his chest and he had an unfamiliar ache in his shoulder. But as the whale-thing dropped lower, its chugging sound loud in his ears, adrenaline plowed through all of that and he found his rhythm, flying across the pavement, pumping hard.
Fastest in his grade, faster than Lia. He said it in his head like a chant. Faster than anybody.
Bo tore down the alley with a wild shout, halfway between a laugh and a scream. His battered Lottos, tread long gone, slapped hard to the ground. He could feel his heart shooting through his throat, and the Parasite was writhing and crackling in his belly. The static again, putting his hair on end. He could feel the huge shape of the whale-thing surging over him. Its acid-yellow light strobed the alley, slapping his shadow on each wall of it, moving its blurry black limbs in sync with his. Bo raced them.
Faster than his own shadow.
He blew out the end of the alley and across the cracked tarmac of a parking lot, seeing the yellow-stenciled lines and trying to take one space with each stride. Impossibly, he could feel the whale-thing falling back, slowing down. Its hot air was no longer pounding on his back. Bo didn’t let himself slow down, because Lia said you were always meant to pick a spot beyond the finish line and make that your finish line.
The fence seemed to erupt from nowhere. Bo’s eyes widened, but it was too late to stop. He hurtled toward it, more certain with each footfall that he wasn’t going to be able to scale it. It wasn’t the chain-link that he used to scramble up and down gecko-quick. It wasn’t metal at all, more like a woven tangle of vines, or maybe veins, every part of it pulsing. A few of the tendrils stretched out toward him, sensing him. Ready to snatch him and hold him and give him back to the warehouse.
He couldn’t stop. The whale-thing was still chugging along behind him, hemming him in. Bo had to get out. Bo had to get out, he had to get help. He had to come back for his sister and for the others, even the ones who cried too much. His throat was clenched around a sob as he hurled himself at the fence, remembering Ferris being dragged away by the whirlybirds. His limbs were shaking; the Parasite was vibrating him, like a battery in his stomach. He squeezed his eyes shut.
There was a shiver, a ripple, a strange pulse that passed through every inch of him, and he didn’t feel the fence’s tentacles wrapping him tight. He didn’t feel anything until he collapsed onto the tarmac on the other side, scraping his left elbow raw. Bo’s eyes flew open. He spun around, still on the ground, and stared at the fence. In the dead center of it was a jagged hole, punched straight through. The fence wriggled around it, fingering the hole like a wound.
Bo clambered to his feet, panting. He wiped the ooze of blood off his elbow, nearly relishing the sting of it—he hadn’t been properly scraped up for months. Then he put his hand on his stomach. The static was gone, like it had never been at all, and the Parasite felt suddenly heavy, no longer twitching or moving. Had he done that? Had he made the hole?
The whale-thing was stopped on the other side of it, and it didn’t have a face but he got the sense it was as surprised as he was. Bo gave an instinctive glance around for grown-ups, even though he knew he wouldn’t see any, then flipped it the bird. The whale-thing didn’t respond, still hovering in place. Then a strange moaning noise came from inside of it. Bo watched as the whale-thing’s underbelly peeled open. Something slimed and dark started unfolding itself, then dropped to the paving with a thick wet slap. It was human-shaped.
Bo felt a tiny trickle of piss finally squeeze out down his leg. The human shape moaned again, and that was enough to give Bo his second wind. He turned and ran again, the cut on his elbow singing in the cold night air, the Parasite sitting like lead in his gut. But he was out of the warehouse, and he wasn’t going to let them take him again, not ever. When he came back, it would be to get Lia, and the others, and to smash every last whirlybird in the place.
It was the only way to be sure he got the one that had pinned him down that first day and injected the Parasite right through his belly button.
Bo made it his new pact as he jogged, deeper and deeper, into the dark and ruined city.