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Long Night Of Centauri Prime

Peter David

  Babylon 5

  Legions Of Fire 1

  Long Night Of Centauri Prime


  The Drakh felt sorry for him. Londo Mollari would have been surprised to learn that such considerations went through the Drakh's mind. Had the Drakh's sentiments been relayed to him, he would have been even more surprised to learn precisely why the Drakh felt sorry for him. But he did not know, so he faced the Drakh with his jaw set, his shoulders squared, obviously doing everything within his ability to look cool and confident in the moment when his keeper would bond with him. The Drakh, however, could already sense the accelerated heartbeats, the forced steadiness of the breathing, the general signs of rising panic, which Londo was pushing back by sheer force of will. All of this was clear, to the Drakh, for the bond upon which he and Londo would operate was already beginning to form on a subliminal level. His name was Shiv'kala ... and he was a hero. At least, that was how the other Drakh tended to speak of him, in whispers , or when they communed in silence, having abandoned the need for verbal speech. Among the Drakh, there was none more brave, more diligent , more pure in his vision of what the universe should be. Nor was there any who was more sympathetic to his fellow creatures. This was what served to make Shiv'kala so effective , so pure, and so ruthless. He knew that in order to accomplish what was best for the galaxy, he had to be willing to 1 hurt, terrify, even kill if necessary. Anything would be justified , as long as he never lost sight of the common good. Shiv'kala loved the common man. He had the common touch ... and yet, he had also been highly regarded by the Shadows. With equal facility and consistent equanimity, Shiv'kala was able to walk amid the mundanity and yet move among the gods. He treated the gods as mundanes as divine. All were equal. All were of a piece, and Shiv'kala could see all, understand all, and love all. He loved the cries of creatures at birth. And when he wrapped his hands around the the throat of a creature he was sending to its death, he could glory in its scream, as well. He was one of the most soft-spoken of the Drakh, and his mouth was pulled back in an almost perpetual smile-or at least that was how it was perceived by others. That wasn't how Londo Mollari, imminent emperor of the great Centauri Republic, perceived him now. That much, Shiv'kala could tell even without the tentative connection that already existed between them. In all likelihood, Londo looked at that curious rictus of a smile and saw the satisfied grin of a predator about to descend on its prey. He did not know, he did not understand. But Shiv'kala understood. Understood and forgave, for such was his way. The keeper was stirring within him. Londo would never have known it, but the keeper was fearful, too. Shiv'kala could sense that, as well. This keeper was relatively newborn, spawned from its technonest mere days before. Shiv'kala had attended to this one personally, for he knew of the great fate and responsibility that awaited it. When the keeper had opened its single eye for the first time, blinking furiously against the light, it had been Shiv'kala's face into which it had gazed. It hadn't been able to see clearly, of course; Shiv'kala had appeared as a hazy image at first. But full vision hadn't taken long to develop. The keeper had been born with a high degree of self- awareness, but no certainty as to what its purpose was in the broader scheme of nature. Its tendrils, mere stubs upon birth, had flickered around aimlessly, momentarily brushing against its parent. But the parent-as was always the case with keepers-was already a small, blackened husk. It had no soft thoughts to offer, no guidance to give as the offspring tried to determine just what it was doing and how it was supposed to do it. "Calmly, little one," Shiv'kala had whispered, extending a grey and scaly finger. The keeper had tried to wrap its tendrils around the finger, and Shiv'kala had gently lifted it from its technonest. Then he had drawn aside his robe and placed the newborn keeper against his chest. Operating on instinct, the keeper had sought nourishment there-and had found it. Shiv'kala had trembled slightly and let out a deep, fulfilled sigh as the keeper burrowed in, sucking and drawing sustenance from Shiv'kala's very essence. In doing so, the keeper had burrowed not only into Shiv'kala's soul but into the the Drakh Entire. Shiv'kala would always have a special status with this particular keeper, would always be the most sensitive to its needs, wants, and knowledge. And the keeper, now that it was attuned, would be able to commune with any of the Drakh Entire at any given moment. A magnificent creature, the keeper. It had nursed within Shiv'kala and had grown to maturity within three days. Now it was ready. . . ready to assume its most important job. Yet as prepared as it was to do so, and as as prepared as it was to do so, and as much as its nature suited it for the task, when Shiv'kala opened his vest to extract it from its nourishing pouch, he was amused to discover that the keeper, likewise, was apprehensive. What troubles you, little one? Shiv'kala inquired. Across from him, a few feet away, Londo Mollari was in the process of removing his coat and loosening the collar of his shirt. He is very dark. He is very fearsome, the keeper replied. What if '1 do not keep him properly? What if I fail in my task? Can I not stay with you, in the pouch, in the warmth? No, little one, Shiv'kala replied gently. We all serve the needs of the universe. In that way, 1 am no different than you, and you are no different than he. He will not, cannot hurt you. See how he fears you, even now. Reach out. You