“Under no circumstances am I loaning you my gun.”
Anderson Archer bristled, standing just inside his pool house and looking out at his backyard. The six-figure renovations had transformed the backyard of his Highland Park home into a grotto, with a curving, lopsided boomerang of a pool that ended in two separate hot tubs. There was even a bridge, stretching up over the point of the boomerang, away from the entrance to the pool house and back towards the main house. It looked like paradise, except for the rats.
“It’s for the rats. The nutria. They’re in my backyard.” Anderson said. Nutria had the musky odor of ferrets, and fell somewhere between beavers and muskrats in size, with oily brown fur, smaller teeth, and short, rounded tails. They lived in a network of tunnels stretching between his yard and the neighbors, a network so deep that, according to the exterminator, it would take a concentrated effort to solve the problem. Anderson could remember being appalled at the idea that it would take a concentrated effort among his neighbors to remove the rats, only to learn the exterminator meant a concentrated effort across Texas.
In the last few weeks, the nutria started using Anderson’s pool as a watering hole. Now they huddled together just beneath the bridge, in the same way guests always liked to congregate near the stairs leading up to the pool house. Back when Anderson still threw parties, when he was a rising star instead of a satellite crashing to earth.
“I’m saying this as your attorney and your friend: no guns,” Jackson said.
“Just a BB gun, the kind kids use.” Anderson had stopped going into the house except to sleep, and he wore his usual uniform of a green bathing suit and a loose-fitting robe, while holding a glass of whisky and ice. Catching sight of his reflection, he saw scraggly patches of a beard covered his face.
“I don’t care if it’s a pop gun. No guns. You dismissed the staff like I told you, right?” Jackson’s voice changed, and Anderson recognized the familiar shift in gears as Jackson lifted the office phone and took him off speaker. “Loyalty doesn’t mean a thing when the tabloids come offering five thousand for a candid.”
“Yeah, they’re all gone. It’s just me and my mansion,” Anderson crunched ice between his teeth, watching five plump brown nutria swimming lazily around one corner of his pool. “And the rats.”
“Any chance of Faye coming back? Just for optics?” Jackson said. “It’s harder to hate a family man.”
Anderson tried to imagine telling Faye something like, “Let’s be a family again – for the optics.” No, there would be no family photoshoot. Faye was Texas royalty, and she didn’t need his money, even if she enjoyed spending it. He once viewed these as positive traits. He was an outsider from California with new ideas, and she brought him into the fold. Back then, dating and then marrying a woman who didn’t need his money felt like a badge of honor, especially when every other marriage was basically prostitution with paperwork. Now it just felt like bad business, considering that even her pedigree hadn’t saved him from paying alimony. With Anderson’s net worth on the cover of magazines beneath headlines like ‘Silicon Valley Smarts Meets Texas Oil,’ he couldn’t plead poverty. He had only fought to keep the Highland Park house out of spite. A mistake since he now footed the bill for Faye, her friends, and her dog Sweet Tea to party it up a few miles south in Uptown.
“You still there?” Jackson asked.
“Faye isn’t coming back.” Anderson crunched ice.
“Sorry to hear about the pest problem. But you’re a smart guy. You’re Anderson Archer – the California kid who brought Texas Oil into the modern age. Maybe there’s a modern solution to these rats. It could be your next business.”
Anderson said nothing. Jackson’s comment had reminded him of something. A last minute eco-friendly acquisition by his company. A high tech form of pest control.
“I have a meeting I need to prepare for,” Jackson said, one of a few stock preambles Anderson recognized as the way his lawyer ended calls. “But I need you to hold out a little longer. This too shall pass.”
Anderson sipped and crunched ice. He knew this was true. The paparazzi no longer lingered on his lawn and his name was no longer trending online. As one of the PR execs Jackson hired had explained, it was very hard to turn a bad story around. Better to let it burn itself out than start a new story. People only remembered the last thing they heard.
Anderson shut his door behind Seth, then scanned the street outside his gate, looking for the familiar sight of the red suburban with the tinted windows that meant the paparazzi were nearby. He didn’t know their names, but he had nicknamed the two most persistent photographers Slick and The Babe, because one had black hair gelled back in an oily shell while the other had the plump, round face of a baby.
Satisfied they weren’t there, Anderson turned and found Seth staring in awe at the twin, ivory white staircases that wreathed the front room. Anderson had known Seth since the day he hired him, but he didn’t call him because he believed in loyalty. He called Seth because Seth was a chronic gambler, with an itch so bad he had moved outside the sports book, finding action with illegal dogfights.
“Damn. It’s like. You know, I didn’t know people actually lived in places like this,” Seth said, his head craning back, stretching the skin and temporarily smoothing out his prominent double chin.
