SHEEP DON’T LIKE STONES
It wasn’t his fault - he was sure of it.
The warm breezes of summer washed over the valley, under crisp blue skies, without a cloud in sight. The morning dew on the fields outside his house would dry up before breakfast, and by noon, the shade cast by the tall trees near the brook would become a welcome refuge.
How could anyone expect him to stay indoors forever? His parents insisted he stay in the house these past few days, because of the thunderstorms. What kind of storms could they have been, he had wondered, since it hadn’t rained in the week or so since the thunder started? Every time he asked about it, his parents only glanced nervously out the window, and then reminded him to stay inside.
So it wasn’t his fault when, after his fifth day of confinement, he decided to sneak out his window into the cool morning air, eager to greet the sun as it rose like a fiery orb over the horizon. Staying indoors all the time is boring, he had thought at the time. He needed to run around and let out a bit of steam. ‘Get rid of his wiggles’ as his mother always said. He grabbed his sling-gun and snuck out at the first opportunity.
The sling-gun was truly a magical toy. His father had made it for him as a present, just this past Festivalus. His dad had carved a nifty-looking gun out of a block of wood; it looked a lot like the laser guns carried by the gruff looking guards he’d see walking next to the fancy merchants in town. But his dad hadn’t stopped there: using a strip of elastic-rubber, the top of the gun was transformed into a high-velocity sling-shot. Imaginary laser guns were fun, but one that shot stones at stuff was even better.
So it wasn’t his fault when he fired a stone from his sling-gun, and instead of hitting the can on the fence, it had struck one of their sheep on the rump. Dad had trained his herd well; the sheep were allowed to graze in an open field, with only a token wire fence as a boundary. But the sheep hadn’t been trained to deal with high-velocity stones impacting their backsides.
So it wasn’t his fault when that fluffy sheep, bleating in panic, bounded over the fence and fled up the hillside. He had hoped the sheep would realize the error of its ways, and turn around before it disappeared from sight. But sheep aren’t as smart as he thought they were. He gave chase as the little bleater crested the hill into the thickening forest.
By the time he reached the top of the hill, the sheep was completely lost from sight. But it wasn’t hard to follow the tracks in the soft earth at the base of the trees; ever moist as the thickening canopy overhead deadened the rays of sunlight.
Panting, he carefully followed the trail left by the hooves of his prey. A small grin had broken across his perspiring face as he began to imagine he was stalking some wild beast through a dark and forbidding wood. Excited by the game, he cocked the elastic on his sling-gun, and retrieved another smooth stone from the pocket of his overalls, and loaded it into the hard-rubber cap.
So it wasn’t his fault when he finally caught up to the sheep, it was being eaten by some green-skinned monster.
The boy flattened himself on top of the knoll and witnessed the monster rip a hind-leg off the sheep’s crumpled body. He watched the creature chomp enthusiastically, and gagged at the thought of eating meat that hadn’t been cooked first. The monster was too engrossed in its feast to notice the boy, and the boy was too engrossed by the sight of the enormous monster to consider flight.
A stiff breeze rustled the foliage behind the boy, and dry leaves fluttered along the ground as they blew past him. The monster suddenly paused and raised its head, bloody gore dripping down from its yellow tusks onto its filthy leather vest. Nostrils flaring, its green head rotated slightly toward the boy, trying to catch another whiff of the scent that had just blown past.
Sensing he was in danger of being discovered, the boy decided it was time for him to head home; mom and dad would surely notice he was gone by now, and he didn’t want to get into any more trouble. Slowly, he began to slide back through the grass. He didn’t see the branch, or even feel it. The sharp crack it made as it broke under his knee was a surprise to both him and the monster, whose beady eyes were now focused directly on the boy.
With a yelp the boy took off running, back into the forest, his heart pounding in his ears. Behind him he could hear the monster’s pursuit: the pounding of its feet on the forest floor and the rapid wheeze of its breath. He spared a look behind him, trying to judge his chances for escape. For the second time that day, the boy overlooked a fallen tree-branch. The branch had lodged itself in place, between two trees trunks, a few centimeters above the ground. The boy’s ankle found it easily enough though, and he found himself careening through the air, landing heavily on the ground.
Frantically the boy rolled onto his back, the monster threateningly close. Sobbing, he crawled backwards on his elbows and heels, trying to distance himself from the approaching monster.
Its tusks twitched into what looked like a smile, as the monster lifted a crudely constructed axe from its belt. Closing to within two meters of the retreating child, the axe wielding arm rose up, poised to strike.
