If you are new to the SDS Challenge, a little background.
Three writers will each write one story a month going down the list of deadly sins. The stories can be anywhere from 666 words to 6,666 words in length, although those numbers are not set in stone. If ambitious, the writers will provide accompanying graphics. These stories will not be anonymous because some writers may want to use the same characters for each story and write a series — or book — encompassing all seven sins. Finally, interpretation of the titular sin is up to the writer. Meaning, each ‘sin’ can take multiple forms.
The sixth set of stories cover the sin of Pride. This is my offering. Once again, a lame effort knocked out in a few hours of writing. And, again, I like it. I know; I like everything I write, but this time . . . it’s the same.
Disclaimer: The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories will likely span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
The Ghost of Solstice Future
Copyright 2021 — E. J. D’Alise
(2,960 words – approx. reading time: about 11 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“Are you proud of yourself?”
Joe’s unbidden self-reflection was unwelcomed, as always. He’d gone down this mental spiral many times and could easily navigate to either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, depending on his mood.
Today, he chose ‘yes’ and began listing the good things he’d done in his life, the people he’d helped, the people he’d loved, the positive impact of his actions… the list of positives was long, and the ‘yes’ answer was a logical conclusion.
But the answer rang false in his mind.
Nothing he’d listed was more than what one would expect of any decent human being. Could one be proud of doing what’s expected?
Sure, based on observation, being a decent human being wasn’t the norm in today’s world. Not that Joe thought he was unique, but the number of people falling short of the mark far outnumbered those who met what should be the minimum bar of human behavior in a society.
Still, what nagged at Joe was his lack of outstanding qualities and deeds. He could describe his life in positive terms, but it was also indistinguishable from many other people’s lives. He’d read somewhere that “to win without risk is to triumph without glory”… and that’s precisely what his life felt like.
While some might judge his life as one of taking risks and overcoming challenges, Joe knew nothing he had done was outside his comfort zone. He could rationalize it by drawing on his responsibility to others. It was one thing taking the risk upon oneself, but another matter taking risks that would affect others.
“Could I have done more?” Joe often asked himself.
As it often was, “Yes” was his answer.
Careful not to wake his wife, Joe turned on his other side and blanked his mind to help his brain drift off to sleep. But, as usual after these instances of self-reflection, it wasn’t a simple task. Sleep came neither quickly nor easily.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~
The light woke him — a bright and sudden light. Joe sat up, squinting to shield his eyes while they adjusted. Then, when he could focus and see, he surveyed his surroundings.
He was alone in bed, and the bed sat in a space devoid of detail. The white floor blended into the ceiling — or was it the sky? — at a difficult to judge distance.
Joe then noticed the silence. No sounds, no breeze, nothing but his breathing and the faint beating of his heart.
“Did I die in my sleep?” he asked aloud.
He heard a laugh that seemed to come from all directions.
“That wouldn’t conform to your beliefs,” a familiar voice said.
Looking around, Joe noticed a small figure in the distance. The figure was approaching much faster than its strangely familiar and leisurely pace would suggest.
Joe didn’t answer. As the man, for it was a man, covered the remaining distance and stopped in front of him, Joe realized it was an older version of himself. Maybe twenty or thirty years older.
“Let me guess,” Joe said, “you’re the Ghost of Solstice Future. Aren’t you supposed to be the third visitor?”
“There’s a budget?”
“No, that was a joke. I’m you, remember?”
“I never realized how unfunny I was… am… will be,” Joe said.
“Oh, I think we always knew. But the jokes are for us, remember?”
Annoyed, Joe waved his hand back and forth toward his older self and said, “Let’s get on with this… this… whatever it is. What is it, anyway?”
“You nailed it; Ghost of Solstice Future,” older Joe answered. “Well, alternative future. By the way, I’m so stealing that; it’s almost clever.”
“That’s us. If not smart, clever.”
“See, that’s why I’m here,” older Joe said, pointing an accusing index finger at Joe.
“What? And where is ‘here’, exactly?”
“That kind of comment. As far as where, sorry, that’s need-to-know only. And, you’re not dead.”
