It was always the same for Aiden. For some reason, in that calm time after his first bottle of beer but before tasting his second, he’d get very reflective. Brooding, almost. He’d look around himself and his mind would wander; remembering things, analysing them, filing them away again. He enjoyed it, mostly, but even so he didn’t think he’d have been able to stop it if he’d wanted to. It just sort of happened.
From the moment the barkeep cracked the lid off another cold one and slid it across to him, still smoking, he could feel it starting. He sighed, stretched his back and pulled the bottle towards him, nodding his thanks.
Inevitably, he looked around himself.
Twenty years ago, there had most definitely been a war. A terrible war. You couldn’t help noticing the veterans and the victims: any city you went to, they were just about everywhere. Limbs missing, ugly scars, thousand-metre stares. Occasional shuddering instability. They were a constant, muttering reminder of when, for three bloody decades, humanity did its best to wipe itself out.
The status quo, for most people over the age of about thirty, was total war. An entire generation of the human species had been born and raised to adulthood within it. When you raise a child on fear and hatred from the moment they are old enough to listen, it leaves a mark. Time might reduce it to a faded ghost of what it once was, but it’ll never really heal. And some of it will be passed on, generation to generation.
The shadow of the war had hung over the world for almost as long as the war itself, now. The world still hadn’t healed. Maybe it never would.
But for Aiden, sitting in a bar in downtown Sevastopol, it actually seemed like things were looking up for once. He and his friend Fredrick had actually squeezed a profit from their last freight run – something that for months they had failed miserably to achieve. Their little aircraft was looking like it could be a real coin turner, now that they had sort-of sussed the markets down here by the Black Sea.
Well, they’d established that booze and cigarettes were the safest investment, at least. In hindsight, it really shouldn’t have taken them so long to figure it out.
Anyway, with more runs like that they could probably start eating every day. That sounded pretty good to Aiden. No more hungry nights in his bunk, stomach cramps keeping him awake for hours. Nights like that made him wish he was still at the fishing. At least then there was always plenty to eat.
The huddle of people next to him erupted with laughter suddenly. They were listening keenly to the tall tales of one of the regular veterans. Every so often, Aiden caught a little of the story. This one, apparently, told of how he’d been blown through a window by an artillery shell, only to land in the midst of a frightened huddle of nubile young lasses, who after his manly display of toughness had had him right then and there. All three of them.
Still, though it was hard to know how much truth the old bloke told, Aiden liked hearing the stories. The veteran was there every night, and each time brought a different tale. All he asked was a couple of fingers of vodka and the end of a cigarette.
Fredrick, Aiden’s business partner, pilot and very Danish friend, was sitting at a shady table across the room, apparently losing his share of the haul to a game of cards. Even from the other side of the bar, Aiden could see the frustration on his blond friend’s features. He had a truly shit poker face. Aiden smirked and took a swig of beer.
One thing the bar seemed to be missing this evening, unusually, was attractive females. Most folk inside were men, and old and ugly as shit to boot. Aiden’s primary pulling strategy heavily depended on being one of the few young men in the bar, but all that was for naught in the absence of women.
It really was a bloody shame. He actually had the money to treat a lady properly tonight. He could always move on, if the worst came to worst, to find greener pastures. But this was his local now. He felt like he’d established himself here, amongst the veterans and the merchants and the locals. People recognised him, acknowledged him with nods or smiles. Sevastopol, and more specifically The Rowdy Chumak were starting to feel like home. Aiden had found somewhere he liked.
Plus, it was early yet. Give them time.
Not long passed before Aiden’s silent appeal for women was answered. A large group of them arrived; laughing, shouting, dancing.
Girls’ night out. Excellent.
They were on the right side of merry. He was just sucking on his beer, building up the courage to introduce himself, when the bar went quiet.
Behind the crowd of women came a squad of marines.
They were massive men, towering over everyone in their formed plate armour. Fear seemed to radiate from them, paralysing people where they sat.
Hundreds more like them patrolled the streets of Sevastopol, ever since they descended on the port-city a couple of weeks earlier. They came from the Gilgamesh, the legendary aerial warship that had moored itself like a fat leech over the Crimea and seized control of it almost overnight.
The Gilgamesh would stay just long enough to bleed the place dry. That’s what it did. It moved between poorly defended cities, emptying everyone’s pockets and stripping the land of anything that might help it stay airborne. It was a parasite. A colossal, murderous parasite.
None of the marines appeared to be carrying the vicious-looking carbines that they normally wore. Pistols and knives were still strapped on though.
Just a social visit, then.
A few shoved their way to the bar, reaching across it to help themselves. Aiden backed out of the way, eyes down, trying to seem as unremarkable as possible. He wanted no trouble.
They took their stolen bottles and went for a table of old veterans. These they pitched out of the chairs, taking them for themselves. Two had grabbed women by the wrists. Those were made to sit on their laps, while the brutes fondled and guffawed at them.
Aiden felt his choler rising. What right did they have to treat them like that?
Two of the marines spotted the card game in the corner. Their eyes lit up like predators seeing prey, and they proceeded to muscle their way in to the game. Fredrick was eyeing them carefully, gathering his small pile of silver and copper pieces a little closer to his chest.
One of the marines, the one with the perfectly symmetrical mohawk, drew his knife and thumped it down into the table top.
“How much to buy in?” he growled. He looked sideways at his heavily tattooed comrade, who smirked back.
“F….f….forty copper, or t-ten silver, whatever is convenient,” stammered one of the players, in a heavy Ukrainian accent.
“Ten silver?” The marine reached across to Fredrick’s pile and counted out five silver pieces, and took the same from another player. He piled them carefully in front of himself. His comrade did the same with one of the others.
“I think that’s us,” he said, grinning.
Aiden watched Fredrick. His friend was very controlled, but the anger was as clear as day to Aiden. He noticed his eyes lingering on the knife in the table.
Don’t you dare, you bloody fool.
He watched, frozen, as the game restarted with the two new players. It was more hushed than before. Aiden realised half the bar was watching the game now, their tongues held. Cards were dealt, hands were checked, bets were placed.
Fredrick won the first round. The marines just laughed it off, thankfully. “Got a few of your pennies back, did you?” rattled one of them. Fredrick just smiled blandly.
And then he won the second, and the third. Two of the locals were cleaned out, and backed away from the table with no small measure of relief on their faces.