can taste his fear Yes, the keeper said after a moment. It is there. He is afraid of me. How odd. I am so small, and he is so huge. Why should he fear me? Because he does not understand you. You will explain yourself to him. You will make him realize what is to be done. He thinks you will control him, always. He does not understand that we not deprive him of free will. He does not understand that you will simply monitor our mutual interests. You will not force him toward what he must do ... you will simply help us to guide him away from what he must not do. He fears not being alone. That is strangest of all, said the keeper. The one time I felt any fear ... was when 1 was alone in my nest. Why would anyone or anything desire to be alone? He does not know what he desires. He has lost his way. He moved toward us, but then moved away, then toward and away again. He is without guidance. You will guide him. But he has done terrible things, the keeper said with trepidation . He destroyed many Shadows. Terrible. Terrible. Yes, very terrible. But he did so because he was ignorant. Now ... he shall learn. And you shall help teach him, as will 1. Go to him. See how he f ars you. See how he needs you. Go to him, so that he may start his new life. I will miss you, Shiv'kala. You will not, little one. You will be with me always. With that parting sentiment, Shiv'kala removed the keeper from its nourishment pouch. Its tendrils had grown marvelously during its sustenance period, and were now long and elegant. Moving with the grace that was customary for its species, the keeper glided across the floor and wrapped itself around Londo's legs. Shiv'kala could sense the tentativeness of the keeper. More, the keeper could sense the rising terror in Londo. Sense it, but not see it. Londo's face was a mask of unreadability, his brow furrowed his eyes ... There was fury in his eyes. They bore into Shiv'kala, and had they been whips, they would have flayed the skin from his body. Shiv'kala decided that it was an improvement over fear. Fear was a relatively useless emotion. Anger, fury ... these could be harnessed and directed against an enemy and be of great use to the Drakh. Furthermore, such emotions were far more alluring to the keeper and would make it much more comfortable with its new host. Above all, Shiv'kala wanted to make certain that host and keeper blended smoothly, for they were a team. Yes. That was what Londo did not yet grasp: they were a team. Although the creature was called a keeper, implying a master-slave relationship , the reality of their binding went much deeper than that. It was almost ... spiritual in its way. Yes. Spiritual. Others, including Londo's predecessor, had not understood that. He had not had enough time, or had simply been too limited in his perspectives. But Londo ... Londo po
ssessed a much broader view, had much greater vision. Hopefully he would comprehend and even come to appreciate what he was undergoing. Londo's back stiffened as the keeper crept up toward his neck. He had potential, Shiv'kala was certain of that. Perhaps the most potential any associate of the Shadows had ever shown. Perhaps even more than Morden had offered. Morden had been an an excellent servant and had proven himself superb in carrying out orders. While he had been capable of actualizing the dreams of others, he had been noticeably limited. Morden had glowed brightly, but only because he had been basking in the dark light generated by the desires of Londo Mollan. Now Londo himself was in thrall to the Drakh, serving in turn the great philosophies and destinies of the Shadows, and that opened an array of new opportunities and possibilities. What was most important was the dreamer himself, and Londo was just such a dreamer. Yes, it promised to be most exciting indeed. Shiv'kala only wished that Mol- lari was capable of sharing in that excitement. The keeper dug into Londo's shoulder, and Shiv'kala sensed the bonding. He smiled once more, reveling in the joy of the moment. Londo's emotions were a snarl of conflicts, fear and anger crashing into one another like waves against a reef, and he shuddered at the feel of the keeper's tendrils as they pierced his bare skin. That was all right though. He would adjust. He would learn. He would see that it was for the best. Or he would die. Those were the options, the only options , that were open to him, and Shiv'kala could only hope that he would choose wisely. As for the keeper, Shiv'kala was pleased to sense that the creature was calming. Its initial trepidation was dissipating, as the Drakh had suspected it would. Furthermore, Londo's thoughts were coming into clearer focus, the blinders and shields falling away. Londo stiffened slightly, as Shiv'kala eased himself into the Centauri's mind the way that he would ease his foot into a comfortable shoe. Within seconds, he inspected the nooks and crannies, studied Londo's deepest fears, viewed his sexual fantasies with morbid interest, and came to a deeper and fuller understanding of Londo's psyche than Londo himself had been able to achieve in years. Londo didn't know how much the Drakh had already discerned. His mind was still reeling and disoriented, and with a gentle push the Drakh steadied him, helped realign his focus. Deciding that he would ease Londo into casual telepathy, he said out loud, "You will be all right." He spoke with his customary low, gravelly whisper, which forced people to listen closely. It was an amusing display of his power, albeit a minor one. "No," Londo said, after a moment's consideration. "I will never be all right again." Shiv'kala said nothing. There was no point in trying to force a realignment of Londo's state of mind. Sooner or later he would learn and understand, and if it was later rather than sooner, well, that was fine. The Drakh