When the city of Ember was just built and not yet inhabited, the Chief
Builder and the Assistant Builder, both of them weary, sat down to speak
of the future.
"They must not leave the city for at least two hundred years," said the
Chief Builder. "Or perhaps two hundred and twenty."
"Is that long enough?" asked his Assistant.
"It should be. We can't know for sure."
"And when the time comes," said the Assistant, "how will they know what
"We'll provide them with instructions, of course," the Chief Builder
"But who will keep the instructions? Who can we trust to keep them safe
and secret all that time?"
"The mayor of the city will keep the instructions," said the Chief
Builder. "We'll put them in a box with a timed lock, set to open on the
"And will we tell the mayor what's in the box?" the Assistant asked.
"No, just that it's information they won't need and must not see until
the box opens of its own accord."
"So the first mayor will pass the box to the next mayor, and that one to
the next, and so on down through the years, all of them keeping it
secret, all that time?"
"What else can we do?" asked the Chief Builder. "Nothing about this
endeavor is certain. There may be no one left in the city by then or no
safe place for them to come back to."
So the first mayor of Ember was given the box, told to guard it
carefully, and solemnly sworn to secrecy. When she grew old, and her
time as mayor was up, she explained about the box to her successor, who
also kept the secret carefully, as did the next mayor. Things went as
planned for many years. But the seventh mayor of Ember was less
honorable than the ones who'd come before him, and more desperate. He
was illhe had the coughing sickness that was common in the city
thenand he thought the box might hold a secret that would save his
life. He took it from its hiding place in the basement of the Gathering
Hall and brought it home with him, where he attacked it with a hammer.
But his strength was failing by then. All he managed to do was dent the
lid a little. And before he could return the box to its official hiding
place or tell his successor about it, he died. The box ended up at the
back of a closet, shoved behind some old bags and bundles. There it sat,
unnoticed, year after year, until its time arrived, and the lock quietly
In the city of Ember, the sky was always dark. The only light came from
great floodlamps mounted on the buildings and at the tops of poles in
the middle of the larger squares. When the lights were on, they cast a
yellowish glow over the streets; people walking by threw long shadows
that shortened and then stretched out again. When the lights were off,
as they were between nine at night and six in the morning, the city was
so dark that people might as well have been wearing blindfolds.
Sometimes darkness fell in the middle of the day. The city of Ember was
old, and everything in it, including the power lines, was in need of
repair. So now and then the lights would flicker and go out. These were
terrible moments for the people of Ember. As they came to a halt in the
middle of the street or stood stock still in their houses, afraid to
move in the utter blackness, they were reminded of something they
preferred not to think about: that some day the lights of the city might
go out and never come back on.
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