The Piper's Due
by William Ledbetter
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?"