Once Eesh-nek had been given a cursory examination and clearance in the ship’s medical bay, he was lead to Commander Reese’s office. There the two, met face to face, and for the first time, Reese felt the actual presence of the stranger. There was a feeling, a subtle shift in the atmosphere when he entered the room where Eesh-nek waited. It was almost like unexpectedly running into an old and dear friend whom you haven’t seen in many years; a warmth of familiarity and comfort that he only recognized on a gut level.
Reese stepped close to his visitor and was about to explain what a handshake was so he could offer one without startling the alien, but Eesh-nek stopped him, announcing to the minds of all the crew that he was already aware of the custom. “In fact, Commander,” he sent, “I’ve been assimilating information from all of you since meeting Delaney and Mgalo. I already know much about your people, your mission, your home world — Errrth, I think you call it — and why you detoured to come here to what you call El Dorado.” Again, that not-smile appeared, and this time Reese felt gooseflesh race up his back. “Yes, I even know about El Dorado — an Errrth fable of a place of riches beyond imagining. I can’t help it, Commander — I hear the thoughts of all your crew. It is a mixed, jumbled, babbling in the background, and I must concentrate a bit to filter any voice from the rest, but all of it is assimilated and cataloged into my memory.
“Your Doctor Devereaux…anthropologist, I think the term was? He theorizes my race were of a community mind, like some Errrth species. If I understand his analogy accurately, then he is right. What one of us knew, all of us knew. It is of this mental connection that I wanted to speak with you…and of how it caused the downfall of my people.”
Reese sat at the small conference table to the side of his office. Eesh-nek watched him maneuver into the molded plastic seat, seeming to take mental notes, then mimicked the motions and seated himself identically. “Yes,” Reese began, “we noted ruined cities across your world. That made us think we wouldn’t find any intelligent beings here.” He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the tabletop.
Eesh-nek put his elbows on the tabletop as well. “Actually, Commander, you found only one. I am the last of my race. All the rest died a very long time ago — well over 2,300 of your Errrth centuries ago if I understand your calendar correctly. I’ve been alone ever since, with no one to talk to except the ghosts of my civilization, and they were only in my fantasies and imagination, I suspect.” Again, the brown, smooth face seemed to be trying to smile. This time Reese felt something heated and slick slide through his heart and down into his guts — fear, perhaps, or maybe just distrust? He wiped away a tear of sweat from his cheek and made a mental note to speak to maintenance about the air conditioning.
“What happened to them, Eesh-nek? It doesn’t seem to be war or some natural disaster. Either one would have destroyed the cities along with the inhabitants. A plague, maybe?”
“I will tell you, Commander,” thought-spoke the silent being. “But you must know the prologue before you learn the story. You must know the legend of The Nameless Dark.
“Our race was a grand one, Commander Reese. Well over 4 billion souls lived on this world. We called ourselves simply ‘The People.’ We knew nothing of space travel, being content to let the stars handle their own affairs. Instead, we turned our sciences towards improving us and our lives, our culture, and our planet. Because we all knew the thoughts of each other, we could concentrate resources that might otherwise have been spent on creating radios or televisions or books or other means of communication. We had achieved a society of peaceful coexistence — no war, no crime, no real conflict at all. We still knew disease and sickness and death — those were still unconquered enemies — but our finest and brightest were closing in on them, hoping to eradicate those threats too.
“Into this idyllic life came darkness. A man rose to great power and influence, only to be corrupted by his own ambitions and lusts. He allowed his cruelty and evil to take control of him, to lead him down a foul path. He committed the most brutal and heinous crime that our society could envision. His name is unimportant now — among The People he came to be known only as The Nameless Dark, a name that came to terrify children and haunt the sleep of adults. Rather like your own Errrth ‘boogieman,’ I suppose.”
Reese felt his skin go cold. Eesh-nek’s expressionless, faceted eyes never changed, but he fancied he could see the faintest shadow pass across them for a moment. “What was his crime? What could this The Nameless Dark have done to earn such infamy?”
“In truth, Commander, I couldn’t say. The legend of The Nameless Dark is so old, and the details are lost in the past. There were speculations, of course, most having to do with him committing mass atrocities and murders, but there is no certainty of that. What is certain is the record of The People, which records that this abomination was tried, convicted, and sentenced to the only punishment our race could impose which was just retribution for his abhorrent crimes — oblivion. He was not only to be executed in the most painful manner the People could concoct, but then his body was to be dissolved molecularly; disincorporated if you will. Everything of him was to be eradicated; his name, lineage, community memory — every particle of him was to be annihilated from The People, purged like a disease from our collective flesh.
