He was their hero. They adored him with the fierce passion of an ascendant angel. The cynics among them jokingly referred to themselves as "Apostles" but it was so much more than that. If he had told them to blow themselves out of an airlock unsuited, they would have done so with the eagerness of a puppy running for a thrown ball.
The rookies swarmed him, politely of course, always careful not to invade too far into his personal space, in the lounges. They scattered like chaff at the slightest hint of annoyance or a sideways glance.
As a retired senior officer, he wouldn't have been questioned if he had decided to drink his mojitos in the "O Club", out of reach of the greenhorns, but he liked the synthetic mint in the fake mojitos served in the lounges better. And the kids didn't bother him.
One of them had asked him about the wings on his helmet once. They were simple holographic stencils, a pair of thirteen-feathered wings, joined at the middle, scuffed and battered and peeling a little at the edges. He told them about how he had used to wear them differently, the little metal kind that had been pinned to his chest. Back when the only way to get into space was through the military, and back when the wings still meant that you were one of the tiny few selected to follow in Icarus' footsteps, one of the handful out of billions of humans on the Earth. That of course led to questions about his time in the military. When he told them he had served in the United States Air Force, one of them, no younger than twenty, asked why the United States ever had an Air Force if they were already protected by the Earth Joint Forces. Ortega laughed a little, and sighed a little. They took this as a sign that he was irritated and began to leave, but when he began to speak, they sat back down, rapt.
"I spent more time wanting to be here than some of you have even been alive. The first time I left dirt was in February of 2025. I was shot off of Earth on an honest-to-God chemical rocket and I have been back twice. Once when my mother died, and again for my father."
One of them whistled through his teeth. Another swallowed audibly. The rest, even those who had spent time with him before, were not as visibly but no less stunned. They had all assumed he had some major time in orbit, maybe ten or fifteen years. But thirty five years? Thirty five years in orbit? A few of them wondered if he was pulling their leg, but only for the briefest instant. None of them had ever known the man to be incorrect about anything he had given an answer to, and he was rated Master for everything that it was possible to be rated on. Twice, and during emergencies no less, the station commander had deferred to him although he was nowhere officially in the chain of command.
He entertained a few more questions about Earth from the kids who had never been there. They had first showed up a few years ago, the "moonbabies" as Ortega liked to call them - children born in the lunar colonies. One of them asked him how old he had been when Lincoln was assassinated. One of them asked him about his first launch, a story he had told at least a thousand times.
He sat back in the chair and gripped the mojito, running his free hand through his heavily greyed but still-thick hair and gazed off, his eyes roped off in a thousand-yard stare into the past. It was understood he no longer wanted to entertain questions, and they slipped away quietly.
The station interphone chimed softly to let the inhabitants know that on Earth, another day had passed. That same chime would have been heard in every other station and in the colonies as well, both the moon and Mars. He guessed they would have to start calling the moon something else, now that there was a plan to put a colony on one of the other moons. Was it Jupiter or Saturn? Either way, he couldn't understand why people would want to chain themselves back down to a terrestrial body once they'd experienced the freedom of space. To him, the concept was only slightly less confusing than a bird clamoring for release, only to dart directly into another cage, fearful of the open air.