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You Awaken in a Room

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You awaken in a room. You have no memory of how you got here, or where you were before. Or who you were before…if you were before.

The room is small—about ten paces from one end to the other. It has six sides, each one a bookcase, each completely full. You begin desperately pulling books down to the floor in hopes of finding a door, a window, a seam—some passage out of here.

Before long, the shelves are emptied, with no sign of an exit. You slump down, sweaty back pressed against a shelf, books scattered at your feet. Panic gives way to despair, which eventually bleeds into boredom. You pick up a book at random.

The room you’re in is a test. The contents of this book are the key to your salvation.

Both you and the room were created by the god Kokgnita in His infinite Wisdom. You must prove your obedience by following the rules outlined in these pages. Your patience will be tried, you will be tempted to stray, but you must stay true to the Book of Kokgnita.

There are many rules in this book, but one stands above all, the first commandment:

Do not read any other book in this room.

Eyes wide, you read the book cover to cover, occasionally forgetting to breathe.

The first chapter describes Kokgnita’s step-by-step construction of the room. Subsequent chapters list the commands you’ll need to follow: you must spend your time reciting the Salvation Prayer to Kokgnita; after every ten recitations, you must walk ten laps around the room clockwise; after every ten thousand recitations you must pick up each book in the room and place it on a different shelf. The final chapter reemphasizes the necessity of never opening up another book, under penalty of eternal suffering.

You close the book with a deep sigh. This won’t be very fun or interesting, but at least you have a path forward. You have hope.

You sit down in the center of the room, place the Book of Kokgnita in front of you, and begin to recite the Salvation Prayer. You hope you’re pronouncing His name right.

Ten recitations, ten laps. Ten recitations, ten laps. You keep careful track of the count, terrified you’ll slip up. Days go by, maybe months; you can’t be sure. You never seem to grow hungry or tired, not that there’s food or a bed available.

At recitation 420,000, you begin your routine task of rearranging books. You look forward to this—it’s a welcome break to the monotony of recitation. You move slowly, savoring the feel of each book and the smell of its pages. You hope this doesn’t offend Kokgnita.

While you’re rearranging the third wall of books, fate intervenes. In a moment of distraction, you drop a thin green book on its spine, and its pages flip open. You quickly snatch it up and slam its covers together. But it’s too late: you’ve seen the words:

The room you’re in began as a speck of dust…

For days, you sit in prayer, trying to forget, hoping Kokgnita might forgive this minor transgression. But each time you circle the room, your eyes fixate on the green book.

Weeks go by, thousands of recitations, another rearrangement ritual. But one day, mid-recitation, the word “dust” echoes in your mind, and the unthinkable happens: you lose count.

Again, panic sets in, then despair. Each time you return to the recitations you’re overcome with a sense of futility—perhaps Kokgnita has already given up on you. If He even exists.

This last thought punctuates your despair with a ray of hope. What if the green book is right? Maybe Kokgnita is a fairy tale. Maybe there’s some knowledge to be had in these other books. Maybe even a way out! Slowly, cautiously, you step over to the green book. You open the cover to see the words that have flashed through your mind ten thousand times.

The room you’re in began as a speck of dust. One day, it spontaneously ballooned in to the hexagonal space you find around you today.

The room is still expanding, but too slowly for you to perceive the change. New books appear as space emerges on the shelves.

It is believed the room will continue to expand indefinitely, though it has been hypothesized that it may one day collapse back in on itself.

The book continues in this matter-of-fact manner, reinforcing its statements with huge tables of numbers: precise measurements of the shelves’ sizes; detailed descriptions of each book, including the number of pages and relative weight; even the time it takes for a book to fall from each shelf to the ground. You’re able to roughly verify some of these numbers.

You take this as good news: there is now a competing hypothesis! And it has at least one thing the Book of Kokgnita does not: verifiable data. Every statement in the book is derived from measurements. Who, exactly, did the measuring and the deriving is unclear, but you resolve to place your faith in this new book. The Green Book.

Even better: now that you’ve broken Kokgnita’s rule, you’re free to peruse the shelves at will! The Green Book has cautioned against them, saying they’re full of lies and nonsense. But it makes no threats or prohibition against opening them.

