Cover image for Falling stars
Falling stars
Flynn, Michael, 1951-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York: Tor, 2001.
Physical Description:
414 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
"A Tom Doherty Associates book."
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Michael Flynn's epic of the near future, begun in Firestar and advanced in Rogue Star and Lodestar, climaxes with Falling Stars. In the early years of the 21st century humanity has advanced into space, but has discovered that certain asteroids have changed their orbits and are headed for horrifying impact with Earth. But there is a world financial crash, and politics get in the way of progress, requiring the cast of characters introduced in the earlier books to pull together and save humanity from disaster.With great difficulty, serious preparations begin to reach the asteroids and destroy or divert them, and culminate in a long, exciting voyage out to the asteroid first visited in Rogue Star, where an alien control room was discovered. Filled with ideas, scientific and technological wonders, and compelling familiar characters--Roberta, Chase, Jimmy Poole, Jacinta, and the rest-- Falling Stars is a strong conclusion to this multi-volume epic of SF. AUTHORBIO: Michael Flynn lives in Edison, New Jersey.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The threatening asteroid set in motion by unknown aliens in Rogue Star (1998) is only months away from Earth as the wrap-up of Flynn's exciting tetralogy opens. The sharply real characters of the earlier books--entrepreneurs, visionaries, pilots, and scientists--find themselves elder statesmen in the heated conflict over the best response to the asteroid threat. But not everyone is willing to listen to their advice, and some in power are convinced the asteroid is an invention of those who want to keep the space program alive in the face of a vicious recession. An oil-and-water team of financiers and scientists is assembled, with the goal of producing more than one answer to the looming disaster. All of these projects make for an exciting plot, and the mixture of personalities and ideologies guarantees tension, attraction, and enmity that will please fans of David Brin and Kim Stanley Robinson as well as Flynn's cohort. --Roberta Johnson

Publisher's Weekly Review

The world is menaced in true cataclysmic fashion in this epic of the near future, the conclusion to Flynn's previous books, Firestar, Rogue Star and Lodestar. The premise of the novel is exciting enough, and Flynn handles a vast number of characters reasonably well (there's a four-page list of names at the beginning), but the overall effect is exhausting. In the year 2017 certain asteroids have changed their orbit and are on a collision course with Earth. There's a global financial crash, and politicsÄincluding the quasi-fascistic machinations of a Huey Long-like politicoÄforce the principals from Flynn's other novels to band together and voyage to an asteroid in a desperate, if not suicidal, attempt to save the world. Some of the characters are jaw-droppingly yclept (Chase Coughlin, Choo-choo Honnycott, Alexandra Feathershaft, Meat Tucker), and some of the techno-babble is irritatingly obtuse. And if Bill Pronzini ever does an SF version of Gun in Cheek, he need look no further for absurd, "alternative" dialogue. (A sample: "No, carry on, Rosario. I just realized. Some herbie dust bunny with his thumb up his toot stepped up on that flange and crunched the fibrops against the edge with his goddam boot!") Still, for readers hungry for a politically astute, crisis-laden SF novel in a well-imagined future, this is adequate fare. (Feb. 26) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The discovery of a group of asteroids headed toward Earth sparks a flurry of political and scientific maneuvering to prevent a disastrous collision. When some of the asteroids change their course, as if directed by some alien intelligence, a fleet of ships travels to the nearest asteroid in a desperate attempt to deflect it, destroy it, or, perhaps, capture it for future study. The conclusion of Flynn's grand-scale near-future epic combines the rapid pacing of sf action adventure with the subtle maneuverings of political intrigue in a panoramic drama of human courage and sacrifice. A good choice, along with other series titles (Lodestar, Rogue Star, Firestar), for most sf collections. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1. Prometheus, Bound As Lunar Transfer Vessel-02, Buzz Aldrin , passed above the dark expanse of the Sea of Fecundity, Command Pilot Chase Coughlin eyeballed his progress against the landscape below. He watched the Foaming Sea fall behind and the ship coast over the abrupt, bright highlands around Banachiewicz Crater. On the money, he decided. A moment later, Gar Rustov, his copilot, confirmed their orbit against the groundside navigation beacons. Chase studied the twisted, colorless, alien surface, a country of lights and shadows: all blacks and whites and grays. As the ship crossed the ridge between the Marginal and Smy the Seas, the white and gray surrendered entirely and the terminator shrouded the Moon in an unrelenting night. A single gleam broke the darkness where Artemis Mines nestled on the edge of the Smythe Sea. At apogee, Chase hit the kick motor and the Buzzer entered Low Lunar Orbit. Used to be, back in Apollo days, that the insertion took place out of contact with Mission Control and the world held its collective breath until the ship came out from behind the Moon. Miss an insertion burn and you'd keep on going and never, ever come back. Even back in '09, when he and Ned DuBois had "moonstormed" in the old Glenn Curtiss , they had been out of contact at the critical times. Now Space Traffic Control had relays all over Farside. "We