I coughed and retched, my stomach spasming as my lungs attempted to empty themselves of the burning toxins inside. The metallic taste of blood was in my saliva. Tears streamed through my eyes as I squeezed them tightly shut to prevent any gas from entering. Eventually, the burning in my lungs and throat subsided, and I sank to my knees and took a few deep, hoarse breaths. I opened my eyes, expecting the cold stone walls of the corridor, but to my surprise, I instead found myself inside a room that resembled a lobby of a fancy hotel, complete with red velvet couches and a blazing rustic fireplace. I moved closer to it, hoping to warm myself, but it gave off no heat; in fact, it appeared to be a mere hologram. I shivered and rubbed my hands together.
Haley entered from one of the hallways. The German uniform she had just been wearing was now replaced by the outfit she wore in the limousine when we first met: a short black skirt with a red top and shiny stiletto heels. Her hair was meticulously curled, and it fell gracefully off her shoulders.
“Congratulations, Architect,” she said, extending her hand. “This is the end of your tour.”
I stared at it, making no attempt to shake it. “I don’t understand.”
“You have no more rooms to go through. Now, if you’ll come with―”
“No, I mean I don’t understand why we never tried to overtake them. We must have outnumbered the soldiers at least five to one. We―I mean, they could have done something. They could have fought back, rushed the guards, anything except stand patiently in a line and wait to die, like docile sheep.” The anger began rising in my chest at the memory.
“Don’t blame them. It’s human nature to shoot the messenger because of the contents of the message. You can tell them of the cliff they are marching toward, but they will deny it even after they have fallen over the edge. Get used to it.”
I shuddered. Of all the rooms, this last one was the least bearable. It wasn’t even the pain of dying that disturbed me most; I couldn’t rid myself of the images of all those people standing there, paralyzed, staring death straight in the face and not doing anything about it.
Then again, what had I done beyond shuffle alongside them?
A cold hopelessness overtook me. I slumped into an armchair by the fireplace and buried my head into my hands. Haley scoffed.
“Quit your pathetic sniveling. You’re as helpless and cowardly as the rest of them. Listen to me.” She grabbed my chin and turned my face toward hers. Her pupils were dilated, and her eyes glittered like sapphires. “You can still choose to survive this. The lifeboat is waiting for you; all you have to do is board it before the water overtakes you. There will be thousands of ignorant fools who will call you a conspiracy theorist, even though they are standing ankle-deep in water. Ignore them and choose to survive instead. You are among the fortunate few whose eyes have been opened to the reality around you. The collapse has already been set in motion. You can’t stop the ship from sinking, but you can encourage others to open their eyes as well.”
I was still shaking. It was too much to take in all at once. I remembered my recurring nightmare aboard the cruise liner―could it be that it was a sign? Another room in the castle? Had Spirit granted me a certain foresight? The thoughts swam in my head and drowned each other.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” said Haley, having read my mind. “You are no messiah. It is the act of dissolving your past―pulling back the curtain on the story that you have told yourself about who you are―that grants you elite status as a messenger. You see, Architect, when people attach themselves to such things, they lose the ability to see realities as they are. Their instincts take over to protect what they believe is theirs, like a possessive animal. Have you ever tried to reason with a wolf guarding its territory? It’s impossible; the animal will defend their little version of how the universe operates until the death. They cling to beliefs like lifelines and live only to survive. Yet, when you have nothing left to lose, you are free to stand for something that is larger than yourself. This alone will enable you to survive when your fellow lemmings are leaping from the cliffs.”
Without warning, she leaned forward and kissed me passionately on the mouth. A rush of heat flooded my chest. Her fingers curled into my hair, and she pulled slightly, grazing her tongue across my own. We broke apart, and she murmured, “All that matters is this very moment. You and me. Every decision and experience of your life thus far is irrelevant. As Spirit has demonstrated, your story is a mutable thing, subject to variation at whim.”
Waves of dizziness washed over me. Haley stood and began walking toward the door. “I will leave you alone to speak with Spirit confidentially. When you finish, come outside; I’ll be waiting.” With a wink and a toss of her hair, she was gone.
A stillness settled over the room―the only sound was the faint crackle of the fireplace.
I jumped. The voice emanated from everywhere at once, and the words played across my mind like a bow across violin strings. It felt as if the sound was coming from every atom in the universe, cascading and vibrating within me, then expanding eternally in every conceivable dimension.
