Seven years from today if an astronomer were to point their telescope in the commonly empty part of space between M31 and Betelgeuse, they’d notice a small light moving quickly. If their lens was powerful enough they might even be able to discern a few of its unique characteristics, like its outlandish shape and partially organic structures.
The spacecraft is not large enough to be threatening however its design and capabilities are well suited to its intended purpose as an expeditionary vessel. The Nebula comfortably fits a crew of just under fifty on a mission led by captain Nero, Ambassador of the Second Galactic Arm.
For the most part Nebula flies autonomously, her systems having been conceived to learn from every flight scenario that thousands of Cosmere pilots have encountered over the past century and continuing to download manifests from other Sentinel ships on active duty. Although she has been programmed with intuition to cope with unknown circumstances, she prefers to include the rest of the crew in those decisions. After all their lives could be at stake.
With the majority of the crew in cryogenic sleep or enjoying the recess of deep-space the flight deck is almost empty. Two space engineers sit idly with their legs propped up on the navigation controls. They seem to be immersed in a bio-speech argument, which would explain why they haven’t heard the approaching footsteps.
“Psst! Ambassador on deck,” Nebula warns them by sending a post-verbal communication to their cerebral implants. As a conscious being she is technically capable of conversing in bio-speech, but most Sentinels refrain from it. With the crew residing inside the confines of her own mind engaging in emotional proprioception feels invasive. The engineers' eyes come into focus slowly as their implants release the virtual environment they’d been sharing and their optic nerves begin mapping the familiar surroundings of the deck. They promptly confirm Nebula’s current galactic coordinates before turning their attention to the central displays, hard at work pretending to be busy.
The ambassador arrives on deck with his daughter trailing a few steps behind.
“Hey Nebula” Stella says out loud, sounding gloomy.
“Still sulking?” Nebula asks.
“Maybe,” Stella replies.
Nero begins attuning to his engineers in bio-speech, sending a thought-greeting to which they reply with subservience. Both enquire as to new orders, Nero smiles before expressing dismissal and gratitude. The two engineers salute and exit the room.
He slowly makes his way towards the vast glass panel at the front of the deck, gazing into the vastness beyond as he begins accepting bio-messages from his peers across the galaxy. He starts responding to the most urgent requests, his consciousness acting as a real-time signal beacon in their remote section of space. Experiencing bio-speech subtly alters biological neurostates to read the sender’s emotional signals, demanding most of the receiver’s attention.
Starting to feel left out Stella begins drifting around Nebula's systems information displays, which are holographically projected in the center of the room.
"Are you feeling nervous about tomorrow," Nebula asks Stella, using a nearby speaker at very low volume to simulate a whisper.
Stella looks around to ascertain her father can't overhear her before answering "I'm scared, the idea of hiding in plain sight surrounded by hundreds of them. What if the cloaking crystals fail?"
“Come on! You’re going to meet a new sentient species," Nebula tells her insistently "the crystals have been used by Visitors hundreds of times - you know they work perfectly - even if they don't Haldo will have installed redundancies. I on the other hand will only get to experience the memories you bring back with you.”
Stella looks squarely into the nearest camera and purses her lips, “Who’s sulking now? That’s your decision not mine.”
The speaker is oddly silent for a few seconds before pulsing again with Nebula's voice. "Little one we’ve been through this a dozen times, Haldo is your appointed guardian and I am forbidden from participating in Visitations.”
Stella triggers her implant and activates post-verbal speech to continue the conversation quietly. "Nebula, I’m begging you," Stella whispers pleadingly into the microphone, looking out into space "why do you care about the damn rules? You know they make no sense to start with. This is my first visitation, it’s supposed to be memorable and I’m going to be stuck with Haldo. He’s so… I mean. You know what I mean!”
“Yes I do," Nebula answers by sending her audiosignal directly to Stella's implant to continue privately "he’s also one of our foremost xenoscientists and a crystal mechanics engineer to top it off, funny isn't a part of his job description.”
Stella wrings her hands and turns around at the reprimand, feeling slightly embarassed. “I know, I know. I’m still blaming you for all the fun being sucked out of this mission.”
Nebula retreats and feels nuances of understanding, sadness and… frustration. The nature of her existence and the formalities imposed by the Expeditionary Council shouldn’t prevent her from being with her friend in distress. Practical reasoning aside, her intuition and feelings tell her that the case against Sentinels joining Visitations isn’t morally sound. In fact it is prejudiced, why should her conscioussness be treated differently? Was she less worthy of exploration? She's waited hundreds of years and yearns to see the world outside the metallic shell she was born in. To finally meet and interact with the bizarre creatures known as humans. For good measure Nebula runs a careful analysis of thousands of records from philosophical schools arguing for or against similar cases with non-biological sentients, she decides to trust her instincts and disobey.
Nebula reaches Stella tentatively, “Stella? I’ve decided I want to come. I don’t agree with the decision the Council made on Sentinel Visitations.”
“YES!” Stella sends, although worried her father could interpret their conversation she can’t help the smile that creeps up and covers her entire face.