have entered LoLO," Gar confirmed "Acknowledged." Of course, what did "contact" mean? Only that now, if someone ever did miss a burn, the world would know about it sooner rather than later. "Artemis reports bucket is down rails," said Rustov. Chase glanced at the clock. The catapult launch was late by a few seconds, but not enough to affect closing distance or relative velocity. Chase had snagged enough pods in his time to know when he had to tickle his orbit. Still, you never depended on gut instinct--especially in ziggy, where your guts sometimes twisted inside out. HE queried the navcomp and the Artificial Stupid agreed that the rendezvous would indeed fall within the envelope. Too bad. There were times when chase wished for something a little more exciting than catching pop flies. Something that would pump the old adrenaline; something that would take him out to the edge and test his mojo. "Docking collar D-as-in-dog-There is prepped," announced the flight engineer. Rick Sung-yi sat at right angles and "above" the two pilots; but in ziggy, who cared? The teep helmet enclosing his head made him look like The Human Fly. Telepresent, he could prep docking collars using remote-control waldos. The Buzzer was an ungainly craft--fully loaded, it looked like a bunch of grapes help together with Tinkertoys--but it got the job done. "How's the balance?" Chase asked, not because he thought Rick would neglect The Buzzer 's center of mass, but because Chase always checked everything. Tedious, but it wasn't like he had something else he had to do; and three times in the past anal-retentiveness had saved his butt. Not very dramatic, but he was alive; so there were no complaints coming. "Pod orbit is…in groove," announced Rustov. He leaned back in his seat. "Close approach in twenty minutes." Chase set the countdown clock and the crew relaxed. Nothing to do now but wait. "So." Rustov turned his seat to face inboard. "Are you having sold your Pegasus stock?" Chase shook his head. "Nah. I figure to hold on until the smoke clears." Rick Sung-yi flipped the goggles from his teep helmet. "Me, I'd sell." "Nothing wrong with the Old Gray Mare." Chase patted the winged stallion logo on his scarlet coveralls. "Pitchlynn ran a tight ship. Too bad she was seduced by the turkey Dark Side." "That won't impress the turkey herd," Sung-yi answered. "They spook easy, How munch has the stock dropped in the last week?" "Don't matter none. It's still higher than when I bought it." Chase hadn't bought it, exactly: it had been part of his comp package. But, still… Below, dawn was a knife edge west of Riccioli. Off to the south, a gleaming line thrust two hundred meters from the ringwall into Grimaldi Flats. "Is new catapult," Rustov told them. On the telescope viewscreen robots and waldos slide a coil module onto the quenchgun's inner tube. "Superconducting coils," Rustov explained. "Coil ahead of payload attracts, and, one behind repels. Bing, bing down tube--" His two first moved in tandem left to right. "Is how they move maglev trains." "I know the guy who made that possible," Chase said. "Leland Hobart--Hobie, we always called him. Back in school, we thought he was dumb as bricks, but he was only thinking deep, you know." "Never heard of him," said Rick. Rustov turned and looked at Chase. "You mean 'Hobie, the Master of cool'? You were in school with him?" Chase Coughlin, Hot pilot, did not impress Gar-who was, after all, something of a hot pilot himself. But Chase Coughlin, Classmate of Leland Hobart, was another story. Chase grinned. He'd have to tell Hobie, next time they crossed orbits. "Is almost no metal in catapult," Rustov told Sung-yi, "because barrel coils induce wery high circumferential currents. And 'slinky' springs between barrel and outer tube not only take recoil but also make long heat path for dissipation." Chase caught the F/E's eye. "Hey, Rick, I thought you were the engineer here." Sung-yi shrugged. "Everyone has a hobby." "Yeah? Mine's women." "Right. How many in your collection?" "Well… okay, one. So far. But--" Sung-yi laughed. "But Karen's more than you can handle anyway." Rustov turned from the viewport as the catapult site fell behind and The Buzzer soared out over the dark soil of the Ocean of Storms. "Someday," he said, "they move ships with quenchguns. Shooting iron pellets behind at great velocity, ship moves forward. Action, reaction." "Until then, Gar," said Chase, "we'll set you in the after-lock with a peashooter." Sung-yi laughed. "Lobbing those canisters up onto L-1 will make pickups easier," the flight engineer admitted. "We won't have to duck down here to LoLO to make the retrieval. Save two klicks delta-V, easy." It was well know that an F/E would sell his grandmother for half a klick. If the cans don't fall off the saddle," Chase pointed out. "L-1 is unstable." "They will be using spin stabilization," Rustov said, "and apolune kick motors. Cans will be reusable, too." "Reusable?" said Chase. "You mean we'll get to lug the empties back to the Moon? Man, this job is a thrill a minute." "Be glad it isn't," said Rick soberly. They raised the Earth coming around the western limb of the Moon just as the countdown clock kicked in and the Artificial Stupid announced the five-minute warning. Rick flipped his teep goggles back in place and Chase and his crew swung back to their workstations. The Buzzer swung between the Earth and Moon and there directly forward and framed between the two, was red Mars. There was an asteriod coming. Roberta Carson said so on her big webcast. Impact in six years? Jesus, no wonder the market had crashed. Chase had asked around and it seemed ol' Styxy had the straight skinny. A Planetary Defense Committee had been quietly meeting since April trying to put a plan in place before breaking the news to the public. The asteroid was