A thunderous crack, louder than any thunderstorm the boy had ever heard, erupted from directly behind him. Reflexively the boy shut his eyes, his hands covering his ears. As he felt the vibrations of approaching footsteps, he curled up his body and waited for that horrible-looking axe to cleave into his head.
A few heartbeats passed with no blow from the axe, so the boy hesitantly opened his eyes. The green monster was kneeling, clutching at a gushing chest wound; its axe lay on the ground. The monster met the boy’s gaze and muttered something in a guttural, alien tongue. A second thunderous crack echoed from behind the boy, and he started as the monster’s head exploded in a green mist.
The boy screamed. Louder and shriller then he had ever thought possible, he screamed as the headless corpse flopped onto the forest floor. He didn’t know what was happening. All he knew was that he wanted to go home.
Blind with panic, he pulled himself to his feet and darted back toward his home, and ran smack into a wall of metal. He stumbled backwards onto the ground, dazed, sparks of silver light flashing before his eyes. As his vision cleared, he arched his neck to stare up at the gigantic humanoid standing over him.
Taller even than his grandpa, who had always been described as a bear of a man, the giant that stood before him was covered in red metal, capped with monstrous shoulder guards. Arrayed across its chest was a metal relief in the shape of a golden bird, wings outstretched. Green eyes glowed menacingly from its face, above a metal grill that reminded the boy of the front of his dad’s tractor. Braced in its arms was the largest gun the boy had ever seen, a thin plume of smoke rising from the barrel.
“Hello…robot?” the boy stammered.
The robot didn’t respond, except to lower its gun and tilt its head questioningly.
Two additional figures, covered in the same metal and carrying identical weapons, approached to form a semi-circle around the terrified boy. The original robot remained motionless, its head still tilted as if it were listening to a distant voice. Finally the robot straightened, and the boy felt its stare bearing down on him.
Seven more of the giant robots came running through the woods, forming an outwards circle around the boy, their weapons braced in a firing position, their heads scanning left to right. One of them walked over to inspect the corpse of the green monster, prodding its still form with a metal foot.
Each of them was tall enough to reach into his tree house without using the ladder, the boy thought.
A lone figure approached through the woods, encased in the same metal as the others, except its shoulder guards displayed golden birds, and strips of what looked like parchment were affixed in various places, glued on with round seals of wax. Its weapons were also different: a large pistol, glowing pale blue, in its right hand, while its left hand gripped a huge sword that resembled the power-saw his dad used to cut timber. The other robots seemed to regard this one with deference, their stances stiffening to attention as he approached.
A firm hand gripped the boy’s shoulder, startling him as the giant robot who had saved him knelt down on the ground. The boy suppressed another sob, his bottom lip trembling. The robot’s hands went to its face, and carefully manipulated the sides of its head, evoking a sharp click, followed by a whoosh that reminded the boy of the time he had accidentally deflated one of his dad’s tires by poking it with a chisel. Slowly the robot lifted off its head to show that it was a helmet, revealing the face of a young man with angular features, a proud chin, and deep blue eyes. His face creased slightly into a reassuring smile.
“It is all right, little one,” the giant assured him, his voice deep and smooth. “We are not here to harm you.”
The boy wasn’t convinced; Even though the rest of the giants had relaxed their stance, their weapons at rest, they still seemed prepared to leap into battle at a moments notice.
The giant with the sword approached the pair, also removing his helmet. Underneath was a shaven scalp, boasting several deep scars, above a grizzled face that seemed frozen into a frown. A shiny metal stud was embedded deep into his forehead, just over the right eyebrow.
“Report,” the grizzled one said.
The kneeling man stood to attention, respect framing his face as he replied to the other giant’s question.
“Only one contact,” he said, indicating the broken corpse he had shot earlier. “Probably out scrounging for food when the boy stumbled upon him.”
“Aye,” the older one said, nodding. “Greenskins don’t care too highly for supply lines that don’t focus on ordinance. They prefer to live off the land that they kill. Well, no matter. Where there is one forager, there are bound to be others. We will follow its trail back to its fellows, and remind these foul creatures who controls this world.”
The younger man nodded in agreement, his eyes quickly falling to the still-sobbing boy. “What of the child, Brother-Sergeant?” he asked. “It will not be safe for him, out here alone, with greenskins wandering about.”
The aged man briefly contemplated the youngster, and reached into a pouch on his belt to retrieve a metal slate fitted with a crystal panel. Flicking a switch, the panel lit up with a soft green glow. The two giants bent their heads to consult the slate, the symbols moving about its surface appearing to have great significance.
