Five billion kilometers from Earth, Ishtar hurtled through the abyss, her antimatter reactor burning with the relentless energy of a miniature star, her lidar arrays sweeping the frozen darkness ahead, her astrogation systems parsing terabytes of positional data each fraction of a second. For long, lightless years she had traversed the desolate void, heeding a faint voice from the other end of the Solar System, racing toward a black enigma at the very edge of interstellar space.

Closer and closer now; the strobing lasers plucked a signal out of the nothingness. An impulse raced through Ishtar’s artificial neural network. The great ship shuddered along her length, started to fold unto herself. The ramjet scoop, molecule-thin and wide enough to shroud a city, wound into a coil and vanished into the ship’s innards. Solar sails unfurled in a hard braking maneuver. Inertial dampers groaned, fought to keep the stresses on the ship’s structure within bearable limits.

Systems entered safe mode, powering down for standby; others hummed to life – lights coming on, atmospheric filters pumping, screens glowing above banks of interface consoles. Images and graphics iterated across the monitors; enhanced, annotated telemetry streamed through the relay channels.

Deep in the bowels of the ship, something began to stir.

#

It took several hours for the after-effects of stasis to dissipate, for sluggish blood to force its way through dilating arteries, for insensate synapses to fire, and numb, shrunken tendons and muscles to regain enough vigor to handle the half-gravity of the ship’s rotating living quarters.

Serd Quayne, the linguist, was the first to scramble out of his stasis pod and drag himself to the fore conference deck, where a holographic display plotted the relative positions of the ship and its destination. His trembling fingers curled around the neural jack, felt for the small socket at the base of his skull and completed the connection.

Parabolas, simulation plots and wavelength readings scrolled across the windows of his vision inlays; vector bundles assailed his cortical augments in a torrent of information. The ship’s destination loomed in a side optical link, a roiling dark stain against the shimmering backdrop of stars. Quayne adjusted the lidar frequencies, but the image blurred and lurched, interference skittering on the feed like sparks. The linguist swore under his breath, stabbed at the manual controls with stiff fingers. The side window flickered, flashed to black. The holograph wavered.

“Let the ship adjust her own sensors,” said a flat, uninflected voice over his left shoulder. Tirumal bin Ashtami, Ishtar’s armorer, floated into an empty seat. A servomech arm reached out, plugged a fiberoptic cable into one of the countless openings in Tirumal’s polycarbonate front carapace. A thin smile hovered on the chiseled, androgynous face. “Meat reflexes only get in the way.”

Quayne muttered an expletive and leaned away from the console. “You’ve still got meat in your head, no matter how hard you try to convince yourself to the contrary.”

“That’s why I leave the driving to my smarter half.” A titter of synthetic laughter. The armorer sent a command to the ship’s sensors, released the incoming data into the relay channels. Quayne brought the image up and frowned.

“Something’s wrong with the sensors.” Orya Chardiniss spoke behind them. By now the artificial gravity had fully asserted itself; the ship’s empath half-hopped along the curved deck, her movements clumsy and awkward, limbs stiff with residual rigor. She joined the other two crewmembers at the console and waited for her inlays to synch with the telemetry logs. “The feed is still blurred.”

“This is the best resolution we can get.” Tirumal transferred the indistinct, granular image to the holoscreen: a patch of dark cloud, a seething, turbulent hole in the heavens. “Lidar flashes are scattered. Ishtar stitched the fragments together into a composite view, but she still can’t make out detail.”

“We can fire a probe at it,” Quayne said. “Take a closer look.”

“It won’t make a difference.” The armorer’s head turned to the hologram with a low clicking sound. “All sensor arrays are nominal. At this distance, there should be no static. Something’s knocking the laser out of alignment, and it’s not accidental. The distortion factor is constant, precise.”

Orya’s eyes widened. “The target is jamming our lidar.”

“Exactly.” A ripple of excitement passed across Tirumal’s smooth, porcelain visage. “Whatever it is, it knows we’re looking, and doesn’t want to be seen.”

For a while no one spoke. Quayne swallowed heavily. “So our main question has been answered. It’s intelligent, probably technologically advanced.”

“All the more reason to proceed with caution. A probe launch could be interpreted as an act of aggression.”

“Mission Control?” Quayne asked, his gaze riveted to the dark mass on the display.

