24 May

Pebble in the pond

Ship's log, 10:43, 21 March 2214
Location: Wide orbit near Earth Moonbase, Home System
Status: Stationary


On the planet far below my orbit, the news is bleating about riots and increasing pressure for governments to do something about the solar flare activity. It’s causing storms and knocking out power grids, disrupting everyone’s lives. Up here, it doesn’t feel much different. The only difference is that everyone involved is currently in the same room, all seeming more calm than they feel. Even me.

Now that everyone has seen the Bridge, I’m nervous all over again. It’s time to answer the question of whether this drive I carry can heal as much as it can hurt. What if it’s just a weapon? Like a bomb: only capable of tearing things apart? What if we need something completely different to fix this?

No, my logic circuits tell me that there’s a good chance that the Step drive can fix this. It’s doesn’t only rip holes in the universe: it manipulates gravity. It could manipulate it in a good way. Right?

I guess that’s what we’re all here to find out.


Log location: Bridge

CAPTAIN: Dr Cirilli? Dr Ebling? Shall we?

STARRY: (waves a hand and the navigation and science consoles peel off their respective chairs and move towards the hologram of Terra Sol in the centre of the room. Other displays flicker into life, creating a ring around the image of the star. Except for the captain’s chair, the Bridge chairs dismantle themselves and drop back into the floor.)

CIRILLI: Of course, captain.

EBLING: (says nothing, just walks towards the science station.)

CAPT: (sinks to sit in the captain’s chair, hands curling comfortably around its arms.)

(The other members of the crew, gathered to look at the new Bridge, mill around the edges of the room, uncertain what to do with themselves now the subject is shifting. Except Dr Valdimir; he seems to be satisfied that his presence is no longer required and leaves smartly.

The two Firebird crewmembers, Warren and Sasha, wander closer to the holographic displays but stay behind Kess. Cameron nods at Rosie, prompting the SecOff to nod in return and lean against a wall where she can keep an eye on the pair. Swann follows the Chief out. Elliott checks the readouts hovering above the unit he holds, nods at Starry, and heads out as well.)

EBLING: (manipulating the data displays on his console) We should start with the effects of our Step.

CIRILLI: (stepping up to another display section) Is there any available data from before the Step?

STARRY: Not even I can see when I’m not there. We emerge too close to the star when we Step; there’s no light delay to give us a peek at what happened before we got there.

LANG LANG: (going to the navigation displays) Kess, are you able to tell us what parts of the readouts were caused by the Step?

KESS: (gazing up at the projection of her star-self) I’ll try.

EBLING: We should consider the effects of opening a portal from this side, too. The results may be cumulative.

STARRY: Pulling up the data from Corsica.

(The hologram image splits, shrinking the representation of Terra Sol and bringing up a matching image labelled ‘Corsica, post-Step 2213’.)

CIRILLI: Your first attempt at Stepping, Starry?

STARRY: (frowning at the memory) Yes. It’s the only data I have in my memory that shows what happens after a portal is opened at a star.

CIRILLI: (hands moving over her console, she accesses data in mid-deck’s file stores.)

STARRY: (tilts her head as she monitors and processes the data. More holograms of stars appear in the room, each labelled with the star’s name and date. Most of them are of Terra Sol and Corsica, and the dates span years.)


Of course Cirilli would have more data about this. I don’t have much because I have usually gone through the portals I’ve opened; Cirilli spent years just trying to make the portals happen. All she’s had is the external view. It wasn’t until me that she was able to actually pass through one.

My Bridge is filling up with little representations of stars, playing the logs of their emission patterns immediately after a Step portal was opened or closed. There’s so many of them. I know science is about reliable, repeatable results, but this… how many times have these stars been poked and prodded? Did it hurt them every time, as much as Kess says?

Stick to the data, silly ship. We’re here to find a solution, and first we need to understand the problem. If we can see what the portal does to a star, we might be able to see a way to counteract it. But there’s so much of it.


STARRY: Filtering data.

(The stars begin to move together and collide, their patterns blurring over one another until they match.)

CIRILLI: (squints at the representations) What criteria are you using?

STARRY: Gravity field fluctuations. That’s the problem, isn’t it? (She glances at Kess.) Should we be looking at something else?

KESS: Gravity is a good place to start.

STARRY: (watches the groupings move slowly around the room) Do you want them chronological by my clock or actual time?

KESS: (frowns.)

CIRILLI: Actual time. Does that work with these groupings?

STARRY: Yes. The parts where they’re too different to group… well. Looks like it was getting worse over time.

