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Proceed to Section Z
PROCEED TO SECTION Z

  A CHOOSE-YOUR-OWN-ADVENTURE ADVENTURE

  By Marcos Donnelly and Ted Wenskus

  * * * * *

  Copyright 2011 by Marcos Donnelly and Ted Wenskus

  About This Work

  “Proceed to Section Z” is a short story that started as a fun thought experiment and wound up inspiring the novel The Mostly Weird Chronicles of Steffan McFessel, also by Ted Wenskus and Marcos Donnelly. If you enjoy this work, be sure to get your own copy of the full novel (with similar characters but a completely different madcap plot) at:

  You can also view our teaser/trailer for the McFessel works at:

  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6Uuae_69AA

  INTRODUCTION

  Now that the radiation has pretty much died out, and people have started building new villages far away from any of the old cities, and the east and west coasts have stopped burning, mostly, your father turns from where he’s sitting by the campfire burning some Steinbeck for warmth and says, “Son, civilization will be starting up again soon.”

  Your name is Steffan McFessel. You live in a small, dingy, post-catastrophic village just outside Capitol, center of the fledgling Mid-Nebraskan Conglomerate (Regent Nicholas III presiding). Your father’s tone makes you realize, with no little discomfort, that you, as a sixteen-year-old white mid-American male, are exactly the right demographic for being pushed from the nest and forced to make haphazard choices about your post-apocalyptic future.

  “So, what do you want to do with your life, boy?” You grimace when he tosses a Hawthorne into the waning flames. About the only thing you enjoy in life is reading the pre-Last War books you’ve scrounged from the ruins of North Platte. Dad likes them, too. They’re great kindling.

  “Dunno,” you say, hoping nonchalance will thwart him. It doesn’t work. Once chalant, your Father can never be nonned out of it.

  “There’s a few apprenticeships opening up in Capitol, you know,” Dad says, feigning offhandedness. “In fact, I’ve set you up some interviews with the Regent’s Mentors for Philosophical Counsel, Military Heroism, and Court Jesterdom at three, four, and five o’clock today.”

  “Court Jesterdom?” you ask, blinking.

  “Let’s not kid ourselves, son. Not everybody’s a hero or a genius.”

  And so your forced adventure begins.

  INTRUSIVE AUTHORIAL NOTE! Each choice below is hyperlinked for eReaders that enable in-text linking. If your eReader doesn’t permit that function, simply scroll down to the section you desire in a quaintly nostalgic 20th century fashion. Or, what the heck—read straight through don’t miss any of the quips.

  What path do you pursue?

  a) A hero’s adventure, since you fit the demographic. Proceed to Section A.

  b) Philosophical pursuits. Those books made quite an impact on you. Proceed to Section B.

  c) Comedy—people are probably going to laugh at you anyway. Proceed to Section C.

  SECTION A

  You choose to follow the path of Military Heroism. Three long years of apprenticeship pass.

  Your Mentor, Commander Senecalius of the Conglomerate Militia, is a harsh but fair taskmaster. You learned that your very first day when he gently asked you, “Tell me, young McFessel: Do you believe essence precedes existence?” When you answered, “I don’t think so,” he nodded serenely, draped an avuncular arm about your shoulders, and noogied your skull for fifteen minutes straight while holding you in a headlock. Then he let you try another answer.

  In the muddy training field of Capitol’s western sector, you learn from your Mentor the arcane craft of a Philosopher Warrior—how to use Nietzsche as rationale for slaying unarmed opponents; emotional Kantian fluctuations to keep adversaries off balance; New-Age Platonism to envision the Image of Your Inner Executioner; eidetic truths to reduce a vastly superior force to phenomenological surrender based on a proposition that at some primitive, ontological level, your side does have hordes of warriors that can’t actually be seen yet. You learn slowly over time, and suffer only eight major dislocations for wrong answers.

