Water. His memories of that night are hazy. Someone was passing champagne around and he probably drank too much. The only part he remembers clearly is the water all around him as he wondered whether he’d make it back to the top. The burning in his lungs as he made his way to the surface, the thought that he’d be sweating if he could sweat underwater. Could you sweat underwater? He remembers reminding himself to look that up later. You know, if he survived.
– – – – –
Zach Thomas wakes up alone in the same studio apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City where he’s spent the last five years. In those five years, he can’t tell you how often he’s left this room but he’d be surprised if it’s more than a dozen times.
He wanted to get away from everyone and everything in his life. On that count, his plan has been a complete success. This room has proved about as good a place to do that as you could hope for in New York. Why he’s stayed in one of the biggest cities on earth is another matter. There’s so much crime, so many people. He could leave and head to bum fuck North Dakota or Montana or anywhere if he wanted to. Money isn’t an issue. The only thing stopping him is that to leave he’d have to talk to the company and that’s the last thing he wants. He’d rather live the rest of his life in this tiny apartment than do so.
Logging onto his computer, he starts up the video game he’s been working his way through the last few days. He defaults back to the role playing games of his youth. They’re time sinks and that suits him fine. For at least the tenth time he’s playing his favorite game, Final Fantasy 8. He doesn’t care what anyone says, this is the best game in the series. The music is amazing and the story is awesome. He turns the news on in the background, just for the noise. A habit from his old life, he never feels comfortable unless he has the news going at pretty much all hours of the day. He doesn’t want to live in that world anymore but he still wants some idea what’s happening in it.
As he loads his game, a news story comes on about President Hughes. He’ll never understand how that moron got elected. People must be stupider than he thought. Then again, he didn’t bother voting against him. He would have if it wouldn’t have required leaving his apartment. He doesn’t do that unless he absolutely has to and no election was worth an extra trip into the world. He reasons that it didn’t make any difference, the guy didn’t win New York so his vote wouldn’t have changed the outcome. He still feels guilty.
Hughes is blabbering on about vigilantes. They’ve been his favorite topic for months. He can’t seem to shut up about how he’s going to officially authorize them and return them to their former glory. Zach’s always assumed he was full of it. There are laws and isn’t taking care of criminals what the police do? Why would you want random people running around dispensing their own brand of justice?
A few vigilantes were a big deal back in the 40s, but that was another time. After the war most states never had much tolerance for them. New York police were told that if they were committing violence they could be shot on sight. A few dead vigilantes did a lot to discourage others. He still remembers as a kid seeing one of them chasing a bank robber, moving from rooftop to rooftop and missing a jump between buildings. His scream as he hit the pavement made Zach ill.
Only a few random battles into his game he hears a pounding at the door. “Who is it?” He’s only met with more pounding. For most people that would be concerning but it tells Zach exactly who it is, especially once he realizes it’s Tuesday.
Answering the door, he finds his neighbor Mr. Nowak standing there with many bags stuffed full of groceries. They’re stacked onto some sort of weird cart that rolls along next to him. It’s seemingly designed just for carrying bags of groceries.
Nowak rolls into the apartment with a grumble and Zach quickly moves to lighten the older man’s load. They make their way to the kitchen, or what passes for one in this tiny apartment. As he starts unloading the cart Nowak says, “Making an old man carry all of these groceries around for you. Why can’t you get your own groceries? The store’s right down the street.”
Zach starts to apologize but stops himself. “You’re not that old. I try to pay you a fair amount for what you do, I know the grocery services I’ve looked at would be cheaper but I trust you. Anyway, it looks like that thing makes it a lot easier,” he says while gesturing to the weird cart.
“You like that huh?” The older man seems to soften, at least a little. “I made it myself. I got tired of trying to carry your groceries back from the store and then up three flights of stairs. When I need something, I make it.”
“You do a lot of building then?” Zach isn’t used to having so much conversation with the man. Usually he’s in and out. That suits Zach fine but once in awhile it’s nice to have a real conversation.
“I invented a new propulsion system back in the 80s, still living on the money from that one. If you know what you’re doing you can build anything.”
Feeling comfortable with one of the only regular presences in his life, Zach says, “That was a long time ago. What have you done lately?”