somewhere out around Mars for now, but there would be a close approach in July of '21 and a new FarTrip expedition would go out to meet it. Yeah, thought Chase. Something new. Something different. Something out on the edge. * * * There was nothing Chase Coughlin loved so much as the punch of acceleration when a big bird lifted, unless it was the euphoria of utter freedom that followed as the Earth relaxed its obstinate grip and he floated free above the world. He was not given much to poetry--people sometimes said that he lacked depth--yet the mixture of power and skill and delicate balance involved in orbital flight moved him in a way he was utterly unable to describe. So perhaps it was only that he seldom spoke about such things that led others to hasty judgment. Yet, Earth held charms of its own, if of a different sort, and Chase approached his mandatory groundside rotation with a surge of visceral anticipation. Karen and Little Chase met him at the pilot's lounge at Phoenix Shy Port, where Chase tossed his screeching son high in the air to simulate free fall. "Lift into orbit!" he cried. "De-orbit burn!" the five-year old hollered coming down to a soft landing. The three of them walked out together laughing, but the chuckles died as they passed the gate area. Chase noted that Gates Five and Six seemed to be shut down entirely--at least there were no lift announcements posted. Two men sat in the waiting lounge at Gate Six with the air of having sat there a long time and, to judge by the belongings spread about, intent on staying for a good deal longer. Chase didn't think they were waiting for the next lift. He shook his head. He hadn't seen that sort of thing since he'd been a kid. "Pegasus is cutting back again," Karen said as they left the secured area. "I scread it on my daily newsbot." Chase answered the question she hadn't asked. "No change in my schedule." Not yet, at any rate. Seniority counted for something and Chase was glad of it, even though he felt bad for the poor sap who got left on the ground because he was low man on the pyramid. "I'm still down for an orbital cruise next month, after my R and R." "A month is a long time," Karen said. Chase looked at her eyes. "Worried, hon?" "My firm lost two medium-big accounts…" "They dropped your firm?" "No, the client closed up shop. Went on the block." He put his arm across her shoulder and hugged her to him. "This Dip won't last long," he said. "That's what the experts are saying. There are all kinds of policies and stuff to deal with it." "And stuff," she said, giving him a little shove. "Who's the accountant here?" Chase did a double take as they passed a newsprinter at the base of the escalator to the magrail. "Aw, hell…" He left her and walked to the stand, he hit then and reread the teaser that had caught his eye. "They can't do that!" Karen and Little Chase joined him. "Can't do what?" she asked. "Says here they're closing down the Space Academy for the rest of the semester. It's funded by the lift taxes, and with traffic cut back so much…" He swiped his key card through the reader to print the rest of the article. Scuttlebutt you could get for free on the web, but copyright you had to pay. The scuttlebutt was accurate more often than not, but this news- groupie, Aleta Jackson, had a reputation for the inside skinny. One more omen, he thought as he read the article on the maglev back to the Park 'n' Ride. He read it a second time, but the news hadn't changed at all. * * * Three weeks later, Pegasus called a staff meeting at their Phoenix Operations Center. Technically, Chase was on vacation, but the skinny said that to miss the meeting would be unwise, and Chase had never made an issue of watching the clock, anyway. He zipped up the red coveralls with the flying stallion logo and checked the hang in the bedroom mirror with satisfaction. Still slim; still flat at thirty-four. He ran his hands down both sides of his head and felt the stubble growing out. Time for another trim. He wore his hair longish in the center, but shaved on either side. Rummaging in his jewelry box, he located a Jolly Roger ear stud, which he affixed in his right lobe, then he pulled the red baseball "gimme" cap over his head, titled it at a cocky angle, and smiled at his reflection. Someone had told him years ago that seeing a smile first thing in the morning helped you get through the day, so you might as well look happy when you checked your reflection because chances were you'd get damn-few smiles from anyone else. That wasn't true for him, of course, as Karen proved when he came into the kitchen. Teeth flashed bright against a tan that a lifetime in Phoenix seemed to have made permanent, and a kiss too long to be the perfunctory, old-married kind almost convinced him to ditch the meeting and spend the day in bed. Karen, after all, telecommuted for an accounting firm and normally logged her time at home. How would the partners know what she was banging in between banging the keyboard? "My assets will be wasting all day," he told her, releasing her at last. "We'll calculate your ROA tonight," she promised. Chase grinned. "My market share is rising already." Playfully, she swatted his arm. "Don't get too jolly with it and invest it somewhere else." "Direct deposit," he vowed, "I only do at home." It was an old routine between them. Sometimes they used the language of space flight, more often that of accounting to talk of sex. So much so that Karen sometimes complained that she could no longer read a corporate report without becoming aroused. Whereupon Chase had acquired several annual reports and presented them to her in plain brown wrappers… Little Chase was still asleep, so Chase left the house after no more than a lingering look into his son's bedroom. Outside the sun was rising into a cloudless sky. His red Ford Panther