“The Nameless Dark was sent to prison to await execution of his sentence, and every hour of his internment he proclaimed his innocence. He swore to our gods that he was wrongly accused, that he had done no wrong. But the will of The People was unalterable and absolute.”
“But if you could all see each other’s minds; couldn’t The People see that he really was innocent of the charges?”
“We were able to close off our thoughts from the community mind, Commander,” Eesh-nek explained. “We had private thoughts, just as you do. And this one, this Nameless Dark, could have been hiding the truth as easily as you could hide your face behind a mask. So, as I say, he was tried in the only court we had and convicted and sentenced to oblivion. He went to his death proclaiming his innocence. But before the final stroke, the coup de grace I believe you’d say, he cursed The People. He stated there was another who knew he really was innocent — the guilty one — and that someday all the world would know that he had been wrongfully convicted. Then The Nameless Dark died and was purged from all records of The People. Unfortunately, it was not possible to truly erase all memory of him from every mind, so the legend was born; the legend that someday all the world shall know that this man died for crimes he did not commit.”
Commander Reese let out a long, slow breath and wiped more sweat from his forehead. Eesh-nek, for the first time since beginning his story, moved, aping the Commander’s action, although his own face was completely dry. “And how does that relate to your race’s extinction?” Reese asked.
“It doesn’t, actually; not directly, anyway,” Eesh-nek admitted. “Instead, it relates to me and how I am still here after all this time. The story continued nearly an Errrth century after The Nameless Dark went screaming to his death.
“As I said, Commander, The People were dedicated to improving ourselves. And in that effort, our scientists sought to develop a vaccine against the deadliest of our diseases. It was to be a broad-spectrum treatment that would make each of us immune to the three scourges of our race in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, there was an unforeseen effect of the vaccine. When it began to be distributed among The People the weakened viruses it contained reacted with the naturally occurring, benevolent bacterium in our digestive systems and caused mutations. It developed a new bacteria; highly contagious through any contact, inhalation, consumption or absorption, incredibly fast acting, and virulent beyond anything we had ever known. Within hours of contagion the first symptoms would appear — mild nausea, chills, and fevers — and as the bacteria multiplied in the bloodstream, it would begin to attack the tissues, consuming them like some sort of decay, eating the body from the inside out. It would begin with the skin surface, causing grayish/purple rings of necrotic flesh. Then the voluntary muscles would atrophy and begin to liquefy. The body would rot for days until the nervous system became too damaged to maintain vital function and the victim would, mercifully, die. It swept through our society so quickly that our doctors never even had time to create an official name for it. It was just Plague.”
Eesh-nek hung his head, his yellowed hair hanging loosely around his face like a curtain. His entire body seemed to sag in his chair. “We had no means to fight the Plague — no serum, no vaccine, no magic…no prayer. In less than a season it had spread across our world. In half, a year, The People were no more.”
“Your whole race…all four billion…died.”
“All but me, Commander. All but me.” Eesh-nek sat back and smiled that fleeting not-smile again. “My people could not cry, Commander Reese. No tear ducts. But I know that all your crew has heard me tell you this story and that some of them are crying now in sympathy. I thank you, and them, for that…for weeping for The People, for the dead they’ve never met, dead all these millennia.”
Concern, mixed with a puzzled frown, colored Reese’s face. “But why not you, Eesh-nek? What made you immune to the Plague?”
“Oh, Commander, I was not…am not…immune,” he replied. “I was infected too, but later than the rest. That was my saving grace, albeit temporarily. Now that I have told you, and your crew, these things, the Plague will claim me too.” His head swiveled slightly, and although the faceted green eyes had no pupils to indicate direction, Commander Reese knew Eesh-nek was staring directly at him. “If I let it.”
Eesh-nek’s three-fingered hand darted forward and touched Reese’s face. Inside the commander’s mind a million images, a thousand million thoughts, burst like a sky full of Independence Day fireworks. Overwhelmed by the collective consciousness of an entire race of telepaths being dumped into his skull at once, he screamed as absolute, stygian blackness closed in on him.