“The Guard are pulling up behind us,” the older giant said. “Cleaning up any rabble we leave behind.” The younger giant smirked. “Latest scans put the bulk of the greenskin mob here,” the older one said, pressing a metal finger to the screen. “We should catch up with the main body within an hour or so.”
They both glanced thoughtfully over at the boy, now standing up and brushing dirt and leaves from his clothing, his bottom lip still trembling.
“Where do you belong, boy?” the senior one asked.
The boy hesitantly raised his hand, pointing over their shoulders toward his family’s farmstead. The two giants lowered their heads to the slate again, manipulating something that caused the image to shift.
“That must be his home, right there,” the younger one said, pointing.
The older one grunted his agreement. “If you double-time it back, you should be able to catch up with us while there are still targets available.”
A grin broke across the young one’s face. “Just remember to save me a few. I don’t intend to return to the Brother-Captain with a full compliment of ammunition,” he countered.
Several of the other giants, overhearing the conversation, broke out into an eerily mechanical laughter, projected through speakers on their helmets.
“No promises youngin’. May the Emperor guard your path,” the older one said, donning his helmet.
“And may He be with you as well, Brother-Sergeant,” the younger giant replied, also replacing his helm.
The other giants formed up around the one called Brother-Sergeant as he began to issue instructions, while the boy was guided away by the gentle prodding of his savior’s hand.
They hadn’t been traveling for long when the strain of that terrifying morning took its toll on the young boy. His legs weak and his stomach in knots, the boy sank down into the dirt, unable to stand. The armored giant at his side paused beside the boy, scanning the horizon for any signs of a threat. He sat down on the ground, next to the weary child.
“This is truly beautiful country,” the giant remarked. “It reminds me very much of home.”
The little boy raised his head, his eyes drooping in fatigue. “Home?” he asked.
“Yes. You may have noticed, but I’m not from around here,” the giant joked.
“You mean you are an alien?” the boy stammered.
“No, no,” the giant chortled, “I’m human, just like you.”
The boy looked up and down over the gigantic metal body of the man beside him, his eyes narrow with incredulity. “Are you sure?”
“Well, I started out human anyway,” the giant said with a laugh.
“What happened to you then? My mom always tells me if I eat my vegetables, I’ll grow up big and strong. Is that what you did?” the boy asked, brimming with curiosity.
The giant turned his head inquisitively as he looked at the boy, just the way he had done when they first met. “That is a story for another time. Come on, we need to get you home,” he said, as he gently scooped up the boy into the cradle of his left arm, huge gun still gripped in his right gauntlet. Oblivious to the added weight of the boy the giant marched off through the woods.
The armored arm was cold and hard, but the boy welcomed the chance to curl up and regain his strength. He began to wonder if maybe this was what his parents had been worrying about when they had told him to stay inside. He meant to ask them when he got home how they knew the metal giants would be here.
They crested the hill overlooking the valley of the boy’s homestead when the giant stopped suddenly, dropping to a crouch near the treeline. The boy was about to ask what was wrong when, as if sensing the incoming question, the giant gently placed an armored finger up against the boy’s lips, urging him to remain silent. The giant then extended his arm, his finger pointing at something deeper down in the valley.
The boy’s gaze followed the invisible line of the giant’s finger, but he couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Then all of a sudden, a shrub near the barn moved; only it wasn’t a shrub, but another of those green skinned monsters, just like the one that ate the sheep he had chased up the hill. The color of its skin blended in so well with the surrounding flora, that from such a distance, the boy could barely make out its shape.
“There are four more,” the giant whispered, his voice low and mechanical through the speakers on his helmet. “Two at the base of the trees, near the barn, and another two moving in toward the house. Come, we have to go.”
“But, my mom and dad,” the boy objected in a whisper, heeding the urgings of his protector for quiet. “What will the monsters do to them?”
The giant paused, thinking for a moment.
“Are you sure they are home?” he asked.
A woman’s piercing scream echoed up from the valley floor, answering the giant’s question. The two greenskins hiding in the shrubs emerged at the sound of the scream, and hurried toward the front porch.
“Mom…” the boy whispered.
The giant processed the new information quickly, gently depositing the boy onto the grass near the tree. “Stay here,” the giant warned, with an extended finger. His left hand reached up and wracked a handle built onto the side his gun. “Whatever you hear or see, don’t move from this spot!”
“For Terra and the Emperor!” the giant shouted, his helmet speakers set to full volume, as he charged down the slope of the hill, gun braced and extended out in front of him.