started with the roar of a predator. Long and sleek, it had more power than some Third World dictators, but Chase kept his speed moderate as he negotiated the curving streets of his subdivision. You didn't find power in brute strength or speed, but in subtlety and control; and his 'chine was always perfectly under his command--responsive, quick, precise. Besides, Little Chase played on these streets and neighbors ought to show a sense of community. By the time he reached the flight ops center of Pegasus Spacelines, his good mood had evaporated somewhat. He recognized way-too-many of the cars slotted in the pilots' lot. Big schedule shuffle coming up, he guessed. They were only flying three out of five lifts from the original schedule as it was; how many more flights could they cut? He waved to Lakhmid Singh and Reeney Cue as he cruised for a parking place. Definitely too many pilots on the ground. He was ninety percent sure that Reeney had been booked for today's Prague-to-Europa lift. There were no open spaces in the pilots' lot, so he had to park among the commoners. As he walked toward the building, jiggling his keys in his hand, he noticed cars with New Mexico plates in the spaces reserved for the big hats. Bosses over from Albuquerque. Not a good sign. In the meeting room, he hung out in the back with Singh and Choo-choo Honnycott, drinking bad coffee from a row of urns set up on a table there. Plates held the usual assortment of bagels and croissants, but few of the pilots touched them. "Desk jockey feed," they called it. Chase noticed that the chairs were set up auditorium-style. No tables, no notepads. Which meant whatever the big hats had to say, it would be short and simple. Chase scowled and drained his coffee. He tried to remember who was booked to be up this week. What with cutbacks and cancellations, the lift schedule had been changed more often than a newborn's diaper, so it was hard to keep straight. Felicity Corazón, he thought. Maybe Gerhardt Brunnemacher. "Who has the lunar run this month?" he asked the others. He spotted Felicity's shaved head over near the windows, so either he had misremembered the schedule, or her lift had been canceled, too. "I am thinking the schedule is to be revised again, "Singh suggested with a fatalistic gust of breath. Chase shook his head, but said nothing. Alexandra Feathershaft, Pegasus's chief pilot, had taken a seat in the front of the room and was bumping heads with a dark-haired man whom Chase failed to recognize. New CEO? he wondered. But you didn't need a general meeting to announce a new snout at the top trough; and Sandy was looking very unhappy. Chase handed his empty coffee cup to Choo-choo and walked up the center aisle of the room to where some of the office staff had already taken seats. The three pilot coordinators were sitting together, as they usually did at these meetings. Heads close, chatting; but no smiles--which was unusual. If anyone knew who was up, it was this trio. Virginia saw him coming and nudged her companions and they fall silent at his approach. "Why, hel lo , Chase," sang Marie with broad enthusiasm. She was a certified Italian grandmother, gray of hair and short of frame. She seemed as frail as a bird, but was as tough and resilient as spring steel. Not only did she know who was flying which birds, but also which hotel or orbital station they were flopping at and--more important--who had birthdays and anniversaries coming up. Somehow she made sure that you were never on the far side of the Moon when you were supposed to be celebrating with your significant other. The pilots all called her "Mom." "Big meeting," Chase said, letting his head indicate the crowded auditorium. Marie' smile wavered just a bit. "The biggest ever, I guess." And was there just a touch of wistfulness in her voice? "Is there anyone who's not here?" The coordinator exchanged a glance with Wendy. If Marie was everyone's mother, Wendy was everyone's big sister. She swept back her brown, shoulder-length hair. "We're not supposed to release that information." Chase digested that. Theoretically, the pilot schedule was public information, and while some confidentiality safeguards had been installed after the bomb scare back in '11, no one inside Pegasus had ever had any trouble locating friends and colleagues before. "Oh, why not tell him?" asked Victoria. The third coordinator was tall, slim, and dark-chocolate. "Won't make any difference an hour from now. Will it?" The three again exchanged mutual glances and somehow achieved consensus without words. Marie spoke for them. "Captain Brunnemacher, Antonov, and Scott are bringing Gagarin back from the Moon. Artie Smith and Bobbi Trout are docked at Goddard; Chkalov II at Tsiolkovsky; and Henri Farman and Neta Snook at Europa. But their crews are attending the meeting by telepresence. Wendy, do you have the crew lists for the orbitals?" Chase said, "Don't said, "Don't go to any bother. I was just curious." They traded a few more pleasantries, then Chase worked his way to the back of the room. He repeated for Singh and Honnycott what the coordinators had told him. Lakhmid scowled. "Only five vessels up?" he said. "That does not sound very good." "Six, counting the LTV," Chase reminded him. "And all but the LTV in dock." "Where are all the other ships?" Honnycott asked. Chase twisted the spigot on a coffee urn and filled another cup. He gazed at the foul black brew, suddenly wishing it was something stronger. "Groundside," he said before gulping a swallow. "It oughta be tea," said Honnycott. Chase looked at him. "What?" The other pilot gestured toward the cup. "Tea leaves," he said. "Read the future." Chase downed the rest of the coffee. "I don't need no freaking tea leaves." On the slowest commercial day in the history of Pegasus Spacelines, there had never been a day