After the wake, Fuub-Ark has kept less contact with the players and Tumak-Niva has not returned, but on the day following the occassion, the pioneers who did not remain on the scout ship (which they talk as a Tinnitus-class) return to the fold.
As solving Meek-Ria's riddle is considered the most important task right now, there is a large Black Nebula internal conference where everyone pitch in ideas. Various ways to interpret character sequences are attempted, but eventually Na-Kra finds the phrase "What is a map?" from inside the message. This gives the crew some leads which don't produce any returns, but Josef, with the aid of Hune, soon corrects this to "What is a man?", which has a very definite answer. Even this is not the immediate solution, but CheekyChic69 crunches iterations and derivatives of it over the data and finds one that hits. Overall it seems that Meek-Ria had made the riddle easy, but with sufficient entropy that a rainbow table attack without knowing the key was completely unfeasible.
The store itself does not seem to contain a very large amount of data, as most of the useful material had been included in the reports which Fuub had already had access to. However, three things stand out.
Firstly, there is a pair of encryption keys labeled "eye".
Secondly, there is a list of six informers and instructions on how to reach their data feeds. The list contains a pair of keys each, the other of which is labeled "under duress". There are no apparent ways to contact the informants, so the information channel seems to either be strictly one-way to protect the agents, or Meek-Ria didn't seem it fit to divulge this information to anyone else.
Thirdly, there is a document which catalogs the human mercenary companies under BHI control and either speculated or direct sources of how they got wind of their future employer. This is an investigation, wherein Meek-Ria seems to have been alone in, and it lists mainly companies which she had, at some point, had direct influence over. The list is as follows:
- George Pellegrino (KONG Interstellar, Trident)
- Fiorella Aufréne (Iron Pulse, 552th Strikers, TAW5)
- Mihail Nemsov (Weiss&Son)
Black Nebula and Cracked Mask are indicated on the same list with a ?-sign. Why Meek-Ria has investigated this is not discussed to any great degree, but the mere knowledge that these persons have also influenced Black Nebula is suspicious.
Despite this information, Alexander is ready to relay the data to Fuub-Ark and permanently disband the Black Ops unit. According to him, it was originally formed to address concerns which are external and irrelevant to the players themselves, but both Ivan and Heem-Lyeh contest this. They are adamant that the matter requires immediate investigation and that sacrificing resources to uncover such matters is, in fact, in line with their own interests. Alexander caves in and the operational lead of the Black Ops unit is jointly redelegated to them. Gunther and Heem-Lyeh also convince Alexander to be careful with relaying information, confident that keeping at least some of the contact details for themselves would be most prudent for now.
While the travel-weary pioneers get to suit up and prepare to head back toward Diave A, it becomes evident that the rest of Black Nebula don't get to sit idle either. One of Meek-Ria's agents, codename Gannet, transmits sensitive information to his/her contact box. Apparently princess Tileke, the youngest of the ruling family in TDHI, is about to travel towards Vainerva from Feoul, the administrative city, which opens a possibility for an attack. Alexander and Josef initially vocally disagree, knowing full well that assassination missions are frowned on by the Awese corporate war code. However, the others get on board and instead suggest a capture mission, which, while more difficult to pull off, would potentially grant a lucrative ransom. Nobody tells anything to Fuub and the rest of ILLI, of course, because they would likely not agree to such actions.
The players select six fast mechs for the mission and focus on mobility and electronic countermeasures. They choose an ambush point before a narrow ravine and plan to blow up the track ahead, forcing the train to divert. Gunther, Heem-Lyeh, Na-kra, Josef, Ivan and Jiira choose to take up the task and head out. Alexander stays on air and is ready to provide backup.
At first, everything seems to go well. The Black Nebula mercenaries manage to direct the missile to its target and cut the track. The train is forced to stop and Josef boards a cargo cart, successfully intimidating the drivers to do his bidding and forcing Tileke's guards to stay put. There is a minor scuffle with Tileke's personal knights fielding advanced, yet light mechs, but being severely outgunned, they are soon forced to flee.
Unfortunately, while the players are retreating toward their own base, the first rapid response troops reach them well before the train is under BHI air defense cover. Alexander has taken this into account and leaked information about the operation to ILLI, forcing them to join the fight, now that there is a lot at stake and success seems probable. Shadow Flare and Iron Pulse assets are brought to bear and the situation soon escalates into the largest aerial battle of the eastern front so far. On the ground, the players are mostly unaware of it, but they are aware that they are being tailed and start receiving fire from extremely long range weaponry. Josef is left to guard the train as the rest of the crew decides to hold back the pursuing force.
This time the fight is much tougher. The Knights of Tileke are supplemented by a heavier advanced unit dropped by an overflying cargo plane. Despite still being heavily outgunned, the knights manage to eliminate two of the player units before succumbing. The possibility of capturing advanced tech is intriguing, but with extremely few forces left and facing further pursuers, salvage is impossible. However, as they both field melee weapons, both Na-Kra and Ivan cut off the forearms of the enemy mechs, thus acquiring some weaponry.
Meanwhile, Josef is still onboard the train and staring down a wing of VTOL vehicles. However, he still manages to convince the royalty that he WILL shoot should they advance, and the situation defuses as the train passes the first friendly air defense installations, where the VTOLs cannot follow.
Upon reaching the supply depot on the east border of Terniss, ILLI troops immediately take possession of Tileke and her retinue, which is revealed to also include Seleke, her personal mentat and the minister of social politics in TDHI. Fuub is silent about the implications of all these events and promises to contact the players later. His demeanor, while more secure than in the past, seems to indicate disappointment and threat, and it is still evident that losing Meek-Ria, especially when faced with such a crisis, is a heavy blow.
Heem-Lyeh does not feel too well and suspects that his body is detoriating under battle stress, but refuses to divulge this to anyone else. Huug, on the other hand, finally awakes from his coma. Determined to turn a new leaf and get sober, he resigns from Black Nebula and asks to join the Kra monastic order, thinking that some ascetism, humility and philosophical guidance would be most prudent at a time like this. When asked, he states that he will return eventually, but refuses to give hard deadlines.