  But the constant drilling awakens both your body and your mind, and your attention wanders from your training to the Regent’s daughter, Mythanda, whose beauty has captured your heart and inspired Senecalius’s epithet: “Best frontal assaults since the Peloponnesian War.” She passes by the training field every Tuesday and watches you—you—trade lacerations and logic with the chief of the Militia. She always leaves with a smile on her face.

  “His philosophies lean toward probing the Regent’s daughter.”

  “Very true,” comes the reply. “It’d be a pity if someone were to thrust a bit of chilly reality upon the passion of his musings, wouldn’t it?”

  “Indeed. Now, was that metaphor mixed, or just bad?”

  You, of course, don’t hear this.

  Upon passing your final exam in Stealth Epistemology, Senecalius declares you to be “about as smart as one could hope for a soldier.” Congratulations. To honor this occasion, a celebratory banquet is held at the Regent’s palace for all top graduates and their respective Mentors. As Senecalius’s only student, you qualify as his best. When you enter the banquet hall, you discover, much to your delight, that the Regent and his family are attending the gala, and that your seat is directly next to Mythanda’s. As you pull your seat from the table, she looks up at you expectantly. You feel compelled to say something.

  What do you say?

  a) Something humorous. You’ll charm the stockings off her. Proceed to Section D.

  b) Something heroic. Your swaggering bravery will make her swoon. Proceed to Section E.

  c) Something philosophical. You’ll get her attention, at any rate. Proceed to Section F.

  SECTION B

  You choose to follow the path of Philosophy. Three long years of apprenticeship pass.

  You attend the Conglomerate Academy of Wisdom and are put under the scrupulous guidance of the famed despot philosopher Beffles, the Regent’s Prime Counsel. As you endure his rigorous course of training, he teaches you that, above all, the essence of philosophy lies within comedy. You become immersed in your art. The slapstick of Laurel and Heidegger, the verbal play of Abailard and Costello, the satire of Sartre all slam against your sense of self-regard as solidly as lemon meringue pie slams against your face which, as part of the training process, happens regularly.

  Amid your exercises, you note that the Regent’s daughter, Mythanda, has seen fit to vicariously expand her mind by watching your drills in Logical Positivism and fruitcake juggling. You, as a result, fall hopelessly in love, for Beauty is Truth ... and who wouldn’t be hopelessly attracted to Truth, especially when it is presented in such well-proportioned and curvacious a form? From the mirth that issues from her as she watches, you deduce that she more than adequately understands the connection between philosophy and comedy.

  “I see that Truth has picked up another ogler.”

  “Indeed,” comes the reply. “How very fitting that he will soon discover that Truth is a dish best served cold.”

  Pause. “Thought that was revenge.”

  “Don’t be pettish.”

  You, of course, don’t hear this.

  After besting Beffles in Baconian Methodology and Banana Peels at twelve paces, you complete your philosophical training and are immediately accepted as an entry-level employee at the Regent’s stables. Congratulations. A commencement banquet is held at the Regent’s palace to honor all top graduates and their Mentors. Much to your elation, you find that your seat is adjacent to Mythanda’s. You reach for your chair. She looks up at you curiously. You feel compelled to say something.

  What do you say?

  a) Something humorous. For Humor is a Truth fit to express the merits of Beauty. Proceed to Section D.

  b) Something gallant. If the essence of Truth lies in Courage, then it, too, must be suitable for Beauty. Proceed to Section E.

  c) Something philosophical. Unadulterated Truth is all you need. Let’s hope she thinks so, too. Proceed to Section F.

  SECTION C

  You choose to follow the path of Comedy. Three long years of apprenticeship pass.

  Under the scrutinizing (and, indeed, only) eye of Chief Jester Reginald Dorwin, you delve into the true power of comic presentation. You learn the value of thrust and counter-thrust, the ironic parry, the metaphoric dodge, the sarcastic double-arc (with added emphasis) and, above all, the intrinsic worth of a good pair of running shoes. During your training tenure, you are admitted for abdominal surgery only twice for bad puns.