with only six ships in the air. Five docked. Loading, unloading? Or just docked? Gagarin would have been docked, too, he suddenly realized, if it hadn't been on an irreversible lunar orbit. "I don't get it," he said. "There's this asteroid coming, right? And they're shutting down the biggest orbital carrier in the world and putting its pilots on the beach." "You don't know they're shutting down," Singh temporized. Chase could hear the anxiety and denial in the other's voice. "Maybe it's just another schedule change." Bad news is never real until someone official says it out loud. But the way Sandy Feathershaft looked, up there in the front of the room, the news must be pretty damn bad, and Chase wasn't any too sure he wanted to hear it. He tried to catch Sandy's eye, but she wasn't pitching any looks. Chase felt his stomach knot up. "Asteroid's not for six years," Honnycott said. "Plenty of time to put the pieces back together." He nodded toward the front of the room. "Give the new CEO a chance." Chase shook his head. "Ballistics," was all he said; but the other two knew what he meant. You couldn't wait until the last minute. There would be only a few launch windows where they could shoot missiles at the thing--what had Roberta called it in that press conference? The Jenuine Bean. Shoot missiles, or go there bonebag and blow the sumbitch up. Only a few windows, and who knew when those windows would open and shut? * * * There was no point in racing the bad news home. Karen followed the financial news closely and her spyder had probably downloaded the skinny as soon as the shutdown and layoffs were posted on the Net. So all he'd find when he got there would be sympathy and understanding, and Chase wasn't quite up for that. Impulse pulled him off Interstate 10 and onto the surface streets--past traffic lights, car dealerships, restaurants, strip malls, and body shops. There were a few people about, though not many, and all of them in cars. Pedestrians in the Arizona desert were as rare as the dodo, and for much the same reason--too stupid to live. Daytime Phoenix was never actually, cool . Even now, in the butt end of winter, the temperature hovered in the high seventies. The Sierra Estrellita gleamed in the distance. The sun was approaching noon and Chase decided he was hungry--but perversely, once he started looking, all the eateries seemed to have vanished. He passed up a couple of bun-and-runs--he wanted a cool one as much as he wanted a burger--and was just about to say the hell with it when he spotted the roadhouse. It was a ramshackle affair with a gravel lot and a wriggling MEMS sign above it that named it The Sidewinder. Some of the micro-electromechanical devices had failed, so the snakes's motions seemed a little spastic. A battered pickup and an old SUV sat on the side of the building and three bikes, chopped, stood out front. But the haze from the black stack had the tang of barbecue in it, and Chase decided to check it out. He pulled his Predator up beside the bikes and locked it. Three Harleys, he saw; battered, but kept in good shape. Repaired with dealer parts; no homemade junk. Before entering the bar, he doffed his cap and held it over the sun while he looked at the sky. Yep. There was the Moon, all right: a fingernail paring just west of the sun. Enjoy the trip, Gerhard , he thought. He recoiled from the notion that it might be the last one. Somehow, the Moon seemed much farther away than usual, but maybe that was in his head. Inside, the bar was warm and smoky, but not hot for all that. A floor fan at the far end stirred the air as it hunted back and forth. A long bar lined the back wall with a decently varied rack of bottles against the mirror. Above the mirror an improbably long rattlesnake was mounted on a wooden board. The bartender, a solid, dark-haired, happy-faced man, drank from a bottle of water while he chatted with the waitress. Chase tried to guess which was the pickup and which the SUV. The bikers occupied a booth near the door. They studied Chase as he slid onto a bar stool. "Skull Mountain," said Chase, dropping his cap to the bar. The barman looked at the cap, at Chase's red Pegasus coveralls, then reached under the bar and pulled up two longneck Skulls and a glass. The glass looked clean. Chase took one of the bottles and popped the cap. He didn't use the glass. "Why two?" he said, pointing to the second bottle. "First one's on the house," the barman said. Chase thought about that. "Which am I drinking?" "Second one." Chase grinned. "I'm smelling some good 'cue. Can I get a plate of pulled pork?" "Beans?" "Why not? My wife's put up with worse." The barman turned away. "Heard the news," he said. "'Bout Pegasus shutting down. Damn shame. A lot of the welders and assemblers from the maintenance shops stop in here." Chase grunted. He'd been so immersed in his own troubles he'd forgotten there were others, with jobs a lot less glamorous than space pilot. Sensing a presence beside him, Chase looked up into the broad, bearded face of one of the bikers. The man was heavyset, though not fat, and wore a black T-shirt under his leather vest. Intricate tattoos of eagles and hawks twined up both his arms. The T-shirt read: "No Fear? You Haven't Met Me , Yet!" When he bunched his muscles, the raptors stirred. "Your money's no good here," he said. "I hope not," Chase said mildly. He lifted his bottle of Skull Mountain, "This here's my second bottle, so I got to pay for it." "You hear me, Al?" the biker called after the barman, who was heaping pork on a plate. "I'm buying." The barman gave a sign and the biker slid onto the stool beside Chase. He stuck a hand out. "Bird Winfrey. You're Chase Coughlin, aren't you?" "Gotta be," Chase told him. "No one else wants the job." He gripped hands. Winfrey's laugh rumbled in his chest. "Thought I recognized