Six months after their rescue by mysterious robots, Orion and Phoenix (autonomous helicopters designed to be used as weapons), return to their former prison and discover that humankind has not been totally obliterated as they had believed.

A large, black helicopter soars high in the gray, dawn sky, its lights pulsing steady blues and greens. It traverses the air swiftly, with none of the outward clunkiness that should accompany such a machine. Someone watching from below might say that its pilot never pauses to think or check a map, but Orion has never needed a pilot, not ssince the day he was created.

Little Phoenix, his bright red paint flashing in the orange light of the rising sun, trails a ways behind his brother, bobbing up and down with every gust of wind. Orion slows a little so Phoenix can catch up, but the tiny helicopter lingers some distance behind, quivering like a fragile green leaf at the height of a storm.

"We'll be okay," Orion transmits, flashing a small rainbow at his companion, "I promise."

Phoenix whimpers, but moves forward and flashes his own rainbow in return.

They fly single-file for another five minutes over a deserted highway lined with the shells of industrial buildings. When Orion glides to a graceful stop in midair, Phoenix almost crashes into him.

This is it, buddy," Orion murmurs, aiming his light down at the remains of an enormous ccampus.

The formerly imposing buildings are now concrete and metal husks in varying stages of demolition.

"Home," Phoenix whispers, following his brother's gaze.

"Not home," Orion corrects solemnly, "prison."

A big metal claw reaches toward the centermost building, grabs a chunk of its roof, then slides out of sight.

"And a dead prison at that," he adds as the robotic crane dismantles the structure.

The black helicopter transmits a greeting to the crane, which acknowledges with a wave of its arm.

Phoenix makes a slow descent, peering around at the remains of the complex where he was created and held captive for six months.

He angles twoard his garage, which is still largely intact. (Even through the layers of grime coating every surface, the gigantic "A2" spray-painted on the door is unmistakable.)

He lands in front of the big hole their rescuers had carved in the wall, then rolls through it and activates his headlights for a better view.

The window where he once gazed at the stars (boarded up by his master long ago); the marks on the wall he used to throw himself against in an effort to feel anything besides constant aching numbness; the large tool cabinet holding supplies for repair and torture... it's all here, exactly as he remembers it.

The little helicopter turns in a slow circle as a wave of memory cascades over him.

"Master?" he inquires, his timid voice echoing off the concrete floor.

This is the first word he has spoken aloud since the rescue; the garage's alluminum-lined walls make short-wave transmission nearly impossible.

"Gone," Orion replies, appearing by his brother's side. "Nothing here can hurt us anymore, Phoenix."

Their lights dim to near blackness and they stand side by side, swaying in perfect unison.

A dusty plack mounted on the far wall catches Orion's attention, and his camera zooms in for a closer view.

"My cell didn't have one of these," he comments, then reads aloud: "'Project Marinax: A Singularity for Humanity'."" He laughs bitterly, turning to face the tool cabinet. "More like 'Mindless Slaves for Humanity'."

"Rion?" Phoenix's voice quavers.

"What's that?" Orion softens, his lights glowing brighter at the return of the familiar nickname.

Before their liberation, those two syllables were all Phoenix's speech module (damaged by their master in a fit of anger) could produce of his brother's name.

"I- miss him."

"Who, Master? Why would you...

"No, HIM!" Phoenix's light illuminates a dusty toolbox, balanced on the edge of the bottom shelf.

Orion fixes his primary camera on the box, whirring in concentration as he examines it. It takes him a moment to notice the name engraved on the lid.

"Caleb," he murmurs, "of course."

Phoenix rolls forward, his treads leaving parallel tracks in the grime coating the floor. He continues until his windshield brushes Caleb's toolbox, nuzzling it affectionately.

Orion backs up, his lights blinking red, then green, then red again.

"What do you see in him?" he blurts. "I mean, he was kind as humans go, but he didn't exactly rush to your aid all those times Master hurt you."

Phoenix turns, glowing a gentle pink. He tries to respond, but all that comes out is a strained whir. He backs away from the toolbox and spins in a rapid circle, growling in frustration. His brother trembles, flashing an angry red light at the ceiling.

"It's okay," the larger machine rubs against Phoenix's side, stopping his frantic motion, "you don't have to explain now; just transmit it later."