“Is that it then?” Anderson asked, ignoring Seth and nodding at the black crate.
Anderson couldn’t remember a time Seth didn’t look sweaty and, after lugging the crate from his car to the door, dark patches stood out beneath his armpits and dark lines encircled his gut and chest. Brushing a sweaty strand of blonde hair out of his eyes, Seth nodded.
“The Leviathan prototype, just like you asked,” Seth said.
Anderson sipped his drink. He hadn’t bothered to shower, shave, or otherwise make himself presentable. Not for Seth.
“Good, bring it out to the pool house.” Anderson turned and walked away just slow enough for Seth to follow. He lingered near the back door, holding it open so Seth wouldn’t scratch anything, then following him to the pool house. “There is good.”
“Heavy,” Seth grunted, dropping the heavy crate.
Walking around him, Anderson opened the crate. Neatly arrayed inside from left to right, were a small laptop, a handheld tablet resembling an iPhone, and finally the Leviathan.
“She’s smaller than I expected.”
“She should be at least ten feet from head to tail. She can shrink to a diameter of three inches or expand to fourteen. Should expand in the water. You might say she’s a grower, not a shower.” Seth grinned, then coughed into his hand and continued. “She runs on solar power. Self charges – and as long as she stays in the water she’ll be at full power. Once you get her on land though she’s running at a deficit.”
Anderson wasn’t hearing anything he didn’t know. He had picked the Leviathan as a Hail Mary acquisition near the end of his term, an attempt to mitigate some of the fallout from his company’s unsavory environmental practices. When people stopped seeing fracking as ‘innovative,’ Anderson had needed a win. A green win. The Leviathan, a machine that could root out invasive species, from the poisonous cane toads to the barbed lionfish, without harming the native species, should have been that win.
Instead, it had become mired in legal red tape. Despite endless safety measures and precautions hard-wired into the machine, no lawyer would ever sign off on the project. Eventually, branded too dangerous and shelved, the Leviathan was left to collect dust. Just around the same time, the board shelved Anderson.
“You know they’re kind of cute,” Seth said, nodding at the nutria swimming nearby.
Anderson’s shoulders tightened, readying for an argument about use the Leviathan on the nutria.
“About the money,” Seth said instead.
Momentarily taken aback, Anderson blinked. “There’s five grand just inside.”
“Hey man. That’s not cool. We agreed on like way more than that.”
Anderson smiled. He knew he could have gotten away with paying Seth five grand. That even now, unemployed, Seth feared him as a boss. He could have gotten away with it – but Seth would still be in debt, and he might get desperate, and desperate men were dumb men.
“And, there will be another envelope with five grand in it every week for fifteen weeks. As long as this stays between us. As long as you keep your mouth shut.” Anderson knew better than to give him the full fee at once.
Seth walked inside the pool house to grab his envelope and walked back out. While he counted the money, Anderson lifted the Leviathan out of the package. Inside the box, the Leviathan looked like a tightly bound, giant slinky. Outside the box, the Leviathan resembled a tube like the kind used in old air conditioning units, a rubbery silver material stretched over a series of rings that spread from head to toe like vertebrae, connected by a single wire backbone. In place of eyes, the Leviathan had two sensors, silver stripes on either side of the head, with a triangle dripping down the side like a teardrop, giving the Leviathan a haunted expression, while solar panels ran down the spine like symbols and ancient letters. But the strangest feature of the Leviathan were the eight curved fingers extending out from around the mouth, four on the top and four on the bottom, bent and crooked like spider legs and each ending in a sharp hook.
Reaching for the tablet next, Anderson powered it on and, after activating the Leviathan, received a sharp warning that the machine’s battery was critically low. For optimal charging, the tablet advised, get the Leviathan into water and sun.
Anderson obliged, dropping the Leviathan into the pool, where it filled with water, expanding unevenly along its body so that it resembled a bloated grey worm as it floated to the top. Seeing it break the surface, the trio of nutria stopped washing themselves and turned to regard the newcomer. Cautiously, one paddled out in a lazy arc before turning and paddling furiously back. Once it reached the others, it squeaked softly as if saying something under its breath, and the others burst into a flurry of squeaks and grunts that sounded like laughter.
Hearing the sound, Seth looked up from his money. “They’re funny little guys. You sure you want to get rid of them?”
Anderson poured another drink and waited for the Leviathan to charge, skimming through the instructions and familiarizing himself with the tablet and the laptop. The tablet controlled the Leviathan, while the laptop could perform the same duties as the tablet, providing two ways to monitor the Leviathan’s activities. The first was a first-person view, presented in a grainy fisheye lens through a camera that must be just above the mouth. The second looked more like the game snake on an old Atari video game, showing in rudimentary, green two-bit graphics an outline of the Leviathan’s surroundings. With the Leviathan swimming in the pool, this map looked like a lopsided boomerang, where a string of green dots represented the Leviathan and a trio of flashing dots represented the nutria.