you. I lifted with you a time or three back when we were building Leo Station." Chase titled his long-neck toward the other man. "Here's to you, otter." "You want to join us over in the booth? Chino and Ed are two dogs--mechanics from Phoenix Yards. We were on our way to meet our wives up in the White Tanks." Chase grabbed both his bottles and slid off the stool. "Your wives drive Harleys, too?" "Yeah, I saw you checking the bikes out when you came in Sure. When it comes to bikes, Yamaha makes a great piano." Chase followed him to the booth and slid in beside a stocky Hispanic with oriental eyes. Winfrey introduced him as Chino Martinez and the other as Ed Tiquba. "That's 'TiQuba,'" the black man said, giving a click in place of the Q-sound Winfrey had used. It seemed to Chase's ear like the sound that a rider made with his cheek to giddyup his horse. He lifted his bottle. "Here's to the big hats…" "…And the swelled heads that wear 'em." Winfrey and his buddies were drinking Dos Equis. "I was making myself a nice piece of cash," Winfrey went on. "Up Goddard, you know? Testing DSM for Straight Arrow." He shook his head. "When you guys started cutting back on your lift schedules, we had a hard time lifting raws and dropping stuff groundside. So Straight Arrow had to close up shop." "Wasn't my idea," Chase said. "Cutting back." "Yeah, otter, I hear you." Winfrey fell silent. He exchanged looks with the dogs, but no one said anything more for a while. The waitress came and set a plate of tangy barbecue with a side of beans and dill pickles in front of Chase. Her clothing affected a compromise between the maximum tolerable in the heat and the minimum required by decency. If the compromise conceded a little more to one side than the other, it was a compromise Chase approved. Chase had never strayed from his marriage--it was part of his code--but putting a ring on his finger hadn't made him blind, and he frankly admired the female of the species. Dropdead gorgeous was not the only factor, nor even a necessary one--he admired grit and quiet competency, too--but neither was it much of a drawback. Winfrey looked up. "Put in on my tab, Honey." "You don't have a tab," she said. "So start one. Do I have to do all the thinking around here?" "We're in deep trouble if you do," she said. "You can't pay with your good looks. First off, you don't have any and--" Winfrey flushed under his bushy beard. "C'mon, cut a guy a break…" Chase pulled his wallet out and laid a couple of presidents on the table. "Don't worry about it." Winfrey hesitated and looked embarrassed, but did not push the money back. The waitress counted the bills as she picked them up. She dropped a smile on Chase. "Now, if you wanted to pay with your good looks…" She let the suggestion hang before turning away. Chase watched her go. "There's a word in Shona," said Ed with a wistful grin, "for walking that way." Chase grunted. "I just bet there is." He turned back to the table. Winfrey wouldn't meet his eye. "Look, I'll pay you back, soon as--" "You're starting to worry," Chase cautioned him. Winfrey slumped in his chair. He looked at his two companions "Life's a bitch," he said. "And then you die," agreed Chino. Winfrey's hands bunched on the tabletop, fingers interlaced Then, bumping the table once, he sighed and picked up his drink. "How long you think this Dip'll go on?" he asked. "Beats me," Chase said. "I'm no bean counter. Marcel Reynaud--he's the new CEO Pegasus brought in--he told us at the meeting today that there's no money to operate while the lawsuits are pending because the Social Security bonds have sucked up all the loose change. I guess anyone who needs cash is having trouble scrounging it up. So, they cut costs." "Costs," said Ed. "That"s you an' me." "Something like that, anyway. Here's freaking asteroid gonna whack us upside the head and the big hats are letting all the money go down the toilet." Chase took a slug of skull. He supposed he might have felt different if he'd been on the receiving end of Social Security. Anything to keep those checks a-coming. But now a whole cartload of guys who would have been paying into the fund were out of work, so go figure. Winfrey was watching the waitress chat with Al. He pursed his lips. "You think that Bean's for real?" Chase cocked his head. "Don't you?" Winfrey shrugged "Don't much care, as long as it puts us back to work." Chino checked his watch. "Hey, we better get humping, ' mano , if we gonna the girls in time." The three bikers finished their beers, saluted Al, shook hands with Chase, and took their leave. "Anything comes up," Winfrey said to Chase before he left, "let me know, one otter to another." He blew a kiss to the waitress and the screen door slammed behind him. Chase grinned and shook his head over his long-neck. Just goes to show. Three rough-looking bikers done up in leather and denim and steel, and they turn out to be a trio of family guys on an outing. A couple of dogs and an otter. He was just finishing his pulled pork when the waitress slid into the booth opposite him with her own lunch in hand. A sandwich and a beer. She was dusky-complexioned with high cheekbones and dark eyes and hair. More than a little Indian blood in there. A fine line of heat perspiration beaded her forehead. When she leaned over the table, she displayed an impressive amount of cleavage. "Hi," she said. "I'm Honey." "I bet you are." Chase stopped himself before the asked for a taste. He glanced over at Al, but got no clue from the bartender's expressionless face. "Iron Al tells me you're a space pilot," Honey said, sucking sauce from her fingertips. "Mmm. Al makes one bad barbecue sandwich. What's it like? The Moon, I mean." "Not much. Couple of mines. Farside Observatory. Mostly robots and waldos. A few miners and scientists. Nightlife really sucks." "Do