  But, as is normal under the hormonal pressures of youth, your mind wanders from your training to Mythanda, the Regent’s preeminently buxomed daughter, who has captured your heart by her consistent stops at the training field to watch you—you—melee with the Chief Jester. She laughs a lot as she watches. You must be doing well.

  “He seems to think the world of the Regent’s daughter.”

  “Very true,” comes the reply. “It’d be a pity if someone were to kidnap her and freeze her alive inside a block of ice, wouldn’t it?”

  “Hmmm ...”

  You, of course, don’t hear this.

  Upon passing your final exams, and recovering from the ruptured kidney incident, the Chief Jester declares you to be “a complete and total fool,” marking your passage into adulthood. Congratulations. To honor this occasion, a celebratory banquet is held at the Regent’s palace for top graduates and their Mentors. Much to your flushing pleasure, you discover that the Regent and his family are attending the gala and that your seat is directly next to Mythanda’s. As you pull your seat from the table, she looks up at you with anticipation. You feel compelled to say something.

  What do you say?

  a) Something humorous. Why the hell not? It’s what you trained for. Proceed to Section D.

  b) Something gallant. Women like gallant men, especially ones with scars. You seem to fit the bill. Proceed to Section E.

  c) Something philosophical. Well, anything’s worth a shot, isn’t it? Proceed to Section F.

  SECTION D

  “So,” you start, “there’s these three nuns and a llama at the bottom of a cesspool—”

  “Is this a scatological joke?” she interrupts.

  “Uh,” you reply with razor-sharp wit.

  “Scatological humor is so debasing,” she says. “If you’d only chosen a form that aspires to Platonic High Comedy ...” She slowly shakes her head at you.

  You take one more shot at your Comedy of Eros. “Did I mention that one of the nuns was Descartes?”

  As luck would have it, her reply is drowned out by a band of armed men bursting into the banquet hall. They have guns. Not only that: They have guns that work, as evidenced by the way one of the stewards’ chests explodes. They seem intent on reaching the Regent.

  In the ensuing chaos, you have a few brief seconds in which to act.

  What do you do?

  a) Protect yourself. You want to impress Mythanda—which will be pretty hard if you’re dead. Proceed to Section G.

  b) Protect the Regent. Maybe that’ll impress Mythanda. Besides, the Regent’s the one who pays you. Proceed to Section H.

  c) Protect Mythanda. If she’s dead, there’s no reason to impress anyone. Proceed to Section I.

  SECTION E

  “So,” you say with a deliberate swagger, “I bet you’ve never seen a scar like this.” You untuck your shirt and point proudly to puckered scabs on your lower abdomen.

  She peers, then temples her hands in contemplation.

  “Impressive, isn’t it?” you ask.

  She snickers. “It’s shaped just like my cat, Snap,” she says, “licking his balls.” With that, she begins to laugh outright. Loudly. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except that she’s repeatedly slapping the table in an attempt to stop. Her commotion attracts the attention of the entire room, including the Regent’s. They all stare at you, at your uplifted shirt, at your exposed stomach and index finger pointing thereto. Disapproval sits evident on their faces.

  Luckily for you, though, their attention is yanked away by a band of armed men bursting into the banquet hall. The men seem keen to get the Regent’s attention, as they shoot into the chest of one of the stewards standing beside him.

  In the ensuing chaos, you have a few brief seconds in which to act.

  What do you do?

  a) Protect yourself. The best offense is a good defense, and you’re feeling very offense-orientated at this moment. Proceed to Section G.

  b) Protect the Regent. What better way to earn brownie points with your employer? Proceed to Section H.

  c) Protect Mythanda. Maybe she’ll stop laughing long enough to thank you. Proceed to Section I.

  SECTION F

  “So,” you start, “I have it on good authority that essence precedes existence.” You furrow your brows to show how pensive a guy you are. “Especially at dinner time.”

