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0 in the beginning, p.1
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       0-In the Beginning, p.1

           Peter David
 
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0-In the Beginning


  ~ Table of Contents ~

  prologue

  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

  chapter 14

  chapter 15

  chapter 16

  chapter 17

  epilogue

  ~ prologue ~

  I had such dreams. Such dreams.

  I dreamt of power and glory and followers. I dreamt of protecting my homeworld from dark invaders. I dreamt of restoring my great republic to its former glory. I dreamt of a noble death in battle, with my hands at the throat of my greatest enemy. I dreamt of love and I dreamt of redemption.

  Such dreams. Such dreams. And I have achieved almost all of them. Who would have thought such a thing possible? For that matter, who would have thought possible that fulfillment of such dreams would leave me with nothing? Nothing. I sought to taste glory, and instead found only ashes in my mouth. Ashes and a sense that it was all useless. The lives disrupted, the lives lost, all useless, all wasted.

  For what did anyone learn, really? What did any of us, in the final analysis, learn?

  That question has bothered me greatly as of late. It is something that I have desired to attend to for some time now. You see, learning can only come from teaching. But teaching requires the investment of time on the part of the teacher who is to impart the lesson, and by the student who wishes to learn.

  In this instance, however, we are sorely lacking both.

  It seems, then, that I must become the teacher. But for that to happen, I must also be a student. For one cannot truly teach if one is not learning as well.

  I have long made a study of the history of Humans. They are a fascinating, squabbling little race. When my people, the Centauri, first encountered them, they seemed to have as much value as a pile of rotting spoo. They were creatures to manipulate, something to distract us, something to pass the time. Something that we could, in short, feel superior to. Perhaps our involvement helped to remove the sting from the fact that we, the Centauri, had become little more than a shadow of our former imperial selves.

  Oh, we could posture and preen, which impressed the Humans to no end. We sported flamboyant garb, great coats of deep purples and reds, shirts with flourishes, high boots. When around Humans many of us adopted an almost courtly swagger. We wore our hair high, in an arcing-upsweep crest style; the higher the hair, the greater the rank and office one had attained. It was symbolic, and we Centauri do so adore our symbols.

  The Humans had their own history, and I admit to taking an interest that was at first merely passing, bordering on the morbid. We were, after all, an older and more knowledgeable society. The Humans seemed a rather unimaginative lot. Even their planet name was astonishingly uninspired. Earth. Named for dirt. Second in unoriginality to their designation for the single moon that orbits their world. Namely: the moon. What was there that we could possibly learn from planet-bound dwellers such as the Humans?

  What could we learn indeed?

  Yet as I began to familiarize myself with Earth's history, I saw parallels to the rise and fall of our own Centauri empire. Numerous parallels, in fact, and as the years have passed, there have been more and more overlaps. Indeed, these have led me to speculate that certain events are universal constants, much as the laws of physics or mathematics. Just as the planets move under certain rules, perhaps events upon those planets unfold in a likewise similar manner. I leave to philosophers, poets, and those wiser in the ways of the universe than I the exact reason for this happenstance. I note, however, the following oddity.

  We are able to observe planetary movements, or mathematics, or other laws of physics, and we learn from them. We learn to predict an eclipse, or geologic quakes, or tides. We learn something as rudimentary as that, if we fall, gravity will pull us down.

  But we can observe history as much as we wish . . . and we never learn a thing. Not a single damned thing.

  We make the same mistakes, over and over, and the only thing we take from the previous generations' mistakes is a sort of insufferable arrogance. We sit in judgment of our sires and declare confidently that we are too clever, too canny, to stumble into the same traps. This time, we feel, it will be different. But it never is. It never, ever is.

  This has become clearer to me in my continued investigation and reading of Earth history. I have much time for reading, you see. There is little else to do these days. Little else except to wait for the inevitable to finally overtake me.

  Once ... once I looked upon our race, and all I could see was how far we had fallen. I would look at the great palace, here in the capital city of Centauri Prime. The gleaming walls would evoke wonders of an age long gone. The city, built mostly by our ancestors, seemed to carry only reminders of our lost greatness in every curve, every decoration, every mural or statue that served as a testimony to days gone by. It pained me to see my people having reached such a state.

  Great Maker, look at what has happened to us since.

  The nights on Centauri are generally cool, but not this night. This night, the city below me burns. Many once-thriving areas are burned-out shells, skeletons of their former selves, while others are still in flames. The heat from the burning city radiates outward, and the air around me has a dull warmth to it. But from within me, I feel a chill. The inward chill interacts with the outward warmth, and I shiver, trapped in between. Trapped, as I have been for so many years.

  Once I had a vision of massive alien ships, filling the skies over Centauri Prime like an evil cloud. Now I look out my window, and see a great cloud of smoke, shrouding our world much like a fleet of alien vessels. And there was another time . . a time when I faced a mage, and he told me he saw -and I shall never forget his words- "a great hand reaching out of the stars. The hand is your hand. And I hear sounds-the sounds of billions of people calling your name." When I asked if he was referring to my followers, he shook his head and replied with a cold smile, "Your victims."