you go there a lot?" "I've landed a few times," he allowed, "but mostly it's just fly-by pickups. The mines use catapults to launch pods into LoLO--that's Low Lunar orbit--and we circle around and around and snatch them up. Silicon for the chip-makers in Goddard and Europa; oxygen for all the stations. Metals." He shrugged "Nothing glamorous. They were building a bigger catapult, one that can park cargo in L-1, but I guess the Dip has stopped work on that, too, by now." "How do you make a pickup? I mean, isn't that dangerous?" "Oh, I move up real close and nudge my prong into the coupling basket." Honey paused, then laid her sandwich in the basket. "That sound…fun. Do you dock often?" Chase began to imagine docking with Honey…He was treading dangerous ground, he knew. The thought was mother to the deed. But the talk was pleasant and he had nowhere he had to be, so any conversation was better than stewing in his own problems. He told her some of his shopworn yarns and received some gratifying gasps or laughs. Well, it had been a long time since he had a fresh audience. Some of the yarns were good enough that they needed very little in the way of embellishment. When he described how he and Ned DuBois had flown into Skopje to rescue the UN peacekeepers, Honey placed her hand over his and said he must be very brave. "I ain't no hero," Chase told her with just the right touch of humility. "Just a guy with a job to do." He'd learned that from Ned DuBois. Once you learn to fake sincerity , The Man Who had told him, the rest comes easy . "On my cadet flight," he said, "Forrest Calhoun and I lifted the rocket motors to raise the first external tank into orbit with Mir. Me and him and Ned DuBois and--" And who had been the Russian commander on Mir? Sugachev? No matter. "We hooked the motors onto the tank and lifted it into coorbit with Mir; so you might say that we were the ones who proved it was possible to build Leo and the other stations that way." Okay, if it hadn't been him it would have been someone else, but it never hurt to exaggerate your own importance when you were talking with a pretty woman. "Must be a bitch, getting laid off," she said. "Allen told me about that. Real bitch." Chase tried to be blasé about it. "Oh, they can't keep the ships grounded forever. When they start lifting again, they know where to find me." "Well, handsome, if you need a shoulder to cry on," the waitress said, "you know where to find me, too." Chase hesitated. There was more to her offer than a shoulder. He could see that in the curl of her mouth. A friendly invitation. There was none of the weary hardness he'd seen on some women--just a healthy, good ol' gal who knew better ways than serving pork to get a guy's morale up and have a little fun herself in the bargain. "Wouldn't be your shoulders I'd cry on," he said with an answering grin. Honey laughed and squeezed his hand. "Nah, you never would." She pushed out of the booth and piled her basket on his plate. "A gal knows when a guy's on the reservation; and, handsome, you are one Agency Indian." She cocked her head and studied him as he rose, too. "Too damn bad. I bet you would've been good." "Not just good. Outstanding." He raised both hands. "Understand, I'm just repeating what I've been told." "Yeah, modest, too. You better hit the road, 'otter,' before you change your mind." Chase left the bar feeling far better than he had going in. Nothing improved a guy's outlook more than having a good-looking gal hit on him. Of course, maybe Honey knew that, too, and that's why she'd done it. Cheer the poor bastard up. Still, Chase was as certain that her offer was sincere as she had been that he would turn it down. He tossed his car keys in the air and caught them on the way down. Yeah, too bed. They'd've been good together. But pledged virgins were not the only ones who took their vows seriously. It wasn't something predictable; it wasn't something Chase himself could have predicted all those years ago at Wither-spoon High, when he had been groping the girls and handing out black eyes. He'd been phat nasty back then. Bully, casual extortion, angry all the time, a couple of smash-and-grabs on Jimmy Poole. When he thought about it, it was like remembering a stranger. Danny Coughlin, his father, had been a good enough man when sober, but prone to casual violence and thoughtless lust when the drink was on him, which was all too often. But there was enough to admire, even to love, that Chase had begun to follow his dad down the same path. If hot pilot Ned DuBois hadn't taken him under his wing, who knew which jail's cot he'd be warming today? He hadn't seen it at the time. He hadn't thought he was teetering on a cusp, like a hot 'chine banking hard, just on the edge of losing lift and going into a spin. Yet, looking backward, it was as clear as the stars from orbit that his entire life had been decided that summer and everything since had been a working out of those choices. He had pulled on the yoke--No, he had taken hold of the yoke for the very first time in his life and flown on his own bearings. Mentor Academies must have seen something in him; more than he had seen in himself. Something more than a nobody taking the bruises his father handed out wholesale and passing them along to others at retail. They had set him up with a job as a machinist's helper at Thor Tools, where he'd been miking a component for a tool build when Ned DuBois showed up. Of course, he hadn't known who Ned was; not then. It was only later, with his heart pounding in his throat, that he followed the news of the first SSTO flight and the rescue of Gregor Levkin; and later still that he had taken Ned's dare and flown with him to the long-abandoned Moon and the whole world shook itself awake and said, We can go back again …Yet he had sensed something deeper in the