With one quick little bound, Cerberus was right in front of Avalon, Shiori, and me. Then he–or they, I was still confused about that, started to excitedly lick us. Yeah, all of us at the same time. Three heads, three people to lick. The tongues were as metallic as the rest of them, though there was some kind of lubricating liquid that… yeah, there was fake dog slobber, and it was getting all over us.
“Oookay, okay, hi!” Pulling my face out of range with a few coughs mixed with a giggle, I put both hands on the side of the head that had chosen to focus on me. “Nice to meet you too, I guess.” Still holding the head while it happily barked so loud at me it was almost painful, I looked toward Persephone. “So he’s your pet, huh? Wait, is it he or they? You know, three heads, one body.”
Avalon, who had already stepped back away from the head that had been licking her, nodded. Her voice was flat. “What she said. Also, why do you have a three-headed robot dog?” After asking that, she extended her hand and gave the head in front of her a little rub under the chin that made him happy.
Answering Valley first, Persephone chirped, “Why not? Who wouldn’t want to have a three-headed robot dog?” To me, she added, “And he’s he. All three of them are he.” Taking a step that way, she brought her hand down to pat his black metal side a couple times. “One cybernetic brain, three heads. Multitasking.”
Shiori, who was still giggling and rubbing at the head that was licking her face, turned a bit so she could talk. “He’s really friendly!”
Smiling slightly at that sight, I turned my attention back to Persephone. “I think what Avalon was asking was where he came from. How did you get him? Who built him, and why? And how did you end up having him instead? Did he belong to Manakel like the myths?” I had more questions than that, of course. But that was a good place to start. Carefully, I reached out and followed Avalon’s lead by rubbing under the chin of the head nearest me. He seemed to like that, just like Vulcan enjoyed having his chin scratched. Both were metal, so I had no idea what they were feeling, if anything.
“Nope! Not exactly.” Shaking her head, Persephone explained, “He was built to kill my Manakel, actually. You know, metal so he couldn’t possess him. Special ghost-killing weapons so he could fight anything Manakel summoned. And–”
“Wait,” I blurted, “What do you mean, special ghost-killing weapons?”
“Oh, like this.” With that, Persephone ordered, “Cerberus, ghosthunt!”
As soon as she said that, all three dog heads bared their teeth and growled. Their fangs lit up with glowing blue-white flames. A moment later, ten different small holes appeared along his back, five on each side. From each of those holes, metal coils emerged with a laser cannon and camera attached. The coils were flexible, able to point in any direction.
“Snakes,” Avalon muttered softly from beside me as we watched the weapons snap from position to position to check for threats. “They said Cerberus had snakes growing out of his back. I guess venomous snakes are easier to explain than cannons attached to tentacles.”
“That’s ghost-fire, isn’t it?” Shiori spoke up, gesturing to the flames billowing around the dog’s mouths.
“Sorta!” Persephone confirmed. “It’s an artificial recreation his creators made. Does the same thing, lets him bite through spirits and intangible things. And his laser cannons help destroy a lot of zombies really fast.”
“Because he was made to kill Manakel,” I murmured, shaking my head before pausing. A long, heavy sigh escaped me. “You know who a giant dog that could use three different heads to eat ghosts and rip through zombies with a bunch of independently aimed laser cannons would’ve been super-fucking useful to use against?” After getting a couple emphatic nods from the others, I added, “But who managed to make something like this specifically to target Manakel? And how did he end up switching sides?”
Andromeda spoke up from my phone. Her voice, now that I had listened to it a little bit, was somewhat clipped and short, yet polite. It sounded almost like someone doing the accent of a proper English woman, but not quite the same. She would pause almost imperceptibly every few words. “That would be my doing, actually. I held no particular affection toward the man myself, but Percy was fond of him. So, I fixed the issue. My ability allows me to control technology. It required a bit of effort and rolled up sleeves, but was well worth it in the end. Cerberus is very loyal to his mistress and her friends. He makes for a quite effective guard. And a not-terrible companion during the times when Percy must be off on her own adventures.”
I still had a lot of questions about, well, all of that. But a different pressing one came to mind as I stared at this three-headed dog, with tentacle laser cannons, that was about as tall at the shoulder as I was. “You said this was his small form? First, how exactly does he have two forms? And second, how big is the other one?”