(The stars bobbing around the room reshufflle to create an ordered ring that rotates slowly. Silence falls as the displays are studied, patterns absorbed.)

CIRILLI: (frowns and takes notes.)

KESS: (watching the grim faces around her as they take in the red ripples of gravity tides that show the shockwaves caused by the Step portals) Do you still believe you can undo these effects?

EBLING: The Step drive is essentially a big gravity capacitor and manipulator. If we can get the right patterns… maybe. (He shrugs.)

STARRY: (with a frown deepening as she scans over the data) We’re missing something.


STARRY: (blinking at Kess) What we’re aiming to return it to. We don’t have anything from before the first time I Stepped into this system.

EBLING: Can’t we just copy a similar star’s patterns and…

KESS: No. It would be like putting someone else’s skin on your body. Ill-fitting and… not you.

LANG LANG: (wrinkles her nose) It would change you?

KESS: (nods.)

CIRILLI: Then what would you suggest?

KESS: Calm the tide.

STARRY: (tilts her head) I don’t know if it’s possible to just… suck the power out of gravity tides like that. If I started in one place, it could unbalance things even further. Create a vacuum that the other tides rush to fill. It could just make things worse.

CIRILLI: (shakes her head) The gravity filaments can only hold so much charge. We would never be able to draw off enough energy to do it that way.

EBLING: But you could set up counter-flows to cancel out the worst of the tides.

STARRY: Opposing tidal waves? Ripples and counter-ripples…

WARREN: (frowns at Kess, though she’s not looking at him) By creating more portals?

SASHA: (opens and closes her mouth, then sends a scowl in Kess’s direction.)

KESS: (nods slowly in agreement with the discussion, her eyes on the simulations of stars floating around the room.)

SASHA: You’re not serious. Kess, you can’t let them do this.

CIRILLI: (frowns at the foreign crewmember) We are attempting to find a way to fix the situation.

SASHA: By making it worse!

KESS: (turning to lay a hand on her crewmate’s arm) Sasha, it’s all right. I told you long ago: this is going to get worse before it’s going to get better.

WARREN: But what they’re talking about will hurt you.

STARRY: We’re just tossing ideas around. We all want the solution that’s going to be the best for everyone.

KESS: We don’t have time to build the perfect solution. Sometimes, you have to tear the bandage off.

SASHA: (subsides angrily, folding her arms over her chest.)

WARREN: (puts an arm around Sasha’s shoulders and falls unhappily quiet.)


When Kess first came on board, she looked at my crew and was surprised about how loyal and defensive they were of me. Now, I’m looking at her and hers and I’m thinking the same thing. They don’t want her to get hurt. They know they can’t stop us but they’re willing to try anyway, just like my people were willing to face up to a star that might explode and kill us all at any moment.

Maybe it’s because my diagnostic protocols are running rampant over the Step data, but I see patterns everywhere. Balancing factors. Their loyalty and Kess’s willingness to comtemplate a painful solution helps to balance my distrust and wariness about her.

People are not that simple, though, and while I don’t fully understand what Kess is, I know she’s more complicated than she looks, too. Can emotions be balanced that way? Should they be? But I want to believe them.

Focus on the data, Starry. Focus on how to counteract the tides moving deep within the star’s core, raging across the surface. How can the patterns from the portals help us with that? How do I make this work?

Counter-tides. Like dropping two pebbles into a pond, the ripples of one cancel out the other. It’s possible, if I can predict the ripples my ‘pebble’ will make. If I can shape it, even. Can I do that?

Ebling is starting to pull together simulation parameters for just that. Apparently, he’s not held up by worries about what this might do to Kess. Which is just like him: moral implications seem to run off him like water from oiled feathers.

Cirilli is looking over his shoulder and starting on her own track. She’s looking at the tides that are there in Terra Sol today, so we can build a predictive model of what we need to counter.

And Kess… her words might be calm enough but she’s looking pale and tense. She mentioned time being short in this, and that worries me. If we built enough Step drives like mine and spread them out like a net, it wouldn’t be impossible to use it to draw off the energy of the raging tides. But that would take time. Months, maybe longer, to build that many portal engines. How much can we achieve in the time we’ve got? And what costs is this going to have?


STARRY: (steps over to stand before Kess, leaving the scientists to their work manipulating the holographic simulations.)

KESS: (looks up at the avatar expectantly.)

STARRY: How much time do we have?

CAPT: (turns to the conversation between ship and star.)

KESS: I can only prevent the venting so much. At some point, pressure has to be released. I’m directing spurts towards open space where I can, but even so, it’s in danger of upsetting the patterns of the entire system. Shifting orbits. The results of that could be… unpredictable. Particularly for Earth.