“I gathered that from talking with myself.”
“Right… say, you know how you wonder if you could tolerate someone exactly like you? Wonder no more; ‘no’ is the answer.”
“Yup, I was just thinking that,” Joe said.
Joe and his older self looked at each other for a few seconds before bursting in laughter.
“You’re alright,” they said nearly in unison.
“OK, let’s get on with this. What is it you’re going to show me?”
“Something to help you answer the question you often ask; are you proud of yourself?” older Joe replied.
“This oughta be good…” Joe said
“Oh, it will be. Walk with me,” old Joe said, heading off without waiting.
“Where are we going?” Joe asked after catching up and matching older Joe’s pace.
As before, they seemed to travel a lot further with each step than the length of their strides. Marveling at that, Joe missed the transition from an all-white landscape to the street of an upscale neighborhood.
“Whoa!” he said, momentarily feeling discombobulated by the sudden change.
“By the way,” older Joe said, “no one can see us, hear us, and we can pass through walls; all that stuff you see in the movies.”
“You’re wearing chains in the movies, and you’re supposed to look dead.”
“You should know by now that movies rarely get everything right. So anyway, if you’ve recovered, let’s go visiting,” older Joe said as he pointed to an enormous house surrounded by a tall wall.
Joe walked toward the open iron gate older Joe motioned toward. As he stepped from the street onto the basalt drive, he mused the drive was probably was more expensive than his house. He noticed the manicured lawn and landscaping. Joe did all of his yard work, but no matter how picky he was, this yard was on a whole other level.
The sprawling house — more like a mansion — tastefully conveyed the idea of wealth; its construction elegantly simple, but each elegant detail screamed money — and lots of it.
Joe stopped at the massive doors inlaid with what looked like hand-cut crystal, each panel etched with different vignettes. He was taking in the whole when he focused on one of the crystal panels. It depicted one of his favorite cartoons.
“All this is mine?”
“Yes,” older Joe said, “it may be an alternate reality, but you keep the same sense of humor.”
“These must have cost a pretty penny,” Joe said.
“About three grand per panel,” older Joe replied.
Joe stepped back, did a quick mental calculation for the two doors, and whistled.
“One hundred and eight grand just for these doors… I guess I now know the answer; I could have done better than I have.”
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Wanna visit the garage before we head in?”
“I have a feeling I’ll fall victim to one of the deadly sins; Envy.”
“Focus!” older Joe said. “That ship has sailed.”
A few seconds later, they entered what Joe would call a showroom. He’d once seen a show about Jay Leno’s garage, and this gave it a run for its money.
Joe counted at least ten different bus-sized motor homes alongside twice as many motorhomes of smaller sizes and designs. And then there was the row of Suburbans. It took him a few seconds to realize there were two for each model year going back at least twenty years. There were no regular cars, but there were several pickups from various manufacturers.
“Let me guess; this version of me also likes to drive and go on long trips,” Joe said.
“Actually,” older Joe replied, “most of these are like new. This version of you don’t drive all that much.”
Joe wanted to argue that no future or situation he could envision would have him give up one of his pleasures; long spur-of-the-moment drives with Patricia.
“Save it,” older Joe said, cutting him off. “You’ll understand soon.”
They walked the length of the garage and entered the house proper.
“How many people work to keep this looking like it does?” Joe asked.
“You have a permanent staff of ten, plus there’s a service that comes in twice a week for cleaning and decorating.”
“Decorating? Twice a week?”
“Sorry,” older Joe clarified as they walked. “I meant they clean twice a week, plus, as the seasons change, or if there’s a holiday, they change the decorations.”
“I must have… could have done pretty well indeed,” Joe said, a rueful tone creeping into his speech.
“This is the central ballroom,” old Joe said as they stepped into what could have passed for a room in a European castle. “This is where you entertain guests and business associates.”
“What business?” Joe asked, thinking it wasn’t too late to get going with something that must have been wildly successful.
“Tsk, tsk,” older Joe said. “Hey! I’ve always wanted to say ‘tsk, tsk’! Anyway, tsk, tsk, you forget I can read your mind. We won’t go into what you did… er, would have done in this alternate existence.
