Nicole Kornher-Stace’s new novella Flight and anchor she describes herself on the cover as “Fire Story”. It is true; the story concerns two characters who appear in Kornher-Stace a great novel from 2021 Firebreak. But technically, it could also be called the “Archivist Wasp” story, since the same characters appear – in slightly different form – in Archivist Wasp and its continuation, Ratchet.
It is also true, technically or otherwise, that you could read this absorbing, perfectly calibrated, Boxcar kids-inspired novella as an introduction to Kornher-Stace’s work as a whole. All the elements are here: deliberately endless corporate conflict; the propaganda and narratives they control; stories that offer hope; child soldiers; a brutal mixture of death and myth; intense friendship; and even if it is all, 06 and 22, two particular soldiers who are actually still children at this point and have run away – although not from home. Home is long gone, only the softest of sun-tinted memories.
No: These two are a 12-year-old killing machine and ran away from the woman who made them.
“Freedom turns out to be harder than expected,” Kornher-Stace writes as the two minors melt snow into water (in this world, an act of anti-corporate terrorism that is harshly punished by those who are not outlaws). But “hard” isn’t something the 06 and 22 are likely to run away from – they’re more likely to run straight to it.
Which is what they do and what they did when they got out of where they were for four years. They are two of 11 child soldiers, all that remain of the 48 children who were abducted into the multi-million dollar super soldier program, which is also a propaganda program that will eventually reverberate years and decades long after the death of this corporate hellhole of a world. “They’ve already lost everything but themselves” is a simple, painfully accurate line that sets the tone for the entire short and intense story.
06 and 22 have nothing but the clothes on their backs—uniforms hidden under coats pulled from the Headmaster’s closet—and their incredible skills, which include enhanced everything (hearing, strength, speed) and plenty of ways to kill. But murder notices people. Attention is not their friend; when Cass the barista is kind to them in the early chapters, they slip out of Cass’s sight at the first opportunity, taking with them lots of day-old baked goods and a whole lost-and-found outfit.
Giving us a civilian impression of this pair is a wise way to start. Small figures are disturbing. Cass thinks for a moment that they might be vampires. Cass also knows someone who has conspiracy theories about abducted children—conspiracy theories that are terrifyingly accurate. But the barista will put those things together later. Another wise thing Kornher-Stace does here is give us glimpses of the future: the moment, long after the kids are gone, when Cass realizes who and what they were; a brief glimpse into the future in which the headmistress is haunted by a memory from this time as her own death approaches.
What do two pre-teen super soldiers with little memories of the “normal” world do when they run away? They are hungry. They clean up. They hoard change and try to buy the most nutritious foods. Realizing how much they don’t know, they also realize that the Headmaster’s attempt to eradicate all memories of their past has not been entirely successful: “Nostalgia should have been drugged and beaten out of them by now, but it’s holding tighter than even the Headmaster can loosen.”
Kornher-Stace’s world is not kind, except when it is. (See: Cass.) As in Firebreak and Archivist Wasp, the author makes no bones about violence and cruelty, but they also never revel in it. The practical way in which 06 (Fire, Flight) and 22 (Rock, Anchor) approach their predicament is as exciting as it is terrifying. They are twelve. And apart from training, they know almost nothing. But they learn this much: They learn that the faces of their fellow super soldiers are on burger wrappers, their own faces on soda cups. They learn that there is more technology hidden in the Stellaxis corporate vaults than anyone has been watching. (The third-best character in this book is a very cunning swarm of nanobots.) And they learn that they can look out for each other—sort of. Loyalty alone won’t solve some things.
The books that Kornher-Stace set in this vicious corporate world are ultimately about love, even if at twelve our young, abused and powerful heroes don’t yet understand it. They’re a platonic couple: They’ll do anything for each other, including throwing themselves in front of deadly weapons and facing the things they’ve run from. If you have read Wasp, this little glimpse into their childhood adds painful and beautiful depth to the characters you’ve already met. If you are meeting them for the first time, I don’t know how you can help them, but you want to know more. How can loyalty be so fierce when they are so young? How can they go through such hell and come out like they did?
How can the world look away when all this is going on? The answer to that question is simple enough: Everyone else is just trying to survive too. Flight and anchor is a small book, not a big one, but you still get a sense of the world: the iron fist with which corporations control resources, the advancement of technology, the way endless war knocks people off their own anchors. Everyone in this polluted world wants to see the stars; everyone has to use their implants and lenses to project where the stars used to be seen. This is hope, of a very specific kind, and it permeates all of Kornher-Stace’s work: a spark in the dark, a break in the fever.
Flight and anchor published by Tachyon Publications.