Read to Live
Ivy Three grows up in a five-thousand-person space station called The Exodus. The ship orbits two hundred and fifty-four miles above planet Earth. It’s a safe space, providing a stable life, a place full of windows where electric trains run, crops sprout from well-organized fields, and workers walk in lines like ants in a colony.
Ivy sleeps in Room 336, a two-bed suite in the west wing whose window glimpses the stars and the occasional dead satellite. She keeps a single trunk by her bed in which she stores her three identical uniforms. White for each day of the week. Her parents have one, too. Theirs has treasures: patchwork quilts, golden finger bands, and a polaroid of nameless people.
Ivy’s earliest years are the easiest. Mothers feed her fruit, and fathers collect chicken eggs each morning for the first meal. There is no need to ration. Hunger is a memory. Ivy eats three times a day, but she is tiny. She is quiet. She never asks for more.
Her hair shines white beneath fluorescent lights, her head like the sun. She has opalescent eyes like her mother but a smile like her father. Some days, she follows him to a desk with three monitors and a calculator, where he solves equations longer than her arm. “We’ll make it,” he says. Ivy believes him.
Her father’s name is Aldrich, and before his hair turned gray, it grew in red. Every night, Aldrich tells Ivy stories about forests with green trees and wrapping vines. Seas with big blue whales. Castles with fancy names. Ivy has never seen them, but she knows they are real.
By age thirteen, Ivy has read five-hundred books. Short ones. Long ones. Romances, mysteries, and thrillers. Even textbooks, in which she discovers her favorite stories. Ones of countries with flags, towers of steel, and battles won. Instructors tell her to bring her head from the clouds.
When Ivy does not read, she harvests cabbage with her mother in Field 2. She smells of soil. Of earth, her mother says. But Ivy does not know this scent. Today there is one less head in her basket.
On May 2nd of 3007, when Ivy is fifteen, she receives her first ration. A meal of trout, a potato, and broccoli, save the salt. It smells rich but leaves her feeling empty. In the years that follow, workers stumble out of lines, add stains to their uniforms, and wither into skin and bones, the weight of survival crushing their spines.
Ivy Three becomes Ivy Two. Then Ivy One. Firemen incinerate the bodies before disease spreads. Aldrich no longer sleeps. He equates. Approximates. Projects. It’s all a guess, says Ivy’s mother. But it cannot be.
Ivy sifts through dusty piles of her books; she spends nights reading and days picking. The cabbage is gone, so now she pulls up carrots. Then potatoes. She imagines feasts and banquets, dancing and the thrill of change, escaping to the pages of fiction when reality strikes.
When Ivy is eighteen, residents of The Exodus vote: live five more years on the ship or risk all resources to return to Earth. The vote splits people, one-half eager to gamble on fate. The other, hesitant, their past lives surfacing from memory; they say Earth hurt them. Abandoned them. Left them for dead. They will vote again in one week.
At night, Ivy watches the mysterious orb spin, a dead industry to some, a marble of hope for others. She reads Utopia for the third time. And Shakespeare’s plays. Shelley’s novels. There is a difference between surviving and living.
Ivy’s last days are the hardest. For hours, Ivy distributes books. To ages old and young. She tells her clan to read before they vote. “Because,” Ivy says, “Down there is where stories are born.” And as night falls, readers laugh and cry, debate and ponder.