The train came into the station and I got my first look at London for many years, the fading sunlight shining through the carriage windows. The orbital tether, miles to the east along the Thames was blinking like a modern day tower of Babylon. I stood and waited for the doors to open, the glass bubble of the semi-evacuated tube sealing itself against the oncoming rush of smells. I took a deep breath and smiled. I was home.
The apartment where I had lived as a kid was a resiplex now. The kind that housed a thousand tiny rooms. The Onward Veterans group had set me up with a temporary hab unit off Leicester Square and I navigated around the wreckage of an orbital weapons crater to find the right place. The people here were Londoners. They'd survived the Blitz. To them this was just another day, no worse than the Victoria line being closed.
I was struggling to find apartment 14271 when I heard the sound of tearing bags, a second before the beatific words of "oh shit".
A piece of fresh fruit rolled against my boot and I picked it up, studying it like a kid. Seven years of ration packs and whatever the ship's commissary kicked out rendered me enamoured by the beauty of it. I didn't even realise its owner was watching me until she coughed politely from behind.
"I'm sorry." I held out the small fruit but she smiled at me.
She was beautiful. Her face was tired, arms bundled with groceries and she wore the service uniform of an aux, but she was the most gorgeous woman I'd ever seen in my life.
"Keep it. I've never seen someone stare at a satsuma that hard before."
She walked past me and stopped, her back to the entry way of the apartment block.
"Would you mind?" she said.
My mind was still racing. A tour to the Belt and back and now I was flustered. I pulled open the heavy door and she smiled again as she walked through.
"Do you live here?" she asked.
"14271," I said.
"When did you move in?"
"The military don't help you? Give you anything when you leave?"
I shook my head and she turned away. I'd never been one for handouts. I'd found my own way, enlisted, got my musterpay and clothes on the way out. I'd tried wearing them. Jeans and shirts, but only my jumpsuit felt right.
"You from London?" she asked.
I didn't mind the questions. I'd spent my last sortie with one bunch of guys. We knew every detail of everyone's history. It was good to meet a stranger.
"Born and raised. You?"
"You work in the aux?"
The patch on her jacket made that obvious but she answered me anyway as we waited for the lift to descend a hundred floors or more.
"Yes. But I can't say much more than that."
"Thank you," I said.
"Knowing the folks back home were working towards the war effort. Made us feel like we were in it together."
"I just write reports. Nothing like you."
The lift arrived and we stepped in together. I looked at the panel, the buttons and displays unlike what I'd left. No floor numbers. She giggled and handed me her armful of produce to hold.
"14271?" she asked. I nodded and she punched in the number, followed by her own. A dozen floors above me.
"Do you know anyone here?"
"A few guys from my old unit live in the Midlands. A Captain who retired a while back, if he's still around."
"A sister on Luna. She's got a kid now."
"Six, seven. No, twelve. Dammit."
She just smiled. No judgement. The doors opened and I stepped out on my floor. I caught the closing doors with my boot and handed back the items I'd carried most of the way up.
"See you around soldier", she said.
I shuffled down the hall, my boots echoing like gunshots. Noises filtered out of some apartments. Families, life. My door was there and I stood, waiting. I opened it, my thumb print turning the handle green as I gripped it, and entered the largest private space I'd had since boot.
It was dark and cold and the wind was whipping against the windows. The lights didn't come on. No amount of hitting pads and buttons seemed to help.
I dropped my duffle bag on the stripped bed and sat. It wasn't much. Eight feet wide, maybe double in length, but it had everything I'd need to get back on my feet. The OV would get in touch they said, make sure I was adjusting okay. I pulled out the card they'd given me and considered calling it. I wasn't used to being alone. Every minute for the past seven years I'd been part of something. Now I was by myself with no orders laying out my day.
I gave up getting the apartment to come to life. Power, water, nothing worked. I shut the front door and got back in the lift.
She had changed when I knocked on her door. The aux jacket was gone, replaced by an oversized t-shirt for a football team I'd been a supporter of once, before they were relegated and I was shipped out. She looked at me in the gap the chain allowed.
"Hi," I said.
