Authors: Jeanne Duprau
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Good and Evil, #Action & Adventure, #Fantasy Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #Juvenile Nonfiction, #Survival Stories, #Underground Areas, #Winter, #Disasters, #Messengers, #Ember (Imaginary Place), #Good and Evild, #Electric Power
For Jim and Susie,
who made the journey possible
Around the middle of the twenty-first century, when it seemed that a great catastrophe was about to engulf the world, an underground city was built as a last refuge for the human race. It was called the city of Ember. The Builders, who designed the city and constructed it, tried to cast their minds into the future—not only to imagine what the residents of the city would need for the many years they’d live there, but also to imagine what life might be like for them when they came back out into the world aboveground. It was this latter question that was on the chief builder’s mind on a day when the city was nearly finished and global tensions were rising fast. He summoned his assistant to discuss it.
“When the people emerge from the city,” he said, “they will find themselves in a devastated world.”
“Unfortunately true,” said his assistant.
“Life will be very hard for them,” said the chief builder, who was the kind of person who worried about the well-being of others. “I’m wondering if there’s something we can do to give them a head start.”
The assistant waited, raising his eyebrows politely.
“I have an idea,” the chief builder said. “My idea is to give them one thing from today’s world—one of our newest inventions—that we know they’ll need.”
“Excellent,” said the assistant, who had no clue what that one thing might be.
“We need a location,” the chief builder said, “not far from the exit spot, where we can build a vault into the side of the mountain. We’ll put a timed lock on its door, of course, so that it won’t be accessible until it should be, just as in our plan for the Instructions for Egress. The vault should be placed so that the citizens of Ember will come across it when they emerge.”
“Certainly,” said the assistant. He made a note:
Select location. “
But will the people who have lived in Ember know what to do with the . . . um, the contents of the vault?”
“Probably not,” said the chief builder. “Naturally, I have thought of that. We’ll provide a printed book explaining in detail everything they’ll need to know.”
“I see,” said the assistant. “A good plan.”
So it was done. A large, steel-lined room was built into the side of the mountain and stocked according to the chief builder’s instructions. Then the door was sealed.
Despite the Builders’ fears, the catastrophe did not happen immediately. The midcentury crisis eased. Fifty years later, however, the world came once more to the brink of war, and the government put its plan into action. Volunteers were assembled, couples were formed, and babies were given to each couple. The city of Ember received its first inhabitants.
The bombs fell. Cities burned all over the world. People died in the millions, and plagues and famines and floods reduced even further the numbers of those who were left. It was many, many years before the scattered survivors of the Disaster began to rebuild any sort of civilization.
The people of Ember came out of their underground city somewhat later than planned. Because they were in a state of bewilderment and exhaustion when they emerged, and because trees had grown up where trees hadn’t been before, they failed to notice the door to the vault. They trudged away over the hills until they arrived at the village of Sparks, where, after a struggle, they took up their lives anew.
Instead, it was a roamer who discovered the vault. The door wasn’t locked; he opened it and went inside, where he found one thing that was interesting, which he took, and one thing that was not interesting: a large, heavy book with small print. Like many people in those times, he had lost the skill of reading. He flipped the book open and scowled at its pages. Should he take it or not? Yes, he decided. He might be able to sell it someday. If not, he could use it for starting fires.
In the village of Sparks, the day was ending. The pale winter sun had begun to sink behind a bank of clouds in the west, and shadows darkened the construction field behind the Pioneer Hotel, where workers labored in the gloom. Winter rains had turned the ground to a soup of mud. Stacks of lumber and piles of bricks and stones stood everywhere, along with buckets of nails, tools, old windows and doors, anything that might be useful for building houses. Though the daylight was almost gone, people worked on. They were trying to accomplish as much as possible, because they could see that a storm was coming.
But at last someone called, “Time to quit!” and the workers sighed with relief and began to pack up their tools.
One of the workers was a boy named Doon Harrow, thirteen years old, who had spent the day hauling loads of boards from one place to another and trying to measure and cut them to necessary lengths. When he heard the call, he set down the rusty old saw he’d been using and looked around for his father. The workers stumbling across the field were no more than shadowy figures now; it was hard to tell one from another. Ahead of them loomed the hotel, a few of its windows shining dimly with the light of candles lit by those too young or old or ill to be outside working. “Father!” Doon called. “Where are you?”
His father’s voice answered from some distance behind him. “Right here, son. Coming! Wait for—”And then came a sound that made Doon whirl around: first a shattering crash, and then a shriek of a kind he’d never before heard from his mild-mannered father.
Doon ran, squelching through the mud. He found his father sprawled on the ground beside a broken window pane that had been leaning against a pile of bricks. “What happened?” Doon cried. “Are you hurt?”
His father struggled to his knees. In a hoarse, strangled voice, he said, “Tripped. Fell on the glass. My hand.”