Entire had great and impressive plans, long-term goals that spanned decades. The instant comprehension, understanding, and cooperation of of a single Centauri-emperor or no-simply was not necessary. They could wait. So Shiv'kala just inclined his head slightly, acknowledging Londo's remark. Londo tried to sneak a glance at the keeper, but then looked away. Instead he started buttoning his shirt, pulling his vest and coat back on. "It ... does not matter, in any event," he said after a moment. "Whether I am all right. It is my people that matter now. It is Centauri Prime, only only Centauri Prime." "You will rebuild. We will help," said the Drakh. Londo laughed bitterly at that. "Unless, of course, you choose to blow millions of my people to pieces with your fusion bombs." "If we do ... it will be because you have chosen that path for US." "Semantics," Londo said contemptuously. "You act as if I have free will." "You do." "One choice is no choice." "The Shadows you killed when you destroyed their island ... they had no choice in their fate," Shiv'kala said. "You do. Do not abuse it ... lest we give you as much choice as you gave the Shadows." Londo said nothing to that, merely glowered as he buttoned his coat. "Well," he said briskly, "we should begin this sham, eh? This sham of leadership. I, as emperor, with you guiding my every move." "No." Shiv'kala shook his head ever so slightly. Everything he did, he did with minimal effort. "Not every move. Simply keep in mind ... our goals." "And your goals would be?" "Our goals ... are your goals. That is all you need remember . You will address the populace. They will be angry. Focus that anger ... upon Sheridan. Upon the Alliance." "Why? What purpose would that serve?" Shiv'kala's skeletal smile widened ever so slightly. "The Alliance ... is ... at it in anger ... so that they will be blind to the shadows around them." As always , Shiv'kala spoke in a low, sibilant tone of voice. Then, ever so slightly, he bowed, and thought at Londo, Good day to you ... Emperor Mollari. Londo jumped slightly at that, clearly not expecting it. Reflexively he looked around, as if trying to figure out where the voice had come from, and then he looked at the Drakh. His lips drew back in anger, and he snarled, "Stay out of my head!" But the Drakh shook his head and, with that same damnable smile, thought at Londo, We will always be there. Then he extended a hand to Mollari. He did so as a symbolic gesture, for he did not truly expect Londo to take it. And Londo did not. Instead he stared at the hand as if it were dried excrement. Shiv'kala then stepped back and allowed the shadows of the early evening to swallow him up. In a way, it felt as if he were returning home.

  Chapter 1 When Londo saw the creature emerging from the chest of the Drakh, it was all he could do not to scream. A half dozen different ways of handling the situation tumbled through his mind. The first and foremost was to attack the Drakh, to grab a weapon-a sword, preferably-and step forward, the steel whipping through the air and striking home. In his mind's eye, he could see the monster's head tumbling free of its body, that hideous smile permanently frozen, perhaps even transformed into an expression of surprise. Then he would take the creature's head and slam it on a pole next to Morden's. He could stand side-by-side with Vir, and they would wave at them and laugh at the notion of anyone thinking that they could strong-arm or bully the leader of the great Centauri Republic. Next he simply considered running from the room. That, in particular, seemed an attractive notion as he watched the one- eyed creature skitter across the floor toward him. He thought of crying out for help. He thought of trying to arrange some sort of bargain. He would ask the Drakh what else he could offer beside himself-there had to be some way to appease the wrath of these beings, other than allowing that terrifying one-eyed animal to attach its parasitic self to his body. He thought of begging, of pleading, of swearing eternal fealty to the Drakh or to the spirit of the Shadows. He thought 11 of reminding the Drakh of all the times that he had been helpful to, and supportive of, their departed masters. What do you want? The question first had been posed to him by Morden, at a time that seemed eons ago. It was the question he was now tempted to hurl at the Drakh. What could he offer the Drakh that might suit them better than he himself? A terrifying array of possibilities came to him. He could offer them Sheridan or Delenn, the president and first lady ofthe Interstellar Alliance. Bring them to the Drakh, make them prisoners, or place keepers on them. Make them servants to the Drakh cause. Or G'Kar! Great Maker, let them take G'Kar. Granted, he and the Nam had healed the wounds of their relationship, but there was still that vision he had had. The vision that one day G'Kar would be at his throat, primal fury boiling in his one true eye. Yes, he could turn G'Kar over to the Drakh and let him serve the collective Drakh will. Or ... or ... He could ... he could offer them Vir Cotto. That was a possibility. A good one. A great one, in fact. Let Vir lose his free will and independence to the Drakh-he didn't have much use for it anyway. The hard truth was, Vir was at his best when someone else was telling him what to do. So really, there wouldn't be any substantial difference from what his life had been, and it might even show marked improvement. As quickly as all those options occurred to him, he dismissed them all. These were his friends ... his allies ... or at least, they had been. Though in terms of Sheridan, in particular , a deep and abiding desire for vengeance still burned brightly. It was, after all, Sheridan's Alliance that had bombed Centauri Prime back to the Stone Age, leaving the glorious world in flaming ruins. And was not Sheridan himself always quick to condemn the Centauri, i