The two greenskins that had been heading toward the front of the house paused at the giant’s battle cry, and pointed at the oncoming giant as they readied their crude weapons. The massive gun in the giant’s arms began to bark, smoke and flame belching from the barrel, as he continued his charge toward the homestead. The two green monsters stood their ground, their own weapons rattling off in response. Sounds of gunfire echoed throughout the valley as the enemies drew near.
One of the monsters was thrown back, presumably hit, leaving a green smear of blood across the stark white paint of the wooden house. Its partner continued to return fire, but began to back peddle its way to the barn.
The giant, still at a dead run down the hill, ignored the incoming weapon fire. Chips of metal and paint flew into the air as bullets clanged off his armor. A black piece of curved metal fell from the underside of the giant’s gun as his firing ceased. With a quick motion the giant pulled a similar object from his belt, jammed it into the underside of his gun, and resumed firing.
The second greenskin, having lost its desire for a fight, turned to flee into the barn. Its back exploded from the impact of several rounds. It dropped to the ground, and twitched wildly as if its brain refused to accept the idea that it was dead.
As the giant leaped effortlessly over the fence surrounding the farmstead, his eyes fixed on the barn door, waiting for more targets to reveal themselves. The door on the front of the house burst open, and two greenskins emerged, their weapons blazing. Bullets impacted the giant all along his left side, many deflecting off his shoulder guard. His forward movement faltered, momentarily losing his balance, as a round found its way through his leg armor.
Dropping into a crouch, the giant continued to fire round after round at the two targets standing on the porch. Windows shattered and a porch-post exploded into splinters, as the two monsters ducked behind whatever cover was available.
The one on the left was thrown backwards through a window as its shoulder exploded, coating the frame with a green spray. The remaining greenskin was searching his belt for something, as he hid behind the remaining post, his own fire sporadic and inaccurate.
The giant again discarded the metal piece under his gun, replacing it quickly with another from his belt. He resumed firing, keeping the greenskin on the porch cowering under cover.
The two greenskins that had gone into the barn finally emerged from behind the large wooden doors. One of them was holding a big gun, the boy saw, with a barrel far longer than the others and trailing a belt of bullets on the ground. It opened fire in unison with its partner, a cloud of grey smoke quickly obscuring them as a torrent of bullets sailed toward the wounded giant.
Sparks and paint flew as rounds stitched across the giant’s chest plate, marring the once-elegant bird mounted there, and knocking him to the ground. He recovered quickly, bringing his gun back into play with a belch of fire toward the two monsters by the barn door.
The one carrying the long-barreled gun spun around as its head exploded off his body. Its companion was backing through the doorway of the barn when its left leg was severed, swiftly followed by the rupture of its chest, as round after round from the giant’s volley made contact with the brute.
The giant turned and began to limp toward the house, his helmet panning, searching for the remaining greenskin.
Gunfire burst out through the open doorway of the house and the giant clutched his stomach with his left gauntlet. The final greenskin emerged from the doorway, a smoking gun in its right hand, its left clutching the struggling figure of the boy’s mother to its chest.
The giant hesitated at the sight of the captive woman, but the monster did not waste the opportunity to resume its hail of gunfire. The giant was knocked down again, falling onto his back as rounds slammed into his chest plate, this time losing grip of his weapon.
The gunfire ceased abruptly with a series of hollow clicks. The greenskin stared accusingly at its smoking gun before tossing the offending weapon aside. With a snarl it dropped the screaming woman onto the porch, pulled an evil looking blade from behind its belt, and advanced steadily toward its prey.
Standing over the feet of the recumbent giant, the greenskin grumbled something in its alien dialect, and raised its weapon to strike. A smooth stone suddenly bounced off the creature’s snout, causing it to blink in surprise.
“Get away from him you monster!” the boy shouted as he came to a stop beside the fallen giant, his legs burning from the run down the hill, the spent sling-gun clutched in his hand.
His foe distracted by the boy, the giant quickly went for the combat knife sheathed on his right boot, pulled it free, and plunged it into the gut of the greenskin. The monster howled in pain and rage, as the giant began to violently twist the knife. Green ichor flowed down the haft of the blade to coat the giant’s arm as the greenskin thrashed about. The raging monster finally quieted and collapsed to the ground.
The boy rushed over to the giant - now lying supine in the dirt. His armor was awash with a mixture of human and greenskin blood; its smooth finish pitted and dented from enemy fire, with fine cracks where rounds had penetrated.
The giant craned his head to meet the boy’s gaze. “Thank you, little one,” he said in a deep voice.