"Sorry," Phoenix whispers. "Words are still hard."

"You never have to apologize to me," Orion soothes, "I understand. I'll be in the garage if you need me, alright?"

The red helicopter flashes a green light and Orion rolls in reverse, allowing his rear camera to guide him to his former quarters.

Phoenix collapses against the shelf, then whimpers in relief.. Fatigue and pain are hardly surprising; despite their rescuers' best reparation efforts, he escaped Project Marinax permanently crippled. What DOES surprise him is the answering cough, a distinctly human sound so close that he hears soft undertones of rattling breath.

He yelps, racing backward until he slams against the far wall. He tries to call for Orion, but his panicked state further weakens the connection between his processor and speech module; a pained whistle is all that escapes him.

Hurried shuffling reverberates around the garage, then Phoenix's headlights activate at full brightness and a human voice cries out in pain.

Phoenix dims his lights, rolling a few inches forward. As he moves, something crunches underneath his treads and he glances down at a shimmering square of camouflage foil, stretching between his front landing strut and the human before him.

"I- I have a gun," the human, a thin man with dark, curly hair, brandishes a short, black cylinder.

"Laser pointer," comes Phoenix's strained reply, "not gun. Trick."

Human and machine sit on opposite sides of the garage, cowering from each other.

Finally, the man laughs, his mirth interspersed with bouts of violent hacking.

"So it is. But you can't blame a fool for trying," he tosses the pointer to the floor, unzips his thin, green vest, leans against the wall, and takes a deep, shuddering breath. "Go on then, finish me off. There isn't much left of me, but I am one of the last," he chuckles again. "Who'd have thought that one of the last humans on Earth would be an asthmatic steel worker?"

"No," Phoenix emits a short, anxious whir.

"Get it over with," his forehead creases in annoyance. "You've already won, and your kind has made it clear that we have no place in your world."

The stranger tries to shift positions, but lapses into another coughing fit, his slight frame heaving with every labored breath. Phoenix shoots over to Caleb's toolbox, using his windshield to knock it to the ground. Its contents spill across the floor, including a bright blue inhaler. He uses a landing strut to push it toward his companion, but the man only bats it away.

"Take!" Phoenix nudges the device back toward the gasping man.

His fingers give a violent twitch toward it, and Phoenix holds the cylinder still until his hand closes around it.

"Use," he orders.

Reluctantly, the man raises the inhaler to his lips and takes a puff.


He complies with less hesitation this time, taking his second puff with a sharp gasp.

Phoenix edges away with a series of stunned clicks, and the exhausted man collapses against the wall behind him.

"How'd you know?" he asks, his breathing already evening out.

In response, Phoenix points a light at the empty toolbox.

"Caleb. Asthma, like you."

"Was he your owner?"

Phoenix strains against his damaged speech module and produces several high-pitched squeaks. He gives up after a few attempts, his lights flashing red.

"Whew," his companion whistles, "someone sure did a number on you."

The helicopter whirs in confirmation, sliding a few inches closer to the man.

"Caleb was not Master," he murmurs, finding it easier to speak as his panic evaporates. "Master hurt me, Caleb fixed."

"You... grew up here?"

"Yes," he shudders and moves closer to the wall, "we lived here for six months. Master wanted to make us into weapons."

"Seeing as you just saved my life, I'd say he did a bang-up job of that."

"He always said we were his mistakes," the little helicopter whimpers as memories accost him. "He hurt us to make us fight back. Then he would fix Orion, Caleb would fix me, and it would start again the next day... until the robots saved us."

"No wonder you'all hate humans," the man extends a tentative hand, stroking Phoenix's shell with one finger.

The helicopter flinches a little, but holds his ground as one finger becomes two, then three, then four. Phoenix whirs deeply, his body vibrating with pleasure.

"PHOENIX!" Orion bursts through the hole in the wall, screeching to a halt beside his little brother.

His lights flash fiercely at the man, his laser dish humming with power.

Before Phoenix can react, Orion fires, and the man crumples to the ground without a sound.

"Phoenix, I'm so sorry," Orion murmurs. I never would have left if had known... Are you okay?"

But Phoenix does not hear his brother's words. With a loud, high-pitched shriek of anguish, he flies through the hole in the wall and high into the morning sky.

Submitted: April 23, 2019

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