Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Anna Cates

A faint mist, reeking of swamp rot, hovered above the boreal gulag.  The remainder of charred trees rose from the muck like middle fingers raised in defiance to a long-forgotten god.  Ten thousand years would pass before Earth fully recovered from the comet, or so the experts said.  

Ursa trudged along the side of the old Kingdom Hall of the Saints building in rag-wrapped feet.  She shuddered in her beige dress, spring’s coldness permeating all of nature and seeping into her emaciated frame.  Like the brick building itself, sinking into earth from broken gutters and neglect, her footballs oozed into patches of partially thawed sod.  Yet one thought kept her determined:  Someone was hiding food in that abandoned building where once “the saints” had raised their voices to God.  Ignoring Camp Joy rules, and taking advantage of a solitary moment, she pushed inside a back door with knocked-off knob and rusted hinges.  

Clammy scents of mold accosted her.  Her eyes quickly grew accustomed to the dark.  Beyond the dilapidated kitchen with caved-in roof, there stood a fully intact auditorium, laden with antique wooden seats.  There the throngs of yore had conglomerated to behold aberrant orchestrations pommeled against the state.  Ursa was not like them, the heavy wingers who harbored dangerous thoughts.  No, she was a good citizen, an upright young lady.  Were it not for some terrible misunderstanding, she’d be home pursuing her dreams.  She clenched a fist as indignation flooded her.  She’d punch a hole right through the drywall if only her over-worked hands would forgive her for the pain!  What false friend had slandered her, defamed her character?  True friends were hard to find.  One day, she’d have revenge.  For now, she hoped illicit rations might ameliorate the day’s evil.

Ursa shuffled into the auditorium and stared at the empty seats.  Her guess for the building’s age was mid twenty-first century.  A strange peace filled the cold room.  She enjoyed being alone.  She didn’t like girls too chatty or nosy.  She strode down the aisle, letting her calloused fingers brush against the chair tops till she faced a row of cabinets along one back wall.  She opened a drawer:  an old pen, paper clips, and religious literature:  heavy winger propaganda!  Ugh!  She closed the drawer with a shudder, recalling tales of pedophilia and mass suicide.  She opened a cabinet above the scratched countertop.  Bingo!  A supersized package of dry rigatoni!  Two cans of sardines packed in olive oil!  And parmesan cheese!  With glee, she scooped the goods into her skinny arms.  

“Ahem!”  A voice cleared behind her.

A muffled scream stuck then died in Ursa’s throat, leaving behind a flu-like ache.  She’d never felt more caught off-guard.  The fish and pasta slipped from her arms and spilled onto the carpet, once crimson, now blackened with age and neglect.

“Caught ya,” the familiar voice said.

Ursa sped around.  “Andromeda!”

The camp guard must have been lurking in the foyer.  She shook her head, though her mouth curled with amusement.  “I can’t believe you took the bait.”

“I was going to report this,” Ursa began before a burst of desperation seized her.  She bent over, scrambling for the food till she again clasped it in her arms.  “I have the right—”  

“Hand it over,” Andromeda said, a sadistic glint in her eyes.  She grabbed the rigatoni, ripping the plastic package.  Dry noodles spilled across the floor.  

“You fucking dyke!” Ursa hammered at Andromeda’s head with a can of sardines.

Andromeda grabbed her wrist, causing the can to slip from her grip.  She twisted Ursa’s arm behind her back.  Ursa screamed in pain.  She pummeled her left elbow back toward Andromeda’s rib cage.  She slipped out of the hold then turned on the camp guard, pelting her.  The other can of sardines and cheese flew through the air as Ursa momentarily freed herself of their burden to more adequately fight.  But with a series of karate moves, Andromeda blocked every punch, slipping left then right, her muscular body exuding its advantage of better nourishment and military training.  

Andromeda forced Ursa to the moldy carpet.  She rasped into her ear with shriveled lips, “I know what you think of me, spoiled priss, but don’t flatter yourself.  You’re not my type.”  The cold gun nozzle touched her jawbone.   


Within the hour, Ursa found herself in an office on the other side of the grounds, stashed in a metal chair, facing none other than the head of Camp Joy himself, Captain Leo.  He sat behind his mahogany desk in a professional pose, hands folded across his paper calendar.

