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By Rich Larson
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“An energetic, nonstop adventure.” — Chicago Tribune
Independence Day meets Lord of the Flies in this “thrilling and imaginative” debut about two young outsiders forced to fight off alien invaders in a post-apocalyptic city. (Fonda Lee)
When the aliens invade, all seems lost. The world as they know it is destroyed. Their friends are kidnapped. Their families are changed.
But with no adults left to run things, young trans-girl Violet and her new friend Bo realize that they are free. Free to do whatever they want. Free to be whoever they want to be.
Except the invaders won’t leave them alone for long. . .
This “warm, thrilling adventure about what happens after the end of the world” is for fans of Paolo Bacigalupi and Ann Leckie. (Cherie Priest)
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.
Violet was heading to Safeway to pick up some groceries, walking down a silent street under a cloudy gray sky. Gray as the day the ship came down, scorching the city with the electric blue pulses Wyatt said were exhaust from its engines. There’d been no sun since. Just gray, a hazy emulsion that looked close to rain but never gave it up. Violet didn’t mind the new weather. Sun burned her and rain made everything too wet.
She walked down the middle of the street instead of the sidewalk, weaving through the stalled-out cars. Some had wasters sitting inside, imagining themselves driving off to work, but most of the cars didn’t work anyway. Their chips were fried. The ones that did work were useless, what with the roads so clogged and nobody really knowing how to drive besides.
The intersection ahead was stoppered up with the splintered geometry of a crash, a three-car pile-up that had happened during the big panic when the ship came down. Violet didn’t want to walk around it, so she clambered up onto the accordion-scrunched hood of an SUV. The soles of her Skechers popped little dents in the aluminum. She tried to ignore the dead-thing smell that wafted from the backseat.
On the other side of the wreck, she faced a corner liquor store, half of it black and crumbled from an electrical fire, and then beyond it her destination: the Safeway where she’d shopped with her mom four months and a lifetime ago. The parking lot was strewn with garbage, picked at by a flock of dirty gulls, and wasters shuffled slowly around it with grocery bags that Violet knew were sometimes full, sometimes empty. Some of them were pushing squeaky shopping carts across the ruptured tarmac.
But one of the carts wasn’t being pushed by a waster. Violet narrowed her eyes. It was a boy, maybe ten or eleven, skinny frame swallowed in an oversized hoodie. She watched him roll his sleeves up to his elbows, one of which was swatched with Technicolor Band-Aids, and start wrestling with the cart again. He’d picked one with sticky wheels, but it had alright stuff in it: a sleeping bag, a trussed-up Styrofoam mattress, canned food, and bottled water. Usually kids fresh out of the warehouse were too dopey to do much more than wander around all shell-shocked.
Violet swapped the duffel to her other shoulder and cut across the culvert of yellowed grass to the parking lot pavement. By the time she was close to him, the boy had snatched an empty cart from one of the wasters and was dumping everything from his own into the replacement.
“Hey,” Violet said. “Those Winnie the Pooh Band-Aids?”
The boy looked up, startled. The hood fell back off his head and Violet could see his face still had a bit of chub to it, the kiddie kind, but his eyes were sharp. A little bloodshot from crying, but focused. His black hair reminded her of a ball of steel wool, and she could see a comb mostly buried in the tangle. He yanked his sleeve down over the yellow patchwork on his elbow and stared back at her for a moment, mouth working for words.
“You’re not a zombie,” he finally said, in a voice that was a little closer to cracking than she’d expected from someone his size. It made her extra conscious of her own.
“Nobody’s a zombie,” Violet said, as the waster he’d swapped carts with stumbled past. “They don’t eat brains or anything. Just wander around being useless. We call them wasters.”
“Where’d you come from?” the boy asked.
Violet peeled the stretchy fabric of her shirt up off her stomach, showing him the rust-red Parasite under her pale skin. The boy immediately stuck his hand to his own belly. His face twitched.
“Same as you, Pooh Bear,” Violet said, tugging her shirt back down. “You thought you were the only one who got out?”