“By the time their response reaches us, we’ll already have made contact.”

“Contact,” the linguist seemed to savor the word. “Have they – it – repeated the signal?”

“In regular intervals.” Orya pulled up the logs, ran them through the static filters. “No change. A standard distress beacon from one of our fleet ships, warbled but unmistakable. The target is the source.”

“It’s trying to reproduce our communication patterns,” Quayne said. “I’d say it’s been here for a few years at least, listening in on our system traffic, picking up navigation chatter. Production precedes comprehension. It’s talking to us.”

“Or trying to warn us away,” Tirumal said. “It could be hostile.”

It reached out to us.” A hint of irritation had crept into Orya’s voice. “Does that seem like something a hostile intelligence would do?”

“Empathy,” the armorer replied, “makes for poor survival strategy. We’re going in blind.”

Friendly and hostile are human notions.” Quayne raised a hand in a neurofeedback gauntlet to pre-empt an argument. “We don’t know how this thing thinks, or what it is, or where it comes from. We shouldn’t base our assumptions on analogs to Earth-life behavior.”

“But there’s nothing else to base them on,” the empath said. “Humanity has never dealt with a first-contact situation before. That’s why the Transcendence sent us instead of an AI probe. Insight and adaptation, not software.”

Quayne opened his mouth to speak, but she cut him off. “First-contact protocols are built on standard models of human interaction. Each of us has a specific role. Strip away the fancy talk, and our mission boils down to this: find the thing, try to get it to talk, learn as much about it as possible. If the above fails, destroy it.”

Ishtar is an exploration ship,” the linguist said. “She carries no weapons.”

“Not yet. But she can make them.” Orya shot a hard stare at Tirumal. “Our fabrication plants can build anything from thermonuclear warheads to maser artillery.”

“Against that thing?” Quayne’s fingers flew through the air as he navigated through the virtual icons. The holographic display zoomed to a contrast-enhanced map of the target, force vectors curving and spiking in bright false colors. “The electromagnetic and radiation fields around it are unbelievable. Either we’re looking at a gravitational singularity of an unknown type, or cloaking technology advanced enough to play with the laws of physics. A nuke would do about as much good against it as poking it with a sharp stick.”

“Speculation will get us nowhere,” the armorer said abruptly. “The entity made an attempt to communicate. The least we can do is return the courtesy.”

“Are you suggesting we ping it back?”

“Indeed.” The faint, cryptic smile returned to Tirumal’s lips. “Let’s say hello.”

#

The signal had taken the Transcendence by surprise, streaming across neural and computer synapses alike, flooding the circuits of the great cognitive and communication network strewn between Jupiter and Earth. Billions of brains, organic and electronic, shuddered with the revelation. It took them no time to decipher the message: an automated distress call, emanating from depths no manned ship had ever plumbed.

The vast collective mind turned its myriad eyes to the heavens. Quantum satellites roved the void, traced the bearing of the radio signal to the Kuiper Belt, found its source in the shifting gravity wells, gleaned it from the orbital perturbations of the outer planets. A dark shape spinning through the cold waste, reflecting no light from the faraway sun. A shadow on the face of creation. Something from that shadow had reached out and spoken aloud, beckoned in a voice garbled, but familiar.

Long centuries of abject contemplation, all but free from the constraints of flesh, had mired the Transcendence in indifference and ennui, vitiated its ability to deal with the mysteries of the universe. Yet there were still many of those who rejected the simulated bliss of the collective mind, who chose the dubious reality of meat and senses and nerves – albeit grafted and overclocked and cybernetically augmented – over the synthetic, built-to-order idyll of the Transcendence’s infinite virtual utopias. It was to this immense, overlooked underclass that mankind turned in search for its emissaries to the stars: less than a year after the arrival of the signal, a cutting-edge prototype ship was launched from a research installation in orbit near Phobos, carrying three living, breathing humans in its stasis chambers.

The journey was estimated to take decades. For a while the Transcendence charted the ship’s progress through the abyss, but over time it grew tired and distracted, lapsed back into introspection. Traffic control algorithms took over, directing the ship with terse bursts of telemetry, receiving feedback and transmitting it to dead, silent channels.

