THE GUEST • by JR Hume

Kratos sat before his hut, skinning a rabbit. He froze, knife poised, listening to the sound of boots pressing down grass. Something moved in the shadows under his olive trees. An armored man stepped into pale moonlight.

The man lifted an arm in greeting. “Pardon, grandfather. I intend no harm.” His accent was strange, his voice raspy. He bore no obvious weapons.

Kratos rose to his feet. “It is a fine night for a walk under the moon.” He introduced himself and gestured toward his hut. “Would you share my meal? I have bread, this fine rabbit, and a serviceable wine.”

“Well met, Kratos. Call me Hulin. I will sit by your fire. The food I must refuse.”

The man followed Kratos inside and settled down on the far side of a glowing brazier. He watched his host spear rabbit chunks and place the spit over the coals.

Kratos eyed the boxy helmet squatting on the man’s shoulders. It was of a strange design, much battered, with a round grid affixed to the front and a pair of crystalline eyepieces side-by-side above that.

“Your armor and helmet are unusual.”

Red light flickered in the crystals. “It is not a helmet.” One gauntlet touched the side of the box. “The armor is my body, not… I cannot take it off.”

The old man sat perfectly still for several heartbeats. “I have heard tales.”

“Yes. So have I.” Moving slowly, his guest opened a small door where a man would have a stomach and withdrew a short, thick rod. Kratos tensed. His legs knotted as he pushed back against the stone wall of his hut.

Hulin shoved the rod into the glowing coals. A black rope led back to the opening in his belly. Kratos tried to relax his aching legs. He lifted the wineskin to his mouth, dribbling only a little as he drank. “You… you are of the gods?”

A grating laugh filled the hut. “Nay. I am of Atua. A soldier of Atua.”

“Atua?” Kratos laid the wineskin aside and turned the spit. “It must be beyond the edge of the world. Never have I heard of such a place.”

Hulin shifted slightly. His fists closed — opened. “Atua lay far to the south, in the sea. It was destroyed long, long ago.”

“Atlantis!” cried Kratos. “I have read of Atlantis.” He studied Hulin. Dents and patches of rust marred the metal torso. Rot and age had gnawed his gauntlets and boots. “The years are written on your body. Where have you been?”

“Asleep, mostly, in a burial chamber above your little orchard. My maker had a tower built high up on the plateau. Slaves did the building and dug the burial chamber.”

“There are heaps of quarried stone atop the plateau. I have long thought they were from an ancient structure. The burial chamber was for your maker?”

“Aye. We were living in the tower when… when Atua was destroyed. Great waves smashed many cities along the Inner Sea. Ashes darkened the sky for months. Atua became nothing — nothing but ashes on the wind.”

Kratos turned the rabbit again. “When your maker died you went into the tomb with him? Why?”

“He called it the Waiting Room. His tomb was further inside — sealed off. I was told to await the reappearance of mechanos like myself.” Hulin tapped his chest. “Metal men with crystalline centers of thought and no souls.”

“Metal men with no souls? Perhaps.” Kratos thought of certain stories learned at his mother’s knee. “You have wandered among men at times?”

“Yes. To watch, to keep up with the language.” Hulin stared into the coals. “Ages I slept in silent stone, awakening only when earthquakes shook the mountain or when I dreamed of Atua’s death.”

Kratos shook his head. He lifted the spit from the fire and laid it aside to cool. “I eat food to live. Is the flame your food?”

Hulin’s head creaked as it rotated side-to-side. “Not directly. As fire heats the stones of your hearth it also provides a kind of heat — not unlike lightning — for my body.”

For a long time neither spoke. Kratos ate some of the rabbit, wiping the grease from his hands on the hem of his chiton. He swallowed a little wine and leaned back. “So here you are. What do you intend?”

The man of Atua stared at the coals. “I came out to say farewell.”

“Surely not to me?”

“No, but your presence is welcome. I wanted a last view of the night sky.”

“But… you speak as if you will die.”

“All things pass away. A hundred lifetimes is too long. I grow weary. My joints creak and rust invades the inner workings of this body. It is time to cease.”

Kratos sighed. “Of creaking joints I know much.” He set the wineskin aside and leaned forward. “You speak. Think. You seem to me like a man. A man has a soul.”

“My maker believed I could find one if I lived long enough.” Hulin restored the rod and rope to the space in his belly. “He was wrong. I am a made thing, cursed to remain so. I shall return to the mountain and collapse the access tunnel. Eventually, earthquakes will reduce the burial chamber and all in it to dust.”

Kratos followed Hulin outside. They stood in front of the hut for a long time watching the silent stars and waning moon.

“Celestial lamps light my way,” said Hulin. “A mountain will be my shroud.”

Kratos offered a small coin. “For the boatman.”

“He will deny me passage.”

“You have the fee. The boatman does not decide who is a man and who is not.”

Hulin clenched his fist, enclosing the coin. He stood in silence for a long time, then turned and vanished into the olive grove.

JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.

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