The boy frowned. “Is everyone else … Is all the grown-ups …” He tapped the back of his head, where the clamps went in.
“Everyone over sixteen,” Violet said. “Or around there.” She reached over and yanked the sleeping bag and a single bottle of water out from the cart. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Bo,” the boy said. “Bo Rabiu.”
“Violet.” She stuffed the sleeping bag into his arms and tossed the bottle on top with a slosh. Getting groceries could wait. “Alright, Bo, time to get out of the streets,” she said. “The othermothers are going to start coming through soon.”
“The o-ther mo-thers,” Violet enunciated. “You’ll see one soon enough. For now, we’re going to a safe spot, alright? A hideout. So you can meet Wyatt.”
Bo tucked the sleeping bag under his arm and tossed the water bottle up and down with his other hand. “Who’s he?” he asked suspiciously.
“He’s a jerk,” Violet said. “Let’s go.”
She set off back out of the parking lot, mapping the way back to the theater in her mind’s eye. She didn’t bother to check if Bo was following. They always did.
Bo slipped into the wake of the dark-haired girl named Violet as she weaved through the shuffling dim-eyed adults. It made Bo feel sick looking at them, seeing the shiny black piece of metal that dug into the backs of their heads and made the veins in their necks bulge. One man in a shredded business suit stopped abruptly on the sidewalk, reaching into his pocket to pull out an invisible phone. Bo nearly plowed into him, jerking away at the last second. He didn’t quite manage to hide his shudder.
Violet stopped, shooting him a look over her shoulder. “Don’t be scared of them,” she said in her slightly scratchy voice. “They don’t do anything.”
“Not scared,” Bo said reflexively, watching the businessman turn away, mouthing a conversation. “They stink real bad. That’s all.”
Violet bent to snatch something up off the sidewalk. It was an old cracked iPhone. She flashed Bo a smile, and for a moment he thought she was going to go up and put it into the businessman’s empty fingers. Instead, she juggled it once in her hand, then hurled it at the back of the man’s head. His neck snapped forward. Then he steadied himself, continuing his pantomimed phone call with a tiny trickle of carmine running down his scalp where the cracked screen had cut him.
“They’re like NPCs,” Violet said. Her smile didn’t crinkle her eyes. “Think of them like that. Not like people.”
“They are, though,” Bo said. “People.” He’d already had a horrible thought. He’d thought of going back to his burned house and finding his mother was alive but wandering through it with her eyes filmed over, smiling all empty-like. He didn’t know which option would be worse: dead or a zombie. There was a reason he’d decided to get supplies first.
“Not anymore,” Violet said in an icy voice. “Clamp’s in the head, better off dead. Got it?”
Bo glanced away, pretending to tend to his elbow. Violet had already decided which was worse. He couldn’t think about his mom yet, anyway. He had to think about Lia. If he was going to rescue her from the warehouses, he was going to need help. At the very least, he was going to need to know what had happened on the outside during the four months he’d been locked away. Violet seemed like she knew those things.
As for the othermothers, whatever they were, Bo still remembered the slimy silhouette dumped from the belly of the whale-thing, and it still made him shiver.
“Got it,” he said.
Violet gave him a skeptical look, one eyebrow cocked high, then turned and hurried on. Bo followed. She was taking him into the oldest part of the downtown, past an ancient hotel where his mom had told him to be careful of strangers and stepping on needles. The sidewalks were narrower and crooked, with a blackish moss seeping through the cracks. One waster they passed was knocking her fist against a graffiti-splashed brick wall, over and over, like she thought it was a door. Her knuckles were a mess of raw meat.
“They look happier than they used to,” Violet said, catching him off guard. “The wasters who hang around here. Happier than before they got clamped.”
“What do they see?” Bo asked.
“Dunno,” Violet said. “Not us.” She gave a vague wave around the street. “Something nicer than this, I bet. Lots nicer.”
They came to a halt in front of an old theater Bo remembered passing on the bus once, maybe twice. It had been closed for years. The signage had more blank white spaces than it did black letters, making it look like a wide gappy grin, and the few movie posters that hadn’t been snatched were curled and yellow inside their glass slots. Most of the globe lights around them had been smashed. Up on the top of the building, Bo saw the name of the place, Garneau Cinema, painted in dark red letters that were peeling like scabs.
