Farringdon III was a rural world in a rural place, in a system just on the edge of Galactic Federation space. Ships came to the system for only a few reasons. Long-distance stasis-freighters came to load up on foodstuffs grown in the vast plains and forests, while exploratory teams came to stock up ready for trips out of the GF’s domain. Occasionally a small colony ship passed through on its way to the great expanse of space beyond, but the colonists on the planet rarely heard from them then, or after.
The reasons they were there for didn’t matter to Jena Foster as she laid upon the mossy hill behind her house at night, watching the stars shine and spaceships in orbit. The little blonde girl preferred to pretend they were space knights on the way to slay star dragons, or treasure hunters looking for riches. Some nights she wondered if a shuttle might descend to reveal to her she was in the possession of amazing powers, then whisk her away on an adventure through known and unknown space, gathering fame and fortune in equal measure.
Her days were spent with dirty hands and a dirty face. It was either working on the family farm or playing in the countryside that helped her accumulate a healthy coating of mud and dust. From rolling down the hill and running through the fallow fields with her arms spread pretending to be a space fighter, to exploring the varying copses and thicket-enshrouded streams that separated crops from game and livestock. Jena knew her family’s land like the contents of her toy chest, and was comfortably familiar even beyond that expanse.
She was on her belly, crawling through the undergrowth of a grove on the land of neighbours when the dropship came up from the valley. The class was unknown to her, it didn’t appear in any of her brothers’ issues of Technical Shipcharter. The emblem on the side of it was a mystery as well. The whine before the discharge of an energy weapon was something she had heard, though. On all fours with bare hands and feet she scrambled back home, ignoring the thorns digging into her dungarees and the twigs getting caught in her mop of blonde hair.
Remembering something she had read in one of her brothers’ many books that she often pillaged their room for, she dug clods of damp soil from the ground and ran it through her hair to dull the colour. Her clothing was of earthen hue already, and years of playing and working under the steady sun had brought a deep tan to her skin.
On her way home she unleashed shrill whistles in a set order, a fair approximation of the hunting calls of a pack of Farringdon falcons. Her whistled calls were soon answered, and through the fields of the Foster homestead the workers came back to the main building. Her father had already dug the weapons crate out of the outbuilding and was punching in his secret code to open it.
“Alright, alright!” He called to the workers. “Who made the call?”
Jena ducked her way through the multitude of long limbs in her way to put her hand up.
“Jena!?” Her dad blinked, pausing putting the code in. “You know that call is only for adults to-”
“It’s an emergency!” She butted in, pointing over in the direction she came from. “I was playing in the woods near the Alderman’s farm when this dropship came up from the valley! I didn’t recognize it or the markings, but I heard sounds like your rifles make!”
Her father looked to some of the other workers, before coming close to her and dropping to his knees. “Are you sure it was that sort of sound? It wasn’t fine-landing thrusters or descent control noises?”
Jena nodded. “It was more… ‘wwwwwrrrrrrrrrrrrrriiieee-thwaum’ than ‘wrrrrrst’ or ‘thrrrrrrsh!'”
“Okay Jena. Okay, I know we’ve had the talk about real and make-believe so…” Patting her shoulders, he stood up and put his code into the locker, covering his fingers with his other hand. “I’ll take a small team with me to check it out. The rest of you I want to return to the buildings and take up defensive positions until we return. Son,” He looked to Joran, her eldest brother, “you’ve got the reigns while I’m gone.”
Joran nodded. He was as tanned as the rest of his family, a serious-faced young man with a farmer’s physique. Climbing onto one of the old equipment crates, he clapped his hands. “Okay, you heard him. Any not volunteering to check on the Alderman homestead, get armed and get inside your buildings. Anyone going with Dad, stay here and grab a weapon.”
In the jumble of movement as people separated and started towards their assigned positions, Jena slipped into the wood shed and grabbed the handaxe she had become familiar with since her fifth birthday, almost four and a half years ago now. Making kindling for the fires was one of her jobs, and the wooden-handled axe with a ceramisteel head felt natural to her. She also paused to gather the sling and stone-pouch that was her seventh birthday gift from Joran, ideal for scaring off birds looking to snaffle seed and baby crops.
Coming back to the circle of brave farmers armed with an assorted selection of energy rifles and pistols, Jena once more navigated the tangle of legs to get up front.
“What are you doing with those?” Her father asked, his hands confidently holding his hunting rifle as the others went through their weapon checks. He brought the full effect of his disapproving fatherly glare down on her.
Jena lifted her head up and looked back at him. “I know the lay of the land better than anyone, Father, and I saw the ship to begin with.” She had her jaw set and her hands on her hips.
“Just let her come, Jarell. If you don’t she’ll just sneak off on her own, and she does know what the ship looked like.” Taren, one of the older farmwomen, said.
Glancing about, Jarell took in the expressions of the ten gathered with him, then looked down at the eleventh expression, his daughter’s.
“On two conditions. You don’t think about using that axe, and you don’t think about using that sling. If there is trouble, you run back here and alert everyone. Got it?”
They had spotted the dropship rising over the farm on their low approach, and watched as it swooped down into the network of valleys running towards the great cliffs. They all held their weapons a little tighter on seeing the unknown ship for themselves.
“Alright,” Jarell spoke. “go in low and slow and fan out, let’s not have any accidents crop up from shooting an Alderman or shooting one of our own.” As he waved his fellows forwards, he looked to Jena. “I want you to go and check on their chickens, low and slow-like.”
Jena didn’t look impressed, but he was the team leader. And her father. With an unhappy nod, she headed into the undergrowth to make her way apart from the others. As she approached, she felt her legs go from under her first. There was the smell of ozone and something else in the air. Smoke still wafted from the piles of charred mix of animal and burnt feathers. She had slain, plucked and prepared chickens before though, and all manner of other animals. That wasn’t enough to make her go weak.
‘Toothy’ Tommy Alderman was, in Jena’s mindset, a pain at least and at worst one of the words that her mother always elbowed her father for using. He had tried to steal a kiss from her, for one. For another, he broke her swing. For a third, he tried to cheat her Shuna Eye marble away. It was one of her favourite marbles with the mixes of blue, black, and white in ocean swirls. ‘Toothy’ was a bit of an odd nickname for him, given he knocked his two front teeth out while trying to raft on a single log in a pond at a party they had both been at. He was anything but toothy.
A crate of chicken eggs had been dropped by him, their contents baking on the ground as the sun hit them. She did like eggs, especially in omelette form with lots of fresh cheese.
The blonde girl with mud in her hair wasn’t sure why she was thinking about omelettes. The eggs had all cracked on the ground, and “Toothy” Tommy Alderman was dead too.