The Leviathan charged quickly and, when Anderson stepped out an hour later, he found it swimming in slow laps around the pool. Slithering around the corner, the Leviathan crested the surface, spraying a plume of water into the air before descending again. The machine moved with powerful, rhythmic ease, its mouth opening and closing as it completed a loop and turned back to the other side. The long, hooked fingers drooped from the Leviathan’s mouth, reminding Anderson of catfish whiskers.
The nutria eyed the Leviathan but, after a few laps, forgot about it entirely. Anderson watched, sipping his drink, but soon realized it wouldn’t attack the nutria on its own and was awaiting some command. He returned to the tablet and brought up a menu. Seeing the option to select an invasive species, he typed in ‘nutria’ and pressed enter.
Instead of roaring to life and turning on the rodents, an error message popped up. The message informed Anderson that he needed to select an ecosystem to protect from a list provided. He couldn’t find an ecosystem within Texas, so instead he chose one at random only to be met with another error message informing him that nutria were not listed as an invasive species in this ecosystem.
“Damn lawyers,” Anderson said after trying a few other options and being met with the same resistance. The Leviathan was supposed to be the perfect hunter, but lawyers had mandated so many limitations and restrictions into its code it couldn’t hunt. Of course, codes could be rewritten. Anderson knew that better than anyone.
Hearing a flurry of squeaks, Anderson looked up, hoping to see the Leviathan splashing through the water beneath the bridge, transformed into a hurricane of blood and fur. Instead, he saw an orange tabby cat, not much bigger than the nutria sprinting across his backyard, hissing. The reaction was swift and immediate, like a bowling ball scattering pins. The nutria squealed in panic and shot out into the yard for cover.
The cat wore a pink collar labeled ‘Princess,’ and had apparently rushed in with no strategy. She pounced from hole to hole, hissing and scratching, driving the rodents into their tunnels. When she was finally satisfied the nutria were gone, Princess took a seat, casually licked her paw, and then sauntered off.
Anderson saluted the cat with his empty glass, then walked back inside to pour himself a drink. He had accepted that he would need to do some coding, but he didn’t have to do it sober. He hadn’t actually coded since he left San Francisco, and he hadn’t missed it. For Anderson, coding was always just a means to an end. Never a hobby. Never an art.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to write any new code, just tweak some existing programs. The Leviathan was a prototype, and it came with preset environments, the same way an iPhone might come preloaded with programs. Within minutes he removed a few of the preloaded ecosystems, confident the Leviathan wouldn’t need to protect the Pantanal in South American any time soon, then opened a new file.
He christened the new ecosystem Archer Kingdom, thinking if William Randolph Hearst could have a castle, then Anderson Archer deserved a Kingdom. He quickly scanned in the perimeter, confining it to his own property. He smiled as the machine registered him as a ‘native species,’ before providing a list of options, nutria and snakes, for additional ‘native species.’ Anderson ignored them all and clicked ‘save.’ The only things welcome in his backyard, within the confines of Archer Kingdom, were Anderson and the Leviathan.
Anderson sat up most of the night, nursing a drink, and sitting by the pool, watching the Leviathan swim lap after lap. He heard the nutria first, making a soft chirping sound, as the three of them waddled up out of their tunnels. Their brown fur, always oily, and now caked in mud from their hasty retreat, gave off a strong, musky odor. The largest of the group waddled up pool with the confidence of a fat man in a sauna.
Anderson watched the first rodent dive in, followed by a second. Only the third hung back, raising up on its hind legs and sniffing the air. Tipsy, it took Anderson a moment to realize that the Leviathan had stopped swimming. It treaded water, its head swaying back and forth. A purring sound filled the air, and Anderson wondered if those were the sounds of the tiny blades lining the Leviathan’s stomach whirring to life. The whiskers no longer hung limp, but now flexed and stretched, like fingers or claws, before it sank silently to the bottom of the pool.
Anderson had set up the laptop on a stool next to him, and he fumbled for it now, toggling between the modes with shaky fingers, first the two bit Atari screen and then back to the first-person view. The lack of sound gave the first person view a creepy, dreamlike quality. It moved along the bottom of the pool, drawing steadily closer to a pair of furry brown legs until a plunking sound broke the silence, snapping Anderson’s head up.