n general-and Londo, in particular-for every slight, real or imagined? But as Londo watched the one-eyed monster wrap itself around his leg and start to draw itself up his body, he came to the hideous understanding that he would not wish such a fate even on his worst enemy. That would most unquestionably not be Sheridan, and certainly not Delenn. No, despite their rapprochement, the title would likely still be held by G'Kar. Even on G'Kar, though, he would have no wish to see that ... that thing ... attach itself. No one deserved that. Including him. It's not fair, he thought bleakly, it's not right. I have to stop it ... I can still pry it off me, throw it down, step on it, grind it beneath my boot... But if he did so, he knew what would happen next. The Drakh would pull out his detonator, as he had before, but this time nothing would stop his thumb from slamming home. And when he did, millions of Centauri would die, just like that. Fusion bombs hidden by the Drakh would detonate, and the victims would never even know what hit them. They would simply disappear in a massive burst of heat and flame, millions of lives terminated. For a moment, just a moment, he considered it. After all, they would be dead and gone. Their torment would last a brief second or two at most, and then it would be over and done with. They would be placed within the safety of the grave. More accurately, their ashes would be scattered to the safety of the four winds, blowing the length and breadth of Centauri Prime. This, as opposed to Londo's living a life of continual punishment, the keeper monitoring his moves, sitting like a permanent, one-eyed pustule on his shoulder. Watching, monitoring , always there, never giving him a moment's ... Peace. Well ... that was what it came down to, really, wasn't it. For when he pictured those millions of Centauri vanishing into the instant holocaust of the bombs, in his mind's eye they were battered and bewildered. Covered in soot and ash, clothes torn, looking to the sky in bewilderment and fear and wondering when the barrage would ever cease. They had no idea. No idea that Centauri Prime had been framed-made to appear warlike and aggressive. Framed by the Drakh, so that the galaxy would turn against them, and the Centauri would be left all alone in the darkn ess. No idea that he, Londo, was the cause for that deception. No idea that they would still be living in peace, if it were not for Londo. He had stretched forth his hand to lead his people back to the greatness he felt they deserved, as part of the great Centauri Republic, a term that had once prompted respect instead of snickering. Stretched forth his hand like a shepherd, but instead he had crushed his flock. His victims had cried out his name, and he had brought them to utter ruin. For if he had not desired to restore the Centauri Republic, then none of this would have happened. There would have been no Shadow involvement , there would have been no war upon the Nam. None of the heartache and grief that had permeated the last five years ever would have occurred. It was because of him, all because of him. That's what this was, then. As the keeper poked and probed, as its tentacles swept across his bare skin and made him cringe inwardly, Londo realized that this was his punishment. A cosmic sentence of justice was being carried out. Because of who he was and the nature of what he had done, he could never be jailed. Instead, his jail would be his own mind and body. They were being taken from him, and he was going to be trapped within them while lease over them was given to the keeper. It was a prison sentence, and the sentence was life. From where he stood, he could smell the smoking ruins of Centauri Prime. He so loved the world of his birth. All he had wanted to do was restore it to greatness. But he had made a horrible miscalculation. He hadn't realized that the very things that he so despised-the sickly peace that had permeated the society , the sense that its proudest days were behind it-that those things truly were great. Peace, prosperity, happiness . . . what prizes those things were, what joys they brought with them. Perhaps he had lost sight of the truth because of those with whom he had associated. He had spent so much time walking the halls of power, rubbing elbows with emperors, plotting and planning alongside such master schemers as the late Lord Refa. He had lost sight of the fact that they had been hedonistic , scheming, and self-centered. They had cared only for pleasure, and that was usually obtained over the dead bodies of others. Londo had forgotten that these people represented only the smallest percentage of the Centauri people. That the vast, vast majority of Centauri Prime's citizens consisted of decent, simple, hardworking people who wanted nothing more from life than to live it as simply as possible. They were not decadent ; they were not power seekers. They were just decent, ordinary folk, They were the ones whom Londo had let down the most. It was their homes burning, it was their screams he fancied he could hear echoing in his head. He closed his eyes and wished that he could clap his hands over his ears and, in so doing, shut out the cries that would not leave him. And the keeper was there. He felt it sinking its consciousness into his, attaching and intertwining their interests. Then he became aware of the Drakh, watching him-from without, and from within. It was as if the keeper had given the Drakh a viewport into his very soul. It was invasive, it was nauseating, it was ... . . . it was just what he deserved. Despite all the turmoil that roiled through his mind, he never once allowed it to show. They could rob him of his freedom, his