In the layperson’s understanding of architecture, a castle, fortress, and palace are often mistaken for each other; yet, the truth is that they could not be more different from one another. While a palace fulfills the somewhat frivolous purpose of entertaining fellow royal elites and showing off someone’s wealth; and a fortress is often used as an imposing, intimidating structure designed purely for defense; a castle fulfills the roles of both simultaneously in a balance of aesthetic, intimidation, defense, and demonstration of royal prowess.
I had been working since Elyon said good night. The only sound in the small but comfortable bedroom was the ticking clock on the wall and the feverish scribbling of my pencils on the numerous sketching notepads scattered on the wooden desk in front of me. I could not stop; it was as if I were possessed by a kind of fever, one that compelled me to continue working tirelessly all through the night. In spite of my immense fatigue, adrenaline pumped through my veins, and I recalled how I had felt when Spirit first told me about purpose. As the stacks of papers grew, my sketching became more frenzied; occasionally, I searched for information on my laptop: designs of war bunkers, US conspiracy theories that claimed the existence of old escape tunnels underneath the major cities in the event of nuclear holocaust, every major castle in history, taking notes and flipping through my sketchbook to flesh out my plans, which integrated elements from everything I could find.
I awoke the next morning slumped on the desk with my cheek stuck to the notepad, my hand still loosely clutching the pencil. Sunlight streamed in from the open window, and a breeze played gently across the white curtains.
I quickly consolidated and organized my notes. I wanted to present them to Elyon and get his opinion. Tugging on my sneakers and grabbing the sketchbooks, I cracked open the door.
Elyon was already in the kitchen frying eggs on the stove. He was still dressed in the same casual style as the day before, except that he now wore a navy blue zip-up hoodie and light gray pants. On the table, there was already a platter of assorted croissants and breakfast pastries. He turned and noticed me.
“Good morning, Architect. I assumed you would be hungry.” He poured three steaming cups of coffee, then carefully arranged them in their places at the table.
“Good morning, Elyon. Actually, I had a few ideas that I wanted to discuss with you.”
“Wonderful. I figured you would,” he said, taking the eggs off the stove and scooping them onto a large plate. The aroma made my mouth water. I realized that it had actually been a very long time since I had last eaten, and my body and mind felt starved from the all-night effort I had just put them through. I sat at the table and served myself a croissant with marmalade filling, then poured cream into my coffee and took a large sip. The heat invigorated my senses, and I began to feel much more awake.
“Will Haley be joining us?” I asked, glancing at the third cup of coffee.
“Perhaps later. She is busy making plans for the destruction of the new castle.”
“Don’t worry. We will get to it in due time. Now, you have something you would like to show me?”
I arranged my sketchbooks on the table. “As a matter of fact, I wanted your opinion on these.”
I launched right into my presentation, informing Elyon of my process and rationale behind each decision. I showed him the findings of my research, displayed my drawings, and even went into the materials that would be most durable in the event that it was occupied for longer than expected. Elyon simply listened patiently, flipping through my notes and occasionally nodding his understanding. I must have talked for ten minutes straight before finally finishing. I looked at him expectantly, awaiting his feedback. To my surprise, he chuckled.
“I admire your attempt,” he said, “but unfortunately, you’re not even close to what I’m going for. You’re fixated too intently on your architectural training, which you’ve implemented well, but it will not fulfill the purpose I need it to.”
I was stunned. “I’m sorry,” I replied, trying to find the proper response. “Can you tell me what you mean?”
“Do you like movies?”
His question caught me off guard. “Er . . . Yes. I love them, in fact.”
“Why do you love them?”
“Because they’re entertaining. Why else?”
“Well . . . I guess they let me escape my life for a little while. Forget about my own reality and enter someone else’s.”
“Interesting. Let’s watch a movie then.” Elyon got up from the table.
“Wait, you mean right now?” I stood up as well.
“Of course. Follow me.” He started walking out the front door. He reminded me of Haley a bit with his brisk comings and goings. I started gathering my notebooks, but he waved his hand dismissively. “Leave them,” he said. “You won’t need those where we’re going.”
“And where would that be? The new castle?”
“Yes. Spirit built a new castle for you while you were sleeping―sorry, working―last night. I’m taking you on a tour.”
My stomach sank. I was still recovering from the mental trauma that the last castle had inflicted on me.
“Don’t worry,” said Elyon. “I have a feeling you will enjoy this tour.”
We walked down the path, through the meadow, and up a ridge. Elyon walked without shoes; I, on the other hand, was wearing my sneakers, which were still stained with soot from the night before. Something about this whole setup was not adding up.