The other two rodents froze. The one on dry land squeaked in confusion while the one in the water sniffed the air, then splashed towards the shore, filling the air with high-pitched squeaks. The nutria could be fast, especially when trying to avoid harm, but the Leviathan was faster. It caught the nutria mid squeak, coming up and out of the water, claws wrapping around the rodent and twisting, like a crocodile catching its prey in a death roll and pulling it down beneath the water.
Anderson felt something cold trickle down his face and realized he was sweating. He now stood transfixed as the final nutria raced up and down the side of the pool, under the impression that the predator was confined to the water. A reasonable but fatal mistake, as the Leviathan shot out of the water like a giant hand, snatching the nutria off the ground and shoving it down its throat.
Anderson’s lungs burned, as if he had been holding his breath while his limbs felt like jelly. He felt weak – but he also felt strong. For the first time since the board muscled him out of his own company, Anderson felt powerful. He felt the strength returning to his limbs, starting with his legs, and then spreading up through his thighs and into his stomach. Watching the Leviathan slither up out of the pool, rising to its full height like a giant cobra preparing to strike, Anderson felt his own chest swell with pride, just as something caught his eye. An orange feline blur, speeding across the yard, accompanied by a growing hiss.
The Leviathan simply reacted, snapping forward. The hissing stopped abruptly, with the suddenness of a power cord being cut, as a soft purring sound filled the air.
Anderson blinked. He felt surprise and then frustration. He spiked his glass into the ground, where it cracked but didn’t shatter, rolling to the side. Snatching up the tablet, he put the Leviathan into sleep mode, then tossed the tablet and laptop back into the crate. By the time he made it to the bar and poured a fresh drink, his limbs were shaking with rage at the unfairness of it all. That some irresponsible family could let their pet run wild and he would have to suffer.
Still fuming, Anderson paced around the pool house, completing lap after lap as he worked himself into a frenzy. While the Leviathan’s laps had been steady, almost graceful, Anderson tottered back and forth, his inebriated legs taking uneven steps. He realized that if this were a crime, an actual crime, then his first step would be to hide the body. But here there was no body. There was no evidence.
A question flitted through Anderson’s mind. What did the Leviathan do with the creatures it ate? What happened to the remains? It didn’t digest them.
Anderson shook the thought from his head and focused instead on his drink. If there was no body then there was no crime. Halfway through a lap, Anderson staggered towards a couch in the room’s corner and collapsed. He felt his racing heart slow as the repeated mantra of “no body, no crime” ran through his head, lulling him first into a meditative trance, and then finally into a deep sleep.
For the next few days, Anderson scanned the local news stations, drank, searched neighborhood Facebook groups for postings, and drank some more. On the fourth day, missing posters for Princess went up online. Anderson learned from the posters that Princess was known around the neighborhood because she showed up in other people’s houses and backyards, and was dearly missed by her family. Soon, other neighbors began posting their belief that Princess had been devoured by a dog. This lead to other neighbors posting in defense of their rescue dogs. Soon both sides were posting links condemning and condoning rescuing fighting dogs, and Anderson tumbled down an internet rabbit hole trying to find the best fighting dog.
Eventually, Anderson shut down his computer. Clearly the family thought Princess was missing, which meant Anderson and the Leviathan were in the clear. Still, he waited another day before taking the Leviathan’s tablet and laptop out of the crate, but only to lure the nutria out in full force. He was eager to see the machine get back to hunting. His fingers twitched, and he felt irritable. It was a craving, like that of a cigarette or something stronger.
To ease any of the nutria’s lingering fears about Anderson’s backyard, he had piled food from the pantry out on the bridge. He soon learned the nutria weren’t picky eaters and the sound of happy chirps and squeaks filled the backyard as they ripped into the treasure trove of bread and candy. He took one last deep breath, inhaling the now familiar musky scent of the rodents, then powered up the Leviathan.
The Leviathan’s attack was swift and ruthless. It was like watching a shark attack a synchronized swim team. It vacuumed them up in lines, expanding to almost twice its normal size as it ploughed through their ranks, shoveling them into its gaping maw with its fingers. After clearing the pool, it slithered up on land, snatching the rodents up one by one and tossing them down its throat. With each rodent it ate, its stomach bulged, stretching like the gut of a python that has eaten something ten times its size. Finally, when it could eat no more, it slithered sluggishly out into the yard, found a soft spot of grass and dug with its claws, stopping when it had a sizable hole and disgorging itself of the pureed meat within.
Seeing the river of red mush, Anderson knew he should feel sick, but he felt proud. Especially when he saw the Leviathan taper down, letting its claws go limp, then dive into the holes after the nutria. Switching to the laptop, Anderson was disappointed to see that the first-person view was pitch black, so he settled for the two-bit graphics. Again he was reminded of that old Atari game snake, only now instead of two bit beeps, he heard a real world squeal. Finally, the Leviathan finished clearing the yard and rising out of a hole, its claws dripping with something red and viscous.
