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1-The Long Night of Centauri Prime

Peter David

  - table of contents -


  part i: 2262-2264 Nightfall

  chapter 1

  chapter 2

  chapter 3

  chapter 4

  chapter 5

  chapter 6

  chapter 7

  chapter 8

  chapter 9

  chapter 10

  chapter 11

  chapter 12

  chapter 13

  part ii: 2265-2267 Nighttime

  chapter 14

  chapter 15

  chapter 16

  chapter 17

  chapter 18

  chapter 19

  chapter 20

  chapter 21

  chapter 22

  Keep your face to the sun,

  so you will not see the shadow.


  - prologue -

  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 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 ‘I 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, I 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 I 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 I. Go to him. See how he fars 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 possessed 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 Mollari 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 ski
tter 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 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 of the 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, in general-and Londo, in particular-for every slight, real or imagined?