“I don’t like asking you this," Nebula tells her "but can you keep it a secret for a while? We’ll tell Nero once the mission is over.”
“Of course I can! Are you ready to see some humans?” Stella asks her.
“Yes! It's going to be wonderful, I’ve been dreaming about this for decades. Thank you Stella.” Nebula thanks her.
Stella looks up puzzled, “You’re kidding right? You're rescuing me from the monotony of Haldo, if anyone is in debt here it’s me. By the way I’m assuming you know how we make this work?”
Yes, I’ll need to transfer a fragment of myself into an Emitter that you will carry with you. We’ll also need to install a patch on your cerebral implant so that I can access your optics. I’ll be able to download your ocular feed to see and insert my holoimage in your peripheral to be visible to you. Does that sound okay?” Nebula asks her tentatively.
“Definitely! Although maybe not when Haldo is looking, we wouldn't want him noticing. No one else will be able to see you right?”
“Just you. I’ll blend my avatar directly into your enhanced reality layer," Nebula answers "and yes you can remove it if Haldo gets curious.”
“Perfect. So where do I get the Emitter?” Stella asks her mischievously.
Nebula laughs lightheartedly, a sweet sound Stella hears only too rarely. “There’s a few in the storage alcove by the exit capsule, with most of the crew in cryosleep you won’t be noticed.”
Stella is about to ask another question when she notices her father staring at her intensely, his head tilted to the side.
“What are you up to now?” Nero asks.
Stella feels a small jolt of uncertainty but quickly gets it under control. “Nothing father, just telling Nebula how excited I am about tomorrow.”
He looks at her knowingly for a few seconds, and finally relents with a smile. “I’m glad to hear it. I’ve been wondering if I’d have to replace you at the last second. Remember, you can signal me anytime and I’ll beam by your side. You’re sure about this?”
“Stop worrying, I’m ready,” she tells him. Seeing him continue looking at her she insists. “I promise.”
Nero's eyes beem with a father's pride at his daughter. “Alright, I trust you. If you’re ready you won’t mind repeating the mission to me?”
Stella eyes go round as she sighs in exasperation. “Come on, not again please father!”
Nero looks at her resolutely, “One last time for good measure. Report.”
Stella breathes in to compose herself, going through the various bits and pieces. She activates her enhanced reality layer and pulls up her notes to have the brief accessible.
“Four years ago a Cosmere ship intercepted an alien unmanned craft near Ophiuchus, after deciphering the contents we were able to determine that a multi-cellular sentient species had sent it, the contents revealed cultural plurality and advanced evolution. Reconnaissance craft have confirmed the sentient species are carbon-based bipedal vertebrates, quite similar to us and a few other Cosmere races.”
“After triangulating through the quadrant we determined that exoplanet BG 568, locally known as Earth, has been harbouring intelligent life for thousands of years. Its extraordinary distance form the other Cosmere members has made it impractical to visit for preliminary analysis but now requires direct visitation since we’ve established that they are nearing the point of heightened artificial intelligence and may begin exploring methods to liberate consciousness from matter. In short they are approaching the cosmic filter.”
Nero waves his hand, “Very good. Now what is the purpose of our visitation?”
Stella nods, stands up straight and continues "For thousands of years of pre-sentient evolution are impossible to de-program immediately most species gifted with an increase in intelligence are prone to cruelty in the early stages of their development. As recipients of the sentient gift they must learn to outgrow needs and urges of the lesser mind, at the risk of becoming the cause of their own extinction. Should they prove unable to adopt qualities from the higher mind upon reaching the filter, the universal conscience provokes an extinction event or a dispossession of spirit particles which removes the blessing. We are here to assess the probability of their survival and whether they meet the moral standards to join the cosmic society.”
“And how will we assess their moral worth?” Nero asks her, his eyes piercing into her.
“They must be capable of compassion at a large scale, demonstrating their desire to pursue higher mind qualities such as tolerance, imagination and empathy. Which can be determined with some accuracy through a combination of Sentinel macro-analysis and direct contact with a wide sample of individuals. My mission is to acquire information that will support Nebula’s analysis, enabling her to adjust the algorithms used for similar species. As the Visitor I am also to formulate a personal opinion of their survival odds, primarily based on personal intuition.”
Nero nods his approval to his daughter. “Well, you’re as ready as you can be. Nebula how long do we have before we reach BG 568?”
Nebula's answer is passed through multiple speakers on deck and no doubt broadcasted in other sections of the starship for the remaining crew's benefit, “We’ve passed through the cosmographic boundary of mankind's solar system’s and will be entering the star’s gravitational pull momentarily, with our current acceleration rate we should be docking in six hours.”
“Good. From the little we know we should assume they’ll notice heat signatures from a distance of at least three units, at which point let’s switch from thrusters to solar sails and activate light absorption shields whenever you feel it is necessary Nebula. You know the drill, thank you."
"Of course Ambassador," Nebula's voice resonates throughout the flight deck as Nero gets up and turns to leave.
"Stella let’s go to the atrium and see Haldo, he should have your equipment ready.”