The nutria had been too easy. He needed to find a real challenge for the Leviathan. Putting it into sleep mode, he walked back into the pool house. He found his cell phone sitting on top of a letter from Faye’s attorney, one outlining all of her outstanding bills that he would need to cover. Mostly extravagant weekly grooming trips, dog walkers, and doggy day care centers for Sweet Tea.
Anderson forced himself not to look closely at the list. Instead, he picked up his phone, found Seth’s name and pressed call. Good old Seth, who knew firsthand about dogfighting.
“Seth, how would you like to make some extra money?”
Rhodan, a Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, sat tied to a post on one end of the yard and stared. Her silver fur was shorn short, with plenty of places where the fur vanished, replaced by gashes and upraised scars of pink tissue. The scar tissue on both sides of her neck was especially prominent, sticking out in a ring almost like a collar grafted onto her skin, while both her ears were shorn off, leaving nothing to grip onto.
“And this is your best dog?” Anderson asked.
Derek, Rhodan’s owner, cocked an eyebrow, then turned to spit. Both his arms were so dark with tattoos it looked like he wore a long sleeve shirt beneath his burnt orange cutoff tee, and his eyes were hidden behind a pair of scratched yellow Oakleys. He had a shaved head, a handlebar mustache, and a horseshoe of skoal in his lower lip.
“My best dog? Hell, man, I don’t know you from Adam. I don’t know what the hell this is,” Derek said. “Rhodan now, she’s a mean dog. A fighter. But she ain’t my best dog.”
This was a surprisingly honest answer, so Anderson nodded and looked back at Seth, who stood nearby. Then he looked out at the yard, with Rhodan tied up on the right and the Leviathan in sleep mode on the left.
“Great name, man. I mean, this is like a total Kaiju fight, right?” Seth clapped twice.
“Seth told you everything?” Anderson took an envelope out of his pocket.
“He said some crazy rich asshole would pay me ten thousand for a private fight. And he’d double that if my dog won.” Derek said. “I see the rich asshole with too much money. I see the ten thousand. But I don’t see the other dog.”
“No dog. A machine,” Anderson pointed at the Leviathan. “My machine.”
“Rumble in the Highland Park jungle, man,” Seth clapped again. “Leviathan vs. Rhodan.”
“That thing? I thought that was an air-condition tube. Or one of those, what do you call them. Slinkies.” Derek took the envelope from Anderson. When he finished flipping through it, he looked around. “Where’s the rest of the money? In case I win?”
“You’ll have to come back for it.”
“And I get to keep the ten thousand no matter what?”
Anderson nodded. “Worried I might shoot the dog?”
Derek laughed, “for ten thousand dollars I don’t care what you do to that dog. Shoot her. Stab her.” He flashed a tobacco-stained grin. “Hell, club her over the head.” He walked towards Rhodan, pausing only to spit a brown glob over one shoulder. “Just make sure you get your money’s worth because there are no refunds.”
Anderson nodded, waiting until Derek crouched next to Rhodan before he took out the tablet and powered up the Leviathan. It rose instantly. Its circular head with the sad, teardrop eyes swayed back and forth while the claws around its gaping maw of a mouth extended and flexed, wiggling back to life. On the opposite side of the yard, Rhodan’s body grew rigid, her eyes narrowing further, a low growl catching fire in her stomach.
“That is one ugly machine,” Derek said. He put one hand on the leash. “You ready?”
Anderson nodded as the Leviathan slithered a few feet closer to Rhodan, its head still swaying back and forth.
“Bombs away.” Derek unhooked the leash.
Rhodan shot across the yard like a bullet out of a gun, hitting the Leviathan’s side. Her teeth found a familiar spot on the side of the Leviathan’s neck, just where the jugular would be on an animal, while her claws raked up and down the machine’s sides, bouncing over the occasional vertebrae and leaving deep gashes in their wake. The Leviathan arched and bucked, trying to knock Rhodan loose, and with its circular mouth and teardrop eyes, Anderson half expected it to wale in anguish.
Instead, it spun sideways, whipping Rhodan around, beating her against the ground like a rug, so that she released her grip and bounced free, skittering off to one side. Regaining her footing, Rhodan bared her teeth at the Leviathan.
“This dog’s undefeated. She’s got ten KOs. And I don’t mean knock outs.” Derek spat again.
The Leviathan reared back then shot forward, trying to catch Rhodan in its claws but snapping down on air. Rhodan, bounding sideways, tensed her muscles and leapt up, looking for the jugular on the opposite side of the Leviathan’s neck. Again, machine and beast tumbled over one another, with Rhodan’s claws carving great long gashes in the Leviathan’s skin.
