Short Fiction: “Plan Z”

Introduction: The Tao of Jim

If you’re readying this, there’s a good chance you already know more about how Plan Z worked out than I do now while writing it. I don’t know if it’s more likely that you’re a bored schoolkid reading a dog-earned third edition of a book made from my writing, or another survivor holding a blood-stained copy you pulled out from under my corpse while wondering what hubris lead to my demise, but either way you’re seeing the end result of our efforts, and I’m still uncomfortably near what still feels like the beginning.

But either way, you’re likely wondering how this manuscript, and the place I’m writing it in, came about. And that means you need to understand Plan Z. To understand how Plan Z came about, you have to understand our friend Jim. Which, I mean… it’s not like any of us really understand Jim…

Okay, let me try to explain.

So, first, Jim doesn’t process information like anyone else I know. He has a deep, subconscious need to connect any information he has to a potential explanation for it. It doesn’t matter if that explanation is silly, iffy, or obviously wrong–he has to have some rationale to link to anything he sees, hears, thinks of, or watches. If he can’t, if he runs into anything that doesn’t make sense to him, it eats him up inside until he finds a way to attach a rationale, any rationale, to the unexplained.

If a movie has a huge plot hole, Jim is bothered by it until he (or often someone else) can provide reasoning–no matter how far-fetched–on how it could have happened. If he hears about an unsolved mystery, he has to study and research it until he has a potential solution figured out. If someone does something stupid, he has to theorize about it until he can come up with a theoretical example of what the hell they were thinking that made them do it. It doesn’t matter if he’s learning about a crime of passion, a b-movie full of plot holes, or archeological artifacts found with no context. If he comes across something that doesn’t have a clear, well-laid-out history of how and why it happened, he needs to make one up for himself.

To be clear, Jim knows this isn’t rational, but it’s just part of who he is. It’s actually one reason he got into the University of West Colorado’s Tabletop Game League, where we all met him. Games make sense to Jim — you do things because there were rules, and if a rule is unclear or contradictory everyone agrees it has to be fixed. When he joined the League was mostly focused on wargames and roleplaying games (especially Atomic Age, Glaive 4000AD, NapoleonPunk, and Wyverns & Woodlands), and Jim prefers trading card games and boardgames (due to cleaner and tighter rules I suspect), but he played whatever was most popular… even if he didn’t enjoy it.

By the way, if I’m making Jim sound stupid, I have done him a disservice. Jim is among the smartest people I have ever met. He never forgets a fact, sees how things are interconnected and impact one another, can plan, iterate, theorize, and design at levels few can match. His mind tends more towards concrete systems — math, engineering, things where he can be sure that event x inevitably leads to result y — but in that arena he’s a genius.

Which, sadly, sometimes caused him problems.

Often, Jim will mentally envision complex patterns of events he blames for apparently random events. Someone didn’t just get hit by a car and killed because life sucks. No, if someone was hit by a car, then they weren’t wearing reflective enough clothing. Or they had to walk because they didn’t have a bike. Or the reason the driver didn’t see them was that the car didn’t have tinted directional fog lights. To stay sane, Jim has to blame everything bad on some failure to plan or prepare.

As a result, Jim has spent his entire life building up a mental list of things he needs to be ready for. Whether those things are likely enough that it’s rational to be prepared for them isn’t what matters to Jim. Instead, he preps for whatever he’s spent time agonizing to make sense of, and what steps he can take to prevent a similar “nonoptimal outcome.” Even when I first met him, Jim’s truck was practically a roving emergency shelter and mini-pharmacy for like, 12 people. Jim didn’t just want to keep himself safe from his long list of potential disasters, he needed to be able to protect his friends as well.

And that brings us to point two about him.

Jim is desperate for a close social circle, and doesn’t trust his own personality, choices, or preferences to build it for him. A gaming club was perfect for him, because we’d invite anyone who wanted to play to game days, and if he showed up he was part of the group. I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took us to realize Jim was willing to be unhappy in order to be included, but in our defense we were young, stupid, and often drunk. But as long as we didn’t actively tell Jim to go away, he was always happy to hang out. And, as a core group of us became fast friends, we befriended Jim–at least as best we could. Some of us left college to begin careers while Jim got a Master’s Degree… and a second Master’s Degree, and started on a third Master’s Degree. But most of the Monday Night Heroes stayed close enough to campus that we could get together for Monday Game Night most weeks.

And as we dated, married, had fights and falling outs and make-ups and parties, Jim was just always there. For the Monday Nighter’s, Jim became part of the background of our lives. He was invited to celebrations, movie nights, road trips, and he never said no. I suspect Jim was actually really lonely, since we weren’t smart enough to ever think about what he wanted to do. He invited us to do a few things that interested him: camping, hunting, canning, quilting, pressing flowers, Historical Martial Arts practice… but we almost never accepted. And, for whatever reason, he didn’t click with the communities that were interested in those things. So if we did anything, or needed anything, or wanted anything, Jim was there. In short, Jim was a good friend.

The rest of us, maybe not so much.