That time, it was Persephone who answered, sounding excited. “He has two different bodies! The one he’s not using gets transferred inside a dimensional pocket while he shifts into the other one. And the second body is… you know Amaroks?”
Coughing, I confirmed, “We’re familiar, yeah. So, you’re saying he’s as big as—”
“They look like his puppies!” Persephone interrupted. “You have to see him when he’s big. He gives even better licks!” Even as she said that, the white-haired woman was launching herself that way to hug the mechanical canine around the side. One of his heads turned that way to sniff at her, and she giggled.
Shiori had moved next to me by then and whispered, “Can you picture her spending time with Manakel?”
Before I could respond, Andromeda’s voice emerged once again from my phone. “They were quite the odd couple, that is for certain. But, I do believe that she will be better off around more positive influences.”
“Okay, seriously,” Avalon put in, “Who are you, exactly? You said you have the power to control technology and you were being imprisoned until Persephone saved you? Oh, and Sachael was annoyed about that.”
“He tried to stop it, yes. And he failed. There was some drama around that fact.” Pausing briefly then, Andromeda’s voice took on a quiet tone. “I was locked in a Seosten lab and treated as a science experiment, as you would say, for a long time. I owe my freedom to Percy. As for who I am, I am Andromeda. You would consider me an artificial intelligence, but there is as much magic as technology in my existence.”
That made me do a double-take, staring down at my phone. “You’re an AI?”
After a brief pause, she confirmed, “Yes, of a sort. But, I have been consuming your media about those like me, and I assure you that I have no desire to either build an army of terminator machines, nor put all biological beings into little pods to use as batteries. And if so, I certainly wouldn’t do anything as energy-inefficient as providing elaborate virtual reality simulations.”
“Uhhh, great, I guess.” Unsure of what to say to something like that, I focused on Persephone briefly. “Hey, when you showed up and, uhh, splattered that thing, you fell out of the sky. And there was that whole thing about Cerberus being sent down. So, umm, where did you both come down from, exactly?”
Pivoting on her heel to face me, Persephone brightly answered, “From the pirate ship, of course!”
My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I managed a weak, “From the pirate ship, yeah, why didn’t I think of that? It’s so obvio—what pirate ship?”
So, Persephone told us about how she had been tracking down a special object for Manakel yet again, and had found it on some pirate spaceship. Then she got the word about his death and commandeered the ship to make them bring her here to Earth, so she could meet me. Apparently, they were still up there somewhere, using an invisibility field to stay hidden. It was the same thing the pirates used to ambush passing ships.
“Oh,” she added, “and we stopped long enough to pick up Cerberus and Andromeda, of course! I couldn’t meet my new wife without my best friend and my puppy!”
I felt like I needed to sit down for a minute, but equally knew that wouldn’t help. So, I pushed on. “What you’re saying is that there is a whole ship full of pirates, wait, space pirates, up there right now? Are you sure nothing’s going to go wrong?”
The answer came from Andromeda. “I am controlling every part of their ship, from its propulsion, to its weapons, doors, life support, and food heating appliances. If they manage to cause trouble anyway, they will have earned it. At the moment, they are sequestered in their quarters or the crew villages they have established, and I have sent an assortment of Earth entertainment videos for them to peruse. That should keep them occupied for the time being.”
Okay, clearly the world wasn’t done sending weird things at me today. Now, all of a sudden, there was a cloaked pirate ship in orbit, full of probably bloodthirsty buccaneers who were being distracted by what amounted to Netflix or YouTube by a friendly Artificial Intelligence, who in turn owed a life-debt to a Revenant-Possessed dead Seosten who thought she was married to me. I just… I couldn’t… I… yeah. Wow. My life had been a lot for a long time, but seriously. Not for the first time, I wondered how I would have handled all the stuff being thrown at me over the past year without the ridiculous stamina boost that I had gotten from the Amarok. It really was one of my most useful powers when you got right down to it.
Physically shaking all that off, I focused on looking at Cerberus and Persephone. “Okay, we should probably get someone to go up with us to check out this ship and do something about those pirates. I don’t know if they’re good or bad, or if they’re vicious killers or… yeah, we need to go through them and figure out what to do with all that.”