This time the Leviathan broke off the skirmish, slithering back a few feet towards the pool. Rhodan pressed forward, like a boxer pushing their opponent into the ropes, only to have the Leviathan slither back over the edge where it vanished beneath the water.
Rhodan yelped, prancing from side to side, then crouching down next to the water. She bent forward, her head within an inch of her glassy reflection, when five spidery fingers broke the surface. The claws caught in Rhodan’s head, neck and torso, pulling her off balance. Rhodan growled, catching one claw in her mouth and ripping it free before she toppled into the pool with a splash. She only had time to thrash once before her body went limp.
“Totally awesome,” Seth said at last after a long silence, clapping his hands. “Just awesome.”
The Leviathan’s victory came at a cost. Rhodan’s scratches had damaged one of its sensors, so that it favored its left side, and occasionally it would rear up, as if sensing an enemy that wasn’t there and snap out without warning. An entire section of the solar panels had been torn off, slowing its ability to charge, and it seemed unable to grasp the fact that it was now missing one claw.
For Anderson, however, none of that really mattered. His pet had gone toe to toe with a champion and won. He had even come to feel somewhat protective towards the machine, even if he planned to have Seth steal him another prototype in a few weeks. This one still functioned, but it wasn’t a living creature. It was a toy. There was no reason not to replace it with a working version.
In the meantime, he used it as a guinea pig for future codes. He toyed with new functions, testing out a game he called fetch. Using the laptop, he would give the Leviathan an address and a task. He even hard-wired a return code to the tablet, so wherever he the Leviathan went it always returned to the tablet. Within a week, he had it opening doors, sliding upstairs, and retrieving items from the second and third floor of his house. He had just plugged in the most complex errand yet when Jackson called.
“You’re calling me? I better not get billed for this,” Anderson said.
Jackson sounded hurt. “What’s this about billing? I don’t think of you as just a client. You’re a friend, Anderson.”
“I’m joking.” Anderson said. After all, Jackson was the closest friend Anderson had.
“Well, I’m not calling with jokes,” Jackson said. “I’ve got bad news.”
Anderson said nothing.
“It’s Faye. Well, not Faye. Her dog. Sweety.”
“Sweet Tea,” Anderson corrected.
“Right, Sweet Tea. He’s got something wrong with his hip. Something expensive.”
Anderson’s grip tightened on his phone. “Then Faye should pay for it out of her allowance.”
“I agree. And, if you want to fight this, take it all the way to court. The judge will agree too.”
Anderson waited for the ‘but’ he knew was coming.
“But, fighting it will be expensive. It will mean filing motions. Delays. Hearings. And she’ll bludgeon you with it in the press.” Jackson sighed with all the weight and gravitas of a Shakespearean actor. “It won’t look good.”
Anderson breathed through his nostrils. “So what’s my other option.”
“Pay for the surgery. Or the x-ray. Or whatever it is. It’s expensive – but it’s cheaper than the alternative.”
Cheaper than paying you, my friend, Anderson might have said. Looking outside, he saw the Leviathan emerge through the back door of the house. At least he could rely on the Leviathan.
“That’s one expensive dog,” Anderson’s looked outside, watching as the Leviathan drew closer.
“But what are you going to do?” Jackson said. “She loves that dog – and it’s here to stay.”
Faye’s apartment in Uptown had the modern, minimalist chic look favored by trendy areas. One wall of red brick and another of white sheet rock, stitched together with black wrought-iron balconies, fire escapes, and window trim. Anderson thought it looked cheap, but he was thankful for the covered parking supplied to residents and guests. The parking garage was a poorly lit concrete cavern tucked off the street and away from prying eyes. Anderson parked in a spot near a trash chute with an unobstructed view of the lobby, then took out the Leviathan.
Faye was a creature of habit, and any moment now she would head to SoulCycle while her dog walker, Trisha, took Sweet Tea out for his exercise. Trisha rarely walked Sweet Tea for more than fifteen minutes, but it would give the Leviathan plenty of time to get upstairs, worming its way through the trash chute to Faye’s apartment.
Anderson’s plan was beautiful in its simplicity. Faye had him over a barrel with the dog. She knew she could get him to pay for anything for the dog. But what if there was no dog?
He wasn’t even worried about someone spotting the Leviathan, figuring a hip apartment complex in Uptown would be a ghost town at seven on a Thursday, with most of the residents grabbing drinks at Parliament or further north at Ill Minster. He watched the Leviathan ascend into the trash chute then turned, just as Trisha emerged with Sweet Tea on a leash. Trisha looked like she was walking a horse. Sweet Tea, a purebred English Mastiff, came up well past the dog walker’s waist and had at least fifty pounds on her.