“You know,” old Joe continued, “the language for this alternate timelines stuff is as difficult to parse as that of time travel. Fewer paradoxes, but the structure of language is just as inadequate.”
Joe watched old Joe’s face scrunch up in thought and waited.
“Perhaps both time-travel and this kind of thing shouldn’t be meddled with,” old Joe finally said as he turned to face Joe.
“Let me ask you this,” Joe said. “Is there a version of this where you take the Joe from this version and show him my life?”
“Sorry, that’s need-to-know. Besides, even if it happens, it would be for an different sin… er… I mean, purpose. Let’s move on, shall we?”
“Fine with me,” Joe said. “Where to?”
“Well, we could visit the bowling alley in the basement, or the movie theater, or —”
“I have a bowling alley in the basement?” Joe asked.
“Yes. It’s right next to the gym.”
“I have a gym?”
“Yes, between the bowling alley and the shooting range.”
“Oh, a shooting range!”
“Yes,” old Joe confirmed. “There are no versions of you who don’t like guns.”
Joe grabbed old Joe’s elbow and turned to face him. “There are versions of me? How many?”
“Dang, I should be more careful,” old Joe said.
Old Joe looked around, prompting Joe also to look around, although not knowing for what.
“OK, I shouldn’t be telling you this, but there are many, many, many versions of you. Of everyone,” old Joe whispered, putting his head close to Joe’s.
“I don’t understand. Why? And why are you whispering?”
“It sounds mysterious and exciting when someone whispers, and as for the ‘why’ — OK, it’s difficult to explain, so let me give you an example,” old Joe said as he pulled Joe into the shadows of a small alcove. “You know how when you take a photo you hate wasting it? Well, it’s a bit like that.”
“It’s a bit like me keeping crappy photos?!”
“No! It’s like when you use the same photos for different things. It’s the same photo, but processed differently.”
“Wait. Wait just a second… are you, we, saying there’s a god?! Are you a god?”
“What? No, look… crap, I should stop. I shouldn’t be telling you this.”
“You owe it to me… us! So what the heck is this?”
Old Joe sighed. “OK, but don’t freak out, OK?”
Joe looked at his older self, saying nothing.
“We both know,” Joe said, “that by telling someone not to freak out, you’re essentially priming them to freak out. What’s going on? Tell me!”
“… we… well, you and everyone…” old Joe hesitated before blurting it out, “You’re all simulations!”
Joe stared at his older self for a few moments before gesticulating and loudly replying.
“WHAT?! YOU’RE TELLING ME I’M NOT REAL! HOW CAN YOU SPRING SOMETHING LIKE THAT ON SOMEONE?!
“HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO GO BACK — ok, ok, I’m kidding. So, we’re in a simulation. How does it work?” Joe asked
“You’re not bothered?” old Joe asked.
“What’s the difference between a simulation, a non-interfering or absent god, and pure chance?” Joe asked.
“Uh… nothing. There’s no difference.”
“Right! I’m still going to live my life the same way as I have been… except I’ll regret not having all this now that I know about it.
“But what’s the point of many versions?” Joe continued.
Old Joe shook his head. “You’re something, alright.”
Old Joe motioned Joe to follow as he resumed walking down the long hall.
“There are many, all competing, but the dominant version gradually takes over and, for that simulation, the others just blend into the strongest until there’s only one version per simulation.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Joe said.
“Think of it like a pack of wolves. The Alpha Wolf ‘leads’ the pack, and the others follow. Some may challenge the Alpha, but unless they win, the Alpha continues to lead and dictate what the pack will do. Same for these simulations.”
“Two things; first, wolves in the wild don’t have alpha wolves or alpha pairs. Packs are usually a family unit of two parents and one or two younger generations,” Joe said. “Second, despite the flawed analogy, are you saying my version is leading one branch of the simulation, and this other me is leading another branch?”
“I think you got it. The stronger models crowd out lesser versions and ‘leads’ their respective timelines,” old Joe confirmed.