“You broke a rule, Ursa,” he stoically said.  “You entered that condemned building.  Now we need to discuss.”  

Ursa’s head jut forward.  “Someone else went in there first!  They’re hiding food in there, Captain Leo!  How come I’m getting punished and not them?”

“Maybe they will, but that’s not for you to dictate.  Ursa, let’s be frank.”  He sighed then ran his fingers through his sparse silvery brown.  “You’re adjusting poorly to Camp Joy.  Aside from your anarchist demeanor and disrespect for authority, you’re a loner, a downright anti-social antiestablishmentarian, I’ve been told.  What’ll it take for you to jump on the joy wagon?”  He smiled formally.

Ursa laughed dryly.  “That you’d ask such a stupid question.  Camp Joy is not a joyful place, Captain Leo.”  

“Life is what you make of it, Ursa.”   

How irritating that he would try to confuse her with riddles.  Ursa wanted answers.  “Why am I here, Captain Leo?  I planned to attend the university after graduation.  Then, last summer, just days after my mother mysteriously disappears, state workers in lab coats arrive in a black hovercraft and just cart me away!  Why?”  She strove to be direct and subdue her emotions.  She doubted Captain Leo would feel moved by a hissy, as much as she wanted to feed him his own testicles.

Captain Leo smiled weakly, peering down momentarily, seeming almost abashed.  “Ursa, a disclosure of important matters of state is sometimes best relayed in stages.  We’ve measured your attitude and deemed you not yet mature enough to have top secret data divulged to you.”

“You’re mistaken, Captain Leo, because I am ready, seeing how it must concern me and my mother.”  She pursed her lips.  “When I discover who has slandered us, I swear, I’ll kill them!”  

Captain Leo’s brows rose.  “Harming others, or yourself, would be a very bad idea.  And you’ve clearly shown yourself to have violent tendencies, so I must take such threats seriously.”  He tapped open his OmBox.  A virtual file shimmered into life.  He shuffled through luminous pastel pages, touching one twice with a golden stylus before zipping closed the documents with a glittery hiss.          

“Just tell me why I’m here.  What do you have on me?  What’s in that file?  Let me defend myself.  What did I do wrong?”

He met her gaze with serious dark brown eyes.  “I’ll tell you what I can, but this is just between you and me.”

“Who else would I tell?”  Ursa shrugged.  “I don’t have any friends here.  Should I?”  

“Truth is, Ursa, Camp Joy is part of a space cadet training program, and you’ve been assigned a key role.”

“Me?”  Ursa pointed at her chest.  “I don’t understand.  I’m only eighteen.  I just graduated.  I don’t have qualifications.”

He shook his head.  “You were chosen before you were born, before you were artificially crafted in the lab.”

“Chosen for what?”  She felt uncomfortable with Captain Leo’s knowledge about her, the circumstances of her birth, his access to secrets her mother could never disclose.  

Captain Leo reopened his OmBox, briefly scanning virtual data, then clicked it closed with a sparkly fizz that tingled.  “From your DNA, we ferreted out every disease-causing component known to man.  We reactivated fossil genes that increase the chances of survival on an exoplanet.  For example, you have a fully functioning GLO gene that manufactures your own vitamin C.  No point in letting some tiny potential problem like scurvy become an obstacle.  We spliced additional genes to optimize the chances for success.  For example, you have starfish DNA that enhances your ability to heal yourself; you may have noticed.  Your construction is superior.”  

“If I’m so superior, why am I being treated like some degenerate-minded criminal?” Ursa asked, more vehemently than she’d anticipated.   

Captain Leo’s jaw tightened.  “Discipline is important, Ursa.  We simulate hardships as needed.  Conditions here may seem challenging, especially to those who’ve been pampered and coddled, like you, but they’re nothing to what a space cadet might face on a long journey or on an exoplanet.  Your honing here is of immeasurable importance, value to you.”

Ursa rolled her eyes.  “Oh, I almost forget; Camp Joy is a privilege.”    

