It took them almost an hour to find the control panel. It was right behind the dragon’s head, which made sense. Leo had elected to keep the dragon in the net (much to Mira's relief), because it was easier to work with the dragon constrained, but the dragon didn’t like it.
“Hold still!” Mira scolded.
She felt a lot more comfortable now that the dragon wasn't spewing flames all over the place. She could work in peace without the worry of being burnt into a crisp.
The dragon made another creaking sound that might’ve been a whimper.
Mira blinked and focused again. She examined the wires inside the dragon’s head. She tried not to think about the fact that she was crouched next to Leo, who hated her guts. She was quickly distracted by a sound in the woods (demigod ADHD, apparently), but when she looked up it was just a tree spirit— a dryad— putting out the flames in her branches. Fortunately, the dragon hadn’t started an all-out forest fire, but still the dryad wasn’t too pleased. The girl’s dress was smoking. She smothered the flames with a silky blanket, and when she saw Mira looking at her, she made a gesture that was probably very rude in Dryad. Then she disappeared in a green poof of mist.
Mira returned her attention to the wiring. It was ingenious, definitely. A lot of it was way over Mira's head, but it seemed to make sense to Leo.
"Found the motor control relay. I think it processes sensory input from the eyes, but I could be wrong." Mira told him, wiping her brow tiredly.
Leo glanced up at her in surprise. He checked over her work. "You're exactly right," he said, and Mira took pride in the astonished tone of his voice. "How did you...?"
"Well, I'm no Hephaestus kid," she said shyly, "But I know a thing or two about mechanics. My mom was a naval architect."
"An engineer," Leo raised his eyebrows, impressed. "And you just... picked stuff up?"
Mira shook her head. "Nah, I'm no prodigy. My dad was a Marine before I was born, but after he returned from his last deployment, he opened his own auto repair shop. We used to joke... the Morgan family could go anywhere on land and sea, travel the world, just the three of us, fixing our cars and ships ourselves." She smiled at the memories.
"You mean, your stepdad," Leo said.
"Your stepdad," Leo said. "Your dad is Poseidon, remember?"
Mira shook her head. "No. My dad was James Morgan." She glanced at Leo. "I told you, I'm not from around here."
Leo frowned. His features grew cold. Mira felt her heart sink. They had been making progress! Then she just had to open her big mouth and remind him that she was responsible for this entire mess.
They worked in silence for a bit longer. Mira saw something in the dragon's circuitry that she had no idea about.
"Leo, you need to take a look at this disk…" she said. Leo peered over her shoulder.
“Ha,” he said. “Well, no wonder.”
Creak? the dragon asked with its jaw. Mira felt the same way.
“You’ve got a corroded control disk. Probably regulates your higher reasoning circuits, right? Rusty brain, man. No wonder you’re a little… confused.” Leo said. “I wish I had a replacement disk, but… this is a complicated piece of circuitry. I’m gonna have to take it out and clean it. Only be a minute.” He pulled out the disk, and the dragon went absolutely still. The glow died in its eyes. Leo slid off its back and began polishing the disk. He mopped up some oil and Tabasco sauce with his sleeve, which helped cut through the grime. Mira watched as Leo started to grimace.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"Some of the circuits are beyond repair. I could make it better, but not perfect. For that, I'd need a completely new disk, and I have no idea how to build one." Leo said. "Can you clean the gearboxes while I'm working on this? And the wiring?"
"Sure." Mira figured that as long as he was focused on building something, Leo would be perfectly civil to her. He was too preoccupied to be mean or bitter. She savored the moment as she started cleaning the wiring and gearboxes, getting herself filthy in the process..
Once Leo had done the best he could, he climbed back up to the dragon’s head,stopping next to Mira.
“Clean hands, dirty equipment,” he muttered, looking over her shoulder as he carefully rested the disk on his knee and started helping her clean. By the time they were through, her hands were black with grease and her clothes looked like she’d just lost a mud-wrestling contest, but the mechanisms looked a lot better. Leo, who was similarly covered in grease and dirt, slipped in the disk, connected the last wire, and sparks flew. The dragon shuddered. Its eyes began to glow.
“Better?” Leo asked.
The dragon made a sound like a high-speed drill. It opened its mouth and all its teeth rotated.
“I guess that’s a yes. Hold on, I’ll free you.”
It took another thirty minutes for the two demigods to find the release clamps for the net and untangle the dragon, but finally it stood and shook the last bit of netting off its back. It roared triumphantly and shot fire at the sky.
“Seriously,” Leo said. “Could you not show off?”
Creak? the dragon asked.
“You need a name,” Leo decided. “I’m calling you Festus.”
Festus! Mira remembered. That's why that sounded so familiar! Festus was the dragon!
The dragon whirred its teeth and grinned. At least Mira hoped it was a grin. But she didn't speak mechanical dragon. She was mostly working off of Leo's body language.
“Cool,” Leo said. “But we still have a problem, because you don’t have wings.”
Festus tilted his head and snorted steam. Then he lowered his back in an unmistakable gesture. He wanted Leo and Mira to climb on.
