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Dawn of a New Threat

Chapter 23

General Soola drummed his fingers on his thigh in anticipation as he sat on the bridge of the Independence. He had been staring straight ahead for the last few hours, somber and motionless, and having almost lost track of time as he thought of the task that awaited them.

Even after decades of command, first in the Rebel Alliance, and then in the re-established Republic's fleet, the thought of confrontation with the enemy never ceased to humble him. There was a time -- when he was younger and had not yet experienced the trauma of battle -- when he might have walked into this situation with the arrogance of one who didn't realize just how devastating war could be. But he knew better now. Time and experience had taught him that cockiness could be deadly.

There is no such thing as a guaranteed victory, he thought. No matter how well the odds were stacked in their favor, they simply could not fall prey to overconfidence. Even armed with the information that their spies had smuggled to them, even with the element of surprise on their side, they were still making an enormous gamble here today.

The image of Ambassador Solo's solemn face, when she had reluctantly approved his risky strategy, came to him once again. He had wanted to promise her a victory, to somehow make her decision all the less wrenching, but instead he thanked her. He was grateful that she had trusted him with this, that she had enough faith in him to do what needed to be done.

The tension aboard the star cruiser was palpable, evident on the grim faces of his crew. He realized that he was not the only one who had been silent in the last few hours. Little had been said beyond what was necessary. Like him, the crew was all too aware of the significance of what they were about to undertake.

Failure was not an option, that much was clear to them all. If they did not stop Falor's burgeoning revolt now, they were in danger of an even larger conflict -- possibly even another civil war.

Quickly and forcefully, he banished the thought from his consciousness. He finally rose from his seat, and with a subtle gesture of his hand, got the attention of Captain Ord.

The Captain immediately made his way to him. "General, we entered the Cobellis Sector a few moments ago, and we should reach Hoddee momentarily."

Soola gave him a swift nod in acknowledgment. "Good, Captain," he replied. "Then we are ready to come out of hyperspace."

"As you wish, sir."

Soola took a deep breath and approached his seat once again. Calmly, he hit a switch to activate his comlink. "All craft prepare to come out of hyperspace and assume attack positions, " he told the fleet.

"This is it."

Aboard the Falorian star cruiser, the mood was drastically different. Sorbin's confidence permeated the air as he strode boldly about the bridge, shoulders thrust forward in his proud warrior's stance.

They'll be here soon, he thought with a smirk. By his estimates, Falor and its allies would have more than enough firepower to take on whatever the Republic sent to Hoddee. They would be cautious -- no doubt they would hesitate to leave the capital completely vulnerable, and that would work to Falor's advantage. Their feeble attempt at aid would surely be no match for the fleet he had assembled, and then they would easily be able to press on to Coruscant before the Republic had any time to react.

Lost in reverie, he didn't notice Captain Maru walk up beside him. "Sir," the Captain began, clearing his throat to get Sorbin's attention. "Our scanners have detected enemy craft in our vicinity. They'll be coming out of lightspeed at any moment now."

Sorbin turned to him and smiled. "Thank you, Captain," he answered casually. "Alert all fighters, then. Stand by, get ready to deploy the fleet as soon as the Republic ships come out of hyperspace."

From the corner of his eye, he noticed Milton watching him silently. The Governor had been even more reserved than usual, but Sorbin had been too absorbed in other matters to notice until just now. Milton barely shifted as Sorbin continued to look at him, frozen in his stance.

Sorbin was about to comment on Milton's silence, but he thought the better of it. "Governor, is our fleet ready?" he asked instead.

"Yes, sir," Milton replied blankly, suddenly aware of Sorbin's penetrating gaze. "We're all in position."

Sorbin smiled in satisfaction. This was it. He walked to the observation window to watch the action unfold. He held his breath as he saw the Republic ships emerging one by one, like specks of light dotting the black sky. In an instant, the Falorian ships swerved in from the planet, their laserfire raining down on the Republic fleet.

He let out a triumphant laugh as he saw the first of the Republic fighters fall victim to the relentless cruisers bombarding them. The sight of it was even better than he had anticipated. You're not so powerful, are you, he snickered.

And then he froze in horror. Activity just beyond caught his attention, and his eyes widened as he saw more Republic ships emerged from hyperspace, so many, so quickly that he lost count. More fighters, more cruisers -- they kept coming, even as he had already dispatched all of their fleet.

"What's happening?" he demanded ferociously, spinning around from his position to look at the stunned crew. "Where are all these ships coming from? There must be hundreds of fighters out there! Dozens of command ships!" His wild eyes glanced from man to man, hungry for an explanation, but none came forth.