“But how can I compete with this version of me?” Joe asked as he waved his arm to encompass their surroundings.
“That’s the point; you don’t!”
“What do you mean ‘we don’t’… we’re the same person!”
“No!… I mean, yes, but different versions. Non-overlapping versions. You’re not competing with this version because you’re different from this version. You don’t travel the same simulation paths.”
Joe stopped and once again grabbed old Joe’s arm and faced him.
“I want to see my wife. I want to see Patricia!”
Old Joe looked away from Joe.
“Now we’re getting to why I pulled you into this.”
Joe looked at old Joe. Really looked at him.
“Who are you? You’re not really me, are you?”
“I’m an AI program tasked with monitoring the simulations, collecting data, and identifying trends,” old Joe answered.
“For whom? Who do you work for?” Joe asked.
“That’s something I can’t answer because I don’t know. My task is to manage and report. I know someone or something accesses my reports, but I don’t know who or what. Wait; not manage… supervise. Supervise is a good word.”
“Do you direct the simulations? Do you interfere?”
“No. Each individual, in each version, does their own thing. Different individuals, the others in your simulation, interact and interfere with each other and you. Most of the time, trivially. Sometimes, tragically. As you said, it’s all by chance. The simulations are truly randomized.”
“So, had I been born in, say, Syria…” Joe said.
“Well, you wouldn’t be you, but for the sake of argument, likely, you’d have a real shit life. But, you might also have become a political or military leader, or a leader of the opposition, or have died young in one of the many conflicts. Or sought asylum in Europe.”
Joe mulled all this information over.
“OK. I get it,” Joe said. “I still want to see Patricia. I want to see her happy and well.”
Old Joe said nothing and slowly followed after Joe as he ran off searching for his wife.
Old Joe caught up to Joe in the bedroom, looking at a woman and a man sleeping together. Sleeping, sleeping, not, you know, sleeping.
“Who’s that?” Joe whispered when old Joe caught up to him.
“They can’t hear you. You don’t have to whisper.”
“Who are they?” Joe again asked.
“That’s Stewart, the cook. And that’s DeDe, your third wife.”
“DeDe? What happened to Patricia?”
“She left you when you had an affair with Angelica, who eventually became your second wife.”
“I had an affair? I would never have an affair!”
“Here, you did. This version of you did.”
Joe looked at old Joe and asked, “Where am I… where’s this version of me right now?”
“You’re on a business trip… with your secretary, who will be your fourth wife.”
Joe turned away, and walked out of the house and to the middle of the street, stopping for old Joe to catch up with him.
“This version—” Joe hesitated, then resumed. “This version of me—” but he couldn’t finish the question.
“At one time, you were both the same,” old Joe said, answering the unspoken question. “You just went in separate paths.”
Joe said nothing and stared at Old Joe.
Old Joe said one more thing before the surroundings faded, and Joe felt pulled back. “This version of you is very proud of himself,” Old Joe said.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~
As he usually did when waking, Joe stretched and reached to touch his wife, but this time with apprehension followed by a slight panic when he noticed she wasn’t there.
“Hon?” he called out.
“Making coffee,” Patricia answered from the kitchen. “Are you getting up?”
“In a moment,” Joe replied, relieved.
Rolling over on his back and looking at the spinning blades of the ceiling fan, Joe contemplated his experience.
It must have been a dream, but it sure had felt real. More real than most, and unlike most dreams, this one he remembered clearly.
Sighing, he got out of bed, stiff joints complaining but complying. Then, as he stretched upright, he answered his question.
“Yes. Yes, I am proud of myself.”
“Did you say something?” Patricia called out.
“Yes! Where’s my morning hug?”
Here are the links to the other two stories:
Pride and Joy <<link
Writer: R. G. Broxson
Word count: 5,130 words – approx. reading time: about 19 minutes based on 265 WPM
The Brothers Proffit <<link
Writer: Perry Broxson
Word count: 12,250 words – approx. reading time: about 46 minutes based on 265 WPM
If you’ve read all the stories and care to cast a vote, here’s the link to the Poll:
The SDS Challenge — Envy Voting <<link
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