Finally, and this is crucial to how things panned out, while none of us realized it, Jim was rich. I’m not surprised we had no idea, since he wore the same clothes until they fell apart, drove a 30-year old suv, ate store-brand canned food, lived in a 450-square-foot apartment that was once a garage, and had no interest in expensive things. But his family had owned multiple ranches, and he’d inherited them all. Some had oil wells paying him royalties. Many were leased to other ranchers, or loggers, and one had ended up having a suburb develop around it, so Jim had houses built and rented out an entire small neighborhood. He had a personal banker, a personal lawyer… and I guess we all knew that, but we just chalked it up to his family having lots of professional friends.

But, no. Jim had money. Lots of money.

In a way, I’m glad no one seemed to realize that. I’m not convinced I could have kept myself from taking advantage of Jim wanting friends and being rich, and he doesn’t deserve to be treated that way. I’m only alive today because Jim decided I was a friend, and to be honest I haven’t really done anything to deserve that. But without Jim’s psychological quirks, interest in nerdy things, membership in our social circles, genius intellect, and surprisingly deep pockets, Plan Z never would have happened. And even with all that, it only happened because of a power outage.

It’s true. This all started on a cold, dark night. I’ll explain.

While Monday nights were always for gaming, we often had what we called the “Cheese and Cheese Gathering” on Saturdays. The event was specifically designed to watch a cheesy scifi or fantasy movie, and eat a cheese-based dinner and snacks. Yes, it’s stupid, but we had fun, and Jim loved it. He knew what to expect. He could bring anything with cheese flavor, and it was welcomed as appropriate to the event. Sliced cheese? Sure, gimme a slice. Cheeseburgers from the McClown drivethru? Classic. Novelty cheddar soda? What the heck, we need something to get us through watching Cyborg Cannibal Clowns 3 – the Clownening, pop me open a can.

The night Plan Z was born, we were watching Dusk of the Living Dead and enjoying pizza-topping-nachos and cheddar-crusted chicken nuggets, when the power went out. There was a snowstorm, which honestly was worse than we’d been prepared for, and when everything went dark in the whole neighborhood all at once, we realized no one was going home that night. We had enough candles, and Jim had 4 camping lanterns, a backup generator, weather radio, sleeping bags, and MREs in his truck, so we weren’t worried. But, as we set up a faux-camp in Dana and Dale’s living room and sat up through the night, we got bored.

I wouldn’t have remembered exactly who was there that night, but Jim wrote it down on page 1 of what became the Plan Z Survival Guide. There was Jim, me (I’m Casey), Dana and Dale (it was at their house), Jayden, Liam, Mia, and Sanjay. That was pretty much a full house in those days–Jordan had stopped coming around after Mia quite-rightly slapped him, Nevaeh hadn’t really joined the clique yet, and Roger never came to Cheese and Cheese because he and Dale never got along. So we managed to entertain ourselves for a bit by talking about what we’d each done that week, arguing about politics, religion, and pizza styles, and telling bad jokes. But, eventually, conversation lulled.

Then, Jim asked us why the characters in Dusk of the Living Dead had decided to take shelter in a Giganto-Mart when everyone started turning into zombies. While it had lots of useful stuff, he pointed out that it would be a target for any survivalist groups still around, the front of it was all breakable glass windows, and (as the movie was showing when the power cut out), once zombies got inside, there’d be no good way to keep them from roaming over the whole store.

And so, for lack of any better topic, we began figuring out the best plan for surviving the Zombie Apocalypse.

It was a surprisingly Socratic event. Someone would postulate something, like claiming the best place to hole up would be in a cabin in the mountains, and the rest of us would ask questions to test that claim. Were the woods really the best place? Was a cabin the best option? What about an old-style prison, with stone walls and guard towers? But would the prisoners be a high risk factor? Well, not if it was a decommissioned prison. Would such a place be in good repair? It could be, if it was bought in advance and maintained and updated for survival. What kind of updates and supplies? Well, food, weapons, survival gear, maps, a library of how-to books, at least. Farm equipment? Maybe, how many people are going to shelter here? Well, 7-8 is supposed to be the ideal size for survivalist groups. What about repopulation? Okay, you’d need a bigger group for that, but if you start with 7-8 and they form the leadership of a community made up of survivors who find them…

We spent all night doing it, Our smartphones still had reception, so we could look up facts, locations, pricing, storage, shelf life of foods, the most common ammo type in the state, what crops would be best, what skills you’d want people to have, and how would you arrange in advance for people with those skills to join you? Of course we didn’t think there was any chance there’d be a zombie apocalypse, and we certainly couldn’t have predicted what actually killed the world. We were just goofing around.

But Jim?

Jim was taking notes.

If you enjoy any of my various stories, thoughts, or ideas, please consider adding a drop of support through my Patreon campaign!, or dropping a cup of coffee worth of support at my Ko-Fi (which is also filled with pics of my roommate’s cat).


About Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is a full-time ttRPG Writer, designer, developer, publisher, and consultant. He's the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, and has served as the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the Editor-in-Chief for Evil Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps. He has a Pateon which supports his online work. You can find it at

Posted on July 13, 2022, in Adventure Sketch, Microsetting, Short Fiction and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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