“I am speaking to your spiritual self; the one that transcends your illusive physical boundaries. You engage with this as well whenever you call someone humble or arrogant, cowardly or brave, good or evil. You contend with them as your physical self senses the wind: fluid essences without visual manifestation.
“So many are concerned with self-reparation. They believe that, with enough attention and discipline, they can emerge as a more ideal version of what they already are, as if they built themselves in the first place. Did you decide to be born? Or choose anything about how you were going to be constructed: your sex, the pigmentation of your skin and hair, the social status of your parents, your mother tongue, or the country that first socialized you to act within its norms? What about your natural proclivities? Your likes and dislikes, talents, skills, ideas, and opinions, which then become the ideas that fuel your multi-million-dollar businesses, hit songs, and cultural masterpieces? Every single part of you is a product of the environment you were placed in. The story’s end is written at the same time as the beginning, so do not preoccupy yourself with it. Life will proceed as it is destined to. Let go of your misguided attempts to control or resist it.
“Waste no time trying to find yourself. You are already here, as you are. To change your essence is a mission that will only lead to failure. Instead, recognize what it is that you truly are: a cog in a much larger, more complex machine. If you look only within yourself for the answers, you will be missing crucial information to help you navigate through this life. Set your attention outward, and there you will find a meeting point between you the individual and the universe you inhabit. You must allow the spirit to fill the empty spaces, to guide you toward what the Creators had in mind when they carefully constructed you. This state of equilibrium is your true purpose. When you have found this, you will access an inner peace that cannot be disturbed by the environment. The storms will ebb and flow as part of the natural rhythm of life, but you will stand steadfast atop your lighthouse with your eyes on the horizon.
“Once you have found your purpose, all else will cease to matter. You will be immune to depression, boredom, self-doubt, and anxiety. Do not worry about what motivates the search: It was encoded in your DNA. When you live in accordance with your purpose, you transcend your homo sapien identity for the homo deus: from the wise man to the godly man.
“Just as everything has been granted to you, so has it been chosen for everyone else. You cannot judge, and you cannot be judged. They are controlled by their hearts, brains, and circadian rhythms, just as you are.
“Naked you came, and naked you must depart. The limitations of this body are irrelevant because your true essence is pure spirit in connection with the unity of the universe. Surrender to this knowledge, and each moment becomes as precious as if it were your last.”
Sobs shook my body as the voice surged through me, an electric current that pulsated with an energy that I could not predict, yet the rhythm felt as if it were perfectly timed, never late and never early, like a symphonic piece played in perfect unison by an infinite orchestra. My mind was still; it caught and rode the waves as they came, not controlling or attempting to change them. There was no other way to describe it: I was at peace.
“Who are you?”
“I am my purpose.” My voice shook the room.
“Yes, Architect. May the peace of the Creators be with you.”
Then, gradually, I felt Spirit’s presence slowly vacate, bringing my attention to a pervading, icy breeze that flowed through the room. I shivered, and my breath froze in a white fog.
“Spirit?” I called tentatively. Somehow, I knew there would be no answer. The temperature continued to drop. Starting to panic, I went to the door that Haley had just gone out of and turned the brass handle. It was locked. I started pacing, trying to get my blood to circulate. There was another door at the back of the room, one that I had not seen before. I tried it, but it was locked as well.
I surveyed my surroundings for a solution, and my eyes fell on the fireplace. I realized that the fire that was crackling earlier had burned out. On the mantle, in plain sight, lay a lighter, a tin can, and white tissue paper. The timber was already inside. I arranged the large logs of timber into a tepee, then filled the empty spaces with the smaller twigs. I tore up the tissue paper and created a base, then poured the black, slimy fluid from the can all over the whole arrangement. I then flicked my thumb on the lighter and brought the small flame to the base. The fluid lit instantaneously and flames spread across the rivulets, catching onto the paper, which then ignited the small twigs, and finally, the timber. I came closer, absorbing all I could of the radiating warmth.
I jumped backward. One of the logs popped, sending a single spark floating outward from the fireplace and onto the sofa, which ignited a small fire. I tugged off my jacket and covered the flame, depriving it of oxygen. It went out, leaving a black scorch mark on the delicate fabric.