Anderson had considered kidnapping the dog, but that was too messy. The dog was just so damn big. The solution presented by the Leviathan was simple and clean. And, if something happened, and the Leviathan broke down halfway through? There was still no risk to Anderson. Most likely someone would mistake it for a weird prank or a discarded air-condition tube and toss it in the trash.
Using the laptop, toggling between the first person and the two-bit graphics, Anderson watched the Leviathan crawl up through the garbage chute and onto the fourth floor where Faye lived. Once there, it pushed up through a ceiling panel, crawling through an air-conditioning vent and dropping into Faye’s messy apartment.
Looking through the Leviathan’s first-person view, Anderson saw piles of unopened boxes and bags. Faye had always been a compulsive online shopper, and he wasn’t surprised to see piles of amazon boxes in every corner.
Typing a new command into the laptop, the Leviathan adding Faye’s apartment as a new ecosystem, commanding it to protect against any invasive species in the empty apartment before it slithered over to a window to seek the sun. Anderson checked his cell phone, wondering how long he would have to wait, just as he spotted Trisha walking back up to the front door. Sweet Tea walked ahead of her, his tongue hanging out and his chest heaving, exhausted just from a short walk in the Texas heat.
Anderson’s heart raced. He toggled between the first person view and the two-bit map, switching to the first person just as Trisha dropped off Sweet Tea. She didn’t linger long, unhooking the Mastiff’s leash, handing him a treat, then leaving. She exited the elevator a minute later and, by then, the Leviathan was on the move.
Sweet Tea had been a present for Faye, a test run before kids. Faye called Sweet Tea her gentle giant, but Anderson wasn’t so sure. The dog seemed confused about who was the alpha in the house, a low growl escaping his throat whenever Anderson got too close.
Through the first person view, Anderson watched the Leviathan set its sights on the dog standing in the doorway. Comparing Sweet Tea to Rhodan felt like comparing a member of the boxing club at a prep school to a street fighter. Rhodan had the killer instincts, but Sweet Tea had the size. Still, Anderson wondered if the damaged Leviathan could handle it.
Anderson’s fears were allayed somewhat when Sweet Tea didn’t attack first. Instead, he hung back, growling and tensing up as the Leviathan slithered forward, moving closer until it struck by snapping its head forward. Even without sound, Anderson could imagine Sweet Tea’s yelp of surprise, but instead of fighting back, Sweet Tea ran. He crashed through the piles of boxes, and the Leviathan followed.
Anderson smiled, watching the Leviathan chase Sweet Tea around the apartment. First through the stacks of boxes, then up and onto the table, sending plates and silverware crashing, and then down into a glass coffee table that shattered around them. A flashing light filled the apartment, creating a strobe light effect and slowing the action down to snapshots as Sweet Tea finally turned to fight.
Anderson grimaced. He had forgotten about the alarm.
On screen, he watched the Leviathan break Sweet Tea down in a series of stills, starting in a flash of teeth and ending with a shot of the dog’s backside, its legs sticking up and out as the machine sucked it down. Not needing to see the final gory details, Anderson toggled back to the simpler two-bit screen when he felt a tingle at the back of his neck. Sensing he was being watched, his head snapped up, his eyes narrowing on a red suburban with tinted windows parked nearby. Before he could place the suburban, his eyes flicked past the SUV just as a frantic-looking Faye and a police officer vanished into the elevator, leaving behind a security guard who tapped his gun.
Anderson’s mouth went dry. He should have known she would be close. She had left on foot after all. A missing dog could be explained, but the sight of the Leviathan ingesting the dog was different. Anderson might have wanted to hurt Faye, but at the root of any pain he caused was the desire to bring her back. He saw that so clearly now. This wasn’t what he wanted.
Pushing open the door, Anderson climbed out of his car. He made it halfway across the garage when the doors of the red suburban swung open and two men stepped out.
Anderson recognized the two paparazzi, Slick and The Babe, immediately. Both men wore their usual uniform of cheap graphic tees and loose flowing jeans with expensive black cameras dangling like heavy chains around their necks.
“Anderson Archer, is there a reason you’re camped outside your ex-wife’s apartment?” Slick asked. He didn’t wait for an answer. He raised his camera up and clicked off a picture.
At his side, the Babe giggled and started snapping pictures. Instinctively, Anderson covered his head with one arm and cowered back, almost losing his footing as the clattering of clicks and flashing lights chased him back into his car.
He pressed down on the brake pedal and reached for the starter switch, only to stop as the laptop in the passenger seat caught his eye. He watched the first of the two flashing green dots vanish beneath the snake and, with a hand slick with sweat, he toggled to the first person screen just in time to see the Leviathan lunge up into Faye’s screaming face.
