The Unstoppable March by Jeffrey A. Ballard
The military band’s bass and drums thrummed through Aldred’s chest standing in the crowd. Multi-colored confetti showered the cobblestone boulevard from well-heeled revelers crowded in balconies above. Green-stained domed roofs dotted the majestic columned landscape of White Stone Boulevard.
The crowd, dressed in their Sunday finest, snaked and moved with a life of its own, chattering with excitement. Children sat atop parents’ shoulders waving blue Ivorian flags. Flags and banners hung on the white stone buildings. Ivorian’s second mechanized unit marched to join the front.
Aldred frowned. There was always a parade for a unit off to the front. Never for returning units, though.
The crowd jostled him into his seventeen-year-old son, Seldon, next to him.
“Sorry,” Aldred said.
But Seldon hadn’t noticed. He stared raptly at the light mechanized warriors stomping by in their blue-armored suits, steam hissing and gears grinding. The helmetless mechs revealed barely-shaved faces beneath.
Kids. All kids. Not much older than Seldon.
Does he even notice the hastily applied blue paint over dented and bruised armor? Aldred wondered.
The boy was far too preoccupied with everything military.
“There he is!” Seldon called out.
Aldred rushed to scan the mechs’ faces. “Where?”
Raynor, Keneth’s boy, had enlisted on his eighteenth birthday without his father’s blessing. The whole neighborhood heard the row. Keneth’s boy hadn’t written home since, and Keneth refused to accompany Aldred to the parade for a glimpse of the boy. But Aldred had seen the quiet plea for news of his lost boy in Keneth’s eyes. So, Aldred had come, hoping to bring word back of Raynor.
Seldon was almost out of sight by the time Aldred realized Seldon had spotted not Raynor but one of his friends in the crowd, and had run off to meet him. No doubt to catalog every passing mech and their stats.
Aldred sighed. It didn’t feel too long ago that Seldon was on his own shoulders, and at least asking for permission before running off.
Large, heavy artillery mechs lumbered by. The tanks farther back shook the ground.
Still no sign of Raynor.
“There’s a strapping young lad there!” A military recruiter loping alongside the light mechs pointed to a five-year-old on his father’s shoulders.
The child flexed his little arms.
“Ah, not quite yet!” The military recruiter grinned. He waved a stack of enlistment contracts. “When you’re older, lad!” To the crowd in general he called out, “Anyone of age can enlist to defend Ivorian! Sixteen with parent’s permission!”
Aldred’s lips pressed together into a thin line.
One month. One month until Seldon turned eighteen and Aldred lost him.
Three days later, the entrance bell dinged as Aldred stepped into Holloway’s Laundry.
“Ah, there you are, Mr. Hartley,” Mrs. Holloway called out from behind the counter. “One second, I’ll get your things.” The kind old lady disappeared into the back.
Aldred stepped up to the counter, digging into his pockets for the weekly laundry payment.
“Here you are.” She returned holding two packages, neatly wrapped. She set them down on the counter and separated them to reveal a stack of papers on Seldon’s package. “Now”—she straightened up—“I’m not one to pry, but these were in with your son’s things. I suspect he forgot they were in his pocket and the wash ruins paper—”
“It’s quite okay.” Aldred’s smile faltered when he saw the papers properly. Recruitment papers.
His hand trembled as he picked them up. At least they weren’t filled out.
Mrs. Holloway crossed her arms. “Shame what they’re doing to this city’s youth. Scooping up kids on tales of adventure and glory.” She shook her head. “But you can’t hold onto them forever.”
“No. You certainly can’t.” Aldred answered with a hollowness stretching down into his chest.
Aldred stood in Seldon’s empty bedroom holding Seldon’s laundry package, the recruitment form resting on top. Silence echoed throughout the room.
Seldon was off with friends again.
One month. In one month, Seldon was going to do whatever it was he was going to do and Aldred wouldn’t be able to stop him.
Aldred stepped through the room, his footsteps sounding unnaturally loud. He set the laundry package down on Seldon’s bed. He left the recruitment form on top, blank except for where he signed on the parental signature line.
He may not be able to hold onto Seldon forever, but he didn’t have to lose him either.
Underneath the recruitment form, Aldred slipped a bundle of prestamped, pre-addressed envelopes with a handwritten note scrawled across the top. “Don’t forget to write.”
Jeffrey A. Ballard is a nomadic Yankee that currently lives in the Texas Hill Country. His science fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Plasma Frequency, and forthcoming in Factor Four Magazine among other places. He continues to write daily. You can learn more and connect with Jeffrey at www.jaballard.com.