"Sir, I'm trying to find out," Maru answered him, frantically pressing buttons, intermittently looking up at the observation window to witness the unbelievable events that were unfolding in front of them. "Admiral Goreel," he spat into the comlink, "This is the Renegade. Come in, Admiral."

"Goreel here, Captain," the Hoddeen answered a few seconds later.

"Admiral, what--"

"Admiral, what the hell is going on?" Sorbin interjected, cutting Maru off immediately. "Ambassador Unar told us that the Republic was sending two X-Wing Squadrons and three cruisers at the most! What is happening out there?"

"I... I'm not sure, Minister," Goreel stammered. "What the ambassador told you was correct. That is what we all thought..."

Sorbin shook his head in rage and once again glanced up at the window, watching his ships being ravaged by the hundreds of enemy craft.

"The Republic must have sent their entire fleet..." Maru said under his breath, feeling Sorbin seething as he looked over his shoulder.

"There are more coming!" Sorbin shouted, pointing out into space as he watched the action helplessly. The Republic fighters were dodging the laserfire from the Falorian craft, retaliating with their own deadly firepower. Sorbin could count at least three or four Republic fighters for every Falorian one, and their cruisers outnumbered Sorbin's by at least a dozen.

Suddenly, the floor beneath them shook, causing everyone to stumble.

"We've been hit!" Maru screamed. "Increase shields to full power!"

Sorbin cursed under his breath as he hung on to a panel for balance. "Where are our men?" he cried out again, "We need to deploy more fighters! Keep the cruisers aiming at the enemy craft!"

But it was useless, and he knew it. It had turned into a fight for survival now. The Falorian allied fleet was no longer even attacking, only trying to stay alive. Ships disintegrated in front of his eyes, one by one lost to the enemy.

Another strong blast rocked the bridge.

"Sir, we've already sent out the entire fleet!" Maru answered. "Our shields are up at full power. We won't be able to sustain much more of their firepower. We must begin to retreat!"

"We will not retreat!" Sorbin answered steadfastly. "If we are going to go down in defeat, then we will go fighting!"

"It's over, Minister..."

Sorbin quickly spun around to see Milton standing in front of him. His eyes were full of remorse, haunted and grim. Sorbin shook his head in bewilderment. "It is not over!" he answered defiantly, "What are you saying?"

Milton continued to look at him, and suddenly it all became clear to Sorbin. He narrowed his eyes, and glanced outside one more time before returning his gaze to Milton. "They knew, didn't they?" he whispered.

It would not have surprised Milton if Sorbin had struck him then and there, but Sorbin made no such move. Instead, he stood motionless, the fire in him slowly dying. "That's how they knew to send their entire fleet... They knew it was a trap... They meant to ambush us before we could even head for Coruscant..."

Milton looked away. He almost couldn't stand to see the look on Sorbin's face as he realized Milton's betrayal. "I leaked the information to them," he confessed, and he could feel the bitter rage in Sorbin that he kept bottled up inside. The Prime Minister did not move to lash out at him, nor did he even make a sound.

"I'm... Sorry..." Milton said, as he watched Sorbin shake his head, as if to deny what was occurring.

He had done it. It would soon be over. The Republic had already wiped out all but a few remaining cruisers, and it was only a matter of time before their command ship would also meet its end.

"Tell the fleet to retreat!" Sorbin barked at Maru. They had no choice now. The Republic would win this battle, but he would find a way to even the score. "Do it!"

"All craft to retreat," Maru said into the comlink. "I repeat, all craft to retreat, on Prime Minister Sorbin's orders."

"Prepare to evacuate the crew to the escape pods," Sorbin ordered. He glared at Milton, not quite sure what to say to the man who had betrayed him.

All these years he was at my side...

"Move!" Sorbin shrieked at everyone. "There's little time now, this ship can't hold out much longer!"

He noticed that Milton was not moving. "Don't tell me you're planning on staying here, Governor," he hissed.

"I've betrayed you," he answered softly. He and Sorbin both knew what he meant by those words.

Sorbin scowled at him. "So be it," he growled, as the floor shook once more, rocked by yet another devastating hit by the Republic cruisers. He stepped closer to Milton, giving him with a devilish smile. "Your betrayal will be all in vain, Governor," he taunted, laughing maniacally. "I'll find a way to defeat the Alliance. And you can rot in hell knowing that."

Milton watched him disappear with the rest of the frantic crew as they ran for the escape pods, and he suppressed a shudder at Sorbin's final statement. He had no doubt that Sorbin was arrogant to try something again.

But he hoped that as with this, his arrogance would once again be his downfall.

Moments later, the last of the remaining Falorian cruisers exploded into a brilliant ball of light, brightening the black sky like a comet.

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