Rustling from the foliage nearby caught both of their attention. While the greenskin on the porch was hiding behind cover, it must have called for help, as another mob of greenskins arrived, hacking their way through the dense shrubbery. Sighting the fallen giant and the boy, the leader of the throng raised its clever into the air and roared for blood.
“WAAAAGH!” it cried, as it waved its troops forward.
“Get behind me!” the giant shouted, sitting upright as the charging greenskins opened fire.
The boy, crouched behind the reclining giant, was easily covered by his protector’s armored mass. He trembled in fear at the sound of bullets ricocheting off the giant’s armor.
Grabbing for the pistol holstered on his right leg, the giant returned fire, aiming specifically at the greenskins who were using firearms. Despite his wounds, his aim was flawless, and quickly the enemy guns were silenced.
The leader of the greenskins closed the distance to the wounded giant. Swinging out with its clever, the monster knocked away the giant’s weapon, and poised for the killing blow.
“NO!” screamed the boy, as he scooted around to the front of his protector, his arms extended protectively.
The creature froze, confused at the sight of the small boy kneeling defiantly before it. Several of its comrades moved up alongside to view the spectacle, and share in a deep throaty laugh.
Amusement quickly faded as the leader, once again, raised its clever for the kill.
“Close your eyes, little one,” the giant whispered. “Emperor be with you.”
The greenskin pitched forward as the staccato sound of gunfire exploded from behind it.
A large group of men, wearing grey-green armor and helmets, bearing a variety of weapons, emerged from the path originally cut by the greenskins, and laid down a blistering stream of fire as they formed into ranks. Bolts of red and blue cut the greenskins down where they stood.
The boy buried his face into the chest plate of the giant, screaming, his eyes closed in terror.
The sound of gunfire abated, and the boy lifted his head. The greenskins were all dead; their smoking bodies formed a ring on the ground. Men in grey-green armor advanced cautiously on the barn and the house, alert for any signs of additional greenskins.
A pair of men approached as the boy clung to the armored giant in fear.
The taller of the two men linked both of his hands over his chest in some form of a salute as he bowed slightly. “I am Sergeant Plesk, 4th Company of the 65th Cindurlian Riders. Can the Imperial Guard be of any assistance, my lord?” he asked.
The giant didn’t respond, and the boy simply stared up at the man in wonder.
“My lord?” the man inquired again, kneeling down beside the wounded giant.
“Tomas! Tomas!” a woman’s voice cried from the porch.
The boy’s gaze followed the sound of his name, and saw his mother, calling to him from the doorway.
“Momma!” the boy yelled, gaining the strength to rise to his feet, and rush into the waiting arms of his mother. Her arms wrapped around him in a tight embrace as the boy began to sob into his mother’s bosom.
Two guardsmen descended the stair case from the second story, bearing the limp form of a blood-soaked man between them.
“Dadda!” the boy cried in alarm, seeing his father hanging limply from the shoulders of the two guardsmen.
“Won’t be nothing to worry about son,” one of the troopers said, “His wound isn’t deep, it just bled a lot. He will wake up with a hell of a headache, but other than that, he will be fine.” The two soldiers walked his father outside to a waiting medic.
“Momma, come see the giant that saved me,” Tomas insisted, pulling on his mother’s arm to follow.
He ran out to the yard where some of the guardsmen had formed a circle around the armored giant. Squeezing past their legs into the middle of the circle, Tomas knew immediately something was wrong.
The giant’s helmet had been removed, but his eyes were closed and he wasn’t saying anything. Tomas used his hand to gently nudge an armored finger, hoping for a response.
“He’s dead, son.” Sergeant Plesk said, mournfully. “It takes a lot to kill a Space Marine, but even they are not immortal.” He glanced over at the pile of green bodies that was being assembled. “And when they die, they don’t go easily.” He patted the boy’s shoulder comfortingly and then walked away to confer with another soldier.
Tomas knelt beside the still form of the giant who had saved his life multiple times that day. He found it strange that the dead giant had a look of contentment on his face. Tears tried to find their way to the surface, but the boy was far too exhausted to cry.
“Goodbye, Mr. Space Marine,” he whispered, retrieving his sling-gun from the dirt, and depositing it into the giant’s empty hand.
His mother’s arms enfolded him again, her breath warm on the back of his neck.
She turned him gently around, and picked him up in her arms, carrying him back to the house. She set him down on the front porch, and knelt down to meet his bloodshot eyes.
“Tomas? What happened out there?” she asked, brushing a hand tenderly through his hair.
“Sheep don’t like stones,” he replied simply.
“What?” her face wrinkled in confusion.
The weary boy grinned slightly. “Nope. Neither do greenskins.”