  “Oh,” she says. “That’s nice.” She drums her fingers a moment before saying, “Did you know you can kill someone in under six minutes by severing their femoral artery?”

  “Oh,” you reply. “That’s nice, too.”

  “I mean, easily,” she insists, impassioned. “Even with this tiny serrated steak knife right here!” She holds it up, her eyes glazing over as she considers its toothy edge.

  Luckily, before you can attempt another scintillating rejoinder, a band of armed men burst into the banquet hall, waving firearms. Although you believed Mythanda’s assertion about arterial vulnerability, you see that a shotgun blast to the chest is an equally, even more, effective method of mortal dispatchment, as is demonstrated on one of the stewards. The assailants appear to want to use the Regent as their next example.

  Chaos ensues. You only have a few brief seconds to decide how to react.

  What do you do?

  a) Protect yourself. Although you firmly believe that existence precedes essence, perhaps your existence should rank first. Proceed to Section G.

  b) Protect the Regent. Duty to leaders realizes Aristotelian abstract. Or at least a good pay raise. Proceed to Section H.

  c) Protect Mythanda. If Truth is Beauty and Beauty Truth, protecting both in the form of Mythanda is bound to get you something ... Proceed to Section I.

  SECTION G

  “My God!” someone screams. “It’s the Hegelian Cryotherapists of Ogallala!”

  Sometimes, acts of selflessness begin with understanding your duty to yourself. After all, how can one be selfless if one’s self is shot to pieces by guns—guns, for God’s sake, instruments of death from before Last War, devices that weren’t supposed to exist anymore!

  These are all the things you’re thinking as your body instinctively hurls itself under the banquet table.

  There’s screaming throughout the room, more gun shots, angry and frightened shouting. Unfortunately, you don’t get to see any of it, since you’ve wisely decided to save your own hide. Unfortunate, too, that the culmination of the battle involves, apparently, some heroic struggler being overcome and thrown full force onto the banquet table, causing it to buckle, crack dangerously, and then collapse directly on top of you. You stagger from the shambles, only to be kneed in the side of the head by someone running to the Regent’s aid. And the battle continues.

  At least, you guess it continues. You don’t know for sure, since you’ve been knocked witless.

  “Did you see the boy?” he spits. “Not a modicum of resistance. A self-serving cretin through and through.”

  “Yeah,” the companion agrees. “Just like the character in that John Updike book—what was it?”

  “The Red Badge of Courage?”

  “Fools.” The hiss is whisper cold, and they turn to face their leader, the man named Icer. “Don’t underestimate any of our enemies. One bad choice from a confused boy doesn’t eliminate the danger.”

  They are appropriately chastised.

  You come to, but slowly. Somebody’s helping you up. Well, not really helping. More like strangling you, actually. The man looks oddly familiar. Maybe it’s the furious look in his eyes. Well, “eye” at any rate.

  “You spineless neophyte! What the hell did you think you were doing?” Ah, now you’ve got it. Chief Jester Dorwin. And behind him, some other vaguely familiar people—Mentors, like Militia Commander Senecalius, Prime Counsel Beffles the Philosopher, people you’re starting to remember, all of whom look very, very angry.

  So, what the hell did you think you were doing?

  a) “Attempting a ground-level assault!” Proceed to Section J.

  b) “Trying to tie their shoelaces together!” Proceed to Section K.

  c) “I’ve no idea whatsoever!” Proceed to Section L.

  SECTION H

  “My God!” someone screams. “It’s the Heideggerian Cryotherapists of Ogallala!”

  You’ve never heard of the HCO, but you’ve read enough to know that a true hero runs blindly into danger, especially when the life of his honored lord is at stake. Twisting, you confront the nearest of the assailants, a burly, bearded man who’s carrying a stubby, dangerous-looking weapon. A gun, maybe one of those pre-War assault weapons you’ve read about.

  “Halt!” you say, flexing threateningly. “You shall not lay a hand upon these good people!”

 
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