independence, his future, his very soul, but they could not remove from him his pride, and the way he carried himself. Whatever else happened, he was still Londo Mollari of the great Centauri Republic. That was why he had not blubbered or begged. He only sighed with inward relief that he had not given in to his momentary weakness and started offering up others to take his place, to be enslaved. For if he had done so, he didn't think he could have lived with himself. Live with himself. Suicide. It was an option that doubtless remained to him still. If it came down to a contest of raw will and the keeper tried to dissuade him from that course, he was reasonably sure that he could still overcome its influence at least long enough to do the deed. But where there was life, there was hope. As long as he lived, there might still be a way of ridding himself of the damnable creature. If he was dead, he had no fallback. If he was alive ... anything could happen. He might still wind up waggling his fingers at the Drakh's head on a pike. That thought led to one, and then another and another, and he couldn't understand it. It was as if every thought that he'd ever had was suddenly tumbling one over the other in his head. A veritable avalanche of notions and recollections ... ... or perhaps ... it was an overview. Perhaps the Drakh, even at this moment, was seeing ... With tremendous effort, Londo shoved away the intrusion, although he couldn't be sure whether it had been real or imagined. He found he could barely stand. He put one hand to his forehead and let out an unsteady sigh. And then the Drakh said the most curious thing. He said, "You will be all right." What an odd thing for him to have said. The Drakh were uniformly heartless, evil creatures-Londo knew this beyond a certainty. What point was there in one of their number pretending that he would be "all right." "No," he growled, aware of the presence of the ... the thing on his shoulder. "I will never be all right again." The Drakh babbled some other meaningless phrases at him, and Londo barely paid attention, giving responses off the top of his head that had little meaning, that he didn't even remember moments later. All he could think about was that eye, perched so close, watching him. The Shadows ... the terror that they had spread had come in the form of their vast and powerful ships. The only personal contact he'd ever had with them had been through Morden, and he had merely been their voice. Now, however, the enemy had a face, in the person of this Drakh who was, even as they spoke, gliding back into the shadows that had vomited him up. And the enemy had established an eternal, vigilant presence in the form of the keeper, which was settling was settling in, part of him now until he died. Until he died. That was the point at which he began toying with the idea. He held the sword, caressed it almost lovingly. It had been quite some time since he had been able to look at it. It was an elegant blade-the one he had used to kill his friend, the companion of his childhood, Urza Jaddo. Urza, who had come to Babylon 5 seeking Londo's aid in a political game that was going to leave his family name in ruins. Urza, who had obtained that aid ... by choreographi
ng a duel during which he had died at Londo's hands so that his-Urza's-family would henceforth be protected by the house of Mollari. The protection of the house of Mollari. What a ghastly joke. The Mollari name had certainly afforded Londo a good deal of protection, hadn't it. Londo's brain hadn't stopped working from the moment the keeper had become attached to him. He had picked up on the fact that the creature did not, could not read every thought that crossed his mind. It would report his actions to the Drakh and they, in turn, might intervene, but it had to be actions, actions that ran contrary to the Drakh interest. Londo had taken no action as yet, but he was strongly considering it. Wouldn't it be appropriate. Wouldn't it be just. If the universe were really interested in the order of things, then what would be more just than for Londo to die by a thrust of the same sword that had killed Urza. Something within Londo had died that day. If he used the same sword, brought an end to the suffering an end to the suffering that his life was to become, then perhaps he would wind up where Urza was. They would be young together, young and free, and their existence would lie ahead of them once again. They would spar, they would laugh, and it would be good. Servants were quietly boxing up his belongings, preparing to move them to the royal suite. The sword was the only thing that he had not given over to them. Londo was simply standing there, staring at it, examining the glistening blade and wondering how it would feel sliding gently across his throat. He envisioned his blood pouring from the cut, turning crimson the white uniform of his office. A remarkable color scheme, that. Most aesthetic. And when the Drakh found his body-somehow he knew it would be the Drakh-would the creature be smug over Londo's premature demise, feeling that the death of the Shadows had been repaid? Or would the Drakh be angry, or annoyed that Londo's usefulness had not been fully exploited? That ... was indeed a pleasing notion. The thought of the Drakh being frustrated, knowing that he and his hideous ilk could hurt Londo no longer. Would the Drakh retaliate, by detonating the bombs and annihilating his people? No. No, probably not. The Drakh Entire didn't especially care about the people of Centauri Prime. To the Drakh, they existed merely to act as playing pieces, to keep Londo in line. If Londo were gone, the game was over. With the king fallen, what point would there be in knocking over the pawns? It would be the coward's way out, yes. There was still so much that needed to be