"I'm sorry to bother you, but I don't have anyone to ask and well; how do I turn my apartment on?"
She laughed and it was the most innocent sound I'd ever heard. She stifled it behind a hand but her eyes were warm and they saw my discomfort.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Truly. I should have mentioned it but it was so nice talking to you and I moved in so long ago it just slipped my mind."
She closed the door and I heard the scrape of the chain. A moment later it reopened and she was standing in front of me.
"Come in," she said, leading the way.
Where my apartment was cold and bare, hers was a well-lived in den. Paintings and photos hung from the one wall, while her telly screen scrolled through a dozen channels on the other. No news or reality vids, movies from a bygone era and documentaries on life out there before Them.
She led me to the kitchen unit, flipping open a cupboard door and pulling items out of the way. I knelt beside her and our arms touched but she didn't seem to notice. She pointed to the back.
"That's the meter. Tap your thumb and it'll turn on, then give it your chipcard and the power'll work as long as you've got money."
"I'm an idiot," I said.
"Of course not. I'm sure in the war you had much more important things to worry about."
Her face dropped almost as soon as the words had left her mouth. She stammered something, went to stand up, knocked her head against the cupboard and tipped forwards. I caught her as she fell and crushed a bag of protein chips.
"I'm an idiot," she said and laughed a moment after I had begun laughing myself. "Two peas in a pod."
"I'll clear this up," I said, helping her stand before picking up the chips that had gone flying. She came back with a dustpan and soon I was standing beside her, brushing the last of the crumbs from my jumpsuit.
"I am sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to mention the war."
"My war is over."
"You're out? Done for good?"
I held out my T75 outdoc papers and she read the highlights beneath the seal of the Office of the United Nations Naval Command.
"Captain Ryan Frost, 2nd Fusiliers, UNNC. Discharged with full honours and commendation for valour in the line of duty. What did you get the commendation for?"
"I saved a man."
"So you're a hero."
"I was just doing my job."
She looked nervously at me as I tucked the papers back away. I realised I had overstayed my welcome.
"I better be..."
"Do you want dinner?" she said before I could finish. "I'm no cook but I'm guessing you don't have any fresh veg of your own and if you order from the takeaways around here you'll be on the loo all night."
The words tumbled out of her mouth but it made me smile and then she smiled.
"I'd be very grateful."
"I'd be very grateful Hannah."
She had a bottle of old-style wine in a cupboard, the kind made from fermented grapes, and she broke it out despite my protests. I popped the cork as she began to chop vegetables.
"Were you out there long," she asked.
"Single tour, six years. Got to stay on Mars for three months."
"No way, what was it like?"
"Damp. They run the terraformers 24/7 and the atmosphere is starting to tip. You can go outside for a bit, but you come back in covered in this red mud that doesn't scrub off your boots."
"Any funny pranks?"
"We were in the Navy, fun is forbidden," I said with the deadpan delivery of a drill instructor.
"You wouldn't survive a minute if you don't have a sense of humour. First week we tied some big-balled commune kids only pair of combats to the camp flag post."
"Taught him a lesson."
"And Them?" she asked more slowly, cutting the same slice of cucumber over and over.
"Maybe twenty months after we shipped out from basic, they showed up. I was supposed to be on the Dauntless, true story."
"On my word. Got my papers but missed the shuttle because my sergeant, I was a first private back then, made me stay and clean the cyclers in the head. He was gonna square it with the XO of the Dauntless, just wanted to show me who was boss."
I took a drink of the wine, let it sit in my mouth. Much better than the engine degreaser you'd trade chits for when in dock. She joined me and drank from her own glass.
"He sounds like a dick."
"Man saved my life. Twelve hours later the Dauntless made full military burn towards Neptune and that was the last we saw of them."
"Did the military tell you what it was that happened?"
"Navy treats its men like mushrooms." She looked at me. "Keep them in the dark and feed them shit."
"So you had no idea we'd made first contact?"
"Scuttlebutt was that it was some new splinter-faction of innies, maybe the Acolytes. No one knew until they sent us to Ganymede. It's where I got my commendation and butter bars. Promotion," I said, seeing her stare again.