By the time the ship’s voice returned from the boundless depths of space, there was no one to pay attention to the dark speck growing in the lenses of orbital telescopes, no one to notice the minute shifts in radio period indicating the target’s location had changed.

Slowly, relentlessly, the enigma was closing in.

#

They barely had time to strap in before the attitude jets fired along Ishtar’s length. Gravity gave a sickening lurch, turned itself inside out. The ship coasted on momentum and inertia, her trajectory calculated to carry her to the lip of the target’s gravity well. Almost simultaneously, transmission flooded the communication systems – the response to Ishtar’s hailing signal.

Quayne grunted, turned in his harness, eyes flickering rapidly beneath closed lids. The webbing dug into the fleshy parts of the linguist’s upper back, but he was beyond noticing: his gauntleted hand scrolled through inlay screens, filtering and decoding the message.

An image started to form in the shared visual node, accreting from unraveled fragments of the incoming radio beam. The crew checked their breath. A human face emerged from the blank background – regal, haughty and aristocratic, cruel lines etched around thin lips, eyes smoldering with a cold, malignant fire. As they watched, the image began to change into something else – a crawling mist of black tendrils, fading into the maelstrom of background static.

“What was that?” asked Orya. The sight of the face filled her with a vague unease she couldn’t account for. To her trained eye, patterns of expression and posture spoke louder and clearer than words; yet the countenance she’d just seen was featureless, an empty mask.

Tirumal ran a facial recognition search through the ship’s memory banks, came up with nothing.

“It’s telling us something,” Quayne said. “The jets fired almost ten hours ahead of schedule. We’re closer than we thought. The singularity is moving toward us.”

Orya brought up the positional charts. “Target hasn’t budged. It’s us who are in the wrong coordinates. We’re moving faster than we thought we were. Much faster. Our nav instruments must be fried.”

“The instruments are fine.” Tirumal’s synthesized voice brimmed with tension; a muscle twitched in a smooth, pale cheek. “Take a look at the readings. To account for the difference in position, we’d have to be speeding up well beyond the capacity of the main drive. Even if Ishtar were capable of such speed, the acceleration would have smeared us all over the walls.”

“A paradox,” Orya said. “We’re losing speed, but covering a greater distance.”

“It would appear so.” The armorer’s composite eyes were unreadable behind their double lids. “Spacetime around the singularity is distorted. Mission Control speculated about this, but there was no way to be certain. Familiar concepts of time and distance no longer hold true.”

“What now?”

“We wait and hope for the best.” Tirumal followed the superimposed graphics on the display, the bright speck that represented the ship falling toward a vast black shadow. “Ishtar is already adjusting the approach trajectory.” There was a moment of silence. “We’ll be in visual range soon.”

#

It rose out of the seething darkness, filling their view in all directions: a twisted, disfigured structure, turning slowly in the cosmic emptiness. Enhanced eyes took in the vista, cortical implants filtered and processed, streamed it across augmented cognitive centers. Yet the mind refused to accept the input; deep, ancestral parts of the brain shrank back in instinctive revulsion and fear.

Ishtar fell into orbit around a dark, dead city of black stone, a continent-sized nightmare drawn by the pen of some insane architect. Immense windowless towers soared above ramparts the size of cities; colossal walkways and bridges tangled back on themselves in mad twists and turns, robbing the mind of all sense of perspective. Great monoliths, hundreds of kilometers tall and carven with strange images and symbols, studded the obscene metropolis, their smooth black surfaces reflecting the dim light of the distant Sun. Vaulted temples nested together in storied ziggurats, massive altars raised toward the heavens.

“It can’t be,” Quayne said, his voice trembling on the verge of hysteria. Half a million years of evolution had evaporated in a flash: he was a brute hunkering on the edge of the savannah, shivering before the Unknown.

“It’s a mirage.” Orya tapped a command into the ship’s neural network. A section of the deck became transparent, giving them full view of the spinning city. “Lidar is still showing nothing ahead.” She hesitated, closed her eyes. “A sensory projection of sorts, like a shadow play.”

“Just like the face in the signal,” Tirumal said.

“You found a match?”