Nowak’s hard exterior comes back and suddenly he’s turning bright red. “Nothing you’d have heard of. I haven’t designed anything lately, at least nothing that’s been released. You know why? The only thing people want at this point are weapons. Anything I make, if they want it, the government will take it from me. I’m not getting rich on the blood of other people. That’s what everyone wants but I have to sleep at night.”
Zach finishes taking care of the groceries and examines the cart more closely. It really is a beautiful design. Sleek, made to support the bags from top and bottom so there’s no risk of them tearing out, it even has a lift meant to help it easily roll up stairs. Probably because their elevator is out of service at least half the time.
He goes to the opposite corner of the room and opens his safe to grab some cash. The first delivery of the month means he has to pay the man. Usually Nowak will stand by the door waiting for him but not today. Perhaps spurred on by their discussion, Nowak follows him to the safe and gets a view inside. Seeing the amount of money in it, his eyes come pretty close to popping out of his skull.
“How does a stupid kid like you get that kind of money? You never seem to leave this place. Are you dealing drugs? I won’t have drug dealing in my building. I could turn you into the building management!”
Zach mostly trusts Nowak but he doesn’t like anyone knowing he has this kind of money. Standing and trying to block the man’s view, he uses his hands to make a calming gesture. “My parents left me some money. That’s all. I get an envelope full of cash every month and I never spend it all so the rest goes in here. I should probably tell them to send less but I don’t want to deal with the lawyers.”
Nowak’s hands unclench and he starts to breathe. “Sorry to hear about your parents. That can be rough. You might want to look into a bank or something. I won’t turn you into the management, but if I get a whiff of any drugs over here, I will then. Or maybe I’ll just call the cops.”
“Thanks, that won’t be necessary though. The only drug I take is caffeine. Anyway, I think I’ll get back to my game.”
Nowak makes a move toward the door, realizing he’s no longer needed. Zach hands him an extra couple of bills, hoping it will help put this to bed. Nowak stuffs it into his pocket. “You know, if you wanted to get your own groceries, I could just sell you the cart. You can afford it.” He glances around the apartment. “I could build you a lot of stuff to make this place more functional. It looks like you barely fit in here with all this crap.”
Zach makes a last effort to assure him that won’t be necessary and opens the door to show him out. A few seconds after the man leaves, he hears his neighbor’s door slam and then hears what sounds like a chicken. A chicken? That man must be out of his mind.
Drifting back into his game, he can’t help but notice the news in the background. Hughes hasn’t stopped rambling. “This guy really likes to hear himself talk,” Zach says before realizing there’s nobody else there. He’s talking to himself now. Maybe he’s the one who’s out of his mind.
“We will restore our society to law and order,” President Hughes says from the TV mounted on the room’s far wall. “Vigilantes won us the greatest war in our country’s great history and they can win us this great war against crime and terror as well. Some will proclaim that they are themselves committing crimes but that’s just stupid. They’re trying to help and want to help. Let’s make sure they can do it. Once we pass the Vigilantes Making us Safe act, or VMUS as I like to call it, they will be legal and we can make them a huge part of our plan. They’ll provide much needed support to our boys in blue so that they can get these criminals before they can get us. They’ll keep people who don’t belong in this country out. They’ll make it so we can once again control our own destiny. That is how we take back our country. God bless America.”
Finally ending his diatribe, Hughes walks off the stage with a smile and a wave. The news desk reports that the vote on VMUS will be coming up in congress next week and right now it looks like it’s going to pass. Failure to get it through would be a big embarrassment for the new president since it was a major campaign promise. The next story’s about an arms deal in Europe and it loses Zach’s attention. He drifts back into his game and goes to a world he actually likes.
– – – – –
A week later Zach’s deeply invested into Tales of Destiny 2, another old role playing game. He started this one a few days ago and hasn’t let up. The game’s first disc is just ending and before making the swap to disc 2, he goes to get another drink. He finished his soda a few minutes ago but there’s been no good place to pause.
Opening the fridge, he’s shaken to find only one more can. Another two boxes should still be sitting there but are nowhere to be found. He frantically looks behind everything in the fridge but realizes they can’t be here, there’s nothing they’d hide under. After an incredible bout of swearing he calms down long enough to realize Nowak must have only grabbed him three twelve packs and not the five he requested. How did he miss it until now? Probably because he usually grabs his drinks fast while he’s in the middle of something else. He’d normally have caught it when Nowak dropped the groceries off but their conversation this week must have distracted him.
