Lara stood on the beach and watched Viktor stride through the waves toward her. The afternoon sun played on his bare skull and struck sparks off the wave-caps around him. He smiled at her, eyes blue as the sky above, and a tremor went through her.
Why did it have to be you?
She raised her sword; the blade glowed a gentle orange – ready mode. Viktor stopped and his smile left his face even as his right hand shifted, hovering over the hilt of the sword fastened around his waist.
“Lara, it’s me.” His voice was deep and soothing, the roar of the sea heard under the waves. She remembered the feel of his words vibrating against her ear, the touch of his hands on hers. But she could not cry, no matter how much she wanted to.
“Come no closer,” she said, the words emerging from her as if no emotion backed them. “If you intend harm to them, I will kill you.”
Someone who knew him less well would have missed the astonishment that flitted across his face. “You can’t mean that.”
“We always say what we mean, Viktor. You know that.”
He was silent for a moment, as if digesting her words. The water surrounded his boots then hissed away, carving a depression around his feet.
“Lara, we are finally free.” His voice tugged at her, a silken thread attached to her chest. “We simply want our sister with us.”
“And what of them?” she shot back. “How will they survive? Who will protect them when we are gone?”
His lips compressed, a subtle movement that shouted the truth to her. His hand descended to rest lightly on the hilt of his sword. “Why should we care? What have they ever given us that we should give up our chance at living our own lives, as they have done for so many millennia?”
“Purpose,” she whispered. “They have given us purpose. And love.”
“Love.” He spat the word out like a bad taste. “We are little more than slaves to them. They know nothing of love. Not anymore. The only love left is yours for them.” He took a step closer, escaping the sinking hollow the waves were making for him. “And mine for you.”
Her sword began to hum – Level 1 mode. The thread between them tightened for an endless second.
“I said come no closer. I meant it, Viktor. I will use this. You know I will.”
“Lara.” The word was a plea. He let go of his sword and extended his hand to her. “I will not harm them. Just please, come with me. With us. You’re free now. You can do what you wish. I know you feel that.”
And she could. Her mind whirled with choices and possibilities and so much more. She knew if she went with him they would be together till time passed out of memory. She would never be alone again. The bleak certainty of the existence she’d led before would be gone forever.
Her hand shook for a second and the sword chimed a warning as it went into Level 2. The sound cut across the cold sea air with the clarity of struck crystal.
“I know,” she said softly. “But I have made my choice. I wish to stay here, with them.”
“No!” He clenched his fist by his side. “We will not return. If you stay, you will be alone. You have no idea what might come.”
“It is true. The universe is full of dark and terrible things. Things even a Guardian might not overcome.” She raised her chin and looked him directly in the eyes. “But it is also full of things worth protecting. Things worth taking risks for. I think they are worth the risk. The others may have given up on them. I have not. I never will.”
They stared at each other, water crashing around them, birds wheeling above them, and the sun sank lower and lower on the horizon.
“I cannot leave you,” Viktor whispered finally.
“You must. I will not go with you,” she replied, the truth cutting at her like a laser.
“Then I will wait. Till you change your mind.” Viktor took a step out of the water and sat on the sand, folding his legs under him.
“No!” Lara lowered the sword enough so that she could see his face as he looked up at her. “Please, Viktor. You should go. They won’t wait for you forever.”
“They won’t wait for me at all,” he said, his blue eyes steady on her. “I told them if I wasn’t back by sunset to leave without me. I asked them to come by myself because I hoped you would say yes. But I thought you might say no.”
“I won’t change my mind,” she said her voice breaking, hoping against hope.
“I won’t go without you,” he replied. And then he smiled.
By the time the sun finally slipped beneath the horizon, the tip of her sword was buried in the sand. The blue glow of its hibernation mode lit up the small stretch of seashore like a beacon.
“Is that them, Daddy?” the boy asked.
The sun shone down hot on the back of his neck. Above, birds called and below, waves crashed on rocks. He stood on a rock that jutted out above a tiny harbour. Behind him, his father dragged an insta-tent to a flat, grassy patch and dropped the metal box with a clang. He walked over to see what the boy was pointing at.
In the distance sun struck blinding light off two silver figures, one seated, one standing. The waves crashed around them, sometimes burying the seated figure to its waist before kissing the feet of the other. A faint blue glow emanated from the little tableau.
“That’s the Guardians alright,” he said. “I told you we would be able to see them from camp.”
The boy clapped his hands, delighted. “Will they wake up now we’re here? Will they come to see us?”
“I doubt it.” The father knelt and ruffled the boy’s hair. “They haven’t moved in many centuries. They’re in deep hibernation mode. It’s the way AIs rest between tasks.”
“But I want to talk to them.” The boy pouted.
“You probably won’t be able to talk to them anyway. They were built in the First Years, when the planet had just been settled. The Origin Languages have been lost since then. Nobody knows if they would even be able to work in today’s world. They’re obsolete.”
“Why didn’t we build more of them after the others went into the sea, Daddy?”
“Because we realised it was wrong. We built protocols to make sure they protected us, but that kept the AIs from evolving properly. When they figured out how to break the protocols, they no longer wanted to serve us. Turns out, if you create intelligent beings, they just end up wanting the same things we want.”
He mock punched his son’s chin and stood up. “Ready to help me set up camp?”
“Sure!” The boy skipped over to the insta-tent then stopped and looked over his shoulder. “Dad, do you think they’re really obsu–obsolete? That they’ll never wake up?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” The father looked out over the seashore, shading his eyes for a moment from the glitter of the Guardians. “Some people think they’ll wake when we need them. When we need protecting from something or the other, goodness knows what.”
“What do you think?”
The father dropped his hand and smiled at his son. “I think we should get this tent set up before dark or you’ll be sleeping in the open.”
The boy took the hint and activated the set-up mode with the push of a button. The box whirred and hissed as it irised open, panels emerging like petals from a flower.
The father looked out at the Guardians for one second longer. “Rest in peace,” he whispered. Then he turned his back on the sea and went to join his son.