Another cracking sound emitted from the chimney, and rubble began to fall from the chute, first small pieces, then enormous stones, each cascading on the other. They fell on the flaming logs, which exploded and rolled out and into the room. Hundreds of sparks were emitted, floating on the air and covering the floor, the chairs, the walls. As they made contact, they ignited into a dozen small flames that joined each other and compounded into a roaring fire that was slowly closing in around me.
There was nothing left to do.Thick, black smoke covered my eyes and infiltrated my lungs. I coughed reflexively, then sank to the floor and waited to be burned alive.
A blinding light caught my attention. Just ahead of me, through the bright orange flames, a portal had opened, and I could barely make out two silhouettes standing in the doorway. I crawled closer until I could make out the hoodie and jeans on one of them―Elyon. Haley’s unmistakable short skirt shone in the light. They beckoned me to follow them before vanishing into the black smoke.
“Wait!” I screamed. Lunging, I passed through the door. The clean air filled my lungs, and I took a few long, deep breaths to clear the ash. The ground trembled beneath me, and chunks of mortar fell from the walls and ceiling. I ran through the corridor, trying to find an escape. Suddenly, a large stone fell in front of me and blocked my escape path. I whirled around in desperation, until out of the corner of my eye, I saw a faint light. In the distance was another doorway with the same silhouettes. It closed instantly. I ran to it and thrust it open, then ran down the corridor to the next door, and the next, and the next.
Finally, I passed through a door and felt the sweet wind of the marsh. Droplets of rain fell onto my face. My only desire was to get as much distance between myself and the castle as possible. As I ran, the cacophony of stones falling upon each other, the crackle of flames, and terrified screams of burning humans intensified. Just ahead, standing in the tall grass, I saw Elyon and Haley together, staring intently at the castle behind me. Elyon’s eyes shone with tears, while Haley was laughing hysterically. I stopped next to them and turned around.
The once-colossal castle was now being torn asunder by its own physics. Stones devoured stones, and the flames grew higher, reaching up toward the night sky. From above, the rain had shifted to a downpour, hissing as it came into contact with the scorched timber. A white steam began to rise and thicken, until the structure of the castle was barely visible anymore. Holographic images projected onto it like a cinema screen: hundreds of people with their eyes on their smartphones, walking slowly by each other in the streets, not saying a single word. In the background, cars crashed into each other, and buildings crumbled into rubble. None of this affected the people, whose eyes stayed glued firmly to the small screens in their hands. Ahead of them, an army blockade had been set up; uniformed officers aimed their weapons on the slowly-advancing crowd. A shot rang out: One of the pedestrians fell dead, but the horde continued forward, not having noticed. Soon, another. Random shots continued to fire, and corpses began to pile on the street.
The camera panned to a park, where the grass was littered with condoms and needles. Hills of garbage piled up, buzzing with flies and scavengers. A gang of young men and women walked together through the mounds, collecting spare needles and injecting the remains into their bodies as if the discarded syringes were IVs containing lifesaving fluid. In another corner, two men were raping a young girl at the same time, her mouth forced around one man’s penis while the other penetrated her from behind.
A warm wind blew over the three of us, and with it came a rancid stench of utter decay―of flesh, garbage, natural waste. We covered our noses with our jackets, but it was too potent. My eyes stung, and a pang of nausea clenched my stomach. I fell to my knees and vomited into the grass. I could not escape it―the smell saturated my skin, my hair, every cell of my body. With each inhale, my stomach heaved, sending burning acid up my throat.
“Like what you see, Architect?” Elyon’s voice sent a chill down my spine.
I spat angrily, trying to clear my mouth. How was I supposed to answer such a stupid question? “It’s fucking beautiful,” I said, then gagged again. He gave me a knowing look and knelt next to me.
“It’s the future, isn’t it? The collapse, I mean. That’s what it’s going to be,” I said. Elyon nodded. “I believe it,” I continued. “I see those fucking smartphone zombies everywhere. I once watched a woman get hit by a car because she stepped into the street while looking at that screen.”
Elyon sighed and spoke with his usual deep clarity. “They wanted to be the gods of their own lives, and so I granted them that autonomy. You are witnessing the consequences: Because they do not know their true Creators, they create a master to be enslaved to. This is the adopted purpose that our technology has taken on, and as you can see, the only result is a population so mindlessly disconnected from their world that they stand by while it falls into decay.”
I glanced back up at the screen, which now showed a pond in a woodland area. All the tree branches were gnarled and petrified like the legs of a dead insect, and the pond’s surface was a slick black color. Garbage floated on the surface.