“Andromeda’s word choice.”  Captain Leo chuckled with a nod.  “I’d simply term it your assignment, responsibility.  Camp Joy is the reality of the situation, the way things must be, for the sake of posterity and progress.  You must play your part, accept your role in the grand scheme of interplanetary expansion.”

“Says who?  I want to be free, to live my own life.  I want to go home.”  Ursa clutched the chair’s arm rests, shaking them for emphasis, hoping she could somehow win.  

He winced.  “I appreciate that, but what you thought of as home, your life before camp, was all an illusion, a contrivance on our part, I’m sorry to say.  Like a fish in a fishbowl, you saw and felt only the artificial environment we concocted for you.  What you thought you had, your whole life, was but faux seaweed and eBubbles.”

“You’re lying!”    

“As a recipient of terraformed reality, Ursa, for the most part, you’re an incredible success story.”

“I don’t believe you!  I know the difference between fact and fiction.”  And yet, doubts permeated her.  “I want to go back!  I want to go home, now!”

“You can’t go back.  You were a child then.  You’re an adult now.”

“I want to see my mother!  I need to talk with her!”

“She’s mining asteroids in the Belt.  She tried to explain, to say goodbye, but—”  

“What if I refuse to cooperate?”

“You can’t refuse, or runaway.  You’re chipped.”

Ursa slumped in her seat, disheartened.  She knew that much was true.  “You make me sound like a broken teacup.”  

“Being chipped, you’re easily tracible, punishable, if it comes to that.”

“I’ve got rights!”  She leaned forward, hot air rushing from her nostrils.  “I’d like to speak to a lawyer!”  

“I am a lawyer!”  He thumped his desktop with his index finger.  “A double doctorate in jurisprudence and astrophysics.  Due to a few legal glitches, Canadian law is on our side.  You’re genetically modified, Ursa.  Like GMO corn and tomatoes, your unique genetic code is patented.  We own that patent.  We own you!”  

“You can’t own me.  I’m a human being!”

“Not entirely, with your smattering of non-human DNA, from fungi to sea turtle, your legal classification is hybrid.  By law, that puts you in our perpetual guardianship, like a pet cat.  Legal glitch number two.”

“That’s impossible!  I’m a person, and you’re one sick mofo.”  She laughed, averting her gaze.

Captain Leo shook his head, maintaining his professional stoicism.  “Moreover, though it’s not currently activated, the computer chip in your brain furnishes you an A.I. component.  Part human, part machine:  a legal classification known as cyborg, subject to responsible control.  Legal glitch number three.”

Ursa shook her head.  “You must be confusing me with someone else.  I’m not like the other girls here.”  She rolled her eyes.

He nodded.  “I understand your feelings of alienation.  Such personal details are well documented in your psychiatric records, which I’ve copiously mulled over.  And I also realize it’ll take a while for you to adjust to this new revelation about yourself.”

“You’re crazy!”  She wanted to believe Captain Leo simply possessed an incredibly dry sense of humor, and yet, he seemed so serious.  “It’s my decision what to do with my life.”  Wasn’t it?  How could any other reality be true?  

Captain Leo twiddled with his golden stylus.  “This situation wasn’t our choice, Ursa.  It was your mother’s.  She had reproductive rights.  She chose to bear a hybrid with patented DNA.  She chose a GMO embryo.  She chose to cranium chip and commit you when you were but a babe.  She chose, knowing the consequences.  Now, you inherit her choices, her dedication to science and state.”

“I’ll pick a bone with her later.  First, I’ve got to get out of this place.  Who the hell are you anyway, this whole setup?”  

“For now, just think of us as Camp Joy.  You’re part of that camp, part of the pack.  You’ll move forward, with us, through us.  In parliament’s eyes, we can employ you for any worthy scientific purpose, as long as we avoid cruelty.”

“You’ve manipulated my very essence without my consent.  I’m a miserable, starving dreg, and that’s not cruel?”

“We’ve only bettered you.  It’s a well-known fact that animals on restricted diets live longer, so your dietary constraints are perfectly ethical.  There’s no point in wasting resources only to decrease your longevity.  Of course, when it comes time for you to reproduce, which is just around the bend, we’ll adjust your menu accordingly.”

“Reproduce?”  Ursa’s mouth fell open.  She leaned forward with mounting horror.    