done, and if he killed himself, there would never be any chance to try and make good on all that he had done ... Make good? The blade gleamed so brilliantly that he was able to see his reflection in it, and it reminded him of his reflection in the window of the Centauri war vessel as it had orbited the Nam Homeworld. The Centauri had smashed the Nams into near- oblivion, using the outlawed weaponry known as mass drivers. Make good? Make reparations? Balance the scales? What sort of nonsensical conceit was that, anyway? How could he possibly make good on what he had done? Millions ... Great Maker ... billions had died because of him. And he was supposed to set that right somehow? It was impossible, simply impossible. If he had a hundred lifetimes in which to do it, it would still be a hopeless task. Perhaps ... perhaps suicide wouldn't be the coward's way out at that. Perhaps suicide was simply the wise man's way of knowing when it was polite to leave. To keep his now- wretched existence going on this war-torn world, in the deluded belief that somehow he could make things better or atone for his sins. . . Who was he fooling? In the final analysis, who was he fooling? He became aware once more of the keeper on his shoulder. He wondered if, given enough time, he would become less aware of it. If he might become so used to it being there that he gave it no thought at all. If that circumstance did come about, he wasn't altogether sure whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing. He placed the sword down. It was time. Time to see the farce through. As for the rest, well, if it came to that, there would be time enough. Or perhaps the notion would go away on its own. His emotions were too raw, and he couldn't trust himself to make a proper decision. He had to allow himself time to figure out what would be the best thing to do. The notion, however, did not go away. He made his speech to the Centauri people, as they huddled in their homes, cowering in the burned-out shells of buildings that represented the burned-out shells their lives had become. The mental picture of the sword remained in his head even as his own holographic image loomed in the skies of Centauri Prime. What he truly wanted to do was apologize ... humble himself to his people, let them know that it was he, and he alone, who was responsible for this hideous pass to which they had come. But such a speech, honest as it might have been, wouldn't be in the best interests of the Drakh. They had their own agenda, and Londo was merely required to play his part. They had made that quite clear. Do as he was told. Be a good puppet. Speak the speeches as were required, and do not for a moment anger them. "I will walk alone to my inauguration," he announced. "Take on the burden of emperor in silence. The bells of our temple will sound all day and all night, once for each of our people killed in the bombings. We are alone. Alone in the universe . But we are united in our pain." But that wasn't true. It was as much a sham as everything else about him. His pain was his own, and could never be shared or revealed. His pain was the creature on his shoulder. His pain took the form of nightmares that came to him in his sleep, that tormented him. "We fought alone," he told his people, "and we will rebuild alone." But was there anyone on Centauri who was more alone than he? And ... perverse aspecttold his people, "and we will rebuild alone." But was there anyone on Centauri who was more alone than he? And ... perverse aspect of it was that he wasn't alone, not really. The keeper was there, watching him, studying him, surveying him, never allowing him a moment's peace. It served as a constant reminder of his sin. Via the keeper, the Drakh were with him as well. And more. There were the voices. The voices of his victims, crying out to him, protesting their fates. These were the people who had gone to their deaths screaming and sobbing and not remotely comprehending why this was happening to them. They were there, too, remotely comprehending why this was happening to them. They were there, too, making their presence known. It was entirely possible that, of everyone on Centauri Prime, Londo was the least-alone individual on the planet. But that didn't mitigate the circumstances of his situation at all. For there was no one, no one, whom he could tell about his pre- dicament. To do so would have spelled death for that person, of that he was quite certain. He existed, and others maintained a presence near him, but he could allow no one to be close to him. He had to drive away those who once had known him as no others did. The worst would be Vir. Vir, who had stood by his side every hideous step of the way, who had warned Londo against the descent he was taking into blackness. Londo hadn't listened , and Vir had been right. Perhaps that was why Londo hadn't listened: because he had known that Vir was right, and he didn't want to hear it. And Delenn. After the speech, when they took their leave of him, Delenn stepped forward and looked at him in such a way that he flinched inwardly, wondering if somehow she was able to see the evil dropping on his shoulder. "I can no longer see the road you're on, Londo," she said. "There is a darkness around you. I can only pray that, in time, you will find your way out of it." When she said that, the image of the sword presented itself to him once again, even more keenly than it had before. Light glinting off the blade, pure and true, calling to him. It was the way out ... if he chose to take it. He walked to the temple, as he had said. Alone ... but not alone. He took on the ornaments and responsibilities of emperor, and he could practically feel the sword across his throat now. He could almost hear the death rattle, feel the pure joy of the release. He would be free of it, free of the responsibility, free of everything. By the time he began the long walk back to the palace, the sun was starting to set. And he knew, in his hearts, that it was the last sunset he would ever see. His resolve was stronger than it had ever been, the certainty of his decision absolute. It felt right. It felt good. He had done the best that he could and his best had not been remotely good enough. It was time to remove himself from the game. He sat in the throne room that night, the darkness encroaching upon him. Its opulence, with its
