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The Piper's Due

William Ledbetter is a writer with speculative fiction stories and non-fiction articles published in markets such as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jim Baen's Universe, Writers of the Future, Escape Pod, the SFWA blog, Baen.com, and Ad Astra. He's been a space and technology geek since childhood and spent most of his non-writing career in the aerospace and defense industry. He administers the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award contest for Baen Books and the National Space Society, is a member of SFWA, the National Space Society of North Texas, a Launch Pad Astronomy workshop graduate, is the Science Track coordinator for the Fencon convention and is a consulting editor at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. He lives near Dallas with his family and too many animals.

The boy was hot and tired, yet still his dark eyes waged war to stay open. He stared at me, draped over his mother's shoulder with his black curls plastered to a damp brow and eyes drooping in time with the rise and fall of the French horn.
Anemic applause pattered through the park when the piece ended and someone came to the mic and announced the next selection. Even a small breeze would have helped, but Pearl blazed down with full summer intensity. It was smaller and whiter than Sol, with a light that washed out most colors, leaving stark shadows and giving everything a slight photonegative effect. The generation ship builders had matched the spin gravity to that of the new world, but the light had remained analogous to Earth. Most of those around me had been born on Margarita so didn't even notice, but I'd never get used to it.
The next song started and I shifted in my folding chair to take the pressure off my right knee. Both legs hurt constantly, but the right one was growing steadily worse. A few heads turned my way, then quickly whipped back to the band and the music, either unable or unwilling to stare at me for longer than a glance. Only the barely conscious boy continued to watch as I wrested the sweat-darkened composite brace caging my culprit leg into a better position.
Another song, another round of half-hearted clapping to celebrate Landing Day. I wondered how many of the colonists around me actually cared about the music and how many had just come out of a sense of civic support. I suspected mostly the latter.
A final song, one last flourish by the conductor, and everyone began to pack. Normally I'd leave a song early to avoid seeing the people edge around me as if I were surrounded by an invisible bubble, but today I'd been lulled by the music.
The crowd around me slowly thinned to a trickle, wiping sweat from their brows and looking every direction but mine. Only the young mother with the sleep-fighting boy on her shoulder remained. She paused just outside my invisible bubble. Her hair and eyes were dark, just like her boy's.
"If you had known," she asked, her voice a whisper as she shifted the boy's weight, "would you have acted differently? Would you still have saved us?"
I'd been asked the question before but always refused to answer.
Our advance survey team had been surprised by the ferocious attack. We had been on the surface for an entire three days before the little crab-like monsters came frothing out of the ground in waves. One by one we fell. Butchered. Shredded. Pulped. Only I managed to fight my way back to the lander.
From my seat on the flight deck--while the robot medic struggled to save my legs--I looked out over a vast sea of slate-colored carapaces. Billions of them, as far as I could see, churning and frothing, breaking against the lander hull like a grinding tide. Above me, on a long elliptical orbit, flew the colony ship, four thousand people crammed into the lone module still capable of supporting life. The ship had been repaired, rebuilt, cannibalized, and reengineered for nearly two hundred years. It wouldn't last another.
I was just a biologist, but only the best were sent on the advance survey, so I was well armed for this kind of warfare.
Nine days later, the crabs were all dead.
And five years after that, we found their first underground city.
I blinked, washing away the memory. In the silence, the woman's eyes had drifted up toward mine, waiting for an answer.
"Yes," I said. "I still would have done it."
Her expression tightened.
I knew what was coming. I'd suffered numerous verbal lashings over the years from those who felt it their duty to explain to me what a terrible thing I'd done and by extension, the depths of my depravity.
But instead of a self-righteous tirade, she came forward and brushed my arm with her fingertips as she passed. "It was a horrible decision you were forced to make."
Before I could react, she walked away, joining the other colonists in the daily tasks needed to make Margarita our home. I noted that her boy had finally surrendered to sleep.
It had been a valiant fight.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 18th, 2016

Author Comments

Humanity colonizing other living worlds is a common theme in science fiction and offers endless opportunities for adventure and discovery, but I've long wondered what we will do when it comes to a choice between our own survival and that of another species. In this story I tried to put a human face on that choice. Due to a hasty and incomplete study of the new planet, driven primarily by a desire to "get there first," this protagonist was put in a position where he had to choose between his dying friends and family or the local natives. The noble and right choice would have been to save the natives, because this was only one small group of humans. Still, they were his tribe, his family, his reality; and he answered honestly when asked if he would do it again. I like to think I would have made the selfless decision if put in that situation, but I'm not really sure I could do so. How would you choose?

- William Ledbetter
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