There’s still another week until Nowak’s set to bring his next grocery haul. He thinks about going next door and pounding on the man’s door. It’s his fault after all, he has to buy the same amount of soda every time and should have it down by now. As much as he needs the soda though, he realizes pushing the man isn’t a great idea after the exchange they had with the last delivery. He’ll just have to go without for a week.
The more he thinks about it though, the more he realizes that won’t work. He can’t go a week without caffeine. There’s too much to be done. Too many enemies need slaying. He thinks about those grocery delivery companies but he doesn’t want anyone new coming to his apartment. It dawns on him that the only option is going out and getting it himself.
This isn’t altogether an issue. It’s not like he’s never gone outside. Until a few years ago he couldn’t stand to stay inside. He ways always doing something. Even when he first moved in here after everything that happened he still went out for some reason or another at least every month or two.
Trips out have grown more and more rare over time and thinking about it, it must have been at least eight months since his last trip out. Still, he’s confident it won’t be an issue. He just needs a plan. He grabs a shower and a fresh change of clothes first. He knows it’s crucial he not stand out in any way. No one can know how unusual it is for him to go out. They’ll think he’s unusual. He decides to leave his TV on, playing at a reasonable volume. That way anyone who might think about breaking in will think someone is home.
He spends a good forty minutes making small changes to the lighting and adjusting every detail of the apartment to be just the way he needs them before he feels confident. He takes a look in the mirror and cringes at what he sees. He isn’t a bad looking guy really. He could definitely stand to lose some weight and take better care of himself but there was a time people thought he was good looking. He decides to adjust his next food order and include some healthier options. Maybe he’ll even order some sort of exercise equipment. Not a lot of room here in the apartment but he can probably fit something small. He’ll have to investigate options later.
Feeling relatively satisfied with his home safety choices and having grabbed some cash from the safe, Zach steps into the hallway and starts walking down three flights of stairs to the street. He considers the elevator but knowing this building it probably isn’t working. Even if it is, he doesn’t want to risk getting cornered by a neighbor and having to force an awkward conversation. He’s worked hard to make sure most of the people in this building know as little about him as possible.
Reaching the ground floor and stepping onto the street he realizes it’s nighttime and he isn’t sure the corner store will be open. They were open until midnight the last time he was there but that was over a year ago. Time doesn’t have much practical application to his life recently but it still means something out here.
Shivering as he walks along, Zach wishes he wore a coat. A light layer of snow covers the world but nothing’s coming down at the moment. Enough people line the street to make him think it probably isn’t midnight yet. He considers going back upstairs to check the time but dismisses the urge. There’s a part of him that knows if he doesn’t go now he’ll never get back his courage.
The corner store is only a few blocks from his apartment. Arriving, he notes that the sign on the door shows they close at eleven each night except Friday and Saturday when they’re open until two. What day is it anyway?
They’re open now which is all that really matters. Zach steps inside and immediately walks to the back of the store where they keep the soda. His plan is to buy every can and bottle of his favorite so he’ll know he has enough for the next week. He may need to ration a bit but it should be enough to get through. Realizing he can’t carry that much in his arms, he goes back to the front of the store where he finds a small basket. That seems to be the only thing this place has to put stuff into. He doesn’t think it’s big enough so he grabs a second.
About to return to the soda section, he notices the cashier and suddenly he can think of nothing else. Standing behind the counter is quite possibly the most beautiful woman he’s ever laid eyes on. He hasn’t had much frame of reference the last few years but she’s the perfect height, with flaming red hair, a great body and a stunning set of eyes. He wonders what such a perfect woman can be doing in a place like this. They are in New York, there’s always a steady stream of people rushing here trying to make it in acting or modeling or some other profession where most will never sniff success. He feels certain this one will make it.
He’s far too nervous to grab the amount of soda he planned to. He returns one of the baskets before she can notice he has two. Not sure what else to do, he works his way to the back of the store. He finds the soda there and starts filling his basket. After a minute he stops. This woman is beautiful and maybe if he plays his cards right he could ask her out. On the face of things that seems impossible. He doesn’t like leaving his apartment. If he ever invited her there the cramped room would be humiliating and he doesn’t like people in his space anyway. She might be worth the effort.
