After the capture of the princess and her mentat there was a short lull in the fighting. For a couple of days, the players did not receive any change of orders from their high command, and were simply patrolling and reinforcing their position. On the fourth day, this changed, however.
Gaussburg was invited to a briefing reserved only for the battlefield commanders of the various mercenary forces, and told that the orbital situation has deteriorated. With the help of assault ships of unknown affiliation, the PPC destroyer in control of the TDHI forces, codenamed BLACK PETAL, had achieved decisive victories against the orbital forces and forced BHI to retreat to the relative safety of their few large installations (namely, the support carrier Erebos and the weapons factories captured from Hea-Neer). Most of the mobile forces were occupied with resticting BLACK PETAL's movements and protecting the BHI orbital shipyards above Kersia. In other words, the control of the orbital theatre had been lost, and the unknown assault ships were running amok destroying BHI spy satellites. While Gaussburg did not divulge much of this information to his subordinates, they would soon hear that something was up, as the next briefing also concerned them.
BHI had to change gears. Relying on attrition and broken enemy orbital supply lines was no longer an option. Fuub informed the players that there would be some restructuring – Kra would be handed over to the second army and both Iron Pulse and Trident would be assigned to him, thus reinforcing his third army consisting of Black Nebula, Shadow Flate and Weiss&Son.
Both Gaussburg and Alexander briefly tried to mingle with the commanders of the new mercenary establishments, but given the haste involved, they only reached an introductory level. Iron Pulse appeared to mostly consist of British forces with a history similar to that of Cracked Mark, but commanded by a surprisingly jovial and young officer named Appleton, while Trident was a newer outfit apparently formed by troops from both sides of the Kersia conflict. The players did not get an opportunity to talk to their leader, but he appeared to be a southern european man little past middle age, and closely shadowed by a sharp-looking middle aged woman with silver hair.
When Alexander and Gaussburg told the rest of the crew about their new orders, especially the russians expressed concern about the escalation of the conflict. Knowing that the enemy also controlled very experienced fighting units, they and Alexander made a plan to tip the balance a bit more to their own benefit and contacted their old friends in the Cracked Mask.
It was surprisingly easy to convince Weston Devine to take part in such an unofficial negotiation, but so it happened. During the dead of night, the commanders of the two mercenary units sat down to discuss both of their futures in the middle of the no-man's land. True to his stereotype, the meeting was held beneath a starry sky while drinking tea, as Devine's two lieutenants in ECM-equipped mechs watched over them, while Josef and Ivan were covering for Alexander.
The players were slightly baffled by the eagerness of Devine to parley with them, but from their past history, they knew that he was a true gentleman and not very fond of the aliens. This soon became even more apparent, as he openly suggested a secret truce to preserve both of their lives and forces in the case of an eventual conflict. Devine openly stated that beyond his professionalism, he had little loyalty for his employers, and that the expected the same from Alexander. They were to let their masters wage their war as they saw fit and abuse the aliens' plight to the best of their ability. Devine considered Black Nebula to be the most talented of his enemies, and preferred that they would never meet in the field of battle. To this end, he suggested that they would head towards different battlefields, should the option ever present itself. Also, he suggested that should they actually meet, there should be a proxy battle, or even a knights' duel, instead of a real one.
Alexander was inclined to ask for some type of a guarantee, as he was painfully aware of the difference in the strength of their respective units. For this, Weston suggested a contract and a sizeable collateral handled by the escrow agencies inside Mercnet, but now Josef, who had been constantly listening to the negotiation, finally objected. Talking back to his commander over a secure channel, Josef stated that he believed he had an easy, clean shot at Devine, and that with Ivan, they could easily beat the enemy lieutenants. Alexander would not need to negotiate, and had no need to bind their resources in a meaningless collateral. They could just kill Devine, and cut off the head of the snake right then and there. It would be a great risk, but manageable, and would tip the balance of power toward their faction.
Alexander, however, was troubled by this. Devine's gesture of goodwill weighed heavy on him, and he didn't want to stain his name as someone who would not respect the sanctity of an old-fashioned negotiation. Not listening to his subordinates, and slightly to spite them, he agreed to Weston's proposal and increased the associated bounty to an absurd size. Certain that the decision would come back to haunt them, Josef cursed in his ear, but that was that – the decision had been done and tomorrow the war would continue.
As the dawn arrived, the players were ordered east. Iron Pulse and Shadow Flare were to assault enemy anti-aircraft emplacements while Black Nebula was to follow the train tracks, pushing through towards the loading yards in the Feoul industrial district. As BHI had no air cover and only very limited drone coverage, they were mostly blind, but Fuub was almost certain that their forces had a numeric advantage. Their lack of intel cost Black Nebula, however, as they were intercepted by an enemy force well north of the loading yard, in the middle of a resort near a lake.
The players had not come unprepared, but the enemy was better positioned and could use cover while the players were approaching from the relatively barren steppe The TDHI defenders fielded relatively cheap, sturdy units and several fast high-tech skirmishers, that attempted to flee once the blunt of the damage had been done. Unfortunately, while the confrontation should not have been particularly close concerning their forces' relative strength, the battle went badly for the players. Their dropship only had a single cruise missile and could thus offer only limited support, while the enemy fielded long-range units which whittled their down during their assault. Both Alexander and Josef suffered critical damage early into the fight, but the most unfortunate shot was a glancing headshot from an enemy Thug which damaged Gaussburg's Battlemaster and forced an ejection. This also endangered Jiira, who was a co-pilot in the Battlemaster's dual cockpit The only saving grace was that Ivan managed to eliminate the fleeing skirmishers as they disengaged and spare the fate of meeting them again in the future.
As the smoke cleared, the players radioed their dropship and requested advance support. The fate of both their commander and Jiira was still uncertain.