“Yes.” The armorer pulled up a window in the shared visual channel. “I cross-referenced a different database. Religions and myths of old civilizations.”      A picture appeared in the visuals, a grainy, black-and-white photograph of an underground burial chamber, illuminated by dancing flames, elaborate paintings adorning the walls. At the center of the chamber, surrounded by pillars of black marble and gilded shrines, lay a polished stone slab in the shape of a man, intricately decorated and inlaid with precious stones.

“This is the sarcophagus of the Whispering One, a figure worshipped by ancient death-cults in the Nile Valley, discovered by explorers a century and a half ago. According to legend, he was a prophet and scholar of great knowledge, a messenger of the dark gods who ruled the world before the age of man. He taught his priest-class the secrets of the stars and was thought to wield the power to split the universe asunder. His enemies tricked him, trapped him in a place neither of this world, nor the next. But the Whispering One cannot die: when the stars align, he shall return, heralding the return of the old ways, spreading madness and destruction.”

The display zoomed to closeup. The visage carved into the head of the sarcophagus was stylized, but recognizable: emeralds formed the burning eyes, the stone etched with the pitiless tilt of the mouth.

“Subconscious archetypes.” Quayne’s face lit up with realization. He pressed his palms against the vitreous hull, as if feeling for some imperceptible vibration. “That’s how it communicates. Our senses can’t perceive its true shape, so it’s relaying a simulacrum of itself that our brains can interpret.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Orya glanced at Tirumal, but the armorer avoided her eyes. “None of us have ever heard of this legend before. How could-”

“Resurrection, a day of reckoning, a prophet who leads the faithful to revelation, then ascends to an alternate realm – these subliminal motifs have existed for millennia, from the fertility cults of prehistory to the mass-religions of the monotheistic period. All buried in the murky depths of behavioral patterns and tendencies, our collective inheritance from the dawn of humanity.”

“So it shows us what we want to see,” Tirumal said. “Psychic reflection in place of language.”

“Language is a crutch.” Quayne’s voice was distant. “An intelligence this advanced will have no use for it. No conceptual limitations. No linguistic algorithms to decode. Just communication in its purest form.”

“Let’s send the probes in.” Orya brought up the launch interface. “Quick fly-by. Look for traces of complex organics. We need to know whether we’re dealing with a living thing or a machine.”

“No point.” The linguist waved a dismissive hand. “They’ll be fried before they get within a thousand klicks.”

“That’s close enough to tell us what they see.”

“Telemetry is meaningless here. The city is speaking to us in concepts. It’s our subconscious processes that give it shape.”

“We can’t trust our senses alone,” Tirumal said. “Nor can we assume we understand the singularity. The more perspective we have, the better prepared we’ll be.”

“Fine.” Quayne shrugged and turned away. “I’ll go down to the hold, run a diagnostic on some of the probe instruments. Might as well try to get as much fine detail as we can.”

Orya watched the linguist make his way down the deck. A mechanical hand landed gently on her shoulder. “Let him do it,” the armorer said. “It must be difficult for him, receiving a communication from the stars and having to come to terms with the prospect of not understanding it. His training goes too deep.”

“So does yours. Technology implies belligerence, right? You can’t see that thing as anything other than a threat.”

“I could be wrong.” Tirumal nodded, conceding the point. “Not that it’d do us much good if I’m not. There’s no winning strategy against an enemy who’s already inside your mind.”

#

They were sitting on opposite sides of the central display, watching the great spires of the city bristle above the flat, endless horizon, when the alarm went off.

Tirumal was the first to react, enhanced nerves firing a split-second before the brain had a chance to catch up. Icons exploded across the shared visual field, zoomed in on an expanded blueprint of the ship’s lower decks. The airlock in one of the shuttle bays glowed a bright green; luminous annotations flashed around it. Orya’s heart sank.

“Can you stop him?”

“No.” Cybernetic fingers clenched, relaxed. “He’s overridden the safeties and remote protocols.” Tirumal linked to the bay. Huge rail-arms were shifting and extending, sliding the shuttle into its launch slot. “Quayne? I want you to abort the launch. Release the manual control and stand down immediately.”

The only response was a loud clanging noise as the docking clamps released. Harsh emergency lighting flared around the launch tunnel, casting long shadows across the metal walls of the bay. The shuttle’s programmed path appeared on the screen – a long, gradual spiral into the center of the singularity.

“He’s insane.” Orya lifted frantic eyes to Tirumal’s face. “Suicidal.”