Anderson flung the laptop from him as if it were hot, barely registering the sharp cracking sound or the way it struck the floorboard at an odd angle. A steady ringing, rising to a high-pitched scream, drown out the sound of the clicking cameras outside his car, his vision tunneling as the flashes became a blur. A thousand questions flashed through his mind. The Leviathan was hard-wired to never harm a human, even before the lawyers labeled it a killing machine. He knew Rhodan had damaged it but that was all cosmetic, like his coding. Even as this flood of questions rushed through Anderson’s brain, he never forgot the answer: Faye was dead.
“This wasn’t what I wanted,” Anderson heard someone say, and it startled him to realize it was his own voice. He gripped the steering wheel, letting his forehead fall forward, only to snap back up at a series of sharp knocks to his left.
“Are you ok, sir?”
Anderson blinked. At first he thought he was being pulled over, that it was all a dream, some alcohol induced hallucination. Then he saw that the man outside his door wasn’t a cop, it was the security guard. All at once, Anderson’s senses came back to him. He remembered where he was, why he was here, and what he had done. What the Leviathan had done.
“Sir, can you please step out of the car?” The guard said. There was another click followed by a flash and he turned on the two paparazzi with a snarl. “I said don’t move. This is private property.”
Neither Slick nor the Babe looked regretful, but they dropped their cameras. Slick flashed a shit-eating grin, only to jump when something heavy landed in the dumpster nearby.
“What the hell is that?” Slick said.
Anderson felt like he had swallowed a ball of ice. He turned, looking out the back window as the Leviathan rose out of the dumpster. Even fresh out of the package, the Leviathan had never had the sleek beauty of a machine like a Ferrari, but now it looked absolutely revolting. Covered in scratches, dripping trash and bulging with it recent meals, it could no longer sway its head back and forth in a smooth motion, but instead twitched and jumped.
The Babe reacted first, snapping pictures and moving forward, switching between a portrait and a landscape, ignoring the purring sound that filled the air until it was too late. Despite the damage it had taken, the Leviathan could still move, and it struck with the same blinding speed, lunging up and over the lip of the dumpster, its claws closing around the Babe’s head and pulling it up into its maw.
Anderson squeezed his eyes shut as a gunshot filled the parking lot like a thunderclap, echoing off the concrete ceiling and floors. A second gunshot followed, and then a third. When Anderson opened his eyes he saw the Leviathan, still jerking and hiccupping, slithering towards the security guard. The middle of the machine sagged, bloated with its recent meals, and it was here that the security guard pointed its gun, mistaking the blood that poured from the bullet holes for that of the Leviathan. Meanwhile, Slick didn’t bother to fight. He turned and ran, leaving the guard to squeeze off another three shots before the Leviathan struck.
Seeing the red suburban roared to life, Anderson realized there was still a way out of this. There was still a chance he could escape. As long as he wasn’t here with the machine when the police arrived. He jammed a foot down on the brake pedal, punched the ignition button, and shifted into drive. Anderson took good care of his car, giving it the best service money could buy. The care paid off as the car darted forward, swerving around the raised head of the Leviathan.
The flicker of relief Anderson felt was quickly snuffed out by a wave of fear as the headlights of the red suburban filled the windshield. Anderson hesitated, wavering between the brakes and the gas, and paid the price. The suburban struck him head on, pushing the hood of his luxury vehicle like an accordion, the steel waves growing in size until they crashed against his windshield and the world went white.
Anderson awoke to the sound of beeps and a calming voice, and he prayed it was over. That, against all odds, he had ended up in heaven. Perhaps because, as he always suspected, he really was a better person than everyone else. That the organized religion stuff, things like reading the bible and going to church, was just busy work for simple people. That Anderson had it where it counted. On the inside.
“I need you to stay calm,” the voice said. “You’ve been in a car crash. You’re injured but you’re going to be ok.”
Anderson’s eyes came into focus and he recognized the blue star of life on the EMT’s white shirt. He looked down at her rubber gloves, holding a bandage over a pulsing wound in his stomach.
“You’re a lucky man. If we got here five minutes later, you would have bled out.”
Anderson was vaguely aware of the totaled cars nearby, his own luxury vehicle and the red suburban. He wondered what had happened to the other bodies, but then he knew. He saw the EMT’s mouth moving, but he couldn’t make out what she was saying. Not over the purr of whirring blades that filled the garage.
This story previously appeared in Dark Horses: The Magazine of Weird Fiction.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Harold Hoss the penname of Blake Hoss. He is a graduate of USC Law with a passion for horror films. He most recently worked as a producer on the feature films Creep Box and The Unheard. The Unheard is streaming now on Shudder.