“Hey, Elyon,” I said, trying to choose my words carefully. “If Spirit can just go ahead and build a castle overnight―”
“Why do we need you?” Elyon turned and smiled, having read my mind as usual. “Spirit operates in her own dimension, which you will enter and experience, then return to your own. You may use this one for inspiration, but you must be the one to build it in your own dimension.”
We must have walked over five kilometers through the hilly passes and winding forest paths. Before long, the gentle roar of the ocean became audible, and a strong, invigorating wind began to blow. After summiting a large hill, I stopped and gasped. There it was, a magnificent structure that blended old and new architecture into a gleaming conglomeration of curves and angles in perfect proportions. It seemed to be a cross between a modern high-rise building and a medieval fortress, utterly majestic in its quiet power as it stood vigil over the horizon. The surface glittered in the sun in gleaming tessellations with interlocking hexagonal patterns; I deduced that it must be solar-harvesting. In fact, the whole structure appeared to be entirely self-sufficient. Between two towers, a few suspended wind turbines caught the onshore wind and whirred incessantly. It was as promised: an impossibly ethereal castle built atop a cliff on the seaside.
I followed Elyon, who scrambled down the rocky hillside with the effortless agility of a mountain goat. The castle was surrounded by a moat, but as I came closer, I saw that the water was flowing. Every fifty feet or so, a water wheel churned.
When we reached the drawbridge, Elyon simply stood in front and made a gesture that reminded me of a kind of salute. The bridge descended swiftly and silently, and we walked across to the main entrance door, which opened just as Elyon stepped off the drawbridge and inside. I followed and passed through a grand archway, whose facade was a cheesy carving of two open-mouthed winged gargoyles standing guard above me. I’ll admit, I was expecting more of a Blade Runner design over Lord of the Rings, but then again, who was I to judge the taste of an all-knowing Spirit with magic construction powers?
Instead of a lobby, I found myself in what appeared to be some kind of enormous cinematic theatre. About fifty rows of red velvet chairs wrapped around a colossal screen. I recalled the dimensions of the IMAX theatres at the museums I’ve visited, and this must have been at least double the size. In front of the screen, a stage jutted out into the orchestra.
“Your tour has officially begun,” said Elyon, descending the stairs. “The first stop is the Cinema. We have just used the spectators’ entrance, but there is an actors’ entrance over by the wings. You will have the chance to enter from both ends, alternating roles and perspectives as it serves our purposes. Just as in life, sometimes you are the principal actor, and sometimes you are a spectator. Your own castle might have a space similar to this, which I want to serve as the meeting place for you and your tribe.”
“Don’t worry, you will understand soon enough. Now, if you’ll take a seat, I believe our feature presentation is about to start.” He slid into one of the rows and sat down. I followed suit, and just as I settled into the chair, the lights dimmed. The screen illuminated, and the film began.
If you could call it a film, that is. Even now, I have a difficult time drawing up the action in my mind, it was so unstimulating and uninspired. I remember that it was about a man who met a woman in the park and fell in love with her. They got married, had a few kids that looked uncannily similar to each other, and moved to the suburbs, where they gained weight and grew old. Their kids grew up and left the house to go to a park, where they fell in love and got
married . . .
Beyond a few minor details, the generic pattern remained the same. I glanced at Elyon occasionally to see how much longer this was going to last, but his attention remained on the screen. I began to wonder what the point was―why was he showing me this never-ending romance? What was the lesson I was supposed to learn?
Twenty minutes went by, then another twenty. The story continued repeating, falling from one sequence to the next. I began to feel the boredom creeping into my mind, so I counted the number of cycles. After the third round, I checked my watch. Nearly a full hour had passed since we started the film. I fidgeted, wondering how much longer this could possibly go on. Finally, I tapped Elyon on the shoulder, unable to withstand it.
“Elyon, is this ever going to end?” I asked.
Instantly, the screen cut to black in the middle of another love scene, and the lights came up. Elyon turned to me.
“Enjoy the film, Architect?” he asked, apparently unfazed by the film’s abrupt ending.
I tried to contain my puzzlement. Was this some sort of test? Had he been seeing how long I could last? If I knew that this film would end the moment I spoke up, I would have done so twenty minutes ago. “The first couple of times, maybe. Honestly, though, it might have been the dullest thing I have ever seen in my life. I wouldn’t even call it a film.”
“Really? Why is that?”
“There was no story. I mean, yes, there was a plot, but it never progressed or varied into anything more complex. It was just a sequence of events that kept repeating.”
“Interesting analysis,” said Elyon. “What would hold your attention then?”
I considered it. “Perhaps a little drama, or even a disruption of some kind that would escalate it. Put some action into it.”
“Good idea. Hold onto that thought. We have to move on.” Elyon stood from his chair. I followed.