older man than mere cockiness. Here was a man fully in command of himself. Chase had latched on to Ned with the fervor of a drowning swimmer, and found a courage he had never known he lacked. After all, what sort of courage did it take to smack around the likes of Jimmy Poole? Not the sort you needed to thread the needle landing tail-down at the Fernando de Noronha test field; or snatch a shipping pod lobbed by the lunar catapults in what amounted to a "controlled collision." Ned DuBois had been a womanizer--for a test pilot, it went with the territory--but when the chips were down and the hand was called, he had gone back to his Betsy. He had even given up command of the FarTrip mission to stay with her. That choice had impressed Chase more than all the swagger. Doing the right thing counted for a lot with Chase; though he wasn't always sure what the right thing was. There might be circumstances that would tempt him into arms like Honey's. He couldn't say. But those circumstances hadn't happened yet; and more to the point, he didn't go out looking. * * * The house was empty when he got back. A note posted on the microwave reminded him about Little Chase's one o'clock dental appointment. Officially a cleaning, but really just to get the tyke used to a dentist's office. Chase doffed his coverall and hung it in the closet. He paused before shutting the door and wondered when he next might put on Pegasus red, if ever. He traced the silhouette of the winged stallion with his fingertip. He'd given the Old Gray Mare seven years of his life. Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am. Maybe they would get the economic mess cleaned up quick, but somehow he didn't think so. The market dive had caught more companies than Pegasus in its slipstream. Aurora Ballistic and Orbital hired pilots. Earth-to-Earth ballistic runs were for weenies--bus drivers--but better than nothing; and Katya Volkovna, Aurora's chief of operations, was, like Ned DuBois and Forrest Calhoun, one of the original SSTO test pilots. But Aurora would have the same problem borrowing money as everyone else if they wanted to buy up Pegasus ships and routes and expand their service. As for Daedalus and Energia, the otter fraternity was worldwide and Chase didn't think the Social Security crisis affected Brazil and Russia, but that big sucking sound could vacuum up reals and novy rubles as easily as dollars. It was a global economy. That's what they all said. The hell with it. Whatever happened, he couldn't change it by fretting. He pulled on a pair of ragged chinos and a T-shirt and headed for the basement, where he set up his lathe to turn some table legs. He liked using his hands and he liked working in wood and metal. He never used the voice commands built into the lathe's Artificial Stupid. Voice commands were for weenies, too. You had to feel the wood and the pressure and the bite of the tool. The spindle wound up and Chase applied the tool. Feather light, at first, and wood peeled off in delicate spirals. He glanced at the template and adjusted the depth. Honey. He shook his head. What a name. He hoped she hadn't had to grow up wearing it. Maybe he'd ask her the next time he dropped in for the barbecue. He pulled the tool away and the lathe whined down to a stop, a fair groove cut near what would become the base, once he squared it off. Who was he kidding? Honey was a nice enough gal. Good-looking, sassy, autonomous. But there was something missing. Chase din't know what it was, only that Honey didn't have it. And maybe that was good luck for the both of them-- not to mention for Karen and Little Chase. He could drop by the Sidewinder and talk flirty and they'd both have a few laughs and no one would be hurt. He knew some guys who went pelt-hunting, convinced they were missing out on something. They were always a little disoriented, Chase thought. After all the furtive nooners and cheatin' evenings, they somehow never managed to fill the emptiness inside them. Could be there was someone perfect out there; at least, perfect for him. Someone who had whatever "it" was; but he could spend the rest of his life looking and never accomplish anything besides making miserable the lives of people that he loved. He remembered what he had told Honey about his first flight. How he and Ned and Forrest had mounted engines on a derelict Shuttle ET that had been put accidentally-on-purpose into orbit. Could they do the same thing with that Bean? Mount rocket engines on it. A lot of rockets, maybe; but the basic techniques were known; and sure, the people who were paid to think of things like that had probably already thought of things like that, but he'd drop Ned a line, anyway, just to make sure. Ned knew people, or knew those who did, and people didn't always do what they were paid for. He'd scope the mission first. It wasn't like he had a whole lot of work to do. Might as well lay a phat proposal on Ned's hard drive and not just a vague suggestion. He was a ship's captain. He knew to the gram how much a Plank freshly refueled in orbit could carry. He could call up Forrest at the Space Academy and pick his brain over his experiences on FarTrip I. FarTrip II would be one phat stoopid mission. He'd told Hobie once that he was bored with commercial flights, with their space traffic controllers, port captains, bills of lading, and passenger manifests. A new FarTrip, out beyond the reach of ground control, depending on your own mojo, would be anything but run-of-the-mill. Maybe if he worked up a good enough proposal, they'd pick him to fly it. Of course, as of now he didn't even have a damned commercial flight. He was laid off and earthbound, chained to a big honking rock. Copyright © 2001 by Michael Flynn Excerpted from Falling Stars by Michael Flynn All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.