He stared out the tiny porthole and felt a twinge as the curve of the Earth grew ever larger. Back down the gravity well.

It was the second time he'd been back to Earth since he'd left the first time almost ten years ago. The first was for the death of his mother, and his father had waited six years to follow her.

He'd almost not made it due to conflicts with the drop schedule, but a sympathetic tech had quietly "lost" his quarantine waiver and ceded the seat to Ortega. Ortega suspected the tech had been happy to find an excuse to stay in orbit an extra two days, something he could understand.

He had sat through the warnings and holoclips, numb with grief, and, truthfully, with boredom too. These gravity acclimation briefings were still required for personnel returning from a stint longer than three days, although there hadn't been problems with "grav sickness" since before he'd earned his wings. The briefings were a waste of time, and everyone knew it.

The funeral was a dry affair. There was no reception or viewing, since the body had been cremated. The service was held in a small room, paneled with real mahogany, dark and lustrous, something Ortega was not used to seeing, and dominated by the large white marble podium. It was out of place here. Ortega was also out of place here among the stooped and black-garbed attendees. He wore his EAF uniform, blue cloth with black shoulder boards carrying his rank insignia, a single golden oak leaf, on the epaulets. He wore the old-style silver metal wings on the left side of his chest, rather than the holofoil ones issued for the last five years, in defiance of the regulations but in deference to his father, who had retired from the United States Air Force before Ortega was born. His father didn't have many living friends and no relatives to speak of. The pitiful gathering at the funeral almost made him feel guilty for not visiting more often, but he knew his father would have understood as only a father could. Ortega received the ashes in their polished stainless steel urn and interred them with his mother's, according to the will. He visited the house his parents lived in only long enough to strip the holographs from the frames and albums and carefully bundle them up. He sold it, furniture and all.

He had no intentions of ever returning to the surface. He had no more reason to - everything he knew now was in orbit. He was free to stay there. Free to never leave Home again.

Somewhere, his father smiled.

He waited for liftout in the capsule compartment he had been assigned. As the capsule ran up the ribbon, he was reminded of how it felt to ride a rocket. The slow, sensuous crawl up into the sky, the feeling of Earth reaching up and dragging you deeper into your seat, a fiery artifice of man prying you out of Newton's clutches and carrying you into the starlit world above. It was a rebirth, and an experience that it was shameful to deny to any pioneer.

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