Not wanting to seem crazy by buying too much of the same drink, he only grabs two of the two liters. He grabs two of a different kind as well. It’s been years since he’s had a cola but he used to drink this from time to time. Buying two different drinks will seem more normal. He’s sure of it. Between the four bottles and the can he still has at home they should last. It’ll be a sacrifice, especially once his favorite is gone, but it’s one he can make.
Finally having filled his basket, Zach heads to the counter. Trying to think of what he’ll say to this beauty, his mind draws a blank. He’s never had trouble with women. Although some might tell you otherwise, being rich beyond most people’s wildest imagination definitely doesn’t hurt.
Putting on his best smile as he reaches the counter he says, “Hello.” She smiles back and his legs feel weak.
“How are you doing tonight?” She quickly gets to work bagging his drinks.
For some reason he thought the words would come when he needed them. They don’t. Small talk wasn’t his strength when he did it all the time. After years without practice he doesn’t know where to begin. It’s been eight months since he’s talked to anyone except Mr. Nowak. An awkward pause ends when he manages to say, “Fine,” but by then she’s already finished bagging the drinks.
“Can I help with anything else?” It went so fast. He knows it’s now or never but he hasn’t been able to chat her up yet. He wants her to like him before asking her out.
Desperate and knowing he’ll regret it if he doesn’t take the chance he says, “Actually, yes. I was wondering if you’d like to grab a bite to eat sometime.”
Her smile cracks, only momentarily but long enough that he should get the hint. “You’re sweet, but I don’t date customers. Sorry.”
For most people that would be enough. Even Zach isn’t so socially inept that he completely misses the hint. He can’t imagine going on without this perfect woman in his life though. He smiles even wider and pushes on. “I’m only kind of a customer. This is only the second time I’ve been in here and I don’t know that I’ll be back. It’ll be fun. We could go to that steak house the celebrity chef on TV runs.” That’s the only fancy restaurant he can think of and he can’t even come up with the place’s name or the name of the chef. He wants to impress her though and a fancy restaurant seems like a good way to do so.
What remained of her smile is gone. Only discomfort remains on her face. “Look, I’m sure you’re great or whatever but you’re not my type. And honestly, if you could afford a place like that, you probably wouldn’t be shopping at a corner store this time of night. It’s also really not cool to put me on the spot at my job, especially after I told you no the first time. Your total is $8.18.”
Zach’s smile vanishes as well. This isn’t at all how he planned for this to go. She’s right of course. He shouldn’t have made her uncomfortable. Now he has to leave and he doesn’t even have what he came for. If he’d seen this coming he’d have gotten all the soda he wanted. Everything always used to come so easily to him. Is it that she doesn’t know he has money? Is it the weight he’s gained? Did someone write something on his forehead telling the world that he’s a freak who never comes out of his apartment? Offering a mumbled apology, he hands her a twenty and tells her to keep the change. Grabbing his bags he stumbles out of the store and back onto the street.
Walking back to his apartment, he feels completely dejected. Is this all life has left for him? Sitting sadly in his apartment, drinking soda and playing video games. He loves games but they’re not something to live for. As he makes his way home a part of him knows he needs to make a change but there’s another part of him that keeps telling him he doesn’t have the strength to do it.
By the time he climbs the three flights of stairs back to his apartment, all he wants to do is fall into bed. The door looks the same as when he left and he breathes a sigh of relief. That lasts only a few seconds. Putting his key in the lock, he feels no resistance. The door’s unlocked. The collar of his shirt is soaked in seconds. Did someone break into his place? Trying to stop hyperventilating, he realizes no one else has a key and there’s no sign someone broke in. Thinking back, he’s fairly sure he didn’t lock it in the first place. He’s so bad at existing in the world at this point that he couldn’t remember to lock his door when going out.
Pushing the door open a crack, he doesn’t see anyone inside. There’s no sign of anything missing. All the lights and the TV are still exactly the way he left them. There’s certainly no sign anyone is here now and there’s nowhere in this tiny apartment for someone to hide. Locking the door behind him, he slumps into his chair and exhales. This night has been a disaster but at least he’s home. Back to the safe place where nothing is going to hurt him. Maybe those thoughts about a change were a momentary diversion. Locking himself away has worked this long, maybe it will keep working. He’ll stay here, safe in his apartment, and things will keep going as they have been. That’s not so bad.