“Where we going?” Leo asked.
But he was clearly too excited to wait for an answer. He climbed onto the dragon’s back and turned to Mira. "Well? Hurry up!"
Mira bit her lip. She took a deep breath, clambering on behind Leo, and Festus bounded off into the woods.
Mira lost track of time and all sense of direction. It seemed impossible the woods could be so deep and wild, but the dragon traveled until the trees were like skyscrapers and the canopy of leaves completely blotted out the stars. Even the fire in Leo’s hand couldn’t have lit the way, but the dragon’s glowing red eyes acted like headlights.
Finally they crossed a stream and came to a dead end, a limestone cliff a hundred feet tall— a solid, sheer mass the dragon couldn’t possibly climb.
Festus stopped at the base and lifted one leg like a dog pointing.
“What is it?” Leo slid to the ground. Mira quickly followed. They walked up to the cliff— nothing but solid rock. The dragon kept pointing.
“It’s not going to move out of your way,” Leo told him.
The loose wire in the dragon’s neck sparked, but otherwise he stayed still. Leo put his hand on the cliff. Suddenly his fingers smoldered. Lines of fire spread from his fingertips like ignited gunpowder, sizzling across the limestone. Mira gasped out loud. The burning lines raced across the cliff face until they had outlined a glowing red door five times as tall as her. They backed up and the door swung open, disturbingly silently for such a big slab of rock.
“Perfectly balanced,” he muttered. “That’s some first-rate engineering.”
The dragon unfroze and marched inside, as if he were coming home.
Leo and Mira stepped through, and the door began to close. She had a moment of panic, remembering one night in an awful foster home long ago, when she’d been locked in a closet. What if she got stuck in here? But then lights flickered on— a combination of electric fluorescents and wall-mounted torches.
Leo let out a low whistle. Mira wrapped her arms around herself, hugging her body. Bunker... bunker something... she frowned. It was important, that she knew... something about a war... the American Revolution, maybe?
“Festus,” Leo muttered. “What is this place?”
The dragon stomped to the center of the room, leaving tracks in the thick dust, and curled up on a large circular platform.
The cave was the size of an airplane hangar, with endless work tables and storage cages, rows of garage-sized doors along either wall, and staircases that led up to a network of catwalks high above. Equipment was everywhere— welding torches, hazard suits, forklifts, and other things Mira had never seen before. Bulletin boards were covered with tattered, faded blueprints. And weapons, armor, shields— war supplies all over the place, a lot of them only partially finished.
Hanging from chains far above the dragon’s platform was an old tattered banner almost too faded to read. The letters were Greek, but Mira somehow knew what they said: bunker 9.
Bunker Nine! That was it!
“Do the other kids know… ?” Mira started to ask.
Leo shook his head. "Clearly, this place has been abandoned for decades. Look at all the cobwebs and dust. We're the first ones in this bunker since… since a long time ago. Bunker 9 has been abandoned. Locked up and forgotten."
"But why?" Mira asked.
Leo pointed at a map on the wall— a battle map of camp, but the paper was as cracked and yellow as onion skin. A date at the bottom read, 1864.
“No way,” Mira muttered. "Leo, what... ?" Her question died in her throat.
Leo had spotted a blueprint on a nearby bulletin board, and his expression told Mira something terrible was happening. She followed him to the worktable and stared up at a white-line drawing almost faded beyond recognition: a Greek ship from several different angles. Faintly scrawled words underneath it read: prophecy? unclear. flight?
The Argo II, Mira thought, but she couldn't remember the significance of it. She peered closer at the masthead. It seemed to be a dragon, a particular dragon at that.
“Looks like you, Festus,” Leo murmured. “That’s creepy.”
Festus snorted like he was trying to get Leo’s and Mira's attention, reminding them they didn’t have all night. It was true. Mira figured it would be morning in a few hours, and they’d gotten completely sidetracked. They (okay, mostly Leo) had saved the dragon, but it wasn’t going to help them on the quest. They needed something that would fly.
Festus nudged something toward Leo— a leather tool belt that had been left next to his construction pad. Then the dragon switched on his glowing red eye beams and turned them toward the ceiling. Mira looked up to where the spotlights were pointing, and gasped when she recognized the shapes hanging above them in the darkness.
“Festus,” Leo said in a small voice. “Mira, we’ve got work to do.”
Mira couldn't take it anymore. It had only been around five minutes, but she was scared out of her mind. She wanted to promise to herself that she'd never ride the dragon again, but she knew the quest would start soon, and that she'd have to break her promise. So she sat on the dragon, terrified of falling, and clutching onto Leo like he was her lifeline.
"Let go!" he grumbled.
"Please," Mira whimpered, trying to keep as much distance between her and Leo without freaking out. "I can't do this! I thought I'd be able to, but I can't! I can't be here, it's not my domain!"
She felt Leo huff with irritation. Before her could yell at her anymore, they arrived at camp.
"Leo?! Mira?!" A voice called out. Mira grinned weakly at Piper and waved.
Even before they had landed, the camp alarm went up. A conch horn blew. All the satyrs started screaming, “Don’t kill me!”