The pan hissed and she began tossing in vegetables along with some synth-mince. The smell took me back and made my mouth water.
"They don't talk about Ganymede much on the news," she said.
"For good reason. Two thousand men in my battalion. Maybe three hundred made it out."
"Did you see one of Them there?"
Her eyes were alive now. I took my wine glass and stood beside her, taking over the stirring while she started on the sauce. I had to contribute some how.
"Not until much later. They let the ground pounders do most of the work. Big, tentacle-looking motherfuckers. They've got black light guns unlike anything you've seen. It'd punch a hole straight through your exo pack and fry the foam layer. Lot of guys asphyxiated that day."
"We'd hit 'em in the sky. Their ships were big, built for interstellar runs, but we had the numbers and the home ground advantage. You put a Skylake proton warhead on a ten percent burn around Jupiter and they wouldn't see it until it was too late."
"So we won?"
"We'd lose a ground fight but take out a couple of their capital ships. By the time they reached Mars they'd learnt. They'd spread out. Make it harder to predict their trajectories. They'd start orbital bombardment and then send in the squids."
"I was here," she said, pointing at the sofa, "when they hit the square. News said it was a small one."
"A very small one. Any bigger and this entire complex would be matchsticks. You're lucky."
"I'm lucky because you were up there fighting for us."
She selected two plates, both different styles and began dishing out portions. We took our plates and our glasses and sat alongside each other, facing the telly screen.
"I don't entertain much," she said apologetically.
"This is the best meal I've had since enlisting. And the best company."
I meant it as an honest compliment. You live on a ship with the same guys and gals and you learn chow time is for shovelling down as much food as you can. She coughed slightly, putting her hand in front of her mouth to catch herself.
"Erm, thank you."
"Sorry. I'm not used to civilian company."
"Is it hard? Coming home?"
I twisted my fork and watched the little bits of mince break apart, showing the too-neat folds of fake meat within. She'd muted the TV, the only sound was us, even the world outside was deadened by the glass and walls.
"After Mars, I got an offer to board one of their ships. You volunteer for ops like that; ones with a high risk of failure.
"I took the offer and me and seven guys made an EVA with some Razorbacks, tiny little one-man missiles with just enough room for you and your gun. The last thousand klicks they go silent. No power, no guidance or propulsion. You're in a coffin and you hope to god the enemy doesn't move or you'll just sail on by, into deep space or some planets gravity well.
"But we got across and we boarded. Their ships, light years ahead of ours. Artificial gravity, some bits organic and some mechanical but all of it alien. Plan was to gas the crew and take her without a shot fired. And then Ramsey just walks into one around a corner.
"It wasn't his fault. They're just as much a part of the ship as the lights and the bulkheads. We just watch this thing unpeal itself from the wall and next thing I know I'm yelling at Rams to get down and putting every round I've got into this thing. It squealed and I kept on shooting and then Rams picked up as well. I'd gone through an entire battery before I stopped pulling the trigger."
"What did it look like?" Hannah asked.
"It looked scared. We killed it. We killed the entire fucking crew. Those things didn't even put up a fight. Intel said later they were just grunts. Some alien kid sent out to who knows where and told to shoot at a planet."
I put the fork down, rubbed at my eyes with the heels of my palms.
"I shot fucking kids because they were just following orders."
She reached out and put a hand on my arm.
"You couldn't have done anything else," she said. "They were killing us."
I looked at the food and I looked at the screen praising the heroic UNNC and I looked out the window at my home city.
She gripped harder, pulled my face until it was just hers I was focusing on.
"You did your job. You saved mine and everyone else's life. They were going to kill all of us and no amount of orders can justify that."
I reached for her, one hand cupped, and then I stopped myself. It wasn't right. She'd shown kindness and I was taking advantage because it had been so long.
She kissed me then instead. Quickly. Just a peck and I felt my nerves release like a band snapping and the world came into a beautiful focus. When she came in again I was ready, kissing back, the most simple of contact bringing me back to humanity quicker than any veteran outreach program ever could.
When she sat back I wasn't on Mars anymore. I wasn't on that ship with those men and the dead children of my enemies.
I was in London and I was home.