His TV’s still playing in the background and the news gets his attention. They’re cutting into their current story to go live to the president who’s in the process of giving a speech. “My fellow Americans, today is a historic day in the history of our country. With the passing of the Vigilantes Making Us Safe Act, our people will be able to take back this country. Everyday great American men and women,” he says with almost a snort, “will be able to protect themselves and their communities in a new and historic way. No longer will they be forced to rely on a police force they don’t always feel they can trust. Our great people will be safer and feel a greater sense of pride in our great country. We’ll be rolling out the details of how to register and what the requirements will be in the next couple of days. If you can’t wait and want to get out there now, know that you have our support. The act has passed and what you do will be legal. We’ll make sure of it. God bless America.”
The broadcast is magnetic. Heroes are going to be able to operate freely in the streets? His mind races over the ways this could go wrong about a hundred times in as many seconds. There are so many problems. Still, what about the ways things could go right? People will want to sign up in droves. There won’t be any more risk of going to jail or getting shot by the cops so the old impediments will be gone. Will the government be able to control something like this? The whole thing feels rushed and under planned. Despite that, they’re already encouraging people to get out on the streets and “get started?” Get started with what?
The more Zach thinks about it the more his mind returns to one thought. Could he do this? It seems crazy but he told himself he wanted a change. It would give him a reason to get out of this room. How can he do it though? He’s in terrible shape. He’s not a fighter. Guns pop into his head but immediately pop back out. Not even worth thinking about. He has money though and money can do a lot. Maybe he could sponsor someone else to sign up. No, he could probably do that from here in his apartment. That defeats the point. If this is going to be a real change he needs to get out of this room and experience the world again.
He has money and that’s a start. That’s what he can control. Technology and some sort of armor to protect himself seem like things he can buy. He’ll just buy his way into being a vigilante if he has to. He’ll figure out the rest when he has to.
With his mindset changing from if he can do this to how he can do it, his mind starts racing through the challenges he’ll face. There’s a lot but sticking with the ones he can control one stands out. He’s going to need somewhere to operate.
Trudging in here at all times of the day and night with equipment, a costume and any other gear he needs won’t work. People will figure out who he is and what he’s doing in no time. With who he is, that’s an issue. Although he can accept some measure of danger, he has to do everything he can to minimize it.
Counting the money in his safe, he finds he has a good start there. He’s been sent ten thousand dollars a month since he moved here and has saved at least a quarter of it every time. It’s been almost five years, he has just over one hundred thousand dollars saved up. That won’t be enough for everything he needs but it’s a start. He has billions if he wants them. He just has to face the men running his company. Even this morning that would have seemed worse than death but now it only makes him want to vomit. A definite step in the right direction. The money he has now will get him started, he can kick that can down the road.
Running over locations in his head, he thinks of a lot of options but dismisses them just as fast. He could buy another building or a storage unit but neither is secure and both have the same risk of returning to the same place repeatedly. That’s no better than using his apartment.
Another possibility enters his mind but he immediately kicks it out. He’s pushing himself forward but he’s not ready to push that far. It won’t stop popping back in though and he can’t think of a legitimate reason to avoid it outside of the fact that thinking about it makes him want to jump off a building. There are over a dozen docks and marinas throughout New York. He can get a spot in each of them and move freely around the city. He doesn’t have to return to the same place repeatedly. He can spread the risk out. It’s perfect. The only issue is that it means getting back on a boat.
Google finds him a marina in the city that sells luxury boats. If he’s going to spend a lot of time there it might as well be nice. It might even be good if the boat is somewhere he can stay for awhile if necessary. After a few minutes of searching he finds something called a crossover yacht and it seems like everything he could ask for. Multiple bedrooms, satellite TV and internet, a kitchen, a bathroom, able to be piloted by just one person. He sends an email to the company selling them asking how he can view one in New York.
He hears back in less than an hour telling him that one can be shown at the west side marina the next afternoon. Determined to start things in motion before he thinks of more excuses to stop, he goes to bed. Drifting off to sleep he catches sight of his clock across the room. The glowing red light tells him that he’s already made one change. This is the first time in years he’s worried about what time he’s going to sleep.
– – – – –
The next morning Zach hails a cab to the west side marina. Leaving his apartment two days in a row isn’t something he’s done in years. Maybe not since he moved into this place. He’s blinded by the daylight and asks the cab driver to stop somewhere so he can grab sunglasses. The driver, a small woman with an accent he can barely understand, happily complies but lets him know the meter won’t stop. Buying the first pair that fit his head, he gets back in and heads to the marina.