The door had been boarded over with a two-by-four, but Violet skipped up and yanked it open, showing the plywood to be nailed on only one side. The inside looked dark, dark as the warehouse, and Bo smelled dust and mothballs and what might have been old popcorn grease.
“Why not the IMAX theater?” Bo asked, hesitating on the threshold. “They have those comfy seats. Memory foam seats.”
“Be full of wasters pretending to watch movies, wouldn’t it,” Violet said. “Come on in. You know Peter Pan?”
“Sort of,” Bo said.
“This is Neverland,” Violet said. “Come meet the Lost Boys.”
“Who are you, then?” Bo asked. “You, uh, Tinkerbell?”
“Fuck you,” Violet said, flashing that smile again that was both pretty and scary. It was better than the dull grins of the drugged-up warehouse kids or the wasters. That counted for something.
Bo stepped into the musty entryway, and she eased the door shut behind him. The dark gave him a nervous drop in his stomach, and the Parasite gave a sluggish twitch. He was half relieved, half disappointed that it was finally moving again. He’d thought maybe it was dead after whatever had happened with the fence.
Violet switched on a bulky black-and-yellow flashlight, thumping it a few times with the heel of her hand. In the stark beam Bo saw the interior of the theater was floored with cigarette-scorched carpeting. The wallpaper had water stains.
But there weren’t any whirlybirds. He licked his dry lips and followed Violet past the abandoned ticket booth and concession stand, where the smell of ancient cooking grease still hung off a defunct popcorn machine. Through a set of faux-oak doors thrown wide open, Bo saw the blank movie screen, half-illuminated by mismatched lamps. Violet led the way in, switching off her flashlight. Stripes of exit lighting still glowed faintly on the floor.
The theater had velvet red seats, some of them with armrests torn away or their cushions slashed open, and some of them had kids splayed on them. Bo had a sudden thought: Maybe his sister was already here. Lia’d always been smarter than him. Maybe the power outage had affected all the warehouses, or maybe she’d gotten out before that, somehow. Bo looked hopefully over the ten or so kids, most of them clustered in a group near the front, others scattered.
None of them looked older than Violet, who Bo had pegged for fifteen—the carefully drawn makeup around her eyes made it harder to tell. And none of them were his sister.
- "An exciting twist on a hostile-alien-takeover drama...exhilarating."—Washington Post
- "Rich Larson has an amazing knack for capturing the lonesomeness of growing up, and how much random cruelty and steadfast companionship there is in childhood. Not to mention, just how alien and scary families can be."—Charlie Jane Anders, author of All the Birds in the Sky
- "Annex's combination of a likable and diverse cast of characters with breakneck, engaging action-all against the background of an evocative and sinister world-make it an accomplished and impressive debut."—Booklist
- "An energetic, nonstop adventure."—Chicago Tribune
- "Annex is a ferocious sci-fi fairy tale--a warm, thrilling adventure about what happens after the end of the world. Both epic and intimate in equal measure, this one's a joy and a blast, from beginning to end."—Cherie Priest, author of Boneshaker and I Am Princess X
- "Wunderkind Rich Larson's Annex gives us nonstop action set pieces as breathtakingly clever as they are relentless and a vivid, compelling cast. Sequels now, please!"—Mike Allen, author of Unseaming
- "Rich Larson presents a uniquely compelling apocalypse--equal parts frightening and touching."—Alex White, author of A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe
- "A thrilling and imaginative entry into the alien invasion genre with two fierce and desperate young protagonists you won't be able to stop rooting for."—Fonda Lee, Nebula-nominated author of Jade City
- "Larson's breakneck pace end up making [Annex] exhilarating, and well worth waiting for the next volume."—Locus
- "Deftly plotted and packing a few interesting twists, Annex delivers."—Kirkus
- "An insightful and piercing...science fiction thriller."—B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy blog
- On Sale
- Jul 24, 2018
- Page Count
- 368 pages