  That prophecy is driven home to me now, for as I look at the choked skies, the smoke seems to stretch out like massive, claw-like hands. My hands. My hands have brought us to this pass. By my hand. My true hand is old and withered, as withered as I. But my dark hand . . . how powerful it truly is.

  Far below, there is a fountain that I remember playing around, in my youth. I laughed and wrestled with my friends. I remember Urza ... my good friend, my dueling companion. We sparred, frisky, two young Centauri, and he knocked me squarely into the fountain. I came up sputtering and laughing, outraged and amused, all at the same time. Urza Jaddo, yes. Yes, I remember my friend.

  I killed him. Years later, on Babylon 5, he died impaled on my sword.

  Babylon 5. As always, my thoughts return to that . . . place. Turning, turning in the darkness, like the axis of a great set of wheels. Yes, I believe I begin to understand. Wheels of destiny, massive and invisible, the past at one end of the station and the future at the other. And in the middle: Babylon 5, through which all events of the past would be channeled to create this . . . this abomination of a future.

  I wander. My mind wanders. The elderly are allowed such meanderings. And emperors . . . fawh! Emperors can do whatever they wish. So I am doubly entitled.

  I was speaking earlier of Earth history.

  In my perusals, I found myself drawn to the Roman Empire. Now, there was a time of emperors, of all sorts. Interestingly, it is the mad emperors who are the most memorable, and certainly the most evocative of those with whom I have had to deal. Our crazed emper
or, Cartagia, for example, is certainly the spiritual brother of the insane Caligula. Never were my wits more tested, never was my survival instinct more pressed into service, than when I was part of Cartagia's court and had to remain two steps ahead of his madness -lest I lose my head. I was present when he was assassinated. Mine was not the hand that struck him, although it was certainly not for lack of trying.

  My readings would seem to indicate, then, that if Cartagia harkened back to Caligula, then I would be kin to the Emperor Tiberius Claudius. Certainly our early reputations were of a kind. He was considered to be a fool, as was I. But his foolishness served him well, for he survived all manner of plots and schemes, and eventually acquired rulership even though it was not something that he truly desired. He was old and weak and crippled, as am I. I cannot draw a single breath without pain stabbing my chest, and every fifth or sixth breath I am racked with coughing.

  And he was a historian. He strove to teach, as I have mentioned. He wanted others to learn from the mistakes of his forebears. And in a way, I think he desired to be remembered. He wanted the immortality that fame provides in death and which the body cannot provide in life. He unspooled the histories for anyone who would listen.

  I shall do so, as well. For I stand on the brink, I believe. The smell of burning buildings, of charred flesh, hangs in my nostrils, burns in my lungs. I have a body that is breaking down, I have prisoners to deal with, and I have a destiny-long denied, long craved-to finally fulfill.

  But it is not right that it end without my making at least some effort to keep to the tradition of my spiritual kin. I shall produce my own history. I shall tell the story, yes. As I survey the wreckage of my world, of my dreams, I shall let all who come after me know as many of the details as I can recall.

  For, as cynical as I am -as weighed down as I may be by the great burden of responsibility which hangs upon me much in the same shroud-like manner as the smoke of destruction hovers over our once-great city -I still want to believe that there is hope for someone to learn from what has gone before. That I may teach those who will come after me.

  I sit now in my inner sanctum, my private office. There are no windows, although, in that respect, it's not all that different from the rest of the rooms in the palace. There are windows, yes, but they have been covered, ostensibly for protection and privacy. Though I'm not entirely certain, I think my advisers believe that, if I were able to look out at the devastation from wherever I may be, at any given time, I might eventually go mad. I defer to their considerations for the most part.

  But one window remains. One window in the throne room, curtained, but through which I peer from time to time, looking out at the physical realization of my greatest nightmare. I keep hoping that repeated exposure will allow me to build up a merciful immunity.

  The first time I ever entered this room, it was at the invitation of Cartagia, who displayed to me a line of disembodied heads, and seemed oblivious of the fact that they were dead. The heads have been long disposed of, but I can still feel their lifeless eyes drilling into me. I would not have it any other way. For that way I need never worry about building up such emotional detachment that the plight of my people might fail to affect me.

  I am fully aware that the latter sentiment contradicts the former. Self-contradiction is the prerogative of women, fools, and emperors.

  A history, then. Where to begin. Where to begin.

  Babylon 5,1 suppose. That is where the story must start. Since it was a station created by Humans, then I shall reckon the time as residents of Earth do. Twenty-one years ago, as the Humans measure it.

  There is a large bottle next to me on the desk. I unstopper it and toss back a swallow, and it burns in a most satisfying manner as it dribbles down my throat. Many people claim that alcohol clouds the senses. Poor fools. When I have liquor in my veins, it is the only time that I can see matters clearly. The more alcohol, the more clear everything becomes.

  I have been seeing matters with startling clarity as of late.