gleaming marbled floors, lush curtains, and largely decorative-but still impressive- columns, carried whispers of Centauri Prime's past greatness . Despite the ghastly shades of times past that always hovered there, he felt strangely at peace. He felt the keeper stirring upon his shoulder. Perhaps the creature knew that something was in the offing, but wasn't entirely sure what. The shadows around him seemed to be moving. Londo looked right and left, tried to discern whether the Drakh was standing nearby, watching him. But there was nothing. At least, he thought there was nothing. He could have been wrong ... "Madness," he said to no one. "I am driving myself to madness." He gave the matter a moment's blackly humorous thought. "Maybe that is their ultimate goal. An interesting thought. Reducing Centauri Prime to rubble just for the dubious purpose of sending me into insanity. Such overkill. If that was what they desired, they could just have locked me in a room with my ex-wives for a week. That would cause anyone to snap." To his surprise, a voice responded. "Pardon, Majesty?" He half turned in his chair and saw a man standing just inside the doorway, regarding Londo with polite curiosity. He was quite thin, with carefully cultivated hair that wasn't particularly high. That was a direct flouting of Centauri standard fashion, for usually the height of hair was meant to be indicative of the rank in society that one had achieved. There was, however, a fringe fashion element that had taken its cue from Emperor Turhan, who had publicly disdained tradition by wearing his hair shorter than the lowest of the lowborn. Some believed that Emperor Cartagia had done so as a way of showing that he wished to maintain a connection to the common man. Others felt he had just done it to annoy people. Either way, the precedent had been set, and some chose to follow it. Though in the case of this particular Centauri, the one who had interrupted Londo's musings, it wasn't his hair that caught Londo's attention. Nor was it the starched and pressed military uniform he wore so smartly. No, it was his general attitude . He had an eagerness about him ... but it wasn't a healthy sort of eagerness. Vir, for example, had been cloaked in eagerness from the moment he had set foot on Babylon 5. That had been an eagerness to please, one of Vir's more charming features . But this individual . . . he had the attitude of a carrion- eating bird perched on a branch, watching a dying man and mentally urging him to hurry up and get on with it. "Durla ... isn't it?" Londo asked after a moment. "Yes, Majesty. Your captain of the guards, as appointed by the late regent-" He bowed slightly. "-and continuing to serve at your good humor, Majesty." "My humor is less than good at the moment, Captain Durla. I do not appreciate interruptions into my privacy." "With all respect, Majesty, I did not realize you were alone. I heard you speaking and thought you were deep in conversation with someone. Since your schedule does not call for you to have anyone in this room with you at this time of night ... I thought I would make sure that you were not being subjected to any threat. I apologize most profusely if I, in some way, have intruded or made you uncomfortable." He had all the right words and expressed them perfectly, and yet Londo, still reacting on a gut level, didn't like him. Perhaps ... perhaps it was because, in addition to having the right words, it seemed to Londo as if Durla knew they were the right words. He wasn't expressing his sentiments, whatever those might be. Instead he was saying precisely what he thought Londo wanted to hear. Another possibility Londo had to admit, was that he was becoming so suspicious jumping at shadows; seeing plots, plans, and duplicity everywhere-that even the most casual meeting brought sinister overtones with it. He was beginning to view the world entirely in subtext, searching out that which was not said, forsaking that which was spoken. It was no way to live. Then again ... that wasn't really a serious consideration for him these days, was it? Not on this, the last day of his life. Durla hadn't moved. Apparently he was waiting for Londo to dismiss him. Londo promptly obliged him. "I won't be needing you this evening, Durla . As for your continuing to serve, well ... we shall see how my humor transforms with the passage of time." "Very well, Majesty. I will make certain that guards remain at all exits." Londo was not enthused at that particular prospect. If he did decide to do himself in-as was looking more likely by the moment-the last thing he needed was for a couple of guards to hear his body thud to the floor. If they came running in to save him and somehow, against all hope, succeeded ... the embarrassment and humiliation would be overwhelming. And what if he decided to depart the palace grounds, to commit the deed somewhere more remote? Then again, he was the emperor. "That will not be necessary," he said firmly. "I believe the manpower may be better deployed elsewhere." "Better?" Durla cocked an eyebrow. "Better than maintaining the safety of our emperor? Will all respect, Majesty, I do not think so." "I do not recall asking your opinion on the matter," Londo informed him. "They will leave, as will