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S is for Solipsism

Tim Pratt's stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and other nice places. He's won a Hugo for his short fiction (and lost Sturgeon, Stoker, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards). He lives in Berkeley CA with his wife and son. Find him online at timpratt.org

Jenn Reese lives in Los Angeles and is currently writing a middle-grade adventure series for Candlewick Press. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons and the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Paper Cities, among others. Follow her adventures at jennreese.com.

Heather Shaw is a writer, editor, gardener and aikidoka living in Berkeley, California with her husband and son. She's had fiction in Strange Horizons, Polyphony, The Year's Best Fantasy, Escape Pod and other nice places. She just finished her first middle-grade novel, "Keaton T., Junior Gene Hacker" and is looking for representation. For more, visit heathershaw.org

Greg van Eekhout's fiction for adults and children includes the novels Norse Code and Kid vs. Squid and stories published in Asimov's, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and other places. He lives in San Diego, CA. For more information, visit writingandsnacks.com.

Encephalon watched from the center of his brain-shaped techno-lair as the outer blast doors were breached. The reinforced steel crumpled like paper, and the notoriously violent antihero vigilante Deathdrive kicked the remnants aside as he strode in. His costume was a black so intense it drank light, and the mask that covered his eyes and nose couldn't completely conceal the zigzag scar that ran diagonally across his face. "Brainwave!" he shouted. "I've come to kill you!"
"I haven't called myself Brainwave in years," Encephalon emanated, his voice of pure thought filling the silver dome.
"I don't care what you call yourself, mind-tyrant." Deathdrive took a cylinder the size of a roll of quarters from his belt and twisted his wrist. The cylinder telescoped out into a black staff crackling with disruptive electrical energies, and Deathdrive began to casually destroy choice bits of Encephalon's equipment. The "mind-tyrant" didn't care. He wasn't sure what half the exotic machines were supposed to do anyway.
Deathdrive mounted the steps leading up to the dais at the center of the room. "Have you made peace with your gods, whatever they might be?"
"There are no gods," Encephalon emanated wearily. "You know I am a solipsist--I do not acknowledge the reality of anything outside myself and my own thoughts. How can I? I know that I exist, from firsthand experience, but everything else is a mere representation of my own thoughts. If there is a god, that god is I, and I am the sole inhabitant of my creation. The rest of you are just... philosophical zombies."
"Where I'm from, people who don't believe anyone else is real are called sociopaths." Deathdrive smashed aside one of Encephalon's particle cannons, which the mind-tyrant hadn't even bothered to power up.
"Even you, Deathdrive. Your very name reveals your relationship to my consciousness: you are my own wish for death, which is why you have challenged me and fought me so aggressively over the years."
Deathdrive paused, leaning on his electro-staff, which was the one device capable of disrupting the electrical impulses of Encephalon's brain and rendering the mind-tyrant forever inert. "I know."
The warm fluid in Encephalon's jar bubbled. "You know?"
Deathdrive shrugged. "Of course. I keep up the banter for form's sake, but... I know. I'm ultimately just an extension of your own thoughts, so of course I know. I realized long ago my life is too ridiculous to be real. But did you ever think that I long for death as well?"
"I... as you are an extension of myself, it is logical that you would long for the same things I do. Or that you would appear to long for them--as a p-zombie, you can't actually want anything. But you have also manifested the appearance of great love for the upstanding citizens of New Velocity City. They are also mere thought-constructs. By killing me, the only real thing in the world, you will destroy the whole of that world."
"It's a pretty crappy world, really," Deathdrive said. "It's constantly being attacked by a tyrannical brain in a jar, for one thing."
"It's not tyranny to direct your own thoughts." Encephalon was annoyed to note a tone of defensiveness in his emanation.
"Anyway," Deathdrive said. "I'm going to kill you now. It's what you really want, after all."
"Can it be possible? Can I truly... think myself to death?"
"You know you can." The vigilante Deathdrive, merciless scourge of the underworld, "the one-man death penalty," gently removed the lid from Encephalon's jar. "Goodbye, creator," he said, and plunged his electro-staff into the tank. The fluid bubbled furiously, and Encephalon's senses--all externalized through cameras and microphones and other sensors, which he knew were nothing but his thought-constructs, ultimately--shorted out in showers of sparks. Most of the lights in the lair went dark, and the mind of Encephalon, greatest villain of New Velocity City, went dark with it.
Deathdrive frowned. "You seem to be dead, but you must still be alive, because I'm... I'm still... I'm still here." He nudged the floating brain with his staff. It was obviously dead--the stench of boiled brains was unmistakable.
Deathdrive dropped his staff, where it crackled on the dais. "No," he murmured. "No, this can't be, I'm not real, I'm just a quasi-external representation of the mind-tyrant's death wish, I don't have any objective reality of my own, I, I--" He lowered himself to the floor of the dais until he was flat on his back and staring up at the dimly-lit crenellations of the dome, wrinkled and contoured like the surface of a brain. "If I'm real," he said aloud, "Then that means... Then that means..."
He couldn't say the last part out loud. It was too awful. So he thought it, instead:
Then that means I'm responsible for all the terrible things I've done.
Deathdrive powered up one of the mind-tyrant's particle cannons, stood in front of its murder-array, and activated the manual switch. He was entirely disintegrated in instants.
As far as he knew, that was the end of the world.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, May 11th, 2011
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