The ride could be a lot worse. As far as cabs go, Zach’s impressed by the cleanliness. After a generous tip the driver is more than happy to return in an hour. He steps out of the cab and finds himself staring at a bunch of boats. The sight of them makes his blood freeze in his veins. The freezing weather and flurries of snow falling on him don’t help. Knowing he has to get over it if this will work, he forces himself toward the office. Upon entering he’s immediately set upon by aides offering him coffee or maybe a water. Declining both, he sits patiently until a Mr. Laszlo shows his face.
“Welcome good sir. I understand you wanted to see the crossover,” he says in a thick Russian accent. Zach nods in response. “Wonderful, wonderful, we’ll get right on that. Not an easy boat to track down but an owner who usually docks in the Bronx was glad for a chance to show off. Let’s begin the tour.”
Zach follows the short, rotund man to the dock but freezes at the end of the pier and not from the winter air. He asks Laszlo to wait a moment and then thinks up an excuse about being close enough and having a good view. The ship’s impressive. It’s large, spacious, looks comfortable and Zach can’t help but think it’s the perfect place to hide out if needed. He knows from the pictures online it has all the storage he needs and he’s confident he can have it modified to provide extra security.
Thanking Laszlo for the showing, he tells the man he’s seen enough and they retreat to the safety of the office. This is where Zach has to get through the speech he spent all morning preparing. He knows if he doesn’t appear confident he’ll be taken for all he’s worth, which is a considerable amount. “I like it but I need a fair price. I want all the doors and the engine modified to only open or start with a scan of my hand. I want all the cabinets and storage to do the same. I need satellite TV and internet and if possible I’d like it modified so I can pilot it inside or outside. All the glass needs to be bulletproof. How much am I looking at?”
The man immediately starts crunching numbers and actually comes up with an answer in an impressively short amount of time. Maybe he came to the right place. After double checking things the man is comfortable providing a quote. “Assuming the glass prices haven’t changed much in the last two weeks, we’re looking at right around 1.2 million dollars.“
Zach opens his bag and pulls out one hundred thousand dollars. He plops it on the desk. “Here’s a down payment. You’ll get the rest when it’s done. Fair?”
Jumping to shake his hand, Laszlo advises some contracts need to be signed and it will be that same one hundred thousand a year for all the dock locations Zach wants. That’s fine, he can come up with that once he goes to the office. If he can’t manage to deal with his company then he’ll never manage to get on the boat. He tells Laszlo to draw up the paperwork.
His next idea may be the worst of all. If he doesn’t want to die the first time he does this he’s going to need gear you can’t buy at Radio Shack. He’s smart but he isn’t a genius. He can’t design the kind of tech he’ll need and while he’s sure he can buy it, he doesn’t have a list of brilliant engineers and inventors in his rolodex. Only two ideas have popped into his head and putting out a classified ad isn’t going to keep who he is low key. The other idea is almost as bad.
Zach returns home and climbs the stairs to his floor. Instead of walking to his own door, he walks to the door next to his. Pounding on the door a few times is fun, it’s his chance to get Mr. Nowak back for all the times he’s pounded on Zach’s door. Nowak throws the door open, wide eyed and ready for a fight. His anger dissipates when he finds Zach standing there. He’s been getting this guy’s groceries for almost two years but outside of the first time they met, he’s never seen him outside his apartment. He sends an email every couple of weeks and Nowak picks up what he needs.
Trying to put on his most confident look, Zach says, “Can I come in?”
Stepping aside to let Zach inside, Nowak still seems to be in a stupor. Zach’s surprised to see this place is a little bigger than his apartment. The living room is the size of his entire studio and he can see two rooms in the back. One is sitting open and appears to be a bedroom. The other is closed and has a padlock on it in addition to the normal lock.
Zach considers sitting but being in an unfamiliar apartment feels wrong so he stays on his feet. Nowak looks at him expectantly, waiting for an explanation Zach isn’t eager to give. A long awkward silence is finally broken. “Thanks for seeing me. I have a few questions I want to ask and I thought it was better to ask them in person.”
“Your rodeo,” Nowak says. ”What can I do for you? Is there something special you want me to get next week?”