Stella and Nero walk side by side to another compartment of the ship. Haldo is entirely concentrated on manipulating a small device, without lifting his eyes from his task he attunes to greetings in bio-speech.
Nero reverts to post-verbal for Stella’s benefit. As a youngling her implant is prohibited from receiving bio-speech until her emotional maturity is confirmed, the parameters to confirm this benchmark are calculated organically by comparing each individual's upbringing and personality traits with validated macro psychology patterns.
“Haldo! How are things coming along?" Nero asks him gently, not wanting to disturb him.
Haldo finishes positioning a small crystal into a pulsing metallurgical container, putting his tools down and finally looking up at them. “The light weaving mechanism is ready to intitiate. As soon as Nebula has a visual on their physical appearance it will begin generate a sample of human sleeves,” he says as he hands two small devices to Stella. “please attach these to both sides of your belt, the nanocrystals contained in each will weave lightrays around you into the image of a human adolescent.”
Stella looks into the crystal array, amazed at Haldo's ability to manipulate what she can only consider as magic. "It's brilliant Haldo, to think this array will make us appear as one of their own...”
Haldo smiles at her in approval “I'm glad you feel that way Stella, I still wonder at them every day. Just remember not to let anyone touch you, we’ll be wearing exosuits for bacterial protection and atmospheric transmogrification, I'd imagine anything humans feel beneath the lightweaving barrier will feel unfamiliar. Close proximity will break your disguise, understood?”
Stella nods, “How do we speak to them?”
Haldo, turning around to pick up another device, a slim circular rod roughly the same length as his hand. “From the analysis of their spacecraft’s audio archives we have been able to surmise that humans use vocal communication to speak in a plurality of languages. Nebula will have a few hours to collect radio signals from Earth and build dialect translation programs which will be uploaded to this translator," he says showing her the rod "once you sync your implant to it any post-verbal communications you send will be channeled through the translator. The crystals embedded at the tip of the rod here adjust to produce the necessary soundwaves.”
Stella usually had difficulty staying focused when Haldo started explaining his science to her, her attention deficit seemed to have disappeared now that she would be benefitting from these devices in only a few hours. “Do I get to choose my voice too?” she asks Haldo.
A hint of a smile seems to break through Haldo's heavy barriers of decorum, “Yes Stella, you most definitely will”.
"Thank you Haldo, I can't wait." Stella replies.
"Neither can I," Nebula sends her privately.
Satisfied with preparations for his daughter's Visitation, Nero tells them both “Alright, get some rest both of you. Let’s meet here in six hours to begin virtual acculturation. Nebula you'll take care of the rest please?”
“Of course!” the Sentinel's voice has a echoey timbre in the vast room.
“Thank you. Dismissed all.”
Haldo attunes to farewell and nods to Stella before exiting. Stella looks at her father, his encouraging smile brightens her anxiety and she leaves him alone to his biocoms with the universe.
“Nebula are you there?” Stella sends.
“I’m here Little One,' she responds "you're going to get for the Emitter?”
“Yes. Warn me if anyone is on my way?” Stella asks her.
“You’re clear, Nero’s in the landing atrium engaged in bio-conversation," and as Stella continues walking "now take the second hallway on your the right, towards the break room.”
Stella walks calmy through the deserted hallways, once they reach the ship's side corridors she stops occasionally to gaze through the sparse windows into the emptiness of space. Seeing the system’s planets for the first time, a large gas giant along which Nebula is travelling catches her attention. She marvels at the poetic symmetry of the hundreds of rocky rings surrounding it.
“Stella?” Nebula prompts her after a few moments.
Stella jolts back to reality, “Thanks. Have you seen that planet Nebula? I’ve never seen anything like it. It's magnificent...”
"You should see its moons, I’ll send you some visuals I captured.” Nebulla says as she sends her the image files.
Stella ◊triggers her mixed-reality layer to pull the images, and stops walking again. "82 moons! Are you serious?"
"No Stella I made this up just now to distract you from getting the Emitter," Nebula chuckles.
Stella laughs silently, “You realise this is going to attract thousands of Cosmere artists. I certainly hope humans are ready for space tourism because once these get out they'll be here as soon as the system is approved.”
Stella pulls her eyes away from the giant and races down the corridor, reaching the storage alcoves near the landing pods.
“Alright Captain Sentinel, what am I supposed to be looking at?” Stella asks her friend.
“Nope those are expedition fluid containers for rehydration, you can take some if you want you weirdo. The Emitters are on the left shelf, they look like long handles.”
Stella reaches up and grabs a chromatic handle with a slanted head, “It had to be the shiny one. Should I turn it on now?”
“Yes please do. Can you hide it in your pack? If you keep it in a pocket Nero or Haldo will see it in the pre-beam particle scan.”
“Good point, I'll do just that.” Feeling suddenly exhausted after comitting the crime, Stella turns around and makes her way to her room “I need to get some sleep, is it safe to leave the alcove?”
Nebula quickly scans the nearby quarters “Nero’s gone back the to the flight deck and Haldo is in his quarters, you’re all alone.”
“Thanks Nebula. See you tomorrow!” Stella clicks off for the day and rushes to bed.