  I was there, at the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind. It began in the Earth year 2257 with the founding of the last of the Babylon stations, located deep in neutral space. It was a port of call for refugees, smugglers, businessmen, diplomats, and travelers from a hundred worlds. It could be a dangerous place, but we accepted the risk because Babylon 5 was our last, best hope for peace.

  When I first arrived on Babylon 5, the commander was a stiff-jawed fellow named Jeffrey Sinclair. But he left after a time, under mysterious circumstances, to meet an equally mysterious fate. He was replaced by Captain John Sheridan. Sheridan was the station's final commander, and it was under his leadership that Babylon 5 was transformed. It became a dream given form ... a dream of a galaxy without war, where species from different worlds could live side by side in mutual respect... a dream that was endangered as never before, by-

  What is that noise?

  Laughter.

  I put aside the recording materials and listen carefully. Who could laugh at destruction? Certainly someone who has no regard for loss of life, who is inured to the horrors that have occurred these past days. I am intrigued to see such a being. This is not to say that I haven't met such creatures before. I saw skies full of them. I met another who was their agent, whose head I eventually stuck on a pike. But none of them ever laughed with quite that brand of carelessness or lack of concern.

  Children. Yes, of course, children. At least two. I hear their rapid footsteps, their gleeful chortling, as they are running through the halls of the palace. How in the world did they get in here? Absurd question. Who is there to stop them? All but a handful of my most faithful guards and retainers are gone, and the size of this place is monstrous. A couple of small beings gallivanting about could easily slip through. For that matter, even if they had run into guards they would probably receive no more than nods and winks of mirth. Very little these days strikes anyone in the palace as especially funny. One must find one's amusements where one can.

  And then I hear an adult voice, a woman. She is calling with extreme urgency, "Luc? Lyssa! Where are you?" The voice-musical, softly accented-is unfamiliar to me, but I know the names she has called out. They are most familiar to me. But from where, from where do I. ..

  I snap my fingers as I realize. Of course. Luc and Lyssa. Nephew and niece of Urza Jaddo.

  When I slew Urza, those many years ago, it was less a murderous act on my part and more a suicidal decision on his. Urza faced dishonor; his house was in disarray. By challenging me to combat and then dying at my hand, he put his house under the protection of the House Mollari, for all time. In later years, the House Mollari became the Imperial House, and the protection over the House Jaddo became that much more thorough. There is my answer. That is why, even if they did encounter any guards or retainers, these children would have been allowed on their way. They are under my protection, and so no harm may come to them.

  I have not met these children, however, except when I officiated over their naming ceremonies when they were infants. I am a memorable individual, but I doubt that they would recall me.

  I drink in the sound of their laughter, a man parched of emotion, with a soul as dry and shriveled as my skin. I hear them clattering about in the very next room, in the throne room, the seat of power. Since they are under my protection, the children have-by necessity-lived fairly sheltered lives. Urza's family resided in a home I had specially built for them, near the palace. I sought to bury my guilt in the foundation of a house. Being part of the House Jaddo, they have been raised in an environment that respected tradition and protocol.

  In more recent days, I had the family moved into the palace itself-to relative safety. The Great Maker only knows where their parents have gotten off to.

  I can hear the woman who must certainly be their nurse or governess. She has just entered the throne room, and is all too aware of where they are, where they shouldn't be. A glimpse. She is young and lovely. Most Centauri women shave their heads completely,
but many of the younger ones-including this one-keep a single, long trail of hair descending down their backs. Some men cluck and shake their heads, but I find the fashion attractive.

  The children had been running about, but I heard them stop moments before the nurse came in. No doubt their attention was caught by the sight of the desolation outside my window. The young boy has an impish and determined air about him, his hair a bit wild and disheveled. The girl is softer and more quiet, wearing a cap.

  "No ... no, no, you shouldn't be in here," the nurse says. She speaks so softly that it is barely above a whisper. That is of no particular import to me. I have become quite skilled in listening in on any conversation that I find of interest. I managed to stave off at least two assassination attempts in that manner. I dredge my memory, to see if I can recall her name. Senta, was it? No, no, Senna. I recall now. A longtime retainer of that house. Been with the family for quite some time. Yes, it is most likely Senna who is with them. "You can't play here," she continues.

  The laughter is gone. I mourn its passing. In its place I hear the sound of the boy, the one called Luc, speaking in an awed tone. "What happened to the buildings?" he asks. So I was right; they did become somber after looking out my window.

  I can tell that Senna is searching for the best way to answer this fairly straightforward question. While she tries to find the best way to phrase it, I make my way from my private room. Their backs are to the throne and so they do not see me slip out from behind the curtains, stepping into the concealing shadows of the canopy. I allow my withered fingers to slide along the cool material of the chair. For so long, I wondered what it would be like to occupy this seat. Now . . . now I wonder what it would be like to be free of it. Well, if I am fortunate, I shall not have to wait much longer to find out.

  Senna has found her explanation, and even for a child, it must be a most unsatisfying one. "They . . . fell down," she says. "Some bad people made them fall down. That's why," and she gestures aimlessly, "all the windows in the palace are covered, so you can't see ..."

 
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