you." "Majesty, with all respect-----2' "Stop telling me how much you respect me!" Londo said with obvious irritation. "If 1 were a young virgin girl and you were endeavoring to seduce me, you might understandably offer repeated protests of how much you respect me. I feel safe in assuming that this is not your intent though, yes?" "Yes, Your Majesty, you would be quite safe with that assumption ." A hint of a smile briefly tugged at the edges of Durla's mouth. Then he grew serious again. "However, not only is your safety my primary concern, it is part of my job description. Of course, you could always release me from my job, but it would be unfortunate if I were to be fired simply because I was doing my duty. It has been my understanding that you, Emperor Mollari, are the fairest-minded individual to come into a position of power on Centauri Prime in quite a while. Is that not the case?" Oh yes, very facile. Very good with words. Londo wasn't fooled for even a moment by his comments. Still ... It didn't matter. Not really. All Londo had to do was wait until he retired for the night. Then, lying in his bed, he could quietly put an end to himself. Since he would be lying flat, he wouldn't need to worry about "thumps" alerting guards. That was it. That was all he had to do. Bid Durla good night, retire for the evening ... and then retire permanently. That was it. Dismiss Durla and be done with it. Durla waited expectantly. Londo didn't like him. He had no idea why he was operating on such a visceral level. Part of him actually rejoiced in the notion that, soon, Durla would be someone else's problem. But another part of him wondered just what Durla was up to. He was ... a loose end. Londo hated loose ends. He particularly hated the knowledge that this loose end might unravel after he was gone. "Would you care to take a walk?" he asked abruptly. He was surprised at the sound of his own voice. "A walk, Majesty? Of course. Where on the grounds would-" "No. Not on the grounds. I wish to walk into the city." "The ... city, sir?" Durla looked as if he hadn't quite heard Londo properly. "Yes, Captain of the Guards. I have a desire to see it closely. . ."One last time. "I do not think that would be wise, Majesty." "Is that a fact?" "Yes, Majesty" he said firmly. "At this time, the people are . . ." His voice trailed off. He seemed reluctant to finish the sentence. So Londo finished it for him. "The people are my people, Durla. Am I to hide in here from them?" "That might be prudent, at least for the time being, Majesty." "Your opinion is duly noted." He slapped the armrests of the throne and rose. "I shall walk about the city, and I shall do it alone." "Majesty, no!" "No?" Londo stared at him, his thick eyebrows knitting in a carefully controlled display of imperial anger. "I do not recall asking for your approval, Durla. That is one of the benefits of being emperor: you are entitled to take actions without consulting underlings." He gave particular stress to that last word. Durla didn't appear to take the hint, however, although he did ratchet up his obsequiousness level by several degrees. "Majesty ... there are ways that certain things are done ... certain protocols . . ." "That will be the exciting aspect of my tenure in this position , Durla. I do not follow protocol. I follow the moment. Now ... I am going for a walk. I am the emperor. I think I am entitled to make that decision, no?" At least"-Durla seemed most urgent in his concerns- "At least, Majesty, and I pray I am not overstepping my bounds here, let an escort follow you at a respectful distance. You will be alone ... but you will not be alone. I hope that sounds clear. . ." Something
about the irony of the suggestion struck Londo as amusing. "Yes. Yes, it is quite clear. And let me guess: you will accompany these `phantom' guards, yes?" "I would supervise the honor guard myself, Majesty, if you wish." "You would be amazed, Durla, how little my wishes have to do with anything," Londo said. "Suit yourself. Exercise your free will. At least someone around here should be able to." And so Londo walked out into the great capital city of Centauri Prime for what he anticipated would be the last time. His path from the palace to the temple of inauguration had been a fairly straightforward one, earlier that day. In this case, however, he deliberately strayed from any known path. He crisscrossed the city, making arbitrary decisions and occasionally backtracking. The entire time, a small platoon of men-at-arms trailed him, with Durla keeping a close-up and somewhat wary eye upon them all. As Londo walked, he tried to drink in every aspect of the city, every curve of every building. Even the smell of burning structures and rubble were sensations that he wanted to savor. He had never found himself in quite this sort of mindset before; looking upon things with the attitude that he would never look upon them again. True, as he had prepared to accept the post of emperor, his life had flashed before his eyes. Each moment that had been a fond memory then was now tinged with pain. Times past and even times future ... particularly that much-dreamed-of moment when a one-eyed G'Kar would spell his doom. Well, he was certainly going to wind up putting an end to that particular prediction. He took some small measure of comfort in that. For so long, he had felt as if he were nothing more than the tool of fate, possessing no control over his own destiny. No matter what his intentions, he had been propelled down a dark road that he had never intended to travel. Well, at least he would confound the fates in the end. It wouldn't be G'Kar's hand that ended his wretched existence . . . it would be his own. No one could harm him at this point in his life except, of course, for he himsel- That was when the rock bounced off his skull.