“No, I actually don’t think I need you to get my groceries anymore. I’m trying to get back to living my life and being more independent. I have another job I’m interested in hiring you for though if you’re interested. It might be more up your alley and it’d pay a lot better.”
Nowak practically falls off his couch. This guy has spent the last few years somewhere between awkward and catatonic. He’s still awkward, but there’s a new confidence there. He doesn’t seem normal but he’s a lot closer than Nowak can remember seeing him.
The news about the job hits like a sledgehammer. He’s gotten used to living on the revenue from some old licenses of his tech but since he’s been making the extra money from Zach he’s upgraded his situation. He’s buying better food, new clothes, he even financed some new equipment so he could start work on projects of his own in his spare time. Whatever this new job is, he needs it.
“What the hell do you want from me? Did you just come over here to fire me?”
It’s good to see Nowak finding his fire so quickly. Zach needs that from him if this is going to work. “Did you see that VMUS passed yesterday?”
“Of course I did. Did anyone not see the idiot president’s pet project?”
“Well that’s what I’m here to talk about. I want to be one. As you can see, I’m not in great shape and I don’t have any special abilities. I’ve never even held a weapon. I need technology to make this work. You’re an inventor and last week you talked about making weapons. I want you to design technology for me. I’ll pay you well and you’ll have pretty much whatever budget you want. I can even get you a lab if you need it. What do you say?”
Nowak blinks a few times and stares at Zach. Apparently all the earlier surprises were a warm up. The two men stare back at each other with nothing coming out. Eventually Nowak reacts and he does so by bursting into laughter. He thought this guy was starting to get his head on straight but he’s actually gone completely off the deep end. “Sure, you can afford all that. With what fortune? That chunk of change in your safe won’t get you started kid. You’re losing it.”
Nowak’s howls might put Zach off if he didn’t expect them. It still stings but he knows he’s dealing with another person who doesn’t know who he is. He forces the smile to stay on his face. “My last name is Thomas. As in Thomas Computing. You might have heard of my family.”
The laughter stops and Nowak’s face goes white. He’s definitely heard of Thomas Computing. Who hasn’t? He even did some freelancing for them back in the day. They’re the second largest computer manufacturer in the world. They’re worth billions but the owner Laura Thomas and her husband Brian passed away. When was that? Four or five years ago? Some sort of accident. He can’t remember the details. They had a son but he’s never thought of connecting those dots. This kid is about the right age though and it would explain the money. Regaining his composure he says, “Oh ya? Why would you be holed up in a dump like this then?”
“A lot of reasons I don’t really want to go into, I want to do this though and I need help. I’ll need you to make me all kinds of stuff. Protective gear, non lethal weapons, restraints. I know you don’t want the government to get ahold of your stuff. Well I’m not the government and I can promise you I’ll keep it safe. Is that something you’d consider?”
Nowak thinks about this for a minute before responding. If the kid is for real it is intriguing. He’ll probably die the first time he’s in a dangerous situation though and Nowak would be at least partially responsible. Is he good enough to design technology that can keep this lunatic alive? He starts running through everything he could make. Ray guns and shock collars and all kinds of things he’s considered over the years. Suddenly something Zach said really sinks in.
“Non-lethal? How will that work? Isn’t the point of these vigilante’s that the moron in chief wants to sick on the country that they can do whatever they need to with impunity?”
Zach’s smile is gone. “No one is dying because of me. That’s not negotiable. I can do this without anyone dying. We can do it. I need your help but I’m confident we can make this work. I need you to make me weapons that will stop people but not kill them. Can you do that? If not I’ll find someone who can.”
Zach’s bluffing on that last part and he knows it. He has no other leads, no one else to go to in order to make this happen. Still, if he can’t do it without killing anyone then he doesn’t want to do it at all. Everyone will be alive when he’s done with them.
Nowak shakes his head. “It’s interesting kid, but I don’t think I’m your guy.” Zach starts to protest but Nowak shuts him down. “It’s just not for me. There’s a lot of guys out there who’d be happy to take your money. I think you should go though.”
Ushered out the door, Zach is suddenly standing in the hallway with the door shut in his face. He really thought the man would take his offer. Not knowing what else to do, he heads back to his apartment.