“That’s the next step in the program, in our mission.  We’re still honing the final tweaks to Earth-Human DNA.  You’re the parent generation who’ll beget the next, who’ll skip from exoplanet to exoplanet, wherever management assigns,” Captain Leo ended, gesturing like a showman.

Ursa sped out of the chair, flailing her arms with upset.  She pointed at her emaciated gut.  “This uterus is off limits!  My mother willed her body to science, but that is not my choice!”  She had already determined, after many solemn musings, that she didn’t wish to bring more children into the world, no matter how low the birth rate, no matter with whom, especially under duress, especially not in outer space.  

Captain Leo’s face was tinting.  “Sit down.  Don’t make me call security.”  

“Your lies disgust me.  You disgust me, you . . .”  Ursa choked as the tears began to fall.  “There’s nothing bad enough for me to say about you!”  Ugh!  She wanted to tear his heart out through his anus.  But no, he’d probably enjoy that.    

Captain Leo rose from his swivel chair, his finger pointed at her.  “You asked for this information!  Now let me finish!  I’ve selected a DNA-appropriate mate for you, from Camp Mercy.  You’ll like Orion.  He’s about your age and eager to meet you.”  

Ursa kicked a bookshelf, unsettling the pewter dragon bookends and spewing volumes across the floor.  Captain Leo moved out from behind his desk.  “Calm down!”  He grabbed her arm.  “You must cooperate for humanity’s sake!”  

Ursa tore herself free and stormed out the door.  She raced down the hall, screaming:  “Captain Leo is a heavy winger!”  Now that it came to her, there was an insult bad enough for him.  In some deep part of her mind, she laughed at the thought at the same time as the rest of her raged.  

Her mind blackened with ire.  Spots formed before her eyes.  She barely noticed the nurses flocking toward her.  

“Captain Leo is a heavy winger!”  In some deep part of her mind, she knew she couldn’t dent his reputation, but it felt good to make the accusation, to let the whole world know what she thought of him and the whole ridiculous scheme imposed upon her.  She’d find a way out.  There was always a way out.  Tenacity was the key.  

Ursa neared the dimly lit “T” at the corridor’s end.  There, succumbing to a sudden weakness or exhaustion, she fell to her knees.  Three pairs of white sensible shoes surrounded her.  

“What did he say to you?” one nurse asked.  

Another bent down to rub her back as she huddled in a ball of cathartic tears.  “Don’t listen to Leo.  He’s a bully.”


Ursa woke in a twin bed by a window shielded with closed blinds, her feet in fresh pink slippers, warm air whooshing through a vent along one wall, a faint scent of antiseptic hovering about the empty room.  In her dream, she’d been rummaging through cupboards, searching for goodies.  She felt so hungry her eyeballs ached.  She touched her forehead with a groan, peering about the room.  Where am I?  

Knuckles rapped against the door, making her aware of what had awoken her.  “What the hell do you want?”

“Ursa, you awake?  Time to get up,” said a voice she didn’t recognize, a young man’s voice.  

“Who the hell are you?”

“I’m Orion.  I’ve been wanting the meet you,” the muffled voice replied.

If she’d had something to throw, and the strength to throw it, she’d have hurled it against the door with all her might.  “One of Leo’s puppets?  Just go to hell!”

“Ursa, I know you’re hungry.  I’ve baked your favorite dish:  sardine noodle casserole!”

Ursa gasped, hunching up in bed.  “Sardine noodle?”  She licked her lips.

“Baked with love in a heart-shaped dish!  Now, don’t tell me I put on this silly apron for nothing.  May I come in?”

She clenched her fist, eyes squeezed shut.  Oh, how she longed to say yes, but how could she?  “I’m not hungry.  Go away!”  Yet hot tears streamed down her face.  

“I love you.”

She choked as her deluge of tears spilled forth.  “Get the hell in here!”    


Dr. Anna Cates teaches college and graduate-level writing, literature, and education online.  She has published a variety of books (poetry, fiction, and drama) through,,, and  Her poetry collection, Love in the Time of Covid, won an Illumination Book Award.  She resides in Wilmington, Ohio with her two beautiful kitties.  

Leave a Reply

Related Posts