We reached the top row of the auditorium, where a ladder to the catwalks was anchored into the wall. I watched as Elyon climbed the ladder, then disappeared from view into the rafters. I scaled each rung carefully before arriving at the platform of a large atrium. Elyon stood at the back of the room in front of a large control panel, which he appeared to manipulate without touching it.
“I’m taking you on a journey to the future of your reality; or rather, a particular version of that future. As you just observed, there can be infinite versions of the same generic series of events. That was only an example; in actuality, there are billions of simulations that can differ quite drastically from each other. For instance, in your dimension, there is a simulation where the Roman Empire never existed, leaving the Persians to rise up as the cultural cornerstone of the Occidental world. In another, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand was a failure, and the First World War never came to fruition, which of course meant that there was nothing to motivate the Second World War either. In that version, Hitler was a failed politician, and Stalin was aborted before birth. There are versions where Julius Caesar was never born, and where Nelson Mandela was killed at the age of nine. There is a simulation where the English Empire lost everything to the Mayans, who became the sole conquerors of the known world. There is a reality where the bullet aimed at John F. Kennedy misfired, and the US was propelled into the Third World War, which made the first two look like tea parties. There is a reality where the Native Americans founded the most prominent religion on Earth, and another where the Europeans were colonized and enslaved by the African nations, who then went on to become the wealthiest and most advanced cultural centers of the world. You see, the universe is like a never-ending expansion of branches that diverge and split into an endless network of simulations, all existing simultaneously and parallel to each other.” He went back to the control panel, which began to vibrate with an electric hum. “Do you play video games?”
“Sure, on occasion,” I answered, unsure where he was going with this.
“Then you are familiar with the concept of an MMO?”
“Sure, Massively Multiplayer Online. It’s a kind of computer game that players from all over the world can log onto and interact with each other.”
“Is the outcome of the game the same for every player?” said Elyon.
“No, it’s possible for players to have very different outcomes depending on how they played. I used to know people who played World of Warcraft just to talk to strangers online.” I was beginning to have an idea of where he was going with this. “So, does this mean that our world is a computer game for the gods, and we are the character avatars that they play with?”
“See it in whatever way fits within your tiny mind, Architect. But essentially, you are correct, which also means that the rest of the analogy applies as well. You are familiar with NPCs?”
“Yes, Non-Player Characters. Those characters are simply AI algorithms that run the same patterns because there is no real human manipulating them.”
Elyon nodded. “Exactly. Now tell me something―do you ever notice that the case seems to be the same for most humans in your life? That no matter how much of the truth you open them up to, they do not alter their behavior or seem to be even the slightest bit conscious of their existence? In your dimension, I would say that this describes the majority of people you come into contact with: the ‘smartphone zombies,’ as you referred to them earlier. I encourage you to find the actual players of the game and band together with them. They will be the ones you will need in the end. Of course, I’m not denying that Artificial Intelligence has its place. In fact, I predict that it will become the next significant phase in your particular simulation. I’m not talking just robot vacuum cleaners or talking light switches, but real AI, the kind that can solve any problem you put before it.” He winked. “So, how about it, Architect? What would you do with this? Anything you could possibly want, go ahead and ask it.”
“Ummm . . . I guess I would like to be immortal. Not have to worry about dying,” I said.
Elyon smiled. “That’s a fair first request. Go on.”
“I would want to live without sickness or pain. And I would want to be forever young.” That last part especially. I had recently celebrated my forty-fourth birthday, and the many unexpected inconveniences of aging were starting to take a toll.
Elyon laughed. “Granted. What else?”
At the risk of possibly sounding corny, I said, “I would like to live in comfortable wealth, but not at the expense of others. I mean, it would be impossible to enjoy my own wealth if others around me were living in poverty.”
Elyon nodded his understanding. “That can be done as well. Although I should mention that there are too many people who actually reap joy from the suffering of others. It’s a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless. Very well, anything else?”
“Actually―” I hesitated, reconsidering. “I take that last one back. I would much rather choose to have sustainability and live in a world free of pollution. I’ve seen enough to know that wealth comes at too much of a cost to the environment, and I’d rather restore the Earth to cleanliness.”
A smile of genuine approval spread across Elyon’s face, and I felt like a kid who had just gotten praise from his father, which was strange considering the fact that he was ten years my junior. “Yes. I like that one. Please, go on,” he said.
“No more war. I want people to coexist in peace,” I said, my voice triumphant.
“Very well, Architect.” Elyon turned back to the control panel and began typing rapidly into a large dashboard. The lights on the control panel flashed brightly, and the atrium surface turned to glass. On the other side, faint shapes began taking form, then filling in with color and texture.
“Your wishes have been granted, and your simulation has been designed,” said Elyon, working rapidly. “We will jump ahead to see what course it takes.”
>>> This is a chapter from the book: THE MANUAL: FOR A LIFE THAT CAN STAND THE TEST OF TIME