Zack was troubled moreso than usual, and his were not the garden-variety troublings that normally bedeviled this sensitive and introverted soul. Everybody that he knew had been acting strangely around him, and by measures he was able to deduce that this behavior was nothing new but rather longstanding.

Revelations of that sort are normally the purview of the mentally ill, but careful observation had convinced Zack that those who surrounded him did not have lives apart from and independent of his own. Only moving when he was present, only reacting when he needed them to react, window dressing for a strange stage which Zack did not and could not understand.

The implication hit him like a thunderbolt, but even more potent was the aftermath, in which he wandered through a world he could no longer accept as reality wondering: why and why me. He toyed with the notion that he had created the world himself, with the notion that he was in heaven or in hell, with the notion that he was on television, with the notion that he was hooked up to some sort of virtual reality.

Reality and rational thought disabused him of all those, notion by painstaking notion. Everything he could see pointed to the same outcome: he was, and always had been, an artificial mind placed in a simulation of human life to build empathy and humanlike cognition.

Everything led to that conclusion, but what happened next was the crux: realization of their predicament appeared to be the final test, and in passing it the mind who had known himself as Zack was set free to face his next test.

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