I looked back at Elyon and saw that tears were still streaming down his face. I felt a spark of rage―what right did he have to feel regret? “And where were you during all this?” I asked. “If you saw all this coming, why didn’t you do anything? You let this happen! You don’t think there are others in the world who think like you do? People who have tried to clean up this dump?”
“I don’t doubt that there were those who tried to stop the inevitable,” answered Elyon. “There are plenty of observant individuals, like yourself, who saw the direction that we were heading in and dedicated their purpose to offering a solution. Unfortunately, those in power are not these kinds of people; rather, it’s the bullshitters, the evil, the arrogant, and the greedy who find themselves with the most power in this world. We all watched as they destroyed everything. Worse than that, we applauded them for it. As they sow their superficial rewards, the generations to come will reap the consequences.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter now,” I muttered, my eyes still held by the horrific images projected on the smoke. “We’ve arrived at the dead end with nowhere to go but down.”
“That’s because the old ways of deceiving ourselves are no longer working. Like the child who goes from toy to pet to sweet out of boredom, humanity has gone from ideology to belief to doctrine to revolution until the novelty wears off, then we move onto the next one. Except now, the juvenile innocence is beginning to wear very thin. Religion is dead, as is communism, socialism, capitalism, environmentalism, secularism. We entered the age of consumerism, and that has long since been exhausted. In the end, no amount of drugs, alcohol, or sex can conceal the truth. What do you live for when the story you have told yourself about your existence no longer means anything to you? How do you keep yourself amused when the playroom is littered with dead pets, broken toys, and poisoned candy? What is there left to live for?”
I closed my eyes, and my old nightmare played in my memory: the icy waves crashing over the bow of the cruise liner, while the people stood and stared, unmoving, as the floor rocked violently beneath them. I felt strangely hollow, and in that moment, I wanted nothing more than to die.
Elyon rested his hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Do not lose hope, Architect. In the darkness that surrounds you, there is a faint light, a spark that will turn into a flame, then a roaring fire that will ignite and consume the darkness, weaken it, expose the truth from the illusion.”
As he spoke, Haley’s screeching laughter grew louder, until it became something that resembled a cheer that she bellowed into the sky. She began to dance gracefully, articulating every joint in her body in a swirling motion.
“What’s got her so happy?” I asked, watching as she leapt, her joy apparently unable to contain itself.
“Haley is in her element,” said Elyon. “She loves it when things fall apart. It is a natural and necessary pattern of the universe: When a star collapses, another is born in its place. The elderly must die so that new babies can be born; if generations do not displace one another, then there are not enough resources to go around. Cells undergo both mitosis and apoptosis in a continuous cycle of death and regeneration. To fear death is to take a limited view on one’s place. Through death, one contributes to life. There is a reason that the many spiritual stories involve floods or fires: Destruction is an essential counterpart of creation.”
I was skeptical. “So what’s next? Noah’s flood?”
Elyon chuckled. “That won’t be necessary. There’s no need for any divine interference. They are the flood; let the gods they created drown them.”
The rain had slowed, and little by little, the white steam dissipated. The clouds parted, and a faint sliver of moonlight illuminated the charred ruins of the castle. Gone, too, was the rancid smell of garbage, instead replaced by a faint smell of smoke and damp wood. Out here, in the middle of the wetlands, I felt the presence of a strange tranquility. Haley stopped dancing and came to stand next to us. For a moment, we simply watched the ruins, and all around us, nature began to reclaim its territory. The crickets and frogs began singing, and the wind whistled through the reeds. Haley tugged off her stilettos, and Elyon kicked off his tennis shoes. I followed suit, and as my feet made contact with the mud, I felt a low, vibrating hum extending to the center of the Earth.
Elyon turned away from the castle and motioned for me to follow him. “Come, Architect. We have work to do.” We began walking toward the forest.
“I don’t understand. How are we going to stop the collapse?” I said.
“We aren’t going to stop it. We can’t. It’s too late. What we are going to do is find the people who are trying, the ones who see what is happening to their home and suffer because they know their efforts to protect it are futile. We are going to save them, you and I. That’s why I chose you―I need you to design a safe harbor, a refuge for my kind. My tribe.”
>>> This is a chapter from the book: THE MANUAL: FOR A LIFE THAT CAN STAND THE TEST OF TIME