Shiori, of course, pumped both fists in the air. “We’re going on another spaceship! I don’t care how much it happens, I’ll never get tired of that! And meeting space pirates? Dude, being around you so much is the best.” With that, she latched on to hug me tightly.
I returned it and sniffed her hair briefly before glancing over to where Persephone was watching. She didn’t seem jealous or anything, just curious. It actually made me wonder how much open affection she had ever gotten from Manakel. Somehow, he didn’t strike me as the type. But, of course, I could’ve been wrong. After all, I hadn’t exactly seen him in casual situations.
Finally, using one hand to stroke Shiori’s hair, I announced, “Right, I guess we’re doing that now.
“Let’s see who wants to go tour a pirate spaceship with us.”
Eventually, the group that ended up going to this pirate ship amounted to myself, Shiori, Avalon, Apollo, Doug, Theia, and Dare. My mother had a thing with some of the Atherby clan people that I didn’t want to interrupt. Not after they’d lost her for so much longer than even I had.
We were back up on the Starstation by that point, waiting for Persephone and Andromeda (Cerberus had been sent back to the pirate ship already) to talk Dare and Apollo through setting up a transport portal over to the ship.
Of course, technically, we could have had the thing dock here on the station. It just would have required creating a portal in one of the gigantic docking bays that was large enough for the ship to pass through. But not only would that require a hell of a lot of magical power on short notice, the adults also didn’t want to bring that ship in until they saw for themselves that it was safe. Which meant looking the whole thing over, and going through all of the pirate crew to find out just how bad they really were.
While waiting for them to work with all that, I had stepped aside and sent a message to Tabbris saying I needed to tell her something important. So, a moment later, I felt her presence. She wasn’t fully recalling, just linking herself to me. Her voice was curious in the back of my mind. Heya, Flick. What’s goi–I left you alone for five minutes and you’re married?!?
Yeah, she had definitely read my surface thoughts. Wincing, I quickly opened up my mind to let her know everything that was actually going on and how exactly it had happened. I take it your mom hasn’t talked to you yet?
After taking all that in, Tabbris’s voice sounded a bit sheepish. I uhh, I’m working on something secret, with Columbus and Nevada. I guess I’ve been really busy. I’m so–
Don’t you dare apologize, I interrupted. It’s okay. It’s great. It’s fantastic. You’ve got your own things.
Weeeelll, technically it’s something for you, came the response. It’s a present. And a surprise! You don’t get to know what it is yet! You don’t get to know anything about it yet! I shouldn’t have said anything. Forget I said anything. You have to be surprised.
With a small, inward smile, I assured her, I promise I will be surprised, whatever it is. And you’re getting help from Columbus and Nevada, huh? Well, color me intrigued.
She responded with a sort of mental kick. Are you sure you’re going to be okay going to that ship? What if there’s a monster over there? What if the whole thing is a trap? What if there’s a malfunction and it jumps to another universe? Maybe I should tell these guys to wait, and come over.
My head physically shook in the real world, pointless as that was. Tabs, it’s okay. I’ll be fine, really. You do your thing and I’ll see the surprise when it’s done. And once we’re sure the pirate ship is safe, you and I can look it over. And you can meet Persephone in person.
I can’t believe you didn’t even invite me to be a flower girl at the wedding, Tabbris teased. Or the ring bearer! Wait, Marian should be the ring bearer. The ring foxer.
Flushing deeply, I gave her a mental swat and reminded her again that I wasn’t actually married. Not that that was going to stop her or anyone else from giving me shit about it until the end of time, of course. The two of us silently talked a little bit more, the other girl making sure I really was doing okay with everything, despite the teasing. Finally, she said that Columbus and Nevada needed her, but made me promise again to let her see the pirate ship and meet Persephone later. And Cerberus. She made it very clear that she wanted to meet Cerberus.
Then she withdrew from my mind, and I glanced over to see Theia and Persephone looking each other up and down with obvious curiosity. The Seosten girl was still wearing Doug’s New York Rangers hat. I was pretty sure she rarely took it off ever since he told her she could keep it even after she and Pace were separated. The two of them had become pretty good friends over the summer. And apparently that had continued throughout the time that I was gone.