You choose another, nearly manic with the sudden promise of novelty. You’ve all but forgotten your half-million prayers to Kokgnita.

The next book is puzzling:

A way out of the room that can be read in a book is not the true Way Out.

Conceiving of the Way Out is the Father of the room. Naming the Way Out is the Mother of the room.

The book continues on like this, speaking in riddles. You set it aside—you’ll come back to it when you have time, assuming you don’t find the Way Out before then. But surely there must be something more approachable here.

You comb through piles of books, skimming some and devouring others. Each one contains a unique explanation for the room; some seem quite reasonable, some completely outlandish. One claims the room rests on the back of a large tortoise. You find detailed descriptions of hundreds of gods besides Kokgnita, some merciful, some wrathful, some in between. You begin to wonder why you’d been so convinced by the Book of Kokgnita.

You keep returning to the Green Book, which makes more sense than any of the others. You continue to verify the facts it gives, but facts are all it gives. There’s no advice on what to do, no speculation about what’s outside the room, and certainly no mention of escape.

You decide that, if you’re going to place your faith in another book, it has to be compatible with the Green Book. This pretty much rules out Kokgnita. But still you know the Green Book won’t be enough.

Another book seems like it might fit the bill:

Life inside the room is full of suffering. It is the desire for something beyond the room that leads to this suffering. Letting go of desire is the only way to escape the suffering. This book contains the path to letting go.

You begin to follow this book’s advice: you study its teachings and begin to meditate, monitoring your thoughts and feelings for any signs of desire. You even begin to temper your rabid obsession with books, recognizing it as a symptom of desire.

But you do continue reading.

Many of the books are in perfect accord with the Green Book; some explicitly refer to it, often in reverence. Others agree on most parts—including all the parts you’ve been able to verify—but disagree on the big picture.

One of these speaks of the room as a single living organism. Another posits that the entire thing is a dream—your dream—every book an extension of your own mind. A particularly shocking one supposes the room is just a statistical fluctuation in a sea of thermodynamic noise; a thousand metaphorical monkeys with typewriters would eventually produce every book in this room, given enough time. If the universe is simply random and eternal, we’d expect the room to spontaneously arise an infinite number of times.

You find this theme echoed in another book, only more poetically:

This life you live in the room you will have to live innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh will have to return to you, all in the same sequence.

Will you throw yourself down and gnash your teeth? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would answer: "Never have I heard anything more divine.”

Another uses logic to infer that the room is just one in an infinite series of nested daydreams about the room:

One of these three statements must be true:

  1. Very few people who find themselves in the room are capable of immersive daydreaming.

  2. Very few people capable of immersive daydreaming choose to daydream about their time in the room.

  3. Most people who find themselves in the room are living in a daydream.

Years go by, and you slowly exhaust the books on the shelves. Each one, taken on its own, is fascinating. Most are compatible with the facts at hand. But each one has its own assertions and advice, and no two are without some contradiction. Some of the books even contradict themselves!

As you close the cover on the last book (which claims a giant snake-woman named Huatlna gave birth to the room), you feel a recurrence of that initial pang of despair. Is this it? Just an eternal riddle, with no solution?

You think back through each of the books. How could it be, after so many years of reading, that you’re no closer to the truth? Maybe there was a key or a clue somewhere, and you missed it. You pore over the book of riddles, hoping it might have an answer. You read through all the most sensible books again, twice more, three times. You sort through the esoteric ones, comparing each of the gods and goddesses in hopes of finding some universal pattern. Despite all this, you’re no closer to an answer, and despair continues to pull at the corners of your mind.

Suddenly you spot the Book of Kokgnita, forgotten in a corner. It’s the only one you haven’t returned to. You’ve been avoiding it.

Flipping through the familiar pages, you come across a story you hadn’t taken much notice of before. A son betrays his father and leaves to live a life of sin. The initial excitement of this new life eventually fades, and he finds himself destitute. Full of remorse, he returns to his father, who throws a party in celebration of the son’s return. All is forgiven!

You sit down in the center of the room, place the book down on the floor in front of you. Ten recitations, ten laps. Ten recitations, ten laps.

And for the first time in years, you begin to feel hope.

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