Just before he can open his apartment door, Nowak’s door is suddenly opening again. The man steps out into the hallway. “It can hurt them though, right? Even a lot? They just have to be alive when it’s over?”
This gets an actual laugh out of Zach and he suddenly realizes he doesn’t know the last time he really laughed. “Yes,” he says “it can definitely hurt them. They just need to stay alive.”
As if an unspoken agreement has been reached Nowak walks back into his apartment and leaves the door open behind him. Zach follows but the man is nowhere to be found. He returns from the bedroom a minute or two later with a few notebooks. Plopping them down on the couch, he urges Zach to sit. Initially he’s reluctant but the look Nowak gives him makes him more afraid to not sit than he is to enjoy the comfort of a couch in an unfamiliar location. He sits but makes sure to stay on the edge of the seat, refusing to lean back.
Satisfied, Nowak starts going over everything he can think of. No detail seems too small. It’s like he’s been saving every idea he’s had for twenty years. They spend forever debating body armor. Zach wants it to cover every inch of his body but Nowak explains why that won’t work. He wouldn’t be able to move. His joints need to be exposed at the very least.
They come up with a suit that should work. A pair of pants designed with body armor in as many spots as possible will get things started. He’ll need armor on parts of his arms and his chest. A helmet that looks like a modified motorcycle helmet with one way glass give him a great field of vision but stop others from seeing him. All of this should protect him from bullets, though it leaves a number of vulnerable spots which Nowak insists aren’t avoidable.
Moving onto a discussion about transport, Zach explains the boat and is surprised to hear Nowak likes the idea. He insists he’ll need access to put extra security on everything from the storage containers to the entrances and the ignition. Zach tells him about the handprint scanner and Nowak says that’s a great idea but he wants to be keyed in too. He also may be able to juice the whole thing up but that will come in time.
A car seems necessary to move quickly through the city. Zach suggests a few identical vehicles, one placed at each location he stores the boat. They quickly abandon that, this car will be tricked out and he can’t abandon it wherever he likes. Even he’s not rich enough to be replacing something that expensive a few times a week.
After some back and forth Nowak mentions trying to get the self driving tech a few companies are working on. With a few adjustments he might be able to summon this car from anywhere in the city. They decide for now it just needs to be fast and maneuverable. It also needs a secure back seat so when needed he can throw anyone he catches in there. Nowak’s surprised to find Zach knows how to drive. Most people in the city never learn but Zach explains that his family had houses all over the world and he learned in some of the other places they spent their time.
Finally the conversation turns to weaponry. A variety of things will be needed just to get started. Zach wants a play on a stun gun or taser he can use as a non lethal option. He also wants an electrified baton he can use up close and personal when needed. They agree his outfit will be shock resistant in case either of these get out of his hands in a fight. They come up with something that will shoot restraints over a wrist or leg and attach to a wall or even the ground to keep people he catches in place.
Nowak throws out all kinds of additional weapons but Zach deems them too dangerous. He does agree to carry a supply of flash and smoke grenades. Nowak promises to put some serious technology in the helmet. Nothing too crazy but night vision and body heat cameras shouldn’t be too hard to add. Maybe a radar device. He’ll see what he can come up with.
As night turns to morning both men finally relax. Zach even leans back. It will take time but they know what’s needed. Zach asks the big question. “How long until it can be ready?”
Nowak giggles a little, mostly from how tired he is. He hasn’t stayed up all night in twenty years. “What part? For some of the more pie in the sky crap it could take years or at the very least months. Most of the basic stuff though isn’t that complex. We need your basic weapons which I’m modifying from something else so those will only take a few days. The body armor could take a few days longer, but I’m good and it’s not something I have to create from scratch. When you get the boat I need at least two days on it. The car could take a few days but I’m not a mechanic so hard to say. I can probably make you the basics in a week or two but it’ll take a week or two for me to track it all down before I can get started and probably another week or two for it to all get here. I need a month and a half. A month if we get lucky.”
“Will paying extra get us the shorter end of that? Maybe two or three weeks?”
“On finding it and delivery maybe. It won’t let me work faster. I can probably do a month if money’s no object.”
“A month then. Make it happen.”
The older man once more looks at the younger one like he’s seen a ghost. “You do know that we’re probably talking ten million just to get started, even without a rush on everything, right?”
Zach sits there taking that in. He doesn’t have much choice now. He has to go to the company and take back what’s his.
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