“Listen to me, Quayne.” Virtual windows bloomed and imploded; the armorer’s androgynous face was hard and expressionless. “You’ll die out there. It will accomplish nothing. Abort the launch now.”

“There is no death in the nameless city.” The linguist’s voice, calm and steady, filled the deck. “The Whispering One beckons from the void, shines like a black sun in the heavens.”

“There’s still a chance.” Tirumal shut off the channel to the shuttle bay. “A hatch to the airlock mechanism, used for emergency repairs. If I can get there in time and hack into the control program, Ishtar will automatically shut down the launch.”

“You won’t make it,” Orya said, but the armorer’s gleaming form was already sailing through the main passageway, pushing off the handrails. She linked back to Quayne; the pressure in the bay was dropping rapidly, the lights dimming to a dusky glow. The linguist’s eyes were closed, his breathing regular and even. One side window in Orya’s inlays showed Tirumal scrambling through hatchways and crawlspaces; in another, the countdown icon blinked like a heartbeat, alphanumerics shifting beneath.

“Think about what you’re doing, Quayne.”

“He has chosen me to receive His word.” Quayne’s hand hovered over the shuttle controls. Orya caught a reflection of his face in the dark glass of the cockpit, its empty smile, eyes casting back the eternal night beyond the ship’s bulkheads. The airlock began to iris open; the roar of the shuttle’s engine drowned out all other sound. “The door opens to us in the outer dark, that we may glimpse the great unspeakable wonders in the infinite gulf, the terrible stirrings in spiraling black galaxies.”

A hatch flew open behind the shuttle and a figure sprang into view, hydraulic limbs pumping in the zero gravity of the bay. Mechanical fingers stretched toward a touchpad in the opposite wall, made contact just a split-second too late.

Screaming darkness poured into the docking area, the atmosphere rushing out behind the departing shuttle. The image in the window plummeted, tumbled, flashed to an endless field of stars, hard and cold and distant; faded to blank. Silence followed, sudden and complete.

Orya turned off the dead feed. Tears streaked her cheeks. On the holographic display the shuttle burned across the abyss; something glinted briefly in its fiery wake, a tiny dark speck adrift off the side of the ship. She followed the shape with her eyes until the blackness swallowed it, then reached for the message blinking in the corner of the screen.

It was the ship. Two of her crew had gone offline; contingency protocols were being activated. Orya worked her way through the split-screens, pored over the mosaic of icons and diagrams. Commands raced across the display, graphics lighting up the tactical overlays. The ship’s reactor was shutting down, but her antimatter stockpiles were fluctuating, her backup drives whirring to life. A small, wry smile played on the empath’s lips. Not knowing what to expect, the Transcendence had prepared for the worst.

Ishtar carried no weapons, but she hadn’t come unarmed.

For a while Orya stood motionless, gazing at the spires and bridges in the distance. Her slender fingers tapped the touchpad of the console, plotting the entry maneuvers, adjusting the antimatter streams for maximal destructive effect. She would only get one opportunity and she wanted to deliver the payload as close to the target’s heart as possible.

Already the city was beginning to unravel, to come apart at the edges, as if eager to show her its true form. Black mists coiled around the colossal archways; angled streets and vaulted temples disappeared into a gaping, smoking rift that spread from the center of the illusion. Space turned and twisted upon itself, the gate opening onto hidden, unimaginable dimensions. Vast, half-glimpsed shapes writhed and rolled on the other side, clawing and tearing at the fabric of the universe.

Quayne’s voice still reached her ears, rippled across the distorted spacetime, babbling, screaming, laughing. It no longer mattered. A vague, unformed notion tugged at the back of her mind, an eerie feeling that she had been here before and would be again, part of some swirling, inescapable loop. An eternity of deaths and returns, keeping the madness at bay.

She keyed in the override code and gripped the sides of the console. The backup drives thundered in a burst of acceleration. Ishtar shuddered and slipped over the rim of the gravity well, careening into the eye of the vortex, shedding her armor-plated hull like a snakeskin. A spark lit the crawling darkness from within as the ship’s reactor flared one final time, dissolving reality in a blaze of all-consuming light.

An untold distance away, the dying ship’s distress signal rippled across the yawning chasm of space, heading for the shimmering blue world in the lap of the Sun.