The good news for the poor doomed bastards on the planet Beltane in 1968’s Dark Piper is that the great interstellar war is finally over. Even better, while the world lost many of its young men to the draft, Beltane itself is such a backwater that neither side saw fit to scorch the place.
The bad news is that the war didn’t so much stop as grind to a halt after all the combatant polities suddenly collapsed. A long dark age looms, perhaps even the end of mankind’s long domination of the stars. Since Beltane was a research station that was never intended to be completely self-sufficient, the inhabitants might be able to slow the looming technological and economic decline … but they cannot hope to prevent it.
As it turns out, that won’t matter
because as underpopulated and undeveloped as Beltane is, the fact it’s nearly pristine makes it potentially valuable to refugees from blasted homeworlds; the rumoured relics of the long-vanished Forerunners adds to the world’s allure. The star ways are filled armed starships no longer part of any navy, crewed by survivors without homes, veterans who will do anything to survive. Beltane’s human population in contrast is almost entirely made up of researchers, who have neither the mindset nor the means to resist invasion.
When refugees come begging for a place to land, the locals are inclined to grant their requests. Former Captain Lugard distrusts the newcomers. He cannot convince what passes for the local government to turn the refugees away, so he settles for taking protagonist Vere and a handful of other children and teens away to safety. The shockwave-induced quakes that rattle Lugard’s underground refuge prove that Lugard was right to be cautious.
After Lugard dies in a cave-in, Vere and his companions emerge to cautiously explore their devastated planet. Entire towns have been blasted from the face of the planet by the invaders. Worse yet, the raiders discovered a locally invented bio-weapon, a bio-weapon so terrible that its creator killed himself to keep it out of foolish hands. A brave sacrifice but sadly, all too ineffective.
Spared the deadly disease, the kids are marooned on an empty world. Or an almost empty world; they share it with intelligent animals who have escaped the research labs, animals who have no fondness for their creators….
Ah, the short but eventful books of yore, where the kindly mentor could count on being crushed under a rockfall the moment his narrative purpose was fulfilled.
Various clues in the book suggest that this novel could well be set in the same timeline as Star Rangers. The discovery of Forerunner relics ties this book to other Norton novels and also underscores the fact that this is a universe where many previous civilizations and races have fallen into dark ages and eventual extinction.
The novel gives the reader little reason to be optimistic about the kids’ long term chances. Not only are they surrounded by hostile mutants, not only are their irreplaceable technological resources dwindling, but there are too few kids. Perhaps there are enough of them that their gene pool is viable, but they are still vulnerable; one large calamity can push small populations into bottlenecks or even extinction. Norton makes it very clear that the kids or at least most of the kids, may have survived for the moment, but they do not have plot immunity, any more than their fellow settlers did.
This is the book that made me wonder how closely Norton and Piper followed each other’s work. This is essentially Space Viking as told from the point of view of the little people who got to be on the receiving end of the hellburners and planetbusters. The detail that really inclines me to think that this isn’t just a coincidence, two authors with similar tendencies towards grimdark settings arriving at similar plots by parallel development, is the book’s title: Dark Piper.
Of course, there’s an in-story explanation for the title: Lugard is to the young people of Beltane as the Pied Piper was to the children of Hamelin, if Hamelin had been a town in Germany during the Thirty Years War, right before some army rolled through it.
Dark Piper has had many editions over the years and should be easy enough to track down. I recommend your local used book store.