Half the camp ran outside in a mixture of pajamas and armor. The dragon set down right in the middle of the green, and Leo yelled, “It’s cool! Don’t shoot!”
Hesitantly, the archers lowered their bows. The warriors backed away, keeping their spears and swords ready. They made a loose wide ring around the metal monster. Other demigods hid behind their cabin doors or peeped out the windows. Nobody seemed anxious to get close.
Mira couldn’t blame them. The dragon had tried to kill her when they first met. Plus, it was huge. It glistened in the morning sun like a living penny sculpture — different shades of copper and bronze— a sixty-foot-long serpent with steel talons and drill-bit teeth and glowing ruby eyes. It had bat-shaped wings twice its length that unfurled like metallic sails, making a sound like coins cascading out of a slot machine every time they flapped.
“It’s beautiful,” Piper muttered from the crowd.
The dragon reared its head and shot a column of fire into the sky. Campers scrambled away and hefted their weapons, but Leo slid calmly off the dragon’s back. Mira stumbled down after him. Leo held up his hands like he was surrendering, except he still had that crazy grin on his face.
“People of Earth, I come in peace!” he shouted. In the morning light, Mira could finally see just how grimy they both appeared. Leo looked like he’d been rolling around in the campfire. His army coat and his face were smeared with soot. His hands were grease-stained, and he wore a new tool belt around his waist. His eyes were bloodshot. His curly hair was so oily it stuck up in porcupine quills, and he smelled of Tabasco sauce. Mira caught sight of herself in Festus' shiny metal side. She, too was covered in soot and grease, though not nearly as much as Leo. She sighed. So much for a clean start.
Leo looked absolutely delighted. “Festus is just saying hello!”
“That thing is dangerous!” an Ares girl shouted, brandishing her spear. “Kill it now!”
“Stand down!” someone ordered.
To Mira's surprise, it was Jason. He pushed through the crowd, flanked by Annabeth and that girl from the Hephaestus cabin, Nyssa.
Jason gazed up at the dragon and shook his head in amazement. “Leo, what have you done?"
“Found a ride!” Leo beamed. “You said I could go on the quest if I got you a ride. Well, I got you a class-A metallic flying bad boy! Festus can take us anywhere!”
“It— has wings,” Nyssa stammered. Her jaw looked like it might drop off her face.
“Yeah!” Leo said. “I found them and reattached them.”
“But it never had wings. Where did you find them?”
Leo hesitated, and Mira could tell he didn't want to tell them about Bunker Nine.
“In … the woods,” he said. “We repaired his circuits, too, mostly, so no more problems with him going haywire.”
“Mostly?” Nyssa asked. "And aren't you a Poseidon kid?" She asked Mira.
Mira shrugged. "Leo told me what to do." Leo glanced at her curiously, but Mira ignored his gaze. She didn't want everyone knowing about her mom and dad (step-dad, in this world). It was too raw.
The dragon’s head twitched. Mira noticed and stepped away. She was just in time, too. It tilted to one side and a stream of black liquid— maybe oil, hopefully just oil— poured out of its ear, all over Leo.
“Just a few kinks to work out,” Leo said.
“But how did you survive … ?” Nyssa was still staring at the creature in awe. “I mean, the fire breath …”
“I’m quick,” Leo said. “And lucky. And Aquagirl over here fought fire with water. Now, am I on this quest, or what?”
Jason scratched his head. “You named him Festus? You know that in Latin, ‘festus’ means ‘happy’? You want us to ride off to save the world on Happy the Dragon?”
The dragon twitched and shuddered and flapped his wings.
“That’s a yes, bro!” Leo said. “Now, um, I’d really suggest we get going, guys. I already picked up some supplies in the— um, in the woods. And all these people with weapons are making Festus nervous.”
Jason frowned. “But we haven’t planned anything yet. We can’t just—”
“Go,” Annabeth said. She was the only one who didn’t look nervous at all. Her expression was sad and wistful, like this reminded her of better times. “Jason, you’ve only got three days until the solstice now, and you should never keep a nervous dragon waiting. This is certainly a good omen. Go!”
Jason nodded. Then he smiled at Piper. “You ready, partner?”
“You bet,” she said.
Mira smiled at the cuteness.
Flying on the dragon was the worst experience ever, Mira thought.
It wasn't so much Festus. Festus was great. Up high, the air was freezing cold; but the dragon’s metal hide generated so much heat, it was like they were flying in a protective bubble. Talk about seat warmers! And the grooves in the dragon’s back were designed like high-tech saddles, so they weren’t uncomfortable at all. Leo showed them how to hook their feet in the chinks of the armor, like in stirrups, and use the leather safety harnesses cleverly concealed under the exterior plating. They sat single file: Leo in front, then Mira, then Piper, then Jason.
The dragon might not have been a problem, but the air was. Mira clutched on to Leo tightly, shutting her eyes tightly, trying to control her wildly beating heart and her harsh, uneven breaths. Zeus is going to kill me, she decided morosely, He's gonna strike me out of the sky, and he won't even care cause his son can fly and save himself.