CAPT: Are we talking about more geostorms?

KESS: (shakes her head) Worse. It is a delicate balance, and if the balance shifts too far, the whole planet will twist to fit into a new place in the system. (She looks to Starry.) To answer your question: not much. We have weeks before I’ll be unable to restrain the worst of the tides and have to vent the pressure in a big way.

STARRY: But you’re already flaring. Doesn’t that help?

KESS: A little, but it’s not enough.

CAPT: Then we have our work cut out for us.

STARRY: And if we have to open Step portals to fix what’s happening, what then? Will you be able to stop the flares?

KESS: I don’t know. I will try.

STARRY: (brightens suddenly) Maybe you don’t have to. Maybe you could vent safely, if I opened a portal in the right place.

CAPT: (smiles) That sounds like an excellent answer.

KESS: (nods slowly, considering it) Yes. (She glances to the captain.) If that is the best solution, I should not be on board when you try.

CAPT: We should have our attention on putting out one fire at a time.

KESS: Exactly.

STARRY: You really think this will work?

KESS: (turns to look at the spinning simulations again) I have been looking for a way to undo what was done for forty years. This is the closest I’ve come. It will not be pretty, but… I have hope.

STARRY: (looks to her captain.)

CAPT: (nods solemnly at his ship.)


I feel a little ill. I know this will hurt her, and it could backfire on us, and there’s a whole planet full of people down there depending on us. They don’t know it, but they are. My protective protocols weren’t meant to extend to entire planets. Civilisations. Our home world.

Perhaps it is like Swann and his solution with the missiles when we rescued Kess and her friends. He used them to clear a path for us, but he didn’t blow anything up; he used their power to create a solution without destruction.

Perhaps it is as simple as a pebble dropped into water. Perhaps it is as simple as using these troublesome portals to solve the problems they made.

Besides, if even the star wants us to do it, can we say no?

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7 Responses to “Pebble in the pond”

  1. mjkj Says:

    Wow great one ๐Ÿ™‚

    *hugs Starry and Kess*

    They both seem to need a hug…


    PS: extra hug for Melanie *hugs* ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. daymon34 Says:

    Well an open portal will give a place to vent, going into the place between shouldn’t harm to much.

    Now the tough part, finding out how to use the step portals to fix what they broke. And only a few weeks before it gets nasty. Nothing like being pushed up against the wall.

  3. eduardo Says:

    The problem is if the “place between” sucks too much energy.

  4. ShorBird Says:

    I don’t know about the venting using a portal idea, sounds very risky. If I’ve followed this correctly, the step process lets you displace things in time and space (ala TARDIS). I would think it would be very difficult to predict the impact of venting a solar flare even in a supposedly ’empty’ area in space; and shifting it in time just ‘kicks the can’ up or down the road. Not to mention how close to Starry would this have to come, and for how long? We know she is shielded against the star’s heat, but even she has limits.

    Quite the conundrum, and as alway a great read!

  5. Andrul Says:

    Venting it into “inner space” may work but they should do so with the idea in mind that it may make any future stepping too dangerous for a ship even if they can fix the problem of destabilizing stars. After all, that energy may end up spreading out to all points in space/time.

    As always a great read!

  6. Andrul Says:

    Heh, just noticed I echoed Shorbird’s last statement ๐Ÿ˜€

  7. EdorFaus Says:

    Andrul: I don’t think that would be a serious issue, actually.

    First of all, the flare is likely to spread out, like you said, and would in so doing dilute itself to levels that are probably lower than where the ship usually sits when they open the portals in the first place (very near the star).

    Second, I don’t think a bit of extra energy is the biggest problem – remember, while outside space, objects are literally peeled, layer after layer of atoms… And rather quickly, at that.

    Actually, that second bit might take care of the first quite handily – as the gaseous matter of the flare would probably be peeled away into nothing before too long.

    The first part goes for ShorBird’s idea of venting the flare into empty (normal) space as well – though I don’t think that’s very practical to do with the Step drive, as I think they’d have to follow the flare through, overtake it, and open an exit portal in front of it – and that assumes it *doesn’t* spread out too much first.

    Space has lots of gas in places already, I don’t think a bit more would hurt significantly.

    … Actually, now that I think about it, as long as the Step drive requires the gravity of a star to open portals, it wouldn’t work in the first place to make the exit portal to empty space, would it? It would have to be very near another star… Which I suppose indeed could have negative consequences, even if they picked one that doesn’t have life-bearing planets.