Still staring intently at Persephone, Theia asked, “You knew Manakel before he was so grumpy?”
“Oh, he was always a little grumpy,” came the cheerful response. “But he definitely got a lot grumpier in the past couple centuries…” Trailing off thoughtfully, the woman finally added, “He was mad at me for a while at first because I took over this body and he was sad that he couldn’t save her. But then I helped and he liked me a little more. He kept sending me away, but when I was there, he was pretty nice to me. He taught me stuff about medicine and his family. I think he got sad again when I was there too much, because he’d send me away. But he always called me back and let me in when I found him again. I just had to give him some breaks.”
“So hang on,” Doug spoke up, rubbing a hand over the Seattle Mariners cap he was wearing. I was pretty sure it was also enchanted, just like the Rangers hat. “You said Manakel started being nicer to you or whatever for a while, but in the past couple centuries he got mean again?”
Persephone gave a little shrug. “He sent me away a lot more, and he didn’t tell me stories anymore. Before, when I was there and he wasn’t sad, he would tell me about all sorts of things from his past. He liked telling those stories. Or he used to. But in the last couple centuries, he didn’t do that anymore. Even when I was there and he wasn’t sending me away, he barely talked to me. And before, he made reasons for me to go do other things when he got too sad, but then it was more like he was making up excuses. He wasn’t sad, he was… anxious. Like he wanted to do stuff but couldn’t because I was there. Which was silly, because I’d never stop him from doing anything he wanted to do.”
Well, that was curious. And maybe a little suspicious. But then again, it was also possible that he’d just become more short-tempered in his old age and decided he didn’t want to play nice with her anymore.
While I was considering that, Theia gave a slow nod. “My father took me away from my mother’s tests. He said she wouldn’t kill any more of my friends, and that he was going to send me to his friend. He said I could learn a lot from him. But Manakel didn’t really want to teach me very much. He just told me what to do. My father said that Manakel liked to tell lots of stories. But he didn’t tell me stories.”
Yeah, that was definitely a whole complicated thing. Maybe something had been up with Manakel. After all, we did know for a fact that there was an incredibly powerful figure out there corrupting and controlling Seosten. Maybe Godfather had gotten to him? But to what end? I had no idea, and there wasn’t enough evidence to say one way or another. Just because he’d been different over the past couple centuries and didn’t like to share stories anymore wasn’t exactly proof positive. Still, it was something to think about.
Avalon and I exchanged glances that made it clear we were both thinking the same thing. Then she turned that way to ask Theia, “Your father really said Manakel would teach you? When he said that, was he being nice or subtly menacing?”
Theia, of course, just blinked at her. “I think he was being nice. But then again, subtly menacing was nice compared to Mother’s total revulsion and loathing.”
Sometimes I definitely needed the reminder that I’d had a really good life compared to a lot of people. When I thought of the things someone like Theia had been put through just based on the fact that she was born with a disability, it made me want to bring Kushiel’s ghost back just so she could see how much better her daughter was doing without her. Not to mention taking a detour to show her how much Sariel was enjoying being with her entire family, including the girl she had snuck out of Kushiel’s facility right from under her nose.
Yeah, there were definitely about a million things wrong with that thought. At least. Still, it came up now and then before I pushed it away. I wasn’t going to reach out for any ghosts of my dead enemies just to gloat at them. I wasn’t quite that dumb.
In this case, I dismissed the thought just in time for Apollo to straighten up from the magic teleport spell he had been drawing on the floor along with Dare. “Right,” he announced, “it should be good now. Who’s ready to go see a pirate ship?”
Straightening up as well, Dare looked at me. Our gazes met, and there was a brief moment of silent communication that made it clear she wanted to talk later when we had a little privacy. Probably about the whole Persephone thing, because she couldn’t exactly give me grandmotherly advice in public without raising more questions than we or the spell wanted to deal with.
After giving her a subtle nod, I turned back to the others. “Well, I’m definitely ready. But I do have a very important question before we go through that portal.
“Did anyone try to call Blackbeard? Because doing this without him feels like it should be against the law.”